Ordinary Wonders

‘Lost & Found’
Kathryn Schulz (Casey Cep)

An extraordinary life deserves a memoir. Perhaps the author was raised in dire poverty or in a cult. Perhaps they experienced great success as an athlete, actress, politician, or musician. Perhaps they had an epiphany in the mountains, or survived a rare disease. If not, then they might justify the writing of a memoir by connecting their life to something of public importance. Maybe they lived through a war or a natural disaster. Or maybe their personal history helps tell the story of what it’s like to belong to a particular race, religion, or nationality. 

Lost & Found, Kathryn Schulz’s new memoir, takes none of these approaches. It is instead about everyday occurrences. A woman loses her father when he is old and sick. A woman falls in love; she gets married. A woman moves into a new home and prepares for the birth of her child. 

Schulz, it must be said, is herself extraordinary. She’s won a Pulitzer Prize! But this is not a memoir about her literary career. Her father’s family died in Auschwitz. But this is not a memoir about the Holocaust. She is married to a woman, but this is not a memoir about her sexual identity. This is a memoir focused not on difference, but on similarity. Our sorrows and joys, our griefs and blisses, experiences not unique but shared: these things, too, are worthy of being written about. 

There are many things we can lose—wallets, scarves, phone numbers, a pregnancy, a mind—and many things we can find—meteorites in a field, a rare book in a thrift shop, a vocation. What do these acts of disappearance and discovery, these “enormous and awkward” categories that “encompass, without distinction, the trivial and the consequential,” have in common? What can acquisition and attrition tell us about being human? 

As its title implies, these are the central questions of Lost & Found. Schulz answers them across disciplines, incorporating ideas from philosophy and psychology, literature and economics. Her sources are varied: Elizabeth Bishop, Socrates, and Dante; the finding of U-boats via mathematical equations; an archeological dig. Beyond these sources, she makes her own observations: “Losing things makes us feel lousy about ourselves.” It also makes us feel small, “instructing us by correcting our sense of scale,” revealing a world “enormous, complex, and mysterious.” As for finding, Schulz argues that it has “intrinsic value,” regardless of what is discovered. When our finds are especially extraordinary—a soulmate, for instance—we invoke destiny: “Confronted by a surprising find, we also feel ourselves confronted by the governing forces of the universe.” 

Our sorrows and joys, our griefs and blisses, experiences not unique but shared: these things, too, are worthy of being written about.

It’s this sort of fatedness that Schulz experiences when she finds the woman who will become her wife, C., a woman who grew up picking crabs and stacking firewood on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, a Rhodes Scholar and a writer. And it is the “universal impermanence” of loss that she experiences with the death of her father—an absentminded lawyer, polyglot, and baseball fan, “part Socrates, part Tevye.”

It’s not easy to write about emotions like love and grief without being sappy. Nor to avoid that other extreme: writing at a false remove, using one’s life only to make arguments. But Schulz’s story of her great loss-and-find is somehow both deep and clear. She’s honest, but not indulgent. She’s smart, but not distant. She analyzes, but also identifies the places where reason falls short. 

One of those places is her father’s death. Isaac Schulz passed away in old age, after a good and mostly happy life. No tragedy there—and so Schulz is shocked that “something so sad could be the normal, necessary way of things.” She believes that life is “made precious by virtue of being scarce.” She’s glad that her father is finally free from nerve pain, heart disease, and gout. But “way down in the core of selfhood,” she acknowledges, “where emotion begins, it is impossible for me to offer death any more gratitude than that, or to pretend I don’t wish that my father—my brilliant, funny, adoring, endearing father—were still alive, and would be alive forever.” There is beauty to be found in dying, Schulz concedes, a “vein of silver in a dark cave a thousand feet underground.” When her father stops breathing, her mother stands at his hospital bedside, cradling his head in her hands:

A woman holding her dead husband, without trepidation, without denial, without any possibility of being cared for in return, just for the chance to be tender toward him one last time: it was the purest act of love I’d ever seen.

Still, “a cave is a cave.” After her father’s death, Schulz becomes ill, angry, bored, and clumsy. She goes out looking for him on long runs. But “never in all the time I spent searching did I find the slightest trace.... Being his daughter now is like holding one of those homemade tin-can telephones with no tin can on the other end of the string. His absence is total; where there was him, there is nothing.” While we lose others to death, she realizes, the departed also lose themselves in a “breathtaking extinguishing of a consciousness.... Viewed up close, it is shocking, a whole universe flashing out of existence.”

This conclusion—all is loss—is a dark one. And yet Schulz doesn’t seem content to leave it there.

The pain is pain. The joy is joy. Schulz’s first date with C. is indelible, “one of those rare moments, out of only a handful each of us gets in a lifetime, that remains imperishable in all its particulars.” She is astonished, documenting each instance of late-night pancakes and books read side by side. “Love, like grief,” she writes, “has the properties of a fluid: it flows everywhere, fills any container, saturates everything.” Their first meeting comes to feel like the “single gold coin glinting up from the seafloor that leads to all the varied and immeasurable treasure of a Spanish galleon.”

Sometimes Lost & Found loses momentum; its first two episodic chapters are overwhelmed by “undiluted emotion.” A happy childhood. A great love. A terrible sadness. We get the lost; we get the found; but that ampersand linking them in the book’s title doesn’t quite come into focus.

That is, until the book’s final section, “And.” We often have mixed feelings, including “grief with gratitude, anger with boredom, happiness with irritation, frustration with amusement.” Life is “crushing and restorative, busy and boring, awful and absurd and comic and uplifting,” a “constant amalgamation of feeling.” A wedding with wildflowers and cake also contains a thunderstorm—and an empty space in all of the family pictures. Looking forward, Schulz knows that C. will someday die; she knows that she will, too. The contrast between her atheism and C.’s Christian belief, she writes, has “never caused any of us real friction or fear.” And yet, it’s clear that a religious person might interpret the facts differently. C. might disagree that “the entire plan of the universe consists of losing,” might not find that “the fundamental, unalterable nature of things” is disappearance and collapse.

This conclusion—all is loss—is a dark one. And yet Schulz doesn’t seem content to leave it there. The conjunction “and” proves a helpful device, its “semantic versatility” speaking to our condition of “experiencing many things all at once,” even when it comes to existential dread. Schulz puts her father’s wedding ring on a chain, and gives the necklace to C. She sees the shadow that trails behind her happy marriage “growing longer later in the day.” But now, something new: she is becoming a parent.

Life goes on, and on, and on, toward continuation and abundance. Schulz says it all will end—and yet, even as it slips through her fingers, she is still finding stories to write, birds to watch, and an entirely new person to love. “On the whole,” she says, “I take the side of amazement.” 

Lost & Found
A Memoir

Kathryn Schulz
Random House
$27 | 256 pp. 

Published in the April 2022 issue: 

Katherine Lucky ​is an editor at Christianity Today.

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