It’s one of the first things we learn as children: how awful it feels to lose something, how exhilarating it feels to find. (Peek-a-boo, etc.) But one of the rawest things we learn as adults is that it will be a rare thing to experience one or the other; that life will be this cacophonous symphony of seemingly incongruous feelings — emotions that ought to leave room for nothing else, but somehow their opposites elbow in alongside, clouding our minds and crowding our hearts. That our lives are made up of these opposing experiences is the stuff of cliche: the lord giveth, the lord taketh away. But less has been made of the both-ness of these states, rather than the either/or — as if our lives unfurl in some orderly fashion, good following bad following good, like polite drivers merging lanes.
In the span of two years, New Yorker writer Kathryn Schulz fell in love with the woman she would marry and lost her father — “lost” being, she realized, a term for death that did not feel lacking like other euphemisms (“passed away”) but instead seemed precise, a gut feeling she later learned had an etymological foundation, derived from a word meaning to separate or cut apart. “In some very ancient English way, maybe that resonated for me,” Schulz, 48, told me. “But it also just felt emotionally accurate. To be lost is to be disoriented, and confused, and separated from the familiar, and from the people you love, and to be scared, and to not know when it’s going to end, or how, or where to go, or what to do. And that to me is absolutely the essence of grief.”
Schulz and her wife, “Furious Hours” author Casey Cep, live on the Eastern Shore of Maryland with their baby daughter, who frankly sounds too good to be true (eats and sleeps through the night? In this economy?). We spoke in that strange timeless stretch between Christmas and the new year; as omicron made its holiday rounds, our conversation took place over Zoom. Schulz was such a still, attentive listener that at times I feared she’d frozen on my screen, only to be reassured by the balletic prowl of a black cat along the bookshelf behind her.
Schulz’s father died weeks before the 2016 election. A few months later, Schulz published the essay “When Things Go Missing,” placing her personal loss (“My father, in addition to being scatterbrained and mismatched and menschy and brilliant, is dead.”) in the sprawling category of lost things: of stuff, of motivation, of control.
She wasn’t thinking about expanding the essay into a book, not even when Cep pointed out, as Schulz recalls, “There is this parallel story to be told about finding and discovery,” given the timing of their love story. “So it was this neat little mirror image, like a diptych, basically.” But Schulz didn’t want to write that, either. It was only later when Cep mentioned the phrase “lost and found” that Schulz latched onto something: the “and.” “I was like, ‘Ah, it’s not a diptych. It’s a triptych. And I do want to write that book.”
“This grief story is incredibly important to me,” she said. “This love story is incredibly important to me. But it was the moment of realizing, oh, but part of what’s interesting is we inevitably experience both of those things, and they are absolutely inseparable from each other.” A Jewish atheist (though she writes that grief “makes reckless cosmologists of us all”), Schulz was still willing to credit the stars with one crucial matter: “It’s kind of my fate in life,” she said. “To be drawn to these really abstract categories.”
Reading a Schulz story always feels like finding the answer to a question I didn’t know I had — what is wintry mix? Is it possible to become invisible? How unlikely is a leprechaun, relative to the Loch Ness Monster? — drawing me down a rabbit hole (occasionally on the subject of rabbit holes) to that rarest of places: somewhere new. Though she won her Pulitzer for her 2015 feature on an impending earthquake, the lion’s share of her reporting feels blissfully untethered from the news cycle and its slurry, surfacing instead as an unexpected invitation to Elsewhere, a window cracked open in a crowded, stuffy room. Real finding-an-onion-ring-in-your-french-fries energy. In tone, too, her work has the lilt and vigor of discovery, that “Look at what I found!” feeling coursing through her sentences.
Which is possibly why, though love and grief do not exactly suffer from lack of literary attention, her memoir, “Lost & Found,” finds new crevices in these spaces to explore: the monotony and tedium that accompanies a loved one’s long illness and death; the vulnerability and fear that even happy people who yearn for love are quietly carrying around. (Also, Schulz pointed out, “I actually went looking for a happy, contemporary love story, just because one feels you should research, right?” She found plenty about falling in love and even more on breaking up. But stories on what it’s like to just be in a good relationship? “They’re very hard to find.”) Her retelling is as vivid for what it contains as what she keeps to herself; when she gets to her first kiss with Cep, she writes, “I will not try to describe it, except to say that I could; I mean that it is one of those rare moments, out of only a handful each of us gets in a lifetime, that remains imperishable in all its particulars.”
Meanwhile the humble “and” has not been on the receiving end of such devoted attention since it starred in School House Rock’s “Conjunction Junction.” Schulz elevates it here as the word whose “semantic versatility reflects an existential truth … Even if we try, we can hardly ever experience something all by itself.” Schulz writes that “life, like ‘and,’ is indifferent to what it connects.”
For many, our pandemic existence has proved this point over and over, as we experience the suffocating boredom of being confined to our apartments laced with the riveting, all-consuming fear that democracy is mid-collapse, or the ecstasy and the agony of having so much uninterrupted time with family — like, so much uninterrupted time. Gratitude and terror; impatience and paralysis; a paradox pile-on that could make even the most grounded among us feel insane.
Schulz knows these contradictions well and cites her latest: “Your baby was born during the pandemic and it’s the most unbelievably joyful experience, but there you are agonizing about whether or not it’s safe to bring your parents to meet her.”
“I just think no one didn’t lose something during this pandemic, but also, none of us got through it without reckoning with these very strange, contradictory, complicated, and simultaneous emotions,” she went on. “I think we experienced just an unprecedented amount of living with emotional complication in conjunction. And that, to me, was the most striking relationship in the book.”
What’s also striking in “Lost & Found,” considering the enormity of what Schulz grieves, is the grace with which she makes room to appreciate loss in all its varieties — not to diminish the differences among them but rather to respect what ties them together. “I do really believe there’s not a closed economy of sympathy,” Schulz said. “We can’t only reserve it for the most extreme cases … It is both morally incumbent upon us to have perspective, but compassion for everyday losses is, I think, incredibly important as well.”
“I return again and again in the book to this question of: What is the relationship between our large losses and our small ones?” she went on. “Because I think it is important to acknowledge that they do live in the same category. We do experience them as loss for a reason.”
Jessica M. Goldstein is a contributing writer to The Washington Post Magazine and Arts & Style. She has also written for the New York Times, Vulture, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and other outlets.
Lost & Found
By Kathryn Schulz
Random House. 256 pp. $27
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