ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: In her magical new book, "The Year of Magical Thinking," Joan Didion explores the subject of grief, her own intense grief at losing her husband of 40 years the writer, John Gregory Dunne, and watching their own daughter, Quintana, struggle against illnesses that would lead to her death after the book's completion.
The book is spare, rigorous in its avoidance of sentiment, but the pages are nonetheless weighty with feelings of a sorrow so wrecking they spun the normally cool, contained author into a fantasy-land of memory and longing.
"We are strangers to the land of grief," she says, "until forced to visit it." Are we? Should we be? Didion makes the point that we die now, often, in antiseptic ways -- in hospitals, tethered, drifting off across the life-death divide surrounded by tubes and techno beats -- drifting off across the life-death divide, surrounded by tubes and techno beats -- in short, not at home, not in our beds, not in each other's arms.
Death has become more impersonal and that, she says, is the way we seem to want it.
Grief, she suggests, is downright un-American, unpatriotic, and flies in the face of all of our exuberant, future-facing, can conquer anything ethos, even death.
Look how we try to forestall it: All of our antioxidants and age-defying creams. We don't slide towards it but away from it, aging with the ridiculous botoxed cheer, inhaling "how to age gracefully" manuals.
When death comes, we do not grieve much in public. We have our carefully orchestrated memorial roast. That's what they often feel like now -- shedding our restrained tears and making jokes about the recently departed.
And after, should the grief persist, we join buck-up groups or take antidepressants in an effort to seek closure as if that were possible or desirable.
"Haven't you been sad long enough? When are you going to start dating again, get a dog, take a trip, have a facelift?"
But Didion cleared out of family within a matter of months will not have that. Her book is a meticulously crafted whale, a small seditious stand for grief, for its place, its propriety, its necessity, its inevitability, on a personal level, even by inference on a national level.
Among us, families are grieving all the time -- hard, crazy-making grief: Neighbors, friends, people who lost family members in New Orleans, not to mention their whole city. Parents whose kids are coming home from Iraq in those coffins we do not see, not make ourselves see.
We allow them to be kept from us. We want them to be kept from us. We have made grief corny, feminine, weak, when of course, it is the opposite -- a wild and powerful force.
To try to stage manage it, avoid it, as we seem intent to doing, leaves us blind and lonesome.
After all, grief is the outline of the thing lost, the husband or daughter, as Didion so clearly attests. It is the new companion, and as such needs to be embraced, explored, lived with if we are to make our human way.
I'm Anne Taylor Fleming.