On Being Lost

I am lost wherever I go. Perpetually lost. I never have any clue where I’m going. Ever. But I guess it goes beyond not knowing where I’m going, but I have to go a bit deeper and admit that I really never even know where I am.

It hasn’t been until quite recently that I’m coming to these realizations. I used to think that I actually had a decent sense of direction. But even driving around in downtown Grand Rapids I’ll get lost. I’ve lived here for 19 years! I’ll get lost driving over to Founder’s Brewery, just two miles away. I never remember which road to turn on, and I usually end up turning on the wrong street, and have to zigzag my way over there. I’ll get lost in a gas station. I’ll pull in off the highway, and then leaving the gas station I’ll forget which way I came in from, and will have to turn around a bunch of times before I find the highway again.

One of the greatest examples is from September 2009, when I went to Budapest for about a week, visiting Jay and some other friends. I hadn’t been to Budapest in five years, but figured I knew my way around the city. I stayed with an old friend, Andi, in her apartment a bit north of the city center. She showed me all the ways to get there, from the blue metro to the 1 tram over the bridge, then which of the many flat blocks was hers, and number 14, 3rd floor, door somewhere in the middle. First night in the city I went out with Jay to a pub or something, and wasn’t going to be back in the flat until later, but I assured Andi I knew the way back. After all, she’d just shown me! I’d call her if I got lost.

Well, I managed to get myself very lost. I got out of the Metro, and looked around bewildered. Hmm… where’s number 14? Couldn’t find it. After wandering around for about an hour I called Andi and confessed I had no clue where I was. Well, first of all, I was on the wrong side of the bridge. So I crossed the river, but still couldn’t find the place. Eventually Andi just told me to stay where I was under the bridge and she’d go find me. It was around 1am and I’d been lost for about two hours.

After this event, I began realizing more regularly that I really didn’t know where I was going most of the time. And I also realized that people often told me this, or questioned me: Sven, do you know where you’re going? Yes, of course I do, jeez, leave me alone!

The first day of my fall trip backpacking, I had a six hour layover in Copenhagen. I didn’t know the first thing about the Danes, Denmark, or Copenhagen. But I figured I might as well wander around the city! I had heard something about the Krononberg castle, famous from Hamlet, was supposedly in Copenhagen. I figured that sounded like as good a destination as any for a good wandering session in a new city. All right, first step was choosing a metro station to get out at, and hope that I’m in the city center. Success! I was in Copenhagen. Next step: Find the Krononberg. Hmm… I studied the map of the metro, and saw a place on the map that looked like it might have a castle nearby. I went that way. After about four hours of such consultations of the metro map and direction changes, I was in a nervous, feverish cold sweat, completely lost, tired (I hadn’t slept on the flight and had been stuck in Chicago for eleven hours), and had no clue how to find the Krononberg. Finally I broke down and (wince!) asked someone for directions. The Krononberg? That’s not in Copenhagen, it is 30km north of the city. Oh. I stopped looking for it.

I was pretty much lost every day this past fall traveling. Sure, I had maps and would consult them with great frequency, but that didn’t really matter. Most of the time I would be lost, pull out the map, look around, realize hmm. nope. still don’t know where I am on the map. I’d close the map, and continue along, figuring in a few minutes I would recognize something from the map and could figure things out from there.

No, I never know where I am, never know where I’m going, but I figure I’ll get to my destination if I just rely on my instincts. Sometimes I’m aware, sometimes I’m not, that it’s my lack of instincts in these scenarios that get me lost in the first place.

It depends on the day, but I guess I don’t mind being lost. It’s nerve wracking, it’s frightening, yes. Stressful, sure. Especially when I’m guiding others around. In Istanbul I broke down and bought an expensive guide book so I could figure things out. Matt and one other guy – an offensive guy from Alaska – were my wandering buddies at this point. I had the guidebook, so I figured out the things I’d go see. If they wanted to put up with my sense of direction, they could follow, but I bought the guidebook, dammit, so I’d be in charge of directions. I got us lost every single day. Hopelessly lost. Some days we wouldn’t even find what I set out to find. I had a constant running monologue: oh man I’m lost, have absolutely no clue where I am or where I’m going… I wonder if they know how lost I am?

But at the same time, being lost is exciting! As George Harrison sings, If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there. When you’re lost, the possibilities are endless. Who will you meet? What will you see? Will you get to your destination or will you abandon it unrealized, and pursue a new one?

If you have your route all mapped out for you, all the time tables prefigured, where does life happen? Where do you face that horrible, terrifying, fantastic uncertainty that you don’t know where you are or where you’re going? The magic, the beauty happens when life throws you a knuckle ball, when all of a sudden you’re blown into a wholly new path, and have to figure things out again. When you realize that you are looking at the map, but aren’t able to place where you are on the map. And that you couldn’t put your finger on where on the map you’re headed. Those two most essential things, you are unable to do. All you can really do is put down the map. Look around, and realize how beautiful it is to be hopelessly lost.

I guess that’s on a good day. What I’d like to be able to do. Instead of curse and stress myself out. I’m lost, nervous, stressed. Tired of being lost, of my lack of direction. But I’m trying to realize it’s good. Move my chess pieces when I’m able to, but otherwise cast myself to the winds, and do my best to try to smile about the transience of it all.

I think I’ll give Rumi the last words. “Who says words with my mouth?”

All day I think about it, then at night I say it.
Where did I come from, and what am I supposed to be doing?
I have no idea.
My soul is from elsewhere, I’m sure of that,
and I intend to end up there.

This drunkenness began in some other tavern,
When I get back around to that place,
I’ll be completely sober. Meanwhile,
I’m like a bird from another continent, sitting in the aviary.
The day is coming when I fly off,
but who is it now in my ear who hears my voice?
Who says words with my mouth?

Who looks out with my eyes? What is the soul?
I cannot stop asking.
If I could take one sip of an answer,
I could break out of this prison for drunks.
I didn’t come here of my own accord, and I can’t leave that way.
Whoever brought me here will have to take me home.

This poetry. I never know what I’m going to say.
I don’t plan it.
When I’m outside the saying of it,
I get very quiet and rarely speak at all.

Leave a Reply