Tuesday, February 27, 2007

What we cannot keep.


On April 26, 1976, when I was thirteen days old, The New Yorker published Elizabeth Bishop's villanelle "One Art." She'd played with other titles for the poem: "How to Lose Things /? The Gift of Losing Things?" reads the top of her first draft. In that draft, she makes a chattier approach toward her reader than in the final poem: "I really / want to introduce myself - / I am such a fantastically good at losing things / I think everyone shd. profit from my experiences." Today I am thinking about how fantastically good I can be at losing things. And in part I'm thinking that through Bishop's poem--the final version (there were sixteen drafts). So, tonight you get a multigenre show. Think of it as my own private explication, only not fully private, because you're reading. And it seems like just about time I learned this poem by heart: my loss my gain. (I can be resourceful that way.)
The art of losing isn't hard to master:
so many things seemed filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.
At 12:45 this afternoon, sitting in a booth at the coffee shop with my flaming-sworded friend, I reached to fiddle with my right earring and found my earlobe empty. This morning, standing at my dresser, I had begun putting on a pair of jade earrings that belonged to my mother when she was a teenager. With one in, I changed my mind: rather than those dangles, I wanted my grandmother's faceted hoops, the ones that catch and cast light better than anything else I own. My mother brought those earrings back from Detroit with her after my grandmother's sudden death and funeral in 1994. They have been among my favorite pieces of jewelry ever since.
Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.
I am not a person who loses things for good. I am, in fact, a person who generally finds things for other people. St. Anthony, patron saint of lost things, lends a hand. Even before my friend and I had finished searching the coffeeshop, I had said a prayer to him. The good news: I had only been out of the house for two hours, and I had walked a limited round--first to the officehouse for a meeting whose subject was the very reason I had decided to wear the earrings that hold the most strength in them, then to the coffeeshop for lunch. A limited round. An assignment in close looking, in walking with downcast eyes, in retracing steps. In keeping my mind off of other things. In having a task.
Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.
For the past week, my mind has been opening up more and more to what is exquisite about the prospect of reentering a traveling life. I can feel myself starting to detach ties, little by little, a couple at a time. Some things that should probably bother me more than they do are starting not to bother me at all. This afternoon, I realized that I have now conceptualized a little mental box in which can go all the things that I don't have to think or worry about, because (d.v.) I'll only be here for a few more months before (d.v.) I leave for nearly a year. It's like the box I kept during my final dissertation months, except that what I put in that box were all kinds of worries about whether or not my life would be meaningful. I couldn't worry about those things while I was trying to finish my project; they gave me something that felt like vertigo. I also couldn't think about the fact that almost immediately after I finished my dissertation, I had to move away from a house and a town I loved, to relocate and live and work among strangers. My dream life wouldn't let me forget these things, though; I repeatedly had elaborate, bizarre dreams wherein I (in the process of trying to figure out what I was doing with my life) would end up walking strange hallways in stranger houses, dressed in someone else's evening gown, searching for someone I knew. In one of these dreams, I was hired to seduce a foreign diplomat because I was the only person at my spy agency who spoke ancient Greek.
I lost my mother's watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.
When my mother was seventeen, she reluctantly agreed to go on a blind date with my father, who was eighteen. It was July. She had ironed her red hair, but it had frizzed up in the wind. She was learning to drive, and her friends picked her up at the driving school. My father was in the back seat of the car. Months earlier, she had lost a button from her chartreuse leather jacket. (That's how my mom rolls.) When she got into the car that July night, my father introduced himself and handed her the missing button. "Where did you get this?" she said. "My people are everywhere," he replied. She still has that button. I've seen it. She still has my father, too. Together, they've left three loved (or at least loved-in) houses (not counting the first one, which they only rented).
I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.

I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster.

The day after I moved all of my possessions to Rochester and left them, still boxed, piled in the dining room of the house I would rent for the year, my boyfriend (just back from a sociology conference) broke up with me. Sitting on his couch, having expected to stay with him for the next five days or so, I watched the floor of my old life in Ithaca falling out from under me. It was at that moment that I realized how much home is where you have a key with which you can open a lock and go in without warning. My Clintonian batgirl friend gave me her key the next morning, and then I could stop feeling homeless. Over the year, I hurtled myself back to Ithaca frequently. Sometimes, on visits, I would spend most of my time not visiting people much. Instead I walked around, just being somewhere where I knew everything's place. I could never really explain my need to be alone when I came home for visits, and I know it hurt some feelings.
--Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan't have lied. It's evident

the art of losing's not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.
Today's not the first time in recent memory that I've lost a silver hoop. I have one pair of earrings that I wear day in and day out, unless I'm dressing for a special occasion or need (like today's). Last winter, I was on the phone one evening and reached to fiddle with my right earring, only to find that it was gone, fallen out while I'd visited the house of someone about whom I had a wrong idea. It took me until March 1 to get the earring back. When it returned to me, it was in an envelope, with no note, addressed to my departmental mailbox. I came in for work one morning, and there was my earring, waiting for me in the officehouse. That was the last straw, really, in a situation that had gone wrong. I never again saw the person who had finally returned my earring, but this was no disaster. This did not even look like disaster. It was good practice: I lost him farther, faster. I had not grown to love his voice, his gestures. I had not come to know his footfall, his foibles. He had no real place in my life to lose.

This one I've lost today: this one has place and meaning. Searching for that fallen earring took up hours of the afternoon, hours in which I walked that same limited round again and again, eyes to the ground, sometimes with other people (like a colleague who kindly took an unusual degree of care with me, insisting on accompanying me on my third search, or the people who got down on all fours and crawled around looking under tables with me). Sometimes I passed off what I was doing as a joke. "The key to all literature is somewhere in this mud," I explained to one student who found us peering into the muck our paths have become this week. Sometimes I felt the beginnings of fear that I really won't find the earring, that its small matter may have vanished forever. Master, disaster, master, disaster, master, disaster, master, disaster. An oscillation just like the poem's.

Mostly I wasn't lying when I told people that I feel remarkably calm about what I may have lost for good.

5 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Always remember that stuff is just stuff. That it was your grandmother's earring may make it more precious stuff to you, but it is still just stuff. It is the person who owned the earring who will stay with you always. The earring is just a reminder of her.
Did you know that she wore silver because she heard someone on TV say that women with gray hair should wear silver jewelry?

11:32 PM, February 27, 2007  
Blogger Dr. S said...

Yes, I have been thinking about how stuff is just stuff all day. The problem now is that I'm remembering all the immaterialities that have collected around those earrings in the past 13 years--all the lectures and conferences and graduation ceremonies and dates and classes to which I've worn them. And that's sad, because I wore the earrings in part so that something of hers would be at those things, too.

11:46 PM, February 27, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You are the something of hers.

6:49 AM, February 28, 2007  
Blogger *Bat Girl* said...

If, in your searchings, you come across a silver medallion engraved with two faces poised to kiss against a field of stars--it may be the one from my grandmother's bracelet, that I lost amidst the fallen leaves on Middle Path over a decade ago.

I do hope you find your grandmother's earring. If not, I like to think that our lost objects will find one another.

3:46 PM, February 28, 2007  
Blogger Dr. S said...

Yes, this is a gorgeous thought. I will imagine them keeping each other company. Perhaps they'll return together.

4:59 PM, February 28, 2007  

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