Losing a Life
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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 practise 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 beloved 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!) a disaster.
— Elizabeth Bishop

It was just an ordinary day. Don’t all disaster stories start the same? Birds are singing. Someone on a bicycle or with a ladder is whistling. And then, all of a sudden… Or am I mixing disaster with horror? I don’t think I am: horror has suspense. In her villanelle, ‘One Art’, Elizabeth Bishop thinks losing is no disaster. She says practice helps. But I’m torn about this losing thing. It was worse for me because I thought I had nothing to lose.

So, ordinary day. I went to the office, turned the key and thought ‘funny’. And then I thought ‘that’s really funny’. The night before, a brand new computer had still been in its packing – packing that was now a mass of torn and shredded paper, like the carnage of Christmas morning only minus gift. And there, too, were my precious, brass-handled sewing-scissors: scissors reserved solely for cutting taffeta or linen, not to be blunted by card or paper.

A Break-In Suite. OK, Lucy, do something: reach for the phone. Not there. Look up a phone number — where’s the address book? Gone. Turn on a computer? All taken. Camera? Missing. Were these things ‘filled with the intent to be lost’ as Bishop thinks some things are? Or was it just my burglars, filled with their intent? I went to sit at the desk and rally my spirits, but felt queasy, thinking of my bum being where so recently the burglar’s bum had been while he — it’s a he for sure — rifled my drawers. I found a dish cloth, spread it out and sat down.

Whose bum? Thrill-seeking kids? Middle-aged pro? Desperate loner? He came in through the bathroom window so he must have been a bloody gymnast.

Half dazed, I looked about for what wasn’t there.

All the usual things were gone – that is, the pricey stuff which is also strangely easier to replace. ‘Accept the fluster?’ Did I have a choice? I was flustered and slow to take it all in. Almost everything was tossed on the floor, but aside from the swiped technology there was little beloved gone. Design studios have poor pickings: pencils, pens, paper. To a designer, though, they are your mother’s watch. Boxes marked ‘printing techniques’ and ‘paper samples’ were left untouched. Otherwise I’d had a good going over.

This was a crime scene all right. My boyfriend came. The cops came — this is New York — then DIs in their terrible ties and strained, button-popping shirts. It was a good turn out. Some uniform smeared the walls and doors with soot, looking for fingerprints (tip: it doesn’t wash off) while various phones and radios played a cacophonous version of Rhapsody in Blue.

My cell phone rang and signalled ‘friend from England’. ‘I can’t speak now’, I said. There was a pause. Then: ‘I’m very sorry to tell you the barn was burnt down to the ground.’ This was the barn I rented to store all my English possessions. Me: ‘What, everything?’

‘Everything.’

My boyfriend steadied me as I slid down the door-frame. My other phone, my English cell phone, now rang. (Snubbed by the thief: in phone terms it’s a Ford Cortina.) ‘I can’t really speak just now,’ I said. This was answered by: ‘I’m very sorry to tell you, but your mother is in the hospital.’ ‘How bad?’ ‘Very.’

Disaster? I don’t want you to get the impression I’m callous or cruel. But, it was ‘burnt down to the ground’ that dealt the vaster blow. The office loss was petty, irritating, expensive. It would set me back as surely as clock hands wind backwards. But the back-up was current: I’d lost two days max on the main computer. On the others, loss was complete. There would just be a permanent gap like the time after surgery.

(Bewildering. I’d liked my camera though — a birthday present — it had always taken good snaps. Odd how some machines are easy to love while others leave you cold. Some work easily, never any bother, always do what they’re meant to. I remember crying as I said goodbye to a vacuum cleaner that was divided spoils after a failed romance. I was actually fond of it. It rather took me aback. But I’d never particularly warmed to a green car I’d hunted and bought — yet always thought it was somehow not on my side, malevolent in some weird way. I’d never really done anything worthwhile — a few love letters perhaps — on the old Apple with the brown keys. It was unfriendly. I still mourn an alarm clock that was once my constant companion for 100-hour work weeks which used up my thirties and forties. It’s somewhere in a box, too significant to throw away, but, without its hour hand, really just garbage. An hour badly spent? Inanimate objects picked out at random are anything but an hour badly spent: at best they respond, they hum, they serve; at worst they have tantrums, need coaxing, slapping or ignoring altogether. You have to learn their ways: the things the instructions don’t tell you about. I don’t believe all this of course, just as I don’t believe in God or the afterlife, but I still thank him when disaster doesn’t strike and I feel spooked in a graveyard after dark.)

I loved my mother, but I didn’t like her very much. She wasn’t the mother I wanted or needed. I’ve found great replacements all over the world, but I know they were stand-ins. Jill Archer can make me blub. I sobbed over The Parent Trap. It’s embarrassing. Every child has imagined their parent’s grief as they lie six feet under. But one day it struck me that the grief might not be the wailing and regret I relished, rather a familiar shrug of ‘oh well’. That was infuriating to think about. With help I learnt to give up some of the wanting. The truth is she started it: I’m not sure she liked me. The story went I was a whopper baby (a nine pounder) and had whooping cough and cried a lot. We grow into our stories. None of this endeared me to her. On top of that, I grew to look just like my father. Later, like him, I became a designer too. After they went through their take-no-prisoners divorce there wasn’t much maternal good will to spare.

Even when I was small I could spot the blessed – those who’ve been loved by their mothers and those who haven’t. It’s a make of radar only the slighted can see. Not my brother, for instance; and not Will Fiennes for sure. In The Snow Geese, Fiennes’s mother comes to the hospital to pick him up after an operation armed with a cushion to protect his wound from the seat belt for the journey home. But he’s been so patted and padded he could barely remember it when quizzed. It just wasn’t an issue. Those of us with no cushioning have a shadowiness, a furtiveness, a missing calm. We’re unprotected and can tag each other across any divide. The loved ones have no idea what I’m talking about. It isn’t hard to muster sympathy for Jane Eyre with no mother (Jane Eyre with parents is no book). But the disaster of a living mother with little love is more elusive. Loving care wasn’t my mother’s to offer: she had too little to spare because she’d herself been so wanting. But isn’t that always the way? She turned her older sister into the missing mother and then managed to die before her sibling. That bit I found particularly irritating.

After my mother died I threw myself into organising her funeral with a fervour that surprised me. I felt strangely safer — she’d beaten me to it — and I wanted a marker. On a trip to Springs, Long Island, I once visited Jackson Pollock’s grave and saw the bloody big boulder, his wife, Lee Krasner had lowered on top. And a happy funeral day was my version of Krasner’s stay-there-you-bastard. My brother, a biographer, read (well, he had written it, naturally) her eulogy. His big theme was how much he always knew he was loved. I felt like laughing out loud. Or murder. His daughters echoed their dad, ‘we felt so loved’, they cooed. My eulogy was – nothing to say. At the wake afterwards several people came up and asked if I might arrange their funerals. Surely somewhere someone was squirming?

So the news of this last trip to hospital wasn’t perhaps what it should be in terms of shock and grief. My sadness — yes, there was sadness — was doubled-barbed: big grief from Day One and this smaller nagging loss of ‘well-that’s-just-great-now-it-can-never-be-right’.

The barn fire. Where do I start? I’m a hoarder, a filer, a sorter, a librarian of life. My life. In the barn were rows of shelves with labelled boxes that charted who I was and what I’d done: boxes of treasures, boxes of letters organised by sender; boxes of ephemera of every sort; boxes of books (lots and lots); box files marking changing technologies; xeroxes, stats, floppy disks, CDs, DVDs; home boxes; office boxes; clothes boxes; hat boxes, shoe boxes, boxes of boxes, just-about-anything boxes. I kept not just my things, but other people’s too. By now I’d accumulated all my father’s boxes, each beautifully labelled with his sumptuous calligraphic hand. I still had some of my ex-husband’s baby things which otherwise he was going to throw out — throw out! — as well as my ex-step-grandmother-in-law’s clothes and sewing things. The stuff just grew. Those boxes of my father’s were particularly precious, not just for their labels, but their precision to mislead: clearing his house after his death my brother and I came across files marked ‘Gas bills: 1972-1979’ which when opened were full of dirty photos of naked exs, sorted using a system all his own. It had been the one bright spot to that horrible day. My boxes in the barn had been there a while. They were stored there while I lived without them somewhere else. Their presence and order was a cushion over the wound. Now and again I’d go to retrieve or check and remind myself of myself.

This saving and filing thing started early. As a child I’d keep chocolate for later, save my pocket money, keep boxes of bits of things. I saved the newspaper from all my birthdays. I’d hang and fold my uniform as soon as I got home from school, and, probably because of it, I can still wear the regulation cardigan. I’ve always kept my shoes stored in bags in their boxes with trees to keep their shape. I’ve sometimes toyed with the idea of writing what I wore where, but stopped myself in time. At art school I started a picture library: too bad I hadn’t much to put in it, but even then I recognised that was less relevant and that set-up was everything. In early days of work, before computers, I’d save bits of typesetting and letter-press printing and keep them ordered and filed. I collected ampersands and printer’s fists waiting for the perfect opportunity to come along to use them. Of course I kept letters, birthday cards, even Christmas cards, love letters of course. I’m a cliché. I’ve kept CDs and books in alphabetical order, cook books according to region, postcards separated by artists and/or region too. Should Doisneau’s picture of Picasso with arms hidden under the table with the illusion of bread rolls for fingers belong under ‘Picasso’s art’ or ‘black and white photos’. I remember it worrying me. A librarian’s worry.

Alexander Liberman once asked me why I wasn’t using a particular photograph as the cover for a magazine I was working on at Condé Nast in New York. ‘I’m saving it,’ I told him. He snapped back ‘never save anything’, but that was like telling a blackbird not to sing. I often think about what he said, and if it had any meaning for me, but the idea of saving has greater allure. My ex-husband bought me an Yves Saint Laurent jacket and once asked me why I never wore it on beach walks. Saving it for later or best is just how it is. Never mind the world turns and scraps of letters cease to have meaning, or best never comes. I’m aware I’m describing habits more crazy than charming. I’m hanging on. My mother didn’t have it so bad: after her death when I cleared out her wardrobe some of her clothes still had their tags on them and many shoes sat unworn in their boxes. Same thing? It felt more like acquisitiveness or negligence to me.

This isn’t all nuts. It has sometimes been useful. Old type specimens saved over many years have been the basis for many mastheads and logos and some are now digitised fonts. A jeweller friend makes exquisite necklaces from tiny glass beads and I was able — it was hard — to give her my bead collection, much of it made up from my grandmother’s and my ex-husband’s great grandmother’s stash. Each box — there were six — contained other tiny boxes, each sorted and labelled. I’m quietly proud of never having bought elastic bands or paper clips. Elastic bands come free around my post. Paper clips just go round and round. I’m good at keeping friends too. I remember birthdays. From time to time I dig up people who’ve drifted away. The only old boyfriends who don’t talk to me any more are dead, still drinking (or married, still).

OK, so I’m stalling a little in getting to the fire. I’m building suspense but disaster is coming. When I moved back to England my library was packed by a diligent intern before it went into storage — each book double wrapped in acid free paper. She resigned the day she finished the last book, but by then she’d filled over 60 boxes. All my work as a designer was in there — labelled, filed, filling flat files, boxes, tubes, portfolios. And, of course, the back-up in metal trunks dated, filed and protected from moths, weevils or damp. I never thought of fire. The egoist in me mourns — no retrospective ever.

40 years of British and American Vogue. Good condition. (24 boxes). 30 years of old New Yorkers (sort of pointless now everything’s online). Four large chests of antique textiles collected from all over. All my father’s boxes — there were about 30 — including printing sets (4 boxes), stencils (2 boxes), gold leaf (1), rubber stamps (7). The numbers are accurate because, well, I wrote them down. There was furniture too, and the contents of my workshop — oh I’m weary.
Like Bishop I’ve lost a city as well — I chose to lose it — and over the years it’s changed and so I’ve lost it even more. And like Bishop I miss it. Leaving England I became English, but when I come back to England I’m even more a foreigner. In America, I barely notice my Englishness any more except when telling a joke. James Conlon falling over in One Man Two Guvnors is funny because falling over is hardwired into who I am. Slapstick. And I lost a husband. A gesture I didn’t love.

You know what happened anyway so what’s the point of writing it down. It was ‘burnt to the ground’. I wasn’t there. I was busy living somewhere else. The Thames Valley Police emailed the third-hand story: a groom from the big house about a mile away reported seeing figures dancing around an enormous fire around 10pm. Flames. There were explosions. On the phone the detective told me unless I had CCTV footage it was hopeless. I jumped on a plane and arrived to see smoke still hanging over waist-deep ash, but really it was a whole load of nothing. I imagined I could rake through it and salvage something — anything — I even bought a garden sieve. But it was like an unlucky dip as I groped about to feel for treasures and found just airy nothing. Books do a funny thing when they burn: they retain their shape, but the pages lose all their printing and go super-white — ghost books — each as fragile as a dandelion so any gust of wind or touch shatters them into air. It took a while to identify what survived, all of it useless: foot-long curls of wire that were once bindings; handfuls of staples; twisted coins; blackened fired pottery; twisted lumps of glass.

‘Intent to be lost.’ Had I found, sorted, folded, filed, packed, ordered and saved for this? I miss them. My back-up. My mother’s love.


'Arete is a journal as exquisite in its execution as in its intentions.'
John Updike

'Vous m’avez donné un grand plaisir … votre revue m’est très sympathique et proche.'
Milan Kundera