Book Notes: Lost & Found by Kathryn Shulz

Andrew Sullivan commented on Kathryn Shulz’s book, in his podcast interview with her, “I know a master at work when I see one, and I saw a master at work when reading this memoir.”

I hold Sullivan’s judgment in the highest esteem, so that single sentence led to an insta-purchase of Shulz’s memoir, Lost & Found. It was fantastic. You may know Shulz, a staff writer at the New Yorker, from her now famous piece on how an earthquake will level the Pacific Northwest at some point in the not too distant future.

Her two topics of choice in this memoir are dealing with the death of a parent (lost) and falling in love with her wife (found). Enormous grief and the giddiness of newfound love are not exactly untrodden territories as far as memoirs go. To cover either with fresh perspective is extraordinarily difficult. She manages to do so. Her prose styling is something else — she writes about awe a bit in the book, and the quality of her sentences will induce its own kind of awe, for those interested in that kind of thing.

I preferred her reflections on losing her beloved father. The romance seemed, at times, almost too perfect, and described with almost too much certainty. But perhaps that’s because most of us tend to not enjoy as much personal reflections that make us feel inferior!

Highlights from the book are below. I’m in italics. Bolding is my own.

On her dad: “Thanks to his polyglot background, he had a relativist’s relationship to the rules of grammar and usage; he did not defy them, exactly, but he loved to bend a phrase right up to the breaking point before letting it spring back into place, reverberating wildly.”

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.

Painting a scene of her father’s last moments, so vivid: “One night, while that essence still persisted, we gathered around my father and filled his silence with all the things we did not want to leave unsaid. I had always regarded my family as close, so it was startling to realize how much closer we could get, how near we drew around his waning flame. The room we were in was a cube of white, lit up like the aisle of a grocery store, yet in my memory, that night is as dark and vibrant as a Rembrandt painting. We talked only of love; there was nothing else to say. We told him how grateful we were, how happy he had made us, how fully and honorably he had lived out his days. My father, mute but seemingly alert, looked from one face to the next as we spoke, his brown eyes shining with tears.”

Then clarified:

“All of this makes dying sound meaningful and sweet—and it is true that, if you are lucky, there is a seam of sweetness and meaning to be found within it, a vein of silver in a dark cave a thousand feet underground. Still, the cave is a cave. We had, by then, spent two vertiginous, elongated, atemporal weeks in the hospital.”

More on the experience of being at the hospital with her dad:

Then we woke up and resumed the routine of the parking garage and the ICU check-in desk and the twenty-four-hour Au Bon Pain, only to discover that, beyond those things, there was no routine at all, nothing whatsoever to help us prepare or plan. It was like trying to dress every morning for the weather in a nation we had never heard of. …

Some days, there was a woman stationed in the main lobby playing the harp, a gesture I found too cloying to be beautiful, even though the fountain just outside, which rippled in a similar way and was there for a similar reason, soothed and mesmerized me. …

To my surprise, I found it comforting to be with him during this time, to sit by his side and hold his hand and watch his chest rise and fall with a familiar little riffle of snore. It was not, as they say, unbearably sad; on the contrary, it was bearably sad—a tranquil, contemplative, lapping kind of sorrow. …

But what I remember most from those first hours after my father died is watching my mother cradle the top of his bald head in her hand. A wife holding her dead husband, without trepidation, without denial, without any possibility of being cared for in return, just for the chance to be tender toward him one last time: it was the purest act of love I’d ever seen. She looked bereft, beautiful, unimaginably calm.

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.

Grief of any kind will age you, partly from exhaustion but chiefly from the confrontation with mortality: to feel old (as distinct from actually being old, which can be a perfectly contented state) is to feel that both your days and your remaining quantity of joy are diminishing. But grief over a parent will also age you because it pitches you forward an entire life stage. Losing my father felt like advancing one notch in the march of generations—like taking, all at once, one very large step toward oblivion. I seemed overnight to have become middle-aged, which was strange, because my sadness also sometimes made me feel very young, still needing my father and not yet fit to be left without him.

I think several months must have passed when the grief that had sloshed around turbulently inside me ebbed into a stagnant pool. It made life seem extremely dull and it made me seem extremely dull and, above all, it became, itself, unbelievably wearying.

Instead, I found sadness to be, in every sense, a vulnerable thing, a small neutral nation on a bellicose continent whose borders were constantly overrun by more aggressive emotions. I also found it to be strangely furtive, strangely insubordinate; it went into hiding easily and could not be roused against its will.

I could miss my father, I could love my father, but I could not make myself sad about him when and where I chose, any more than I could tickle myself or compel myself to fall in love. It rose up in me of its own accord, for reasons I could only sometimes deduce even after the fact, or it was provoked by one or another cause entirely external to me. These were seldom the predictable triggers of holidays or my parents’ anniversary or the necessity of attending a funeral, all of which I could brace myself to experience. By contrast, the things that undid me were almost always unexpected and generally oblique—as on the day a little over a year after my father died when, in an instant, the words on my laptop blurred over in front of me and a bite of bagel turned to chalk in my mouth because, sitting in a café in Manhattan, I overheard a man say to his lunch companion, “I wish my daughter would call me more often.”

Amazement, gratitude, wonder, awe: the feelings inspired in us by serendipitous finds are the same ones inspired in us by the cosmos as a whole, and for the same reason—because life gave us something splendid that we did not expect, did not ask for, and did not in any particular way deserve.

Of all the things that can make finding something difficult—false positives, false negatives, moving targets, incorrect search areas, lack of resources, the vagaries of chance, the general immensity of the world—one of the thorniest is this: sometimes, we don’t really know what we’re looking for.

On falling in love… She was serious-minded and extraordinarily intelligent, so much so that my heightened attention was akin to that of a climber in steep terrain: the peaks high and varied, the views vast and lovely and surprising. She somehow conveyed the impression of being both forthright and reserved, so that when she first laughed, with swift and genuine delight, I instantly wanted to make her do so again.

A crescent moon chaperoned us from its usual discreet distance, vanishing and reappearing among chimneys and treetops. Occasionally that laugh of hers rose into the air, like starlings startled from their roost. By the time we got back home and settled into my couch, I was intensely aware of how much I wanted to touch her, and also how much I wanted to keep sitting there listening to her.

it is one of those rare moments, out of only a handful each of us gets in a lifetime, that remains imperishable in all its particulars. We had, by then, strayed outside again.

Afterward, I led her back indoors. For a long time after that, everything that wasn’t her—the house around us, the rest of the world, the passage of time, the past and the future—retreated into unimportance.

One of the hallmarks of human cognition is the ability to draw sweeping conclusions from limited data, often with incredible speed. Thus do we respond to a sharp sound combined with a sudden shift in the light by leaping away from a falling tree branch; thus do we understand from our sister’s two-syllable greeting on the phone that she is calling with bad news; thus do we walk into a room full of strangers and know from the looks on a dozen unfamiliar faces that something is extraordinarily wrong. Why, then, should we not meet someone new and infer just as swiftly—from a glance, a conversation, a lunch—that we are safe, that there is good news, that something is extraordinarily right?

By constitution, education, or both, I am profoundly skeptical of religious authority, and although I am deeply interested in the many fathomless mysteries of the universe, I do not believe that an omnipotent creator numbers among them.

As an adult, I am mostly amused by and in many ways grateful for my socially oblivious childhood, so I was surprised to feel a flush of real embarrassment when I imagined C. looking at those photos. I understood, intellectually, that all of us have things in our past that make us cringe, and that real intimacy requires sharing them sooner or later. But she and I were still very much on the side of sooner, and I briefly wondered, there on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, if I could somehow slip away for a moment shortly after we arrived and mortification-proof my childhood home.

But it is not a false consolation or a convenient exaggeration to say that I am most often moved to gratitude and tenderness and awe by those parts of her that are least like me—because it is in them that I see her most clearly, and because it is thanks to them that my own world has grown so much larger.

Brilliant way of describing someone’s flaws: Over time, I would discover other things about C. that reminded me of my father, not all of them on the brilliant-and-charming end of the character spectrum. These include an intermittent but impressive obstinacy; the capacity to intimidate other people, usually although not always by accident; and, in contrast to their overall equilibrium, a short fuse, lit by a kind of flaring pride, in the face of perceived slights.

For those who have experienced love chiefly as withdrawal or cruelty, who have had it wielded against them by parents or partners or others and were made to suffer in its name, it can be difficult to believe in a version that is tender and generous, let alone find it and sustain it. A regrettable truth about our species is that our capacity to love is matched only by our ability to harm and hinder that capacity, and one measure of how fortunate you are with respect to fate, family, and society is how much you have been left free to find happiness with another person.

But the world as described by “and” is just an endless disorganized list. My mother and my father, C. and me, grief and love, life and death, yaks and harmonicas, playwrights and hay bales and polynomial equations, hurricanes and sweatshops and smallpox and Pop-Tarts, DNA and “Oh, Danny Boy” and Addis Ababa and the rings of Saturn and Zoroastrianism and clinical depression and Flanders Fields and Billie Holiday and the eight hundred and forty indigenous languages of Papua New Guinea—already we are confronting a chaotic abundance, and we have enumerated less than a paragraph’s worth of the countless and-able things of the universe.

The scene before her wedding ceremony: The sky that afternoon had the high, mild look of early summer, untroubled by clouds, three shades lighter than the cobalt water of the bay. The sun was shining forth like an irrepressible good mood, filling the cup of every tulip and daffodil, gilding the wheat-like tips of the marsh grass, making shifting little lakes of shade beneath the trees. The lightest of breezes ruffled the air; my wedding vows, set down upon a table, would not have blown away. The bay was lapping placidly against the rocks just beyond the little bower where soon we would be married. It was, in short, the kind of day that everyone dreams of for their wedding.

Committing ourselves to finishing the job in time for the wedding we were simultaneously scrambling to plan was, we realized in a moment of sanity, insane.

But the most enduring problem of love, which is also the most enduring problem of life, is how to live with the fact that we will lose it.

It is true what people so often tell you in the face of hardship or heartache: life goes on. I have always liked that expression, hackneyed though it may be, for its refusal of easy consolation, for everything that it declines to say. It does not promise an end to pain, like “time heals all wounds” and “this too shall pass.” It does not have the clean-slate undertones of “tomorrow is another day.” It says only that things—good things, bad things, thing-things; it does not specify—will not stop happening.

Every other possible existence, in Idaho or Honduras or Lahore, as a carpenter or baseball player or musical genius, as a sibling if we are an only child or an only child if we are the youngest of seven—all of these variations on the human experience are unavailable to us. We have, unavoidably, only our one lifetime, and no matter how energetic or interested or fortunate or long-lived we may be, we can only do so much with it. And so much, against the backdrop of the universe, can seem so very little.

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.

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