I’ve only been lost once in my life and I didn’t know I was missing.
I was five, and we were on a family trip to Sesame Place in Pennsylvania. The day is a chaotic blur in my memory, my parents juggling me, a three-year-old, and an eighteen-month-old through an amusement park full of noisy Muppet distractions. We paused for lunch in a picnic area and when I finished eating, I darted away, yelling behind me that I was going to climb into the ball pit.
My father, his attention probably divided between a diaper change and a juice box, shouted at me to wait for him.
I heard – or, claim to have heard, as my only memories of this day are formed by having heard the story so many times – Don’t wait for me.
Twenty minutes later, submerged in the colored plastic bliss of a ball pit, celebrating the rare solo play time, I heard my name over the park’s PA system: Marissa Landrigan. Please find a Sesame friend and come to the Big Bird sign. Your Mommy and Daddy are looking for you.
I looked around the ball pit. No one there knew that I was Marissa Landrigan, knew that I was the lost little girl. But I was puzzled. Why were they calling my name? I wasn’t lost. I was right here.
I peered down through the netting of the ball pit at the table I knew my parents had chosen and saw my father there, pacing.
“Daddy,” I yelled down. “I’m in the ball pit. I’m right here.”
My father looked up, frantic, sweating, and spotted me. He pointed sharply and yelled, “You. Stay right there.”
Minutes later, I had been retrieved, dragged down from my big kid alone play time, and lectured against the dangers of running off alone. More than anything, I remember being confused.
Because I was never lost. Even if no one else did, I always knew where I was.
The forces causing migrations can be placed into two categories: push factors & pull factors. Something drives you away from the old place, the homeland, the past – a push factor. Something drives you towards the second place, the foreign territory, the future – the pull.
As children, we are attached as if with string to someplace called here, or home, or safe. We may run – even impulsively – out into the street, the danger, the out there, but something is always pulling us back. Our parents. Our own fear of the dark or the woods or the meanness of a childhood game. Something always brings us back from away.
Fast and sure enough that we may as well have never been lost.
What, then, becomes of “lost” when we reach the inevitable point of you can’t go home again? As adults – what are we lost from?
I once followed a near-stranger – a boy I’d known for six months and loved for three – across the country. I slept in his bed and danced barefoot to bluegrass bands in summer parks. We got drunk in public and embarrassed ourselves.
When I had to leave in autumn to return to responsibility, I became despondent. I laid around all winter, listening to atmospheric music and sighing at ceiling tiles, without any sense of purpose or motivation or desire for anything but that it would be summer again.
My push factor was healthy, normal, simple – the push of growing up, a desire to leave the nest. What was pulling me towards the mountains was a boy, just a boy.
Was I lost when I followed my heart, or my head?
I asked my friends, when have you been lost, and one responded: I once got married by accident.
Perhaps, to be lost as a grown-up is to have lost our way?
But what is the way and what is the wandering?
In most species of small birds, migration routes are genetically programmed. The birds are born knowing where and when to fly. But sometimes this programming goes haywire, complicated by weather patterns or magnetic orientation, and the young bird, in its first autumn, migrates on a route one hundred eighty degrees from the correct route.
Being lost is a static thing. Something that has happened to you. Even if it is current, it sounds permanent. “I am lost” – even if you are only at a gas station looking for directions. Present implies still, always.
Getting lost, by contrast, is a process of willing engagement. It sounds almost intentional. We may even get ourselves lost just for fun, because underlying the notion of getting lost is the understanding we could get un-lost. We could find our way back if we wanted. Active implies past, over.
Late nights, after big arguments with the boy I’d followed cross-country, I would drive out into the canyons to get myself lost. I wanted to reassert some ownership, something separate from him. I wanted to find someplace – a hot spring – to which he’d never been, I wanted to beat him there. I drove my first car, a 1983 Toyota Camry, under a yellow October, with my bathing suit in the backseat and a six-pack of Sam Adams, the beer that reminds me of my New England home.
I barely even cared if I found the hot springs – there was no pull factor. I just circled on the outskirts of this town muttering to myself. I didn’t know my way around this place in the day and hadn’t yet learned to read the mountains.
Eventually, I just stopped the car on the side of a dark road with no buildings or headlights in sight, the faint silhouette of mountains black against the navy sky. I would drink Boston Lager and fume. I don’t remember how we resolved our fights, but I do remember stretching back out on the hail-pocked hood of my car, staring at millions of distant stars, trying hard to locate the sulfurous scent of the hot spring I never found.
The author Elif Shafak, explaining the dual Turkish and global influences on her writing, references a metaphor by the mystic poet Rumi, about “living like a drawing compass. One leg of the compass is static. It is fixed and rooted in a certain spot. Meanwhile, the other leg draws a huge wide circle around the first one, constantly moving.”
If neither leg is rooted, you can never draw a circle. Only a series of curved lines, constantly trying to find their way back and never completing the journey.
I’ve lived in seven states in the ten years since I left my parents’ house and I don’t call a single one of them home.
Perhaps I need a new definition of lost.
We do not only lose ourselves. Sometimes we lose other things.
Children lose things all the time, casually, in a way that is generally seen as a crucial part of growing up. We lose teddy bears. Teeth that will be replaced. We lose fears, as we grow out of them.
As adults, the things we lose are both mundane and terrifying:
Keys. One shoe. Hair? A cell signal. Our lunches.
Respect (for self or others). Virginities. Vulnerabilities.
You – the thing I won’t say I’ve lost because saying “I lost you,” is that past tense kind, the most dangerous kind of lost, the kind that is over, has already happened, and saying, “I lost you,” without the quotes I use now, instead of saying “I’m losing you,” or “Someday, you will lose me,” would mean admitting that it’s done, this losing. That you will never find your way home.
Past tense means permanent.
There is a kind of lost that I have never been, the kind when what has gone missing is a part of the self. See also: depression, mental illness, addiction.
The blackest kind of lost,
brought on by losing another person in that awful, permanent way.
When I write about a sense of being lost, being stuck in the static permanent ongoing state because I don’t know where to belong or how to find my way back to a home that no longer exists – this quickly becomes circling, self-indulgent, irrelevant.
Because wherever I’ve wandered, however far out of sight the coastline is, I have myself, my own port in storm.
I have no storms in sight, none that I’ve come through and none out on the horizon.
The human lost I’ve experienced has been like getting lost from another person – willing. Active.
Whether quick and painless, like the phone call to the near-stranger, during which I released him from captivity, back to the Rocky Mountains and to the ocean and the birds.
Or losing you, the slow tearing of a muscle, like a push a push a push –
No. Not yet.
Getting lost from a person you love is painful. But one of you, at least, makes the choice.
Being lost from a person you love – no one gets to choose that.
Cheryl Strayed calls this, “the absurd and arbitrary nature of disappearance, our hungry ache to resurrect what we’ve lost,”
which I have never felt.
The Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish died in exile in 2008. He wrote:
I come from There and remember…
I have learned and dismantled all the words
to construct a single one: Home
Most of the lost young birds, those who have migrated in the wrong direction, die, their mistake having taken them to where the weather is too cold, or there is not enough food. But there is some evidence that a few outlying populations survive, sometimes even returning to the same wrong location the next winter. They establish a home wherever they end up.
If you are pulled ever outward, onward – if you are pushing yourself away, always – you never are anywhere.
I’m searching for the idea of home, but I’m looking for the fight, not the resolution. Every place I’ve ever been could have been a home, but I chose not to stay. I got lost instead.
I have been pushed by nothing but my own itchy feet, pulled towards no one. I just float on, waiting for something to tether myself to, unable to come to rest without having struggled through a storm.
When I say lost, I really just mean alone.
The question is not just, then, from where are you lost? But also:
Who have you lost?
Where did you run from and
Who is no longer there to bring you back?