The things we lose
Friday, December 17, 2021
So many people I know are struggling with the ache of loss right now -- if not mourning a loved one's death as I am, then the grief that comes from coping with a world pandemic that goes on and on, with climate changes that are escalating, with the unfathomable loss of people, places, and entire species we witness daily. For me, even the small ordinary losses (objects mislaid, papers misplaced, plans cancelled and opportunites missed) seem to bite a little sharper than they used to do, because loss is cumulative. A lost necklace is only a lost necklace, of course, but when such a small thing can bring me to the edge of tears I know it's not an object I am grieving but every damn loss of the last two years.
In her book A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Rebecca Solnit writes:
"It is the nature of things to be lost and not otherwise. Think of how little has been salvaged from the compost of time of the hundreds of billions of dreams dreamt since the language to describe them emerged, how few names, how few wishes, how few languages even, how we don't know what tongues the people who erected the standing stones of Britain and Ireland spoke or what the stones meant, don't know much of the language of the Gabrielanos of Los Angeles or the Miwoks of Marin, don't know how or why they drew the giant pictures on the desert floor in Nazca, Peru, don't know much even about Shakespeare or Li Po.
"It is as though we make the exception the rule, believe that we should have rather than that we will generally lose. We should be able to find our way back again by the objects we dropped, like Hansel and Gretel in the forest, the objects reeling us back in time, undoing each loss, a road back from lost eyeglasses to lost toys and baby teeth. Instead, most of the objects form the secret constellations of our irrecoverable past, returning only in dreams where nothing but the dreamer is lost. They must all still exist somewhere: pocket knives and plastic horses don't exactly compost, but who knows where they go in the great drifts of objects sifting through our world?
"Once I found a locket with a crescent moon and a star spelled out in rhinestones on one face, unreadably intricate initials on another, and two ancient photographs inside, and someone must have missed it terribly but no one claimed it, and I have it still. Another time, traveling down a river in one of the last great wildernesses, a roadless place the size of Portugal, I lost a sock early in the trip and a pair of sunglasses later, and I think of them littering the wilderness so clear of such clutter, there still or found by someone who must have wondered about them as I did the woman with the locket.
"On that trip I leaned over the side of the raft and stared straight down for hours at the floor of the river whose name almost no one knows that flows into another little-known river, stared at thousands of stones sliding by, gray, pink, black, gold, under the clearest water in the whole world, floating for miles and days on water I drank straight out of the river. Material objects witness everything and say nothing. Animals say more. And they are disappearing.
"That things should be lost to our knowledge is one thing, in which we don't know where we are or they are; that things should be lost from the earth is another."
In her wise book Refuge, Terry Tempest Williams writes:
"The eyes of the future are looking back at us and they are praying for us to see beyond our own time. They are kneeling with hands clasped that we might act with restraint, that we might leave room for the life that is destined to come. To protect what is wild is to protect what is gentle. Perhaps the wilderness we fear is the pause between our own heartbeats, the silent space that says we live only by grace. Wilderness lives by this same grace. Wild mercy is in our hands."
Wild mercy for the planet. Wild mercy for ourselves. The dark of the year approaches, dear friends. Let's be kind to each other right now.
The passages above are quote from A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit (Viking, 2005) and Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family & Place by Terry Tempest Williams (Pantheon, 2000). All rights reserved by the authors.
A related posts: On the language of loss and love, The writer's god is Mercury, and The dance of joy and grief.