The Art of Being Lost

by Jennifer Paros

“I always make up something to do.”

                                                     --Lily Tomlin

Illustration by Jennifer Paros - Copyright 2011

Illustration by Jennifer Paros - Copyright 2011

When I was a child, the writing process never confused me.  I would produce such short classics as Sally Hamburger and Harry French Fries, and then go and make something else. There was no judgment on my own choices or the turns I took. In all of my ramblings, I never saw myself as lost, just making stuff up.  I had no idea, at the time, how liberating this approach could be for a grown-up. 

The other day, on my way home from dropping off my friend and her daughter at the train station, I got lost.  Although I know the area, I didn’t take the turn I needed to (didn’t realize I’d missed it), drove on, started getting disoriented, drove more (still expecting to see the turn), and more, and a bit more – because I couldn’t fathom I was truly lost – and then finally stopped.  It took me a long time, a few expletives, and a couple pleas to the gods before I asked for directions (no technological aids on hand).  With my location clarified, I reversed my course.  But there was no glory, I just felt pathetic. 

When I arrived home, I expected my husband to question how long I’d been.  But he hadn’t noticed.  I paused, considering whether or not to bring it up, and then did something out of my usual habit - I didn’t mention it.  By evening I’d let go of the experience to the point where I almost wasn’t sure it had happened. 

In not telling, the memory softened.  It condensed itself into just a blip on the screen - the simple missing of a turn.  Nothing more.  And all my criticism of myself blew away.

This made me realize how often I make small things larger than life in the retelling and, in doing so, keep myself feeling like someone who’s lost rather than someone who’s simply making it up as she goes along – like everyone. 

My youngest son likes video games in which players must beat a level to go on to the next.  He is desperate to win at the level he’s on, yet when he gets to the new one, he screams things like: “It’s impossible!  I can’t do it!” He suffers until he discovers something that allows him to progress.  The storm dies down and he soon beats the level – only to repeat this process when faced with the next new terrain. 

From the sidelines it’s easy to judge.  It’s just a game after all.  If he’d just relax, he’d figure it out – and without all the drama and pain. But the urge to tell a story of condemnation of the moment is great – and greater while feeling lost and confused.  We want the map; we want clarity and the certainty we will get where we want to go.  But there is an art to living (or game-playing) that has nothing to do with knowing the specificity of how things will unfold.

I recently read an article by Katherine Russell Rich, a woman diagnosed with stage IV breast cancer who had been told she had two years to live. She wrote the article, now twenty-two years after the fatal diagnosis, to tell of her journey.  The most valuable thing I took from her story was that after the diagnosis, her world became so new and uncertain she had to make peace with working with it moment to moment. She could have suffered over being lost all the time because she so often didn’t know where she was going or what to do, but instead she got good at being lost and comfortable with the art of “making it up” as she went along and found power in the uncertainty. 

“What I know now: Even if I had a map from the start, it wouldn’t have done me any good.  Like old lives, maps in this world, or any world, are something of an illusion.  They change all the time.”

                                                     --Katherine Russell Rich

So when we tell the story of ourselves, it’s worth telling it not as ones who get lost, or make wrong turns, but as the story of making up the next thing to do, the next way to go, for it is our choice how we categorize our experience. What it takes to navigate a life is what it takes to navigate writing a book. There is no certainty, only the drive to create. Our true power and our only security come not from guarantees but in embracing the fact that our next step is our next creation.

Jennifer Paros is a writer, illustrator, and author of Violet Bing and the Grand House (Viking, 2007). She lives in Seattle.

Jennifer ParosComment