A few years ago, I read an interview with Grateful Dead drummer, Mickey Hart. I wish I could find the exact quote. But the gist of it was this: “When someone sits in with us, we like to see if we can get him or her lost, just to see how they handle it.”
Sound crazy? Maybe cruel? I get that. But I propose that “getting lost” is not the negative experience that we sometimes think.
Where’s the Map?
For many, getting lost is literal: Where was that freeway onramp? I know her office is around here somewhere. Which exit is for the airport? But we also speak of a figurative kind of displacement, like when we lose our place in a book, or we were about to say something, and then. . .
I agree: most of those examples are negative.
Lost or Transported?
But we also talk about getting lost in a book in a good way. Forgetting time and place and being transported to some mythical or at least fictional landscape—maybe an emotional landscape. And we sometimes get blissfully lost in our own emotions when we are falling in love. The very expression suggests surrender to powers we do not control. That’s a kind of “lost,” right?
In my own musical life, I once played in a quartet with an enthusiastic (okay, lunatic!) drummer who didn’t keep track of measures very well. Lots of beats, tempo accurate enough, but without the requisite counting units: “1, 2, 3, 4!”
I admit that my own sense of time had not yet internalized 4/4 or 6/8 (or whatever) as it later would. The same was true of my bandmates. So when we improvised, we blazed furiously into the sonic atmosphere, feeling the pulses, but often with very different ideas of where measures began or ended. We often surprised ourselves or each other—arriving at musical places we’d near been before. It was wild.
But here’s the thing. Our audiences didn’t mind. In fact, they thought we were simply more sophisticated than they were able to perceive. Well, probably not ALL of them. Maybe some of them, even our friends, were just too polite to tell us. So yes, we were technically “lost.” But as we created an avalanche of passionate improvisation without borders, we liked it, too.
Lost in the Woods
My favorite musical “lost” story, though, comes from Leon Russell. The Master of Space and Time himself. He had written a song that would appear on his album, “Carney,” titled, “Out in the Woods.” Leon and his producer had elected to feature a large chorus singing, “I’m lost in the woods.” In Swahili.
They contacted someone who could assemble singers able to do that, but there was a hitch. In that language, apparently, it was impossible to express the idea of being lost in the woods. If you were in the woods, you were never lost.
Or maybe the choral director was just yanking Leon, making something seem more difficult so whatever the chorus sang could be more sonorous. Or maybe he wanted a bigger paycheck. I don’t know. But the idea that being lost was impossible was very cool, I thought.
Into the Unknown
And it does put forward an idea about being lost that I think Mickey Hart also believed. That is, that “lost” is not so much an external reality as a state of mind. And if feeling safe and comfortable in unfamiliar circumstances—if being curious about where the next turn leads without assuming automatically that the trail leads over a cliff—is a reality: how wonderful! That kind of surrender is very powerful!
And I think about that feeling in writing. What a great experience to put pen to paper, or fingers to keys and just GO. Letting the road unfold before you.
E.L. Doctorow famously said, “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
I try to instill that kind of confidence, or courage in my clients and my students. In myself, too. Writing that way, with the ever-present risk of getting lost, requires faith, and yes, courage. But the rewards can be so great.
When I assign “NSAWs”— a form of free writing—my intention is for writers to lose themselves in words—in phrases that pop up, sounds that chime sweetly together, rhythms that expand like ripples in a still pond. All of that requires surrender. Getting lost in language, without the inner critic/”nag-igator” telling you what to do, where to go, and “Oh! You missed that turn!”
So let me invite you: Let’s get lost.
Like many my age, and especially my generation—my g-g-generation— I have hearing loss. My ears literally, “whisper the sound of silence.” And to add insult to injury, as I was first writing this, longhand, my pen started to run dry. The words got fainter and fainter as I pressed on. Not funny, universe.
What’s on my mind is the quality of sound when I’m in Vermont, as I was last month. People talk about a passing car being an event. Some, being so unaccustomed to the silence, are actually frightened by the absence of noise. But my fear is not being able to hear the silence.
What passes for silence for me now is a constant buzzing hum, especially in my left ear, thanks to a friend’s very loud band one singular night about ten years ago. Leaving, I thought the sprinklers were on outside the club. Nope. Just my ears.
The old adage of the frog in the cook pot comes to mind. As my hearing gradually gets more compromised, I am only occasionally aware. Because the rate is slow (like the increase in temperature around the frog) I am not aware of what I am losing. And I have nothing with which to compare my hearing at any one moment. I just notice the cicadas that are not cicadas singing away in both ears. Once in a while, like now when I notice the wind is blowing but I hear no sound of moving leaves, I realize that there is something I’m missing. Or like when I’m out for a walk with my wife and she asks me, “Do you hear that?” Always a hard question to answer. I have to scan what passes as silence and seen if there’s anything noticeable about the background hum. Depending on the frequency, of course, there may be. But usually not. Sometimes this amazes her. “You can’t hear that?” (Whatever it is.) Nope. Sorry.
Yes, I am a musician, and yes, I played too loud for too long, probably listened too loud as well, and this is those chickens coming home to roost. But I continue to play, although at much lower volume. I think.
I remember the day I first noticed “floaters” in my vision. Maybe I had always had them. Maybe one day they just appeared, the way an ache in certain joints just seems to be there one day, for no particular reason that you can fathom. All of this, I know, is aging. Being part of a generation that once mocked “anyone over thirty” as hopelessly old and out of touch, there is an ironic payback here. I don’t believe I openly mocked anyone, but I, like most people I imagine, never could grasp what getting old would feel like.
In my head, of course, I’m still a young man. I read recently that once we reach a certain age, a certain stage of development, we don’t really change that much in personality, in the way we feel, think, or react. I know brain science has trumpeted the plasticity of the brain in recent years, dooming the old dog and his new tricks to the scrap heap. All good. I will do some brain training online after this, I promise. But meanwhile, I sit here in California, midafternoon, in brilliant sunshine, hearing the sounds of the peepers in the twilight of New England in my ears. At least that’s how I choose to think of it right now.