Ode to a Black Bean

My last post touched on a rather serious personal loss, but as my spirits are cautiously lifting and my appetite is slowly returning, I started thinking about losing other things, both permanently and temporarily. During my first year of college, I studied Elizabeth Bishop’s drafts of “One Art,” which is about this subject:

One Art

by Elizabeth Bishop

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.

I love this poem because it tries to reclaim the way things just slip through the cracks in life. Bishop’s mention of big, obvious losses – a lover, a home – are heartbreaking, but the intentional way she refrains from including specific identifiers creates a feeling of forgetfulness. Bishop’s mention of “some realms I owned” isn’t casual; it’s a purposely vague phrase that creates the feeling of mentally reaching for some information that is no longer fully there. “Realm” sounds dreamlike, but the word “real” is embedded right there.

I knew when I chose to study abroad that I would lose a semester at UVa. At home, my sorority is hours away from Parents’ Formal, the football team is preparing for tomorrow’s game against another team (even if I was home, I wouldn’t know which one), the leaves are about to change color, apples are ripening on the trees at Carter’s Mountain, and the supermarket probably just sold out of canned pumpkin. The Virginia Film Festival is off my calendar this year. I’m losing this Virginia autumn, just as I knew and accepted that I would.

When I came to St. Andrews, I gained new experiences that made up for this loss. Looking past the castle on my way to class, I see the North Sea every day, sparkling with sunshine or through a solemn veil of mist or under wooly clouds. Two weeks ago, I gained a sweater. I gained new vocabulary words like jumper, which means sweater.

But the strangest, most unexpected losses have been the tiny interruptions of my daily routines. At home, black beans fill about a third of my meals. From black bean soup to spinach/mushroom/black bean quesadillas to to huevos rancheros, they’re a meat substitute that’s inexpensive and easy to cook, one of the most-used items in my pantry. I was surprised not to see black beans at Tesco, but when I asked my Scottish roommate about it, she cocked her head. “Do you mean kidney beans?” My hopes of finding black beans evaporated.

In Scotland, authentic Mexican food is nowhere to be found, and most bathrooms have separate taps for hot and cold water. As autumn deepens, I haven’t been able to find candy corn or those pumpkin-shaped Reeses cups, or anything pumpkin in general.

In case my tone doesn’t show it, these losses are not serious. Foods and traditions, those familiar touches of home, are all things that I took for granted before living in Scotland. I love the comfort of those routines, but they’re not essential. Before I left, my English advisor told me that just walking down the street while I’m abroad would “open the doors of my mind.” My other major, American Studies, is considering making study abroad a requirement. How can we meaningfully reflect on American life if we know nothing else? It’s not that Europe is fantastically better or worse. Every place in the world has its own set of complex histories. But being elsewhere, knowing more than one place, can give you the ability to notice and observe the things that gives a place its, well, placeness. It’s an ability that, once cultivated, can be drawn on again and again.

Now that I’ve been in Scotland for a month, my muscles have finally learned to flip the switch on the wall before I try to turn on the shower – I don’t have to think about it any more, it’s just part of my routine. I know not to even bother going to Tesco when the school kids are out on their lunch break; the convenience of dropping by the store after class just isn’t worth the fifteen minutes I’d spend dancing through a crowd of pimply fifteen-year-olds to get to the produce. Slowly, I’ve tuned into my frequency and fit myself into a pattern of life in St. Andrews.

And it’s only been a month.

For every new little routine I’ve picked up, I’ve left another one behind, only to be relearned when I’m back home next semester. New routes to class, new Thursday afternoon habit, new place to stack my books when I’m done reading for the night, new favorite coffee mug. And just as slowly and surely, my Scotland habits will leave me, and in five or ten years, I probably won’t even remember them, just as I don’t have to remind my sleepy muscles to flip that shower switch on the wall every morning. Isn’t it strange, what we leave behind and what we take forward?

The art of losing isn’t hard to master.



Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s