I had to fly last week, and while in the air I read Wendell Berry’s Home Economics. I couldn’t decide if that was ironic or fitting or both. I rose in the darkness, first at home, then on that cold plane leaving colder ground, and it was only after we were airborne for a while that light began to spread itself out across the horizon, pink and orange and purpling along its fringes, and only a few of us looking out to take note.
I lost forty-three cents on that flight. It slid out of my pocket as the plane hurtled itself at the sky. The coins clinked and tinkled like they were being dropped into a slot machine beneath my seat. I once saw an economist demonstrate utility, or the value of labor, or something else that is cooly essential and undeniable, by slinging change across a large room and inviting observers to go collect it. I don’t know exactly what it would take to get me to clamber into the seat behind me in search of lost coins, or to ask the old man sitting back there to crouch down on my behalf, but I know it’s somewhere north of forty-three cents.
On the next leg I lost a pen. I had attached it to the cover of my book, and when I slid the book into the slender pocket of the seat in front of me, a pocket stuffed with instructions nobody reads, and catalogs full of overpriced junk that people sadly do read, the pen extricated itself and bounced beneath my seat. I felt around for it, grunting and irritated, my face pressed against the coarse fabric of the seat back, but it was gone. Fortunately I had something else to write with, or I might have asked the people behind me to similarly squat down in search of my pen.
I once lost a small journal on a flight. It was filled with thoughts and notes for essays and a couple of books that I’m writing. I called the airline for help, which of course they didn’t give. It was like losing a piece of me, a part of my mind or my history. On another flight we once lost a baby doll, Caroline’s first, but we had her then, and so a baby doll was a small loss, and I suppose it still is.
I sat in my hotel room the night I lost my coins and my pen and I thought about these things I’ve lost, and others: a box of Army men from my childhood; a notebook containing the first book I ever tried to write; a bag of marbles stolen on a sandy schoolyard in Florida; my first puppy; my daughter; my faith. That last was the only thing I ever got back, though maybe it wasn’t mine in the first place, but something imposed on me against my will. We are always losing things from one hand even as we acquire them with another, and I wonder if, in the great ledger of our lives, we aren’t some of us running a deficit even as we feel overwhelmed by possessions.
I came home the very next day, and as I got out of my truck I heard the lilt of a child’s laugh a way off in a stand of trees. I crossed the yard, descended to the creek, crossed to the other side. I threaded my way through brush and fallen hedge trees until I found the three of them playing in their makeshift fort. I hugged each in turn, each boy stepping up onto a stretch of dead tree to stand level with me. They don’t understand, I think, why I grip them so tight when I return, why I don’t let go for a time.
I don’t know how my ledger will balance when I die, what I will have created or done that is worth anything, especially stood up trembling against all I wish I could take back. I only know this continual clarifying, this striking off the books of things I once thought important, and the remainder these few creatures, these children and this woman who are everything, everything, even when I have been too dull to see clearly, too occupied to notice how effortlessly the light pushes back the dark.