I can’t find my cell phone. I misplace keys. I’ve often thought that glasses, wallets, pens, pencils, books, bills, shopping lists and magazines grow legs and wander off. Or are poltergeists and ghoulies responsible? No, this propensity is not spook-driven or even age-related. Losing things is normal. It’s just that in that regard, I’m particularly normal. I’m always losing things. I recently found bittersweet comfort in Kathryn Schulz’s searching essay called Losing Streak appearing recently in the New Yorker. She suffers from this maddening aberration or . . . is it an aberration?
One visit to the west coast was especially unsettling for Ms. Schulz. She left her car keys on a table following a visit to a coffee house. Leaving home the next day she’d left her house key in the front door. Leaving a café, she realizes on her way home that her long sleeve shirt was still on the back of a chair where she’d placed it. Returning to reclaim it she learns she also left her wallet at the same table. She parked her truck. When she went to get it she couldn’t find it for an hour or so. She assures us that this is a family trait and she’s inherited it. Writer Schulz’s sister is a cognitive scientist at M.I.T. Schulz describes her as “the most scatterbrained person I ever met.”
I cannot recall the passwords for computer sites that I have scrupulously fashioned from personal data that I am sure will make them easy for me to remember. I find Ms. Schulz sympathetic on this point. She likens computer passwords to the socks in a washing machine; when we go to retrieve them, they’re never there.
Being scatterbrained is often cited as the cause for misplacing things, like not paying adequate attention to what we’re about. I rate high on that score. Through my school years I was a notorious daydreamer and a lot of what people call the ‘real world’ slipped by me unnoticed. It’s terribly annoying to lose and misplace things, and I am twice bedeviled because what I’ve just lost is often right there in front of me. Ms. Schulz says there exists a rule that claims what you’ve lost is typically within an eighteen inch radius around you when you first become aware of the loss. For me, the rule has proved spot on.
Psychoanalysts have a field day with patients who misplace or lose things. They immediately want to examine such selective amnesia as they believe it may be informed by darker motives, some as simple as you don’t like what you’ve lost or have a conflicted feeling about it. My experience with that is different; those people whom I dislike or incidents in which I’d been involved that still make me cringe remain only too available to my recollection. I’d count it a blessing if I could just lose them.
I once had my mother’s old typewriter from secretarial school. Over successive moves it was lost. I was sentimentally attached to it and grieved the loss. But in this kind of loss there remained the possibility that, if not within an eighteen-inch radius, someday I might find it somewhere. The hope of reclaiming it never wholly went away and I lived in a vague hope of its return. I think antique shops and early attic stores appeal to this tendency.
But there are losses and there are losses.
Judith Viorst, in her book, Necessary Losses, writes: “For the road to human development is paved with renunciation. Throughout our life we grow by giving up.” It’s a hard saying, but one I know is true; that we lose is not an aberration, at all. It’s because we have things to lose. We were born to die, and whatever we have gained in the interim we will eventually have to surrender. It’s one of life’s realities we resist the most, usually by denial.
I recall vividly after my father’s death. I refused to accept it. He’d returned from the War in Europe in 1945 and suddenly died shortly thereafter. I remember feeling desolate and I began weaving a tale to myself. He was actually working for Army Intelligence, I told myself. In order to engage in a special mission he was ordered to feign his death to carry it out in secret. When he’d successfully accomplished the mission, he’d appear and things would return to what they had been before. I clung to that hope for a long time. I gave it up when I couldn’t fit into his old army jacket anymore.
As a hospice chaplain years ago the following was perhaps the most heartrending story of the many I heard from mourners suffering the loss of a spouse. It would go something like this: “I’d get home, open the door, walk into the kitchen and think of all the things I couldn’t wait to tell him. Then I’d remember he was not there any more.”
Photographs may be all that is left of lost loved on. They are often kept visible to see and also so that they can’t be lost. We don’t find what’s lost in a photograph, but we can take comfort in the stories they recall.
It is given to us as human beings to suffer losses. Is there any redeeming thought in all that? I think Ms. Schulz put it as well as anyone can. Our losses remain “a kind of external conscience, urging us to make better use of our finite days.” How then are we to live? The past is gone, the future uncertain. All we have for certain is now and our task is to live each and every now as consciously and fully as possible.
Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.