One Art

The art of losing isn't hard to master...

Elizabeth Bishop's great poem has been much in my mind these days. I haven't lost any "you," the devastating loss that ends the poem with a bang, but, boy, have I lost things.

And I am familiar with and tired of that feeling of panic when one does--the feeling that ALL is lost--not just the keys, but everything. I lost my keys yesterday. I was too tired to fully enter the vertiginous sense grief, but I still went through a cascading range of emotions. Losing a small thing makes me feel that I've lost control of the world and of my mind both. I doubt the many little tricks that keep the day perking along smoothly and, in doubting them, I see how much of my day depends on those little tricks (swipe your MetroCard and turn right down the stairs; walk up 58th if you're getting a latte, 60th if you're saving your money; always take your keys with you to the bathroom; remember to grab your keys on the way out). All these little habits give me the mental space to plan my class (or worry about it), to go over my list of the things I need to do, to listen to a song and release myself from those lists.

Babies struggle to learn about "object permanence." The "fort-da" game or peek-a-boo teaches them the big but ultimately gentle lesson that things that go away often return. But when we adults lose something, it reminds us of the dark side of that game: sometimes things don't return; sometimes they are lost. And, as Bishop's catalogue forces us to confront, sometimes it's not just keys that we lose.

I came across Woolf's version of this in Mrs. Dalloway the other day, lovely because it inverts the usual proportions: Clarissa's unhappiness, arising out of imperfect relationships, is as bad as the feeling of losing a thing. Or rather, her inability to remember why she feels unhappy is like being unable to find a pearl in the grass. Odd, dramatic, certainly contributing to Clarissa's tinselly self, but also wonderfully right:
But--but--why did she suddenly feel, for no reason that she could discover, desperately unhappy? As a person who has dropped some grain of pearl or diamond into the grass and parts the tall blades very carefully, this way and that, and searches here and there vainly, and at last spies it there at the roots, so she went through one thing and another.
I gave a big lecture yesterday--ill-attended, but stressful nonetheless. I left my keys in the bathroom just before--though, thank goodness, I only noticed them missing afterwards. Instead of being able to reflect on my performance, I had to trek to my husband's office, borrow his keys, and walk home, tired, wrung out, and a bit ashamed. Of course this is precisely when one does lose things. And it's precisely when one has the least elasticity to absorb the loss.

Someone turned the keys in to security. I picked them up this morning from the supervisor, running in late with oil on his hands--he had a flat tire on the way to work. So it goes. It's November. It's a wonder the world turns at all.