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From Car Keys To A Loved One, Learning Lessons From Loss

Writer Kathryn Schulz ( @kathrynschulz) lost her car keys. Then her house keys. Then she left her shirt in a café, retrieved it, and left her wallet behind. She found it, and later left it at a bike shop, where she bought a lock, which she lost the next day. And then, she lost her father.

In her new essay in The New Yorker, Schulz writes about loss, the way we process it and the lessons it eventually teaches us. She joins Here & Now‘s Robin Young to talk about the essay, “Losing Streak.”

Interview Highlights

On the streak of losing things referenced in the essay

“The funny thing is, I’m not normally the losing type. I know there are these people for whom losing things is so commonplace that it’s not worthy of remarking on, let alone expending the kind of energy necessary to write half an article about it. But I’m usually fairly organized, and I just had one of these sprees of losing track of things. I think part of that was because I was living in a different place. We aren’t really that organized, we’re just systematic — we put our keys in the same place, and so you know where to go looking for them. So, some of it I think was spatial dislocation. I was just having a little sparring match with the universe.”

On our tendency to lose things

“On the whole, I think the reality is we, a lot of us lead very busy, very distracted, very distractible lives. The kind of positive way of looking at is, ‘Oh my gosh, we walk out of these hectic situations with 99 percent of our belongs with us. It’s not so bad, actually!’ But when the one percent is your cell phone, it’s a really annoying day.”

On the “18-inch rule” when looking for lost items

“Let’s put rule in quotes because I am personally rather suspicious of its robustness. But there’s a common theory out there among people who think about losing material objects. Your first instinct about where to go look is usually the right one, and whatever it is you’re looking for is probably within just a couple of feet of where that was. We’ve all had that experience. You go look in a drawer and it’s not there and you spent 15 minutes turning the house upside down and the thing was in the drawer all along. So, I don’t want to suggest it’s not a very reasonable thing to try when you’ve lost something, but I think ‘rule’ might be a little overstated.”


On the Elizabeth Bishop poem “One Art”

“Yeah, it’s funny, I thought so much about that poem while I was writing this piece. Obviously, in some ways, the poem kind of provides the template for the essay that I wrote, in that both of them start with these kind of trivial losses, or loss of physical objects, and then widen out into real, existential loss. And I love Elizabeth Bishop, but I go back and forth on that poem. I think it’s a work of genius, but to the question of whether small losses prepare us for large ones. No, I think she’s wrong about that, and I think she knows it. It’s very deliberate, it’s very coy. It’s essentially a poem about denial of the big losses. On the other hand, I think she’s exactly right to suggest that loss isn’t a series of one-off incidences. It’s an entire climate, it’s the reality of the world in which we live. It’s lovely and moving and brilliant.”

On writing about her father’s death

“You know, like Elizabeth Bishop, I knew I was yoking together very different kind of losses. It’s a strange thing. I hope a little bit of this comes through in the piece, but my father just had a remarkable sense of humor. He was an incredibly funny man and made everyone around him laugh and has a wonderful laugh. It was actually a real pleasure for me to feel like I could start this piece in this really kind of comedic, sort of, ‘Oh my goodness, aren’t human beings — and myself in particular — ridiculous,’ mode, and then let it become what it was, which is an elegy.”

On the finality of death

“It’s both the most obvious and banal truth about death, and truly the hardest one to wrap your mind around. It is absolute, it is binary, and there is no following someone there. You can walk up to the threshold of it, you can watch it happen. You can be fortunate enough to be in the presence of your loved ones as they are approaching that threshold, but you’re going to get stopped at the door. We’re never writing about death. We’re writing about loss. We’re writing about grief. You can’t write about death, at least in any kind of phenomenological, first-person way. So, all I could do was grapple with the shock of losing someone in a way that, yes, is absolutely unfindable. They’re just gone. And that is so simple and straightforward and fundamental to death. And yet, when you are going through it, it is absolutely astonishing. I still, literally, probably once a day, have the moment of, ‘I can’t believe my father’s not here.’ And I don’t even mean that in a grief stricken way, I mean in a bad moment, it will bring you to your knees. But in the everyday moment it bafflement — ‘I can’t believe he’s not here! This just seems strange.’ It seems, ‘Who designed the world this way? This seems insane.’”

On looking for the presence of someone who’s died

“I was very, I expected after his death to somehow hear from him. Or feel him or just have him be present. And in fact, no, death just went on being death, which is implacable and the absence of being able to feel someone or hear them or reach out and have them reach back. Again, it shouldn’t be a shock. It’s what we all know and understand about death. I shouldn’t say all. Obviously, some people do have the kind of deep faith that sustains them with the sense that people are still there, or still watching. But I do not. And nonetheless, it was shocking to feel as bereft as I did and to feel that his absence was as total as it was.”

On how loss reminds us to cherish what we love

“Truly, the nature of life is that it is a series of losses, and I don’t mean to suggest we don’t also have tremendous, incredible finds. You lose everything. I mean, that’s it. Ultimately, although I believe that, I couldn’t quite rest in that place. I also cherish life, and my father was a great connoisseur of life. And I couldn’t, in his honor, quite rest in that dark of a place.”

“…There’s a kind of being startled into hyper-awareness, a wonderful spur to gratitude and to appreciating what we have in the most active way possible.”

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