Cancer is one of those diseases that makes a person rethink their life and actually make a change in the way that they view the world. In Dharma Girl, Chelsea awoka to the fact that life is short when she learned that her mother, Mary Cain, had acquired cancer. Her mother's condition helped Chelsea to find out more about her past and what her life was all about. Chelsea also discovers many things about her past, present, and what her future may be like while journeying to Iowa and talking to her mother. Mary Cain's cancer also prompted Chelsea to carefully examine the purpose of her life and investigate her past.
One of the reasons that Chelsea desired to go back to Iowa and re-examine her past was the sheer fact that her mother's cancer scared her into doing something with her own life. She felt that her present life was utterly meaningless and that she needed to find at least an ounce of her being needed in the world for some purpose. When Chelsea learns that her mother has cancer she says, "I got off the phone to face the concerned faces of my three roomates. Insignificant. That was all I could think of as I looked at them..."(25) This is the point in which Chelsea actually realizes that her life has amounted to nothing so far, and to make her life mean something, she will have to look into herself. Also, to show that she still has some hope for her and her mother's life, she says, "My mother was dying. But not yet"(24). This shows that although she was frightened by what she had learned about her mother's cancer, she was still confident that life had not yet ended. She still had time to make something of herself and thus show that her life was meaning ful.
Chelsea had a tough time finding more information about her past and the past of the hippies and communes. Before she left California, Chelsea's life was summed up by this: "We go out for coffee...we rent movies we've alreday seen...My-life-is-meaningless"(27). She wanted to do more with her life than just rent movies and go for coffee. She remembered her parents dodging the draft and escaping the law. This is what chelsea longed to do. On the way to Iowa, Chelsea and her mom talk about what Iowa will be like. But what they talked about wasn't true reality. Instead, they talk about what they remember Iowa to be like. They remembered cornfields and communes, friends and family. Some of what they remembered had stayed the same, but much of it had changed.
Chelsea's illusionary self, Snowbird, appeared frequently throughout the book as a way for Chelsea to cope with her past and remember it. Every once in a while, she would revert back to remembering what life was like when she was a little girl and all of the experiences that she had had when she was five years old. When Chelsea was little, her life was full of meaning and she always had a purpose for living. Wheter it was collecting dead birds, or burying her doll, she always had a purpose for doing whatever she did. Another of the incidents about her past that Chelsea sought to know about was where she got the nickname, Snowbird. Eventually, her father remembered that the nickname Snowbird came from an Anne Murray song. Chelsea felt stunned by this. All she said while her dad was telling her about where her name came from was, "It came from an Anne Murray song?...It came from an Anne Murray song?"(152).
The only childhood friend that Chelsea really ever had was Donnie, and he is another reason that Chelsea is re-examining her past and trying to find meaning in her life. Donnie was, and is a strong influence on Chelsea's search to find out more about herself. He was the one person that she remembered as being a friend when she was little, so of course she would remember him fondly. He was the one to whom she went looking for when she got to Iowa. She looked for the little figure from the past who was her friend.
When Chelsea found out that Donnie might be dead, she was on the verge of a mental breakdown. First, she had to deal with the possibility of her mother's cancer coming back. Now, with the realization that Donnie might be dead, Chelsea felt that her life was falling apart. She didn't want to live with the fact that Donnie could have died. Chelsea and her mother then discover that Donnie doesn't live in the farmhouse anymore and all the people who had known him were either dead or hadn't seen him in years(142). This is a huge blow to Chelsea. Later, Chelsea, Mary, and Kitt are together at a bookstore when they see a stranger. Kitt has a huge smile on her face. Chelsea knows right away that it is Donnie, and she feels total bliss when she sees him.
In her journey to Iowa, Chelsea found many ways to find and express a purpose and meaning in her life. But the most important catalyst in her self-examination was her mother getting cancer. This eventually prompted her to find out more about her past, what she was doing now, and what she could possibly be doing years from now. Her mother's disease made Chelsea realize that life wasn't always predictable. It didn't always last for the full eighty to one-hundred years. She learned that if she wanted something, she had to go out and get it, try it, and do it. Chelsea learned not to hesitate, because if she did, it might not be there when she wanted it.
All of the quotes in this essay came from Chelsea Cain's novel, Dharma Girl.
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