As though being pulled by my feet from a dream, a strange sound woke me in the night. Something was just outside the window, but I had to swim through layers of dream consciousness to get to it. Awake, listening, seconds moved into more seconds. Still, I was at a loss. What was it? “I know this,” I thought. Suddenly, the obvious: a raucous downpour. I woke Michael, and we listened hard together, relearning the sound of long-absent rain.
The loss of familiar seasonal weather makes for not only a lack of recognition, but an underlying, significant discomfort. The plants know the loss of it. The animals do. Even we, sheltered away in our beds, know the necessity of rain. We feel it, try as we might to shove the truth of drought and man-made disturbances to the earth to the backs of our minds. I once heard a little girl say to her grandmother, “I love the voice of the rain.” She knew. That voice—how could I have forgotten my way to its ordinary sound?
E. E. Cummings writes, “For whatever we lose (like a you or a me)/ it’s always ourselves we find in the sea.” Ahead, we’ll look at lost things—a you or a me, our way to rain, and more. Might there be value in getting lost in both the natural world as well as in the imaginative one?
THIS WAY, PEGGY
Preparing to perform my play, A Woman’s Life in Pieces, I walked in the woods with the script, memorizing the lines. The birds didn’t mind me talking to myself. Out there, gesticulating to the trees, I met a couple, clearly lost. The guy seemed to want to conceal the fact, busy looking up at the sky. The woman had no such reservations.
“Hello, hello!” she cried. “How do we get back to the parking lot? Do you know the way?”
“Continue along this path,” I said, pointing straight ahead, glad I could answer her, “till you come to a T. Turn left at the yellow fire hydrant and head up the hill. You’ll come to the parking area in less than a mile.”
Eyebrows raised, she looked at me dubiously, asked, “Will there be a flashing sign that says, ‘This way, Peggy’?”
My jaw dropped. A sign from my mother? That’s how I took it. For five years before her death, my mother hadn’t wanted me in her life, but a few days before dying, she welcomed me back. The odd encounter in the woods sweetly brought us back together for a moment, as though from afar she was voicing her approval of my endeavor. Credit goes to my mother and her messenger— A Woman’s Life in Pieces went off without a hitch.
Michael’s spent a lot of time backpacking in the Sierra where, if you walk a short distance off the trail, it’s easy to lose your way. One tree isn’t the same as another, but they are related. Ditto for slabs of granite and small bushes. If there isn’t a clear marker—a mountain peak to your right, a trail-blaze, a café with a welcome sign outside—it’s easy to get confused. Although my mother would have said, “You’re splitting hairs . . . ,” there is a difference between not knowing where you are and being lost. I love not knowing where I am—it’s the ultimate in wandering, the making of new associations, the inability to rely on previous experiences, and, best of all, the absence of fear. When I don’t know where I am and I’m scared, that’s when I know I’m lost.
Being good at getting lost in nature is a particularly bad thing when it’s combined with a fear of being lost. The sensation of the ground slipping out from under me that I get at those times turns my pulse into a rabbit’s and I sweat like a marathoner. But the more I walk in the woods, the better my sense of direction and the less I worry about getting lost. “Paying” attention gives one purchasing power: in my case, and maybe yours, it’s the power of paying attention to where I am before I think about where I’m going.
Traveling with Michael in Italy a few times, I’d ask a stranger, “Dov´è . . . ?” and not understand a word of the reply except that we needed to turn left . . . somewhere. That rarely concerns Michael--knowing he’ll find his way eventually, he’s happy to wander and to be lost. If you have the ability to get lost, usually you have the ability to get found. Not always though, making a compass and a map useful carry alongs. My friend Diane once said: “I love getting and feeling lost. Recently, I got lost in the maze-like Moroccan market in Fez. I kept thinking I’d recognize something, but soon realized that so much looked alike, I couldn’t count on anything. I had forgotten to bring the business card from our small hotel, just a block away from the market. Unable to speak with any of the shopkeepers or shoppers, I continued to meander until, finally, I recognized an exit.” Michael and Diane have a comfort in being lost and a confidence in being found that not everyone has. In his poem “Lost,” David Wagoner wisely wrote, “Wherever you are is called Here,” reminding us that the forest knows where we are and, if we stay still, the forest will find us.
Like the writer he’s not and like the husband he is, the other day when I got overwhelmed with writing—when I’d lost my way and felt unmoored, Michael said, “But, babe, getting lost is part of the deal. It goes with this. You can trust your process. You’ve been here before and you know what you’re doing.” He kind of sounded like me trying to talk to myself, only better—because it was him. Getting lost in art-making is a part of the process that can be hard to accept. For many of us, getting lost doesn’t feel good—not in a car, not on foot, and not with a pen or a blank music score in hand. Instead of stomping my feet and wringing my hands, I reach for acceptance and understanding. I practice sitting with the pen in the air, uncertain of its words; outdoors, I stand with my foot in the air, uncertain of its trail. And that makes the whole thing less painful. “I’m only lost again,” I tell myself. “I’m not dying. Being lost won’t kill me.”
The English artist best known for his photorealist work, Malcolm Morley, said, “The idea is to have no idea. Get lost. Get lost in the landscape.” Because of the uncertainty that occurs when we’re lost in imaginative process, we become less attached to what we know and more receptive to what we think we don’t. When I feel lost, I’ll explore anywhere if I think it might lead me to getting found. I stumble upon ideas I would otherwise shy away from, ones I’d consider paltry or silly. I try to remember that the sense of being found is never far away, and that it will return.
Recall a time you’ve felt lost in the making of something—
writing a poem, telling a bedtime story, preparing a new dish
without a recipe. What got you found?
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