Thursday, May 27, 2021
5:57 PM |
Rehearsals of Letting Go
In October 1975, the poet Elizabeth Bishop wrote Alice Methfessel a letter. She was 64, and while widely acclaimed for her poetry, she felt increasingly that her life had been a long disappointment, full of heartache and loss, and riddled with anxiety—which her drinking also acerbated. Methfessel—Bishop’s companion, caretaker, and secretary, whom she met when she began teaching poetry at Harvard University—felt like the only anchor the poet had left in the continuing storms of her life. She had been, for the last eight years, also Bishop’s great love—and now Alice was going to marry another man.
“I wish I’d been able to write more and better poems these last few years,” Bishop wrote in that letter, “and poems for
you. Well, who knows, something may come along.”
Loss and heartbreak can be a great motivator for creativity—and something did come along in Bishop’s poetry to address her sorrows. By November, she was drafting a poem that was a lodestar, an accumulation of losses in the poet’s life—the trigger being the loss of Alice. By 1976, the poem “One Art” saw publication in the New Yorker
and has since been hailed as being among Bishop’s masterpieces, a beautiful lament of loss with a coda of bravery hastily tucked in at the end.
“The art of losing isn’t hard to master,” the poem begins—and because it is a villanelle, the line comes back again and again throughout the poem’s six-stanza length. The message is persistent in its repetition, and in that muddle you can also glimpse a prayer that what it preaches is true.
It goes on with its catalogue of things readymade for these suggested rehearsals of loss. “Lose something every day” is the poem’s mantra—door keys, for example, and lost hours; a watch; names; places “you meant / to travel”; then ultimately bigger things, like cities, and rivers, and even entire continents. By the end, Bishop admits the reason for these exercises of losing: “—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture /I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident / the art of losing’s not too hard to master /though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.”
I love this poem. And I can see behind that bravado in the end: it’s a beautifully hollow promise, the poet knowing for sure there can really be no rehearsals for losing.
But I’ve always felt I could nevertheless try.
* * *
The third to the last time I had my heart broken, I could hear the phantom snare drums of the end pulsating through my days—a reminder of the wound that was left to fester, which needed just one more slight cut to release the full orchestra of separation.
, people tell us. Nothing lasts forever
. This is partly true. I’d been with M. for more than five years and by then we were already walking on tiptoes around each other, civil to a fault, and the way we must have looked at each other must be how one looked at a ghost. What kept us together was familiarity and the momentum of years. But I knew, deep in my guts, that this relationship was nearing its end—had known it for months actually. I had spent the summer of that year in the cool mountain air of Sagada, and on top of Calvary Hill, I remember praying to the universe to let the end be a meandering sort, like how a river slows down before it vanishes to sea.
By Christmas, our “river” was near the estuary, and the sight of sea felt like a promise. I longed with measured want for the end to come. There was simply no use denying that inevitability, although I was equally at a loss on how to initiate it. (Perhaps I was just a coward.) But how do you tell someone, “I don’t love you anymore,” and still be able to navigate the sudden loss of a long and constant companionship? While I accepted the possibility of loss, I had trouble imagining the new landscape of the fallout.
This was how I learned to rehearse it.
I taught myself to imagine the various scenarios of the breakup:
If this happens, then I will do this.
If he does this, then I will do this.
If I come to feel this, then I will force myself to do this.
I rehearsed all the permutations of the loss, imagining myself doing what I could to strengthen my own resolve every which way. And when the break finally did come, it was as a gift of the best scenario I could ever imagine: a parting of such surprising quiet. That December morning in 2008, he gathered his things in silence while I feigned sleep. There were small sounds of hangers being dispossessed of clothes, of bags being zipped, of doors being exited, of gates being closed. Of such sounds, I quickly learned, are partings made of. There were no angry words or solemn goodbyes. For a moment I panicked and wanted to rush out and beg him to come back—but I’d also rehearsed this, too: I made myself keep still. I told myself: This is what you wanted
. I breathed deep, stayed put, and counted to ten.
Soon it was over.
* * *
Some loss you can be more or less prepared for. Loss itself is an existential exercise, a rehearsal for the end of things, an incremental fulfillment of the truism that we are all born into this world naked, and we leave it naked.
I used to do philately. Starting sometime in grade school, collecting stamps became one of my abiding passions—an obsession, really. Like all hobbies, it began as a spark informed with interest and curiosity, coupled with an innate need for collecting things, and then ballooned into something else: first, a completist’s desire to have all the nations in the world represented in my collection, and then later, to possess the most obscure and the most valuable.
I still remember my earnest weekly rituals of soaking scissored pieces of envelopes in basins of water to safely remove the stamps on them, and then overnight drying them on towels spread over the dining table.
In grade school, my daily allowance was five pesos, and I’d carefully budget it so that I had enough left over to purchase one packet of stamps from a certain school supplies store along what was then Alfonso XIII Street in Dumaguete.
Over time my collection became immense and included various stamp albums that accommodated first-day covers, and several that housed really old European stamps. I know for sure that some of those were of immense value. These albums came with me as I transferred from the family house to a rented bachelor’s pad in Tubod, along with my library of books and movies on videotape. This is to say that my independent living came saddled with so many things, often without the necessary space to accommodate them all. Sometimes there was only a space on the floor to house them.
One day I hired to clean my pad a couple of people my mother had recommended—and in my absence during the cleanup, they threw away the plastic bags on the floor containing my stamp albums, thinking they were trash. I found out about it too late, and by then the whole collection I’d assembled over the years was probably in the city dumpsite.
I felt myself go numb. My recourse was resignation to the fact at hand: no berating of the cleaners would bring back those precious stamps—and if I had asked them to pay for the damages, would they be able to pay the sum I’d be quoting? Probably not.
“Those are just things,” I told myself.
Are those things just ‘things’?
This was my first real lesson in letting go.
* * *
About four years ago, in that pad in Tubod I still live in, termites suddenly appeared out of the blue. I’d been living in the same apartment for years, and have weathered all kinds of housekeeping catastrophe: rats and shrews that scurry about in infuriating boldness, ravenous ants that ate through electric wirings and nearly caused a fire, molds, and several floods that ravaged furniture and books and papers. But termites are something else.
They are a menace of quiet devastation—and they know just how to keep themselves invisible for so long until their presence can no longer be denied. Books and things on your shelves that look normal on the surface soon, upon touching, turn out to be hollow and riddled with dirt on the inside—eaten by these tiny, hungry beasts.
I used to have two magazine stacks, one near my front door where I kept dailies and magazines I planned to throw out, and one near my bedroom where I kept magazines and periodicals I’d published in. One day I noticed that the stack near the front door had odd shades of dirt about them, and when I looked closer, I was shocked to see that termites had made the entire stack a full architecture of hardened mud. All those newspapers and magazines were lost in a mishmash of paper and dirt, and there was no saving them. Then I found the same thing with my second stack—but I was lucky enough to rescue most of the publications that featured my stories and essays. Termites feel like a lottery you don’t want to participate in.
Have you ever cleared out a termite mound inside your house? It is a task not for the faint-hearted—flecks of dirt fly everywhere, and the hardened mud is difficult to dislodge, and when you finally do, you have to contend with your squimishness of having to see the white little bodies of termites suddenly going frantic everywhere. They swarm. When they get to you, their bites feel like tiny scissors nipping at you. But they die easily once exposed to air—and after I shower them with the toxic mist of Baygon. Their corpses leave terrible marks on the floor.
Ever since that initial encounter, I have waged many battles with them. They’ve taken to many of my books, and they break my heart.
They ate my one precious hardbound volume of all of Shakespeare’s plays, and the hardbound collected fiction of Edgar Allan Poe. They’ve eaten my Salman Rushdies, my Lorrie Moores, my David Mitchells. They ate the Bible my mother gave me. They began eating my treasured copy of Gardner’s Art Through the Ages—a hefty volume I paid top yen for when I studied in Japan—but discovered the damage early enough to salvage the book. They devoured most of my collection of gay literature [which I collected while writing my MA thesis]. They’ve mostly left my Filipiniana collection alone—until last week, when I discovered them munching on all of my Jessica Zafras, all of my Menchu Aquino Sarmientos, one or two Krip Yusons, and was beginning to wreak havoc on my Eliza Victorias.
For a bibliophile and writer like me, losing my book collection in increments like this is an exercise of sustained loss. I used to grieve every title lost. Now I cage my heart when I have to throw another beloved book into the trash.
They’re only books
, I tell myself.
The art of losing is learning to delude yourself.
* * *
Letting go can be a painful part of life. But according to Buddhism, we must learn to let go, to banish away attachment and desires—if we are to experience happiness. This does not mean we are not to be without care. We can care for people, we can care for things—but the experience of life is that we can love all things without clinging to them for survival.
“You can only lose what you cling to,” the Buddha famously said.
The Vietnames monk Thich Nhat Hanh also once said, “Letting go gives us freedom, and freedom is the only condition for happiness. If, in our heart, we still cling to anything—anger, anxiety, or possessions—we cannot be free.”
But it’s not just the Buddhists who believe this. Seneca, the Roman philosopher, once said: “The greatest loss of time is delay and expectation, which depend upon the future. We let go the present, which we have in our power, and look forward to that which depends upon chance, and so relinquish a certainty for an uncertainty.”
I’m still trying to learn from their wise words.
The art of losing is philosophy put to heartbreaking practice.
* * *
But I also wish all varieties of loss could be rehearsed this way.
My friend Ruby lost her father to COVID-19 on January 23 this year—and there is no rehearsing that kind of loss, even in the middle of a pandemic. “It was fast,” she told us. “He was already recovering but then things happened—and the next thing we knew, we never got to see him again. He was isolated for more than a week before he was brought to the hospital.”
I could only imagine the tyranny of this loss like how it unfolded in the very beginning of the pandemic—when the world locked down in 2020 and we were given snippets of how it was in the various epicenters of the consuming disease: stricken parents and grandparents separated and then isolated from their families, their sole connection perhaps only through grainy video chats via smartphones and iPads—and no possibilities of real goodbyes when the end came to claim them, their bodies zipped up in bags and soon dispatched to crematoriums without funerals.
I’ve lost some friends and associates, too, to the virus—but their demise is too surprising for our own rehearsals of losing them. There is no rehearsing the fact that Em Mendez will no longer be writing plays. There is no rehearsing the fact that Domini Torrevillas will no longer be writing her columns. There is no rehearsing the fact that Fr. Gilbert Luis Centina III will no longer be writing his poems.
The names of people we’ve lost continue to mount though.
Is this a kind of rehearsal?
But there is no rehearsing the pain—or is there? There is only learning to be numbed and to be accepting of what has come and what loss we have to bear—or can we? Eventually you and I can learn to let go—but I know that beyond the acceptance, there is still learning to contend with the ghosts.
Labels: coronavirus, life, love, mental health
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