A Field Guide to Getting Lost

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Rebecca Solnit has gone on my list of authors whose work I’d like to own and read all of. It started off with her newest essay collection Men Explain Things To Me and was cemented by A Field Guide to Getting Lost. Field Guide was on my TBR list for years but I just never got around to it. Why did I take so long? I am a believer that every book has the right time and for whatever reason the right time wasn’t until now.

How to describe the book? Essays? Yes but not really because each one is connected. But it isn’t straight up nonfiction either because there is no real “plot” other than the theme of getting lost. Which makes it very much a long meditation. But yet there is a direction of sorts because four of the chapters/essays are called “The Blue of Distance” and these alternate with chapters called things like “Abandon” and “One-Story House.” The blue chapters all tend to be outward facing, about someone — the artist Yves Kline for instance — or about something — a certain color of blue or country western music. The other chapters tend to be more personally reflective and wide-ranging discussing things like leaving the door open for Elijah during Passover dinner, hiking in the wilderness, and family history. But even the distinction between the blue chapters and the named chapters blurs as Solnit will include personal reflection in the blue chapters and quotes Meno, Simone Weil, and a Tibetan sage in the personal chapters. I found all this intermingling to be satisfying and wanted the book to be longer than it is. A Good sign, right?

A Field Guide to Getting Lost is about many things, but at its core it is about stories:

A story can be a gift like Ariadne’s thread , or the labyrinth, or the labyrinth’s raving Minotaur; we navigate by stories, but sometimes we only escape by abandoning them.

Stories anchor us, tell us who we are or point to who we want to be. We can become lost in our stories. We can also be oppressed by our stories and only find out who we are by giving them up and losing ourselves. Trouble is, we think of being lost as a bad thing, but when we are lost we are more open to possibility than we are when we are sure of ourselves and our stories:

Never to get lost is not to live, not to know how to get lost brings you to destruction, and somewhere in the terra icognita in between lies a life of discovery.

Even when we are sure of our stories, we still change over time and lose the person we used to be. When it happens so slowly we don’t even notice it we are not bothered by it until we are startled into awareness by an old photograph or letter, or a person we haven’t seen in many years. Sometimes, of course, loss happens very fast and unexpectedly and we are thrown for a loop. Not only do we write the story of our past but we write it well into the future and a sudden loss throws us into uncertainty, a place in which we do not feel comfortable spending time. And so we worry:

Worry is a way to pretend that you have knowledge or control over what you don’t — and it surprised me, even in myself, how much we prefer ugly scenarios to the pure unknown. Perhaps fantasy is what you fill up maps with rather than saying they too contain the unknown.

In the last chapter there is a beautiful piece of a lecture Solnit shares that she heard given at the Zen Center in San Francisco. Zen, you may know, is all about mindfulness, paying attention, living in the hear and now not dwelling on the past or projecting into the future. And this lecture coming as it does nearly at the end of the final chapter, serves to sum up much of the whole book. It is such a wonderful story it is hard to pick out an exact sort of summary quote, but this might give you and idea:

‘Maybe if I really paid attention I’d notice that I don’t know what’s going to happen this afternoon and I can’t be fully confident that I am competent to deal with it. Maybe we’re willing to let in that thought. It has some reasonableness to it, I can’t exactly know, but chances are, possibilities are, it’s not going to be much different than what I’ve usually experienced and I’ll do just fine, so we close up that unsettling possibility with a reasonable response. The practice of awareness takes us below the reasonableness that we’d like to think we live with and then we start to see something quite fascinating, which is the drama of our inner dialogue, of the stories that go through our minds and the feelings that go through our heart, and we start to see in this territory it isn’t so neat and orderly and, dare I say it, safe or reasonable.’

The story goes on to remind us that it is okay to not know; okay to be uncertain; okay to run into a barrier and ask for help. It is okay to be lost. Because we can only really find what we need if we are lost:

That thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you is usually what you need to find, and finding it is a matter of getting lost.

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