Wednesday, December 31, 2014

One Art : New Year's Eve

This morning I am up with the sunrise. It is probably good that I am waking up earlier and earlier, as I will have to do so for work next week. It will be some time before I can get up with the sun again, or even see it rise as I am driving to work early in the morning. It's also fortunate that I can see the sunrise--we've had several cloudy mornings that turned into beautiful days, but the early morning horizon was gray.

I am not entirely sure why I am up so early. I stayed up late reading last night, so I should still be tired. Part of it may be aches and pains--there is something wrong with my left side, and laying perfectly flat on my back hurts. I probably need a chiropractor. I've been doing yoga in the morning to help the problem, and so far it does help but it doesn't cure it. So, that may be one reason. But more than likely it is psychological--I have had really odd dreams for the last several nights, and I've awakened with a variety of thoughts and emotions in the morning. As a result, and perhaps because it is New Year's Eve, I am a bit reflective on the past year, and the events of the past year.

I found myself thinking about the poet Elizabeth Bishop. She lost her father when she wasn't even a year old, and then her mother was committed to an insane asylum. She was bounced between relatives, and spent her whole life moving from place to place. She traveled all over Europe, lived in Key West, lived in Brazil. She was never quite comfortable in New England. Her poetry has that observing distance--we see glimpses of feeling but never can be quite sure of the full story. She is very much unlike her friend Robert Lowell, a dramatically confessional poet, or like Sylvia Plath. Bishop is much more understated. It took her as long as 20 years to finish some of her poems, and she only produced about 100 of them. But every word is carefully chosen, and they make their impact without dragging in a lot of personal drama.

I think of Bishop now, and her poem One Art. The poem opens with the lines, "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." In the past, I wasn't crazy about the poem and its villanelle style. Now, however, it probably is the defining poem of my life experience. At the end of the poem, Bishop writes "Even losing you (the joking voice a gesture / I love) I shan't have lied. It's evident / the art of losing isn't too hard to master / though it may look like (Write it!) disaster." That is the key--write it! Take the pieces of the broken structure, make some kind of art with it.

There is always loss--people, situations, things. Sometimes people physically die, sometimes you just break off your relationship with them. Stuff breaks. If I think about the past year, there have been 2 deaths in the immediate family, at least 1 friendship that I have completely ended, a newer car with a front bumper half-destroyed by walls of snow that were like concrete, a cell phone that finally broke in half, and a laptop that is so worn out, the battery won't stay locked in the warped bottom. All my black socks have holes in the heels, my favorite sweaters are starting to look ratty, and one of two pairs of "good" shoes that I own is now torn from wear on the top.

On the other hand--I've made new friends, gotten to know neighbors a little better, had much of my worn-out stuff replaced at Christmas, managed to finish a novel and get a chapter published, and I'm well on my way to finishing my doctorate. I'm fortunate enough that what I spend long and sometimes stressful hours doing is exactly what I enjoy doing. I will spend next semester doing a LOT of writing, and learning new techniques that I am excited about. I have lots of good friends, a few close family members, and students that I care about. There is a sense of being part of the world, not being shut away, in spite of the fact that my social time is limited during the semesters. There was a great trip to the Shetland Islands, where I made new friends, and discovered a beautiful new place. This coming year I intend to return to England, and hope to make it to France as well. Life is good--the world expands, there are new people and opportunities, there is a sense of meaning in life whether that meaning is "real" or that I simply believe it is real.

This, perhaps, is why loss is not a "disaster". The world is still here, when one thing ends, something else begins. Winter does eventually become spring again. I've made a vow to stop hating winter. The best sunrises and sunsets occur in the wintertime--there is a clarity in the sky that you don't get in the humid summers. There's something metaphorical about that, too--death and depression are occasions to stop and re-evaluate what is, and what is important. I'm not a believer in separating "good" and "evil"--everything has a function, everything is important in its own way, even if it doesn't give us pleasure. To try to eliminate one in favor of the other is to be imbalanced. "Good" and "evil" are also subjective terms--what's good for one may be evil for another, and vice versa. We forget how to look at the world without judgment, and recognize that loss is as necessary as gain.

So, I wish you a balanced new year. And to conclude, here is a clip of Elizabeth Bishop's poem, The Moose. Unfortunately it is not the whole poem, and is broken up by commentary, but it's still beautifully presented. I recommend reading the whole thing, which you can do here. The poem is about a journey West--really, towards "death", metaphorically--and the reassurances that occur on the journey into the unknown, culminating in the joy of seeing the moose.

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