As Slade’s words began to sink in and I tried to process what I was feeling in between the gulps of grief and the reminiscences of our youth, I found myself feeling, then understanding, two different kinds of loss.
Putting myself in Slade’s head, I can imagine having a range of negative feelings, but with his repetition of my word “loyalty,” it seems to me that the predominant feeling must be betrayal, the feeling that Caesar feels, knives in his body as he turns to see his friend Brutus plunging his knife too — and the pain in his voice saying et tu, Brute?, not the pain of the knife inflicting mortal blows, but of the betrayal of a trusted friend, one who, in today’s lingo, was supposed to “have his back.” The loss Slade feels is permanent, painful, and personal, and it topples a fixed and happy memory of our relationship, sitting on his mind like a dark ink stain on the front of his Armani dress shirt. And I can relate to that, and am tempted to feel the same way about Slade’s rejection.
But I am also aware of a second type of loss, not one that falls into a nostalgia of the past, congealed in our minds like the Jello that remains uneaten at a dinner, where things are either quite right or are terribly wrong, but rather one that provides an occasion for possibility and promise, tinged with sadness but also pointing towards an integration of past, present, and future where we are whole and free from pain.
As a vision of this second type of loss began to materialize in my mind in the hours and days after Slade’s email rejection, I became aware of an accompanying soundtrack: the Grateful Dead’s “Cassidy,” in which the singer comes to grips with his friend’s death, recalling various epic deeds, but finally picturing his loss as a flock of birds that all take off simultaneously, each a particle of a larger flock. He ends the song by letting go, letting the spirit of his friend go:
Fare thee well now. Let your life proceed by its own design —
Nothing to tell now. Let the words be yours, I’m done with mine.
The Grateful Dead have lots of songs about letting go — “Bird Song,” “Box of Rain,” “Looks Like Rain,” “Black Peter,” “Brokedown Palace,” “He’s Gone,” and “Cassidy, to name just a few that come to mind. These songs always manage, beat or hippy-style, to spin their losses philosophically, as either the release from pain or the setting free of a spirit. In these songs, loss could be a death (of Cassidy, of Phil Lesh’s father, of an original band member nicknamed Pigpen) or a breakup of a lover, and the sense of both missing someone and of letting them go runs through their lyrics. The singer celebrates the loss even as he cries over the grief — we cannot hold someone against their will, and we cannot hold back their life’s journey to satisfy our sense of possession, grief, or anger. Our memories of the one we’ve lost serve as a meditative starting point, rather than an ending, and these Grateful Dead songs are the beautiful results of losses.
This philosophy feels a bit to me a bit like the end of Kerouac’s On The Road, a story of beat-generation writers and adventurers. And perhaps this is not surprising, for not only was Kerouac’s footloose roadster Dean Moriarty based on Neil Cassady (as Kerouac experienced him and wrote him), but Cassady’s death is also the inspiration for the Grateful Dead’s “Cassidy” song, and the vastness of the imagery is evident in both works.
On the last page of On The Road, the narrator recalls his friend Dean walking away from him, not looking back, and is propelled into a reflection on the vastness of America and its industrial and agricultural and natural wonders, his narrative point of view pulling upwards like a giant aerial camera shot in a movie.
Dean, ragged in a moth-eaten overcoat he brought especially for the freezing temperatures of the east, walked off alone, and the last I saw of him, he rounded the corner of Seventh Avenue, eyes on the street ahead, and bent to it again…. Old Dean’s gone, I thought, and out loud I said, “He’ll be all right.” And off we went to the sad and disinclined concert for which I had no stomach whatever and all the time I was thinking of Dean and how he got back on the train and rode over three thousand miles over that awful land and never knew why he had come anyway, except to see me.
So, in America when the sun goes down and I sit on the old broken-down river pier watching the long, long skies over New Jersey and sense all that raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over to the West Coast, all that road going, and all the people dreaming in the immensity of it, and in Iowa I know by now that children must be crying in the land where the let the children cry, and tonight the stars’ll be out, and don’t you know that God is Pooh Bear? The evening star must be drooping and shedding her sparkler dims on the prairie, which is just before the coming of complete night that blesses the earth, darkens all rivers, cups the peaks and folds the final shore in, and nobody, nobody knows what’s going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old. I think of Dean Moriarty, I even think of Old Dean Moriarty the father we never found. I think of Dean Moriarty, I think of Dean Moriarty.
This cinematographer-philosopher’s vastness and the his recollection of Dean Moriarty — his loss of Dean as well as his vision of their adventures across America — are tied together in a mutual cause-and-effect relationship, for not only does the act of reflecting on Dean call to mind the immensity of the country, but thinking about the vastness of America also causes the narrator to think of Dean Moriarty. In other words, the loss isn’t a self-contained, festering sore, but rather it’s an expansive feedback loop that occasions philosophical grandeur.
Which, in my own grand stream of consciousness of loss, brings me once more to Walt Whitman, master of similar poetic techniques that tie together both the tiny and the vast. At the end of “Leaves of Grass,” the narrator bids the reader farewell and dissolves into the very landscape that has formed the fabric of the poem. This loss of the narrator is not to be mourned, but instead creates an opportunity for the reader to look everywhere for the poet — in the air, the dirt, the water, the rocks:
The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me, he complains of my gab and my loitering.
I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.
The last scud of day holds back for me,
It flings my likeness after the rest and true as any on shadow’d wilds,
It coaxes me to the vapor and the dusk.
I depart as air, I shake my white locks at the runaway sun,
I effuse my flesh in eddies, and drift it in lacy jags.
I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.
You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.
Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.
Am I over-thinking this? Am I grasping for a more philosophical, expansive explanation of this loss than is called for? Perhaps. Perhaps it’s just a plain old rejection.
But my feelings are my own, and I own up to them, and I know that these feelings about Slade’s rejection do not necessarily have to involve despair or depression, and I believe that life’s downward twists have more meaning than simple explanations convey. Make no mistake, my sense of loss feels like a hole in my body filled with a stinging emptiness, but I think it also serves as a catalyst for reflection and understanding and hope.
Maybe the only thing that will come from my reflection is this essay. Maybe this experience will serve to keep me honest and educate me as to the likelihood of future acceptance and rejection. Or maybe these words will be diffused into the air and water and rocks and become part of the fabric of vast narratives.
And when you see the birds wheeling to the sunrise-orange sky at the beach, when you think of the small towns and universities and plains and mountains and islands and country roads and highways that have defined the geography of your life, when you contemplate the thousand tangles of fate and fortune that bring us together and split us asunder, when words fail you as you lie on your back in the grass, scanning the skies for the planets and stars and comets and satellites in the deepening dusk, perhaps you will catch yourself thinking of me and looking for me underfoot.
I will wait for you.