The Art of Losing

I recently re-read Elizabeth Bishop’s masterful poem One Art that claims, over and over, that The art of losing isn’t hard to master. Germaine Greer quotes this poem in the last chapter, Serenity and Power, in her masterful book The Change. Today, I found the poem and read it a few more times. These two women, and so many others like them, provide a rudder in waters uncharted.

 Every body of water I enter (we enter) is uncharted, because of the flowing nature of water.  So perhaps I always feel this way, even though each time, I think, ‘This is the first time’. Always in transition, always moving, always falling, ground not firm because it simply doesn’t exist. Ask the Buddhists or the Hindus – they’ve been trying to tell us this forever. There are no bearings to take, no landmarks by which to gauge progress, no map that corresponds to experience. So a rudder is all I can hope for, and I am so grateful to poets and writers who pour themselves out. I am saved from drowning, many times.

 The art of losing is VERY hard to master. Breathe into the fear, loosen the grip, be kind. Repeat ad infinitum. Dissociate for a bit, then return. Distract for a while, come back. Breathe, loosen, open the heart.


I seem to have lost a country. What I called home. Surrounded by people who strive to find this land, who dream of discovering it and themselves in it, I have allowed it to slip away. For how long can one hold on to something so precious? White knuckled, the grip strangles. Better to open the burning fingers and let go. I try to console myself with new-agey sayings that when I carry something in my heart and body, I don’t need its physical presence. But I seem to have lost the carrying and am left only with the physical reality, which is nothing at all. When I get on that long flight now, I know that I am going to a strange land with which I will struggle and also fail to recognize. It would be easier if I could look around and say, “My, how things have changed.” But I know that it is I who have changed, and this is irreversible. Until recently, I could close my eyes and feel that ground under my feet, remember the smell of jasmine or ocean breeze, long for the sight of thick green leaves on mango trees. It is the absence of this longing that is my new reality. Floating forward so fast, forgetting to look back, unable to hold on to the beauty of the past.

 I seem to have lost my childhood. I simply can’t remember much of it – when friends and family say, “remember when such and such happened?” or “remember such and such person?” – I can’t. Not close friends. Not important events. And the stuff I do remember – that has haunted me all my life…the deep pains, the shame, the fear –  like some dream these have become stories I tell with very little feeling anymore. When I speak about the utter and complete agony of those days, I barely remember the actual events, and only remember the pain because I have spoken about it so much. I have lost the little girl who hid behind doors, who pissed herself in terror, who went to sleep wishing to die and woke up in the middle of the night needing to change sheets quietly so nobody could hear. The teenager who waited for the courage to jump in front of a moving lorry – she’s not standing on that corner anymore. I’ve lost the hate that drove me, the longing for kind touch, the constant fear of losing my mind. These are words now, I can still speak them, but those parts are gone, absorbed into this larger self, and I don’t know who I am anymore. I am adrift without the familiar, long-used landmarks.

I seem to have lost the notion of ‘family’ as saving grace. I feel like an outcast among most of my circle, because I do not believe in the sanctity, or even the usefulness, of family. I care about the people, I am in relationship with many of them, individually; but Husband, Daughter, Brother, Sister, Mother, Father, Cousin, Aunt, Relationship, Family – these are our great and powerless gods. Disillusionment, deeper understanding, and the willing courage to notice the nakedness of the emperor have contributed to bring me to a new and interesting lack of expectation. It is both easier and more difficult to live this way. Seeing who people are without thinking they owe it to me to be different. Trying to cultivate acceptance of disappointment. Striving to live with my aloneness. It seems to me that many women have learned these well and live well with themselves. I am not yet one of those but I hope that I will be, someday. Hence the need for a rudder. And it’s nice to come up with a destination of sorts when on this open sea.

I have lost my fantasies of making a difference in the world. Of starting a revolution, having an Idea, changing the collective. Through writing, dancing, speaking, teaching – I know now that I will have little effect, if any. My fantasies were huge – I’ve even lost my embarrassment at their hugeness. The balloon has been pricked, and I am free to simply be whatever I am. One person. Limited power, limited resources, mostly ineffective in small and large ways. When I manage to publish a poem in a reputed magazine, I can’t feel anything. One more poem in one more magazine. Nobody will read it or care. It doesn’t stop me from writing or from trying to get published. The work remains. But – perhaps thanks to the internet – the sparkle of success is gone. As well as the drive to achieve something great. I will not solve the Israel-Palestine conflict. I will not invent a new fuel. I will not end racism. I will not get men to understand the effects of rank patriarchy. I will not even join a resistance movement except for the one I live every day. I will not be indispensible to anyone or any cause. I will watch the world do what it does and know that I can do very little to change its course. If possible, I will continue to travel inward and see what I can see there. That’s my only offer to the greater good.

The most difficult loss is yet to come – and I wait in some dread. Dying seems easier than losing my body, its strength, health, and easy functioning. It creeps up – age – and I can feel my powerlessness to stop it. To be decrepit, tired, weak. I fear that. Breathe. Loosen. Be kind.

Despite suicide ideation and the ever-present threat of major explosions in the home, it comes as a surprise to me that I am going to die. Of course I have thought of this in intellectual terms. In fact, most of my life has been devoted to understanding the human fear of death. All the inner work I have done has brought me close – so close – to this grand conundrum of a living being awaiting its own death. And yet…I turned a corner and suddenly, there she is. Slightly amused at my astonishment, knowing more than I do about what will happen to me, willing me to take a step towards her, daring me to begin a dance. And I – such a good dancer – frozen in place. Please, let my feet begin to move, let me let go and enjoy the music.

When I was young, I was surrounded by talk about karma and the end of it. The goal of every life, they said, is to come to the end of the karmic cycle so that one will not be incarnate again. Everybody wished for this secretly or not so secretly, and the greatest good fortune an astrologer could predict for a newly born was that this would be the child’s final birth. Most of us, it was clear, were simply too coarse to attain this high honor. We would be born, many more times, and suffer the grind for as long as it took to refine us. With all my coarsenesses, and there were many, believe me, I knew I had no hope. In some strange, but not uncommon, melding of Hindu impurity at home and Catholic sin in school, I was lost in a fog of unworthiness. It is difficult to cleanse the perception (to use Huxley’s term) enough so that I stop seeing the world as enveloped in this fog. But now and then, it lifts, and the universe, the planet, we people who fuck things up, are suddenly beautiful beyond anything. We scale high walls, ride green peacocks, stretch out our marvelous bodies in the sun. What would it be like to lose this fog for good? To see clearly, all the time?

Germaine Greer says that it is the fear of losing, not the losing itself, that is so unsettling to women my age. But in my life, most of that fear of losing is past. Most of what I have lost I had no control over. Many things I didn’t know I was losing until they were gone. The water moves me quickly and it is impossible to realize that I will not remember the rocks and trees that I pass by. They seem so memorable in the moment.


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1 Response to The Art of Losing

  1. Pingback: The Art of Losing | The Marmite Journal

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