Lost

Elizabeth - San Francisco, California
Entered on December 22, 2005
Age Group: 30 - 50

Ever since a forty-foot humpbacked whale made a wrong turn into San Francisco Bay, I haven’t felt so bad about my own rotten sense of direction. He hugged the banks of the Sacramento River for close to a month before stopping in the delta, near some farmer’s vegetable patch.

The local news media embraced the whale. They named him Humphrey. The marine mammal experts banged on metal pipes underwater and blasted recordings of whale songs at him to try and turn him around. At some point, the noise got so bad he pounded his tail flukes against the water, demanding some quiet.

I like that in a whale.

As soon as he was ready, he made a U-turn in the river and headed back downstream, to the bay and the Pacific Ocean.

Like Humphrey, I can get lost anywhere — in my own neighborhood, along one of my set routes, in a parking garage. That’s the beauty of it, really. When I was six, I often got lost on the mile-long walk to school. It wasn’t a complicated route — up Abbott, down Simmons hill, then left along the lake to the elementary school. But there was so much to look at. Leaves were changing and being burned, which could be magical in the mountains of northwestern New Jersey, and there was the dead raccoon in the drainage ditch whose progress I was tracking– perfect in its beauty the first day, then duller each subsequent day, until finally it was squirming with white maggots.

I must have turned too soon, zigged when I should have zagged, or possibly I didn’t zig soon enough, or I zigged too late, because suddenly I looked up at an unfamiliar row of houses.

Everyone else in my life sees my arrival at this moment as my problem. They suggest all the predictable cures — a GPS system, a book or workshop on improving my navigational skills. But I’ve learned over the years that course correction is a trivial matter. Even as a six-year-old, I knew that all I had to do was to look for a red Helping Hand sign in somebody’s window. There was always someone in the world who would help me get back on track.

What my friends fail to see in my lostness are its gifts. Getting lost is a prelude to wonder. There are things to witness, miracles in the process of being born. Time is splitting open, and I’m being invited to pay attention.

I can always ring a doorbell, find a map, or ask a sympathetic-looking stranger for directions.

But the truth is, there are worse things than getting lost. And that’s why I believe my job in this life is not to navigate, but to notice.