Please welcome today’s guest writer, Leah Sienkowski. Leah graduated in December 2013 with a degree in biology and a penchant for poems. She is currently living in the cabin of a sailboat in the Puget Sound but will soon be driving south.
Among my fascinating deficits, a tendency toward physical disorientation is the most apparent and debilitating. Getting lost might seem like a childish predicament, but despite strides in other areas, my mental maps remain tenuous. I frequently find myself neck-deep in unknowns—either I’m lost and I know it, or I’m lost and I don’t know it, or I’m not lost but I think I am.
I am astounded by those who can internalize the length of a road, noting landmarks and intersections. My roads are more like fishing lines; I don’t find out what’s at the end until I’ve reeled myself in. My methods are algorithmic rather than heuristic. My geographical knowledge is what physicist Richard Feynman might call “fragile.” As navigation requires a continuous vision of reality and not the rote memorization of discrete facts, my spotty maps are of little use.
Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost is a story about an indigenous people whose identity is tied intimately to their geographical location. “When the Wintu goes up the river the hills are to the west, the river to the east, and a mosquito bites him on his west arm. When he returns, the hills are still to the west, but, when he scratches his mosquito bite, he scratches his east arm.” In the Wintu is the fully realized sense that I lack. Unlike them, I struggle to see myself in a geographical context. Although the sun has risen each morning of my life, whether it is from the east or the west has not concerned me. Perhaps this lack of awareness originates from a deeper sense of isolation or disconnection. Perhaps gender. Perhaps introversion. Perhaps general disinterest.
Perhaps it is because I was raised on a dead-end street on the top of a hill with no sidewalks, no “blocks,” and no formal system of house numbers (there were house numbers, but they were in no discernible order). Cardinal systems of street numeration and the opposite assignment of even and odd house addresses were not part of my early experience, but neither were they for the Wintu, 3000 years ago, in what wasn’t Northern California yet. This was before we’d scientized getting places, before the universe was cloaked in inflexible grids.
As a child, I was taught to wait out the unfamiliar until the familiar returned—a parent, in most cases. In case of emergencies, I was taught to sing this informative song (Wee Sing Together, 1977). Unfortunately, the promise, “stay in one place, and you will be found,” eventually expired.
The moment my poor sense of direction became obvious was when I took my place in the driver’s seat of the car. Suddenly, being lost was socially unacceptable. The MapQuest period had begun. Each segment of each drive was printed out or transcribed, both from point A to point B and from point B to point A, as the task of reversing sequences of lefts and rights requires a mental dexterity I am still working out.
During college, for instance, I lived for an entire year in an attic bedroom that I envisioned to be oriented in a different direction. The funny line between lost and found had wormed its way into my own home.
Since graduation, I’ve made gains in dexterity and acceptance. The MapQuest period was succeeded by the Garmin period, and I’ve learned to be wary of intuition, to admit confusion, to trust technology, and to laugh about wrong turns. I’ve shed some of the anxiety that came with not knowing. I no longer feel as frantic or aimless, even if I’m just as lost.
Lately, this issue of lostness has been on my mind because I have no inner maps for where I am now. Thousands of miles from home, by way of unexplored states and the couches of strangers, I’ve been lost for weeks, technically but contentedly.
In traveling, the familiar fades as the unfamiliar appears; getting lost is the goal. And although I’ve never much excelled in following the command to “Make yourself at home!” I’m getting better. I’m welcoming the strangeness of new places into myself, and I’m offering my own strangeness up. I’m staying in cities I don’t really know, being savored by cities that don’t really know me, and as I go on, I’m hoping to lessen the distance between us, to balance the scales between traveler and guide, guest and host, lost and found.
Feynman, Richard P., Ralph Leighton, and Edward Hutchings. “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!”: Adventures of a Curious Character. New York: W.W. Norton, 1985. Print.
Solnit, Rebecca. A Field Guide to Getting Lost. New York: Viking, 2005. Print.