Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art” is a tart response to the steady procession out the door. First she loses keys, then houses, then cities, two rivers, and a continent. She writes, “Practice losing farther, losing faster.” And finally, “you (the joking voice, a gesture I love).” And that seems about the right order: keys, houses, cities, rivers, continents, you.
I have to admit that I’ve lost my fair share of people along the way. I have no friends from elementary school. I have a few acquaintances (thanks Facebook), but no profoundly important bonds from high school. I keep in intermittent touch with a couple of professors from college, but all the people I played bridge with at lunch or in the evening, my swimming compatriots, or my more fiery friends from that rich time of awakening have gone. I retain only a single connection from the lost years while I worked in restaurants. Until the age of 28, the only people who remained constant in my life were my father, my mother, and my brothers, and I could no more lose them than I could lose my opposable thumbs, my kidneys, or my hair. Oops.
Somewhere along the way all that changed. And it wasn’t the people I was meeting. I figured out a few things about myself, and started on my life’s work. I am happy, overjoyed really, that I have friends who I met on the first day I started graduate school at Binghamton, and that in the thirty years since then, I have built, and been built into webs that extend across the country and onto other continents. Even if I disappeared today, if sudden tragedy erased me, those webs would remain, and my juncture would remain too, if only as a bright memory.
Still there are losses, certain “you’s” who spin away someplace else, who collided with my life, briefly or for longer times, and then left. In the ramshackle castle of my heart, I have a dozen rooms of voices and gestures belonging to this you or that you who received and returned “I love you” from me and to me.
I can imagine rekindling almost any old friendship. Bruce, Steve, Kevin? Trevor, Barry, Pete? Beth, Paul, Wendy, Cliff, Neil, Jean, Miriam, Ted? Sure. I would be delighted to hear about their lives, to listen to their stories, and discover where they have been, what they have learned, the best meals they have eaten. I would sit them all around a table and cook a stew of memory. But those women with whom I have shared at least a glimpse of my most intimate self, for whom I carved hearts into scallops (and filled those hearts with pesto), or alongside whom I have sat quietly on glacial erractic boulders, or who kissed me until days turned into into weeks, and weeks turned into years? I think I have lost them.
Maybe it’s because break ups are just that—a break, a tear in the web of connections. If a declaration of love is tantamount to an assertion of meaning in the universe: there are stars! there is hydrogen! the miracle of leaves! radio waves! elephants! cellos! then the end of love threatens to cast all of creation into some alternate universe where everything delicious tastes like burning tires. Of course it doesn’t. Of course that is overly romantic. It is just turning a page.
What universe do you live in that anything can be set aside so blithely? I cannot.
And so it is with special joy that one star flickered back onto the horizon. After nearly twenty five years, I sent this old friend a message “Went on a date with someone who so fabulously reminded me of you.” We chatted back and forth and she sent me a draft of the book she has been running away from for as long as I knew her. Finally running into it, she has uncovered connection after connection, and as she does, she bounced between them amazed and perplexed, delighted as a child who has discovered the art of skipping. At some penultimate revelation she declared that she had uncovered a miracle, to which I responded that she is, was, and always would be a miracle. She answered, “Well that made me cry. We had something so special. And for you to still be in my in my life is another miracle.” Thank you, my now distant friend, for helping put the universe back into order. Keep writing.
We are all miracles. Loss only makes me feel that more keenly now than I ever had before. But not just loss: my daughter, my students, my friends, a Sondheim song, everything, everyone. Once I felt unequal to the task of acknowledging and praising the miracles that were all around me. I kept them at a distance and felt flustered, off-balance, and awestruck when they accepted me into their orbits. When they drifted away, I accepted the loss, almost as glibly as Bishop does in her poem. After all, what was I but some strange satellite from some strange universe? Even Bishop’s advice, “Write it,” seemed to make the world and the process of loving and losing little more than the material for writing (which, I am half ashamed to say, it can be).
Loss is a disaster and no disaster, because it casts me back out of myself, and so deeply reminds me that I am not the center of a weird universe, but part of something larger. In his poem, “The Cleaving, “ Li-Young Lee calls us “a many-membered body of love.” So I am reminded, and so I write, part of the miracle and a miracle. A contradiction and a multitude. Brian Brennan for the moment and in perpetuity. My heart fixed here, back in the web, part of this and every other universe, spinning in every direction, and open.