Rebecca Solnit: Two Meanings of Lost and The value of exploration for children



I have a long history of things disappearing in my life. My favorite hot-wheels truck disappeared from my possession when I was in kindergarten. It was a devastating day. In high school, my precious brown wallet was found unexpectedly in the river far away from my house by an old bearded man who mistook my wallet for a fish. He found it six months after I lost it. The money was all gone, but my driver’s license was still in it. Shirts, socks, trophies from early childhood’s competitions, coloring books, shoes, postcards that I acquired from friends who travelled overseas, photographs, have disappeared from my life. A few of them miraculously have reappeared, years later, damaged and musty.

Losing things and getting lost, these are the things that are more commonly avoided than aspired to by people. Through her nine galvanizing essays from a book titled A Field Guide to Getting Lost (Public Library), Rebecca Solnit, one of our most lyrical writers, pens descriptively and meditatively stories of facing the unknown and finding oneself by losing oneself. This book looks like a self-help book but it does not offer explicit and practical steps to navigate oneself in the face of uncertainty. Instead, this book demands its readers to ask themselves critically about what it means to be far away from their “home” and figure out the way back.

In the first essay titled “Open Door,” Solnit contemplates the difference between losing things and getting lost. 

“Lost 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.”


A New Mapp of the World by Samuel Thornton. 1702. Via: (NYPL Digital Collections)


Both of these notions, Solnit argues, getting lost and losing things, have a common denominator–a loss sense of control.

She writes:

“Either way, there is a loss sense 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 on rushing 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.”


The Dancing Shoes by Margaret Evans Prince. 1921. Via: (NYPL Digital Collections)


Another favorite passage from this book, Solnit draws a connection between childhood roaming and self-reliance. She argues that parents’ excessive fear of letting their children to explore a neighborhood limits the children’s capacity to exercise their self-reliance muscle, which in fact can be a beneficial trait for them when they grow up.

“A recent article about the return of wildlife to suburbia described snow-covered yards in which the footprints of animals are abundant and those of children are entirely absent. As far as the animals are concerned, the suburbs are an abandoned landscape, and so they roam with confidence. Children seldom roam, even in the safest places. Because of their parents’ fear of the monstrous things that might happen (and do happen, but rarely), the wonderful things that happen as a matter of course are stripped away from them. For me, childhood roaming was what developed self-reliance, a sense of direction and adventure, imagination, a will to explore, to be able to get a little lost and then figure out the way back. I wonder what will come of placing this generation under house arrest.”


Financial District Map of New York City.  Aero view of financial district above map. 1921. Via: (NYPL Digital Collections)


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