I got lost trying to find Washington Square Park. I can’t count how many times I’ve walked under that white arch, but this time, when I got off the subway, I circled the area for an hour before spotting it.
How did I get lost? I’m not sure if it was the unfamiliar origin, or if maybe it was the rows of summer-green trees exploding throughout the Village. We shaded our eyes against the sun, and somehow I couldn’t find a single familiar thing. I wondered if we were still in New York.
But there was something strangely beautiful in being lost. Every new street looked more real; as I rounded each corner, I slowly built up a mental map from the world around me.
“I am quick to disappear when I walk; my thoughts wander until they cease to seem to be my thoughts, until, mercifully, I cease to think of myself primarily as myself for a few moments.” I read this in a stunning Harvard Book Review essay. The writer goes on to wonder “why I’m so tempted to read the world around me when I walk — especially since I would be so much better served by just paying attention to where I was going and how I was getting there.”
We make our lives out of what we see. Anything we do not see shapes our lives by its absence.
Before I moved to New York once and for all, I read Teju Cole’s Open City. I had been to New York many, many times and did not think of it as a city in which one lost oneself. But every space has its crevices: Teju Cole’s narrator finds himself locked on a fire escape, looking down an unlit side of Carnegie Hall. After his despair passes, he looks up, “and much to my surprise, there were stars. Stars! ... the sky was like a roof shot through with light, and heaven itself shimmered. Wonderful stars, a distant cloud of fireflies: but I felt in my body what my eyes could not grasp, which was that their true nature was the persisting visual echo of something that was already in the past.”
When I moved to New York, it was through an airport; I did not arrive at Grand Central Station, which had always been my port of arrival. But then I took a train out, and as I crossed the main concourse, I looked up for the first time in four years. Above me was a sea-green heaven, with golden constellations dotting the ceiling. I forgot the station momentarily, mesmerized by that slice of the sky.
Do we let ourselves get lost to see what we have forgotten, to witness and retain what we have refused to let ourselves see before?
I once tried to escape the Midwest by reading Dead Europe. The book, by Australian author Christos Tsiolkas, took three weeks to make its way from the Antipodes to America. And then I read about a photographer who, trying to dig into the wreckage of his family’s and his own past, travels from Australia to Greece and then across Europe.
In Paris, he is taken to the city tourists never see: “a harsh place, a tough, crumbling, decaying, stinking, dirty city ... But the act of adjusting the camera lens, the act of focusing on an image, seemed to alleviate my anxiety.” Photography is only another form of looking, of mapping the things that otherwise would remain terra incognita.
Of course I found the park, but by that time I didn’t particularly want to be there. I had been looking for something else all along, I suppose. So I unfurled the map in my head and followed it away.
image credit: flickr.com/photos/deepersea