Lost

“There is no real way to deal with everything we lose.” Joan Didion, Where I Was From

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I thought of this sentence when earlier this year I read about the sorry destruction of the Hotel Okura in Tokyo, “renovation” so misguided that even the eternal developer’s quest for greater return on square foot investment seemed inept, flatfooted, even heretical. The Okura’s demise made me sad in ways well removed from the reality that I was unlikely ever to return to its perfect ‘60’s elegance—one of the most elegant expressions of that period ever designed. Over a three-year period I had stayed at the Okura maybe twenty times. These were the years of the unraveling of my former marriage, the deconstruction of a life I realized with disillusionment was built on soggy wetland, never the bedrock idealized in my imagination. Japan was an escape, and the Okura was the dream made physical, a place where home was seven thousand miles away.

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There’s a scene in Lost in Translation where Bill Murray is sitting alone in his Tokyo hotel room at night, his own marriage failing, receiving a fax from his wife back in the States. More than distance separates them. He could be on Mars. The extreme foreignness, strangeness, of Japan is both disorienting and liberating. I’ve been there, felt that, too. It’s a place where I once was…literally so, since I, too, have stayed at the Tokyo Park Hyatt where the movie was filmed, sat alone in the top floor bar, drinking too many fine sakes, swimming off my heavy head in the crystal pool early in the morning. Another world in another world, far far away.

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The Hotel Okura as I knew it is gone; I no longer travel to Japan; that marriage is over; that job is over. That time of my life is over. I’ve “moved on” as the narrative demands. Life improved.

 

We lose many things in our lives. We lose umbrellas, hats, pens, everyday things that don’t amount to much. Some things we lose are inevitable: childhood, pets, grandparents, parents in their time. We grieve for these losses, absorb them into our lives and transform their absence into a different reality. The dead remain with us.

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We lose tiny pieces of our past, too, like losing pieces from a favorite jigsaw puzzle. We remember what the picture looked like, but that patch of blue sky is missing. Places and people come and go, many without consequence. I’m thinking today of a few that my memory of them comes laden with meaning—memories of times and places that stand out in soft relief from the background noise of otherwise uneventful days.

 

I remember when I moved back to New York from Australia and discovering that once-favorites places were gone: the Russian Tea Room; Copenhagen, where I used to go every May 17th, which happened to be Norwegian Independence Day; the sublime Honmura-An closed, its owner needing to return to Japan to run his deceased father’s restaurant; Patina Antiques, the tiny eccentric shop on Bleecker Street where I’d found many treasures. The shop had been robbed, the owner’s young partner murdered. The shy owner committed suicide the next day: a local tragedy, mostly unnoticed. A pair of brass candlesticks in the shape of coral branches with a trio of turtles at each base sit on my dining room table today as a kind of memento mori of that place, that time.

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Lost friendships cut deep grooves in our lives. Some friends are tied to a specific time, blossom there and then fade when that time passes. Some friends die. Some friendships end in unexplained ruptures. I once had a friend who on our first time alone told me that people come into our lives, “for a reason, for a season or for a lifetime.” The lesson from that friendship was never bank on one outcome–and indeed the actual outcome from that friendship proved more profound and life-changing than the once hoped for outcome. Again, the narrative demanded “moving on” and moving on was good.

Loss can be a matter of perspective, too. Here today, gone tomorrow, we grow older, our children grow up, something new replaces something old, chapter after chapter. It’s a process. I guess that’s called living a life.

I don’t know whether my life has been any more episodic that the next person’s. I can construct a storyline, dots connected by an unbroken line. It makes sense in a fractured way. Sometimes, though, the story comes unglued and I wonder did I really do that, was I really there, then? I think about my life in terms of geography, time and place being inseparable: Pittsburgh, Maine, Dublin, Dutchess County, New York, Barcelona, Singapore, Australia, Paris, Japan, Westchester, San Francisco. A life’s itinerary. Heraclitus observed that the man who looks at a river isn’t the same man who steps into that river. I think I can say that stepping into each of my life’s many rivers has been an expansive experience, that the man I am today is a bigger man than the one seeing life in old Berkshire orchards, or driving alone to breathe the soft evening air settling over that long ago battlefield at Roncevalles. Those were dreamy times, disconnected from even the reality I was living then.

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Time out of time; there appears to be a pattern. A doctor once told me a story of asking a noted psychology professor whether the pain of heartbreak would ever go away. The professor replied, no, but that we grow bigger and the pain becomes a small thing, not without consequence but lacking the sting it once had.

 

The way we deal with what we lose is to continue, like running a marathon (so I hear), one foot stepping out ahead of the other until the end. Joan Didion often quotes a young surviving member of the ill-fated Donner Party, who wrote as advice to others making the cross-country journey, “Don’t take no cut-offs and hurry along as fast as you can.” I didn’t follow that advice, though. I’ve taken many cut-offs and progress has often been slow. I’ve rarely hurried anywhere.

 

Time becomes memory, too. Without memory, there isn’t any concept of time. Memory of the world we knew—“of any balm or beauty of the earth”—is all the divinity we seek.

 

We live in an old chaos of the sun,
Or old dependency of day and night,
Or island solitude, unsponsored, free,
Of that wide water, inescapable.
Deer walk upon our mountains, and the quail
Whistle about us their spontaneous cries;
Sweet berries ripen in the wilderness;
And, in the isolation of the sky,
At evening, casual flocks of pigeons make
Ambiguous undulations as they sink,
Downward to darkness, on extended wings.

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