Getting Lost

Home Grown Species of Lost

Hector Vila invited me to join this exploration of “A Field Guide to Getting Lost.”  I ordered the book from Amazon and never received it because it got lost. I have reordered, but meanwhile I’ve been thinking, and I have especially recalled one of five occasions of getting lost in my life. So I will include it, albeit it not Kosher to do so. Maybe I’ll find a chapter to match it?  This particular incident, as I will soon say, tore all my familiar sense of my Self out of me.  So I submit it as an experience of being really lost. Thus:

My phone rings in funky harmony with the dryer’s buzzer going off.  This sends a micro-wisp of pleasure through my mind.

On the phone is my daughter Kia, sounding cheerful:  ”Hey, Ma, how you doin’?”  Too cheerful.  Exponentially too.  So then I find out she’s sitting next to my younger son Karl, who is unconscious, in an ambulance headed for Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in New York city.  Karl is unconscious.  Karl has had a stroke: he is unconscious.  Prognosis, as they uselessly say, unknown.  Karl has had a stroke; forty years old.  Unconscious in the ambulance to Columbia Pres.

My daughter abandons the Cheer-to-Protect-My-Mom and sobs extremely hard.

My elder son Yani has been dispatched to pick me up,  and together we’ll.

I wait for Yani out in the driveway, which I am I am tacking around  like a Roomba.  All that has been Me in all domains of my Self’s being has fled out of my husk. (Only but my autonomic nervous system  seems to be hanging in there because my heart.)

I glom onto the fact that here is one preternatural particular pebble in the driveway gravel.  It’s about the size of a chickpea and has a greenish tinge.  One half is smooth and ovoid; the other half sharply fractured away.  All this waiting time he may be dead.  I’m looking keenly at that pebble when Yani  drives up.

The very many many cars on the West Side Highway are all driving to unique particular somewheres.  I spit on all those lives in our way. Plus which also: What is happening now inside my daughter and son here? I must: I have to. This is a time of how to do anything now.

That night everyone gone home but he and I.  ”Not out of the woods yet” they say.  Almost all night I very very gently hold his bare hand.  Forty or not, his Mom holds it.

Nurses never come in to see Karl.  They’re off  in their monitor room watching critical monitors  instead.

I stop one other nurse in the hall and PULL her:  ”You’d better come and see my boy.  See him.  Please. He’s not your fucking blips.”

She waits till I stop crying and she brings me a useless cup of tea.

There isn’t one thing I can do all the night so I very gently hold his  clay heavy hand.

There is no way anymore for me to be his mother who helps him; to demand help for him; for anyone to help me help him.

 The sere oatmeal hue of the bathroom tiles in the bathroom next to his bed  makes the work “sanitary”  oxymoron.  This oxymoronic hue nauseates me.  In that oxymoronic oatmeal-hued bathroom, when I look, there is blood.  After twenty years, blood.  As if I stupendously can will my old fertility, to give it to him, Karl,  to keep him,  as once it asked him  to be.
Early morning of the next day.The Hudson river water dull pewter now.  Honey light between buildings’ silhouettes.
And: “Maahhhmmmm”?

The word “miraculous” was hurled around the hospital a lot, and we all loved it.  There was lots of shaky  joy. It took awhile afterwards for everyone to be OK. Of course it took Karl longer. They told us he has a hole in his dear heart the size of a pinprick; that 30% of all people have this wee hole but most never know. That people who have such a stroke as Karl had are then really disabled, or else they die.

So I ask Karl, four years after his stroke, how he feels.  He tells me that when he plays the bass in any of his bands, his left pinky feels a little stiff.  I tell him to suck it up.

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Abandon

She places her chin on my desk. She leans over, arms on her thighs and rests her chin on my desk.

— Professor, I don’t know. I … I don’t feel anything. I … I’m indifferent. I don’t feel anything. I don’t. I just don’t feel anything.

She walks into my office with a big smile. She wares a white wool turtleneck and her silky black hair, parted off-center on her left, falls around her face and over her shoulders like a frame calling attention to her lively eyes – and her smile.

— I miss being here, she says when she walks in. It’s a free place, she says and sits in a chair opposite my desk.

Then nodding to the Green Mountains always in my office window, she says, There are the mountains that will be here when you’re not. And giggles because she’s referring to an email she sent earlier wondering what would happen if one day she came to my office and I’m no longer there – after all, I’m an “old professor,” as she likes to remind me.

–I’m like the mountains, I said to her once. I’m always here, I said trying to convince her that I’d be here for her when she needed me.

She knows better. I’m not like the mountains. One day I won’t be around anymore. So how far does one go knowing that a relationship is terminal?

For her, it takes time to go from the self-restrained person that first walks into my office to the person with her chin on my desk confessing that she’s indifferent. Layers have to be peeled before going there. It will take some time for me to learn of her sense of indifference; it will take time for her to let it out.

That’s why I keep a box of Kleenex on my desk.

–I’m never going to use those, she says looking askance at the box. No. Never, shaking her head – No – and grinning and two small creases, like commas, on either side of her lips appear and turn up.

We’d been through a lesson on Vietnamese. She told me that she never curses in Vietnamese – and doesn’t say I love you. It’s because, unlike English, Vietnamese is physical, I’m told. Words appear more significant to her in Vietnamese; she feels them. She curses in English because she’s not physically connected to the language; she can throw around love and my friend this and my friend that just as any American does. Not in Vietnamese. In Vietnamese she’s been taught how to speak properly, especially since she’s a young woman. Certain things are just not said in Vietnamese, she tells me.

I ask her to teach me a curse in Vietnamese. She can’t. Won’t. I plead. Insist. No way. Can’t. Impossible. Can’t go there.

Instead she reaches for her phone and scrolls and reads me a poem, Đây thôn Vĩ Dạ, by Hàn Mặc Tử’, a famous Vietnamese poet that tragically died much too young, stricken by leprosy.

–Here’s what Vietnamese is like, she says, and reads. When she ends, she leans back in her chair and smiles at me, darts her eyes. It’s beautiful, she says. And explains the poem in a sentence or two – as if she’s applying a fine scalpel.

Vietnamese is soft, gentle. I can see how it comes from the body; her physical presence changes. It fills and speaks.

Then we listen – and watch – a Vietnamese woman recite the poem on YouTube.

–It will sound different, she tells me. It’s in the dialect of the poet. It’s different from mine.

I never knew this, the varieties of Vietnamese. Why would I? Vietnam has always been one dimensional for me.

The fall of Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City)

The fall of Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City)

The Gulf of Tonkin Incident (1964), My Lai (1968), Nixon and Cambodia (1969) – and my registration for the draft. The fall of Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), the capital city of South Vietnam, April 1975. Apocalypse Now (1979) – and consequently, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. Oliver NorthPlatoon (1986), Born on the Fourth of July (1989), Heaven and Earth (1993). And The Quiet American (2002), with the incredible Do Thi Hai Yen playing Phuong.

–Did you read the book? I ask. It’s by Graham Greene.

–No, she says. Then in a kind of excitement, as if discovering something, Everyone wants to possess Phuong, she says. She’s so beautiful. She’s everyone’s fantasy. Each man’s.

–A nation’s, I say.

Vietnam was an American fantasy – as it was a French one. And this young, sensitive student, for this “old professor,” is two Vietnams: the one she didn’t know but sensed as she was raised in a post-war Vietnam; the other is new, vibrant, slouching towards modernity.

Ruins become the unconscious of a city, its memory, unknown, darkness, lost lands, and in this truly bring it to life. With ruins a city springs free of its plans into something as intricate as life, something that can be explored but perhaps not mapped.

This one young woman sitting in my office is a Vietnam, I realize, that, as Rebecca Solnit says in her “Abandon” chapter, cannot not be mapped (A Field Guide to Getting Lost); her eyes, her smile, her wit – all invite exploration. She is tomorrow, not today. In her somehow are the ruins – what has given way since 1975 and re-surfaced in new formations in her sophisticated ways of examining my office, her world, the life she’s had, even though she’s so young, but 19. She seems older, traveled beyond her years. She dissolves into something more remote then now, past it; she points to something yet out of reach for us, something she’ll see and live. And I will not because I’m not like the Green Mountains outside my window.

“Beauty is often spoken of as though it only stirs lust or admiration,” says Solnit, “but the most beautiful people are so in a way that makes them look like destiny or fate or meaning, the heroes of a remarkable story.”

This is who she is, this young woman – beautiful like this. Fate and meaning. Something remarkable she yet quite doesn’t understand and is terribly frightening. We’re invested in the plight of humanity and “exceptional beauty and charm,” as is hers, “are among those gifts given by the sinister fairy at the christening,” says Solnit. Humor and irony – and darkness. The child, at christening, never knows and spends the rest of her life trying to know – sometimes in fear.

–I don’t want you to think, professor, that I’m like this person who writes constantly. I don’t. I don’t even like writing, she informs me. I don’t feel anything, professor. Nothing like that.

This is the same person that, early on, told me that she loves language; she loves looking up words in the OED (Oxford English Dictionary); she loves rich, figurative uses of language. The same person that keeps beautiful poems in her phone.

This is the same person that, in a piece titled The Necessity of a Heart, writes:

Now and then I saw my mother’s gleaming dark brown eyes fading. Her eye color is that of tamarind candies and papaya seeds. I soon learned that tears could wash away one’s eye color the way they did my mother’s. So I never cried for long. I loved my eye color – the color of tamarind candies and papaya seeds.
This is a story of the various ways my eyes change color.

This is the same girl that feels indifferent – yet feels deeply, in a way that is beyond her yet. This is the same girl that has a ruthless imagination that she unleashes routinely in phrases that reach for the heart, always.

Adventures enthralled every piece of me. At ten years old I read the story of Helen Keller whose saying I remember by heart ever since: “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.” At twelve years old I was determined that I would either grow up to be a reckless adventurer or I was already dead at birth.

I remind her of this other girl that visits my office and I suggest to her that her talents are way out ahead of her maturity – for now. I tell her that she’s not indifferent – the opposite: she feels deeply and emphatically and can then turn these complex feelings into images we can recognize as our own.

–I’m not used to this, professor, she says. No teacher has ever spoken to me like this, she says.

Her shoulders have relaxed. She’s played with her beautiful hair a few times and now she’s parted it from right to left, the opposite of how she had it so well put together when she entered my office.

–I love my parents, she says. But we never speak of love. We don’t say I love you. And you show me all this unconditional love. I don’ t know what to make of it, she says, welling up and looking over at the Kleenex.

–That’s why they’re there, I say.

–No. Never.

I reach for the Kleenex but she beats me to it.

Que voy a ser, je ne sais pas

I was first introduced to the French/Spanish singer Manu Chao in 2003. Or early 2004, I’m not sure. 2003-2005 were two years for me where time was measured more in feelings than in linear experiences. The Argentines and the Mexicans at my school decided that Indians should know what real music sounds like. So without being too offended, we gladly went along with them. And that night I heard one of Manu Chao’s most popular – and I didn’t know it yet but most profound – songs, Me Gustas Tu“. Yes, it was catchy, it had a beat, it made us 16 and 17 year olds sway to the beat of a Mediterranean reggae that hadn’t made its way over to the Indian subcontinent and felt strangely out of place on a hill in the middle of a valley under a midnight blue tent of a sky with holes pierced through by the stars. It was so out of place that it actually fit right in. And – this is the embarrassing part to admit – in my naiveté, until I actually got much better at my Spanish a few years later, I didn’t realize that his coro was Que voy hacer (what should I do). I kept hearing it as Que voy a ser (what will I be). So you see then why the chorus as per my interpretation really struck a chord with me – 
Que voy a ser / What will I be
Je ne sais pas / I don’t know
Que voy a ser / What will I be
Je ne sais plus / I don’t know anymore
Que voy a ser / What will I be
Je suis perdu / I’m lost
After I learnt the real lyrics, I decided to just go along with my interpretation because by that time, I’d been through a series of moments related to figuring out my identity, my place in this world, these cultures and I held on to these words like a security blanket. It was okay for me to not know who or what I would be, because how could I? After having begun Solnit’s book though, I found myself thinking increasingly about the last line – Je suis perdu. When I think about it as part of the song, there’s no sadness associated with the idea of being lost. The beat, the voice, the melody – they’re in complete contrast to the lyrics. I’d never heard of anyone so cheerful – for lack of a better word – singing about being lost. 
(Sidenote – it’s stuck with me so much that this bastardized phrase of mine is currently at the top of a very short list of what I’d like to get as my second tattoo.)
I talk about the song because I’m halfway through the chapter Abandon and it talks about a musician friend of Solnit’s, her journey and the various stops along the way, some of which may seem like the wanderings of a lost soul, but in reality are very much conscious choices. It’s interesting to try and really pick at the subtle differences between loss and being lost. In the way that they are used in speech and in language, loss almost ends up as something passive, something that happens to you, whereas being lost is an intentional act, a choice to loose certain elements, certain aspects of one’s life. Whether we do it consciously or subconsciously, I think we all discriminate a little bit against certain lifestyles and life choices that imply an intentional loss. 
I bring up this point to link back to the train of thought Solnit weaves through the latter half of the previous chapter, The Blue of Distance, when she talks about culture and boundaries and the repercussions of natives kidnapping many of the Puritan children and their resultant choices to stay with their captors/new communities. When I read that, i actually dug through my inbox to find an email thread dating back to August 2011 – a fervent online discussion with a few friends about reflections from working in the international development sector, and empathising with The Other, figuring out how to transition back to the world we came from. I think it was there that I first started playing with the imagery of boundaries and fences and imagined/defined borders for spaces that we inhabit, or look to enter, or have invariably found ourselves a part of without even realizing when or from where we entered. The more I think about it, the more I’ve reflected this imagery subconsciously during crucial moments in my life. I went to an international high school for two years, and remember always recollecting that experience in conversation or on paper as both a blessing and a curse – it was almost like i had been broken into a million little pieces during those two years there, and when I stopped to pick up the pieces and reassemble myself, I found that I was no longer myself but an amalgamation of everyone else around me. Pieces of them were deeply embedded in me, and have been ever since, and pieces of myself now live in other people. What did I lose/gain in the process? Can I really say that I’ve been the same person since then? What I didn’t realize is that the process of reassembling yourself and carrying on actually is almost an art. Not to sound presumptuous but many a person has broken down at the idea of losing the sense of comfort, of knowing who you are, what you think, what you want and where you’re going. Solnit rightly says that “the real difficulties, the real arts of survival seem to lie in more subtle realms. There, what’s called for is a kind of resilience of the psyche, a readiness to deal with what comes next.” I found another quote from The Pedagogy of Self, that I began reading when I was thinking about boundaries and fences and this situation of knowing the Other and consequently one’s own self better, that puts a very visual interpretation in front of me of what it is actually like to be that hybrid, that in-between who is crossing cultures, losing and finding oneself multiple times to the extent that loss and discovery are rarely distinguishable from each other….sometimes the presumed sadness of loss actually manifests itself on discovery of oneself or one’s purpose because that is where the journey supposedly ends, doesn’t it? The quote reads: 
The hard edges of the boundary between self and other become fuzzy. Where we end and the environment begins becomes a shared space. It is not so much that we become fuzzy as we become aware, through heightened self-awareness, that we already exist in a state of shared being with all of life: It’s less a change in reality than a change in perspective
I really can’t find a coherent way to end this because, as usual, I get lost in what I’m writing. But I’m leaving pondering about the curious nature of the universe, in making things make sense. With the song, with my tattoo, with these emails from two years ago and everything tying in to Solnit’s treatise on being lost. I guess that’s a commentary in itself, isn’t it? Have we ever lost something, or are we ever lost, or merely just waiting to find again?
 

Exile on Mainstreet: Lost on the Boundaries

I was an exile before I had time to reason.

I was an exile before I understood the feeling of banishment.

I was an exile before I could gain insight into the morphology of political systems that are always already expelling one’s consciousness.

Exile first arrived, unannounced, quiet like a lion in the bush after his prey, through family – a father out for weeks making napalm, a mother ironing the family clothes with a revolver strapped to her side, a machine gun parked in the front yard, gun fire, deafening rockets overhead, sleepless nights, whispers and apprehensive glances.

To a small boy hiding beneath stairs the powerful surge to push him out and away is not that; it’s more immediate, more frightening, more resolute. Textured hostility. A bully in the schoolyard. The authoritative forces that expel a person from his place are far from one’s life; they are nebulous and foggy and distant from one’s dreams and desires. Which is why exile is so profound.

Exile, says Edward Said, “is a condition of terminal loss.” In the modern age exile has become a “motif of modern culture,” he says. “Even enriching.” Listen: “We have become accustomed to thinking of the modern period itself as spiritually orphaned and alienated, the age of anxiety and estrangement.”

My anxiety and estrangement began in 1960. My family came to the United States, on this first trip, because my father was stricken with poliomyelitis, a virus that left him paralyzed from the neck down. No one could help in backwater Argentina. My father was 31 years old. He passed away at 82. He spent 51 years in a wheelchair – and he was highly accomplished. He spent 50 of those years in the United States – as we did.

Our anxious and estranged, final move to the States came in 1966 – there was no hope in Argentina.(Ten years later, Argentina experienced a Military Dictatorship that lasted until 1983 and a Dirty War, which was part of Operation Condor – there would be nothing left, eventually, and the country has yet to recover.) My father and mother were hedging. History says they were right. Our age, says Said, “with its modern warfare, imperialism, and the quasi-theological ambitions of totalitarianism rulers – is indeed the age of the refugee, the displaced person, mass immigration.” We were just that, my family.

I became intimate with displacement – sensually, instinctively – before I knew of the concept. It happened the day my father was brought home from the hospital, after spending time in an iron lung, and the nearly lifeless man stretched out in a green hospital bed was no one I recognized, not intimately.

In an instant, I lost my home, I lost my country. Displacement is very real, a life-force, an elaborate gild. It leaves a scar – and you leave something behind, too. I was 6 when my father took ill. I was 11, almost 12 when the displacement was complete.

I had to learn how to adjust, how to adapt to survive. I didn’t have a guide – and I was lost, though I can honestly say I didn’t know what loss meant. (And I have learned, over time, that loss is a permanent condition, something I’ve embraced and find acceptable and where I find creativity.) I had to begin a process by which I learned to adjust to what was far away, pushing what was near far – as Solnit says in her second, of three, “The Blue of Distance” chapters. This was an instinct. And in this instinct, there is a cost that lies dormant, waiting its due. Again using Solnit’s helpful language: I did not imagine myself like this, “in this way”; I had to “lose [my] past to join the present, and this abandonment of memory, of old ties, is the steep cost of adaptation.”

In Solnit’s second “The Blue of Distance” chapter, which happens before the fourth chapter, “Abandon,” I’m beginning to understand how essential being lost is to identity formation – and in my case, how being lost in exile begins, first, by a strange and complex mechanism of denial about one’s identity followed, in time and with much experience, with acceptance.

Exile takes a person’s dignity away, says Said. In Solnit’s hands, using the history of the conquest of the New World and the biography of Cabeza de Vaca, we learn how castaways, “strays and captives,” feeling (my italics) that “they were far from home, distant from their desires, and then at some point, in a stunning reversal, they came to be at home and what they had longed for became remote, alien, unwanted.” I feel this. I am this. Solnit continues:

For some, perhaps there was a moment when they realized the old longings had become little more than habit and that they were not yearning to go home but had been home for some time; for others the dreams of home must have faded by stages among the increasingly familiar details of their surroundings. They must have learned their surroundings like a language and one day woken up fluent in them. Somehow, for these castaways the far became near and the near far.

I have laid awake at night longing for the habit of stepping out of my home, at Segunda La Valleja 1120, to meet friends to play soccer on the quiet streets. I’ve experienced liquored moments where I’m fighting to go home, un-accepting of this gringo life. And it all began to fade and I became a stranger to two places – in two places.

Ten years ago, on my 50th birthday, I returned to this now foreign land, Argentina. Immediately the people saw me as un porteño, a person from Buenos Aires. I’m not. I was born in Córdoba – but the Córdobes has a specific accent, very specific tones to his castellano. I lost that when I woke up one day and I was fluent in another language. When I went to Córdoba, I could hardly understand the language. And when I made an emotional walk up the hill to Segunda La Valleja 1120, it looked smaller, less than what I remembered – the palace of my dreams no more. I felt the same displacement as when I first saw my new father in his hospital bed that displaced his own bed.

I felt the exile. I was there, en el barrio Cofico, but not. I was born here, on one of the hottest days, approaching midnight, but I’m not from here. I live in the almighty States but there, according to my NATURALIZATION PAPERS, I was an alien.

The loss I feel is because I’ve had to learn to live in the shadows – an alien, sometimes even to myself. And what I’ve done – and continue to do, I suppose – is to make the shadows, the edges and boundaries of our tenebrous life significant. That’s something, I guess.

Bombay blues

The blue of longing in Bombay is in its waters. In the vast Arabian Sea to the west that meets the city at its southernmost point, Marine Drive. It is my escape. It is my horizon. It is my yonder. It is my edge of the world, and the start of another. I sat there last night talking to N, a friend in another city while waiting to meet R, who was ten minutes away from me, and was struck by two thoughts that Solnit talks about – desire and longing.

We treat desire as a problem to be solved, address what desire is for and focus on that something and how to acquire it rather than on the nature and the sensation of desire, though often it is the distance between us and the object of desire that fills the space between with the blue of longing”.

It is my blue of longing.

Last night R and I started discussing connection, or the lack of it, that made people engage in one-way interactions seemingly disguised as “conversations” through instant messaging, fleeting interactions and mostly just a desire to be heard above the rest. I am honestly annoyed by people having long conversations over impersonal mediums without bothering to make the time for the same in person. We were both frustrated with how people confuse connectivity with connection and I began thinking about the spaces between us. Virtual spaces are slowly encroaching upon my emotional and physical boundaries to such an extent that I’m made to feel almost wrong for wanting them both simultaneously. Are we so scared to address our desire to connect and sit with that desire and accept it, so much that we make a connection – however fleeting – and then move on as if the desire has been addressed? I leave so many dinners and outings here recently feeling unfulfilled, mostly because they’ve ended up feeling cursory and a lame attempt at a checklist of how interactions should be, and I wish I knew how to change the nature of my interactions with people to a point where every one of them allowed me to lose myself in the other person. I want to not be afraid of depth, and of the unknown and release myself from the shackles of having to arrive somewhere with every interaction. It makes me think of purpose and how purpose is sometimes in conflict with desire. The two sometimes get confused for meaning one and the same thing, but I’m starting to think more about the chicken-and-the-egg with these two concepts. I’d like to believe that the desire to connect is what shapes the purpose of my longing but at times I feel as if the purpose is almost transactional. This then reduces my desire, my longing, to a destination where  – once I’ve arrived – I must renounce it. And I’m not okay with that.

I’m not okay with defining the depth of desire to connect. I’m not okay with defining desire in terms of distance or even as something linear or unidirectional. I look back out onto the slate blue sea during the late afternoons or the midnight blue waters as heaven and earth merge into one by the time the rest of the city is asleep and I want that. I want desire and longing that has no beginning or end, which flows around me and pushes me where the wind blows. I want my spaces to be filled with depth that can hold both the destination and the journey.

Look across the distance without wanting to close it up.

Own your own longing in the same way that you own the beauty of that blue, that can never be possessed.

Lost and Found in The Blue of Distance

The world is blue at its edges and in its depth. This blue is the light that got lost. Light at the blue end of the spectrum does not travel the whole distance from the the sun to us. It disperses among the molecules of the air, it scatters in water.

Thus begins the second chapter in A Field Guide to Getting Lost,“The Blue of Distance.” Is it the blue of creation? Of that always already first moment, repeating itself in the unknown (unknowable?) of time when we were yet to be? And like that blue end of the spectrum that disperses, is that what happens to us – we disperse? And at some point are we nothing? Is the greatest fear of all changing into nothing? Is this the why of Facebook – social media?

We move through space and time, but in a constant sort of scatter, picking up pieces of matter and sound, dispersing others through language, art, manifestations and epiphanies we’d like to share in the silence of it all.

Yesterday, Sunday, February 2, 2014 was a strange day in that silence of it all. As I write the date I’m cognizant of how distant it is; or rather, I am aware of how unsure I was, yesterday, lodged somewhere in the noise that carries us along somehow, mysteriously, as if we’re both a part of it and not.

On the one end of the spectrum of light, the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman. On the other, the Super Bowl – a confusing spectacle pushing back on any notions of depth and edges, distance and dispersing molecules of identity. One event is tragic, the other irony – and even dark comedy. Both events on that fateful Sunday perhaps marking our in-consequentiality.

In my house, film is a big deal – as are art and books. Philip Seymour Hoffman, often painful to watch – so vulnerable, so present, so real – is someone our family loved to watch. We can’t say, as some fans have, I love him or We love him because that is the confusion of our times: the character on the screen is an artifice, albeit a true, honest and very real portraiture of us. We confuse the us in the celluloid images we consider through the depth of the dispersed light – and film is all about light: how it’s manufactured, how it’s privileged here and not there, how it travels into us and through us in the quiet darkness of a theatre. (Many years ago, in another light, we use to comment on film by regarding how it was lit – this is long gone from the nomenclature on film.) Where we see the intrusion of the Super Bowl-like spectacle is in the viewer that enters the theatre late, forcing himself or herself down a crowded aisle, only to then proceed to loudly devour a bucket of popcorn in the most intimate of film moments. There’s no one else in the theatre and a film can only be enjoyed by disruptive ingestion. Our times.

That’s when I get lost. That’s when I don’t know where I am – in-between a deep, abiding intimacy and the deafening noise of our spectacle.

I had a few disturbing moments during the Super Bowl:

  • the moment when somehow military heroism was equated with football and “the battle on the field”;
  • the moment when the US Constitution was made into a document that passes to us almost because of football;
  • the many moments in which “the game,” America’s most popular game, is equated with life itself, with our reality, with how we should think and feel – football as some sort of Aaron Copland American opus – football, American’s new Appalachian Spring, the most tragic of all ironies;
  • the many moments in which the game calls you in and just as forcefully pushes you out into commercial renderings of consumerism as a moral absolute in-between bathroom breaks and beers.

And I was also taken by how quickly and powerfully the Super Bowl pushed Philip Seymour Hoffman into celluloid memories, the reality, for us viewers of film, the form in the dispersed light Hoffman will be. Lodged in time, which is what film can do.

“The blue of distance comes with time, with the discovery of melancholy, of loss, the texture of longing, of the complexity of the terrain we traverse, and with the years of travel.”

As I sat there amid this Super Bowl nonsense I felt terribly alone and in the “texture of longing” because I wasn’t sure that anyone else was feeling what I was feeling – seeing what I was seeing. What I am, indeed, seeing.

In the short years of my travel, the road narrower now, less to go, what I have traversed makes me see what I see -but I am alone in this. The blue that is the edges and is the depth of us is lost – as lost as I feel.

“Sometimes gaining and losing are more intimately related than we like to think,” says Solnit. “And some things cannot be moved or owned. Some light does not make it all the way through the atmosphere, but scatters.”

Maybe that’s it – the atmosphere has become darker, more closed off, pain winning out; the bad, perhaps, winning out over the good. Reminds me of Lou Reed – can’t have gain without loss:

When you pass through the fire

You pass through humble

You pass through a maze of self doubt

When you pass through humble

The lights can blind you

Some people never figure that out

Light can indeed blind – and the Super Bowl works on pushing extreme light to compel extreme emotion. For what? In my case, yesterday, I could only feel Philip Seymour Hoffman’s dissolve – and it compelled me to feel my own, my own move to melancholy, loss and longing. The longing for life itself. More of it, as I listen to Appalachian Spring – itself a longing.

But as Solnit says – and I accept, “Some things we have only as long as they remain lost, some things are not lost only so long as they are distant.” Longing for life, as ambiguous and unknowable as that is, we feel and maybe it’s both lost and found because it is distant.

Lost in the Most Unlikely of Places …

As I contemplate, as Solnit does, the pre-Socratic philosopher Meno’s notion about how I will go about finding that thing the nature of which is totally unknown to me [you]?, I realize that I’ve written quite a bit about this (and others). And I figure that it’s because of something Solnit says: “Certainly for artists of all stripes, the unknown, the idea or the form of the tale that has not yet arrived, is what must be found.”

A place where I find myself lost – along with students – is in the writing classroom. That’s right. I try and create an environment where something – preferably the self – has to be found, the nature of which is totally unknown to you. “Children seldom roam, ” says Solnit,” even in the safest places.” I find this to be the single most critical impediment to finding that thing that nature of which is totally unknown to you. Students, for the most part, have been sold programs, prescriptions, answers and ways through the confusion; and they prefer these, it seems, rather than lurking, losing themselves, having no answers. Self-reliance is alien to kids today. Solnit wonders – as I do: “…what will come of placing this generation under house arrest.”

The ways through writing students bring to the college classroom are forms of house arrest. Students fear letting go. Students don’t want to let go; they don’t want to get lost, though it’s fundamental to learning. “Lost ..was mostly a state of mind, and this applies as much to all the metaphysical and metaphorical states of being lost as to blundering around in the backcountry.” I want students – with me – to blunder about the classroom, crossing the quad, in their rooms, searching, looking and not finding yet finding. I want students to wander – but wandering is not privileged in our culture. Efficiency is. But discovery – which is what, after all, education is about – requires time; in turn, time requires that an individual gain some distance from the lived experience. As Solnit says, “Some light does not make it all the way through the atmosphere, but scatters.”

So, the place where I find myself lost – along with students – the writing classroom, is fraught with obstacles to getting lost; it comes with a history of “knowns”, of “answers” that suggest, always, that getting lost is not very effective, a waste of time, not too efficient and costly.

Funny. As I think about this getting lost, I’m also looking at a few other books – David ShieldsReality Hunger: A Manifesto, Verlyn Klinkenborg‘s Several Short Sentences About Writing, and Henry A. Giroux‘s American Education Deficit and the War on Youth.

Let’s just listen:

Shields: I know all the moments are “moments”: staged and theatrical, shaped and thematized…Randomness, openness to accident and serendipity, spontaneity; artistic risk, emotional urgency and intensity, reader/viewer participation; an overly literal tone, as if a reporter were viewing a strange culture; plasticity of form, pointillism; criticism as autobiography; self-reflexivity, self-ethnography, anthropological autobiography; a blurring (to the point of invisibility) of any distinction between fiction and nonfiction: the lure and blur of the real.

Klinkenborg: Write these things down – the contents of the noise in your head as you write.
You can’t revise or discard what you don’t consciously recognize.

These assumptions and prohibitions and obligations are the imprint of your education and the culture you live in.

Distrust them.

Giroux: There is a need to invent modes of communication that connect learning to social change and foster modes of critical agency through which people assume responsibility for each other…At a time when critical thought has been flattened, it becomes imperative to develop a discourse of critique and possibility – one that recognizes that without an informed citizenry, collective struggle, and dynamic social movements, hope for a viable democratic future will slip out of our reach.

All three writers – Shields, Klinkenborg and Giroux – are calling forth for the removal of impediments to our getting lost. Shields asks for new forms, new experiments to blur the distinctions between fiction and nonfiction – always already determined by economics, not creativity; Klinkenborg speaks about “the noise” that is formal education and how it impedes creative thinking and writing; and Giroux, not unlike the others, is asking for a more engaged critique of ourselves and others, which cannot be done without the time to get lost, to wander.

All three writers – and Solnit, too – are the reasons why I find myself lost in the writing classroom alongside my students. But, like Solnit, I’ve chosen to make this the subject of my classroom’s inquiry. I want to make sure that, as Solnit says, students realize that history – and their lives – are “made more of crossroads, branchings, and tangles than straight lines.” In-between the crossroads, the branchings, and the tangles is where we get lost – and it’s what we have to capture. And what I hope, after this first posting, others will write about.

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