Monday, April 19, 2010


"Not until we are lost do we begin to understand ourselves." - Henry David Thoreau

Not long ago, I wrote a piece about my favorite college professor, Dr. Lichtenstein. In "Lessons in Writing and Living" , I explored my memories of an extraordinary teacher, who had a profound effect on my life. Alice Lichtenstein taught me to be the writer I hope I'm still growing into becoming. Additionally, she inspired me with life lessons, to continually look forward while remaining grounded in the present moment, and to always listen to my voice, as a woman and as a writer. Serendipity has had an amazing role in my life this past week. Not only was I able to rediscover Dr. Lichtenstein through her newest novel, but as I read it, I found that I heard her voice speaking to me just as clearly as she had in the classroom at both Wheaton College and Boston University. It's not often that a writer can achieve a highly complex, fascinating and profoundly moving work. It's even more complicated to remain true to one's inner voice, one's philosophy and one's belief system while writing fiction. Dr. Lichtenstein has done just that with "Lost: A Novel".

The novel's plot is the search for a college professor's elderly husband, who wandered off, lost in his dementia. Hindering the search is inclement upstate New York winter weather, and being surrounding by heavily wooded areas. Masterfully interwoven with the search process, the protagonist, Dr. Susan Hunsinger, are the lives the search and rescue coordinator, Jeff Herdman, as well as Corey, a troubled preteen boy whose path crosses the lives of Susan, her husband, Christopher and Jeff. The narrative is intense, the prose brave. What begins as the search for the lost Christopher Hunsinger translates to a much larger picture; each one of the characters is lost, but the elder Hunsinger's journey is the literal one that can be measured, documented and resolved. For the rest of the characters, not only the main ones, but each one dancing on the periphery of the story, must find his, or her, own path in the world. As the novel reaches its bitter, poignant and palpable conclusion, the reader is left learning how lost each of the characters truly has been. Each one may not have been navigating the frigid forest, but may have been floundering in relationships, guilt, uncertainty and each one may not have seen the light beckoning them forward...towards a place of warmth, understanding and answers.

Hearing Dr. Lichtenstein's voice in her work challenged me in many ways. I began to ask myself the hard questions; "How am I lost?", "What am I missing?", "What do I truly need?" and most importantly, "What am I wandering towards?". At every junction in our lives, we find ourselves in places, in situations and in circumstances we never envisioned. Some of these aimless wanderings turn out to be exceptionally fortuitous. Others tend to sneak up on us. I may think I know where I am, where I'm going and what my intentions are, and may still flounder about, lacking even the most rudimentary clue as to where I'm meant to be. I feel as if I've set out on one journey, map in hand, directions well written and necessary supplies packed. Yet, when I arrive at my destination, I realize that I was heading the wrong way the entire time...and certainly had brought the wrong provisions. I tend to stumble through life, absolutely confident in my steps, until I discover I've managed to bungle the very trip itself. It's both humbling and troubling.

Yet, without realizing that I'm off course, there isn't any way to make course corrections. My GPS (or built in navigation system) in my car has changed my life. Born with a severe handicap of inability to properly read maps or follow directions based on anything other than landmarks, driving has always been an adventure for me. My GPS now tells me how to get where I'm going. However, if I take a detour, it corrects my course based on side trip I've made. Instead of asking me to backtrack and go back the way I came, my mechanical voiced co-pilot lets me know the 'new way' of finding my destination. I love her. I do yell at her, when I'm alone in the car, when she tells me to make U-turns (legally, of course), but overall, she's been a great asset to my many trips around New England...and even cross country, between Arizona and Maine. I realize how much easier my life would be if I had a GPS to guide me through my decision making processes. How helpful it would feel to know that there's a machine that has my back, who is going to politely correct me when I go off course, and who only has my safe and timely arrival as her mission!

Since none of us come with Tom-Toms or Garmins built into our psyche, the best we can do, when we realize how woefully lost we are, is to stop right where we are. If we're physically lost in the woods, rescue workers always say to stay put initially. We may have had a nagging suspicion that the direction we're heading in life is leading to a dead end. We may also begin to get that gut level feeling that we're just not doing the right thing. Rather than race further down the wrong path, we need to come to a complete stop. We need to evaluate where we are, what we're doing and most of all, what we want to be doing. We need to talk with our family and friends and, without overloading them with drama, get their impressions. Those who know us, and love us, are best qualified to act as our navigation system, when we are sure we've gone too far into the woods. Listen with an open heart and an open mind. Pray. Journal. Try new experiences. And, then, when you're ready, set that new course, knowing that you're on track once again.

We can't always prevent ourselves from losing our way. Sometimes getting lost is part of the journey itself, even if we can't see the lessons immediately. What we can do, however, is to allow ourselves to be found.