Not until we are lost do we begin to understand ourselves. – Henry David Thoreau
While walking in the woods in February, I spotted a few pairs of eye glasses propped on trail markers and, in one case, fancifully placed atop a huge mushroom. I snapped photos and wondered if their owners would spot them on subsequent strolls or if they had resigned themselves to never seeing (with) them again. Thus began a habit of photographing orphaned items, both in the forest and urban settings, while walking. Since then I’ve catalogued single gloves, a red Elmo sock, stray scarves, winter hats, headbands, a leash, a shiny silver ribbon, an Olympus lens cap and other things left behind.
When I lose or misplace something, it’s a double whammy. Not only am I missing a particular item, but I also wonder where my mind had been when the object slipped out of my grasp or out of sight. At times the loss of presence or lapse of attention, especially if sustained, is more disturbing than failing to find my sunglasses or a sock, which can be replaced. The missing objects, in their absence, highlight my own absented mindedness. If I wasn’t present, where had I gone?
As a younger person, such losses weighed heavily on my soul, especially if the object had been a gift. While flying to Japan in 1986 to visit my older brother, I wore pearl stud earrings that my mother had given me. It wasn’t until I landed in Tokyo after a long flight that I realized the pearl in my left ear had disappeared; it likely unfastened while I tried to sleep, leaning to the left against the window. For years I kept the remaining earring but never wore it again. In 1989 in Budapest, while walking home one day, I absentmindedly touched an earlobe and realized it was missing an earring, gifted by a boyfriend. The accessory had unhooked itself from my lobe and fallen soundlessly…somewhere. After a few moments of panicking I retraced my steps and noticed it under a nearby car. Relief flooded me as I stooped to retrieve it. In Colorado I sacrificed assorted gloves, a water bottle and a rain jacket to the mountains; my gear vanished wordlessly, slipping out of pockets or falling from my pack. I’m sure I’ve lost other things over the decades, but those are the items that, as I write, my memory has found.
My Zen teacher encourages students to have compassion around losing or misplacing things and not to use those moments as grist for self-hatred or recrimination. For example, during a period of deep grief and disorientation when she kept losing her keys, she simply made several sets and put them within easy reach. Sometimes spending a few extra dollars is worth the peace of mind and reduction of stress, which is why I now have three earbuds, two phone chargers and three FitBit chargers, including the original, which I’d lost and then found.
Since I’ve been returning to the same patch of woods, I’ve kept an eye on the objects lost by one person and found by another. A striped scarf that someone placed on a stone bench had, a week later, migrated to a nearby tree where it wrapped around branches like a fabric art installation. A few days ago there was no sign of it. For months, the sunglasses atop the large mushroom stayed put, but had disappeared by mid-April. Since they had become an endearing part of the landscape, something I looked forward to seeing on that particular trail, I sensed a tinge of loss. In a subtle way, part of me had oriented around those sunglasses, even though I saw them at most a dozen times. It reminded me how we’re in a constant, even if a completely silent and deeply subtle, dialogue with the things in our lives. We might develop an unstated subtle affection for any number of things, only to become more acutely aware of our fondness once they are gone.
Last spring I wrote that I’d like to learn to locate myself more internally rather than in the objects around me. At the time, I referred to my own possessions, now a fraction of their former number and volume. It’s ironic, then, that I’m currently locating aspects of, if not finding, myself through others’ lost belongings. By stopping to photograph stranded and stray objects I pause to connect with the object, the environment, the moment and with myself. Because I’m feeling lost in my own life, these items are subtle signposts for my attention, gentle reminders to be present and not get swept away by ruminations about the past or future. Not long ago I noticed a burnt orange scarf draped over a guardrail about a 1/4 mile from my mother’s house. The scarf looked like an alpaca one I bought for her in Peru in 2002. I touched it to see if it felt like wool. It did. Still, doubts remained, so I texted her a photo. It was hers, so I brought it to her house. She mentioned she’d lost a glove, too, one of her favorites. The next day I retraced her steps and spotted it on the sidewalk. I had to chuckle. If I hadn’t been lost, I wouldn’t have found them.