A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit

by Rachel Dean        

When I first picked up A Field Guide to Getting Lost, I was on vacation in South Carolina, staying at my grandmother’s beach house, the ocean less than a mile down the road from her neighborhood of brightly painted houses and strategically planted palm trees. It was approaching the end of summer. I was reading voraciously and trying to finish a comprehensive draft of my graduate school thesis. I’d had an unusual summer, which included unexpectedly moving back home and working only sparingly. I’d had long hours in the mornings to write and read, but looking back on that time now—while I lazed on the beach and peered at other vacationers from behind my sunglasses—imbued me with a choking sense of anxiety. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d sacrificed my summer to impulse. I’d spent too much time with family and friends. I’d spent money I didn’t have on things I didn’t need. I’d too thoroughly enjoyed the blazing freedom of June and July, and now I was left with heaps of unfinished work and a pitiful sense of panic as the first week of classes approached. I wanted to begin so that I could shake my anxiety about first-week due dates, but I also wanted to stay suspended in summer’s bliss. In A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Rebecca Solnit writes that, “Something is always far away” (31). We can never have all of what we want—not even most of it.

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I’d just finished reading The Mother of All Questions, another book of essays written by Rebecca Solnit. Her words were floating in my head. I wanted to keep them there. I was thinking a lot about gender, as I almost always am, and the book’s themes coincided with that preoccupation. I was attempting to write essays that discussed womanhood—what it meant, how I performed it, what felt instinctive and what felt put-on. Some of what I produced felt honest, even guttural—like it came from some deep center inside of me that I hadn’t quite mined—but most of it felt disastrously short-circuited. I couldn’t arrange my thoughts. I wanted to write words that were big with feeling. I wanted to ask myself the right questions.

Rebecca Solnit asks herself the right questions. Perhaps that is what makes her a brilliant essayist. Her work is also lyrically satisfying. A Field Guide to Getting Lost reads more like an ode to the unknown than a curated book of essays. In the book, Solnit writes about acts of leaving. She writes about the romanticism of the outdoors, about driving long distances through landscapes lit with color. She writes about desire and parallels it beautifully to the unending longing we habitually feel as humans. As I read, I was reminded that living is of equal importance to writing—that to sacrifice the true excitement of a glorious summer is to surrender to a certain cynicism, one that claims that whatever is out there is not interesting enough to say yes to.

I peeled back some of my guilt. So I had not written perfectly, maybe not even well enough. But I’d gone to Ireland. I’d watched my cousin get married in a beautiful church. I’d gotten too drunk. I’d read thousands of good words. I’d sat on a kitchen counter across from somebody and felt dizzy with joy. And now I was on a beach in front of the ocean, reading Rebecca Solnit’s writing.

I have a strange relationship to the ocean. Now that I’ve written that line, I realize how self-important it sounds. Everyone has an opinion on the ocean. It’s like having an opinion on Kim Kardashian—universal and relatively uninteresting. There are signs in people’s houses that say kitschy things like: Sun, Sand, & Sea in glittery calligraphy—those are generally people who wish they lived closer to the ocean than they do. There are deep sea divers and marine biologists and professional surfers. There are fisherman and lifeguards and those particularly strong-legged women in colorful bikinis who push the Italian Ice carts through the sand dunes. All of them have infinitely more complex relationships with the ocean than I do, and undoubtedly have more interesting things to say about it.

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But I’ll still say, without shame, that bodies of water have almost always made me uncomfortable. I start thinking too much around oceans, reservoirs, scummy ponds, chlorinated pools, and even inside the bathtub. But the beach near my grandmother’s house is one we’ve visited since I was three years old, so it’s also familiar. It always looks the same, surrounded as it is by strips of oddly named hotels, a seafood restaurant, and a boardwalk. Maybe it’s not the water there—maybe it’s that returning anywhere ritually calls into question all the past selves that inhabited that same space.

And maybe, as a product of that, I always get sad in South Carolina. Not an overwhelming sadness, though. It’s perhaps closer to nostalgia—the realization that time is passing, that my grandmother is getting older, that very soon it will be impossible to take family trips all together. Being near the ocean heightens these emotions—the sheer infinity of the water’s force—particularly the way the tide goes in and out, careless to the vacationers who crowd the ocean’s edge.

Solnit writes, “Sometimes gaining and losing are more intimately related than we like to think. And some things cannot be moved or owned. Some light does not make it all the way through the atmosphere, but scatters” (38). These days, I feel everything scattering.

While in South Carolina, my mother and I often wake up early to walk on the beach. It’s less hot in the morning and less busy—people have not woken up yet or pitched their colorful umbrellas. On these walks, I’ll sometimes take off my sneakers and wade ankle-deep into the ocean. Sometimes I’ll watch the people farther out, balancing on boogey boards or floating on their backs. When I was younger, I swam often; I was less cautious and more uninhibited. Now I don’t like bathing suits or getting sunburned. I’m irrationally afraid of drowning and all the slimy creatures that swim through the dark. Solnit seems to agree when she writes, “There’s something fearful and mysterious about every body of water, murky water that promises unseen things in the unseen depths, clear water that shows you the bottom far below as you could fall into it, though the water would buoy you up in that strange space neither air nor ground” (180). I like the solidity of land. The way it promises its own set of known dangers, ones I can contend with more easily.

The thought of being stranded at sea was once mystifying to me—as a child, I wrote a 75-page story about a female pirate. I read Life of Pi by Yann Martel and thought it was the most magical book I’d ever encountered. I loved the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, particularly Elizabeth Turner’s character for her fierceness and capability. At that time, the ocean seemed beautiful. It wasn’t violent or unpredictable, and when it was, it only fictional. In my head, the ocean was conquerable—a fixed landscape rather than a changing force.

I don’t know when my relationship to water changed, or when I began to fear it. Maybe it was hearing the stories of drownings in lakes. Maybe it was reading too many articles on the inevitability of climate change—knowing that one day the earth will turn on us irreversibly, as it probably should. Maybe it was watching the cyclical footage on television of hurricanes and tropical storms battering coasts and shorelines. My mother was always warning me about the current as a child—how I could end up on the other side of the beach, unable to find our spot of sand if the water took me far enough. Whatever it is, it really doesn’t matter. I no longer liked the water. I no longer liked my body in the water.

But that week it was unnaturally hot. I was tired of camping out underneath the umbrella, sweat dampening the back of my polyester swimsuit. So I walked into the water and went knee-deep. Then waist-deep. Then I went further and further, until I was actually swimming, my body swallowed by sea. I went under. I surfaced. I turned my face to the sun. I watched a deep-beaked pelican glide over the waves, looking for the shadows of fish beneath the water. I did this for a long time. It felt good to float. To let the saltwater sting my eyes.

Maybe I won’t go in the water again. I certainly haven’t been transformed into an Olympic swimmer, and I still won’t elect to go swimming in a lake or a pool over, say, reading a book on a front porch. But I’d given myself to that moment. I’d prioritized what my body had wanted without asking too many questions. In A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Solnit writes, “Such moments seem to mean that you have surrendered to the story being told and are following the story line rather than trying to tell it yourself, your puny voice interrupting and arguing with fate, nature, the gods” (134). I was tired of arguing with myself and the forces that be. I so rarely accepted the present moment—I was always light-years ahead, anxious over the arrival of a deadline, a conversation, a challenge.

It’s not silly to say that books can alter psychology and break down barriers. Every time I’ve been moved to make a change it’s been a direct product of words on a page. A Field Guide to Getting Lost reordered my priorities, if only for that week, if only for a brief series of moments. Solnit writes, “Adulthood is made up of prudent anticipation and a philosophical memory that can make you navigate more slowly and steadily” (109). But I don’t always want to be known for my slow navigating. Sometimes, I want to be brave instead. Solnit had argued her case for awareness and wildness, and I had listened. And the ocean had taken me back like I’d never been gone—some prodigal daughter of the warm Carolina water—and I was grateful.

— Rachel Dean is a Siblíní Book Correspondent. 

Siblini Journal