Monday, July 7, 2008

The Vacation of Lost Things

Things lose themselves. More and more frequently it seems lately. Or maybe it’s just that the longer we live the more we have had time to misplace. When I think back, I believe I could stock a very nice store with all of my possessions that have gone missing. A favorite blue cashmere sweater. Too many pairs of expensive sunglasses to count. Any number of half-read books, some of them the property of libraries. Single earrings in large numbers. A gold watch chain that belonged to my great grandfather (although that was stolen, so it doesn’t count in the same way.) Not to mention all the umbrellas and pens and subway passes and lipsticks.

Where did all of this stuff go? Perhaps to “the island of lost things,” as in a children’s book of the same name. In any case, they are somewhere, stubbornly elusive, despite in some cases intensive searching. I have been thinking about this lately because my husband and I were recently on the vacation of lost things. Every day there were half a dozen panicky false alarms – the camera, the guidebook, the ferry tickets, the hotel confirmation, all turning out to be safely stowed somewhere.
Among the actually lost items were my notebook, hunted for but never found. (Fortunately I had written most of my notes on odd scraps of paper, and I still had those.) My husband’s watch, probably left on a beach, with no hope of retrieval. And, most seriously, his prescription glasses with their clip-on sunglasses.

We were at a boat ramp helping a friend inflate and launch a rubber raft. At some point the glasses were in the way and Peter distinctly remembered putting them “somewhere semi-safe.” Our friend recalled seeing them in her car. We searched for an hour, tore apart both cars, scoured the ground, inch by inch. They had simply vanished. Finally it was dark and we were forced to give up.

The next day, it seemed the only remaining place to look was in the hidden crevices of the boat, which involved partially deflating it, and removing the wooden floor. Unlikely, but then again, the glasses couldn’t actually have disappeared into thin air. Not there. Then Peter decided to look in the one place we had all agreed they could not possibly be: the water. It took about 20 seconds -- there they were, in five inches of water, immediately beside the boat ramp. We were at the time on a Greek island, where every miracle calls for the building of a commemorative chapel on the spot, but instead we decided to go and get a celebratory beer.

Finding the glasses was very good news, especially under the circumstances. But I couldn’t help imagining that our vacation of lost belongings was a portent of things I would prefer not to think about. Leave it to the poets. One of my favorites, Elizabeth Bishop, perfectly summed this up in a poem called “One Art,” which I include below.

One Art

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.
Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.
I lost my mother's watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.
I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster.
---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.
-- Elizabeth Bishop