“…to be lost is to be fully present, and to be fully present is to be capable of being in uncertainty and mystery. And one does not get lost but loses oneself, with the implication that it is a conscious choice, a chosen surrender…”
― Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost
Yesterday, I stumbled across the album of the three weeks I went to Europe by myself at age twenty-three. I look so much younger than that, still adolescent in the curve of my cheeks, a little lost in the eyes. I had just graduated college. My grandmother had died. My boyfriend and I had broken up. I was carved of loss, but also hungry to get out of my own experience.
I look back now and see how foolishly brave I was to travel alone, a young, blonde, American girl, through France and Italy. Not only that, but a girl who had a deep terror of being lost. When I learned to drive at sixteen, one of my first solo adventures was driving myself two hours north to the summer camp where I’d be working. Before GPS or cell phones, with a map my father sketched out for me, twice I missed an important turn and found myself very lost. The first time, I pulled over to the side of the country road, where I’d woven further and further from the highway, and sobbed, my heart thumping out its certainty that I would run out of gas and be forced to abandon my car and walk to some stranger’s house to beg for help. But not long into my despair, a police car rolled up and helped me back on my way. Then, when I was almost at my destination–I took another wrong turn and found myself on a deserted road that led to an enormous water tank. I got out of the car and stamped my feet and shed another few tears before I retraced my route and, finally, made it to camp, weary and hollow.
In those early years, the idea of being lost filled me with a bleak certainty that I would never be found. An only child until the age of fourteen, I’d always moved back and forth between my parents’ households. Both of them worked. Both of them were gone all day and sometimes into the evening. My mother grappled with addiction, and so even when she was present, she was often ‘gone.’ My father had a way of receding into his own mind, so that even when he sat right next to me, I felt as though I couldn’t reach him. Below the waves of my anxious self was a fear that in a true crisis, neither of them would show up to rescue me. I learned to keep myself safe by sticking to the known.
By the time I was twenty-three, however, my tiny forays out in the car had bolstered me some. I’d proven to myself that I could get lost and find myself. I had found a little cache of courage.
And yet that trip to Europe, with a broken heart and all the anxiety of becoming an adult in an uncertain world,was just another excursion into being lost. Lost without my language. Lost in the uncertainty of my surroundings. Waking on an overnight train from Paris to Rome, the world a blur outside my compartment window, I often felt my own edges blurring. Who was I when nobody knew me?
Standing before the great monolithic ruins of Rome’s coliseum, who was I? I felt smaller and yet more grounded in time than I’d ever felt in my own little Marin county suburb.
Breathing carefully in the presence of Van Gogh and Rodin’s artwork at the Louvre in Paris, I lost myself in time, in color, in antique experience.
Making eye contact with a stranger on a train who might, or might not be friendly, safe, someone to know–the particles of my being flitted apart and then back together.
What all of it revealed to me–being lost in those terrifying early ways, and being lost, intentionally, through travel–was how much further my own edges could stretch when given the chance.
Now, at almost forty, I’ve come to cherish the moments when I am not so known to myself, whether by a literal escape from my known life to another place, or through a great book, or hearing someone else’s story. Now, I crave being in that powerful present uncertainty that is as Solnit describes, being lost.
What about you? Do you love to get lost? Maybe it’s time to do so again.
If you like what you’ve read, please subscribe to this blog or sign up for my newsletter. Also check out my books: Night Oracle, Make a Scene: Crafting a Powerful Story One Scene at a Time and, Forged in Grace. For a dose of optimism, read my column, The Persistent Optimist, at Sweatpants & Coffee.