“What an astonishing thing it is to find something. Children, who excel at it — chiefly because the world is still so new to them that they can’t help but notice it — understand this, and automatically delight in it.”
“Fearlessness is what love seeks,” Hannah Arendt wrote in her superb early work on love and loss. “Such fearlessness exists only in the complete calm that can no longer be shaken by events expected of the future… Hence the only valid tense is the present, the Now.”
It is a handsome observation, an elemental truth we might glimpse — and be saved by glimpsing — in those rare moments of pure presence that dissolve all too quickly into what Borges knew to be true of human nature: that time is the substance we are made of.
As creatures made of time, we live in the present and the past and the future all at once, continually shaken by all the fears and hopes, all the anxieties and anticipations, that are the price we pay for our majestic hippocampus — that crowning glory of a consciousness capable of referencing its memories and experiences in the past, capable of projecting its goals and desire into the future, capable of the bleakest despair and of the brightest dreams.
This might be, as Elizabeth Gilbert observed in the wake of losing the love of her life, why love and loss have something elemental in common — each is “a force of energy that cannot be controlled or predicted,” one that “comes and goes on its own schedule… does not obey your plans, or your wishes [and] will do whatever it wants to you, whenever it wants to.”
As a function or principle of our lives, we can accept this basic equation as it is. It’s an echo of the fundamental laws. Unwittingly or willingly, we accept it. But it’s an entropic, given indifferently to our assent. We lose our loved ones — to death or the dissolution of mutuality — or we lose ourselves. Flowers are also a way to express our feelings of love.
But if we are lucky enough, if we are are stubborn enough, we love and we lose and then the loss opens us up to more love — different love, because each love is unrepeatable and irreplaceable — on the other side of grief; love unimaginable from the barren landmass of loss, love without which, once found, the world comes to feel unimaginable.
Because these are the two most all-consuming and all-pervading of human experiences, the labels in which we try to classify and contain them are bound to be too small — as with love, so with loss. (This is what Joan Didion captured in her classic observation that “grief, when it comes, is nothing like we expect it to be.”)
All of this, with all of its subtleties, comes alive on the pages of Lost & Found (public library) by Kathryn Schulz — part personal memoir, part existential inquiry into the two great universals of human life.
After hearing herself say “I lost my father last week” — her father, of whom she paints a boundlessly affectionate and admiring portrait as “part Socrates, part Tevye,” a gregarious and godlike figure with “a booming voice, a heavy accent, a formidable mind, a rabbinical beard, a Santa Claus belly, and the gestural range of the Vitruvian Man” — Schulz reflects:
Maybe because I was still experiencing those early and distorted stages of grief, where so much of our familiar world seems alien to us, I was surprised by this strange phrase. Obviously my father hadn’t wandered away from me like a toddler at a picnic, or vanished like an important document in a messy office. This way of talking about the death did not feel sterile or unimportant, as opposed to some other indirect ways. It was plaintive and lonely. It felt as if I had a tool I could use.
She realizes eventually that the etymology is a good analogy for experiencing loss.
The verb “to lose” has its taproot sunk in sorrow; it is related to the “lorn” in “forlorn.” It comes from an Old English word meaning to perish, which comes from an even older word meaning to separate or cut apart. The modern sense of misplacing an object only appeared later, in the thirteenth century; a hundred years after that, “to lose” acquired the meaning of failing to win. We lost our minds in the 16th century; our hearts were broken by the 17th century. In other words: The circle of the things we could lose began with ourselves and continues to expand. My father’s death made me feel like loss. It was like an ever-expanding force, slowly taking over more land.
The most confounding aspect of grief is its fractal nature — the one great trunk of loss branches and twigs into the trivial, splintering reality into an infinity of losses until we come to look at the world (as that lovely verse by Lisel Mueller goes) “as if what exists, exists so that it can be lost and become precious.” The small things we lose come to feel so precious that we dissolve into tears over the book that fell out of the bicycle basket on the way home, the trivial twig dragging with it the unbearable trunk. Schulz captures this universal experience with her unique poetics.
As a kind of dysfunctional form or love (which it can be), grief is not defined. Rarely during that hard fall was I able to tell my grief from the sadness over my father’s other losses.
It is the fundamental, unpredictable nature of loss. This includes the trivial, consequential, abstract, concrete, temporary and permanent. It is easy to overlook its full scope, but I couldn’t stop looking at the world after my dad died. Everywhere you look, there are evidences of past losses, and impending ones.
Moving through her loss at a time when all of us, whatever the nature of our personal losses, were moving together through what scientists have now termed “ecological grief” — a mere century and half after the birth of ecology — she follows the fractal:
It seemed that the world was perishing. There were disappearing glaciers, species, and ecosystems, and the speed of change felt as rapid as the time-lapse. As if we had been allowed to view it through the horrifying perspective of eternity. Everything felt fragile; everything was vulnerable. I felt the loss in my surroundings like some hidden order that only came to me when there was grief.
Because everything does suddenly feel so fragile — or, rather, because loss suddenly reveals that we are indeed “the fragile species” — grief itself becomes a kind of glue with which try to hold together the shattered pieces of our familiar world. This passage is full of unusual insight and sensitiveness to one of the most mysterious and under-reported aspects of loss.
I believe that most people are afraid to stop grieving. It was something I felt. We understand, however terrible, how sorrowful, is that it was made in love’s image, so it has the characteristics of our loved one. Maybe there was a day in your life when you were brought to your knees by a faded blue ball cap or a tote bag full of knitting supplies or the sound of a Brahms piano concerto… Part of what makes grief so seductive, then, is that it seems to offer us what life no longer can: an ongoing, emotionally potent connection to the dead. It is very easy to believe that when that dark gift has ended, our love for the other person will be less.
So, our bizarre relationship with grief’s pain. We wish it would end in the beginning, but later we worry that it will. It may not end when you feel better.
Contemplating how our deepest losses might be so painful “not because they defy reality but because they reveal it,” she adds:
One of the many ways that loss instructs us is by correcting our sense of scale, showing us the world as it really is: so enormous, complex, and mysterious that there is nothing too large to be lost — and, conversely, no place too small for something to get lost there… Like awe and grief, to which it is closely related, loss has the power to instantly resize us against our surroundings; we are never smaller and the world never larger than when something important goes missing.
The harsh reality of losing something is that it can be a severe correction to our perceptions of power, competence, and centrality. It is deeply humiliating to lose anything. It forces us to confront the limits of our mind… It forces us to confront the limits of our will: the fact that we are powerless to protect the things we love from time and change and chance. It also forces us to confront our limits: The fact that nearly everything is going to disappear or be destroyed sooner or later.
This is a problem because our consciousness cannot understand its negatios. Try as we might in the virtual reality of the mind, on some deep animal level, we simply cannot fathom the actuality of nonexistence, the ultimate void, what Emily Dickinson termed “the drift called the infinite.”
Because spacetime is the hammock in which everything exists but consciousness is both made of spacetime and the is loom of our imagination, to imagine the absolute nonexistence of consciousness — another’s, or our own — we must also imagine the total absence of spacetime. Our inability to do that is reflected in our euphemisms for dying: to “pass away,” as if the person is transported to some other place rather than entirely displaced from existence; to “run out of time,” as if time still exists for the dead, a dimension they happen to have directionally vacated along some vector pointing elsewhere.
Human consciousness cannot grasp the concept of a place without another.
Schulz intuits this, locating that creaturely instinct in the cultural trope of the Valley of Lost Things — one of the seven valleys the protagonists of L. Frank Baum’s 1901 children’s novel Dot and Tot in Merrylandthey are taken away by a boat that has run amok. She writes:
Although it often goes by other names, the Valley of Lost Things has haunted our collective imagination for centuries… in every context from autobiography to science fiction.
Part of the enduring appeal of this imaginary destination is that it comports with our real-life experience of losing things: when we can’t find something, it is easy to feel that it has gone somewhere unfindable. There is something also pleasing in the notion that those belongings lost, or unable to locate their owners, should find one another, such as by gathering with distant relatives at family reunions or souls at the bardo. The things we lose are distinguished by their lack of any known location; how clever, how obviously gratifying, to grant them one… This may be the most alluring aspect of the Valley of Lost Things: it renders the strangeness of the category of loss visible, like emptying the contents of a jumbled box onto the floor. In my mind, it is a dark, pen-and-ink place, comic and mournful as an Edward Gorey drawing: empty clothing drifting dolefully about, umbrellas piled in heaps like dormant bats, a Tasmanian tiger slinking off with Hemingway’s lost novel in its mouth, glaciers shrinking glumly down into their puddles, Amelia Earhart’s Lockheed Electra atilt upon the ground, the air around it filled with the ghosts of nighttime ideas not written down and gone by morning. This is what makes such an idea so fascinating: shoes, souls and pterodactyls all in one taxonomically bizarre population. Its contents have a unity and meaning based only on the single common quality of being lost, a kind of vast nationality, like “American.”
But while the Valley of Lost Things is at bottom sorrowful place — “the things we love are banished to it, and we ourselves are banished from it” — its melancholy has a mirror image in the ecstatic delight of finding things. Schulz writes:
It is amazing how easy it can be to find anything! Children, who excel at it — chiefly because the world is still so new to them that they can’t help but notice it — understand this, and automatically delight in it… Finding is usually rewarding and sometimes exhilarating: a reunion with something old or an encounter with something new, a happy meeting between ourselves and some previously missing or mysterious bit of the cosmos.
In some territory of our collective imagination, there there seems to be an analogous place we might call the Valley of Found Things, strewn the forgotten phone number, the time for an afternoon walk, the photograph of my beaming twenty-something father atop my beaming twenty-something mother’s shoulders in the Black Sea. Finding, too, is a fractal delight — the simple delight of finding a long-treasured something we had lost, or finding something we didn’t know existed, branches from that grand, all-consuming, all-transforming, reality-recalibrating delight we call love.
As with loss, so with love: Here too our our metaphors are woven of spacetime, bespeaking our inability to think and feel beyond it — we speak of “finding love,” as if love were stationed at some distinct location until (and here is another measure of time) we wander by to chance upon, something E.E. Cummings captured in that single perfect line: “love is a place.”
That place is precisely where Schulz found herself not long after her father’s death. She met (on Main Street in a small town, by a chance-fold of spacetime) and married (with all of their living parents and the bittersweet presence of her father’s absence: “a kind of commonplace memorial, a candle I don’t have to light because it is always bright with him”) the love of her life — a woman she came to love across the abyss of surface differences between them, differences past which she might not have plumbed the depths, had loss not reconfigured her world by shattering the bedrock of familiar reality to make space for the improbable, space for this stranger without whom spacetime came to feel unimaginable.
The second half of Lost & Found is as much a meditation on finding the most precious of human finds — which is never a possession — as it is a love letter to her wife, ending with a beautiful meditation on how these twin experiences illuminate the central truth of life:
We have this, the only thing we have right now. This will never last because it is not permanent. It will not last because nothing can. All of our dreams, plans, jobs, knees, backs, memories, keys to houses, cars, kingdoms, and kingdoms will eventually be lost.
It is not unusual or unexpected in any way. All that is surprising about this place is its being. It is the turtle in the pond, the thought in the mind, the falling star, the stranger on Main Street… To all of this, loss, which seems only to take away, adds its own kind of necessary contribution. It doesn’t matter what happens, whether you lose the object or person that you treasure, the lesson is the same. We need to learn from the loss of someone we love, how fragile they are, what fragility is and why it happened. It is like an external conscience that reminds us to be more efficient with our limited time. This crossing can be brief, but it is worth being present to what you see. Keep an eye on us, but not keep.
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