If there's one thing I'm truly excellent at, it's getting lost. Set me up with a compass, a map, and a set of directions, and I will invariably end up somewhere I did not intend to go. The tighter the time frame, the further away from my destination I'll be. I've gotten lost in foreign countries and nearby towns, on sprawling interstates and unfamiliar dirt roads. I've gotten lost in my own backyard (which is actually a few acres of dense forest, but still). Not so long ago, I veered off course visiting my best friend in Brooklyn, where I'd been a dozen times before. Despite being familiar with the walk from the A train to her doorstep, I went a mile out of my way before I realized that something was up. The other day, I walked into a convenience store, bought a bottle of water, walked out, and immediately started going in the wrong direction. Getting lost might be one of my more inconvenient traits, but as far as flaws go it's certainly not my worst. These days, I plan on it. It's built into my time table whenever I go somewhere even slightly unfamiliar, and I've gotten good at rolling through those wrong turns with a mellow, unsurprised smile. I still try my best to take the right exits and merge onto the correct highways, but the fact that I only succeed a scant fifty percent of the time doesn't really phase me anymore. On the other hand, if you ever want to get lost on purpose--well, then. I'm your girl.
I think it's important to get lost sometimes. The roads we travel every day are the ones that we see the least clearly--and if those are the only roads we travel, then the habit of not looking sets in. Sometimes all it takes to jolt us back into the practice of observation is a new place, whether it's a new continent, a different state, or just a park you never thought to explore. When it comes to journeys like these, losing one's bearings isn't a flaw--it's a step in the right direction. That time I got disoriented in my own backyard I found a little stream I'd never seen before. When I got turned around in Brooklyn I met a gallant mailman who pointed me in the right direction, bowed like a nobleman, and gave me a smile I'll never forget. When I don't know where I am, I start looking at things in a different way--and I begin to see myself from a whole new angle.
Because we live with ourselves, day in, day out, for an entire lifetime, it's hardly shocking that things can get pretty stale. When you see the same face while you brush your teeth, and hear the same inner monologue as you drift off to sleep, it gets easy to stop seeing, to stop listening. All those desires and fears are still there, somewhere, but sometimes it's easier to stop noticing them. Goals get fuzzy, gratitude gets washed out, even love starts to leak. It's not that any of this is wrong--far from it, it happens to everyone. It's easy to stop seeing what makes us special and whole and vibrant. What's hard is to rediscover those things.
That's where getting lost comes in. It gives us a fresh set of eyes to cast over a brand new scene. I remember the first time I really, truly traveled. I went to Ireland with nothing but a backpack and an intention to drift for a while, and man, did I succeed. Being lost at that point in my life didn't feel awesome, let's be real, but it did open me up. I looked in the mirror one night during those first few weeks and I saw someone I'd never seen before. I saw someone tough and angry and resourceful and sad. I saw someone who was lost, and just by seeing that, I began to find her again.
Traveling might be the easiest way to lose your bearings, but it's not the only way. The truth is, you can hop on an unfamiliar bus in your own city, your own town and achieve the same effect as crossing an ocean. It's about shifting your gaze--looking at something new, or seeing an old thing differently--and that can happen almost anywhere. Sometimes getting lost feels like waking up. Sometimes it feels like getting punched in the face. Sometimes it feels like stepping out of a dim building on a bright day and waiting for your eyes to adjust to the light--then, finally, seeing what's been there all along.
Lily Brooks-Dalton's memoir, Motorcycles I've Loved, was published on April 7 by Riverhead Books.