This morning as Theo and I walked together in the dark, our feet padding lightly across the scrim of gravel and the spangled-grounded-equivalent-of-lightning bugs whose names I’ll never remember, the constellations of winter spiraling overhead, I thought again of Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost. She’s someone, I thought, who would understand something about the long day I’d spent lost, deep in the Smokies, that February afternoon years ago. What I’d learned from getting lost – shaking, trembling and numb: that I could call for help, and that help would come – she’d taken in another direction. Solnit is a writer dedicated to the merits of wandering from the path, to the virtues of being lost.
“Lost,” she writes, “really has two disparate meanings. Losing things is about the familiar falling away, getting lost is about the unfamiliar appearing.” Like me, Solnit is fascinated both by what she finds in the natural world and by the resonance within, a landscape that we understand only through our own understanding of ourselves, which itself is inextricably shaped by the land in which we find ourselves. We imagine ourselves in the image of the world we love, and we love it more for the way it reflects our own image. Those, then, are the maps we study, in our dominion. We name things, and so hope to own them.
Solnit quotes Virginia Woolf, in whose To The Lighthouse, these words are found: “For now she need not think about anybody. She could be herself, by herself. And that was what now she often felt the need of – to think; well, not even to think. To be silent; to be alone. All the being and the doing, expansive, glittering, vocal, evaporated; and one shrunk, with a sense of solemnity, to being oneself, a wedge-shaped core of darkness, something invisible to others. Although she continued to knit, and sat upright, it was thus that she felt herself; and this self having shed its attachments was free for the strangest adventures. When life sank down for a moment, the range of experience seemed limitless…beneath it is all dark, it is all spreading, it is unfathomably deep; but now and again we rise to the surface and that is what you see us by. Her horizon seemed to her limitless.”
The quiet mystery of a limitless horizon, unfathomably deep, is something I come again and again to think about. “All the being and the doing…evaporated; and one shrunk…to being oneself…invisible to others.” The image I have for this woman is, oddly enough, from the children’s book, Goodnight Moon. The grandmotherly bunny in the rocking chair, knitting. Goodnight knitting. Goodnight chair. Goodnight red balloon. Goodnight moon. But Solnit isn’t writing of dreams, not exactly. She’s writing of being right-sized in the world; she’s writing, although she’ll never say it, of God.
Solnit tells the stories of those who “cease to be lost not by returning but by turning into something else.” That transformation isn’t possible through rational thought. In the old joke, “You can’t get there from here.” You can’t understand the process of getting lost by thinking about it. Try sometime. Try to get lost, truly lost. It’s not easy. We see what we expect to see, in each other, in ourselves, and in the world around us. We protect ourselves from the grief of knowing that our lives are but a breath, and that “at any given moment the sun is setting someplace on earth, and another day is slipping away largely undocumented as people slide into dreams that will seldom be remembered when they awaken.” We grip, intently, to the temporal with a white-knuckled urgency, as if our urgency will make the thing more important. And it is, in a way. Every action, every inaction, has an effect. Mountains are leveled, or not, for their deposits of coal; chemical pollutants are forced into the bedrock, laying waste to our land and water, through the process called fracking, or not. Millions of us who depend upon our state for their daily needs, for food, for shelter, and healthcare are provided for, or we’re not. That’s real. But what’s also real is that we don’t know yet what we don’t know.
If the world were made up of nothing but our own opinions, then it would be a much smaller place. “The landscape in which identity is supposed to be grounded is not solid stuff; it’s made out of memory and desire, rather than rock and soil,” Solnit writes. Yet the world itself is rock and soil and water, and difficult to see, as caught up as we are in our own identity, in what we think we see, and in what we expect to see. It’s only when we’re willing to let go of all that, when we allow ourselves to get lost, that the limitless horizon appears.