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.”
Lost, losing, letting go, standing in a threshold, between the known and unknown, I picked Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide To Getting Lost out from the shelves in the house I’m staying at. I’ve always reached to books, to story, both as escape and a doorway into new worlds. Rebecca Solnit was a name I’d known but not read until and the book is a beautiful exploration of lost, loss and through it, finding and discovery, the geography of spaces and selves, who we are in relationship to a place, to people to others.
I’m in the unfamiliar now. Terra incognito, walking towards the unknown. I stay in a different part of the city, streets and Tube stops unfamiliar. Where the hell is Wapping? The train stutters and disgorges me in strange places, outside of the familiar patterns and places of my old life in East London. A temporary suspension of a life, before a move somewhere yet not known, not yet decided, in transition, being with losing, loss, grief. I feel unrooted, outside my routine, my space, unwilling to invest into new patterns for a temporary place. Curious at what I still carry in me as things are stripped away.
Solnit says, to be lost, is to go beyond what you know. That involves growth but also decay, death, transformation.
“The people thrown into other cultures go through something of the anguish of the butterﬂy, whose body must disintegrate and reform more than once in its life cycle. In her novel Regeneration, Pat Barker writes of a doctor who “knew only too well how often the early stages of change or cure may mimic deterioration. Cut a chrysalis open, and you ﬁnd a rotting caterpillar. What you will never ﬁnd is that mythical creature, half caterpillar, half butterﬂy, a ﬁt emblem of the human soul, for those whose cast of mind leads them to seek such emblems. No, the process of transformation consists almost entirely of decay. But the butterﬂy is so ﬁt an emblem of the human soul that its name in Greek is psyche, the word for soul. We have not much language to appreciate this phase of decay, this withdrawal, this era of ending that must precede beginning. Nor of the violence of metamorphosis, which is often spoken of as though it were as graceful as a ﬂower blooming.”
I travel for work and I’m back in the familiar. I know hotels, planes, in between spaces. How to bounce between countries. I have been someone who travels. When I’m stopped by the airport for yet another random screening, I think how a sense of belonging is often predicated on others responses to you. How my face marks me as foreign to be questioned, my Pakistani and Irish name. A woman between cultures, between lands. “Where are you from?” people ask. “No, where are you really from?” In the days post Brexit, there are the yells and whispers in the street. “Go back to where you came from.”
“There are those who receive as birthright an adequate or at least unquestioned sense of self and those who set out to reinvent themselves, for survival or for satisfaction, and travel far. Some people inherit values and practices as a house they inhabit; some of us have to burn down that house, find our own ground, build from scratch, even as a psychological metamorphosis.”
The policeman flicks through my passport, my past ports. “A lot of travel,” he notes and I’m grateful the old one, with its stamps from Sudan, Lebanon, and Malaysia amongst other places sits in a drawer. I think of the different people I was in those places, a life lost, left behind.
“Lost really has two disparate meanings. Losing things is about the familiar falling away, getting lost is about the unfamiliar appearing. There are objects and people that disappear from your sight or knowledge or possession; you lose a bracelet, a friend, the key. You still know where you are. Everything is familiar except that there is one item less, one missing element. Or you get lost, in which case the world has become larger than your knowledge of it. Either way, there is a loss of control. Imagine yourself streaming through time shedding gloves, umbrellas, wrenches, books, friends, homes, names.
This is what the view looks like if you take a rear-facing seat on the train. Looking forward you constantly acquire moments of arrival, moments of realization, moments of discovery. The wind blows your hair back and you are greeted by what you have never seen before. The material falls away in onrushing experience. It peels off like skin from a molting snake. Of course to forget the past is to lose the sense of loss that is also memory of an absent richness and a set of clues to navigate the present by; the art is not one of forgetting but letting go. And when everything else is gone, you can be rich in loss.”
This week, my former love reaches out. “It would be nice to know how you are.” and I hold the needed silence between us. If I could, I would say, the woman you knew no longer exists in the spaces we shared. She is gone. You cannot know her anymore. She doesn’t exist because the shared story, the shared places and spaces are lost and I have not the space or the desire to reweave another between us.
“The stories don’t fit back together, and it’s the end of stories, those devices we carry like shells and shields and blinkers and occasionally maps and compasses. The people close to you become mirrors and journals in which you record your history, the instruments that help you know yourself and remember yourself, and you do the same for them. When they vanish so does the use, the appreciation, the understanding of those small anecdotes, catchphrases, jokes: they become a book slammed shut or burnt… The stories shatter. Or you wear them out or leave them behind. Over time the memory loses power. Over time you become someone else.”
I’m travelling now through lostness. My teacher and I talk about surrender and loneliness this week. Loneliness as something to carry, how embracing it teaches you compassion and how to bless others. How surrender can open you up to grander landscapes than you can possible imagine. The life you dream for yourself is nothing compared to what God imagines and dreams for you if you can let yourself be in that unknown.