Loss hits close to the bone. When Elizabeth Bishop wrote her famous villanelle “One Art,” she had suffered many losses in her life. Her father died when she was an infant, and she was only five years old when her mother was admitted to a mental hospital. Sent to live with her maternal grandparents, she lost her home with them when her wealthy paternal grandparents petitioned for custody. By the time Bishop wrote this poem, she had lost her long-time lover Lota de Macedo Soares to suicide, and she and her much younger lover Alice Methfessel had temporarily parted.
As part of my meditative practice, I wrote responses to each line in Bishop’s poem while reflecting on my own losses.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master
If I made a collage of loss, it would begin with a map of the land where I was born, with the language I no longer understand, with sweet Japanese mikans, persimmons, and pickled plums, with a view from the other side of the Pacific, across the International Dateline where days are nights and nights are days. Where life was split into before and after and now the future on this side is shorter.
In the far left corner would be a sketch of Okuma-san, a woman who took care of me when I was small, but her face would be blank except for her gold tooth because I can’t remember what she looked like. I would hand her clothespins as she hung our linens on the line, and sometimes she would invite me into her private quarters across from the laundry room. I’d step onto the tatami as if entering a different world. She gave me rice crackers wrapped in belts of dried seaweed and, if I was lucky, a moon-shaped cake of mochi with sweet red bean paste inside. She’d read to me from beautiful Japanese picture books that opened from right to left instead of left to right, as if we were reading backwards, starting at the end and returning to the beginning. As if, instead of flying away, never to return, the crane wife in the fairytale flew back to her husband and became a bride again, as if everything could be unraveled like the beautiful silk the crane wife wove from her own plucked feathers, and we could start over, on the other side of time.
so many things seem filled with the intent
Some say material things don’t matter, that they’re unimportant, that you can’t take them with you when you die—and, of course, it’s true. But objects hold the energy of someone or something we’ve lost. My mother’s pearls once circled her neck, and now I feel the warmth of her skin on my skin when I wear them. A white porcelain dragon figurine that belonged to my father, who was born in the Year of the Dragon, holds a place of honor in my curio cabinet. A piece of the dragon’s ear that was chipped during one of my moves has been Gorilla-glued, leaving an almost imperceptible seam.
My grandfather’s brass pocket watch, stopped forever at 10:33, its dial smoky with time, reminds me of his cherry pipe tobacco and the bag of candy he would give us for the car ride home: Mary Janes, Necco Wafers, Tootsie Rolls, Bit-o-Honey, Atomic Fireballs. A quilt my grandmother sewed from feed sacks on her treadle machine is folded at the foot of my bed. On cold nights I pull it up to my chin and remember sleeping three to a mattress with my sisters when we visited our grandparents in West Virginia.
When I shake a snow globe my children gave me, a flurry of glittery confetti surrounds the smiling cherub inside, and I remember them running downstairs to open presents on Christmas morning, dressed in zip-up blanket pajamas with slipper feet.
Almost invisible on my shelf, wedged between two heftier books, is a thin staple-bound chapbook published by my friend Judith Dunaway in 1976, this closing tercet a prediction of her early death from cancer: “Each year, / they contain a whisper less / of her.”
If I had to, I could let go of these things and of other objects filled with intent, but I won’t. Not yet.
to be lost that their loss is no disaster
I once was lost, but now I’m found. I sang those words in church but wasn’t certain what they meant. How could God lose us? If he’s God, shouldn’t he always know where we are like the good shepherd he’s portrayed to be? Am I lost? If I am, why doesn’t he find me? I walked down the aisle in a bustle of white crinolines at the end of the church service as if I were a bride heading for the altar, vowing to give my soul to God. Here I am! Baptized at age seven, I knew that when the minister dipped me backwards into the water, it was a symbolic death, and when he raised me up, my hair slicked back and my eyes blinking in the spotlight, I would be reborn. Had I found God or had God found me?
Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
We’re all losing something every day—skin cells slough off, hair sheds, thoughts evaporate, and time passes, never to return. We lose memories almost as soon as they form, like a cloud of breath on glass vanishes, holding onto only a fraction of what we’ve done, thought, or felt. Seconds after the event occurs or the words are spoken, they become ephemeral. We choose to hold onto a few moments, or sometimes they’re imprinted onto our consciousness because they’re so traumatic or because they’re unusually poignant, but most memories fall through a funnel like water or sand. To live is to lose. To love is to lose. The most beautiful love song is the one written after the beloved is gone.
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent
I thought I’d lost my key ring: my car key, the key to my new house, a key to the log cabin I’d once shared with my husband, a tiny Japanese bell on a red cord that is wine-dark with wear, a laminated supermarket tag with a barcode that I hand the cashier for a discount when I buy groceries, and a tiny cylinder flashlight that my soon-to-be ex-husband gave me after we separated. Recently, my neighbors laughed when I tried to use it to light the path as I hiked up the hill to my house in the dark. It lights only a quarter-sized patch, a torch suitable for a Barbie doll. I don’t know why he gave it to me; he was already seeing another woman, but he was texting me almost daily—telling me what he’d cooked for dinner, what he was watching on TV, where the hurricane was headed—and sending me cheap gifts—a $10 Subway gift card, a plastic hummingbird feeder, a crossword puzzle and coupons clipped from the newspaper, cartoons torn from The New Yorker. He told me to put the mini-flashlight on my key ring just in case.
Just in case of what? I wondered. That tiny plastic tube, powered with four hearing-aid batteries, wouldn’t scare off coyotes or bobcats or other nocturnal creatures that might be lurking near my new mountain home. Lurking, like his girlfriend did on my Facebook page the night before he drove up from the Sandhills to drop off our dog while he played softball on fields near my house, lurking and scrolling all the way down the screen from July to January to “like” a Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young song I had posted one cold night when I was feeling sad.
Worried that he might still be attracted to me, that our little family of three—my husband, our sweet old beagle/basset hound Kasey, and me—might reunite in the rhododendron-scented air of the mountains, she did it to catch my attention, to say, “Look! I’m dating your husband!” I never would have known she existed if she hadn’t visited my page and liked “Helplessly Hoping.” I wouldn’t have discovered that the stranger who came to my Timeline from nowhere had one friend in common with me—my husband. When I told a girlfriend about it, she said, “She was marking her territory like dogs do when they pee on a tree.”
As I got ready to walk Kasey, I was thinking about the post I’d seen on her Facebook page: “Impatient to see someone special,” followed by my husband’s name. That’s when I realized I’d lost my keys. The key ring wasn’t on the hook where I usually hang it. It wasn’t on the counter where I sometimes drop it. It wasn’t in my purse. I looked on the coffee table, under couch cushions, in my makeup basket where I’d found my missing reading glasses the day before, on my bedside table, under my pillows, in the pockets of the bathrobe I’d been wearing earlier that morning, on the bathroom vanity, even on top of the toilet. I looked in the kitchen cupboards and in the refrigerator. I looked on my desk, inside the drawers, on bookshelves. The key ring had vanished. Finally, after making sure I had a spare house key in my hand, I locked the door and walked out with Kasey on a leash.
Coming back to the house, I saw them! There on the seat of a folding camp chair on the deck were the keys. Why had I left them outside? I’d been distracted, upset that I’d found out about my husband’s affair by reading a public post on Facebook. I’d wasted precious moments trying to find something I’d misplaced, just as I’d wasted years of my life trying to make an unhappy marriage work.
When he returned to pick up Kasey, I handed him the key to the home we’d once shared.
“I don’t need this anymore.”
“So, that’s it,” he said, stuffing the key in the pocket of his shorts.
“That’s it,” I said, and he drove down the hill with our dog.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master
Is losing an art, or does it just happen, like breathing or dreaming? The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that everything tends naturally to disorder or decay. The man I loved, the man I thought would live with me for the rest of my life, wasn’t willing to do the work necessary to save our marriage. He’s slowly disappearing from my thoughts, returning to dust, light, air. Our spinal columns are shrinking and our bodies draw closer to the grave. Our lives could end in a heartbeat—or, more likely, a missing beat. I could fall in the shower and not be found for days. He could have a heart attack or stroke. Who would lose? Who would be lost? Who would leave? Who would be left? Who would grieve?
Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
I should have mastered the art of losing by now. God knows, I’ve had enough practice. But instead of becoming resigned to it, I’ve become more resistant than I used to be. When I was young, I could skate through rejections on silver blades. There was always another suitor, lover, or friend, another opportunity, another chance to start over, another poem, another romance opening its petals one by one. Now, everything’s speeded up like a time-lapse film of a rose budding, blossoming, wilting, dying, until nothing is left but dried sepals and a thorny stem.
places, and names, and where it was you meant
We took three cruises together, twice to the Bahamas and once to Bermuda. When we were in line waiting to leave the ship with all the tourists dressed in shorts and sundresses, a man turned around, looked at us, and said, “You two don’t look like you’re going to the same place.” My husband was wearing his usual garb: orange nylon shorts and a wrinkled tee-shirt with stretched neckline and half moons of perspiration stains under the sleeves. I wore white capris, a black tunic with a lace yoke, and Greek fisherman sandals. We thought we were going to the same place, but we weren’t.
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.
Once, I got lost with a man on a mountain road. We were driving back from a poetry reading and made a wrong turn, listening to the GPS instead of using a map, ending up on a rain-rutted dirt road with barns, cows, and fences on the left and the rocky mountainside on the right. He asked if we should keep driving or turn around and go back. Always hopeful, I said, “Let’s keep going,” but we soon discovered that the road was washed out with no room to turn around without getting stuck. He had to back up slowly for almost half a mile until we were finally back where we had started. Later, I kissed him goodnight, and he placed his hand on his heart as if he were pledging allegiance.
I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
Things I’ve lost—Chichi, a crocheted monkey that a Japanese friend gave me. I left him on the airplane to America when I was five years old, traveling with my mother and three sisters. My dog Spot, left in Fukuoka when we moved. No one told me I would never see him again. The journal I kept when I was 12 years old and living in India. Silver anklets with bells bought in Vishwanath Lane in Varanasi. A tree-of-life necklace made from copper guitar strings and moss opals. One black leather glove. A white travel mug. A butter knife. A dangly earring that looked like a tiny blue planet Earth. Purple reading glasses. Invoices, phone numbers, receipts. A black umbrella. A glass blue bird of happiness.
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
By the time I was five, I had lived in five houses—a prefabricated house in Fukuoka with a roof that blew off during a typhoon; a new American-style house in Hoshiguma that was built to my missionary parents’ specifications; an apartment in Louisville, Kentucky, where we lived when my parents were on furlough for a year; the “Reid House,” a rickety old white-frame house in Wake Forest, North Carolina, that we rented one summer when we came back to the United States to live; and finally, the first house I remember clearly, a big white house with wraparound porches on South Main Street. Once a Sigma Chi fraternity house, it was huge and needed many repairs and improvements. My sisters and I each had our own bedrooms and were allowed to pick out our wallpaper. Nine-year-old Judy chose a botanical print of dogwood blossoms, seven-year-old Joy selected pink ballerinas, and I picked Peter Rabbit wallpaper.
The first house I owned as an adult was in Chicago, a turn-of-the-century four-square with an enclosed front porch. I loved the oak staircase and woodwork, the casement windows, the flowers I stenciled on the walls. I loved the currant bush in the back yard and the bittersweet jelly I made from the berries, the purple sedum that lined the walkway, the fragrant lily-of-the-valley a previous owner had planted.
Now I live in an A-frame house with a view of The Peak, the highest mountain in Ashe County, North Carolina. The mountain is constant, but the view changes every day. Sometimes the mountain is invisible, lost behind white fog. Sometimes it’s so clear that every tree, every leaf, every rugged rock seems to be sketched in silverpoint. Sometimes the mountain floats above low-lying clouds or is bathed in lavender light at sunset. I love the mountain because it is rooted in rock and will never leave me.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master
I’ve mastered the art of losing weight. If you want to get skinny, I know a weight-loss coach who will help you trim down. At first, it’s fun! Newly separated, newly sober, I was hungry for love. I was grateful for any crumb he offered. He was handsome with shoulder-length dark hair and black eyes that burned into mine. He spoon-fed me endearments and compliments until I swooned and swelled with love like a blood-plumped tick. After nine moons of loving him, of giving him everything I had, I finally faced reality: his interest in me was only because he couldn’t have the woman he loved, the one who was slowly dying of Alzheimer’s in his house. I was the substitute, the saccharine replacing sugar, the one who performed the role of the lover without being loved. When I realized that I would never be the beloved one, I withered down to a whisper. Now, more than a year later, I’m still thin. That weight-loss program works, but I don’t recommend it.
I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
The first city I lost was Fukuoka, my birthplace. I don’t remember much about the city itself except the smell of fish at the market and riding home in the mission Jeep with a goldfish swimming in a cellophane bag. What was the goldfish’s name? I don’t remember. No doubt its life was brief. Almost fifty years later, when I traveled to Japan with my sister, we ate at a restaurant with a large tank of tiny sardines darting back and forth, spreading silvery light in the darkened dining room.
The second city was Chicago—Second City, get it? I moved there with my first husband and it’s where we raised our two children. When I think of Chicago, I don’t think of Lake Michigan or of the many museums I visited with my former husband and children. I think of the el and the subway, the mornings spent careening on tracks high above the city and then tunneling underground to the Loop where I worked. Of the dank smell of the subway, the assault of jackhammers and traffic when I climbed the steps at Washington into daylight like Plato emerging from his cave.
Some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
When I was in 7th grade, I spent nine months with my family in Varanasi, India. My father was a visiting Fulbright scholar at Benares Hindu University, and my mother, four siblings, and I accompanied him. Varanasi is the Hindu holy city on the Ganges River, where devout Hindus take the bodies of loved ones to be cremated. Hindus believe that if their ashes are thrown into the river at that sacred site, they will bypass the cycle of reincarnation and go directly to heaven. When our rickshaw driver pedaled my sister Joy and me through the streets of Varanasi to school, we heard pallbearers chanting Ram Naan Satya Hai, “The name of Ram is truth,” as they carried a dead body on a flower-strewn bamboo bier to the ghats for cremation. We visited the burning ghats with our parents and saw the shrouded bodies placed on funeral pyres that faced the sun and the curry-gold waters of the Ganges at dawn.
When we returned to the United States in the summer of 1964, we didn’t know who the Beatles were. We’d been so isolated in Varanasi that we knew nothing of current teenage fads. Ironically, a few years later, the Beatles would become interested in Indian music and Eastern religions, embracing the culture we had been immersed in as teenagers. George Harrison’s ashes were scattered in the Ganges at Varanasi following his death in 2001.
After traveling the world as a child, I wanted nothing more as an adult than to have a home, a place where I belonged. Just down the hill from my mountain home is a small branch of The New River, little more than a creek in dry spells, but with swift currents in the spring when it swells with rain. Despite its name, The New River is believed to be one of the seven oldest rivers in the world. Another unusual characteristic of The New River is that it flows from south to north. Like my Scots-Irish ancestors who settled in the Appalachians, the river refuses to follow the predictable path, flowing in the opposite direction.
I miss them but it wasn’t a disaster
From a young age, I learned to travel light. When we flew to India, I carried everything I needed in one suitcase, and everything I carried home had to fit in it, too. I learned to let go of all except what was essential. When I left India, I left all the people I had met there, people I would never see again. The cook Abdul, a middle-aged man who had little education but whipped up the best French toast I’ve ever tasted. He turned mashed potatoes into swans with peas for eyes and a tiny carrot sliver for a beak. I left the rickshaw driver Muniwar who protected my sister and me from men on the street who tried to touch us. The sweeper who cleaned our slate floors and lived in a little hut attached to our bungalow with his wife and baby. The dhobi who washed our clothes by beating them against a stone, spread them out on a bush to dry in the sun, and pressed them with a charcoal iron. The mali or gardener who didn’t think potted plants belonged in the house. A little servant girl and her infant brother who lived next door. You could step into one country, one life, and then step into another. It was like changing clothes. You can’t afford to become attached when you’re only passing through.
—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
Sometimes his jokes were cruel. Once, he said I looked like my sister’s mother. Another time, he handed me a newspaper flyer where he’d circled a pair of underpants with a padded derriere. “Here’s what you need,” he said,“for your flat butt.” When I said my feelings were hurt, he said it was just a joke. Looking back, I’m grateful for jokes that wounded me because it’s easier now to let him go.
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
There are two kinds of grief. The first is for what you’ve lost: a loved one, a marriage, a career, a home. The second is for what you’ve never had. We observe the first kind of grief with rituals: funerals, headstones, wedding rings removed, pink slips, keys left in a lock box. But how do you mourn an absence? There’s no ceremony to commemorate what you’ve never had: the one true love of your life, the unwritten novel, fame, an opportunity lost. It’s the unseen grief that wakes you in the middle of the night when you realize it’s too late, that you’ll never have what you longed for or wanted. It’s the wind passing through the white oak at the edge of your driveway, snow falling like ashes on gravel, a keening echo. No, no, no, no, no.
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
Once, I found an empty snail shell on the brick walk leading to the log home I shared with my husband, and I wondered where snails go when they leave their shells and why they don’t return to their homes.
A year or two later, I moved out of that cabin and into a small apartment, sleeping on a blow-up bed for several months, buying pots and pans and a rice cooker at Goodwill, constructing make-shift shelves from boards and concrete blocks, starting over.
Once you leave, you can’t go back.
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.
I wish I could write that my collage of loss is completed, that I could frame it and hang it as a work of art in my study. Instead, loss is an ongoing process. There will be more challenges and disappointments as I age–bone, vision, or hearing loss; lack of mobility; lovers lost; deaths of friends and family members; and so on. I will be pasting more images of lost objects on my collage next to the missing key, the forgotten umbrella, the discarded phone number of someone I once loved. Sometimes life looks like disaster, but it isn’t. Even if I spend the rest of my life like the unmatched glove without finding my missing mate, I will follow Elizabeth Bishop’s parenthetical imperative. I will keep writing this unfinished story.
One Art —Elizabeth Bishop The art of losing isn’t hard to master; so many things seem filled with the intent to be lost that their loss is no disaster. Lose something every day. Accept the fluster of lost door keys, the hour badly spent. The art of losing isn’t hard to master. Then practice losing farther, losing faster: places, and names, and where it was you meant to travel. None of these will bring disaster. 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. 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. —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.
Beth Copeland is the author of three full-length poetry books: Blue Honey, recipient of the 2017 Dogfish Head Poetry Prize; Transcendental Telemarketer; and Traveling through Glass, recipient of the 1999 Bright Hill Press Poetry Book Award. She owns and operates Tiny Cabin, Big Ideas™, a residency for writers.