I read an article by Kathryn Schulz (When Things Go Missing) in The New Yorker today that reminded me that, for one thing, I am not a great writer, and that, nevertheless, I have a story to tell.
After my husband died, I struggled with PTSD and complicated grief which, among other symptoms, left me in a constant absent-minded state. That resulted in many problems, but perhaps one of the most interesting was how often I misplaced things.
I identified especially with a section in the article in which Schulz describes how author Patti Smith, in her memoire “M Train” on the subject of grief, describes the Valley of Lost Things. In my case, I called it The Portal, in reference to an uncanny door through which my husband had passed. Like some kind of barrier between us and cosmic winds, once opened it creates a kind of Bernoulli effect strong enough to pull not only a mortal soul through it, but a few miscellaneous items may also get caught up and roll away, or come flying right off the walls, passing thus into oblivion through The Portal, for as long as it is open.
Into The Portal I lost my good camera, our external hard drive, the wall clock, a tango poster, several dog toys, ten bricks of cheese, the television remote control and numerous packs of smokes I had picked up to pass some time. I should perhaps redact the remote control and the dog toys from the list, though, because I eventually found the dog toys locked at the bottom of a steamer trunk months after they had disappeared one by one, and the remote control was eventually discovered under some freezer-burned blueberries in – yes – the freezer.
But today’s article reminds me that there is so much more to loss than simply the disoriented preoccupation that follows, which is conducive then to losing things. In my book I describe a few occasions of that drifting absence:
There were days that I discovered that I had never zipped up the back of my dress. There were mornings where I could not remember how to button a blouse, or where I discovered later that my underwear were on sideways, backward, and inside out, or that I had forgotten entirely to wear a bra, something was mis-tucked, there was some strange, unfortunate blending accident with my makeup, or my hair looked like it had been sucked into a vacuum cleaner. I envisioned myself like an unfinished painting, part charcoal sketch, part obscure smears in patches, or stacked up like a bizarre Picasso subject. And that’ s only to speak of my appearance! Sometimes at my secretary job, while taking dictation, my hand would stop and could no longer remember how to write, as the speaker carried on until I was in a full breathless panic, afraid to admit what was going on. There were times I took down phone numbers wildly incorrectly or wrote utterly interrupted, incoherent e-mails, put misspelled events on the wrong person’ s calendar in the wrong month.
I have read that the brains of posttraumatic stress disorder survivors actually display signs of stunted neurotransmission; that is, the brain seems to display impaired message delivery. The absentminded behavior I displayed was the resulting confusion from a terrible preoccupation within a stuttering and cycling mind, wherein I hadn’t the mental endurance to discern any thought as deserving more or less priority, like wearing permanent headphones in which a variety of important sounds were playing but one sound was excruciatingly louder than the others.
There was a stressful day at work that knocked me back into in full shock; when I tried to go home, I wandered, lost, down streets I had walked for years. I gazed at the signs and did not understand them. I turned and crossed confusedly and kept going in a little bit of a panic until it occurred to me that I needed to use a restroom urgently with no solution coming to mind. On very bad days, which were usually on weekends after being isolated for an entire Saturday, for example, I experienced episodes of suddenly “waking,” hours after my last recollection, lying completely naked on my living room floor, say, having no idea how or why I had gotten there.
Schulz makes some wonderfully keen observations; the kind that, although it never occurred to you to see things in the way she describes, you say to yourself, that is exactly what it is like. Not only that, but the conclusions she ultimately draws in her last paragraph are surprisingly closely akin to my own. Maybe we can attribute that to all those years I spent in Cleveland. (She mentions being a Clevelander in a few ways, in the article.) Maybe it’s better associated with the unifying elements that the bereaved have in common.
It is breathtaking, the extinguishing of consciousness. Yet that loss, too—our own ultimate unbeing—is dwarfed by the grander scheme. When we are experiencing it, loss often feels like an anomaly, a disruption in the usual order of things. In fact, though, it is the usual order of things. Entropy, mortality, extinction: the entire plan of the universe consists of losing, and life amounts to a reverse savings account in which we are eventually robbed of everything. Our dreams and plans and jobs and knees and backs and memories, the childhood friend, the husband of fifty years, the father of forever, the keys to the house, the keys to the car, the keys to the kingdom, the kingdom itself: sooner or later, all of it drifts into the Valley of Lost Things.
There’s precious little solace for this, and zero redress; we will lose everything we love in the end. But why should that matter so much? By definition, we do not live in the end: we live all along the way. The smitten lovers who marvel every day at the miracle of having met each other are right; it is finding that is astonishing. You meet a stranger passing through your town and know within days you will marry her. You lose your job at fifty-five and shock yourself by finding a new calling ten years later. You have a thought and find the words. You face a crisis and find your courage.
All of this is made more precious, not less, by its impermanence. No matter what goes missing, the wallet or the father, the lessons are the same. Disappearance reminds us to notice, transience to cherish, fragility to defend. Loss is a kind of external conscience, urging us to make better use of our finite days. As Whitman knew, our brief crossing is best spent attending to all that we see: honoring what we find noble, denouncing what we cannot abide, recognizing that we are inseparably connected to all of it, including what is not yet upon us, including what is already gone. We are here to keep watch, not to keep. ♦
However, I think it is a painful conclusion to draw that there is an unbeing. I think instead that the “external conscience which urges us to make better use of our finite days” is a good notion to explore. I think this because, the more I thought about it along my own journey, the more I felt I realized the existence of a consciousness was a truth, and that my husband still existed, amid the “greater scheme” that Schulz describes. It’s ok to disagree with that, of course, but I know that I was able to begin to make peace with my journey when I began to discover that the Observer, the Observed, and the Process of Observing – Father, Son, and Holy Ghost – Greater Scheme, Daddy, Universe – are all manifestations of the one unifying place we go. I called it The Cloud in my book – not so much referring to the kind of cloud with cherubs plucking harps on it, although I suppose that also applies, but more like the place from which we download all of our ways and talents and energies and personalities and experiences, that place that is one vague yet specific unified entity of us. That place that is The Is of Us. If we have been, are now and forever will be of the cloud, how can we be lost? As Deepak Chopra says, where can the self go when everything that is, is contained within it? If a pot is moved from one place to another, the space within it does not move, for space and time derive their meaning through our consciousness.
It might be more accurate to declare that things have merely passed through The Portal, that is, transformed, rather than that they are ever truly lost.