A disquieting rain grew as the depth beneath me… 40 meters. 50. 75. 100. Unreadable. By this time, the thickening rain engendered a soupy fog, who together quashed visibility like waking up at 4am after a bender, without your glasses or contacts: all sound and feeling and hypnagogic dis-ease.
The ship has instruments, such as sonar to measure depth. And a GPS system for plotting and charting. But it all goes useless when you can’t read anything. When the water ahead of you looks the same as that behind. When you know you are surrounded by rocky outcroppings carved by gargantuan glaciers. The skerries. (And when the depth finder occassionally announces 10m, or 17, or 13, then you know something BIG just passed underneath you.)
Here’s two pics of nautical charts –zoomed out and zoomed in – of the west coast of Sweden, where the granite and basalt dives into the Skagerrak – the name for this long section of the sea between the North Atlantic and the Baltic. Thousands of little islands peaking out of the 200m trenches, red slant-roofed huts and lighthouses and swim ladders blooming atop them.
You see, I had the charts. I had the instruments. And I was pulling into Strömstad – famous among the Norwegians as one of the few cities near the border that contain not one, but two of the state monopoly liquor stores, both of them stocked with alcohol orders of magnitude cheaper than anywhere in Norway. This week is the World Orienteering Championships. I was surrounded by people competing to be the best at not being lost. To be always certain of where they are. So even with nothing to see, no bearings to follow, and slick dark rocks sliding toward me, I still wasn’t lost.
Rebecca Solnit writes in A Field Guide to Getting Lost (I love that paradox):
The word “lost” comes from the Old Norse los, meaning the disbanding of an army, and this origin suggests soldiers falling out of formation to go home, a truce with the wide world.
The OED Shorter Ed. claims:
Old English losian ‘perish, destroy,’ also ‘become unable to find,’ from los ‘loss.’
The Norse origin carries with it a forfeiture, or a depletion, of purpose. And end of things, or perhaps just a change/transition. The Old English sense is more disappearance. When I lived in Japan, I sometimes would go out on long walks in unfamiliar areas. When someone would inevitably try to help me, I would say – “迷っている” – which isn’t exactly, “I’m lost.” It is more like, “I’m unsure.”
So I still wasn’t really lost. Because I knew someone was going to help me.
To be truly lost, you come to rely on a whole new set of mechanisms. Earned, learned, birthed or taught. Once in the Philippines, I came out of the ocean on a moonlight swim to find loss. All my things were gone. Taken. Absconded(?). I’ll never know. But naked and dripping I found myself relying on instinctual pangs to lead me somewhere. To fill the loss?
It is much harder to fall off the edge of the map these days. What have you lost? And what did it mean to you to be lost? Samuel Beckett seemed to crave loss of control: as a child he would climb high in the branches of oak trees and then fall, crashing through the leaves and limbs, akimbo and tilted. I felt the waves at Nha Trang pound me so hard into the surf that I lost all sense of direction, and went entirely limp: I’ll never forget that awesome water.
To be lost, to always find something new. It reminds me of the proverb at Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen: “Always Never the Same.” I tried to get lost in Sweden, among the skerries and the firs and the clear blue channels cut through the rock. But people in spandex and windbreakers, goggled and neon-foot-clad, compasses hanging like nooses, they kept finding me.