Could use a coat of paint, Keene, NH

Whenever I have a bout with asthma, as I did this weekend then into yesterday, I think of Elizabeth Bishop, and whenever I think of Elizabeth Bishop, I think of “One Art“:

    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.

Everytime I read this poem, I re-experience the shock of my first reading, the eery devastation that builds as Bishop describes an accumulation of loss: lost car keys, heirlooms, homes, lovers. With each trauma, Bishop redefines “disaster”: what seemed crippling turns into nothing special, another heartache to be checked off by a soul long accustomed to grieving.

Bishop, of course, suffered from both asthma and eczema, two ailments that often coexist and are (some believe) triggered by psychological trauma. Critics have often argued that Bishop’s characteristic understatement–the poetic discipline that equates watching a suicidal lover die in ones arms with the misplacing of one’s car keys–derives from her life-long health problems: these are the poems of a soul who has stared Death straight in the face and lived to describe its precise arch of eyebrow. Folks with asthma learn to perfect the art of losing: even losing one’s breath, that fragile grip on life, isn’t hard to master, for in the slimmest second it is gone.

Nobody home, Keene, NH

When I was an adolescent, I had eczema so bad the bottoms of my feet were raw like meat with seeping sores; for a long time, though, I ignored this, considering it “not disaster.” In high school, there were times I could barely walk, my feet worn skinless, the crusting lesions spreading across my ass and up my spine and neck, threatening to peek out of pulled-up shirt collars. I feared friends would notice and recoil, but no one did: again, not disaster. In college, my eczema abated, no longer fueled by the hormonal turbulence of adolescence, but occasionaly even today, my hands (particularly my non-writing one) will erupt with small, barely visible but extremely itchy pustules: this, too, isn’t disaster.

I had my first full-blown asthma attack when we lived in the Cambridge Zen Center. One night, my lungs spasmodic from a reaction to sawdust and paint fumes, I lay abed struggling to breathe, every speck of attention devoted to the exhausting labor of inhalation, exhalation. I couldn’t breathe at all when I reclined; I could barely breathe when I sat propped with pillows. My entire torso ached with the labor of breathing, and I remember resting my head back into pillows, desperate for sleep, thinking that death would be a welcome respite for at least the dead don’t breathe. With the next paroxysm of coughing, Chris rushed me to the car, off to an Emergency Medical Center located on the Fenway. I remember riding down dark, abandoned streets, and I remember thinking as we passed Fenway Park, “This too wouldn’t be a bad place to die.”

Even the art of dying isn’t hard to master.

Tennessee Cove from Tennessee Valley Trail, Marin County, CA

But this isn’t an essay about asthma, or eczema, or death. It’s an essay about oceans. Herman Melville wrote that “meditation and water are wedded for ever,” noting at the beginning of Moby-Dick that solitary walkers in seaside cities inevitably wander toward the shore, pulled there by an invisible force: “Nothing will content them but the extremest limit of the land….They must get just as nigh the water as they possibly can without falling in.” Ishmael himself, feeling a “damp, drizzly November in [his] soul,” went to sea as a alternative to suicide, a “substitute for pistol and ball.” This gravitation toward the ocean, Melville suggests, is part and parcel of the human condition: like Narcissus, it is our own reflection that “we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans,” the “ungraspable phantom of life” that “is the key to it all.”

This past summer, at patience’s end after toiling for years on a dead-end dissertation, I ran away to San Francisco. It was as far from New Hampshire as I could get without a passport: an entire continent away. And just north of San Francisco, in the Marin Highlands in the shadows of Mount Tamalpais, I knew there is good walking, the same seaside strolls and mountain climbs described by some of the writers — Jack Kerouac, John Muir, Gary Snyder — that I and my pen had been so long wrestling with.

I spent an entire week in San Francisco, alone. I stayed at the San Francisco Zen Center but set foot in their zendo only once. Every morning I’d rise before practice, dress, then sneak out of the Zen Center, walking down hilly streets to my rented car. Everyday I planned to stay in the city to take in the sights and enjoy its fervent energy, but every morning my car steered itself north, across the Golden Gate Bridge, and into Marin.

Pirate's Cove from Coastal Trail, Marin County, CA

One morning after discovering the heaven-on-earth that is Point Reyes National Seashore, I went there before sunrise to walk nearly five miles out to Tomales Bluff, the northernmost tip of Point Reyes. The day was foggy, so there was no hope of a scenic sunrise, and my camera was broken, the victim of wind-blown sand at Santa Maria Beach. Mine was the only car in the parking lot as I set out into the fog; many times I wondered why I was walking nearly five miles one way to a mist-veiled, invisible destination.

The walk was flat and easy, my feet light in my sandals. A single marsh hawk (or perhaps several, singly) continued to flirt with me the entire way, silently vanishing into the fog only to soar back fifteen minutes later, twenty, thirty… Always a surprise, he’d zoom right above my head, his back and belly gray like fog. And on either side of the trail, looming like trees, the antlers of Tule elk came and went, their owners tame with surprise that a human would be walking silent and alone in the morning fog. The males, I understood later, were primed for the rut but not yet bugling; the females were clustered in loose flocks, looking at me with brown-eyed bemusement.

By the time I reached Tomales Bluff, the fog had cleared, revealing a panoramic view of Bodega Bay. It was lunchtime, and I’d packed well, so I climbed and clambered onto a rock jutting over the crashing waters below. As I ate, I watched flocks of prehistoric cormorants and brown pelicans flying below me. And when I was done, I paused, feeling strong the pull of the ocean…

It was the same pull that drew Kate Chopin’s Edna Pontellier to cast off her clothes and walk into the Atlantic in search of the ultimate awakening…the same force that billowed Virginia Woolf’s skirts when she set foot in the Ouse. The waves, the waves: it is the hypnotic pull of the waves that allures, beckoning with the promise of a gently floating rest. Freud termed “oceanic” the spiritual impulse toward the infinite and boundless; it was an impulse he decried. And yet the mystics of the world have aways admitted that in dying to self we are born unto Self, the mystic’s swooning into ecstasy being a miniature version of death itself.

So sitting on a rock above the ocean some five miles from any other human, a single rented car in a lot where no one would initially think to look, I considered it. The art of losing isn’t hard to master: it would have been easy to roll off a rock, down into the sea, surrendering to the ultimate suffocation of those crashing and pounding waves. None of this, necessarily, would have been disaster.

And yet having considered it, I relented. Grabbing a rock, I tossed it off the edge and listened as it ricocheted down, down, down: that sound returned me to my senses. Whether I returned to finish my degree or not, I didn’t care: I no longer wanted it. But I would return home to other writing: I would return again and again to life and its myriad crashings up and down, its assorted traumas that are each not-quite-disasters. The ocean I sought, of course, was no different from my mundane life with its incessant ebb and flow, a rise and fall that is unique every moment while still hypnotic in its monotony. The oceanic feeling is not distant, not a continent away as I sit typing in New Hampshire; I needn’t have walked five miles or even a single step to find it.

No, this ocean is within, right at hand, lurking with its tidal gravitation at every turn: can’t you feel the pull? All it takes is that initial surrender, that ever-so-simple decision to let go, go, go…

The art of losing isn’t hard to master. Every moment, with every exhalation, just let your small tired self surrender itself into the mystery of unseen inspiration.