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Being lost: While our nation wanders, the world isn't waiting for us

How many losses are tied to actually being lost?

I recall the first time in my life I was lost. My father had taken me pheasant hunting near Sauk Centre and he crossed a stream, turned and called back to me to follow him across. I was very young, so young that the concept of across was not one I understood. I began walking up the shallow, narrow central Minnesota stream — bewildered, confused and truly unaware as to why I was not getting closer to him, and instead was trudging into deeper water. My memory dims from here; likely he impatiently had to take his mind off the prey he was after and tend to me, reaching a hand across the stream and reuniting us.

Kris Potter

How many losses are tied to actually being lost? Instead of being grounded on the land around us, we weave and waver, stumbling through life stages with no sense of direction. Marching ahead to the next job, the expected adult developmental stage, the next achievement. Using those milestones as an outline for our lives. We feel calmed by the order, but are we really following the wonderful things that are pulling and nagging at us? If I simply follow traditional expectations, and don't veer from them, aren't I in fact lost? I've often wondered at families where the expectation was that a child should follow the family career. What a loss to that young adult, to never feel that confusion and uncertainty that results from having to search out a career that actually fits — the career that calls to them. The work, paid or unpaid, that allows you to be lost in the depths of that work.

The hike to Magnetic Rock

It's curious how lost can be bad, as in I can't get across the stream, and it can be good — as in, I am so deeply focused in my teaching that the day flies by in a moment. This summer we hiked to a very curious place in Minnesota. Magnetic Rock is a moderate hike off the Gunflint Trail. I chose the hike as it sounded within my hiking abilities and it had a big payoff at the end, a tall rectangular rock, jutting out of the surrounding forest and rounded  in a most unusual and suspicious way. Suspicious because it looks like no other rock around it, suspicious because the geological explanation was that a glacier had pushed it here, and suspicious because it causes a compass to spin out of control. Frankly, it looks like it was placed there by the same folks who arranged Stonehenge.

The hike was supposed to be a mile and a half (various signs said it was a three-mile hike and we debated: Was that three miles in total, or three miles in, three miles out?). That's  usually an easy distance for me, but curiously it seemed was much longer, and at times we felt that old familiar feeling, that we might be lost. The trail tracked over ancient rock that showed no sign of a trail so had to be marked by cairns. Fires in recent years had made the landscape look uniform, and resulted in some areas where the shrubs had grown up just high enough so that you couldn't see the surrounding landmarks. All of us felt we had hiked longer then the signs advertised no matter how you measured it — good thing we had someone with a rescue beacon!

Eventually we popped out of the undergrowth to a magnificent sight. Magnetic Rock. Thirty feet high, looking like it had been dropped there by a giant crane. Not only is it magnetic, it is also magnificent. We watched our compass go crazy, took pictures, walked around it and ate the berries that were in season. We walked back to the car, chattering in my case about religion, life and creation. How they intersect. It was a relaxed hike back. We knew the way and could encourage the hikers coming toward us who also seemed a bit lost and also felt it was a longer-than-advertised hike. 

We felt settled, no longer uncertain. Hot and sweaty, we piled into the car for the drive back to the log cabin we had been granted for the week.

A nation that is lost

I keep reading — now that we are back to civilization and within cell phone range — that we are a nation divided. But I think we could more accurately be described as a nation that is lost. We have left the bearings that created a nation of greatness. Our first peoples, who knew how to live with the land; our founders, who dreamed big political frameworks; our immigrant parents, who crossed endless seas and left families to start something new. We have forgotten the trail map, dropped our rescue beacons, and crumbled inward into petty, ugly accusations. We have allowed the growth of destructive human forests that promote isolation, protectionism and the hoarding of money, land, education and power.

We aren't divided; we are completely off the trail. Our country has been a compass for the world, inspiring great writers, politicians, artists and business leaders to come here, despite all odds to join us in our wayfinding. I fret that we cannot allow ourselves to stray too much. That the world will leave us behind, scale new heights and create innovation while we wander. Our country's compass is as useless as one held right next to Magnetic Rock. Spinning, confused, lost, impotent. We wander and the world isn't waiting for us to get back on the trail.

I struggle to stay focused on my own path, to do what I do better and with more passion. I look for the hikers ahead of me leading the way; they falter, I feel that old feeling, that stab of fear as I went the wrong way in the stream. This hike may truly be longer then we thought. 

Kris Potter lives in South Minneapolis, where she teaches at a play-based preschool. 

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Comments (1)

Thank you for this potent reflection, one point of contention

Ms Potter, I'm so glad reflections such as yours are appearing these days. Yours is particularly sane.

I have one point of disagreement based on my experiences traveling to Siberia for the last 28 years mostly in connection with a small MN non-profit. I had thought for the longest time that my friends and acquaintances there agreed with your idea that the US has provided a compass of the world, just as I did. But that essentially quiet, modest, but open-eyed, culture as represented consistently to me by my many friends and acquaintances there (in my opinion, this character likely being the result, at least in part, because of an extremely long history filled with the need to defend a very long border, faced with existential threats, including being occupied for 300 years along and other invasions, the most recent being World War II), I have learned finally there has been more of a watch and wait attitude toward the promise and benefits of our (or any other nation's) "compass."

Yes, help was accepted when offered, but with a wait-and-see attitude about the meaning of that help, and a premium on finding out who one's friends are, the meaning of that word "friend" held with great seriousness. I have not met a more welcoming and generous group, but it has taken me this 28 years to learn how to listen to them and ask the questions that reveal a cultural confidence that allows for such a wait-and-see stance, even through real hardship. This cultural confidence does not seem to be based on this or that economic or political system; I've encountered a great deal of healthy self-awareness and criticism about leadership past and present. And there is decidedly not a tendency to project their idea of themselves as boldly as we do, both to others, and most dangerously, to ourselves.

It took me a very long time for the myths and stories about my nation to show themselves as myths and stories, which allowed me to finally to open my ears and mind and heart to another way of approaching my own country, just as you apparently have. PR (marketing/propaganda, all terms for language used to persuade) became a "science" and a business here in the United States, after all, and we've likely been its greatest victims of misinformation and most egregiously, lack of interest in digging for the truth...we love our stories... This in turn allowed me to make myself available to listening to another culture, especially one that is so naturally reticent with outsiders.

It took all these decades to become clear enough to find out they had a compass of their own that has helped guide them across their 1000 year long life. I have no doubt that my experience in Siberia about other cultures possessing their own compasses is duplicated throughout the world.

I think the US finding its own compass again (or possibly really for the first time) is the most important work it can do. And by "the US" I can only mean each of us individually and collectively learning about and accepting the great and heavy responsibilities of American citizenship as alluded to in the first words of our constitution's preamble: "We" form this government to serve our needs, and "We" consists of every single one of us, from anyone considering themselves "white" (that casually racist descriptor) to the newest immigrant citizen, and especially, those who can't represent themselves adequately: the impoverished, downtrodden, ill, the young, the old.

With gratitude,

Thomas Dickinson