The Art of Losing

“The art of losing isn’t hard to master;

so many things seem filled with the intent

to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster

of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.

The art of losing isn’t hard to master.”

From “One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop

In the last year, we have all practiced the art of losing: we have lost being with family and friends, lost a bit of our independence, lost time.  We’ve become pretty good at it, actually. I’ve been reflecting a lot on the last year as I recently celebrated my second Pandemic Birthday. Soon, my wife and I will celebrate our second Pandemic Anniversary.

April is National Poetry Month, so I’ve been revisiting a lot of poetry – Elizabeth Bishop is a favorite, and I’ve always loved “One Art.” From the relative safety of our homes, it’s been hard to watch so much disaster all around us while we lived happily during the pandemic – I’m borrowing from Ilya Kaminsky here and his poem “We Lived Happily During the War.” (By the way, Ilya Kaminsky will be our featured poet at the 13th annual Blackbird Poetry Festival later this month.) It is true though – my wife and I have been more or less content during the pandemic. We have each other, and work keeps us busy; I’ve practiced guitar a lot. We’ve read and re-read books. Netflix has kept us pretty entertained – we resisted Tiger King but watched every bit of Bridgerton, rewatched all of The Office. Our dogs love having us constantly with them, especially our senior chihuahua who takes up his perch every day on the couch in my wife’s office while she teleworks, unwitting guest star of all her virtual meetings. We miss our friends, but we have done Zoom happy hours (which got old fast), we’ve missed our families, we’ve missed baseball games and theater and going out to a nice dinner inside a restaurant. But none of this has been a disaster; I think that is because we knew that staying home, practicing social distancing (avoiding the politics of it all and following the science), and waiting for and then taking the vaccine as soon as it was ready was the only way to get back to normal again. And normal is worth waiting for.

I’ve also reflected a lot on what I cannot bear to lose and who cannot bear to lose me. I cannot bear to lose my wife, so it was kind of an emotional thing to get our vaccines together and know that we’ve done what we can do. I cannot bear to lose my family, so I pray every day for their safety. Same with my friends – I rejoice every time I see those updates that another one has gotten the vaccine – I high-five the air. I miss my students and my campus and can’t wait to walk across the quad again, write on a whiteboard, see a student in office hours. I feel hope’s feathers growing inside me a bit more every day.

There is another side of this too. I have no intent to be lost; I have a responsibility not to be lost. I know that my wife cannot bear to lose me – having lost her parents already, I cannot leave her alone in this life, so there was no question at all that I would get the vaccine immediately. No question that until it was available I would do anything and everything I could to make her feel safe. I don’t think my mom could bear to lose me either – having lost one child already, this would be a disaster. There isn’t much – there isn’t anything – that isn’t worth delaying to keep them from feeling that loss.

A year ago, I wrote a blog post on my birthday, and 1001 American lives had been lost to COVID on that day. Just over a year later, that number is an astonishing 553,000 and counting. That really is unbelievable except that we’ve been watching it unfold day by day. It’s hard to emotionally, mentally fight against all of this loss – but we have to. We all have people who can’t bear to lose us. Spring feels so much different this year than last. Renewal seems possible, but only if we act on our intent not to be lost. I can’t wait to see you all again someday soon.

Sign of the Times

“Breaking through the atmosphere
And things are pretty good from here
Remember everything will be alright”

from “Sign of the Times” by Harry Styles

Dear Reader,

So to celebrate my birthday this year, I don’t get to go out, but I do get to choose whatever I want to watch on television. Thank goodness for Netflix and HBO and Prime Video. I choose not to watch the news where deaths due to the coronavirus (as of this writing) are approaching 1500 in the US. When I woke up yesterday, 1001 people had died from this pandemic in our country. In the time it took me to put on my socks – literally – 1005 people had died. We are nowhere near the end of this catastrophe. These are strange days.

If anything, the last 2 weeks of sitting in my house have made me feel incredibly grateful. I’m grateful for my job – as a college professor, the beat goes on, and I know I’ll still be working/teaching even as we struggle as a country to get our feet back under us. I feel grateful for my college and how they are working to try and help students and instructors meet the unprecedented demands this crisis presents. I am painfully aware of the work and childcare challenges that some of my family and friends face and the difficult choices they have to make. I’m grateful for good health, the safety of home, and for technology that allows me to stay connected to family and friends, to check in and have a sense of normalcy in this abnormal state. I’m blessed to have a wonderful wife and best friend who I’m glad to spend a lot of time with. And I am grateful for friends who send birthday wishes, gifts via Amazon, gift cards for wine delivery, and the beautiful yellow box of cookies left on the doorstep, with my friends who delivered them standing at an acceptable social distance on the sidewalk to wish me a happy birthday. A sign of the times.

A sign of the times

All of this also has me thinking of what we owe to each other. This is also the title of a book about ethics by T. M. Scanlon. If you’re a fan of “The Good Place” on NBC, you might have heard the ethics professor, Chidi, refer to this book from time to time. Scanlon’s book is about fairness and responsibility within the social contract we have. The responsibility we owe each other in this time is kind of a paradox: we show our commitment to one another by staying away from one another. We show concern by practicing isolation. By engaging in social distancing, we show how we care for the least among us: the most vulnerable who have underlying health conditions, the elderly who may not be as strong, and the poorest who don’t have access to health care. But the danger isn’t just for these parts of society. It touches all of us, or it will in time.

In describing his idea of the social contract, John Rawls imagined what he called a “veil of ignorance.” It works like this: Think about creating a just and equitable society for everyone. What would make the society fair for you and everyone else? Although you could never eliminate all of your personal biases and prejudices, you should consciously try to eliminate or minimize as many of them as possible. To do this, Rawls suggests that you imagine yourself in what he calls “the original position” behind a veil of ignorance. Behind this veil, you don’t know anything about yourself, your abilities/disabilities, or what money and resources you have. You don’t know your own sex, race, or country of origin. Behind such a veil of ignorance, we start with the same set of attributes: we are all rational, free, and morally equal beings. We all have the same opportunity to rise or fall equally. Rawls and Immanuel Kant and the Bible have this ethos in common: that we should treat everyone as we would want to be treated. It’s not a radical idea, but it is not radically practiced in everyday life.

This is the unique position we find ourselves in. We have to remember now that every choice we make now has a real consequence, and every choice is an opportunity to show the better angels of our nature. The virus that courses among us is no respecter of persons. Movie stars, elite athletes, and politicians are as at-risk as the common man, as at-risk as you and me. How we deal with this moving forward will show our commitment to fairness and equity. This is another sign of the times: in a nation that likes to see ourselves in individual terms, our collective vulnerability is on full display, and like it or not, we depend on each other now to find our way through.

Later today, I expect I’ll make a wish and blow out some candles. Although it is a superstition to keep the wish secret, I’m going to risk it and share that my wish is for all of us to think of each other before or at least equally with ourselves. God Bless America.

 

 

 

© Ryna May 2020