The Marginalian Newsletter


This is the weekly email digest of The Marginalian (formerly Brain Pickings) by Maria Popova. If you missed last week’s edition — Nina Simone’s gum and our search for meaning; what makes life worth living in the face of death; an ode to our primeval bond with nature & each other — you can catch up right here. And if my labor of love enriches your life in any way, please consider supporting it with a donation — for more than fifteen years, it has remained free and ad-free and alive (as have I) thanks to reader patronage. If you already donate: I appreciate you more than you know.

Losing Love, Finding Love, and Living with the Fragility of It All

“Fearlessness is what love seeks,” Hannah Arendt wrote in her superb early work on love and loss. “Such fearlessness exists only in the complete calm that can no longer be shaken by events expected of the future… Hence the only valid tense is the present, the Now.”

It is a handsome observation, an elemental truth we might glimpse — and be saved by glimpsing — in those rare moments of pure presence that dissolve all too quickly into what Borges knew to be true of human nature: that time is the substance we are made of.

As creatures made of time, we live in the present and the past and the future all at once, continually shaken by all the fears and hopes, all the anxieties and anticipations, that are the price we pay for our majestic hippocampus — that crowning glory of a consciousness capable of referencing its memories and experiences in the past, capable of projecting its goals and desire into the future, capable of the bleakest despair and of the brightest dreams.

This might be, as Elizabeth Gilbert observed in the wake of losing the love of her life, why love and loss have something elemental in common — each is “a force of energy that cannot be controlled or predicted,” one that “comes and goes on its own schedule… does not obey your plans, or your wishes [and] will do whatever it wants to you, whenever it wants to.”

Out of this arises a basic equation we accept as a function of life, as an echo of the fundamental laws. We accept it unwittingly, or wittingly but unwillingly, but it is an entropic given indifferent to our assent: We love, then we lose. We lose our loved ones — to death or the dissolution of mutuality — or we lose ourselves. (This is also why flowers move us so.)

Vanish by Maria Popova. (Available as a print.)

But if we are lucky enough, if we are are stubborn enough, we love and we lose and then the loss opens us up to more love — different love, because each love is unrepeatable and irreplaceable — on the other side of grief; love unimaginable from the barren landmass of loss, love without which, once found, the world comes to feel unimaginable.

Because these are the two most all-consuming and all-pervading of human experiences, the labels in which we try to classify and contain them are bound to be too small — as with love, so with loss. (This is what Joan Didion captured in her classic observation that “grief, when it comes, is nothing like we expect it to be.”)

All of this, with all of its subtleties, comes alive on the pages of Lost & Found (public library) by Kathryn Schulz — part personal memoir, part existential inquiry into the two great universals of human life.

After hearing herself say “I lost my father last week” — her father, of whom she paints a boundlessly affectionate and admiring portrait as “part Socrates, part Tevye,” a gregarious and godlike figure with “a booming voice, a heavy accent, a formidable mind, a rabbinical beard, a Santa Claus belly, and the gestural range of the Vitruvian Man” — Schulz reflects:

Perhaps because I was still in those early, distorted days of mourning, when so much of the familiar world feels alien and inaccessible, I was struck, as I had never been before, by the strangeness of the phrase. Obviously my father hadn’t wandered away from me like a toddler at a picnic, or vanished like an important document in a messy office. And yet, unlike other oblique ways of talking about death, this one did not seem cagey or empty. It seemed plain, plaintive, and lonely, like grief itself. From the first time I said it, that day on the phone, it felt like something I could use, as one uses a shovel or a bell-pull: cold and ringing, containing within it both something desperate and something resigned, accurate to the confusion and desolation of bereavement.

Art from The Heart and the Bottle by Oliver Jeffers — an illustrated fable about love and loss

She eventually realizes that the etymology of the word is in fact an apt analogue for the experience of loss:

The verb “to lose” has its taproot sunk in sorrow; it is related to the “lorn” in “forlorn.” It comes from an Old English word meaning to perish, which comes from an even older word meaning to separate or cut apart. The modern sense of misplacing an object only appeared later, in the thirteenth century; a hundred years after that, “to lose” acquired the meaning of failing to win. In the sixteenth century we began to lose our minds; in the seventeenth century, our hearts. The circle of what we can lose, in other words, began with our own lives and each other and has been steadily expanding ever since. This is how loss felt to me after my father died: like a force that constantly increased its reach, gradually encroaching on more and more terrain.

The most confounding aspect of grief is its fractal nature — the one great trunk of loss branches and twigs into the trivial, splintering reality into an infinity of losses until we come to look at the world (as that lovely verse by Lisel Mueller goes) “as if what exists, exists so that it can be lost and become precious.” The small things we lose come to feel so precious that we dissolve into tears over the book that fell out of the bicycle basket on the way home, the trivial twig dragging with it the unbearable trunk. It is a universal experience, which Schulz captures with the splendid poetics of her particular mind:

Like a dysfunctional form of love, which to some extent it is, grief has no boundaries; seldom during that difficult fall could I distinguish my distress over these other losses from my sadness about my father.

[…]

This is the essential, avaricious nature of loss: it encompasses, without distinction, the trivial and the consequential, the abstract and the concrete, the merely misplaced and the permanently gone. We often ignore its true scope if we can, but for a while after my father died, I could not stop seeing the world as it really is, marked everywhere by the evidence of past losses and the imminence of future ones.

Moving through her loss at a time when all of us, whatever the nature of our personal losses, were moving together through what scientists have now termed “ecological grief” — a mere century and half after the birth of ecology — she follows the fractal:

The world itself seemed ephemeral, glaciers and species and ecosystems vanishing, the pace of change as swift as in a time-lapse, as if those of us alive today had been permitted to see it from the harrowing perspective of eternity. Everything felt fragile, everything felt vulnerable; the idea of loss pressed in all around me, like a hidden order to existence that emerged only in the presence of grief.

Pressed wildflowers from Emily Dickinson’s herbarium, including species now endangered or extinct.

Because everything does suddenly feel so fragile — or, rather, because loss suddenly reveals that we are indeed “the fragile species” — grief itself becomes a kind of glue with which try to hold together the shattered pieces of our familiar world. In a passage of uncommon insight and sensitivity to what may be the most paradoxical and most underdiscussed aspect of loss, she writes:

Most people, I think, are at least a little afraid of ceasing to grieve. I know that I was. However terrible our sorrow may be, we understand that it is made in the image of love, that it shares the characteristics of the person we mourn. Maybe there was a day in your life when you were brought to your knees by a faded blue ball cap or a tote bag full of knitting supplies or the sound of a Brahms piano concerto… Part of what makes grief so seductive, then, is that it seems to offer us what life no longer can: an ongoing, emotionally potent connection to the dead. And so it is easy to feel that once that bleak gift is gone, the person we love will somehow be more gone, too.

Thus our strange relationship with the pain of grief. In the early days, we wish only for it to end; later on, we fear that it will. And when it finally does begin to ease, it also does not, because, at first, feeling better can feel like loss, too.

Liminal Worlds by Maria Popova. (Available as a print.)

Contemplating how our deepest losses might be so painful “not because they defy reality but because they reveal it,” she adds:

One of the many ways that loss instructs us is by correcting our sense of scale, showing us the world as it really is: so enormous, complex, and mysterious that there is nothing too large to be lost — and, conversely, no place too small for something to get lost there… Like awe and grief, to which it is closely related, loss has the power to instantly resize us against our surroundings; we are never smaller and the world never larger than when something important goes missing.

It is this harsh corrective to our sense of being central, competent, and powerful that makes even trivial losses so difficult to accept. To lose something is a profoundly humbling act. It forces us to confront the limits of our mind… It forces us to confront the limits of our will: the fact that we are powerless to protect the things we love from time and change and chance. Above all, it forces us to confront the limits of existence: the fact that, sooner or later, it is in the nature of almost everything to vanish or perish.

This, of course, collides with the most fundamental feature of our consciousness: its inability to parse its own negatios. Try as we might in the virtual reality of the mind, on some deep animal level, we simply cannot fathom the actuality of nonexistence, the ultimate void, what Emily Dickinson termed “the drift called the infinite.”

Total eclipse of 1878, one of Étienne Léopold Trouvelot’s groundbreaking astronomical drawings. (Available as a print, as stationery cards, and as a face mask.)

Because spacetime is the hammock in which everything exists but consciousness is both made of spacetime and the is loom of our imagination, to imagine the absolute nonexistence of consciousness — another’s, or our own — we must also imagine the total absence of spacetime. Our inability to do that is reflected in our euphemisms for dying: to “pass away,” as if the person is transported to some other place rather than entirely displaced from existence; to “run out of time,” as if time still exists for the dead, a dimension they happen to have directionally vacated along some vector pointing elsewhere.

A nowhere without elsewhere is simply beyond the grasp of human consciousness.

Schulz intuits this, locating that creaturely instinct in the cultural trope of the Valley of Lost Things — one of the seven valleys the protagonists of L. Frank Baum’s 1901 children’s novel Dot and Tot of Merryland visit after a runaway boat carries them away from the Land of Oz. She writes:

Although it often goes by other names, the Valley of Lost Things has haunted our collective imagination for centuries… in every context from autobiography to science fiction.

[…]

Part of the enduring appeal of this imaginary destination is that it comports with our real-life experience of losing things: when we can’t find something, it is easy to feel that it has gone somewhere unfindable. But there is also something pleasing about the idea that our missing belongings, unable to find their rightful owners, should at least find each other, gathering together like souls in the bardo or distant relatives at a family reunion. The things we lose are distinguished by their lack of any known location; how clever, how obviously gratifying, to grant them one… This may be the most alluring aspect of the Valley of Lost Things: it renders the strangeness of the category of loss visible, like emptying the contents of a jumbled box onto the floor. In my mind, it is a dark, pen-and-ink place, comic and mournful as an Edward Gorey drawing: empty clothing drifting dolefully about, umbrellas piled in heaps like dormant bats, a Tasmanian tiger slinking off with Hemingway’s lost novel in its mouth, glaciers shrinking glumly down into their puddles, Amelia Earhart’s Lockheed Electra atilt upon the ground, the air around it filled with the ghosts of nighttime ideas not written down and gone by morning. It is this taxonomically outrageous population, shoes to souls to pterodactyls, that makes the idea of such a place so mesmerizing. Its contents have a unity and meaning based only on the single common quality of being lost, a kind of vast nationality, like “American.”

Art from The Osbick Bird by Edward Gorey

But while the Valley of Lost Things is at bottom sorrowful place — “the things we love are banished to it, and we ourselves are banished from it” — its melancholy has a mirror image in the ecstatic delight of finding things. Schulz writes:

What an astonishing thing it is to find something. Children, who excel at it — chiefly because the world is still so new to them that they can’t help but notice it — understand this, and automatically delight in it… Finding is usually rewarding and sometimes exhilarating: a reunion with something old or an encounter with something new, a happy meeting between ourselves and some previously missing or mysterious bit of the cosmos.

In some territory of our collective imagination, there there seems to be an analogous place we might call the Valley of Found Things, strewn the forgotten phone number, the time for an afternoon walk, the photograph of my beaming twenty-something father atop my beaming twenty-something mother’s shoulders in the Black Sea. Finding, too, is a fractal delight — the simple delight of finding a long-treasured something we had lost, or finding something we didn’t know existed, branches from that grand, all-consuming, all-transforming, reality-recalibrating delight we call love.

As with loss, so with love: Here too our our metaphors are woven of spacetime, bespeaking our inability to think and feel beyond it — we speak of “finding love,” as if love were stationed at some distinct location until (and here is another measure of time) we wander by to chance upon, something E.E. Cummings captured in that single perfect line: “love is a place.”

That place is precisely where Schulz found herself not long after her father’s death. She met (on Main Street in a small town, by a chance-fold of spacetime) and married (with all of their living parents and the bittersweet presence of her father’s absence: “a kind of commonplace memorial, a candle I don’t have to light because it is always bright with him”) the love of her life — a woman she came to love across the abyss of surface differences between them, differences past which she might not have plumbed the depths, had loss not reconfigured her world by shattering the bedrock of familiar reality to make space for the improbable, space for this stranger without whom spacetime came to feel unimaginable.

Art from The Osbick Bird by Edward Gorey

The second half of Lost & Found is as much a meditation on finding the most precious of human finds — which is never a possession — as it is a love letter to her wife, ending with a beautiful meditation on how these twin experiences illuminate the central truth of life:

That is all we have, this moment with the world. It will not last, because nothing lasts. Entropy, mortality, extinction: the entire plan of the universe consists of losing, and no matter how much we find along the way, life amounts to a reverse savings account in which we are eventually robbed of everything. Our dreams and plans and jobs and knees and backs and memories; the keys to the house, the keys to the car, the keys to the kingdom, the kingdom itself: sooner or later, all of it drifts into the Valley of Lost Things.

[…]

Nothing about that is strange or surprising; it is the fundamental, unalterable nature of things. The astonishment is all in the being here. It is the turtle in the pond, the thought in the mind, the falling star, the stranger on Main Street… To all of this, loss, which seems only to take away, adds its own kind of necessary contribution. No matter what goes missing, the object you need or the person you love, the lessons are always the same. Disappearance reminds us to notice, transience to cherish, fragility to defend. Loss is a kind of external conscience, urging us to make better use of our finite days. Our crossing is a brief one, best spent bearing witness to all that we see: honoring what we find noble, tending what we know needs our care, recognizing that we are inseparably connected to all of it, including what is not yet upon us, including what is already gone. We are here to keep watch, not to keep.