My Field Guide to Getting Lost
A dear friend gifted me a copy of Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost (2005) for my college graduation. On the title page, she left an inscription urging me to use the book as a quasi-guide to the confusing days ahead. She wrote, in reference to the campus I’ve called home for the past four years: “Remember, you will carry this place wherever you go. It has formed you, and you it. Your time here has been just as much about being lost as it was about being found.”
The book is a collection of personal essays that weaves historical anecdote, philosophy, sociology, and meditation into a memoir. I’ve read it before, during my sophomore year of college on a family trip to Switzerland over Christmas. It didn’t resonate with me then. Though I was a fan of Solnit, I found it to be somewhat boring. But, after reading my friend’s note, I knew I had to give it another try.
Three days after my graduation, sleep-deprived, jet-lagged, and suffering from Bronchitis-like symptoms, I landed in Reykjavik, Iceland, with my brother. We rented a car and drove South along the coast of what could be mistaken for a post-apocalyptic nightmare. Moss covered lava fields and sand dunes rolled on for miles. I couldn’t tell if we had reached the moon, Mars, the end of the world, or the set of a Star Wars film.
In my journal I wrote: The life I have worked to cultivate for myself over the past four years feels like it’s been abruptly ripped away. And, I wanted to write everything from those final days down (ex: Emma and Kath driving all the way to Durham Dairy Serve with me, even though I was the only one who wanted ice cream; sitting around my kitchen table with Marty, drinking lemonade beers and listening to The Milk Carton Kids after splitting a pepperoni pizza.)
In A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Solnit writes, “Losing things is about the familiar falling away, getting lost is about the unfamiliar appearing” (p. 22). Over the next several days, I read and read, in unfamiliar locations — in the passenger seat as my brother drove us from Fjaorargljufur to Jokuslaron, in a tiny hotel bed in the town of Hofn, and in the perch of a rock nestled next to Oxararfoss Waterfall. I felt the intimate textures of my former life receding — the peacefulness of walking the known path home from the library at dusk and the comfort of the fluorescent lights and chocolate milkshakes at the Greek diner. Though I was surrounded by the world’s most inconceivable beauty, all that “appeared” to me was numbness.
Solnit describes this feeling as “the blue of distance.” She explains that the world is “blue at its edges and in its depths,” that this blue is “the light that got lost,” and that it “disperses among the molecules of the air, it scatters in water” (p. 29). She goes on to say that blue is “the color of there seen from here, the color of where you are not. And the color of where you can never go.” For the horizon is not actually blue; the blue resides in the “atmospheric distance between you and the mountains” (p. 30).
In Iceland, blue is everywhere. The blue lagoon, the blue of glaciers melting into the ocean, the sky — expansive and unobstructed for as far as the eye can see, as if in a Magritte painting.
I left Iceland feeling more at peace than when I’d arrived. I left Iceland full of wonder at the beauty I’d encountered and full of love and gratitude for my brother. I left Iceland full of hope and understanding that, as Solnit promises, “gaining and losing are more intimately related than we like to think” (p. 38).
Now, I am writing this from my 400 sq. ft. Manhattan apartment. Outside my window, the city looms loud and hot. But in here, it is air-conditioned, and Joni Mitchell is singing “Circle Game.” The pillow I lean on is embroidered with a map of my hometown. On the coffee table are several books that I used in my undergrad research. And, on the console in front of me, sit several framed photographs — one of my family in the Colorado town in which I’ve spent a lifetime of winters, one of my Wesleyan roommates on the stoop of our house, proudly donning our caps and gowns, and one of my friend and I eating ice cream in front of the Chagrin Falls, near the house I grew up in.
I think about how LeBron James came home the summer before I left for college. And, how it has been a good four years, where the feeling of promise was in abundance. Recently, LeBron left home (for the second, and possibly, final time), three weeks after I’d left both Cleveland and Middletown for New York City. Promises were fulfilled, a championship was won, and a degree was earned. Now, everyone keeps saying that our basketball team is going to be in limbo for a while, in a re-building period. I guess that’s how I feel, too.
Here, the unfamiliar isn’t appearing to me in bliss-filled waves yet. Iceland, with my brother, was beautiful. New York City, alone, is less so.
Solnit writes, “We have not much language to appreciate this phase of decay…this era of ending that must precede beginning. Nor of the violence of metamorphosis, which is often spoken of as though it were as graceful as a flower blooming” (p. 81). Each week that I’ve been here, I’ve bought fresh flowers at the market. Peonies, tight buds just before opening. I place them in a hand-painted champagne bottle — a gift from someone I love — and I diligently watch as they slowly expand into life. –Linne Halpern
Linne Halpern is a co-founder and editor of Reverberations.
A Field Guide to Getting Lost
By Rebecca Solnit