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Practicing Being Lost

I really like knowing where I am and where I’m going. When I’m hiking, I want to know how far I’ve come so I know how much longer I have to go. I love maps and their concrete information, their finite nature. I find myself craving certainty. I want to know! I want to know what’s going to happen next, what the next step is, what path I’m on, how the movie that is my life will turn out.

It may seem strange that for someone who loves knowing where she’s going, I’ve started intentionally practicing getting lost.

A few months ago, I was traveling alone in Edinburgh, Scotland. The last time I’d been in Europe was in 2006 and I had just remarked to myself how different it was to have a tiny computer in my packet full of any information I could think of- the best restaurant nearby, the next bus stop and when the bus would arrive, etc- when that trusty tiny computer died. It dawned on me that I didn’t have my charger or a map with me. Note – this was before I started seeing getting lost as a practice. I was actually, unintentionally, very lost. Luckily, I remembered the address of my Airbnb, it was light out, and I was in possession of my own trusty tiny computer – my brain. I chose a direction and set off, figuring eventually I’d recognize a street name.

I walked for miles. And I HATED it. Every part of me hated it. I derided myself for not having a printed map and for not carrying a charger. For being too reliant on the tiny computer in my pocket. I hated looking at every street sign and wondering if it was one I would recognize. I hated not knowing where I was. I hated the vulnerable feeling of being lost in an unfamiliar city, thousands of miles from anyone that I knew. I hated being lost.

Of course, the district I was in turned out to be very residential. There weren’t any stores where I could stop and ask directions, or buy a map. There were just rows and rows of houses. Sure, there were people around that I could have asked for directions – but I was feeling a little too stubborn and proud, and part of me was enjoying the sense of adventure. Wait, hating being lost and also enjoying the adventure of it? Yes, both of those things simultaneously.

Eventually I came to a mall and I bought a book with a map of Edinburgh in it. I realized exactly how far in the wrong direction I’d gone. Like, miles in the wrong direction! I turned around, followed the map, walked for miles and made it back to my Airbnb with only some sore feet, a bruised ego, and an appreciation for printed maps.

Months after that experience, I’m now in a place where I intentionally practice getting lost. I practice not knowing, I practice waiting, I practice making mistakes, I practice messiness, and I practice being lost. I intentionally go to places I’ve never been before, and, inevitably, end up getting a little lost.

One of my most recent excursions was to a state forest in Jefferson, NY. It was a lovely bit of woods with a Nordic ski trail through it, nicely labeled with bright yellow signs. Of course, I got lost anyway.

I was enjoying the peaceful walk in the woods when I felt a familiar feeling of dis-ease come as I no longer noticed the yellow markers. The thing is, I’m stubborn. So instead of turning around and retracing my steps, I decided to continue on what I thought was the trail. With every step, I could feel my discomfort growing. “I hate this. I know I’m close to the trail. I have a good sense of direction and there’s that big grove of pine trees there that I noticed on my way up and now I’m in the other side of it and if I just keep going this way, I’ll get back to the trail and the parking lot.” Wading through prickly briers and through a swampy zone, making a mental note to check myself for ticks later, I followed my nose and the trusty tiny computer in my pocket that told me where I’d parked on a map and which direction I was facing. Within 10 minutes, I was back in the trail and back to my car.

There’s a certain panic and feeling of unfamiliarity that comes with getting and being lost. For me, not knowing where a road is going to lead or what’s around the bend makes me really want certainty.

And yet, what I’ve learned again and again, is that I have everything I need. If I trust my senses and especially my sense of direction, if I can trust my intuition, if I use the tools that I have (like a map and my phone) but also my brain and my body, if I trust that I have everything I need, then it doesn’t matter if I get lost. For one thing, it’s kind of refreshing to not know for awhile. It reminds me how much I don’t know all the time. None of us know what’s around the corner. In these uncertain times where daily routines and health and jobs have been uprooted, I think our collective desire for certainty grows as uncertainty becomes the name of the game. Instead of clutching to what I knew and to where I thought I was going, again and again I try to embrace the lost-ness and the unknowing that is all around me and see the beauty that exists there.

Because I believe when there is no map, there are infinite possibilities.

I can feel myself expanding into that now as I practice being lost- not just in the woods, but in the vast journey of my life.


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