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.