I recently started reading a gem of a book entitled ‘A Field Guide to Getting Lost’ by Rebecca Solnit. Sometimes I get lucky enough to stumble on a book like this; the sort of book which defies any solid genre distinction. Solnit’s work here reads as a collection of biographical essays but is more a philosophical contemplation on the concept of ‘being and getting lost’. It’s rife with existential fodder…and I am loving it, because I’m apparently psychologically masochistic like that. Other books that land in this fuzzy, challenging category are Colin Wilson’s ‘The Outsider’, John Gray’s ‘Straw Dogs’ among others — these kinds of books often end up in the favorites column. I’ll likely also recommend them insistently to my friends; both those who read and those who don’t.
I have a hankering for getting lost in reading and more generally in the experience of discovery. I typically delve through art and information that cannot be readily categorized or otherwise covers a swath of stimulating subjects (psychology, philosophy, physics, social criticism, etc). The Pacific Standard (website and magazine) is particularly notable for this kind of content; the Brain Pickings blog being another. I encourage myself in this sort of thorough, even scattered, approach despite being somewhat anarchic and occasionally without direction.
My music listening habits follow this form of ‘looking to be lost’. In building an extensive playlist of new music from 2014, I’ve been aiming for the deep end hoping to find the unexpected. It’s an ongoing project of perusing the web for albums I can add regardless of whether I have heard the artists/bands before; then later, semi-randomly picking a release, often unsure of what I’m about to get myself into. With these efforts, I’ve almost exclusively listened to new music and new artists this year. I can say that its been largely worthwhile. Some of the best music I’ve heard in several years I found via this process — the process of intentionally looking to get lost.
I’m an enthusiast for taking walks. This interest unfortunately eluded me for decades. But now circumstances are such that I have little choice but to take part in this simplest of activities. I was please, however, in finding out that I truly enjoy walking. And even more so, wandering. The A and B of my treks would often be determined, but there were always alternative paths to take and strange corners to behold. Where I currently reside, there is a strange patchwork of Pacific Northwest greenery, suburban homes, retail strip malls, semi-urban apartment complexes, as well a few historic and longer established fixtures. I wouldn’t qualify it as mind blowing by any stretch, but it is unpredictable. Once again falling into that not so neat category of defying distinction.
A key point that Solnit establishes early in ‘Field Guide’ is that being lost is OKAY if that is our desire and if we are equipped for it. Because people crave certainty, and seemingly require the formation of narratives and memories that bolster this sense of certainty, getting lost becomes of particular importance for self awareness and spiritual/emotional well being. There is too much in life that we will never know or be able to fully understand. An appropriate means for exploring the fuzzy boundaries of reality is essential. Without a healthy methodology for ‘getting lost’, people are prone to drift into madness, despair, or rigid and dogmatic thinking.
“Touching the edge of the unknown…sharpens the senses,” she suggests. The wording here could be interpreted several ways. Are we touching the edge of the ‘unknown’ as we stand still within our personal area of the “known”? Or are we always within the ‘unknown’ and we discover its edge where we manage brief glimpses of the realm of knowledge? Is putting knowledge and understanding into geographical terms utterly facile? I could easily be over thinking this simple quote, but it felt relevant to explore the paradoxical ways it could be read — which highlights the paradoxical nature of knowledge altogether.
Could it be that we are better served assuming that we are already, and always will be, lost? And knowing how to be lost well, accepting this fundamental characteristic of being in existence, is how we can stay sane while also finding joy in the uncertainty. Awe and wonder are undeniably some of the most sublime of emotions that anyone can experience, and they both seem intrinsic in this act of discovering — or ‘being lost — when we are going about it with the appropriate reverence for the elusiveness of reality.
I once wrote in a poem/meditation “let go of what I cannot control / embrace and have reverence for mystery / always aware of that uncertainty / but inviting towards the possibilities of each new day.” Personally, I have long felt that much of life was beyond my control. I easily could and have used this as an excuse to put little effort towards having control in my life — to eternally “go with the flow”. Those who drive their sanity into the ground seeking control in every aspect of their life are equally misguided. As is true with most things in life, balance and moderation are critical to emotional well being. And key to our balance is knowing that nothing is ever completely balanced, or rather, such harmonious states are never known or felt by us as individuals. If ever they are permitted to us, they’re gone before we can fully comprehend the purity of such moments.
For awhile I assumed that it was not up to me what my moods were going to be from day to day or where my motivation would be at. I left it up to chance. Or, I was so convinced that chance was in charge, that I took more drastic measures in trying to “feel” how I wanted to feel. The reality was, I could DO a lot more than I realized in helping myself wander through this inexplicable conscious experience, but it required work, willingness and discipline. Maybe extra work for someone with a mind and disposition such that I have. Regardless, it takes time for that work to demonstrate its benefits, and that’s where I struggled mightily. I didn’t want to wait, I didn’t want to believe in the process of self mastery and discipline. I wanted to believe these were a fiction, or at least wholly beyond my grasp.
These were just ways in which I chose to crumble in the face of perceived futility. I’m now beginning to see the journey for what it is. A journey that is inevitable but rife with possibility for joy and satisfaction. It’s an active process learning how to ‘be lost’. Part of that process is continuing to seek out the unknown and uncomfortable so that my mind avoids the lull of complacence. Always watchful for that fallacious sense of thinking I know the nature of things. A habit of thought that led me to assuming all was futile was in fact that exact fallacy — thinking I had the universe figured out. I had forgotten how to be lost.
When I listen to music with a concerted effort towards keeping it fresh, and when I take a walk with the intention of wandering, these are small measures for reminding me how to be lost. They may seem mundane or even trivial when it comes to contemplating the existential nature of my very being. But, in fact, they are essential to being at peace with the strangeness and inexplicability of it. What better way is there to face challenges then to always be uprooting our perceptions of art, society, self, and reality itself? So watch a movie you maybe wouldn’t have ever thought to, start a journal if you’ve never recorded your thoughts, play a video game if you’ve never tried. Is this getting self helpish? Meh… whatever, it’s sound encouragement. We spend too much time convincing ourselves that we don’t believe the good advice and ideas that we are often freely given. I meditate and jog now even though I never used to and thought I’d never be able to make a habit of it. Let’s continue surprising ourselves.
A fitting dialogue exchange, given this blog entry, from the film ‘Boyhood’ between Mason (the boy in Boyhood) and his father Mason Sr. (played by Ethan Hawke)
After discussing graduation, breakups, and other ‘normal’ things Mason inquires: So what’s the point?
Mason Sr: Of what?
Mason Jr: I don’t know, any of this…everything?””
Strange stare from Mason Sr, unsure if the question is a joke: everything?! Befuddled chuckle. What’s the point? I mean I sure as shit don’t know…
Mason Jr smiles and roles eyes in a ‘aww geez Dad’.
Father continues: neither does anybody else, okay, we’re all just wingin’ it, you know. Shrugging and look around, looks back at Mason Jr: I mean the good news is your feelin’ stuff, you know, and you gotta hold onto that.
By the way, watch ‘Boyhood’, easily one of the years best.
Currently in excited anticipation of: Viewing of Insterstellar in IMAX on Saturday No. 8th
Thing I’m cutting it close on: my 40 book goal for 2014, currently at 23 with 2 months to go
Simple pleasure I appreciate: Having the perfect pen around that glides well and writes dark and makes me feel like a boss when I write with it.
Activity that makes me feel surprisingly awesome: Running in brisk autumn weather while wearing dorky wool socks and listening to my ‘Get Pumped’ playlist.