There are two memories that stand out in my mind of being lost when I was a child. The first one took place in one of the many, many fabric stores I spent time in, shopping with my mom. I think this must have been in the days before skinny shopping carts because I was always knee-height and never sitting up over the bolts. We were always in fabric stores to conduct Serious Business and the workers always knew mom by name. Mom sniffs out new fabric stores like some people sniff out their favorite coffee spot and she gets into a kind of creative zone upon entering. So hand holding wasn’t necessary: she was concentrating and I was following around at her feet. My field of vision was of swaths of colors and textures without end, of dusty, dirty floors hiding beneath, of crumbled gum wrappers and dead flies. As long as Mom’s sandal and toes were in my peripheral vision, I was free to daydream and marry patterns together in a swirly mental kaleidoscope. I probably hummed to myself. And every now and then I’d peek up to watch her finger first this print and then this one, lay them side by side, bite her lip and wonder. One day I turned around and she wasn’t there.
A few years later, when I was still pretty small and probably only starting full days of school, we lived on an 80 acre farm in the north Michigan woods. I don’t ever remember feeling a sense of boundaries there; it was my free-to -roam playground and discovery zone. I have mental snapshots of every season, of the smell of melting snow in spring, of the sticky feel of pine sap on the evergreens I climbed, of the orange tiger lilies that bloomed on the edge of our dirt and gravel driveway. The immediate areas of the farm around the house included a rose garden, a large grove of trees we called “The Park”, and pastures. Beyond those, woods. Deep and Evergreen Forest Green. Some places were so dense the sun barely broke through the boughs and one day (I’m not sure why or how), I found myself in the midst of one of these, searching for a clearing. I think I was playing Louis and Clark and I thought I was near the front field. But nothing was looking familiar and I started to remember that bears and big snakes lived there too.
The moment when you realize you’re lost must be something like the feeling of liftoff when hang-gliding from a cliff. That airy, weightless, ground-isn’t-there-anymore, disorientation hits hard and sudden. Being lost in familiar, once-endearing situations is especially betraying. Those bolts of fabric, those massive trees, were once my friends and now they looked sinister and All The Same, taunting my circles and worried searches skyward. Time stops. Fear prickles on your neck. Anxiety spurs the urge to cry as truly as if someone had just jabbed you with a needle unexpectedly. All of a sudden life gets very, very narrow and you only want one thing: to be found.
In the fabric store, it was an employee that brought me to my worried mother. In the woods, I remember many voices, neighbors coming to join my Daddy in his boots, with his gun (am I remembering this correctly or confusing it with another episode of Little House on the Prairie?). What I remember most is the profound lesson to pay more attention, to not wander as far, to do everything in my power to not get lost again.
It stays. I hate feeling lost. I hate feeling friendly forces are now silent and cut away. I hate that wandering waiting and watching for some kind of guidepost, some kind of reassurance or trail marker. It’s not the same thing as being afraid to try something new or have an adventure…I still do that plenty. There’s an excitement in exploring, an expectation that it’s All Good, and a surprise is waiting around the corner. Usually too, there’s a map in hand and a water bottle nearby. Wandering is at it’s best (imo) when there are some kind of bounds involved. Park rangers or a gate or a trail. But going into an adventure, by it’s nature, does not come with an expectation of security. It’s new, unfamiliar. You’ll discover it and move on, no strings attached. That’s the crux of feeling lost I think: you expected to feel safe and the feeling of security is gone. Stripped away.
People who find you become Heroes. They are safe because they looked and found you missing and cared to seek until they could hold you. Lost people are always getting hugged when they’re found: it’s a completion of the process. It’s the anti-abandonment, an embrace. I suppose a hug is what reorients the lost with the world: fabric bolts are not colorful monsters anymore but just cardboard skeins of cloth. The trees aren’t really laughing and changing positions behind your back. Today is just a day, to be followed by tomorrow. You can’t feel lost if you’re holding hands.