The art of losing

Farewell, friend

Well, the move is over. I live in a different house now. I have woken up for the last four days and said, “This is where you live,” and tried to make sense of that. For someone who identifies so strongly with her home, moving feels more like the end of a relationship than a mere relocation. I left a house I still loved because we just couldn’t make it work. She was perfect for me — but she wasn’t, really, because Mark and I couldn’t afford her without a third housemate, and after our third third housemate left on bad terms we just couldn’t stomach trying again. But my brain compartmentalizes the bad experiences with housemates, and I remember the house as practically perfect.

I’m grieving her right now. She was a place of deep healing for me, and a gift to both Mark and me as we left the community where we’d lived for years. We both see our four years there as that — a gift, a place of beauty and rest. I want to open up my heart to my new house, new beauties, new healing, but first I need to grieve and to let go. I need to learn again the art of losing.

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.
This poem by Elizabeth Bishop has been in my head and heart a lot these last few months. I feel really grateful for so many things in my life, but I’ve lost a lot of things, too. My health, or at least the illusion that I was healthy. My dream of a husband and children. The house in Maine where I spent my teenage years and thought my parents would live out the rest of their lives. My dream of a job in ministry.

The photo on the left is the exact moment I realized I was going to lose my couch, the place I’ve rested and written for more than three years. It wouldn’t fit up the stairs at our new place. It’s an art to let go, to say, yes, this is sad, terribly sad but it isn’t a disaster. It’s the rhythm of life to gain and lose, gain and lose, homes and couches, relationships and loved ones, the illusion of something you thought was true but never was. It’s something you need to learn, and practice, like the poem says. Start small, accept the loss of the the cover of your Pyrex container, which was probably thrown out in the paper towels it was packed in. Move on to the lampshade you really liked which fell out of the moving van. Then accept that the jade plant that fell over in the car on Monday, then fell off the windowsill on Tuesday, is probably too top-heavy to live very long in this world no matter how hard you try.

I woke up this morning in my new apartment feeling like I’d rushed into this relationship. I still love my old house  — what was I doing with this new one? I should be homeless for a while first, find myself. But of course I have to live somewhere. So I’m trying to find a balance between allowing myself to be sad and focusing on the positive. There are many beautiful things about this new place. I think of Maggie Smith’s beautiful poem Good Bones, in which the house is a metaphor, but the literal applies to me right now:

Any decent realtor,
walking you through a real shithole, chirps on
about good bones: This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful.

It’s not a shithole here, but it’s not as nice as our old place, my old love. But I can make it beautiful. Making spaces beautiful is a gift of mine, both physical spaces and emotional ones. I know how to transform experiences into stories, suffering into redemption. I’m doing it now with this post.

Still, when I woke up this morning and told myself, “This is your new home,” it didn’t feel true. It felt nonsensical. I puttered around unpacking and cleaning, but it wasn’t working, at least not much.  I thought of One Art, and I thought of Good Bones and the poems helped. Then I opened Twitter and someone had shared another poem, called What You Missed that Day You Were Absent from Fourth Grade by Brad Aaron Modlin. One of the things he mentioned in his beautiful poem was

— and how to believe
the house you wake in is your home.

This makes complete sense. It was the day I was absent in fourth grade, probably when I broke my wrist roller skating. Other people know how to do this, those who showed up punctually for class in the red-bricked grammar school. But of course, Modlin is kidding, that wasn’t taught in fourth grade or anywhere else, just like “how not to squirm for sound when your own thoughts / are all you hear;” was not taught. We have to figure it out ourselves. But the poem told me that Modlin also has woken up in a new house, and told himself, “This is your new home,” and had trouble believing it. Other people have had, and are having, the same experience as me. I am not alone. That’s where the transformation is to be found; that’s where the redemption is to be found.

So I put down the boxes and mop, and open my computer, and write to you here.

***

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Summer in the city

Last summer I was job hunting for the whole summer, and this summer I’ve been apartment hunting, packing, and soon moving and unpacking. Because of the nature of nannying I’ll probably be job hunting next summer since the little boy I care for will be old enough to start preschool next fall.

Facebook showed me a memory from a year ago today: It was 96 degrees, and I still didn’t have a job after months of searching. I was at Cafe Nero getting an iced coffee to help cope with the heat, and chatting with the barista.

My barista said he wished he had a sprinkler.

“I feel like it’s asking too much to wish for a pool,” he said, stamping my frequent drinker card, “but I think wishing for a sprinkler is reasonable.”

“Yes!” I said, “I bet you have enough magic in you to materialize a sprinkler!”

His eyes lit up. “I do!” he said, “I really think I do!”

Today the temps will only hit the high eighties, breaking a three-day 90+ streak. I tried to pack during the hot afternoon yesterday and got a splitting headache, so I rested and drank glass after glass of ice water — and a couple of iced coffees of course. Yesterday was my first day back home after cat-sitting for the ten days, driving between two houses every morning and evening to take care of three cats, and spending the night with one of them, an American Bobtail whose owner didn’t want him to be alone for too long. The cat, Tucker, and I, spent each night negotiating how close he could sleep to his preferred position on my face. I had cat hair all over me every morning, and the dusty ammonia smell four boxes of kitty litter clung to my clothes. I cried when I said goodbye.

This morning my head still hurts, and my long moving to-do list has been compressed to two days since I didn’t get much done yesterday. But Mark is driving up today to help. He’s still in Connecticut after going down for the weekend four months ago. His mom fell and broke her arm, then his grandmother got sick and died, then his family visited from the Middle East, and next week he’s dog-sitting himself in Connecticut for his sister’s new puppy. He hasn’t slept here since March. For three months I lived with just our third housemate who wasn’t speaking to me — no words, literally, even when I spoke directly to her — then for the past month or so it’s been just me here, filling up boxes, taping them shut, and piling them up wherever I can find space.

I went from living with one of my best friends, to living with someone whose wordless anger radiated out to me, to living with furry creatures who wanted to be as close as possible, to back alone. In two weeks the move will be over, Mark will be back to stay, and I’ll be living with one of my best friends again, in a two bedroom this time without the angry third housemate. It’s a nice apartment on the third floor of a triple-decker, so it will probably be pretty hot in August. I’ll have to make sure I have plenty of ice water and iced coffee to get me through. And God only knows what next summer will bring. But only God ever knows, whether it’s a quick weekend visit that turns into four months, or a seemingly nice housemate that turns sour overnight. God only knows, but I make my plans as best as I can without that knowledge — sign my lease and my job contracts, fall in love with the apartment and with the kids and the cats, knowing I’ll have to say goodbye one day. Still it helps to know that God knows, even if I don’t.

***

Okay, back to my to-do list. How are you all doing this summer? I’d love to hear from you.

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On moving and moving on

A couple of months ago Mark and I had a falling out with our third housemate, and decided to look for a two bedroom apartment. For those of you who don’t know, Mark is my good friend and long-time housemate. We lived in an intentional Christian community together for several years, and four years ago moved into a three-bedroom apartment and have been renting out the third bedroom. It was a good plan, I think. We needed to leave the community, and our incomes are both on the low side, and this way we’ve been able to rent out the larger bedroom and pay a little bit less.

I was in the Christian community for seven years, and it was a hard seven years. In many ways it was a toxic environment for me, though despite that (and maybe a little bit because of it) those were years of a lot of inner growth. But it was a community, a family, and hard as it was I was scared to leave, to go off on my own. I was so scared I kept putting it off, year after year, crisis after crisis, until the time came when the decision was taken out of my hands and I had to leave. Mark and I started looking for three bedrooms. We trekked around Boston with realtor after realtor and saw some awful places. Tiny apartments, filthy apartments, bizarrely shaped apartments. It was extremely demoralizing, and the days until we had to move were ticking down. Then we found this place.

This house, where we’ve been for the past four years — it’s gorgeous. It’s spacious and sunny, up on a hill on a tree-lined street, with two porches, a great view, and rabbits living in the back yard for crying out loud. The third bedroom is actually two rooms spanning the whole third floor, so we were able to rent that out at a higher rate than we paid for our bedrooms. I have no idea how it was in our price range, or how we were the only viable applicants. Just to add to the drama and the miraculousness of it all, the landlords didn’t accept our application at first but decided to have another open house — and no one showed up! So at the eleventh hour, just days before we had to leave the community, we signed a lease for Primrose Street.

This house has been such a place of healing for me. After years of struggling in the community and being afraid to leave I found myself spending glorious solitary hours sitting on my porch watching the sun set over the hills as the birds sang in the trees all around me. I rolled out my yoga mat in the large, wood-paneled living room, in front of the working fireplace, and felt my body healing as I stretched. In the winter I chopped garlic and onions, potatoes and carrots in the kitchen and filled the house with the smell of hearty soups. I bought viney plants and watched them slowly take over mantles and bookshelves. I chatted with Mark in the evening, grateful to have a friend to talk to and grateful when we went to our separate corners of the house, introverts respectful of each other’s need for solitude. I’d been so scared to leave, and look where I’d landed. My heart rose up with the words of the Psalms:

Lord, you alone are my portion and my cup;
    you make my lot secure.
The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;
    surely I have a delightful inheritance.

I felt God’s message to me in my very bones: “Don’t be afraid.” As Frederick Buechner has so beautifully expressed it in his definition of grace: “Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.”

But almost as soon as we’d moved in here I knew there would come a time when we’d have to leave, and I knew it would be really hard. I thought that time would be when our landlords decided to move into the house themselves, since that was their long term plan for the place. But after this last experience of disagreements and miscommunication with the third housemate, Mark and I both agree that we don’t want to have to keep finding and coping with a third person. For even as the house has been such a wonderful place of quiet and healing, there have been conflicts and struggles with our various third housemates. Beautiful and terrible things seem to always come together, don’t they?

It was a hard decision, but I know it is the right one. And I don’t want to be afraid of moving on to the next thing. I was afraid for so long before, and then when I wouldn’t take the leap of faith myself I was pushed, and landed somewhere wonderful. I don’t want to be afraid again. I want to trust that the same Spirit that led me here will lead me to the next place.

And now, right now as I type, we are in the eleventh hour again. We’ve given notice here for June 30th and we haven’t found a new place yet. We thought we found something but it fell through yesterday afternoon. Today is June 16th, officially less than half a month till we have to be out of here. Two weeks, if you prefer things in tidy sets of seven. Mark is in Connecticut helping with his grandmother’s funeral preparations. Right when things got crazy here with our housemate Mark’s mom broke her arm and his grandmother started failing, so he’s been down there for three months now while I try to handle things up here. We’re both struggling with health issues both chronic and acute. Everything seems to be happening at once.

Last night, in the midst of all of this, some good friends from my days in the community came to visit. They are a family of five and one of the things that made it so hard to leave the community, and I’ve greatly missed popping next door to hang out in their kitchen, or Shima stopping by for some of the iced coffee I always had on hand, or the kids knocking on my bedroom door to tell me about their adventures. They sat in my kitchen last night, amidst the moving boxes, and we caught up. They had just bought a house in Atlanta, and Steven shared with me how impossible everything had seemed. He’d applied for a promotion with a pay raise that he wasn’t sure he’d get, they’d been living in a rented house far too small for them, and buying a house seemed out of the question.

“All these pieces had to come together and it seemed impossible,” Steven said, “And I prayed and said, ‘God, you’ve got to make this happen, because it’s not something I can do. It’s all in your hands.'” And they did come together, all of them.

“Yeah!” I said. “That’s how it is for us, now. But you know, it’s better this way, because we see the reality of the situation. Everything is in God’s hands, but the people with all the money and resources don’t realize it. They think they’re in control, but that’s just an illusion.”

“Right,” said Steven, “Exactly.”

I’d been stressed out when they said they’d texted to say they were coming by last night, because everything was happening at once: We’d gotten word of that one apartment falling through just as I was loading the toddler I nanny into the car to pick up his sister from kindergarten, and Mark and I were trying to communicate about maybe appealing the decision and next steps if that didn’t happen. But what a blessing to spend time with old friends from the community I’d been so scared to leave, to hear how God had provided for them, and to exchange words of encouragement and hope. Shima said she’d pray for me, and I felt confident that God would hear her.

And how wonderful to have evidence of God’s redemption in the flesh, old friends who had been through the hard times with me, who have had hard times themselves, to embrace each other with forgiveness and love. Turns out I hadn’t left community behind — it came with me, and it will come with me on this move, too. I will set my viney plants on other mantles, roll my yoga mat out on other floors, and other birds will sing on other trees outside of other windows. There will be beauty, and there will be pain, because life always has both mixed together. I don’t want to be afraid.

***

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