Being lost

I’m reading Rebecca Solnit’s book, A field guide to getting lost*, and I’m reminded of the recurring dreams I used to have not so long ago. That of being lost in a strange country or place, threatened by unknown ghosts, and out of my mind with panic and fear.

When I look back, at the time, there was a bloody conflict and somehow I’d found my place in the family hierarchy gone or mislaid. Relationships with other relatives had disappeared or become strained.

Due to my anger at being in this space, my primary relationship faltered. The dream appeared like tragic music to accompany my life. After or during the dream I would wake up in a cold sweat, my heart pounding. A mysterious chest pain appeared. I was experiencing being lost and I did not know how to be lost.

Solnit says in the first chapter ‘Leave the door open for the unknown, the door into the dark. That’s where the most important things come from, where you yourself come from, and where you will go.’

She suggests that children find it easier to be lost, citing the incident of a deaf boy who blew his whistle and when nobody came and night fell, he sensibly found a sheltered place to sleep.

When I was a teenager we regularly went to Johannesburg to visit my aunt. The distance from the bus stop in Bree Street to Bezvalley was intimidating for a thirteen-year-old, yet I never seemed to feel it. And making a wrong turn wasn’t disastrous because as long as you walked in the right direction you were fine. I wasn’t afraid.

Obviously I’d been better at getting lost then, assured of finding my way;  so what had changed? Why had I become fearful of the world and lost trust in myself and my ability to find my way in it? What was there in my life that had stripped away my confidence? These and other questions plagued me.

I sank into a depression. I have a picture with childhood friends at Gold Reef City, dressed in the clothes worn by women during the gold rush, to celebrate a birthday. My eyes are lifeless. I’m there but I’m not there. I had disappeared into a wall of misery from which I managed to function perfunctorily to enact the duties expected from me.

It was during this time that a writer friend suggested a course in creative writing. She had just completed it and couldn’t praise it enough.

I applied, was accepted and slowly wrote my way out of the dead-end my life had become.

I’m in Cape Town to do research for a historical novel and I have never been better. Yesterday I went to Bloubergstrand 45 kilometres away to interview a man who had traced 400 years of his ancestors, unusual in South Africa. Normally I would panic. But I was calm and made a wonderful friend.

When I started reading Solnit’s book I had one of those ‘a-ha’ moments people talk about. I don’t yet know how to be lost without fear overwhelming me but, inspired by this book, I’m working on it.

*A field guide to being lost, Viking, Penguin Group (USA) INC 375 Hudson Street, New York, 2005.