Academic journal article Colorado Review: a journal of contemporary literature

The Art of Losing

Academic journal article Colorado Review: a journal of contemporary literature

The Art of Losing

Article excerpt


It would have been my mother's eightieth birthday the day my daughter stuck her necklace in her shoe and turned a cartwheel in the grass. My mother had bought the Star of David necklace in Israel. It had bits of amethyst and garnet on the outer triangles, much too fancy for a ten-year-old. We combed the playground, plundered the school Lost and Found, beseeched the children, principal, staff, and teachers for help. Still, it didn't turn up.

A pall clouded our house. It hung like the fog that swirls low over the mountains, turning my car, turning us, into solitary cells. We felt our way ahead by inches, past and future blocked. "It's just an object," I said. "We're safe. We're okay." But it felt like my mother had just died all over again.

Our lives felt like a chain of broken links, a long series of disconnections, deaths, and places left behind. My Chinese American daughter, who felt cut off from her past, sometimes felt detached from her present as well. In our Catholic town, my daughter was drawn to the traditions of Jewish friends. In her mostly white school, she was fascinated by Asian and African American history and culture. Among tween Hannah Montana and High School Musical fans, she decided to go goth. While her grandma was dying, and afterward, my daughter wore skull T-shirts, hoodies, and black eyeliner. She wished she could fit into the kind of pants her cousin wore, the ones with chains that rattled wherever she went.

My mother, a devout Christian, never knew why her granddaughter wanted a Star of David necklace. My mother only overheard her say that she wanted one. "She can have mine," Mom said in the hospital. "It's in my closet." I wasn't really listening. I figured my mother could give my daughter the necklace herself, when she was better.


"The art of losing isn't hard to master," I recite to my daughter often, at her request. My daughter loses everything: her beloved stuffed dog, her library books, her favorite earrings. She lost a key down the vent the morning she lost the necklace. But things always turn up. She likes the breezy tone of Elizabeth Bishop's "One Art." I remember best the more ominous final lines that strip back bravado to reveal loss's raw reality.


In my fiction-writing courses, I've implemented a No Death Rule. In early classes, before the rule, the rate of character mortality was sixty times that of the nonfictional population. Protagonists entrenched themselves in hopeless problems, painted themselves into corners, entangled themselves in impossible binds until their authors finally had no recourse but to put them out of their misery. One after another, characters kicked off, keeled over, shot themselves in the head, stepped in front of barreling buses, and threw themselves off bridges.

As a child, I disposed in similar fashion of many characters who bored me or made my job too difficult. But guys, I say to my classes, life is full of hard truths. You don't have to resolve anyone's conflicts. But let your characters face them.


When my father died, when my mother died, I handled things. Flew across the country with a baby the first time, drove it the second with a ten-year-old, planned funerals, wrote and delivered eulogies. It's the body that grieves when the rest of you is too busy, the muscles that cramp, the stomach that feels knotted like a fine gold chain snarled so tight there is no loosening it. How unreal that death happens even when you try frantically to prevent it, call every air conditioner repair shop on the Fourth of July so that your dad can breathe, dial 911 and make runs to the pretzel shop at the mall and consult with social workers to save your mom, tempt her to keep eating, devise plans to preserve her independence in her apartment. If you just work and want hard enough, it seems you could, should, be able to keep people alive.


"McCabe won't let anyone die," my more literal students remind each other. …

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