The Topic At Hand: Lost and Found

Kate was the trouble-maker among us. I was one year younger, and didn’t have any friends at school. At age 9 I was already awkward and insecure, and even though Kate wasn’t particularly nice to me, or anyone, she included me, which seemed at the time tremendously kind.

Her parents and my parents were childhood friends. Our families, and Kate’s aunts and their children, all reunited every year in August on Cape Cod. Days were filled with overly competitive games of paddleball and hours of wave riding on over-priced boogey boards. We were competitive about those, too. There were trips to the local dairy barn for soft serve once if not twice a day. We went square dancing every Wednesday. A big annual adventure was whale watching in Provincetown, after which we’d beeline for Portuguese donuts and fudge while the Kate and her siblings gawked at the drag queens and I failed to notice them.

Our parents tried to make nights exciting. The famed drive-in was appealing in theory, but not worth more than one trip per summer due to poor sound quality. Bonfires on the beach were a hassle but we usually got in two or three; my mother told the same story about how she almost got arrested as a teenager because “everyone else” was drunk and high and the kids played manhunt. Dinners were important. We went out a fair amount, traveling a circuit of the five or so worth fine dining institutions interspersed with frequent trips to the local clam shack. On other nights, one family or another would host the others for a Barbeque, clambake or pasta.

Life was excruciatingly simple. True, there was the usual anxiety about getting to the beach in time for a parking space. There were fights with our parents about whether we would make or buy lunch, how much candy we could have at the penny shop and why we refused to wipe the sand off our feet before we got in the car. I remember being very happy during those summers. And I remember being very bored.

I’m sure that I spent most of my childhood enjoying the safety afforded me. But that summer when I was nine and Kate was 10, I began to wonder about distance. I tentatively craved adventure. I fed off Kate’s antsy-ness. The dullness of our nights were a subtle itch, and an invitation. We decided to start taking walks in the woods, and when the walks in the woods failed to be thrilling, Kate started telling us we were lost when we weren’t. All the roads in the neighborhood looked the same, but even so, from where we were in the “woods” I could recognize landmarks. I remember the moment I decided to ignore them, and to let myself believe. I loved being lost.

Then one night we traveled to a popular sunset point on the bay. This was another of our repeated traditions, but I think pre-puberty is just the time when things like sunsets become useless. (Then for maybe fifteen years, they are only useful as means to a member of the opposite sex.) Kate and I were at the age when we didn’t see the point of watching. As was our new tradition, we took her two little cousins on a walk. We walked off the beach, up the dune and into the woods that crowned it. We walked for about 20 minutes away from our parents, parallel to the bay. We were tired and our bare feet were cut and bruised. The sun had set, casting a purply, grayish glow. Somehow, through unspoken scheming and perhaps a real, if avoidable, fear, Kate and I announced that we were lost. I don’t know if I suggested going back the way we came. I do know that I knew that was the answer. But we put the little girls on our back and kept walking forward. They cried. We cried. Eventually silence took over, until we found ourselves at the top of an inordinately tall tune, with a steep and perilous path down to the beach. We, Kate and I, thought maybe we’d get our bearings if we walked down it. The truth was that in our regular lives, parents, lifeguards and erosion control signs would have prevented us from going down a dune like this one. So we went down. We looked back down the beach to where we had come from, and concluded that our best bet was to turn around.

erosion sign

We climbed back up the dune. As my thighs burned, I vacillated between fury that we had taken things too far—the incline was absurd—and thrill that I was doing something so rigorous. Somewhere along the way on our journey back, Kate’s uncle found us. I remember a lot of yelling and the word “fuck” linked to Kate’s name. We had endangered her cousins; it was her family, thus she took the blame. My mother was too overwhelmed to yell much, but swallowed me in her arms with a sigh of exhausted, broken relief. I sat stunned in the backseat on the way home, listening to her blame Kate, too and tell me how hard we must scrub my feet before I put them in my bed. I would not be made to bathe if I didn’t want, but look at how black my toes were. I was safe now, and cleanliness was our main priority.

Back at school in the fall, I wrote a poem about our “adventure” that everyone said was very good, for a fourth grader. I began to build the event up in my memory as a pinnacle of emotion and triumph over adversity. I managed to block out the knowledge that we had lost ourselves on purpose. For years, I thought of myself as a survivor, if not a hero. Gradually, I became to crave the feeling again. I wanted to be back in the car, safe and exhausted, with destroyed and dirty feet, awaiting absolution. It is the old story of the prodigal son: if you have been lost, you reenter the world wearing a shield of guiltlessness.

Thus, when adolescence came, I became one of those of people who is perpetually lost, or more specifically, in crisis. Every test, paper, swim meet, friendship was a potential for calamity. And I would not rest until the sense of angst had been created, then resolved. When you are this sort of person and you are a teenager, your friends call you the melodramatic one. If you stay this way in college, your friends call you the intense one. If you stay “intense” after college, you get multiple unnecessary graduate degrees or a job in finance. And if you don’t, you advance from “intense” to “self-destructive.” And for the first time, you are really, seriously lost.

stay on path

I lived on the cusp of this distinction for most of my post-graduate years. There was always some possibility of a graduate degree looming; acceptances, deferrals, applications, rejections, acceptances, deferrals, applications, rinse, repeat. While I was mulling over these decisions, I was trying and failing to become an actress, moping over office jobs, randomly joining then abandoning the crews of independent films and seeking guidance over fancy, inappropriate lunches with powerful, older men. Finally, I got a steady job. I went steady with a boy. But I still didn’t feel steady. So I created more crises, wherever and whenever I could.

There is a poem by Mikhail Yuryevich Lermontov called “Sail.” The last two lines, roughly translated, are: “Rebellious, it seeks out a storm/As if in storms it could find peace!” In the context of these verses, the problem becomes obvious: it’s not that I like the excitement of being lost. It’s that I like the feeling of being found. I want to climb back in the car with dirty feet, awaiting a bath. My whole life, the drama I’ve created has come with a pavlovian reward: resolution. I viewed everything I had as wrong, but I always had the power to make things right when I was ready.

And then, I got laid off. Suddenly, I was lost in the middle of the middle of the woods, with no obvious coastline ready to guide me home when I done playing. So I did the only rational thing I could think of: I gave up the hope of being found. Surprisingly, giving up that hope has offered great relief. I don’t feel so lost. Rather, I’ve come to terms with a life that is simply in motion. I have no idea what I’m looking at, or why I’m climbing up the hill, but at least I’m not standing still. The wanderlust I’m predisposed to feel is real, but the idea that it will eventually lead me “home” is not.

Not surprisingly, Kate got the point long before I did. Like me, she’s been called melodramatic, intense and self-destructive. She also has a dual masters in education and math, has been a high school teacher, worked for a hedge fund, moved in and out with a boyfriend, and ended up at business school down South. Kate doesn’t seem phased by the whole thing. I remember months ago, back when I was still really worried, she was painstakingly explaining “Life”, as if I was nine again, and still completely missing the point. She sighed, “People like us like to keep busy, Rachel. We like to keep moving. It may not be the best way to live, but it’s who we are.”


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    11 responses to “Here I Am”

    1. Samando says:

      This is great, Rachel. “I want to climb back in the car with dirty feet, awaiting a bath.”
      When I was little, I got lost on purpose in the grocery store, and didn't even freak out until I heard my name announced over the loudspeaker. I liked the feeling of being lost, too – thank you for articulating it so eloquently. Looking forward to reading more from you.

    2. Mark Moran says:

      It's all about the journey. Arriving at your destination is never quite as satisfying as the process it took to get there.

    3. Ursula says:

      I like this. I spent time at all those places, –clam shack, drive-in, square dancing, whale watching, dune-scrabbling–but since everyone else was depending on me not to get lost, I didn't. I never realized how full of meaning those warning signs on the beach can be. Keep on writing about this, please.

    4. Excellent text, but sad life. Life has a way of interfering with self-centered thrill seekers; it steals their time. To take an example in music, YoYo Ma or the Kronos Quartet were useful thrill seekers. Useful thrill seekers are in great demand, but it is hard to achieve.

      • KIrasheba says:

        claude….what do you know about her? Your comment makes NO SENSE at all. Rachel has a wonderful fun filled life that she has dedicated to helping others and growing in her own way to be a caring human being.

        Self centered…. totally off target….she is about the least self centered person I know.

        Amusing “thrill seeker” once again totally off target!

        Missed the whole post it seems…..

        • Well, I missed it then, sorry about that. There was not much about considering others' feelings in the text I read. But you are right: it does not prove anything.

          • What's interesting to me here is the particular life/art distinction (“excellent text, sad life”). On the one hand, it's separating text and life, and then criticizing life, which is a tricky maneuver in a situation where all one knows about the author's life is what can be gleaned from the text.

            On the other hand, text and life are being expressly conflated, because the particular facet of the life that happens to be represented in this particular text is being used to inductively create a whole universe. In other words, supposing that it's possible to extrapolate a whole life from a thousand words, and then making a judgement upon that inferred life… well, it's a lot of speculation, isn't it? In my view, it's useful to consider the author's decision to examine herself in this regard as part of the text. The very act of articulating personal issues that one isn't proud of, in such a way that they can be easily understood by others, is an act of communication that shows a desire to connect with others through the universitality of human experience.

            • OK, I apologized once already. And yes you are right: it is a difficult problem to solve, I think it strikes both ways: we interpret people from what they write and writings from the people who wrote them. Should the fact that Althusser killed his wife affect our interpretation of structuralism? Or the nazism of Heidegger tint his writings? Are we what we write? Actor Errol Flynn once wrote a very antisemitic sentence in a private letter. It may be a little part of him, smaller than his love of the sea, but it is there, isn't it?
              And I read this as an antisocial text.

            • RB says:

              Dear Claude,

              The anti-social thing really confused me. Frankly, I think “Excellent Text, Sad Life,” is a brilliant line. So I drew attention to it on my personal blog. []

              You should check out the entry! And the comments! But on serious note, this essay was not about thrill-seeking, but about being lost and confused in life. I do thank you for your misreading–it has offered interesting food for thought in terms of writing craft.

    5. Lizad says:

      Nice. Your piece made me think about being lost in choices made. Who is to define what is lost and not lost, except oneself?

    6. Chris says:

      Purpose isn't always handed to us. Sometimes life is more interesting without knowing where it's going. Most people don't think about these things and dismiss them because they afraid to open the box. Nice piece.

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    The Author

    Rachel Balik

    Rachel is a freelance writer and arts critic covering books, theater and live concerts. Her writing has appeared on PopMatters, The Brooklyn Rail, and other web sites. She helped to launch the online publisher findingDulcinea, where she worked as a writer, researcher and social media marketer. Prior to that, she dabbled in artistic direction and production on and off Broadway. Rachel holds degrees in English and Philosophy from the University of Pennsylvania and is a student and teacher of yoga. She brings her many interests together as often as possible on her blog.

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