The Art of Losing: On Writing, Dying, & Mom
How do we reconcile chaos with control? Cataloging moments of poetry and disaster, novelist and essayist Ruth Ozeki makes sense of family quirks, history almost lost, and the death of parents.
Last year, I was asked to give a talk at the annual donor-appreciation dinner for the Zen Hospice Project in San Francisco. I’m a great admirer of the Hospice Project’s work, so I accepted without hesitation. When they asked me to provide a title for the talk, I thought it would be easy. I’m a writer, so I would talk about writing, and, since this was for the Hospice Project, I would talk about death. I’d been thinking a lot about both writing and death, as I’d quite recently lost my mother and was using writing as a way of working with my feelings of grief and loss. So I sent the organizers an e-mail, proposing this title: “The Art of Losing: On Writing, Dying, and Mom.”
I have to admit, I was kind of proud of my title. I thought it was subtle and literary, but not too flashy. The phrase “art of losing” is from a favorite poem of mine by Elizabeth Bishop, called “One Art.” It’s a sad, brave, beautiful poem about both death and writing, and I was happy because I could start my talk by reading it. Beginnings are important, and as a Buddhist woman writer, I like to pay tribute to my women ancestors.
But the Zen Hospice organizers came back to me with a polite counterproposal. They asked me to consider, instead, “The Art of Letting Go.”
Losing. Letting Go. The difference in nuance is interesting, right? Actually, I thought it was kind of funny. “Losing” does sound awfully negative, and even Buddhists don’t want to be losers. And I certainly didn’t want to make anyone at that particular dinner feel like a loser. The event was a tribute, a way of saying thank you to all the kind people who gave to the Zen Hospice Project and helped make their work possible. That kind of giving is not about losing. It is all about amply, generously, and joyously letting go.
So the organizers knew better and I agreed, but I continued to think about the difference between losing and letting go, and the degree to which they are interchangeable, or not. Elizabeth Bishop’s poem offers a lens through which to look at this question.
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.
Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
Then practice losing farther, losing faster;
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.
I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.
—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.
Clearly, this is a case where “losing” and “letting go” are not interchangeable. “The art of letting go isn’t hard to master” makes for lousy poetry, failing both rhythmically and rhetorically. What makes the original line and the poem so strong is loss—the stark, uncontrollable, and increasingly disastrous quality of the losses it enumerates in such a casual, almost nonchalant tone. It’s the unsettling disparity between the tone and the turbulence of feeling that makes the lines quiver and sing.
So what is the difference between losing and letting go? What makes losing feel like such a disaster? On an obvious level, it’s about control. When I let go, I’m in control; when I lose, I’m not. Letting go is a willful act; losing, a violation of my will. The poet’s assertion of her art, her will, over her losses heightens the poignancy of her poem, because in the poem, she both is and is not in control. Beneath the surface tension of her careful lines lies disaster.
My Zen teacher, Norman Fischer, is fond of noting that the world is a disaster, but he is a poet, like Elizabeth Bishop, so perhaps this is just something that poets notice. Of course, being a Zen teacher, he tempers this by pointing out that the world is simultaneously magnificent. Maybe it’s precisely these unbearable and irreconcilable tensions between magnificence and disaster, between chaos and control, between loss and letting go, that give birth to both poems and religions.
Dividing the Bones
My own introduction to religion and poetry came when I was very young. My mom’s father was a poet and Zen practitioner, and the very first memoryI have, as a small human being, was of watching him sit zazen with my grandmother. I was very little, maybe three years old, and growing up in New Haven, Connecticut. My grandparents came to visit us on their way back to Japan. It was the first time I’d met them. We lived in a tiny house with no spare bedroom, so they were given my parents’ room, while my parents slept on the couch. I remember being very excited about these two strange people in the house, who must be very powerful to displace my parents, the most important people in the world. I remember their clothes smelled funny, probably like incense, now that I think of it.
The first morning was filled with suspense. My mother was in the kitchen, cooking, and she must have sent me to call my grandparents to breakfast. I remember approaching the closed bedroom door with enormous trepidation. Perhaps I knocked, or maybe I didn’t. It was perfectly silent on the other side. I imagine I must have felt a grave sense of responsibility—I had been given a duty to discharge, and Asian people, even very small ones, are nothing if not dutiful. So perhaps it was this innate sense of duty that compelled me to turn the knob and open the door.
Nothing in my entire three years of living prepared me for what I saw. My grandmother and grandfather were sitting on the floor, on either side of the bed, with their legs crossed and their eyes half-closed, rocking gently back and forth.
Now, you have to remember that this was New Haven, Connecticut in the 1950s. People didn’t sit on the floor cross-legged, with their eyes half-closed, rocking back and forth. This was not San Francisco. It was not the East Village of New York. Seated on the floor like that they were my height exactly. We were at eye level, only their eyes were shut. Mine, on the other hand, were wide open. I stood there for a moment, then I backed out of the room and ran full tilt into the kitchen, where I told my mother what I had seen.
And here’s the funny part. My mom must have tried to explain to me that they were meditating, which of course meant nothing to a three-year-old. So when I didn’t understand, she went and got my Daruma doll. Daruma is the Japanese name for Bodhidharma, the monk who founded the Zen lineage in China and who sat for nine years, gazing at a wall, in silent meditation. Japanese Daruma dolls are round and red and shaped like a rice ball, with no legs or arms and big, blank, white circles where their eyes should be. Mine had a curved bottom so it would rock, and the idea was that even if you tried to push it over, it would always regain its balance.
So, my mom set my Daruma rocking back and forth, and she told me he was meditating, the same thing my Grandma and Grandpa were doing. Then she explained that Daruma had been a really good meditator. In fact, he had been such a good meditator and had meditated for so long that his arms and legs had fallen off. And the reason he had no eyes was that he had gotten sleepy while he was meditating and so he had cut off his eyelids.
This was my introduction to Zen and, thanks to Mom’s explanation, I developed an association in my mind between Zen meditation, blindness, and grave bodily disfigurement. For the rest of my grandparents’ visit, I kept fearing I’d walk in and find them sightless and limbless, rocking gently back and forth.
In time I got over it, and much later on, when I started sitting zazen myself, Mom was mystified. She called the posture “squatting on the floor.” She never understood why I would choose to squat on the floor and stare at a wall for days on end, when I could be reading a good book. She saw me as the Buddhist equivalent of a born-again Christian.
Like many second-generation Japanese kids in America, my mom had little connection with her Japanese roots. In Hawaii, where she had grown up, she was sent to Christian church while her parents practiced Buddhism. When World War II broke out, my grandfather was interned in Santa Fe, my grandmother was left behind in Hawaii, and my mother was put under house arrest in Michigan, where she was attending graduate school. After the war, my grandparents moved back to Japan. My mom moved to the east coast to continue her studies, and she saw her parents very rarely. My grandfather passed away shortly after their return to Japan, and by the time my grandmother died, at the age of ninety-three in an old-age home outside of Tokyo, Mom hadn’t seen her for many years.
When she called me in New York to give me the news of my grandmother’s death, my mom told me that she couldn’t go to Japan to attend the funeral. It would be a Buddhist ceremony, she said, and she had a bad leg—arthritis or something—so she wouldn’t be able to squat on the floor during the service. She was afraid she would be an embarrassment to the family if she were forced to use a chair, and she asked me if I would go to the funeral in her stead.
So I went to Tokyo, to my aunt’s house. My grandmother had already been cremated by the time I got there, but I arrived in time for her funeral ceremony at the family temple and her interment in the family grave. Before we left for the temple, my aunt took me into the parlor, where she was keeping my grandmother’s remains. She showed me the urn, which I dutifully admired, then she went to the kitchen and brought back a small Tupperware container and a pair of wooden chopsticks, the disposable kind that you get with take-out sushi. I watched as she lined the Tupperware with one of my grandmother’s fancy handkerchiefs, opened the urn, and started poking around inside with the tips of her chopsticks like she was trying to fish a pickle from a jar.
I was surprised to see that the remains were bones instead of ashes and to watch my aunt, picking them out and packing them in Tupperware. But most of all, I was surprised to hear her name each bone as she moved it. “This is a piece of your grandmother’s skull. This is a bit of her rib…” When she had transferred several bones, she snapped the top onto the container, burped it to remove the extra air, and handed it to me, instructing me to take the bones home and give them to my mother.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but this was a custom—not the Tupperware part, but the rest of it—called honewake, or dividing the bones, which is often practiced when a person’s family lives in different places. It’s also practiced when a women dies, so that her parents can have some of her remains, as a consolation, while the rest are buried with her husband.
To make a long story short, I came back from Japan with the bones and a large box of my grandmother’s belongings, but for one reason or another, I didn’t get around to bringing them to my mom for several years. She and I had grown apart, much as she had grown apart from her parents. I was busy with my career, a marriage, a divorce, and talking about death is never easy. She knew I had her mother’s bones. I kept hoping she’d ask me about them, but she never did, and I didn’t want to bring up the subject. So the bones sat on a shelf in my closet, a skeleton that haunted me for years.
At the time, I was working as a television producer, but I wanted to make an independent film of my own. I was interested in exploring my Japanese heritage and had started writing down little snippets of family history, stuff that I’d heard from my mom and from my grandmother over the years, and it quickly became clear to me how much I didn’t know. There were these great, gaping holes of missing information, and I felt a deep sense of loss and regret that I could no longer ask my grandparents anything because they were dead. At the same time, I felt an increasing compulsion to make something out of what remained.
What remained were my grandmother’s bones, the fragments of stories, and the duty I’d been given by my aunt to discharge—and, as we’ve established, I am nothing if not dutiful. But more powerful than that, I had a mandate from the dead.
This might seem strange, but that’s what it felt like. As though I had a mandate from my dead Japanese grandparents to engage with the world creatively. My grandfather, in addition to being a haiku poet, was also the first official photographer for Volcano National Park on the Big Island of Hawaii. I had grown up surrounded by his landscapes and his words: his black-and-white photographs, painstakingly hand-colored by my grandmother, and his book of poems with their beautiful calligraphed paintings and scrolls. When I was little and just starting to write poems and take pictures myself, my mother used to say that I was just like my grandfather. She used to shake her head ruefully and marvel at how her father’s love of the arts had skipped a generation, bypassing her, only to end up in me. It made me feel very proud whenever she said this, and she said it often, as though to make sure I would remember. I had only met my grandfather that one time when I was three, but I felt some kind of transmission had occurred. And my grandmother’s bones had completed the process. Her bones were the seal to the mandate.
What grew from this was a documentary film called Halving the Bones. It was the first narrative effort I dared put out into the world and it’s made from stories—stories of my grandparents’ lives, my grandmother’s death, and delivering her bones to my mother; stories of World War II, my grandfather’s internment, and the dissolution of their family; stories of loss and coping with loss. I tell some of the stories. My mother tells others. The ghost of my grandmother tells still more.
At the end of the film, after I’ve finally handed the bones over to my mom, I ask her what she wants me to do with them and she tells me her wishes. It’s a nice scene. Before giving them to her, I’d transferred the bones to a pretty Japanese tea canister and ditched the Tupperware, so Mom is sitting there in her living room with the little can of bones on her lap. She laughs at the Tupperware story and professes her fondness and admiration for the tea can. She opens it and inspects every bone, peering at each one, exclaiming over the beauty of their shapes, their surprising hues and shades of color. She whispers to the bones, as if to her mother. And in the end, after closing up the can and patting it contentedly, she tells me what she wants me to do with my grandmother’s bones, and hers, after she dies.
I’ll tell you what she said, but first I should explain that this was a turning point in our relationship. Making the film with my mother, engaging in this creative and collaborative storytelling project, helped us to reconnect. It gave us the excuse to spend time together, and get to know each other again, and learn to talk about the important matters of life and death. It was as if our relationship were somehow re-knit from the bones of my grandmother, so much so that when my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and then my father died, I decided to bring her to live with me so I could take care of her myself. I think this decision was only possible because of the closeness we’d found, but in addition, making the film—writing, shooting, editing, putting it out into the world—forced me to think deeply about loss, and the many ways we lose people, and the choices involved. My choice was simple: I didn’t want to be half a world away from my mother when she died.
I think there’s a powerful link between creativity and death. We make things because we lose things: memories, people we love, and ultimately our very selves. Our acts of creation are ways of grappling with death: we imagine it, struggle to make sense of it, forestall or defeat it. When I sat down to write this essay, I realized that all my work—in film or on the page—has ultimately been about dying, and I know I’m not alone. These media are, quite literally, mediums, the means of traveling to the other shore. They are our imaginative transport to the land of the dead. We learn things there, and then return what we learn to the living. This journey is undertaken by anyone who has ever told stories, from Homer, to Dante, to Elizabeth Bishop. To tell stories is to practice of the art of losing. As Bishop says, it is one art.
The Art of Losing
It wasn’t always easy to care for my mom. It became clear pretty quickly that she couldn’t live on her own, but my mother, like most mothers, had a serious stubborn streak, so I was prepared for the worst. But to my surprise, in 1999 she packed a tiny suitcase with a toothbrush, two bathing suits, and a pair of pajamas, and declared herself ready to come home with me and my husband to a remote island in British Columbia. She lived there with us in a little house just down the road from ours, pretty much until she died in November of 2004.
To care for a parent with Alzheimer’s is to practice losing everyday. I wrote a lot during that time, which was part of my practice. These are some entries from my blog.
August 17, 2003
So, my mother said to me the other day, “When I die, are you going to start renting out this house I’m living in to other people?”
“I haven’t thought about it,” I replied, hedging. Obviously I still don’t like it when she talks about dying.
“Well, you should take the washer-dryer up to your house before you rent it to anyone.”
“The washing machine…?”
“Yes,” she said. “I don’t know why you put it in this house. You have to come all the way down here every time you want to do your laundry.”
“We put it down here so we could all share... ” We put it down here so we’d have another excuse to hang out with you. We put it down here because we are afraid you’ll become bedridden and incontinent.
“Well,” she said, “that’s very nice of you, but after I die I don’t want to have to worry about you not having a washer-dryer.”
“Mom,” I told her. “Please.” She’s had Alzheimer’s since the mid 1990s, she’s just been diagnosed with what looks like jaw cancer, and she’s eighty-nine years old. She has enough on her mind without worrying about our laundry.
“So you’ll take it back up to your house?”
“Mom, when you die, I’m burying the washer-dryer with you.”
“Don’t be silly.”
“I don’t want to have to worry about your dirty clothes when you’re in heaven.” (I don’t really believe in heaven and neither does she, but I know she will humor me.)
“Clothes don’t get dirty in heaven,” she said, staring at a tall Douglas fir outside the window. “Clothes are always clean in heaven.”
“Yes. They have angels there who do all the laundry. Now, isn’t that a lovely tree? What kind of tree is that?”
May 25, 2004
A lot has happened. My mother turned ninety last month and we had a little birthday party for her.
“How old am I?” she asked me.
“You’re ninety, Mom.”
Her eyes widened. “I am! That’s unbelievable! How can I be ninety? I don’t feel ninety.”
“How old do you feel?”
She was perfectly serious.
I laughed. “You can’t be forty. Even I’m older than forty.”
“You are?” she exclaimed. “That’s terrible!”
She shook her head. “You know, I must be getting old. I just can’t remember anything anymore.” She looked up at me and blinked. “How old am I?”
Later on, I asked her, “How does it feel?”
“When you can’t remember things. Does it frighten you? Do you feel sad?”
“Well, not really. I have this condition, you see. It’s called os…oste... ”
“You mean Alzheimer’s?” I said, helping her out.
She looked astonished. “Yes! How on earth did you know?”
“Just a guess...”
“I can never remember the name,” she explained.
“Of course not.”
“It affects my memory...”
“...and that’s why you can’t remember.”
She frowned and shook her head. “Remember what?”
“There’s not a single thing I can do about it,” she told me, when I reminded her. “If there was something I could do and I wasn’t doing it, then I could feel sad or depressed. But as it is…” She shrugged.
“So you’re OK with it?”
She looked at me, patiently. “I don’t have much choice,” she explained, “so I may as well be happy.”
December 8, 2005
Dear Norman [Fischer],
The other day you asked me to write something for the Hospice Project grief workshop that you will be leading. So here goes.
My mom died one month ago today. She had three terminal conditions: Alzheimer’s, cancer of the jaw, and ninety years of living. Her death should have come as no surprise, but of course when she died in my arms, I was astonished.
How can this life, which has persisted here on this earth for over ninety years, be over? Just like that? This strange new state of mom-less-ness is inconceivable to me. It is new and foreign, a condition I’ve never experienced in my own forty-eight years of living.
I’ve been taking care of my mom for the last ten years, so my grieving is minute and quotidian. When I go to the grocery store, I find myself searching for things that are soft and sweet (she loved chocolate and she had no teeth), or beautiful bright things (she loved flowers, but her sight was failing). Then I remember that she isn’t here anymore and I’ll never again see her face light up when I come into her room, or hear her exclaim over the color of a leaf or a petal or the sky. For the first couple of weeks, I just stood in the ice cream aisle, stunned and weeping.
When I think about her death from her perspective, mostly I just feel relief. She was beginning to suffer a lot of pain and confusion, and I believe she was ready to go. But when I think about it from my point of view, it breaks my heart. Maybe that’s selfish. I don’t know. All I know is that I miss her like crazy.
I miss her thin little fingers. I miss holding her hand. I miss twirling her wedding ring around so the tiny chip of a diamond sits back on top.
I’ve tried so hard to be strong for her. When she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, our roles began to switch. I took over caring for her, and slowly she became dependent on me. In the end, I was feeding her and changing her, and she was calling me mom. Alzheimer’s is an achingly long way to say goodbye, but I had to be strong, I thought. It would only confuse and upset her to see me cry.
Then a few months ago, I had to take a trip and leave her for a couple of weeks. I went to tell her, knowing that she might die while I was gone, and as I sat on the bed next to her, the tears just came and there was no stopping them. I tried not to let her see, but of course she noticed. She’s my mom, after all—it’s her job to notice these things. She put her arm around me, put her head on my shoulder, and although she’d pretty much stopped using language by then, she made these sweet, singing, mom-like noises meant to comfort me. And it worked, and I felt better, and when I left, we were both laughing. So that was good. My grieving gave her something that she could do well, something she could succeed at, and that made her happy. It let her be the strong one for a change.
They say every death is different, and I think every occasion of grief is different, too.
When my dad died, I was angry because he was angry and despairing. He did not want to die. He wasn’t ready. I was in charge of his health care, but I couldn’t do a damn thing to prevent or forestall this utterly unthinkable and unacceptably terminal outcome. I was mad at him for his lack of readiness and I was furious at myself for my impotence and lack of compassion. After he died, I couldn’t think of him without a lot of pain and anger and confusion and despair, and a sense of having failed him. I couldn’t look at his picture without feeling my insides twist. I wanted to look away. And I did. I remember I drank a lot, too, in order to get through it. I took his death very personally.
It was different with my mom. We’d had lots of time together and we were both as ready as we could ever be. And I wasn’t drinking. I quit two months before she died. I’d done the drunken death-and-grieving thing once, and it was lousy. I didn’t want to do it again. I wanted to keep my wits about me. I didn’t want to run away.
The last thing I promised my dad was to take care of my mom. He knew she had Alzheimer’s, and he was tortured at having to leave her behind. So for ten years now, I’ve been fulfilling my promise to him. And this has been good, too. His request gave me something that I could do well, something I could succeed at, and this has made me happy.
So I’m grateful to my parents for dying in my presence, and for teaching me their two different ways of how it can be done. It is hard work, dying, but after watching my mom and dad, I realize that we’re built to do it.
Grieving is hard work, too, but again, I guess we’re built to do it. We come equipped with hearts to break, and eyes to cry with. We have brains to hold the memories and stories, and voices to tell them with. We have the capacity to love and heal.
Now, a month after my mom’s death, I’m not crying in the grocery store so often anymore. Instead, when I think of my mom, I buy a sweet and offer it to her, and then I eat it (she hated wasting perfectly good food). I bring home flowers and admire them through her eyes. I take walks for her by the ocean and look at the sky.
So that’s a little of what it’s been like. Thank you so much, Norman, for asking me to write this. It helps to have a place to put the feelings.
Negotiating with the Dead
If creativity is a way of offsetting or coping with loss, then perhaps writing—our written language—exists on account of, or to account for, our mortality. If we were not able to count our days and to foresee our termination, then why would we bother to write things down? If we could not envision the world without us, then why would we feel the need to leave bits of ourselves, these words, behind? And if we were not compelled to hold on to our dead, then why would we keep them alive in stories? Why would we feel the need to speak to them, or for them? Why would we grieve? Why would we need history at all?
The act of telling a story is an act of negotiating with the dead, to use Margaret Atwood’s wonderful phrase from her book of the same title. You could argue, as she does, that all stories are about dying. Storytelling is about the ticking of the clock. It’s about “Once upon a time.” And stories, written down, have unique qualities that set them apart from other art forms. Unlike painting, stories are time-based—they unfold through time. Unlike the performance of a play, they persist—they survive their enactment. Unlike music, they are literal. Stories literally re-enact time passing. They have a beginning, a middle, and an end. They are born, they live, and then they die, and every time you participate in the writing or reading of a story, you are participating in that same cycle. Pretending. Rehearsing, if you will.
Stories are messages from the nether land, the land of the dead, and writers are the future dead, calling back to the living. In the publishing business, there’s a saying, “The only good author is a dead author.” For those of us still living, this statement is a bit problematic, but at least we can take some consolation in knowing that the best may still lie ahead. And to be fair, you can see the publisher’s point. Authors are, hands down, the most unreliable link in the production chain. They are moody and capricious. They can be preening prima donnas or stubbornly reclusive, puffed up or crippled by doubt. Often they have bad habits, like drinking or philandering or bad hygiene. Generally, these are not people you want in key roles in your production team. And when you think about it, the saying is quite true. The majority of the books and stories that we read—the good ones, anyway, the ones that linger and continue to haunt us—were written by dead authors. Language, this medium of story, is an inheritance we receive from the dead, and when we practice the art of telling stories, we do so in the tongues of the dead, calling them back to life.
Which brings us back to Elizabeth Bishop’s poem, “One Art.” Bishop’s art is the art of losing, which, like any art, must be practiced and will be practiced whether we like it or not. But in the final stanza, she intrudes upon her very last line with a private, parenthetical imperative:
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.
“Write it!” she commands herself. Write it! Write your loss, because for a poet this disaster that we call life—and it truly is a disaster, when you think about it—can only be transformed into magnificence through the practice of this one art. It is through poetry that Bishop practices the art of losing, and transforms each loss into a poem, which is a kind of liberation, a letting go. And through the poem she leaves behind, post-mortem, she shows us all how to make the journey and to effect this transformation, too.
I spent ten years losing my mom, little by little, day by day, but during that time, I wrote books, letters, e-mails, blog postings, stories, journal entries, and poems. While I was writing this essay, it hit me that, by following a dead poet’s injunction, I’ve been turning loss into letting go. Now, almost three years since my mother died, I read what I wrote when the pain was strongest, and I feel the pain again, but less so. The suffering, too, has changed, and yet instead of relief, I feel a quick stab of grief at the diminishment—and then I have to laugh, realizing that even loss can be lost and grieved for.
One last thing. I promised to tell you Mom’s instructions regarding the disposal of her mother’s bones. What she told me was this: she said that when she died, after her cremation, she wanted me to take her bones, along with my grandmother’s, back to Hawaii and throw them all in the ocean.
I confess, I haven’t done that yet. I’m not quite ready to let go.