I don’t consider myself much of a memoir reader. Biography, especially literary biography, most definitely, but memoir? Not my first choice. Not that I don’t read them, I do, just that I am not an active seeker of the genre. And when I find one to consider for reading it has to have something more than a “story of my life” thing going on. It is unusual that I found myself reading two memoirs at the same time. How did that happen?
A Farm Dies Once a Year held promise but ended up being a plain “story of my life” kind of book with nothing much on offer but the story that wasn’t all that interesting to begin with. The other book, Out of the Woods: A Memoir of Wayfinding by Lynn Darling is the kind of memoir I enjoy. Darling takes an idea — being lost — and lifts it to a higher level, goes beyond her personal story and asks the reader to consider all the ways one can be lost and how one goes about finding the way.
Darling, middle-aged, widowed 10+ years, her only daughter planning to go away to college soon, decides to buy a house just outside of the town of Woodstock in Vermont. Darling had been taking vacations there for a number of years, renting a house in town for a month or so during the summer to get away from New York City. The prospect of her daughter going off to college and leaving her alone in the NYC apartment that held so many memories of both husband and daughter was unbearable. She felt adrift, no longer wife and no longer needed as a mother in quite the same way she had been for the last 18 years, Darling didn’t know who she was anymore.
The day she dropped her daughter off at the dorm at Cornell, she drove to her new house in the woods south of Woodstock. And got really lost on the way. Darling couldn’t afford a nice house like she had been renting in town. What she could afford was a quirky DIY house built by the previous residents. The house backed up to the woods, had only intermittent phone service, and no electricity except what was supplied by a couple of solar panels. After a woodchuck kept chewing through the line for the internet, she gave up and didn’t have that either. The house was almost as off grid as you can get these days.
Darling decided it would be her Fortress of Solitude where she could figure out the next steps of her life in peace and quiet. But soon her Fortress turned into Castle Dismal when so many things needed fixing and she discovered that she was not as self-sufficient as she thought she was. She got a dog, Henry, to keep her company. Henry was not a happy puppy because Darling never took him out for walks in the woods, too afraid was she of getting lost. But finally she and Henry went out, not far, and found themselves having such a wonderful time not far ended up being where did the house go? After several hours of fear and panic they eventually made it back home, Darling determined to never stray from a well-marked path again.
But that’s the thing with paths through the woods and paths through life, they are never as well-marked as we hope they are and sooner or later we find ourselves wondering where we are and how we got there. Darling is worried about how easily she gets lost, considers how, when she was younger she loved getting lost — excitement, discovery, the unknown — and somewhere along the way it stopped being fun. She thinks if she can find the spirit of her younger self things will work out fine, in the woods and in her life. But of course you can’t go back.
Finally, Darling decides to take lessons on wayfinding. Her teacher, Marty, taught all sorts of survival classes for women and agreed to provide her with a two-day private lesson.
What Darling wanted to learn how to do, to walk out into the woods and magically never get lost, she soon discovers is impossible. Darling’s neighbors who could wander through the woods all day and never be truly lost could only do it because they had lived there all their lives. They knew the area, they had created mental maps and noted landmarks to help them find their way. She was both disappointed — it wasn’t a magical talent she could awaken — and relieved — she didn’t have to worry about not having any talent because she could learn. And learn she tried to do.
Marty taught her how to read a topographical map and use a compass, how to plot a course, how to know if she had made a mistake and ways to figure out how to correct it. The secret to finding your way, it turned out was practice:
Finding my way, Marty had said, came down to practice, not merely because practice would make the new exotic techniques of wayfinding more familiar, but because practice led to experience — not only of map and compass, but of the person using them. Learning how not to get lost was about knowing your own limitations, about what you couldn’t do and didn’t know, as much as it was about the reverse.
Direction, Darling discovers means paying attention to what is behind you and what is in front of you. It means seeing what is there, not what you are afraid is there or wish were there. It means being willing to make mistakes and not beat yourself up over them because that is how you learn.
Darling’s is a gentle voice. It is clear she has thought long and deeply about wayfinding in all of its many meanings. She has worked hard for the insights she offers in her story. While she doesn’t offer a map, that would be impossible, she does give a sense of comfort and understanding; we are all on different paths but that doesn’t mean we are completely alone or can’t lend a hand to each other.
Out of the Woods is not a “wow” sort of book. There are no extraordinary events, no biting wit, no name dropping or gossip. Rather it is a personal book filled with every day courage, the kind it takes to find your way through the woods and through a life.