Lost But Not Astray

value of getting lost,

“In a quarter mile, stay right at the fork to exit. Turn right.”

There’s no angst in the GPS lady’s modulated voice. No panic.  Her calm is particularly soothing to someone like me, someone with a long history of getting lost.

At four years old, I got separated from my mother nearly every time we went to the grocery store. Sure, I kept her worriedly in sight, my eyes carefully trained on her navy blue coat, until somehow she’d disappear.  Adrift in a sea of carts and legs, I’d tremble in silent terror, afraid I might never see her again. Even then, I adhered to the Good Girl code —not crying or calling out while I searched. It seemed like hours, though it was likely never more than a few minutes, until finally there she was, her face a welcome beacon. Relief would rush through me and I’d grab her hand like the lifeline it was. She’d pause and say distractedly, “Honey, you need to stay with me.”

At nine I rode my horse (which looked to everyone else like a pink bike) everywhere, letting curiosity overcome my usual anxiety. Just one more turn in the road, just one new street, and then bam, I was disoriented again. Once, a kindly-looking woman out watering her flowers asked if I was lost. I lied profusely to assure her I was not, then got even more lost trying to avoid going past her house again. After that I kept a cheerful expression on my face, even the time I was convinced the wail of sirens going by surely meant my house was dissolving in flames.

I didn’t grow out of my geographic confusion. Heck, I had to drop a class in my first quarter of college because, I’m chagrined to admit, I couldn’t find the room.

Another time, coming home from a day of volunteering, I got lost in Akron’s swirl of one-way streets. It was dark, I had no map, and I began to fear I would never see the welcome faces of my family again. I literally decided to use the steering wheel as a dowsing rod. I’d approach an intersection and ask the wheel which way it wanted to turn. It took me, quite handily, to Akron General Hospital where recognizable interstate highways signs were visible. I was downright giddy with relief as I merged on a road that would take me home.

The roots of the word lost are dire. From Old English losian “be lost, perish” and from Old High German firliosan “to loosen, divide, cut apart, untie, separate.”

Loss, losing, lost. These are hard teachers.

When lost, you look more closely at everything. Even a familiar route, upon scrutiny, reveals detail you’ve never noticed before. “I don’t remember an apartment above that store,” you say to yourself, “especially one with leopard print curtains.” But that’s what paying attention feels like.

When lost, you learn to handle panic, perhaps swearing, taking deep breaths, or imploring relevant saints and angels to show you the way. These tactics come in handy later, because life is eventful and will offer us many other, far more panic-worthy situations.

When you’re lost it feels a bit like wandering into a foreign country. All around you people go about their ordinary activities and there you are, unable to translate, an outsider. And yet it’s when you’re an outsider that you gain ever deeper perspective.

Maybe getting lost is a valuable, even necessary tool to navigate life.

Today, as my GPS lady calmly tells me how to get where I’m going, I see getting lost a new way. Back when I was twenty-one years old, degree in my head, map at my side, I was taking I-71 to a job interview. I’d written directions and, as I headed out, noted the odometer so I could remind myself to start looking for my exit in 13 miles.  Thirteen miles later, I suddenly became aware I was headed south. Not north.  By then I should have been parking in a Cleveland lot, taking an elevator to the 6th floor, turning in my resume, and expounding on my suitability for the job with as much confident sparkle as I could muster.

An illegal U-turn and excess speed delivered me to that parking lot 11 minutes late. Knowing no one hires the tardy candidate, I gave up and turned for home, lost in remorse.

In a parallel universe I went the right direction, got that job, tipped every subsequent moment sideways. If that had happened I wouldn’t be here right now, in a life so blessed that I’m stuffed to the brim with gratitude.  In a quarter-mile I stay right at the fork to exit, turn right, and head exactly where I’m going.

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15 thoughts on “Lost But Not Astray

  1. How long is it being lost until you realize you are astray?
    Left my job, after over 10 years, 10 months ago in hope of finding a new opportunity where I was appreciate and could put all of my skills to work in a new place. After many months of resumes and applications and organizations that say we guarantee we will find you a job; they didn’t. My brain is going to mush and I feel useless. 😦

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    • Ah Lassy, I’m sorry for all you’re going through. Sometimes we’re told to keep using maps even when they no longer work for us and (at the risk of extending the metaphor) we’re left with two choices: keep trying to make those maps work or go beyond navigation to become an explorer of uncharted directions. Wishing you the very best in your journey.

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  2. I don’t believe I’ve ever been lost, myself. Other people have lost me, which is a whole nother story. I was always going where I meant to be going, even if that was as vague as Out or Over There, or Just Looking Around. I’m good at map reading. I once navigated the whole family across rural France from Michelin star to Michelin star, Normandy to Pau. All small Routes Nationales through cities and villages, not a large highway among them. My mother thought I was a changeling, as she could get lost in the Public Library….

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    • Maybe not a changling. Maybe Nature in all her wisdom tries to ensure the “getting lost” mutation is rare. My parents were good navigators and it doesn’t appear I’ve passed it to my kids.

      That said, I’d gladly take on the challenge of navigating across rural France from Michelin star to Michelin star!

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  3. Thank you Laura, for another lovely piece. Your musings made me think about the role of getting lost in my own life. When I was lost about how to deal with the boss from hell in my thirties, my desperation drove me to read at least a dozen books on how to get along with your boss and dealing with difficult people. Later this grew into an interest in how to manage difficult conversations and conflicts of all kinds. This morphed into my life’s work! So inexperienced that caused a boatload of stress and that I would not have wished on my worst enemy, kicked me in the caboose until I got a coach and used the library to gain new skills. They were painfully acquired, but they taught the value of being open to knowing what I didn’t know, the humility of profound but acknowledged ignorance, and eventually, it all turned into a career in training! What mystery in our unfolding lives…

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  4. Oh Laura, thank you so much for this! This rang so true to me because I have no sense of direction and am famously getting lost. I, too, have missed important meetings and been embarrassingly late more than a few times in my life. I also can’t read a map. I need straightforward directions, i.e. “turn left at the big oak tree, park in the driveway in front of the white house with the yellow shutters.” I also get really anxious driving in unfamiliar cities. I’ve always thought this signified some karmic lesson I was struggling with. How many lives would I roam through lost and confused? But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned to listen to and trust my instincts, to not always second-guess myself. I’m not always right and I still get lost, but I’m much more confident that I’ll find my way back. It’s somehow really comforting to know I’m not the only one and that there is often meaning to be found in disorientation.

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    • I still muse on the karmic lessons, or maybe just life lessons, that may be related to getting lost. I have noticed that I tend to turn around too soon, convinced I’ve gone too far or missed a turn, only to find out I’d only needed to keep heading the direction I’d been going a little longer. That’s probably an apt metaphor for how I should not handle life’s other challenges. So much still to learn….

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