The Art of Longing

by Emily Sinclair

Featured Art: Pandora by Odilon Redon

We knew that we wanted a change, my husband and I, although we were unclear about how—or, more accurately, where we’d make it happen. The change was coming because I had, once again, a feeling of anxiety and inauthenticity. It comes on periodically and when it comes, I think that I am not living the life I was meant to lead—that, in fact, I am leading the wrong life, and I start fantasizing about the right one. So in the spring of 2017, we cleaned out our basement, fixed what was broken, touched up the paint, and put our Denver house on the market. We were leaving.

I wanted—and had sort of convinced my husband that he also wanted–something more rural. I was done with urban life–the traffic, the expense, the irritability, the ugly new buildings blocking every line of sight. The year before, on a weekend trip to the mountains, I’d gotten a little warning shot from my psyche that this latest version of the need for change was coming on. I’d gone off and ridden a horse at a trail place and, long story short, now I owned a horse who boarded at a barn outside Denver. Buying the horse was the beginning of Plan B (I Become A Cowgirl) after the failure of Plan A (Start a Goat Farm in Vermont) to which my husband hadn’t agreed. Still, I was in luck: In the few years since the death of the goat farm dream, my husband had started a hard apple cider company and wanted to live on an orchard, so at least we agreed on leaving the city, if not on owning and milking livestock. The romantic appeal of a land-based life got me totally energized. My husband’s idea was to go wherever the wind blew, at any one of several locations from ten to three hundred fifty miles from Denver where apples could grow. “Let’s just wait and decide where to move when we get an offer on the house. We’ll be fine,” he said. “We can rent. Put everything in storage. It doesn’t matter. I’m easy going.”

And I—I am not easy going. I am a planner. A worrier. A person who regularly considers holding my own funeral now so that I can control who comes, what they say, and what sort of music gets played. It’s my life, after all, and I’m not interested in someone with a perspective I don’t care for getting the final word in. Six weeks after the house went on the market, we had a buyer. Cash offer, thirty days to closing. Despite the fact—or perhaps because of it–that I had Zillow searches running in six different zip codes, we both panicked (now who was easy going?) and made an offer on a house fifteen miles west of Denver, after seeing it once. I had wanted to go farther away, to the other side of the state, to a mountain town with a ranching history, but my husband wasn’t able to move his business. And the house, I had to admit, hit a lot of the marks: A ranch-style house on an acre and a half, it met the criteria for open floor plan, outdoor space for fruit trees, close to barn, trails, library. It needed some work. Fifteen miles was no big deal. It wasn’t the radical change I’d hoped for but still: small town living with room for chickens, near the horse. It was at least closer to the thing I’d been longing for lately.

Longing is the theme of my life. Wherever I am, I want something different. I change cities and jobs and especially houses; I have married, divorced, re-married. I have enrolled in three graduate programs and completed one. What I long for is always nearly the opposite of what I have, although the life I’m living at any given moment is the life I longed for before, so sometimes my longing follows a circular path. Often it feels as though I am trying to return to someplace I once was, and yet have never been. What I say I want is permanence, yet I’m always jonesing for the next place. When I get someplace, I start nesting–nailing things to the wall, putting flowers in vases, organizing the books according to some grand scheme—even as I begin to wonder what’s next. Even as a child, I re-arranged the furniture in my bedroom and then wrote in my diary about running away from home. Such is the impossible nature of longing. What makes a person spend a lifetime forever seeking, never resting? And how do I understand a life made up of not what I have, but what I haven’t? I had promised my husband that this was it, the last move, but I didn’t really believe it. The apple trees would take four or five years to bear fruit and he wanted to reap what he’d sowed for many years afterward, he said pointedly. Tell me now, my husband said, before I plant the trees, if this is not what you want.

Trees or no trees, whatever. The real and deeper question for me was whether this latest episode of longing meant I’d finally found my place, or if it was just the current iteration of running away from one thing while running toward something else. I experienced the trees as a kind of ultimatum: I could choose the longing and chasing, or I could choose my marriage.

Once, a man I know gave me a copy of the poem One Art by Elizabeth Bishop. The man and I were friends, not romantically involved, although I did feel a kind of love for him. I loved talking and listening to him, and learning how he thought about things. At the same time that I loved aspects of him, I recognized that we would not be a good couple. We were temperamentally unsuited for each other and I was only physically attracted to him in the sense that his body was attached to his mind. So, of course, I longed for him: he was wrong for me and therefore perfect. The synchronicity of someone I longed for (and could never have, because I did not want him) giving me a poem about longing was sublime.

Poems make me nervous. I don’t understand a lot of them and don’t write them, not since some humiliating assignments in high school (what rhymes with wretched?). At the same time, when I do understand a poem, I return to it again and again for the fresh shock of how it captures some essential thing about human experience. As I packed up my books in preparation for the move, I skimmed the poems I’d neglected for some time. And there was Elizabeth Bishop.

One Art’s wry tone captures longing in just the way I experience it, as an acknowledgement and a denial, from first two stanzas:

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.

In those finals weeks in our home, I re-read the poem again and again. One Art takes the poetic form of a villanelle—five tercets, a quatrain, a rhyme scheme with repeating, alternating lines that contradict each other: ‘disaster’, after all, can only be endured, never ‘mastered’. Prior to the nineteenth century, the word ‘villanelle’ meant a ‘country song’, a form that concerned itself with the rustic and pastoral. It seemed right, given Elizabeth’s lifelong search for home, that she’d chosen the form for One Art.  Yet she’d also pressurized the form in the way that the poem returns again and again to what the speaker longs for and cannot have. One Art’s subtext is the obsessive, circular, and wounded perspective of its speaker, with her repeated denials and their pretense of invulnerability. Loss doesn’t matter, the poem suggests a bit too forcefully to be convincing. And anyway, you’ll get over it!

A reconsideration of the poem drove me to read not only Elizabeth’s poetry but also her biographies and letters. In reading her life, I saw that her most important relationships were often intertwined with real-estate related tumult. As a young child, Elizabeth lost both parents and went to live in Nova Scotia with her maternal grandparents; then, she was taken from that life, which she loved, to the home of her paternal grandparents in Boston, from which she couldn’t wait to leave, for college. One of her two great loves was Lota de Soares, a Brazilian landscape architect with whom she shared a home in Brazil for seventeen years. When Lota, after difficulties and infidelities between them, ended her own life, the de Soares family blamed Elizabeth, who returned to the United States, grieving for the place she’d felt ‘most at home.’ Lucky Elizabeth, I thought. At least she’d felt at home somewhere.

The new house, we discovered when we moved in, was in worse shape than we or our home inspector had realized. Our first weekend, the shower didn’t drain until the roto-rooter guy pulled out a gopher-sized mass of soap and hair that was practically sentient. The LCD panel on the oven didn’t work so while the oven turned on, we didn’t know the temperature. The fan above the stove was broken so when I cooked, the kitchen filled with smoke, setting off the fire alarm and summoning the fire department. The sprinklers leaked at multiple sites and the roof had to be replaced from age and hail damage. The twenty-year-old carpet rustled with bacterial vigor. Something somewhere was always beeping. None of the work done on the house in thirty years met local building codes. The bathroom fixtures—some of which mysteriously didn’t deliver water–were a dated, gaudy gold, and the bathroom was perpetually moist with a smell. Last, the sellers hadn’t been able to catch and remove all the koi from the backyard pond, and the fish rose to the surface, glaring at us from among their lily pads while their bitter mouths opened and closed.

During that first week in the new house, I became immediately and profoundly depressed. What I had wanted—and even thought, due to our fast-paced sale and my inability to read maps, that we had done—was to move to a small town. What we had actually done was unclear. We were sort of part of a small town—minutes to the northwest was Golden, CO, a mountain town; to the east was my barn. Lots of neighbors had livestock, including calves, horses, goats, and chickens; at night, deer bedded down in our yard while coyotes roamed the ditches at dawn–but we also seemed to have moved to the suburbs. Ten minutes to the south were Super Target, Office Max, Bed Bath & Beyond, and Nordstrom Rack. After years of waiting for the right moment, we’d finally done the bold thing—sold the house and moved—and now a city friend texted: You moved to the suburbs, he said. Are you going to start eating at Applebees and voting Republican?

We did not move to the suburbs, I texted back, and we’ll be enjoying our riblets while you sit in traffic. But what I felt was a bone-chilling fear. Longing had given me purpose, vision, and drive. It solved the problems of the present by catapulting me into some better future. At the heart of my longing was always some slightly different and always better me. A woman calmer, wiser, more competent. She’s in my peripheral vision, always: she is both me and the person I hope to become.

We moved to a small town, I whispered to myself, and leashed the dog for a walk.

Elizabeth was fascinated by the Portuguese word ‘saudade’, for which there is no true English equivalent; it’s often defined as a distinctly Brazilian form of longing. Initially, Elizabeth understood saudade to mean ‘missing friends’ and wrote to her great friend, poet Robert Lowell: “With much love and saudades as they say here, a very nice word that seems to include all the sentiments of missing friends in one.” Later, she understood it to mean ‘homesickness’.

I have never felt homesick. I’m a fifth-generation Texan; yet even as a child, I felt estranged from my birthplace and its people. I grew up in suburban Dallas, a place of big cars, big hair, big churches, and big shopping. What I liked most was the car, because it meant I could go. Perhaps it was there that the longing started, as a means of escape from a troubled family. I loved sleep-away camp in New Mexico and never wanted to go back home. I dreamed of living a rural life in Virginia, where I went to boarding school; then, when I went to college in New York, I dreamed of an artist’s life in the West Village. Once New York began to press in on me, I moved west, to Colorado, where I exchanged high heels for Birkenstocks and socks. Later, in Colorado, I fantasized about a brownstone in Brooklyn. Within Colorado, I’ve moved many times, packing up my children while telling them how wonderful the new life will be. Yet now, with the children off at college, I was uncomfortable with the selfishness and waste of my longing—the time and money, now gone, spent packing up, moving, settling, and then doing it all again.

As the child and grandchild of entrepreneurial types, I was lucky enough to have what is often called ‘family money’. The irony of it was that I spent the money trying to escape my family and its miasma of troubles. While some of my relatives were accomplished, interesting people, there were also several generations who struggled with poor mental health and alcohol abuse, including my parents. Add to those woes my father’s sudden and surprising death six weeks after a cancer diagnosis. By age thirteen, two years after my father’s death, I was begging to get sent to boarding school. I figured if my family couldn’t create the kind of calm, happy home I longed for as a child, perhaps they could fund one for me in adulthood. In the end, the money mostly funded longing. It has been a consistent and reliable source for domestic destabilization and enduring fantasies.

Elizabeth, too, was the recipient of family funds; her father’s estate bankrolled her peripatetic search for home. She felt keenly the loss of some of her homes. Yet the two middle stanzas of One Art tally up the speaker’s losses while acknowledging that they hardly matter:

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
faces, 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.

In obsession, what is sought matters less than the seeking. As I read, I felt the weariness of my ever-shifting life, of denying the importance of the past in favor of the future. So many people, places, things, and houses have come and gone.

What I said to my husband, when he asked if he should plant the trees, was, This will be what I want?

At the end of that first week in the new house, my husband left for a work trip and texted about the great time he was having, how after work everyone was going to the pub or mountain biking. Alone in the terrible house, I went to a natural foods store and spent fifty bucks on various hokum supplements that promised to change my brain chemistry from angry, bitter, and sad to happy.

In the mornings, I woke early and started running in the foothills near our house. Ten minutes from the house was a path up South Table Mountain and as I huffed along, the bushes crackled with deer moving through them. Snakes moved among the rocks while above me, hawks circled. A man on a gray horse thundered by me at a gallop. I felt at peace in a way that I do not in a city. The views on those sunlit mornings, where I could see Boulder’s Flatiron’s gray-violet mountains to the left or the shimmering skyscrapers of downtown Denver to my east, gave me pause. If I were being honest with myself, which is not my strong suit, I’d have to acknowledge that I had much of what I wanted. Still, for the next six weeks, I ate palmfuls of the supplements and cried every day.

In August, our contractor delivered the bad news. Our plan had been a six-week-long update that we’d live through with a hot pot and a mini-fridge. But after the contractor sent his estimators in, he said, You need to move out. Next week. We’re taking it down to the studs and we’ll be done in four months.

I stood in the house we’d moved into just weeks before and did what I do best: I shifted into an old longing I’d left behind.

I’m taking the horse and I’m leaving, I said to my husband, whose work keeps him in the city. I’ll be in the mountains for half the remodel. Secretly, I saw this as my last shot at perhaps getting him to move to the mountains with me. Also, I hoped to get myself invited on some cattle drives.

Before I left, we moved into a six-hundred-square-foot apartment. Our bed broke so we put our mattress on the floor. We took our desks, the couch, and four plates and bowls, plus a bottle of tequila. Then, a week later, I packed up my car and put the horse in a friend’s trailer and off we went. Before we’d even gotten to the new life, I was still negotiating for one we’d abandoned.

In the last decade of her life, Elizabeth’s health, always an issue, was increasingly fragile. She’d suffered from asthma throughout her life; more significantly, her heavy drinking caused falls that resulted in broken bones. She was a lifelong smoker, anemic, with dental problems, rheumatism, and a habit of taking ‘pep’ pills as well as sleeping pills. Despite her poor health, Elizabeth was, in 1970, three years after Lota’s death, intellectually and emotionally engaged. She was writing and teaching at Harvard where she met the other great love of her life, Alice Methfessel, some thirty years younger than she was. Alice had brought a restorative light and renewed sense of vigor in Elizabeth’s life. To those who knew her, Elizabeth was content in a way she’d hadn’t been before.

My horse, as it turned out, hated living outside in the mountains. At home, she lived in a box stall in a barn where hay and grain were delivered to her stall twice daily, and where she was brought inside and blanketed during inclement weather. In the mountains, she spent her days whinnying for me at the fence, and her nights sheltering under a small lean-to, crying for the guy who ran the place. She hated her herd. The boss mare kept running her off from the feed. She cut her foot on some loose metal. She lost weight. And me? On one hand, the mountain town was resplendent and golden as the aspen trees changed, but owing to the wildfires that surrounded the town, ash fell from the skies and choked my lungs. I missed my husband on the few days per week we were separated. And then it snowed, and my horse, who hated any kind of precipitation on her face or getting her hooves wet, looked miserable, skinny, and cold. Whatever the horse was longing for, it wasn’t this. After two weeks, I called my friend with the trailer and begged her to come get the horse. And I followed. As it turned out, we were not meant to be cayuse and cowgirl. But what now?

As time passed and her health declined, Elizabeth had begun to sense that it was ‘too late’ for some things and she began to turn her attentions toward the possible, rather than the fantastic. She spent her summers on the New England seashores she loved and wrote that she wished to learn the names of birds and wild flowers and pebbles. In 1975, when the women had been a couple for some five years, Alice met a man, Peter, and the women separated. Still, Alice remained the sole beneficiary of Elizabeth’s estate, and although the women parted with pain, particularly on Elizbeth’s part, it was also without rancor. It was then, alone and missing Alice, that Elizabeth wrote “One Art”. It took her seventeen drafts to get to the final one. In the last two stanzas, the speaker moves from the small scale losses of a watch, even houses, to a grand scale of realms and rivers, and then the ultimate loss of the beloved:

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.

Biographer Megan Marshall writes, “Elizabeth had been practicing the art of losing since infancy; art had become her one means of mastery. ‘One Art’ was the elegy she had wanted for so long to write.” And now the loss of Alice and her own declining health had Elizabeth confronting the ways in which her life was narrowing. The richness and meaning of her life seemed to be in the past, not the future. Howard Moss, the poetry editor of The New Yorker, accepted “One Art” for publication in November, 1975. The next month, Alice wrote to say that she and Peter planned to marry.

For my part, I had tried to take solace in the poem’s exhortation to ‘Write it!’. The longer I looked at the line, however, the more I saw Elizabeth’s characteristic duality: It’s imperative for writers to write it, to name the loss, while understanding that writing doesn’t help at all.

After the horse and I came home, my husband and I hunkered down in our apartment. At night, we went over to our house, which was emptied out, with wires dangling from the ceiling and exposed pipes. And because I could not have that empty space, I began to long for it. I began counting the days until we could move home, which was what the place I had hated had become. I selected light and plumbing fixtures. I cast into my future and imagined what it would be like to finally live there. The house, a modest 1960s brick ranch, became my castle on a hill, the thing I couldn’t have. And so, in December, when we finally did move home, our third move in nine months, I was overjoyed. Every morning slant of light, every bird at the feeder, every functioning appliance moved me to tears.

We cooked in the new house; we cleaned. We arranged our books and our pictures of our combined four children. We reveled in our open space and lack of excess stuff. In late winter, we set up our chicken coop and created a compost pile for yard waste and another for the kitchen scraps. In March, we brought home seven baby chicks and set them in a brooder in the den. On Earth Day, we planted forty fruit trees. In May, we moved the chickens outside. My husband said he had never been so happy. It wasn’t a goat farm in Vermont or a Rocky Mountain cattle ranch, nor a brownstone in Brooklyn, or a farm in Virginia, but it was home, and it was ours, and we worked together to ensure that the animals and trees thrived.

But how was this any different than any other move? Hadn’t all the moves been so shiny, so perfect at first? At night, I lay curled next to my husband, the tip of my finger tracing the line of his scapula and the crest of his hipbones. We’d planted the trees and here we were.

After a brief engagement, Alice ended her relationship with Peter and returned to Elizabeth. Alice wrote, “I like being with you more than anyone else in the world.” It was a good year for Elizabeth, who won the National Book Critics Circle Award for her poetry collection, Geography III. In the last year of her life, 1979, Elizabeth noted a kind of fogginess to her thinking and Alice helped her spend more time in the countryside, which she preferred to the city. In October, it was Alice who found Elizabeth, who had collapsed as she dressed for dinner, dead of an aneurysm.

After Elizabeth’s death, a friend, going through her papers, found a handwritten poem, Breakfast Song. It’s an ode to Alice (“My love, my saving grace,/your eyes are awfully blue”). Part of it reads:

Today I love you so
how can I bear to go
(as I soon must, I know) to bed with ugly death
in that cold, filthy place, to sleep there without you,
without the easy breath and nightlong, limblong warmth
I’ve grown accustomed to?—Nobody wants to die;
tell me it’s a lie!
But no, I know it’s true.

I felt, upon reading it, a painful shock. The revelation in Breakfast Song: what the speaker wants is what she has.

In spring, my husband traveled again for work, driving several hundred miles to tend the orchards he maintains in the southwestern part of Colorado. Almost immediately I missed him. Why hadn’t I paid more attention to him when he’d been here? Or looked at or touched him more? And how much of my life have I missed, anyway, by always longing for some other life? I went out back to the orchard with our old dog and stood among our little striving fruit trees. This is what I want, I thought, and sent the thought up high above the trees, over the mesa, and west, over the Continental Divide, to wherever my husband was right then, as if whatever I long for at any given moment might possibly be true forever.



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