Scott Russell Morris is a PhD student at Texas Tech University’s English program. He has an MFA in Creative Writing from Brigham Young University. His essays have previously appeared in Brevity, SLAB, and Best of Mormonism 2012. He is currently working on a food memoir about a winter in Kazakhstan.
On Whom Things Are Lost
If I should certainly say to a novice “Write from experience and experience only,” I should feel that this was rather a tantalizing monition if I were not careful immediately to add, “Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost!” -Henry James
I am not one of those people. Things are lost on me and by me all the time.
For example, I lost the first draft of this essay. No joke. Given the nature of this essay, I am pleased that it worked out this way; it’s perfect, really, that I should lose an essay about losing things.
I started the essay in March, and had written a fairly thorough draft, probably eight or nine pages. It was a rough draft, to be sure, but I was pleased with where it was going. As is my general habit, I didn’t touch the essay for several weeks. I like to let essays sit and settle so that I have a fresh perspective when I return to them. When I tried to come back to the essay in early June, I couldn’t find it anywhere. I checked every folder in my computer twice, including the recycle bin; I searched for the word “lost” with the computer’s search feature (in the process discovered the manuscript of an award-winning ghost story I’d written as an undergraduate, which I thought I’d lost years ago, which has the phrase “lost at sea” in its critical moment); I checked and double-checked my portable hard drive and both of my flash drives; I checked my laptop; I checked my work laptop; I checked my email to see if I had sent it to myself. I couldn’t find it anywhere. Gone.
I spent hours smoldering quietly and rummaging through the electronic sinkhole that my computer had apparently become before I gave up the search and started a new draft, almost completely from scratch. I felt the loss of that first essay keenly, though it was a delectably laughable loss. With any other essay, I might have just given up, but after the initial frustration, I got back to work, now with both less and more material.
And yet, this is not the same essay it would have been; I’ve forgotten the witty way I mentioned the TV show Lost without actually mentioning it; the connection between salt which has lost its savor and books that I can’t find; the genius tie-in to the Beatles’ lyrics, “We were talking about the love that’s gone so cold and the people who lose their soul and gain the world,” which I think is how I began thinking about the love that was lost on me. I am not the same person I was then, either. I’m married now, learned to love, but when I started that first draft, I was still weeks away from meeting the woman I would marry. And even as I started this the second first draft, that was only a flirtatious friendship. Every time I tweak this essay, it becomes a new draft, it reflects a new person, becomes a palimpsest of personas.
* * *
I’ve lost sleep; confidence in myself; the lens cap for several of my camera lenses; time; my mother, my grandmother, and both grandfathers; car keys, house keys, work keys, bike-lock keys, pretty much any key ever given me; computer passwords; shoes; the remote shutter control for my camera, only two weeks after getting it for Christmas; books; money, both literally and figuratively; games; weight; opportunities; a yellow tie with a blue-checked pattern; my flash drive; my train of thought.
* * *
Because of the very nature of writing, you’re not getting the whole truth of these stories. For example, in the story you’re about to read about me losing a shoe, you will get only the details I’ve included, which will mix with your own memories or imaginings of the place, and then you will have your own version of the story. Your image of my mother standing on the banks of the river will look one way, and my image another, and we’ll both be right for our own sakes, but neither of us will grasp the truth. Even as I remember it, I have lost details, remembering my mother older than she was at the time, her hair color slightly off. David Shields quotes Patrick Duff to tell us: “All memories are predicated on loss. . . It’s through the act of remembering that we bring these forgotten experiences back from oblivion. . . . Our memories are filled with gaps and distortions, because by its very nature memory is selective.” The act of writing and recording those memories is equally selective.
When I was young, my family twice stopped at Zion National Park and hiked a trail called the Narrows, which followed a series of shallow side-winding twists in the placid Virgin River as it creates a beautiful chasm of high canyon walls with sandy beaches and smooth stones. I remember water snakes gliding along the surface; I remember areas I was frightened to go in because the water reached up to my thighs; I remember a particular bend in the river where the sandbar was widest, where a single tree glowed in sunlight. Where the water was deepest, my older, more adventurous brother Michael took off his shirt and dove off the canyon wall into the pool. I remember this spot in particular because on both occasions, I tried to swim with my brother and I lost a shoe both times. I remember peeling off my shoes and feeling how the gentle river tugged the shoes from my fingers; I remember the way my mom tried not to laugh and the way my dad’s eyes flickered when he learned my shoe was gone.
* * *
Here is another story, which was true when I first wrote it, but that truth has been lost by time:
In that summer after I lost the first draft of this essay, a friend told me that she loved me. In fact, she said “no other girl in the world” loves me the way she does. Which, as far as I could tell, was probably true, but I had no feelings for her. We were friends, and I welcomed the friendship, but there was nothing else. What is a man to do when a woman calls him Prince Charming and pours her heart out to him, but there is nothing in his heart to return to her?
“Why don’t you love me?” she asked. “Is it because I’m not smart enough?”
Her intellect is actually quite impressive. And she always gave me handmade perfect gifts, like the squirrel camera bag, the squirrel collage, and the painting of a squirrel at Delicate Arch. I lied: “There isn’t anything in particular.”
There were in fact some rather particular things I didn’t like about her: the way she sometimes talked down to my socially awkward younger brother; the way every little drama sent her into a flurry of emotion; the way she didn’t talk to me for three months when she found out I had asked an old friend whom I hadn’t seen in almost a year for a date; the way she frequently asked if I was mad at her though I never was. But I wasn’t about to expound on what I thought her faults were. If we had been dating, a discussion of such things might have been appropriate, but we weren’t. I tried to change the subject. And I acted like I didn’t notice how much she was hurting.
Besides, those things I didn’t like aren’t important. I am her friend anyways, her faults are not who she is, and though I had no desire to date her, I liked having her as a friend. But I confess that I was not always as good a friend to her as I might have been. I kept hoping that she would become less interested – there were times when I intentionally didn’t laugh at her jokes; didn’t smile too big when I saw her; evaded those good-bye hugs that are commonplace in my other friendships; avoided sitting next to her in public; occasionally didn’t invite her to outings with other friends; made sure to talk about her in a way that people would know we were just friends, especially when I was otherwise complimenting her and giving her high praise: all this as a way of hoping she would get the hint. I feel a deep sense of guilt for treating her badly, but most especially for not treating her well.
What bothers me is what I lost in turning her down. We were still friends, but no longer as close as we once were. She no longer laughed so much at my jokes; she didn’t smile so big when she saw me; she no longer requested good-bye hugs, though she still gave them to my younger brother; she made no special effort to sit near me in public; she didn’t invite me as often to outings with other friends; she still talks about me but only in the casual way a friend mentions another friend. Sure, she had gotten the hint, but what did I gain by my callousness?
“Why don’t you love me?”
Were love rational, I believe I could have convinced myself to love her in the way she wanted. But if love were so fickle as to be persuaded by mere reason, there would have been other girls whom I might also have fallen for – those beautiful women who have crossed my way through the years. Women I shared intimate moments with, women I watched B-movies with on rainy Saturday afternoons, women I ate Waldorf salads with and then did the dishes with in a quiet kitchen where the only sound was the swish of sudsy water. Women who thought they loved me. Women I ultimately disappointed or grew weary of.
It is difficult feeling obliged to love someone. It is especially difficult when you do love that person, just not that way.
The most amusing or instructive companion is at best like a favourite volume, that we wish after a time to lay upon the shelf; but as our friends are not always willing to be laid there, this produces a misunderstanding and ill-blood between us. -William Hazlitt
Did we get over our disagreements? Yes. We are friends again, quite close even. My wife and I had dinner with her and her new husband last night. But even knowing how it has all turned out, I still think back with a sense of regret. Not a regret that we didn’t date, but regret for my silence, for causing pain. For being at a loss for what to do when she trusted me, and for letting her down no matter what I did.
* * *
Lost, depleted, used up, drained, exhausted, gone, given up, wasted, forgotten, forfeited, failed, fallen, fell short, divested, misplaced, passed up, missing, off-track, disoriented, irrevocable, lacking, strayed, vanished, absent, absorbed, adrift, astray, bewildered, overcome, perplexed, spellbound, misled, unredeemed, wayward, without, took a beating, took a loss, took the heat, kissed goodbye, came up short, wiped out, went out of business, bombed it, fell between the cracks, away at sea, down the drain, fell on deaf ears, blew it.
* * *
Wordsworth said that “poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recalled in tranquility.” In my experience with writing, this seems a contradiction. The second first draft of this essay, when I sat down to rewrite the written pages but instead began to write about my friend’s broken heart, was not written in tranquility. It was written after the thoughts had persistently bothered me for several days. And when I returned to the essay again, months later, the powerful feelings were gone. The parts I wrote as a “spontaneous overflow” and the ones I recall in tranquility are at differences now, but both truths resound in their time, even if neither tells the complete story.
* * *
Having lost the first draft of this essay, I consider this a second chance to record my losses. What you are reading is not the second draft, though. Nor is it the third, or even the fourth or fifth, but some bizarre mixture of the past and the present that are, somehow, all the present. It still has parts of the first first draft: the story of Zion Canyon was there from the beginning, as was the list of things I have lost, though I don’t think everything on the original list has been accounted for. There have been losses from the second first draft as well. For example, the second first draft had quotes from the Bible: parables of lost sheep, coins, sons; nothing is lost to Christ or God the Father; be ye therefore perfect. I took those out because I couldn’t get them to flow evenly with the rest of my thoughts. The messages of the apostles seemed too full for the small net of my imperfect experience.
Also lost are the things that I don’t remember that I don’t remember. I have no idea what I have completely lost, only a knowledge that there must be something I’m missing. When I try to remember what I have forgotten, there is only a quiet place in my mind, a cemetery of thought where even the gravestones have worn away until they are indistinguishable from river stones, the grass has died to a yellow shag carpet, and the gate rusted down to nothing.
In a sense, all memories have been forgotten. -Duff, via Shields
Naturally, I pull these thoughts and experiences from my own mind, from the fragmented pieces of my own memory, where the lines are blurry and dull, the colors muted, even if I try to recall them vividly. Even though I have described these memories to you, you will not actually feel the coldness of the sun-drenched water that swept my shoes away, nor experience the delightful frustration that spread through my body when I lost the essay, nor will you taste the bitterness of the words in my mouth when I told my friend that I didn’t love her.
* * *
All essays are written in the present, but as they explore the past, they become bridges between memory and loss. Just as old drafts and new drafts combine to form a current draft, perhaps with deleted fragments from other files, so, too, essaying mingles present and recalled emotions, making a new view, a new person. Montaigne has said that he did not make his book so much as his book made him, and now that I am writing this essay – revising this essay – I find myself coming closer and closer to a truth.
These first drafts are like sourdough starters: still brewing, but if you let them sit for a while, occasionally stirring and shaking them, adding flour and sugar until at last they have fermented enough and you can add the rest of the ingredients, you can be confident that they will come out as loaves. But even with sourdough, you don’t use the whole starter. You have to leave some on the side, food for your next batch of loaves. This remainder is, essentially, the first draft of your next meal. Well, there was a first draft of the conversation with the girl, too.
Almost two years before the conversation above, there was a party at my house. She stayed after to help clean up. I knew why she was helping. I dreaded a private conversation with her, but I took comfort in knowing that my roommates were close at hand. Eventually the plastic cups were in the trash, the dishes in the dishwasher, and my roommates in their rooms. Of course, she asked if we could talk.
I sat in the corner of the large sofa; she sat on the coffee table, directly in front of me, cornering me. I knew what was coming, because I had known she was interested in me for a while. I also knew that I wanted nothing more than friendship.
“I like you,” she said, then surprised me by bolting to the door, fumbling with the bolt. She half tripped as she tumbled into the darkness, then turned, her hand still on the knob, her feet on the steps below.
“Like, really, really like you,” then she closed the door and was gone, her words lingering like a glass slipper on the steps, an invitation to pursue.
And how did Charming react? He set his precedent for silence, and said nothing to the girl about the incident. He let the whole thing stew, and she didn’t bring it up again for two years. And what did he do with the glass slipper? He laid it on the shelf where he kept the dusty others, where he could muse on them while he thinks about the girl he’s hurt, while essaying to account for his losses.
* * *
Here is the rest of the story, the details I’ve essayed around, avoiding because I thought their absence would protect people I still cared for:
The girl, Laura, is one of my close friends, even still. And when I said that I had dinner with her and her husband, I meant that I had dinner with her and my brother, because it turns out that an awkward nerd was exactly what Laura needed.
I could tell you more about Laura, about our relationship past and present, or more about how she fell in love with my brother after I scorned her. I could even tell you more about lost shoes, lost keys, and lost love, but these essays can’t contain everything, even though, like Montaigne, I continually revise the essay, adding new material. But even with the new material, the story will never be true, though it was true once, by which I mean that the events actually happened, and I actually did feel this callousness. Now, I no longer do. I’ve lost the edge on the regret, the main impetus for including Laura’s story, and where I once felt guilty for her unrequited love, now I feel guilty for exposing her pain and my lack of interest. When I first started this essay, we hadn’t yet had that second conversation. But when I was trying to recover my thoughts, it was fresh and new, and so it took over my thoughts, and all I could think of was myself. Now, two years later, that first essay completely swallowed up, this present essay is true of a lost self, and thoughts that are now past thinking. We’ve both lost the people we were then, lost them to time, to new relationships, to a kind of forgiveness.
I return to the question I asked before, when I was essaying about Laura the first time: What have I lost by my callousness?
It seems, now that we are so far removed from the event, that I’ve lost nothing. I’ve gained a great deal, in fact, in terms of relationships. Which isn’t to pardon my own misbehavior – I still know I treated my friend poorly. Here’s another detail: when she told me she loved me the second time, we met in the street because I was walking to pick up my date for the evening, an evening which Laura, my brother, and I had planned to spend together. So, no, I don’t excuse myself; I see now that my childishness gained me nothing, but also that so very little was lost. Like a child’s shoe in a vast river.