Rebecca Solnit’s “A Field Guide to Getting Lost” is part personal memoir, part history lesson, and part perceptive reflection, which those of you who are familiar with her work know she does very well.
“The word lost,” she says, “comes from the Old Norse los, meaning the disbanding of an army, and this origin suggests soldiers falling out of formation to go home, a truce with the wide world. I worry now that many people never disband their armies, never go beyond what they know.” As is often the case when I’m reading her work, that stopped me cold, and in this case set me thinking of the people and organizations and informal groups that I know of who never lay down their arms, who in some cases are positively spoiling for a fight about their favorite issue. It would be beneficial, I think, if we all occasionally considered the possibility that what we know about an issue is not everything, or even every important thing.
Early in the book she tells of an incident at Passover when she was eight and ended up in a chair next to the one left empty to welcome the prophet Elijah. Mistakenly picking up his cup of wine instead of her own cup of juice, she got drunk for the first time in her life. The significance of the empty chair is the point, of course, and the practice of leaving the door open for the arrival of the prophet. I was not raised in the Jewish faith, but in the Christian, and we were taught differently, but maybe not all that differently. Maybe the important thing for all of us, Jew or Christian or Buddhist or Muslim or secular humanist, is not when Elijah or Jesus comes, or indeed if he comes at all, but whether or not the door is open. Something to think about in this time of walls and locked doors and jail visits that provide video contact from separate rooms instead of face-to-face, eliminating any possibility of a friendly or healing touch.
I posted a few days ago about being out on my back deck early one morning listening to the birds singing and realizing that what they were doing was delineating territory, and if I tried to navigate that landscape (or airspace) I would be completely lost. I was not far enough along in “Field Guide” at that time to know that there have been groups of people that navigated by song. The Chemehuevi of the American Southwest did, and the songs mentioned places in geographical order. “How does that song go?” meant what route does it travel, and an inherited song gave you hunting rights to the terrain it described. It turns out songs are useful in ways I never imagined.
We share the same terrain, but each of our lives traces its own map. The person ahead of me in line at the market maps the Knoxville area in a different way than I do, and might very well be lost or at least confused in places where I am very comfortable. Certainly the reverse is also true. What gives rise to conflict, but also to the possibility of shared insight, is in the area of overlapping maps, and our stories are contained in each other to a greater degree than most of us realize. And as Ms. Solnit says, our individual stories are like Russian nesting dolls, contained in larger and larger stories.
Toward the end of the book she relates the story of the Turtle Man, who traveled the streets of San Fransisco selling boxes of candy shaped like little turtles. He would go from place to place, selling a box here, two boxes there. The intriguing fact about the Turtle Man was that he was blind. When he came to a barrier of some kind, an intersection for example, he would stop and begin calling for help. He did this until someone came to him and helped him navigate the barrier, at which time he would resume his journey.
The message of the story is that it’s okay to be a little bit like the Turtle Man, to realize that life is mysterious and uncertain and that sometimes we need to call out for help. Sometimes we can receive help and other times we can provide it, and when we do those things, the world becomes a very different place, a more generous place, and in that world maybe we can begin to disband our armies.