Loss Anticipated, Loss Experienced


My favorite poem by Robert Hass is "Meditation at Lagunitas," which begins

All the new thinking is about loss.
In this it resembles all the old thinking.

Pretty much.

Friday night I went to the Sunstone Chritsmas party, my first Christmas party of the season, and perhaps my last.... I was also invited to one last night, but I couldn't make it. No other parties are scheduled for the next few weeks except a few celebrations of ME, 'cause, you know, Jesus's birth isn't the only one celebrated in December.

Anyway, there was a conversation about New York Doll, a documentary about Arthur "Killer" Kane, which I wrote about several years ago in an entry that garnered lots of very interesting comments. There were people at the party who had never heard of it, and those of us who had seen it tried to explain what it was about and why someone should watch it. I mentioned what I said in my entry: that when I heard David Johansen sing "Come, Come Ye Saints" I burst into tears and sobbed until I couldn't breathe or sit up.

This struck some of the other people there are strange. "I didn't cry when I heard that hymn," one person said. "Not at all."

"You're still active in the church," I said. "You still get to sing that song as part of a community that values it. It doesn't represent a loss to you."

Loss ebbs and flows. We get over loss to some extent because we have to, and because time, if it doesn't heal all wounds, at least changes them. But our experience of loss starts not with the actual loss, but with our awareness that it WILL happen.

I remember 20-odd years ago, when I was awakening to the fact that my fiance was going to dump me. I couldn't prevent it; I couldn't get him to admit it; I couldn't even talk to him regularly about other things, because he lived 6,000 miles away and transatlantic phone calls at that time cost several dollars a minute, which far exceeded the budgets of each of us. I also couldn't move on, because the loss hadn't happened yet. And because it was so huge, and so horrible, I also couldn't prepare for it properly.

Earlier this year someone I love very much was very, very ill and very nearly died--in fact, she would have died had she not received the best medical care available in this entire country, paid for by some of the best insurance in this company. What would it be like to live without this person? I could barely pose the question--and yet, I HAD to confront it--even though I sort of thought I had. She has been ill for over a decade, and I know this disease she has will kill her--probably within a couple of years. And I sort of thought I knew what that meant. But when we thought her time left on this planet had to be counted in days or weeks instead of months or years, well, it was all very different. I was incapacitated by grief over a loss that was not yet final.

Loss anticipated is pretty damn awful. But it's busy. It's active. It involves effort and striving of all sorts: to understand and prepare for the future, to assuage grief (one's own and that of others), to minimize and mitigate the loss in any way possible. Loss experienced is SO FUCKING EMPTY AND FLAT. It's that weak, wrung-out, utterly spent and desolate feeling you get after you puke your guts out so thoroughly that nothing else can come up--except the feeling is magnified and intensified and applied to your whole life. Something valuable and necessary is GONE, and there's still this obligation to toil and labor, to journey on toward some end that isn't as whole and rewarding as it once was.

Loss is the result of attachment, and precisely what Buddhism is designed to help us overcome.

I'm not going to be like Bella Swan in New Moon and sit, catatonic, staring out my window for the next three months, or wake up screaming every night for the next six months, but I do feel pretty fucking empty and flat right now, having ceased to anticipate a loss and instead accepted that something I invested in is GONE. It might not strike some people as a big deal, because my investment in it was brief in terms of duration, but the scale was pretty large in terms of intensity, and I also invested with quite a bit of joy. And now I see that it's gone more thoroughly and completely than I imagined possible, and that other things have disappeared with it.

I wish I were better at being Buddhist, but I'm not. The little bit of solace I can find in all this right now is that I get it, that I at least understand what I'm up against.


Oh god, this post is a little terrifying for me. I've been in that anticipation stage for about a week, and it's bad enough. I just really don't want to get to the loss experienced stage.

And no, no one is dying. Just so you know.

Did you write in here what you lost? Did I miss that? Also, I'm not sure I'm on board with not being attached. I feel like being attached is such a huge part of being HUMAN. And so is the loss. Goddammit all.

Hi Rebecca--

No, I didn't say what I have lost or am losing. I know it's hard to believe, given how candid I am, but there are things too raw and personal even for me to share.

Sorry to hear that you're facing this also.

re: not being attached: I often think of what George Orwell said about Gandhi:

The essence of being human is that one does not seek perfection, that one is sometimes willing to commit sins for the sake of loyalty, that one does not push asceticism to the point where it makes friendly intercourse impossible, and that one is prepared in the end to be defeated and broken up by life, which is the inevitable price of fastening one's love upon other human individuals. No doubt alcohol, tobacco, and so forth, are things a saint must avoid, but sainthood is also a thing that human beings must avoid.

Pretty much.

Holly, in the whole universe of poetry, that's one of my favorite poems, too. I heard Robert Hass read from "Praise" in Menlo Park in 1987, at a time when I was going through my first really tough breakup, and those themes of longing and loss resonated through me.

Later, re-reading them after grad school had looped a bunch of theory through my brain, I saw how Hass had managed to write about Lacan and Saussure in the most beautiful, earthbound way.

Now, mulling over your post, I'm thinking about the poem in light of Buddhism. I'm not sure attachment is bad, or even un-Buddhist. What if the way to deal with cravings and sufferings and anguish is not to try to transcend them through lack of attachment, but instead to learn to sit with them - live with them - accept them? If Buddhism would call me to detach from my loved ones, then that's not something I'd want or could accept. But if it's asking me to deepen my compassion toward them and extend it beyond those close to me, that's a path I'd want to follow.

I don't know much about Buddhism. I've been doing a little reading since I'm teaching a class that required me to know *something* about it, but I'm also interested in knowing more. So I'm interested in your take on this - does every form of Buddhism demand renunciation of the fierce love we feel for family and friends?

Hi Sungold--

does every form of Buddhism demand renunciation of the fierce love we feel for family and friends?

the basic story of how Buddhism began involves the Buddha kissing his child and his pregnant wife while they're sleeping, because he could not bear to watch them grow old and die. I'm not an expert, but I am pretty sure that Buddhism tells us that we need to see what is "not skillful" about the crude intensity with which we love certain individuals, and not others.

Which is part of why I am not a Buddhist, though I have certainly learned a lot about the world and myself from applying it where I can.

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This page contains a single entry by Holly published on December 6, 2009 9:44 AM.

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