A Healing Cartography of Lost

The Catalan Atlas was the definitive mappomondo of its time. It included the latest information brought back by Arabic and European travelers. But perhaps the atlas’s most important contribution was what it left out. On other maps, unknown northern and southern regions were included as places of myth, of monsters, anthropaphagy, and sea serpents. But the truth-seeking, fact faithful Catalan Atlas instead left unknown parts of the earth blank. This blankness was labeled simply and frighteningly Terra Incognita, challenging every mariner who unfurled the chart. Maps of history have always been less honest. Terra Cognita and Terra Incognita inhabit exactly the same coordinates of time and space. The closest we come to knowing the location of what’s unknown is when it melts through the map like a watermark, a stain as transparent as rain. On the map of history, perhaps the water stain is memory.
— Anne Michaels, Fugitive Pieces

I am not sure of where to start, but even in this statement, I am revealing the truth about the problem: it is hard to describe lost.  The very nature of feeling lost can make your words scramble in your brain and crumble in your mouth. It can make your thoughts dissipate like clouds. Lost keeps you lost by making it feel nearly impossible to give directions to anyone else of where you are when you are lost.

Lost is the exile of survival. It is where you escape to and then can’t find a way out of. Lost feels like it follows the rules of old legends and tales—you cross a threshold, and you are in. But once in, you can no longer find the entry.

Lost is sort of a double edged landscape. It can feel awful to feel so isolated, so abandoned, so left behind. And yet, lost can be the best protection you may have known. It may have been the perfect hiding places for parts of a self that you wanted to save, wanted to protect from whatever war or grief or terror you have experienced. Being lost may have felt safe. May sometimes still feel safe.

But I have learned something important this week, or learned something again, as if for the first time.  Lost is on the map. Lost is a place. It has edges, it has boundaries, it can be found. Which means you can be found. Depending on your history and how you protected yourself, lost can be vast and occupy entire regions—or it can be just a very deep valley somewhere.

I have always found that lost is the place I run from—desperately running toward anything else.  Lost is the terra incognita of your particular map. It is what remains unknown, but not entirely. As Anne Michaels states, “Terra Cognita and Terra Incognita inhabit exactly the same coordinates of time and space.” The problem with lost is not that it is entirely unknown, nor is it that it is known. The problem is that lost is unexperienced, undigested, unintegrated—it is a series of feelings, events, fears, frozen in time. It is a museum of protections. The landscape of every way you tried to survive.

When you can feel in your heart, in your bones, on the soles of your feet that lost is a place everything changes. If lost is place you can know it, explore it, map it. You can name the swamps and forests that have trapped you. When you can know the edges and fences of lost, then you can find how to enter and exit. You can leave the gate open and realize that entry is a choice, and exit is a choice.

You realize that the only way to explore lost is to stand still. To sit. To stay with yourself. To not run. The best way to explore lost is with someone else. A guide, a fellow explorer, someone who has mapped their own territory of lost. It’s not easy to let yourself be seen in lost, to let yourself lean on help in lost. But it is the way out. It is the way through.

When you can feel that lost is a place then you realize that it is a place in need. This feeling you have run from for years, feelings you have hated, or scorned. This feeling is something that needs your care—not just any care, yours. When lost is a place you can stop running towards something because you are already there. You can stop running away from something because you will still be there no matter how far you run. When lost is a place you can finally stop and rest. You can make camp. You can look around.  You have been found.

© 2015 Gretchen L Schmelzer, PhD