Losing Things


Reclining nude with long hair, Gustav Klimt, c. 1907.

by Rachel Howard

My problem is that I don’t care about losing things.

Last month, at a restaurant, I left a rough grey scarf that my husband gave me on a rainy evening shortly after we began sleeping with each other, shortly after we fell in love—the scarf that, even after warm spring days arrived, I’d worn everywhere like a child’s blanket. Oh well, I immediately thought when I realized it was gone. I’ll always remember that scarf.

Last year, departing an artist’s studio, I left a herringbone-striped inky blue kimono that an ex-boyfriend purchased in Japan, a kimono many artists liked to draw me wearing because it draped such an entrancing pattern over the forms otherwise known as my hips, my shoulders, my breasts—a kimono that suited me because I had worn it to so many sessions that it felt as natural as my own hair, my own skin. I realized I’d left it only hours after the painting session ended; I took three months to call the artist about getting it back. By then she’d given it to Goodwill. Oh well, I thought, I’ll always remember that kimono.

I have the kind of strong memory that gives you a false sense of indifference towards materiality.

I lost a painting that an artist gave me, a 92-year-old artist with whom I often shared tea and peanut butter on toast and earnest talk of what it means to be a painter or a writer in the face of rejection and futility and certain posthumous obscurity—in the middle of each session, we would rest for an hour in his winter-sunlit kitchen, downstairs from his bedroom studio where we worked.

The painting I lost was not of me but of another model from a decade earlier; Rip had asked me, one unforgettable afternoon, to choose any painting I wanted, and choosing the unknown past muse felt right—I was priding myself on not being vain. That painting was of a woman lying on an ocean of blue, her face turned away from the artist so that only her black hair was visible. A Klimt-like geometric sunburst radiated from her hip. When I got the painting home, I discovered that Rip had scrawled across the back: Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads. Henry David Thoreau. I used this painting and this scrawled quote in a story I wrote before Rip died. I did not show him the story because it was fictional, and it did not represent him faithfully; maybe it would have been a better story if it had. And after Rip died, when I needed to move, I left the painting in my apartment building’s basement. I could have managed to take that painting with me, but I left it. I have occasionally thought that I should want to have that painting and I have considered calling the girl who moved into my apartment (she is an acquaintance, I have her cell number, arranging for her to ship the painting to me would be easy). But I haven’t, even though I think of Rip often, even though I keep the card he drew to notify friends of his death (he was thinking ahead; the drawing shows him sitting against his own tombstone) next to my desk.

It occurs to me that perhaps I do not have the right to call that painting “lost.”

Not long ago, my husband was working on a plaster sculpture, and when he removed his rubber gloves, he saw that his gold ring had disappeared. I came to pick my husband up at his studio and discovered him pale, bleary-eyed, babbling. I found the ring, camouflaged on a patch of beige carpet, and my husband cried with relief. I was so touched that the feeling frightened me. I was also baffled. The ring was just a piece of metal that we’d found by digging through a box of secondhand wedding bands at an estate jeweler’s, a ring that miraculously matched the smaller ring also clinking around inside that box of random castoffs, the matching ring I now wear. It was the ring that occasioned that story and the attendant sensation of fate and good fortune, which I never wanted to forget, but it was just a circle of 14 karat gold; we could get another. I didn’t share this attitude with my husband. And I realized that if I ever lost my ring I must do something I detested doing, something I do badly: I must act. I must fake despondency.

A year ago, at the same time that I left behind Rip’s painting, I also unpinned the things that filled the bulletin board above my desk. I packed every item that had been on that bulletin board into a Priority Mail box and shipped it from California to North Carolina.  Weeks after my soon-to-be-husband and I had arrived in North Carolina, the box of bulletin board items had not. I hadn’t bothered with insurance or tracking, and the postal service couldn’t trace it. I turned pale and bleary-eyed, babbling. My future husband told me not to lose hope.

But nothing would be right until I held the contents of that box.

Rattling loose in that box were the words and images I had cast eyes on hundreds of times a day in the studio that had also served as my sunny, lonesome writing space in Oakland: A postcard that read MUSIC in cartoon-like letters against a starry turquoise sky; A faded reproduction of a painting by Anselm Kiefer of a man on his back like a corpse looking at the starry night, with the curators’ accompanying headline, Heaven; a note from an old friend, And we shall consider every day lost on which we have not danced. –Nietszche; and notes I’d written or typed: Anything you do not freely give away is lost. You open your safe and find ashes. –Annie Dillard; a passage about love from Dostoyevsky; a long quote about writing from Flaubert. There were yellowing pictures of my parents when they were young, my mother thin and wearing a white peasant shirt as she chased me at my second birthday party, my father with his seventies mustache holding toddler me in front of the old truck he drove for his janitorial service. An Olan Mills portrait of that same blond girl, age nine, holding her blonde cherub-cheeked brother. Lines of music I’d cut from cathedral service leaflets: A psalm setting for How sweet, O Lord, are your words to my taste. And finally, on thin, curling paper, pages from an often embarrassingly earnest devotional booklet I read every night before bed. Jesus said, feed my sheep.

I didn’t really care about any of the items in the lost box.

Really, I cared about who I was when I pinned them to that board, who I was when I cast eyes upon them every day, who I was when I thought I could write like Flaubert, dammit, or at least I would die trying. And who I was as I passed from thirty-three to thirty-four to thirty-five. Those were the years after the divorce from my first husband, the years when I finally read Kierkegaard (instead of just trying to blow smoke about him), the years when unemployment and rejection letters gave me my first mature taste of humility, the years when I had lovers but knew loneliness, the years when financial desperation and a mildly exhibitionist nature led me to first model for artists. These were the years when I began to sing. And they were the years when I changed from someone who merely attended church into someone who actually tried (and failed, and tried again) to love others as oneself. And so all those images and words I’d pinned to the board made up who I was when I became the person I wanted to be. Who I was when I decided that sincere talk about love and forgiveness wasn’t something to be ashamed of.

Who I had been. She was lost.

Who was I now? Now I was teaching at a pastoral, expensive college. Those difficult and thrilling days in Oakland were over, I knew that before I accepted the job, before I asked my new love to move with me, before we eloped, just after arriving in North Carolina, at the Buncombe County Courthouse. Back when I’d pinned the things to the board, I’d sung nightly in a dive piano bar, lived off the daily bread of the Laney College art model’s tip jar, stood stripped of all status before strangers who treated my naked vulnerability appreciatively and saw me, I always felt, as myself.

Now, I wore a nametag that proclaimed me a “Teaching Fellow.” In faculty development seminars, I talked about “The Student Portfolio as Auto-Ethnography” and “Rhetorical Composition Strategies for 21st Century Communications Modalities.” I went home to my new husband and cried.

The box arrived. Through the miracle of “return-to-sender,” and a friend willing to intercept and forward, the box and all its items made its way back to me. Right away, with the grateful optimism of a pardoned death-row inmate, I set about reconstructing the bulletin board. But of course it wasn’t the same. Even if I had pinned every scrap of paper in exactly the same place, I wasn’t the same.

The truth is that, though the bulletin board with all its items now hangs above my desk, I rarely cast eyes upon the words of Dostoyevsky and Dillard, the reminders to love thy neighbor as thyself. I’m rarely home to see these things. I’m in the classroom, in faculty meetings.

But I do catch a glimpse of the bulletin board in the morning before classes, and in bed between grading papers and sleep. What I see is not the same. In the center of the board, where before I’d hung a colorful picture of smiling dogs (a relic from my twenties), I’ve placed a different image. Right in the middle I’ve pinned a drawing my husband made one night back in California, just after I began wearing his scratchy old scarf like a child’s blanket.

The woman in the drawing sits with her hands in her lap, though the picture cuts her off just below the elbows; she is naked, except for a thin headband arcing over the top of her long hair, which needs brushing. She looks slightly to the right and down, and she has a calm, peaceful expression, not smiling, but as though she is at ease in the presence of a loving gaze. Her breasts hang from her torso and spill to the sides, as sloppily as her hair.  The areolas are large and appear soft, almost lazy.

It is definitely my face. Those are definitely my breasts.

The drawing is not idealized, and some people would probably think it isn’t flattering, though I loved it the moment my husband-to-be finished it, accepted (if not loved) the loose, lazy breasts. Since moving, since marriage, I have asked myself why I pinned that drawing in the center of that bulletin board. Of course: because I love to remember that evening, sitting contentedly beneath my future husband’s gaze—yes. But also, I have thought, I pinned that drawing there to remind myself always to be naked.

I have thought, that’s a melodramatic thing to think. I have thought, but it’s true.

And it is true, though I feel ridiculous trying to explain what I mean, trying to describe how three years of sitting naked before strangers and feeling their empathy run like a current between you as they draw—this changes you. Gradually, it conditions you to feel that you need never prove yourself to anyone, or hide anything about yourself. (I have heard this from other art models, too.) And I took that feeling with me wherever I went, clothed, yet still unhiding. There was so much peace in that vulnerability! I felt it the night my future husband drew me, the night he saw me not as I wanted to be seen but as I was, the night I still grimaced at the sight of my sloppy breasts, and this man who knew the naked me said they were beautiful, he loved them.

Surely I do care about that drawing. Surely if I lost that I would be devastated.

But no. If I lost that drawing I would respond just as I did to the lost scarf, the lost kimono, the lost painting, the lost ring, I would feel just as I do now towards the bulletin board items that were lost and then found, towards the assemblage of me that was reconstructed but never the same. I would say, oh well.

Because this indifference towards materiality is suspended in time. It is how I feel—for now. Because I tell myself I believe in detachment. I know that those things, that scarf, that painting, that kimono, that ring, that past self—whatever happens to them physically, they exist for as long as I can remember them, or am capable of remembering that I once remembered them, or can know that I’ve forgotten them. They exist as long as I am alive.

This is the luxury of obliviousness, this supposed enlightenment. The luxury that results when death is an abstraction, when being alive is your only reality.

My friend Rip, during those afternoons we spent at his kitchen table, remembered death viscerally. Did that make his last moment easier?

I don’t know. But I believe that at the end, when death at last becomes my reality, I will come to that day when I lose the scarf, the kimono, the painting, the ring, my husband, myself. I will lose everything. I will be devastated. I can’t imagine wanting it any other way.

About the Author:

Rachel Howard is the author of The Lost Night, a memoir about her father’s unsolved murder. She reviews dance for the San Francisco Chronicle, and is currently finishing a novel. She will serve as the interim director of undergraduate creative writing at Warren Wilson College in Asheville, North Carolina next school year.