The Art of Losing
A guest essay
It’s a Monday at 10 p.m., and I’m sitting down to edit an essay. I always start with a ritual.
First, a crackling fireplace on YouTube. Second, a song on repeat: this time, Cautious Clay’s “Shook.” Third, a cup of tea. Fourth, a candle. Fifth and final, a tin of theraputty in my lap, something I can knead when I need kinetic movement.
Now: the work.
Tonight’s essay, by Uma Dwivedi, is about how the series Fleabag, with its commentary on how we cope with desire and its avoidance, is indeed a love story, as Fleabag tells her audience in episode one. But it’s also a story, notes Uma, about the particular experience of being trans.
“Fleabag,” writes Uma, “feels evocative of the specific complexities of love and desire when you are trans: repression, the performance of built identity, a distrust of the body and what it wants.” This is early in Uma’s essay, before their elegant description of the show’s finale, that fated moment when the Priest tells Fleabag of her love: it’ll pass.
The frame of Uma’s essay is like an MRI of a body. The sentences surrounding this one give her essay vitality and heft, like blood, like muscle. But this sentence about the complexities of trans love and desire is something more: it speaks to something deeper, something beneath the blood and muscle. This sentence is part of the heart of this piece.
We’re not ready for the weight of this yet, I think.
I want to suggest moving it, but where? I scan the essay again, and I see it: there, just after the description of the scene. It’ll pass.
The sentence teases out the emotional nuance in the priest’s words and introduces the seeds of Uma’s ideas about religion. I comment: I think we have the seeds of this here, but we need a specific transition between this and the next paragraphs where you move back to religion - this is one of the other reasons I moved this paragraph here. I think it gives a great start to that transition.
I’m confident Uma will write more to facilitate this transition. I move the sentence, and it slides into the necessary place like a heart into a chest cavity.
I like to joke that I’m an editor with x-ray vision. When I edit a piece of writing, I see through the skin and the muscle to the vulnerable heart of it. I understand the gravity and responsibility of this, so I have rules of engagement: treat the work with tenderness and empathy. Be rigorous; pare the excess back and leave the heart beating. Ask questions to encourage the writer to make that heart more visible.
I’ve worked hard to hone these rules, this skill over the years. And as I’ve honed, I’ve discovered that part of what makes me good at this work is that I’m very good at losing things.
A brief list of things I’ve lost since my divorce in 2019:
one house, which now belongs to my ex-husband;
one rental property, which my sister asked me to move out of;
dozens of friends;
every cap to every tube of toothpaste;
my job as a university teaching assistant and my health insurance;
the indentation in my finger where my wedding ring used to rest;
all retirement and savings;
two sets of keys;
a ruby ring my mother gave me;
half of my marital property;
the wolf spider who made a habit of camping out above my bedside lamp;
one partner, who told me he’d spend the rest of his life with me;
five unmatched socks;
hours and hours of sleep.
In November 2020, days after my former partner broke up with me, I sat in the middle of the bed in the room I’d moved back into at my parents’ house, and I wrote this list. I watched the leaves fall from the trees. I curled up in the bed and hugged my knees to my chest, and I cried. Outside, there was a pandemic. Inside, there was no one I could trust to comfort me. For a while, I believed I’d lost nearly everything.
I keep this list on the Notes app on my phone. I’ve never shared it with anyone. For months, every time I looked at it, I felt ashamed at the things I couldn’t hold onto, at the things I obsess over, at the things other people have that I don’t.
When I started this list, one thought kept me going: I may not have much but I have my writing. I’ve written my way through a lot of difficult things. I can write my way through this. And so I started this essay. At the time, I felt helpless, like writing about it was the only measure of control I had. I told myself I would write the particulars of every loss, chronicle every single pain, so people could understand the magnitude of what happened to me.
Fitting that, just like our lives, our writing often doesn’t turn out the way we intended.
I’m taking a break from editing Uma’s essay, and my “To Do” list tells me I’m supposed to be writing this one. But this essay is killing me. I can’t focus, and it’s partly because of the news I just received. This morning, I was officially diagnosed with ADHD. I’ve suspected it for a while: my difficulty with impulse shopping; my struggle to stay organized; the way that writing and editing both operate more smoothly when I set them to a soundtrack because I need the beat to harness my mind. But now the diagnosis is real, and so is my anger. I’m 44 years old. I’ve managed my entire life without treatment, including completing a PhD. It didn’t occur to a single person in my life that I was neurodivergent. I think of the trick I unknowingly played on people for all those years, all the ways I learned to cope and kept it together: all the rigid schedules I kept, all the lists, all the late-night ruminations as I lay in bed in the dark for hours, worrying about what I’d missed. Because I’m a hard worker, most of the people in my life presumed my competence and even sometimes my perfection. And the problem with that presumption is that when you are a woman—high-achieving, hard on herself, a perfectionist who is anything but perfect—who one day finds her ability to project perfection has sputtered out, who finds herself scraping bottom and realizing there’s no competence left, the people around you don’t assume that you need help, because you’ve never really needed help before. They assume that your mechanics have malfunctioned, and so nearly overnight you morph from supermom to fuckup, to hot mess, to deeply flawed. And then you realize that the only trick you’ve played is on yourself.
And of course, this is the first thing my brain tells me: here’s another loss for the list.
But I know this is my brain’s way of coping—catastrophizing and distraction—and when it’s looping like this, there are few ways to center it and direct it towards strategy. I go for an old reliable: I read Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art” for the thousandth time. For years, I had this poem posted on the wall above my office desk but I haven’t had a place of my own for over a year now. I carry the poem with me. I run my eyes over it, prodding its gaps and its wrinkles, looking for the places where I can insert myself. Sometimes I need to wear it like a skin, to remind myself that loss is familiar, that I am now better able to manage how I lose things.
I’m not a Bishop scholar, but I’ve started reading scholarly articles and essays about her. It’s become a habit after I read the poem. It calms me. Today, I start with Brett Candlish Miller, who tells me Bishop wrote “One Art” in 17 drafts over the course of two weeks in late October and early November 1975. Miller notes that the poem—which is believed to be inspired by the death by suicide of Bishop’s partner Lota de Macendo Soares as well as Alice Methfessel, Bishop’s companion, caretaker, secretary, and lover for the last eight years of her life—shifts focus during the drafting process. Initially, it focuses on the speaker’s need to choose, but by the final revision, “the poet lets go of her need to choose” and the poem only offers resolution.
“More than once in the drafts of Elizabeth Bishop’s poems,” Miller writes, “one finds that she came to express in the final draft nearly the opposite of what she started out to say.”
I wonder if this peace, this sense of resolution, has anything to do with the vastness of Bishop’s losses, and so I read Claudia Roth Pierpoint next. The first loss, says Pierpoint, was Bishop’s father when she was eight months old. The second was her mother, destroyed by the loss of her husband, to a mental institution. Bishop was then transported from her home in Nova Scotia to her father’s home in Massachusetts and raised by his parents.
“It seemed then that she had lost a country, too,” says Pierpoint.
What it must feel like to lose a country, to lose a love that felt as big as one, I think, and then I remind myself: I’m not the only one with a list of losses. We’ve all lost two cities, lovely ones. Two rivers. A continent. A person, that gesture that we love. Gone.
In the second draft of Uma’s essay, they’ve made an addition. “The Priest,” they write, “is trying to convince himself that he will survive the self-imposed restriction of his desire for human love and happiness. He is trying to convince himself that any indecorous bulging or bleeding of his own heart will pass simply because it must, because he has left himself no other choice.”
When I read this, the curtain I pulled shut across my marriage is pulled clean open, and I see myself—intractable, nailed to that misery, relishing it in a way, because it was so much easier to martyr myself than to do the hard work of searching for happiness—and I have to shelve my editorial eye for a moment. Part of the reason I’m grappling so much with loss now is because for a long time, I held on to things—a marriage, friendships, jobs, visions of the future—far past their natural end. For years I believed that one of the biggest signs of my worth was in my constancy, but I wasn’t constant at all. Most of the time, I was a coward. I couldn’t admit that I was terrified of change. I can feel the creep of tears underneath my lids, at the back of my throat, and I swallow until they disappear.
This too is part of editing with X-ray eyes. Sometimes my beautiful, expansive, wandering brain—the brain that is so bad at executive function but so good at invention and intuition and empathy—finds a sharp pinpoint of pain. Sometimes I read something that sounds like it’s exactly about my losses—which I used to always see as failures—and it hurts me down to the bone. I think of Bishop, how her first sentence, “The art of losing isn’t hard to master,” didn’t change at all in seventeen drafts. How with each reading it must have reminded her of the things that slipped away. How she kept it anyway. I know this is a lesson: sometimes I have to lean into the hurt places, because that too is a kind of centering. Once a hurt place is broken open, I often have to steep in it for a while rather than trying to spackle it over. The only way I can gain any sense of perspective is to submerge myself in the hot liquid center of it and sweat the pain out, to force myself to face every indelicate, embarrassing, irrational instinct I have. Then I can give myself permission to move on.
And sometimes—often, in fact—the pain isn’t at all about me.
I take a break from editing. I read essays about people’s marriages, and I cry. I cry because I’m glad I’m not married anymore but also because I wish I’d had a happy one. I cry too because I know some of the things these people are leaving out.
So many people come into my DMs and whisper to me. One writer came to me four days before her wedding and stayed, and stayed. After a while, she told me she loved me. She told me she was lonely. She told me we could never be together. She said there were parts of her that her spouse would never understand. She puts none of those things in her work.
Another writer came to me and told me how much he misses sex. He told me how hard he’s holding onto his marriage. He told me he hopes opening his marriage will keep it alive and bring sex back to him. He doesn’t put any of that into his work either.
I don’t know why people tell me what they do. Maybe they’re just lonely. Maybe it’s because they know I won’t tell. Whatever the reason, I wish they’d write these things instead because I think it would strengthen their work and help them make sense of whatever they’re struggling with. But I know people are writing the corners and edges of their lives instead of writing the center because the center is too hard, because the center feels lost.
I know because I did it too. I know because sometimes I still do.
In December 2020, I wrote dozens of pages about love and loss for this essay, most of them terrible. I stared for hours out at the snow. I saved pictures of beautiful dresses I wasn’t sure I’d ever be able to afford, which didn’t matter, because I wasn’t sure I’d ever be able to wear them anywhere. I applied for jobs. I took on freelance editing projects to keep a slow trickle of money coming in. I only left my bed when I had custodial time with my children. I made a header for my Twitter profile from the last scene in Fleabag between Fleabag and the Priest. I love you. I know. I love you too. It’ll pass.