Embracing Uncertainty: Rebecca Solnit’s Field Guide to Getting Lost

“Leave the door open for the unknown, the door into the dark. That’s where the most important things come from, where you yourself came from, and where you will go.”

Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost

I’m lying on a cushioned sofa inside a wooden cabin in Montezuma, Costa Rica. A storm is raging and heavy drops of water that find their way inside reach my feet. Everything is quite wet: the wooden logs that form a roof let the water in, the cushions I lay on are damp and my hair, I feel, has not been completely dry in days. The book I’m holding with both hands has doubled its size and is now a container of sand and seawater. There is no phone signal or wifi here, there’s no one in sight, just me and my sadly damaged copy of Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost.

I put the book down and look outside. “It’s not about being lost but about trying to lose yourself”, Solnit writes. I look around. Am I lost? I tried, I think, to lose myself on this trip. And I find myself short of money, stuck in some remote beach, reachable only by boat. I am alone, too. But I’m not lost. I have a plane ticket to go back home, I have let my mother and my boyfriend know where I am. Moreover, I am travelling with a friend, although I don’t know where she is at the moment.

“It’s not about being lost but about trying to lose yourself”. I don’t feel lost—that is, physically lost, lost somewhere—, but I feel open to being lost. I keep looking around and thinking of those words. Once I felt the need to travel every now and then to lose myself—on mountaintops and remote places, miles away from home—. Then I felt the need to travel to find myself. Now I know those things are the same, and I travel to let both happen to me. I think of something Emerson wrote, “The way of life is wonderful: it is by abandonment.” I think of this and I think I understand, at least I begin to fathom, what Solnit says. I’m not lost here, but I’m open to being lost, I’m okay with uncertainty. Not here, but everywhere I go. I read again, “It’s not about being lost but about trying to lose yourself”, and I got a warm feeling inside me. 

“The world is blue at its edges and in its depths. This blue is the light that got lost. Light at the end of the spectrum does not travel the whole distance from the sun to us. It disperses among the molecules of the air, it scatters in water. Water is colorless, shallow water appears to be the color of whatever its underneath it, but deep water is full of this scattered light, the purer the water the deeper the blue. The sky is blue for the same reason, but the blue at the horizon, the blue of land that seems to be dissolving into the sky, is a deeper, dreamier, melancholy blue, the blue at the furthest reaches of the places where you see for miles, the blue of distance. This light that does not touch us, does not travel the whole distance, the light that gets lost, gives us the beauty of the world, so much of which is in the color blue.”

When I came back from my trip to Costa Rica, I was still reading A Field Guide to Getting Lost. I spent about four weeks reading it, underlining paragraphs, rereading chapters, reading parts of it aloud to myself and to others. The book is not only an impressive piece of writing—part essay and part memoir—, but also a neverending invitation, a Chinese box containing a thousand references to visual arts, literature, music and architecture. The book begins with the physicality of being lost and the origins and meanings of the word, only to expand its meaning: to get lost in the world, to get lost inside oneself, to lose people, to lose things, to get lost from people. Loss, memory, distance, longing and absence are some of the themes of the book.

Solnit argues that “it is the job of artists to open doors and invite in prophecies, the unknown, the unfamiliar; it’s where their work comes from, although its arrival signs the beginning of the long disciplined process of making it their own […], [while scientists] transform the unknown into the known, haul it in like fishermen; artists get you out into that dark sea.” And that is exactly what she does; “invitation” is precisely the word I’d use to describe this book: an invitation for the unknown and the uncertain in our every day lives to take place, an invitation to abandonment, to embracing the various mysteries of the world. An invitation, too, to accept and reconsider all those qualities of being lost that we might think are “negative”, such as loss, nostalgia, wilderness, desire and distance. 

One of the things I most enjoyed about this book was how Solnit approaches and redefines words like longing, distance and desire. These are words that imply absence: we long for something that we don’t have, we measure distance between where we are and where we are not, and we desire things we do not possess. Solnit, on the other hand, gives these words a meaning of their own: “when everything else is gone, you can be rich in loss.” To be rich in loss, rich in absence, in longing and desire: not to be lacking but to be able to experience these emotions as inherent part of being human:

“I wonder sometimes whether with a slight adjustment of perspective [desire] could be cherished as a sensation on its own terms, since it is as inherent to the human condition as blue is to distance? If you can look across the distance without wanting to close it up, if you can own your longing in the same way that you own the beauty of that blue that can never be possessed? For something of this longing will, like the blue of distance, only be relocated, not assuaged, nu acquisition and arrival, just as the mountains cease to be blue when you arrive among them and the blue instead tints the next beyond. Somewhere in this is the mystery of why tragedies are more beautiful than comedies and why we take huge pleasure in the sadness of certain songs and stories. Something is always far away.”

Only if we understand this can we truly begin to embrace abandonment and loss, and experience the joys of all those absences that surround us. In Solnit’s book it is easy to see loss and absence as enriching experiences rather than despairing ones: nature and wilderness, lonely tasks like writing, the risks of falling in love, the implications of ruins in a city, the colour blue in the distance, particles of light that get lost on their way from the sun to us; all of these allow us to lose ourselves, and losing ourselves means nothing more than being present and fully aware, if only temporarily, of our true place in the world. 

These definitions of getting lost are traced back to both Henry David Thoreau —“Not till we are lost, in other words, not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations”—and Walter Benjamin —“to be lost is to be fully present, and to be fully present is to be capable of being in uncertainty and mystery”—. To be lost, then, means really to be found, and it is only through transformative experiences—art, love, loss, grief, travel— that we begin to find our place in the world, and in a mysterious world like ours, that is means to accept that our place in it is uncertain, yes, but never unimportant, everchanging but vital, connected to all. This world is full of mysteries, and to be lost is to accept the mystery, to accept “that the world is wild, that life is unpredictable in its goodness and its danger”, and the only way to do it is by abandonment

“Is it that the joy that comes from other people always risks sadness, because even when love doesn’t fail, morality enters in; is it that there is a place where sadness and joy are not distinct, where all emotion lies together, a sort of ocean into which the tributary streams of distinct emotions go, a faraway deep inside; is it that such sadness is only the side effect of art that describes the depths of our lives, and to see that described in all its potential for loneliness and pain is beautiful?”

To read Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost was indeed a transformative experience; it’s one of the books I have most enjoyed reading lately and perhaps the one I have underlined the most. Solnit knits together anecdotes, pieces of history, art criticism and even fiction in what I believe to be the best non-fiction book I’ve read in my life. This book is a dizzying ride around the word “lost” and its importance, its variations and its necessity in a world where it gets harder and harder to be lost. 

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