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    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

Mothering at Mid-Career: The Art of Losing*
December 15, 2008 - 9:46pm

I keep a Word document open on my desktop most of the time. It says "IHE blog ideas," and it's a collection of links and phrases that should spark something for a blog entry. This week I notice that I haven't updated it in a while; I don't think anyone's still really interested in Sarah Palin and working mothers, for example, and several of the other links are to articles published a month or more ago, articles (therefore) that I can't really remember.

The most cryptic of these notes is a brief phrase: "blog about losing things." Hmm. I wonder what I meant by that? I haven't, this semester, lost any student papers, thankfully. That's happened before, though only once; I'm usually pretty careful about them. I do lose my drugstore reading glasses regularly, but there's not much that's interesting about that--and now that I've started keeping pairs in different locations (purse, office, home office, bedroom, kitchen) I can usually lay hands on one or another without much angst. No, I think the lost things that I meant must have been my keys, which I lose about every other week or so. Usually I "lose" them by locking them in my office, a simple enough error to correct since our sainted administrative assistant has a master key and can let me back in. (In the olden days, or the first ten years or so I had this job, all our office locks were keyed identically, so any other faculty member with an office in my building could open my door for me. I miss those days.)

Two weeks ago, though, I lost my keys and they weren't in my office when I returned to look for them. In fact I'd left them on the bus, and -- miracle of miracles -- when I called the bus company I learned that they'd been turned in to the lost and found and I could get them right back.

So there's really not much of a story there. But it did remind me of other, more meaningful losses -- data lost when a hard drive crashed, for example (the epitome of the modern story of loss, isn't it?), favorite earrings, childhood books. I think I actually lose fewer things these days than I used to -- I'm more careful with my possessions than when I was a teenager, so I manage to hang on to most of my earrings, for example. Phone numbers and addresses are hard to lose when you can store them in a cell phone or on a hard drive (except when the hard drive crashes, as above). I recently re-encountered a story of literary loss that still, briefly, stops my heart when I think of it: John Stuart Mill's maid accidentally burned the only draft of the first volume of Thomas Carlyle's History of the French Revolution. I quite literally can't imagine that kind of a loss -- with digital backups and multiple hard copies, I don't (knock wood!) have to. But I have lost data — not as much as Carlyle lost, but more than enough to lose a little sleep over. And in the end I’ve never really missed it.

Carlyle rewrote the volume from scratch, though at least one account claims he wrote the second and third volumes before returning to the first. Was it improved? Who knows? I've sometimes thought, though, that it's only in losing things that we learn to value them. Not my keys -- they prove their worth daily as they let me into my house, my car, my office. But the documents I've lost and rewritten — in the moment, I'm always utterly convinced that the first draft, now lost, was the best thing I'd ever done, and that I can never reach those heights again. I always imagine Carlyle feeling like that. But the truth is that restarting can be a great spur to creativity. Thinking through the now-lost sentences, hoping that one will simply generate the next, can lead me down a new pathway entirely. I’ll never know, of course, how good the thing I lost really was — data, once lost, never just turns up again under a sofa cushion or in the other coat pocket. The original impulse for this blog post is lost, and I’ll never know if the first idea was better than this one. But I’m learning to tread lightly, not to get too attached — and to make backups as often as possible.

*With apologies to Elizabeth Bishop.



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