We are here to keep watch, not to keep.
February 26, 2017 2:02 PM   Subscribe

When Things Go Missing is a wonderful essay on the habit and art of losing things. But it's more than just about a misplaced set of keys or a lost wallet (or even a truck). In this New Yorker piece, Kathryn Schulz lures us in with a lighthearted take on the everyday annoyance of misplaced objects (and practical tips to find them!), then invites us to ponder the cognitive process behind the lost-and-the-found. But then she surprises us by stepping candidly from there into more personal and touching territory. At the end, when losses threaten to erase all hope, she ends the essay with two powerful paragraphs that gives meaning to it all.

"Plenty of parents, self-help gurus, and psychics will offer to assist you in finding lost stuff, but most of their suggestions are either obvious (calm down, clean up), suspect (the “eighteen-inch rule,” whereby the majority of missing items are supposedly lurking less than two feet from where you first thought they would be), or New Agey. (“Picture a silvery cord reaching from your chest all the way out to your lost object.”) Advice on how to find missing things also abounds online, but as a rule it is useful only in proportion to the strangeness of whatever you’ve lost. Thus, the Internet is middling on your lost credit card or Kindle, but edifying on your lost Roomba (look inside upholstered furniture), your lost marijuana (your high self probably hid it in a fit of paranoia; try your sock drawer), your lost drone (you’ll need a specially designed G.P.S.), or your lost bitcoins (good luck with that). "

-----

" In the micro-drama of loss, in other words, we are nearly always both villain and victim. That goes some way toward explaining why people often say that losing things drives them crazy. At best, our failure to locate something that we ourselves last handled suggests that our memory is shot; at worst, it calls into question the very nature and continuity of selfhood. (If you’ve ever lost something that you deliberately stashed away for safekeeping, you know that the resulting frustration stems not just from a failure of memory but from a failure of inference. As one astute Internet commentator asked, “Why is it so hard to think like myself?”) "

---

"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 a still more ancient word meaning to separate or cut apart. The modern sense of misplacing an object 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 one another and has been steadily expanding ever since. In consequence, loss today is a supremely awkward category, bulging with everything from mittens to life savings to loved ones, forcing into relationship all kinds of wildly dissimilar experiences."

--

"It is breathtaking, the extinguishing of consciousness. Yet that loss, too—our own ultimate unbeing—is dwarfed by the grander scheme. When we are experiencing it, loss often feels like an anomaly, a disruption in the usual order of things. In fact, though, it is the usual order of things. Entropy, mortality, extinction: the entire plan of the universe consists of losing, and 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 childhood friend, the husband of fifty years, the father of forever, 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."

----

A somewhat dark vision, you would think but the two, short final paragraphs of the essay turns it all around.
posted by storybored (28 comments total) 67 users marked this as a favorite
 
When she described the "searching behaviour" that is common in grief, I felt a shock of recognition. Interesting how similar humans can be to each other at times, in all our diversity.

That was a beautiful essay. Thank you.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 2:25 PM on February 26 [4 favorites]


I always draw a clear distinction in my head between things that are lost, and those that are simply insufficiently found.
posted by Sebmojo at 2:33 PM on February 26 [6 favorites]


Lost a multi-driver screwdriver some six or nine months back. Black plastic barrel with all the most common bits along with some less often used, and though it didn't ratchet, it had a couple of freely-rotating bits (one for each hand) that made it really easy to use. I remember using it on something or other, but then I draw a blank. I can't imagine tossing it in the trash or something since I used the thing so often and kept it in my desk drawer.

A prized possession, the brand name had long since worn away through use.

I miss you, my screw-driving friend, my little buddy. I'll find you if I can.

I'm not crazy. Trust me. Small house, only so many nooks and crannies to be found. If it ever shows up, I'll sleep with it under my pillow. Only a fundamental laziness keeps me from tearing the place apart.

Don't judge me.
posted by metagnathous at 2:40 PM on February 26 [5 favorites]


Wabi-sabi.


*draws an enso in the sand*
posted by darkstar at 2:48 PM on February 26 [1 favorite]


Object permanence is a myth.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 3:19 PM on February 26 [9 favorites]


metagnathous: "Lost a multi-driver screwdriver some six or nine months back. Black plastic barrel with all the most common bits along with some less often used, and though it didn't ratchet, it had a couple of freely-rotating bits (one for each hand) that made it really easy to use. I remember using it on something or other, but then I draw a blank. I can't imagine tossing it in the trash or something since I used the thing so often and kept it in my desk drawer.

A prized possession, the brand name had long since worn away through use.

I miss you, my screw-driving friend, my little buddy. I'll find you if I can.

I'm not crazy. Trust me. Small house, only so many nooks and crannies to be found. If it ever shows up, I'll sleep with it under my pillow. Only a fundamental laziness keeps me from tearing the place apart.

Don't judge me.
"

I lost a 10" Samsung Tablet. And, of course, it was low on charge, so the last location I can see is me entering my building and nothing more.
posted by Samizdata at 3:24 PM on February 26 [1 favorite]


It's always in the last place you look.
posted by chavenet at 3:36 PM on February 26 [3 favorites]


This was such a gently beautiful essay, and I'm so glad you posted it, storybored. I didn't know how much I needed to read it until I reached the end. Thank you.
posted by Silverstone at 4:14 PM on February 26 [3 favorites]


It's always in the last place you look.

Then that's where you should look first, duh!
posted by Pendragon at 4:18 PM on February 26


Affirmation

To grow old is to lose everything.
Aging, everybody knows it.
Even when we are young,
we glimpse it sometimes, and nod our heads
when a grandfather dies.
Then we row for years on the midsummer
pond, ignorant and content. But a marriage,
that began without harm, scatters
into debris on the shore,
and a friend from school drops
cold on a rocky strand.
If a new love carries us
past middle age, our wife will die
at her strongest and most beautiful.
New women come and go. All go.
The pretty lover who announces
that she is temporary
is temporary. The bold woman,
middle-aged against our old age,
sinks under an anxiety she cannot withstand.
Another friend of decades estranges himself
in words that pollute thirty years.
Let us stifle under mud at the pond's edge
and affirm that it is fitting
and delicious to lose everything.

--Donald Hall
posted by MonkeyToes at 4:37 PM on February 26 [17 favorites]


"Of all the things I've lost, I miss my mind the most". -- Samuel Clemens
posted by sammyo at 4:38 PM on February 26 [4 favorites]


Maybe this illustrates a good point for me about how malleable selfhood can be, because for me, losing things doesn't feel like a challenge to my self hood at all because my inattentive ADHD has always made me lose things more often than other people do. Losing things is frustrating to me--especially when it distracts me from routine organizational tasks I'm trying to keep my mind focused enough to do, when life stress aggravates my condition--but it doesn't feel like an existential threat. Only losing people really gives me a comparable feeling of existential disorientation. Maybe because I've always relied on a little extra help from my intimate relations to help me manage my inattentive ADHD.
posted by saulgoodman at 4:40 PM on February 26


Also, "One Art" by Elizabeth Bishop:

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... (the rest is here)
posted by concertedchaos at 4:58 PM on February 26 [9 favorites]


I've always loved that poem! Bishop's I've if my favorite poets. It never even occurred to me to connect it to chronic absent-mindedness. Now I can read it for the first time again!
posted by saulgoodman at 5:12 PM on February 26 [1 favorite]


It's always in the last place you look.

I hate this cliche so much that I keep looking after I find things.
posted by srboisvert at 5:14 PM on February 26 [21 favorites]


"Hey Dad! I found some money." Stick it in your piggy bank. Let me finish my shower. "Dad, it's lots of money! It's exactly the money for the tractor Grandma lost." Whut? Shut water off.

"This is good, right?" It is. It's lots of money.

My mom lost things in her last days. This was rubber banded and rolled up under a bottom drawer. I'd read them a story the night before and one of them remembered a relevant anthology. Kids had all the drawers out. There was more.

That night boy is asking me what he's supposed to do when his mom loses things. "Let me guess, keys?" Yeah? Go through her purse. She's going to tell you she already looked there. She might get angry. Stay cool and she'll move off to look elsewhere. When you find them don't make a big deal about it. Put your finger through the ring and hold it up. Don't smile, don't laugh.

"Hey, you still awake?" Get your ass up here. "Why can't mom find things?" I'm not supposed to talk to you about stuff like this. "Daaad!" She lost something very important when she was younger than you and she blames herself and when she can't find something immediately she can't see it and it's all of that crap all over again. "Oh..." Yeah. It's sinking in.

"What did she lose?" Her mom. Her mom's mom kept telling her it was her fault because they would have caught the breast cancer if she hadn't been pregnant. "Bigger boobs?" I don't know. Maybe that was a factor but that is some nasty stuff to say to your granddaughter.

"I wonder how this is going to affect me." You could just forget everything that is uncomfortable. I'm kidding and he knows it but I'm right on the line and he punches me. "That's a fucked up way to be." And he's out. Snores. I like snuggling with him but there's no future in this. 12-18-24 months and I'm going to lose something restorative and precious.

There is so much more I need to get through to him about loss. That was a start.
posted by Mr. Yuck at 5:55 PM on February 26 [15 favorites]


"What the House taketh away, the House shall give back. As to when, it's a mystery." - as my great-grandmother used to say.

Also, one of my favourite authors (Gábor Karátson) in one of my favourite books (Ulrik úr keleti utazása, avagy a zsidó menyasszony - Master Ulrik's Journey to the East, or the Jewish Bride - sadly only available in Hungarian) there is a scene lasting several pages in which the author observes the process of his pair glasses being lost on a dinner table while he is chatting with friends - one of the most memorable pieces of writing I have ever read.
posted by holist at 5:55 PM on February 26 [9 favorites]


Today, this gives me peace. Now I know what to do about my grief. I need to go looking for the unfindable. Like fishing without bait, being outside with my eye on a distant horizon, I will look and know that I won't find but I will perform the act that I need to, to resolve this awkwardness, an inexplicable urgency, a restlessness with no known cause. This essay has been worth at least 10 askmes.
posted by b33j at 6:16 PM on February 26 [8 favorites]


Sic transit gloria mundi. I'd probably go crazy if I didn't keep telling myself that.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 6:53 PM on February 26 [2 favorites]


I didn't see anywhere in the article the single tip that has worked the best for me: use a flashlight when you're looking around for something.

I can only speculate on how it works, but it's probably something to do with the fact that shining a flashlight on it either allows you to focus more intently on just the illuminated area, or it just makes things easier to see.

Highly recommended tip from me.
posted by tclark at 7:05 PM on February 26 [3 favorites]


Object permanence is a myth

It's ironic that object permanence is a developmental milestone, and yet we spend the rest of our lives un-learning it.
posted by Dashy at 7:24 PM on February 26 [8 favorites]


I did ok until I got to the routine of the parking garage and the elevator and the au bon pain. Is that every hospital??

(Also this is great thanks)
posted by nevercalm at 8:19 PM on February 26 [1 favorite]


It's always in the last place that you look because after you find the thing you lost, you stop looking.

For me, the central truth of life is that growing older is the long, slow process of the people and things you know and love being slowly but surely taken away from you. It will be nine years in July, but there are some Sundays where I'll get the urge to pick up the phone and call my dad. Every time it happens, there's that brief moment of happiness before remembering that there aren't ever going to be any more simple conversations about nothing of importance with my father.
posted by Ghidorah at 8:30 PM on February 26 [9 favorites]


Some nice passages, but something not quite right about treating the mislaying of keys and the death of your father as two examples of essentially the same phenomenon. Yes, the word 'loss' applies to both, but I find the conjunction a bit jarring. Maybe that's the subtle alienating effect she's going for, but in the New Yorker it seems more like an overdose of self-conscious essayism.
posted by Segundus at 9:29 PM on February 26


My dad moved house about 6 years ago, and when my brother was picking up the remainder of his stuff from the house my dad was leaving, he found a box of lock barrels in the shed - they dated from just after my mum had died (in that house, upstairs in the room my dad still slept in for 20 years afterwards). My dad had gone back to work but kept losing his keys on the way home, as if to say he didn't want to come back into the life he'd left at home, the house where his wife no longer was, the place where his children were motherless and sad, and he didn't know what to do. So he lost his keys and changed the locks and lost his keys and changed the locks until eventually he stopped losing his keys.

Which is to say, I think losing your keys and losing a person can absolutely be part of the same phenomenon.
posted by theseldomseenkid at 6:13 AM on February 27 [13 favorites]


One of my dear friends from high school who lost her father then mother within the same year said to me shortly after my dad died, "What you lose when you lose a parent is the sense of commonness with almost everyone else of having a parent. Most of us share that bond of a parent that does random stuff that is annoying but you love them anyway. You can't say, 'My dad is driving me crazy' or 'Mom is doing that thing where she butt dials me and then calls me back to tell me she butt dialed.' You don't have a mom or a dad that does things. All you have is the memory of doing. You can't share with people about what your mom and dad do, only what they have done. You are now in the Land of the Unparented."

I did a lot of searching after my dad died, largely because I lost one of the biggest humans in my life but also because I was looking for the version of me that existed in the Land of the Unparented.
posted by teleri025 at 11:12 AM on February 27 [8 favorites]


If it ever shows up, I'll sleep with it under my pillow.

My hard won advice is: when you find it, put it in the first place you looked for it. That is its home.
posted by not_that_epiphanius at 11:18 AM on February 27 [7 favorites]


Lovely, lovely essay. It reminded me yet again of my ongoing sense of being bereft of my father, who died almost 10 years ago, and also of how glad I am that while he was here, we had an easy and untroubled relationship.

Lifting the last paragraph and quoting it (except the first sentence) in full here because it is full of wisdom.

No matter what goes missing, the wallet or the father, the lessons are 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. As Whitman knew, our brief crossing is best spent attending to all that we see: honoring what we find noble, denouncing what we cannot abide, 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.
posted by bearwife at 11:24 AM on February 27 [9 favorites]


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