One Art

How do you begin to write about loss? Elizabeth Bishop makes it sound so easy – not the art of losing, but the art of measuring your loss in even stanzas, of damming its flow and redirecting it into villanelles and sestinas. I have loved her poetry because she seems to understand that loss and grief and suffering are so wildly uncontrollable in nature, but it is through art that we can cope. This is a function of poetry, of drawing, of baking: they offer us control in times of chaos through meter, crosshatching, recipes.

I have spent hours this weekend getting lost in ink drawings of my friends in nature doing things we love. I have spent the past three Mondays measuring flour and cream cheese and pinching chilled butter cubes into streusel because there is comfort in knowing that when you mix everything together, 12 – exactly 12 – muffins will emerge from your oven. I have spent long, tearful afternoons writing letters of goodbye to people I have laughed with, sipped gin and coffee with, cried with for the past five years who I will not be able to say good-bye to and whom I will only ever see again in short trips to unfamiliar places.

All of us have experienced loss in our lives. The difference is that, so often, we endure that loss and sadness all on our own and we can lean on friends and family when we sense our spirits sinking.

But everyone is suffering now and trying to make sense of their own lives and how to move forward. There is an irony in finding yourself alone and isolated in a time of collective suffering.

It has taken me a long time to write this, in part because I feel as though I’ve been drowning since March 15 and in part because of the guilt and shame I felt in expressing how I feel. From the moment I felt sad, I felt guilty: why am I crying over not being able to say goodbye to people when there are others out there getting sick and dying? Losing their jobs? But I’m understanding more and more (in part thanks to this podcast my wonderful friend Alicia shared) that denying our own emotions helps no one. That empathy is not limited: I can feel sad about my own losses while still being able to feel grief and compassion for people like my sister who are working overtime at under-resourced hospitals.

In the past month, I have wondered what this might feel like if I knew I was returning to Manila in the fall. But this isn’t a path worth exploring, because I am not returning. When I made the decision to leave back in October and signed my contract with Basel in November, I tasted that bittersweet liminality that comes with being an expat: choosing to leave behind a piece of your life – of your self – in order to step forward into new possibilities.

To move on to someplace new, you have to let go. Returning to Manila this January, I had a “list of lasts”, of all the moments, small and large, I wanted to savor: last brunches, last climbing trips, last show with Whiskey Bear, last class with my seniors (some of whom I’ve taught for three years), last lessons teaching Twelfth Night (my favorite of Shakespeare’s plays and the best unit of the year because students laughing at 400-year-old double entendres is a beautiful thing), last prom, last graduation, last Parangal, last faculty party at the director’s house. In all of these moments, I saw myself enjoying each last with friends I love, with the people I’ve shared whiskey and music with on Thursday nights, with colleagues, with students I’ve watched navigate their high school journeys, from coming-of-age novels to slam poems to finding humor and kindness in the fleeting moments between IB assessments.

In all of this, the wound of moving on would be neatly sutured, each goodbye a delicately-placed stitch.

Now it feels more like a tear than a carefully planned incision, and it’s one that I imagine will take much longer to heal. The speed of the loss was astounding: school closed to students, friends I love boarding flights out of the country indefinitely, school closed to teachers, curfew, quarantine, lockdown, Zoom learning.

And while the earth was crumbling under my feet, there was routine to uphold. Chaos existed alongside protocol in this weird, paradoxical coupling. I’d get a text from my mother: “Don’t come home! There are 22 cases in Monmouth County and your father and I are higher risk!” Then I’d log onto Zoom to ask 18 photographs or avatars of unseen students what they learned about apartheid in South Africa.

In a three-day span, I said goodbye to my assistant principal over tea, gathered my things from school to take to my apartment for lockdown, and found myself in the hospital having a biopsy for something the doctor diagnosed as “basel cell carcinoma.” As the doctor injected me with Lidocaine, telling me how lucky we were that he found a vial for the specimen given half the hospital was closed because of COVID, I frantically texted my TA to make an announcement on Google Classroom to cancel my 12pm Zoom.

The biopsy came back benign, but I can’t quite explain the mania of awaiting results for over a week when every single day, the world is cracking open in some new and terrifying way. Do I have cancer? Will I be able to fly somewhere for treatment if I can’t get it here? 72 hours to leave the Philippines? The STEP department is calling US citizens back? Can the school help? Will the hospitals be open? What play am I going to teach now that we can’t teach Twelfth Night? How fast do I need to grade these 68 video presentations that were just submitted on Google Classroom? Will I ever see my seniors again? My friends?

My own losses accrued: two of my friends flew back to the UK and I had not been able to say goodbye to them.

But at the same time, there were the students who were dealing with their own milestones being torn away, their own sense of being ripped up by their roots. First it was a question of whether mock IB exams would go forward. They would. Then, three days into mocks, the IB cancelled its exams. (This is how you know it’s bad: not because of media doomsayers or global pandemics, but because the IB has decided it cannot run exams.)

Then what? How would their grades be calculated? And on top of all that: would they get to graduate? Would they see their friends again? What about college? What about prom? What about goodbye?

As a teacher, this is a uniquely helpless feeling. I don’t know how my students are coping. Some I can email and offer support. Others seem to want to continue, to embrace the familiarity of curriculum and lessons. Others want humor or excitement, fun challenges. Now imagine trying to offer support – emotional, academic, whatever – through Zoom on a shoddy internet connection.

Another uniquely awful feeling: someone trusting you enough to dig into the depths of their heart and cry about how sad they are feeling – and then watching them freeze mid-cry while a grey text box appears on your screen: YOUR INTERNET CONNECTION IS UNSTABLE.

I am unstable. We all are unstable. I feel as if I’m standing on a balance board and every so often if I work hard enough I can level it out, but most of the time I’m just swooping back and forth from one end to the other.

On Monday, I baked. I graded, I read, I went for a walk to get coffee with a friend (masked). I went to bed happy. On Tuesday, I graded some more. I had an in-person conversation with someone I respect and admire. And then I got home and felt tired. I lay on the couch and did nothing.

This morning, I woke up and thought of my juniors. I thought of how Blair and I have been with their class for three years. I remembered the May afternoon we’d gone to see their election speeches as 8th graders and we walked out wondering if we’d made the right choice signing on as GLCs. I remembered all the assemblies we’d held in 9th grade trying to dispel their cliques and I thought of their unity at this year’s BOB in their purple alien T-shirts, winning “Best Chant” by a landslide. I remembered a few months ago, wandering through their entrepreneurship competition when they were all clad in business attire and walking me through products they’d created. I’d left a pile of semi-urgent grading on my desk to go down and walk around. It’s these little moments that I’m grateful for – those times I put grading on hold to go and see what the kids were up to outside of the classroom. I know happiness comes from living in the present, but the present is currently a hostile place and the future is uncertain, so all that’s left is the past and these little moments to be grateful for.

They, too, are worried. They are sad, they are uncertain about their own futures, about college applications, about IB exams, about seeing their family, seeing their friends.

I may never see them again. If school doesn’t reopen in May, they will all return as seniors in the fall and I will not be here. This was never a question. I told them that I was leaving, but I thought there would be time to say goodbye. An assembly, a party in a classroom, a final council meeting. (Seeing them grow as empathetic humans, as confident leaders, as curious listeners, you want to say goodbye and tell them how impressed you are at how far they’ve come, to thank the ones who have made you feel like there’s hope for the future of the world because they might play a part in running it.)

It is breaking my heart.

Then I switched on my phone to find a message from Michael saying that he and his family would be returning to Texas. And just like that, the image of Whiskey Bear standing on a stage together one last time dissipated. (If you have ever sung with a person whose voice seems to have known yours in some past life, or closed your eyes during the chorus of a song because the fiddle is so stunning, you understand how special and unparalleled it is to make music with people who are all innately in tune.)

I read an article a few years ago where Delia Ephron defines “having it all” as “the magical time when what you want and what you have match up.” “Having it all”, she writes, is an expanding and contracting concept. For example, in January, “having it all” meant playing my last show with Whiskey Bear, finishing our album, polishing off one last bottle of Monkey Shoulder in the band room on a Thursday night while Michael spun some old Texan yarn about bulls and Carl adjusted the levels and Emma tuned her fiddle. Then lockdown happened, and “having it all” meant maybe having one last show in May, or playing together in the quiet of Carl’s apartment. Now Michael is leaving, and “having it all” has become getting to see Michael one last time to say goodbye.

Each day brings with it some new small catastrophe on a global scale or a personal scale. I find myself oscillating between paralyzing numbness, bubbly optimism, consumptive creativity. Each day I lay my cards on the table and reassess: what do I still have? I negotiate: I can live with lockdown until April 30 but please bring the seniors back on campus in May. I can live without a large gathering of people, but please let me hug my friends goodbye.

Navigating loss, global trauma, and how to emotionally support your family, friends, and students is a trying experience. “Be honest with the kids,” says one person, and I imagine telling them how sad I feel and upsetting them. “We have to be cheerful for them,” says another, and I imagine putting on airs and leaping around as if the world is fine, and them seeing right through it. “The best thing to do is carry on as normal,” says another, and then we ignore the global crisis and the personal crises. And one approach works for some kids and not others.

I felt ready to let go of Manila back in November, but now I’m clinging to it with all the obstinance of a barnacle. Switzerland felt gleeful and dreamy on the horizon back in January; now, when I think about this new chapter in my life, I feel nothing.

How can you be excited for the future when you haven’t let go of the past? To paraphrase Tom Waitts, I know I should surrender but I can’t let go. (Now where is this house I should go up to for comfort? And is there more than one person in it?)

I’m writing this now because years down the line, I will look back at this as one of the small, unnatural ways I started letting go of my life in Manila. Person by person, departure by departure, cancellation by cancellation. Loss by loss. No ceremonies or speeches or parties or hugs, but muted goodbyes sent via text as people shuttle off quietly to dark, quarantined corners of the globe.

It feels so sad, and so lonely, to know that when the world starts spinning again and people come out of their caves and reunite and life returns to normal, I will not be there.

So much of my loss and sorrow comes from things I was planning on or looking forward to being taken away. And I said it before: the present is not a happy time. But. I keep trying to remember that no matter what gets taken away, there is still much to be grateful for. The short walks I take with friends, the moments I get to know someone I would not have had the time to get to know before, thoughtful emails from students and supportive parents, logging on to our Quarantine Challenge slides to find two members of the junior council completed the “Reenact Your Baby Photo Challenge”. Tiny slivers of joy in dark times.

Even writing this 2500-word blog post early on a Wednesday morning, I am distilling my loss into words, though unlike Bishop’s surgical precision and neat stitching of lines, mine is more of a cobbled jumble. And maybe by writing it out, I, too, can “master” the art of losing. Maybe that’s what she was saying all along.

…It’s evident

the art of losing’s not too hard to master

though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

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