I was born in Blacksburg, Virginia. Though we moved to Tennessee when I was three, I still have many fond memories of it. I remember the last house we lived in there being built, the amazing large rock I played on in the backyard, the stream that flowed down from the mountains, and the people who asked permission to catch crawdads in it. I also have at least one bad memory from Blacksburg, though I didn’t form it until many years later after we went back for a visit.
I was in middle school and our entire family went back for . . . something that clearly wasn’t important enough to me at the time to commit to memory. Possibly it’s just that one memory burns brightly enough to obliterate the reason though. It happened at some family friends’ house when we visited. Their backyard was all trees on a sloping hill that led to a stream. Once I learned of that stream, I just had to see it. I loved few things more than wading and playing in creeks and streams (still true).
My mom admonished me to be back before dark as I took off in a straight line out the back door down the hill. Every now and then, I turned around to look at the back of the house and t pick out specific trees so I could easily return. I made it to the creek and played until the light began to fade.
I started back up the hill and quickly got disoriented. As the shadows lengthened, the trees all morphed into the same tree and I could no longer tell them apart. Even though I had checked the back of the house, it was unfamiliar enough that the slight change in light made everything seem foreign.
I didn’t panic right away, but as I neared the houses I could see it crept in on me. None of the houses looked like were my family was. I searched in vain for any detail, any sign of which was the right one. I was almost immediately behind a gray house, but it didn’t look right, so I wandered to my left toward the next house. It looked even less right. I looked back and forth and over to a third house in view.
I slowly had to admit that I was lost. I was lost in the woods in a city I once called home but that now seemed filled with dread and fear. I had no idea of how I would find the right house. NO one was outside and I had no one to ask. I frantically racked my brain for a solution and then did the only reasonable thing. I cried. I stood rooted among the tress and wailed.
I don’t know how long I stood sobbing in the woods, but it felt like forever. The sobs became uncontrollable and my body shook with my tears. Then a sweet sound wafted through the woods.
“Little boy? Little boy?” My head snapped towards her voice. A woman stood behind the third house looking at me. “Are you lost?” she asked.
“Y-Y-Yes,” I choked out, too relieved to point out I certainly wasn’t a little boy.
She took a few steps towards me and the dam on my tears really broke. I managed to lift my leaden feet and walk to her. I struggled to talk, but I was full on crying and couldn’t seem to stop. Somewhere in the midst of it I realized I was no longer crying because I was lost, I was crying because someone found me. The thought was enough to stem the tide and I eventually calmed down enough to coherently answer her questions.
“You don’t look familiar. Where are you trying to go?”
We walked to the street in front of her house as I told her what happened and who we were visiting.
“Why, you’re not lost at all,” she said and put her hand on my back, “They live right there. Here, I’ll walk with you.”
We walked two doors down to the gray house. I had been right where I needed to be before I panicked. I thanked her and went inside and collapsed. I had to tell the story all over again. Every minute that passed made me feel less relieved and more foolish. I couldn’t believe I had been so close and somehow convinced myself I was far away. Being young, I didn’t think about it much after that night.
But I do think about it now. I’m struck by how easy it was for me to lose my point of reference, how easy it was for me to convince myself I was completely lost even as I was in sight of where I wanted to be. I could see at least three houses and even stood closest to the one I wanted, but was convinced that I was completely alone, lost.
I wonder how many people are standing inches from home but are convinced that they are beyond any hope or help. I wonder if there are those who feel alone even on a crowded street or workplace. I wonder just how many people feel utterly lost and adrift.
More importantly, I wonder why we are not noticing their pain and kindly calling out, “Are you lost?”