The Art of Losing Part 3

Rebecca Solnit makes getting lost something to aspire to. In her collection of autobiographical essays proving there is no subject out of her reach, A Field Guide to Getting Lost, she maps out various ways to be lost. Lost in place, time, music, conversation, identity, family, society, and so on. She frames getting lost as invitation to discover new things, not least about yourself.

She explains her terms early on:

Lost really has two disparate meanings. Losing things is about the familiar falling away, getting lost is about the unfamiliar appearing. There are objects and people that disappear from your sight or knowledge or possession; you lose a bracelet, a friend, the key. You still know where you are. Everything is familiar except that there is one item less, one missing element. Or you get lost, in which case the world has become larger than your knowledge of it. Either way, there is a loss of control. Imagine yourself streaming through time shedding gloves, umbrellas, wrenches, books, friends, homes, names. This is what the view looks like if you take a rear-facing seat on the train. Looking forward you constantly acquire moments of arrival, moments of realization, moments of discovery. The wind blows your hair back and you are greeted by what you have never seen before. The material falls away in an onrushing experience. It peels off like skin from a molting snake. Of course to forget the past is to lose the sense of loss that is also memory of an absent richness and a set of clues to navigate the present by; the art is not one of forgetting but letting go. And when everything else is gone, you can be rich in loss. 

p.22-23

Solnit’s imagery of the rear-facing view on the train immediately grabbed me. (Given current COVID times, I also could not help but add “masks” to the list of quotidian things I would see stream past my window).

But her description also horrified me. She moved from household objects to people in the same breath. You don’t lose a friend in the same way you lose a key or a bracelet. And what about the loss of sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, spouses? Perhaps reading this book in a pandemic has heightened my sensitivity to these human losses that are far from romantic. Would people who have said goodbye to a loved one, or multiple loved ones, describe themselves as “rich in loss?”

Given her topic and her mention of “keys”, I thought Solnit would reference Elizabeth Bishop’s famous poem “One Art” that also talks about loss. In fact, I frequently title this poem “The Art of Losing” in my head since this line is repeated so often in the villanelle. (I’ve actually written on this poem before in Part 1 and Part 2). Bishop similarly moves from talking about insignificant objects like keys to weightier losses like places and houses until she reaches the subject of her poem, the loss of a loved one. It’s like she’s working herself up to be able to talk about the latter, as if by practicing losing keys or “the hour badly spent” will prepare you for losing someone you love. And though she keeps repeating that “the art of losing isn’t hard to master” it becomes apparent through the poem that losing IS hard to master. The villanelle form requires Bishop to repeat that line but the reader gets the sense the speaker is only trying to convince herself. In the last stanza, she falters and concedes that “the art of losing isn’t too hard to master” (emphasis mine). In other words, yes, it is hard.

Whereas Solnit’s description of loss is rather flippant and viewed through rose-coloured glasses, Bishop’s poem doesn’t sentimentalize loss. Considering how erudite Solnit is and how eclectic her references, I thought it a real miss that she didn’t mention Bishop.

I came across this reading of “One Art” by Canadian high school student Sophia Wilcott and had to share it here. She captures the struggle of the poem so well.

That critique aside, there were countless passages in A Field Guide to Getting Lost that I flagged for copying into my journal. Take this section, for example:

Sometimes an old photograph, an old friend, an old letter will remind you that you are not who you once were, for the person who dwelt among them, valued this, chose that, wrote thus, no longer exists. Without noticing it you have traversed a great distance; the strange has become familiar and the familiar if not strange at least awkward or uncomfortable, an outgrown garment. And some people travel far more than others. There are those who receive as birthright an adequate or at least unquestioned sense of self and those who set out to reinvent themselves, for survival or for satisfaction, and travel far. Some people inherit values and practise as a house they inhabit; some of us have to burn down that house, find our own ground, build from scratch, even as a psychological metamorphosis. 

p.80

Even though she puts people into two generic categories, is it not fairly accurate? (It reminded me of my niece when she was young who would go around saying: “There are two kinds of people in the world” followed by whatever she observed that day: “those who close the door and those who open the door” or “those who talk and those who don’t” and she would come up with all sorts of contrasts that were actually very illuminating). Even though it’s obvious that Solnit puts herself in the travel-far-from-home-to-find-yourself camp, I feel she is kind and even a bit in awe of those who grow up with an “unquestioned sense of self.” There is something to admire about both paths as long as they don’t lead to self-righteousness and closed-mindedness.

Those are just a few thoughts I wanted to pull out from this meandering but delightful book. (When you’ve flagged so many passages in a library book, it feels necessary to just buy it). Here’s an actual review of the book by Josh Lacey in The Guardian for those of you whose appetite may be whet and want to know a bit more about it.

Love in the Rain

On our first night in Paris, my husband and I took an open-top boat ride along the Seine. It wasn’t long before the sky dumped sheets of rain on us and the wind gusted so strongly it flipped our MEC umbrella inside out, rendering it useless the rest of the trip. We were soggy, jet-lagged Shreddies arriving home to our Airbnb. Welcome to Paris.

Before the rain…(I don’t have an “after” photo).

One of the many bridges we cruised under was Le Pont des Arts, more commonly known as the “love lock bridge.” Many cities have their version of a love lock bridge, but Paris is perhaps the most famous. With close to a million locks hanging from the grilles, the City of Paris decided to remove them in 2015 after part of the railing collapsed under the weight (about 45 tonnes). They replaced the grilles with transparent panels.

Above you can see the transparent panels, but you can also see people’s determinism to continue the love lock tradition, which started in Paris around 2008. (This photo was taken in 2017.) Although you would think Paris would be the origin of this tradition given its moniker as the City of Love, it actually began at Most Ljubavi (“Bridge of Love”) in Serbia during WWI. You can read the story here, which is actually more tragic than romantic. Now locals and tourists alike attach padlocks to bridges around the world and throw the key into the water—a contemporary urban ritual for couples to declare their love and its permanence.

(FYI, it is illegal to put a lock on a bridge in Paris, though how strictly this is enforced is debatable given the picture I took above. For the record, we did not add one.)

A year after the grilles on Le Pont des Arts came down, a love lock sculpture in Vancouver went up. Couples had been affixing padlocks to Burrard Street Bridge, and for the same structural reasons as the City of Paris gave, the City of Vancouver also said no, this can’t go on. They did; however, provide an alternative: a public art sculpture that could hold the weight of thousands of padlocks.

You can see Love In the Rain (2016) by Bruce Voyce if you visit Queen Elizabeth Park, the highest point in Vancouver at 125 metres above sea level. The public chose this location from a number of recommended sites and it seems symbolic of love at its peak. (I’m sure this has been the setting of countless proposals—the first lock attached began with one).

Best view of Vancouver from Queen Elizabeth Park
Incidentally, my parents took their wedding photos in this park.

Four sets of couples embrace under umbrellas—their stainless steel frames the hooks on which the locks hang. A receptacle is located on site for people to throw their keys into (very Vancouver), with the purpose that the metal will either be recycled or melted down to use as part of another public artwork.

The human forms are meant to be ageless and genderless. The work “celebrates the shelter that love brings and the union that it forms,” according to a Park Board press release. On the artist’s website, Voyce writes that his sculpture “embodies love in the temperate rainforest.”

The umbrellas make the piece, in my opinion. Not only do they add height and visual interest, but they contextualize the artwork, answering the question, why this public artwork here? If Paris is the City of Love, Vancouver is the City of Rain.

I cannot help but think of a line in my own wedding vows: “to shower love and forgiveness like Vancouver rain.”

Now I am wondering for how many other couples is love linked to rain, fitting together like lock and key?

Do you have a “love in the rain” story?

Life and Death in Venice

Like others earlier this year, my heart leapt about the news of swans and dolphins reclaiming the Venetian Lagoon due to the lack of human activity during Italy’s COVID-19 shutdown. Too good to be true? Yes, as The National Geographic pointed out. It was fake news. Nevertheless, the waters are a lot clearer than they used to be.

Here’s what they looked like three years ago when my husband and I visited. (Click on the National Geographic link above to see what they look like now).

I really wanted to love Venice, but I didn’t. Maybe it was the mist, or the predominant grey, or the fact that I was starting to feel homesick, or the lack of green spaces and the abundance of tourists (and yes, I was one of them), but all of this accumulated to a melancholy that clung to me like water on a dog.

View of the elegant and symmetrical Doge’s Palace (right) and the Campanile (bell tower) in St. Mark’s Square from a vaporetto (the public transportation boat system that work like our city buses)
Artist painting the striking Rialto Bridge

To be fair, when the sun visited for a few minutes, I couldn’t believe how much the city transformed. What was dull and grey seemed to burst into colour and glisten.

Venice was very much alive with tourists, but dead of locals. As a stroller-pushing mother now, I can see why the city isn’t appealing to young families. I wouldn’t want to be running errands while manoeuvring a stroller across narrow cobblestone streets and up and over the many bridges, as beautiful as they are.

Everything costs more in this city of a hundred islands because all items have to be transported from the mainland. Apartments are small, expensive, up many stairs and/or prone to flooding. Maintenance costs alone must be astronomical, not to mention the bureaucratic red tape one needs to navigate to do any repairs while preserving the heritage of the buildings.

Since the city loses about 1000 residents a year, I wonder how long before Venice itself becomes a “fake city”; somewhere you travel to like a theme park, but not somewhere you live.

I hope this is never the case because it would be a loss if Venice was rid of local life (the garbage boats collecting people’s trash; the woman picking up after her dog who shat in a campo) and was flooded with even more striped-shirted gondoliers, brightly-vested tour guides holding up fluorescent flags, smartphone and selfie stick-yielding tourists posing and reposing again until the shot is Instagram perfect.

View through one of the windows of the Bridge of Sighs that connects the Doge’s Palace with the prison
St. Mark’s Square with St. Mark’s Basilica in the background
Gondoliers
Doge’s Palace

Intentionally getting lost is one way to avoid the crowds (and just a good idea in general if you’ve got time to spare in a place like this). My husband and I stumbled upon some quiet, empty scenes but they were such a contrast to the “alive” Venice that they felt more eerie than refreshing. It’s as if you have to choose between the carnival Venice of St. Mark’s Square or the ghostlike Venice of back alleys. Can I opt for neither?

Of Mother and Child

In light of Mother’s Day recently, I’m revisiting artwork of mothers and children. This relationship is on my mind a lot as a new mom myself, but also because I was gifted this wonderful book of poems for Mother’s Day from a close friend:

Written by Vicki Rivard, the poems land like small, soothing balms to cracked hands. They are sometimes shockingly short. I kept nodding along to the words. Yes, THIS! This is what I need to hear! This is exactly how I feel too! Here’s one example:

the baby rocks the mother too.
her whole world,
in fact.

– epicenter (from Brave New Mama by Vicki Rivard)

I think of this poem when I look at Berthe Morisot’s painting Le Berceau (The Cradle).

Berthe Morisot, Le Berceau, 1872, oil on canvas. Musée d’Orsay.

This is my own picture of the painting from the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. I’m trying to remember what I liked about it enough to snap this photo back before I knew what this earth-shaking experience was like. Maybe because I could recognize a sacred moment: the sleeping babe and the mother who has eyes for nothing else but her child. She is enraptured with this creature, but now I wonder if there is perhaps doubt and fear and anxiety there too. What mother doesn’t cycle through all the emotions?

Mother and child are each other’s worlds. Enmeshed. Interconnected. Morisot shows this by having the mother (Morisot’s sister) and baby make the same gesture with one of their hands: rest it by their face. This creates a diagonal line between mother and child. As the Musée d’Orsay describes in the link above, the diagonal line is further emphasized by the angle of the curtain in the background. In her other hand, the mother holds the bassinet’s veil, putting a screen between the viewer and her child. I love this subtle but powerful gesture. It says everybody out; I’ve got a baby to learn.

Another mother/child Impressionist painting that been a long-time favourite is Coquelicots (Poppy Field) by Claude Monet. This painting is also found in the Musée d’Orsay and like The Cradle, it has a strong diagonal composition. The diagonal runs between the mother and child pairing in the background to the one in the foreground. They are the same mother and child, Monet’s own wife Camille and their son Jean.

Claude Monet, Poppy Field, 1873, oil on canvas. Musée d’Orsay.

I’ve always thought it was a bold move to portray the passage of time not through changing scenery but through human movement. Mother and son enjoy a leisurely walk through a poppy field, starting on the crest of a hill. By the time they reach the base, the mother has opened her parasol and her son has picked a bouquet. The viewer’s brain fills the space and time in between, imagining their stroll: boy running ahead a bit, stopping every so often to pick the poppies; Mother getting warm, relishing her son’s delight with the flowers, how they are almost as tall as he is, how he has grown so quickly. Wasn’t he just a baby? Oh what they say is true, I know now: the days are long, the years are short.

It’s impossible to think about mother and child paintings without at least one of the Virgin and Christ Child coming to mind. I saw more of them than I ever wanted to in The Louvre, many with golden halos and unrealistic faces. But that’s not the case with The Virgin and Child drawing by Raphael that I visited in the British Museum last spring.

Raphael, The Virgin and Child, 1510-12. The British Museum. (this is a postcard from the gift shop)

I marvel at Jesus’ fleshy plumpness and think good job, Mary! And good job Raphael—you made him look human. Jesus’ stance is so babylike, leaning in to his mother, his safe place, unlike many Virgin and Child paintings that make Jesus look like a grown man—stiff, formal, and wise beyond his years. Here, he looks like a regular baby. But of course he’s not just a regular baby. Mary cradles him but her eyes betray that they are somewhere else, perhaps thinking about the future and what makes her son different.

The curator of the British Museum writes:

The slight turn of the Virgin’s head away from her child and her lowered eyes eloquently convey a sense of the burden she has to endure, her thoughts clouded, even in moments of such intimacy, by the knowledge of her son’s fate. Such telling details give the composition a psychological depth not found in the quattrocento sculptural models on which it is based.

– British Museum website

Back to Impressionist depictions of mothers and children, I turn now to an American, Mary Cassatt, who has a painting that rifts off Renaissance depictions of the Madonna and Christ, such as the one above.

Mary Cassatt, Mother and Child (The Oval Mirror), 1899. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

This painting, titled Mother and Child (The Oval Mirror) is at The Met in New York. The curator writes:

Here, Cassatt underscored the importance of the maternal bond by evoking religious art. The woman’s adoring look and the boy’s sweet face and contrapposto stance suggest Italian Renaissance images of the Virgin and Child, a connection reinforced by the oval mirror that frames the boy’s head like a halo. 

The Met website

The contrapposto stance originated with the Greeks but is famously depicted in Michelangelo’s David. Contrapposto means “opposite” and refers to the way one leg carries most of the weight, while the other is bent.

Michelangelo, David, 1501-04. Accademia Gallery.

Unlike Raphael’s drawing, Cassatt shows an older son looking away, while the mother’s gaze is fixed on her child. While Cassatt’s painting lacks the psychological depth that Raphael’s and Morisot’s have, I appreciate that Cassatt elevated the mother/child relationship, recognizing that these tender, ordinary interactions are important and worthy of being immortalized on canvas.

In a similar way, I am doing this (or attempting to) with my writing. Being a mother has given me a new range of experiences to process through words. I wrote one such poem called “they say you will teach me more than I will ever teach you” when I was pregnant and had the pleasure of finding out this past week that it was the winner of a poetry contest put on by Pulp Literature. I look forward to sharing it with my daughter when she is old enough to understand.

You can hear me read the poem on the video below—the announcement of being runner-up comes at 23:54 and my reading at 42:26.

Last but not least, London

My husband and I concluded our UK trip in London, which defied all expectation with sunshine for three days straight! Given this was the last leg of our trip, we lacked the energy to explore many interiors of buildings, but we were both okay with that (this was his first time and my second time in the city).

View of the Thames with the London Eye on the distant right and Houses of Parliament on the left.

We stayed at a lovely bed and breakfast in the neighbourhood of Pimlico, just south of Westminster. It was a perfect spot to enjoy a walk along the River Thames towards the Houses of Parliament or catch the tube or bus to other parts of central London.

Don’t you love these colourful doors?

I like doing walking tours of a city. London is too big to cover in one tour, so we focused on one close to our neighbourhood—Old Westminster by Gaslight offered by London Walks. It was great!

Houses of Parliament. The Jewel Tower is on the right (more commonly referred to as Big Ben). It was under scaffolding so we couldn’t see much of it.

I learned that the two bridges nearby are contrastingly painted green and red to mimic the colours of the two Houses of Parliament (Commons and Lords, respectively).

Westminster Bridge (green)
Lambeth Bridge (red)

We walked down a picturesque street featured in the recent Mary Poppins Returns movie (with Emily Blunt) and stood near doors of political intrigue, hobnobbing, and alliances.

As befits its name, gaslight was a big theme of the tour. I forget how many gas lamps there are still in London but this neighbourhood around Parliament has a large concentration of them that are still manually lit.

Another neighbourhood we enjoyed walking around was Bloomsbury. After getting our feet wet in the overwhelmingly massive British Museum, my husband found a bookstore that occupied him for a couple hours and I found a rubber stamp store—Blade Rubber! Turns out they’re the only rubber stamp store in central London. I told the clerks these stores are going by the wayside in Vancouver too, so it was serendipitous to stumble upon one. I naturally bought some rubber stamps to take home for my card-making.

We enjoyed peering at treasures of the written word in The British Library—the first folio of Shakespeare (Henry VI), early editions of the Bible, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the Brontë sisters’ tiny cursive to save paper and money, the Magna Carta, The Beatles’ lyrics scribbled on a napkin, and so much more. We were really hoping to catch the Lindisfarne Gospels after our visit to Durham Cathedral but unfortunately, they weren’t on display when we were there.

As art lovers, we did tour the National Gallery one morning and then enjoyed a free lunchtime concert (pianist and violinist) at the adjacent church St. Martin-in-the-Fields, well-known for helping homeless and vulnerable people. This Anglican Church serves a delicious and reasonably priced hot lunch in their crypt!

St. Martin-in-the-Fields is in the thick of the action in Trafalgar Square.
Interior of St. Martin-in-the-Fields. Note the unusual cross in the window.
Christ Child sculpture by Michael Chapman at the entrance to the church. From this view, you can see the neoclassical architecture of the National Gallery.

Moving from sacred to secular, my husband and I had watched Paddington before taking this trip and fell in love with this orphaned bear. So we made a pit stop to the tube station whom the bear is named after.

Other transit hubs with notable sculptures include King’s Cross Station where there’s always a line-up to don a scarf and pretend you are off to Hogwarts. We didn’t bother waiting in line although my photograph fools you into thinking you can just go right up to it. You can’t. And they take it away after hours.

Connected to King’s Cross Station is the striking St Pancras railway station with a hotel on one side, seen in the image below.

Here are two famous churches we saw from the outside. On our last night, we decided to keep it simple though and enjoyed a low-key picnic dinner in St James’s Park.

St Paul’s Cathedral
Westminster Abbey

What better way to end our vacation? Green grass, blue skies, and a patch of our own to watch Londoners go by.

Thanks for following with me as I’ve toured you through our trip! If you’ve been to any of these places in England and Scotland, let me know what your impressions were and favourite things you did.

Inverness & Edinburgh

This post wraps up our time in Scotland before spending a few days in London where we caught our flight back to Vancouver.

Inverness

I don’t have too much to say about Inverness. We spent two nights there as a way to break up the road trip from the Isle of Skye to Edinburgh. I described it as a workaday city in my journal. Our highlight was browsing this charming used bookstore called Leakey’s that used to be a Gaelic church built in the 17th century.

Leakey’s Bookshop in Inverness

We also enjoyed walking and crossing the picturesque River Ness on one of the many footbridges and counting all the cathedrals that line the river. The city’s biggest disappointment though is that the prettiest building (the castle at the top of the picture) is actually a courthouse and not worth a visit. But our main focus was driving to the outskirts of the city anyway to do a self-guided whiskey distillery tour (on my husband’s wish list) and to visit the famous Battle of Culloden. You already know what happened after the whiskey distillery tour from my previous post.

View of River Ness with Inverness Castle/courthouse in the distance

Culloden probably holds a lot more significance to Outlander fans as there was paraphernalia of all types in the museum’s gift shop. I’ve never read the books or watched the show, but I still valued learning about this Jacobite uprising in 1745 that resulted in the Highlanders losing a huge part of their population and culture under the English Government (Whigs).

Culloden Battlefield with museum on far right in the distance

The museum is very thorough, worthy of repeat visits. From a curatorial perspective, it was interesting how the layout of the space made you choose a side to follow from beginning to end—either the Jacobites or the Whigs. Naturally, most visitors chose the Jacobites. Is it because we were in Scotland? Or because it’s human nature to vote for the underdog and defy the Man? Who knows. You could easily go a second time and walk through the other person’s shoes, so to speak. It’s a lot to try and read both sides simultaneously. I credit the museum for including both perspectives and trying to be as unbiased as possible. They addressed the complicated nature of this battle and how, for whatever reasons, some Highlanders chose to fight on the Government side and some English fought with the Highlanders. It reminded me how each event in history is riddled with complications and untidy categories.

Jacobite memorial

The battlefield outside the museum, however, is a little less subtle. This big gravestone shown above commemorates the Jacobites who died. The Government men get no such large memorial, just small stones set in the grass.

Memorial for the McDonald clan

Edinburgh

I had the good fortune of visiting Edinburgh ten years ago, and in much better weather than my husband and I had this time around. Edinburgh was one of the only places on our 3-week trip where it rained. Luckily we didn’t have a huge list of sights to see as the purpose of going there was to visit my brother and his family who moved there last year.

The iconic Edinburgh Castle that sits on top of an old volcano
A misty Edinburgh from the top of the castle

After a quick visit to the castle, my husband and I explored the Scottish National Gallery housed in a beautiful neoclassical building. We were impressed with the number of works by Scottish painters, many of whom we had never heard of before.

We wandered the winding city streets. I gravitated to photographing those with colour to liven up the grey day.

Since I missed this spot last time, we made sure to grab a bite to eat at the elephant house, where J.K. Rowling wrote the early Harry Potter novels while staring out a corner window towards Edinburgh Castle (thus inspiring the idea for Hogwarts).

Harry Potter graffiti in the washrooms

The weather cleared up our final day there and so we took a moderately strenuous hike up Arthur’s Seat to enjoy the many views from this extinct volcano.

Trail up Arthur’s Seat
You might be able to make out Edinburgh Castle on a hill in the distance, slightly right of centre
The water in the distance is the Firth of Forth

I also stopped by The Writers’ Museum (a favourite place from 10 years ago) and snapped pics of the evocative quotes etched into the pavement.