An Anatomy of Lostness
What is this sense of dislocation? Do others have it? A wandering writer explores displacement on a flight from Barcelona to Dakar, while meeting with family at Tenerife’s main dormant volcano, and while driving across West Texas.
I often feel a sense of discomfort that resembles lostness—a feeling of displacement, of not-quite-being there. Like drinking from a water fountain: the stream hits somewhere inside your mouth but most of the water falls back out, never reaches the throat, does not quite quench. It can come sudden and ravenous and also feels somehow slightly shameful, the way it rises as a deep blush, a gasp: what have I done? My mother once described hot flashes this way.
What is this sense of dislocation? Do others have it? The writer J. M. Ledgard describes “a feeling of discordance that is like arriving at a terminal identical to the one I have just left . . . and the effect on me is that I feel trammeled and shoved away from the important living things.” My own lostness, too, feels as if I am overlooking something important yet ineffable, missing something I cannot quite identify.
A philosopher friend tells me: “I think that our modern illness is our sense of homesickness, our sense of being lost in the world, our sense of alienation. We moderns have no home. . . . We had one on the savannah in small, largely self-sufficient groups, but we abandoned it of necessity: overpopulation and climate change. We’ve been searching for home ever since. The story of the Garden of Eden is our collective unconscious at work.” Maybe this odd yearning is a nag for a sense of a kind of completion, completeness, a home that is now gone: a forever chase, an asymptote.
Maybe this odd yearning is a nag for a sense of a kind of completion, completeness, a home that is now gone: a forever chase, an asymptote.
Once—for most of our existence on Earth—our extended family, our tribe, our cluster of villages were our world entire. (To lose touch: to no longer be able to feel with your fingertips.) Only the self-exiled or the banished moved away. Those were the Cains, the suspicious ones. (To fall out of touch: to fall, like Azazel.) Now, one in seven people on the planet is displaced, their Eden lost to war, epidemics, totalitarian regimes, hunger. A billion souls are on the move, searching for home, a place of safety, of dignity. And still the sedentary world treats their rootlessness as a failure—worse, a crime. It militarizes borders, builds fences, tears apart families, incarcerates children. It misplaces children: in 2016, ten thousand unaccompanied minor migrants went missing in Europe. The seekers of home become lost in the settled world’s callous indifference. Is it because their search is a more urgent version of our own, an unwelcome reminder of our own primeval loss?
I BOARD A FLIGHT from Barcelona to Dakar, and there, in the back row, a young African man thrashes and screams between two grandfatherly white men in eyeglasses and gray beards. I think: an epileptic seizure, how lucky these two doctors happened to be onboard. But something is awry. The doctors are holding the man by the shoulders to keep him in his seat, but they are not restraining him from bashing his head backward against the wall of the plane, over and over and over and over. And surely they need to put something in his mouth so he won’t bite his tongue, isn’t that what you are supposed to do when a person is having a seizure?—and then the screaming man rises out of his chair high enough that I see the handcuffs on his wrists, and one of the doctors, the one in the window seat, silently laces his hand through the man’s hair and squeezes, and the glove on his hand is not a medical glove, it’s a black leather glove, and I know: they are not doctors, they are torturers. Many of us passengers on the plane have risen too now and are screaming, too, in Spanish and in Wolof, stop this, stop, and we film the torture in the back row with our useless cell phones. I yell too, arrêtez, I don’t know why it comes out in French, my language oddly misplaced. A white man in a white uniform, I assume he is a pilot, rushes from the cockpit down the aisle, slaps our phones down. He also says stop stop stop. No filming.
Eventually the fake doctors disembark with their failed deportee. Where do they take him? To brutalize him some more in the dungeons of some detention center, away from the public eye? To sedate him and put him on another plane to Senegal? What place on Earth does he call home? Does he have children, and if he does, where are they? We, the passengers, take our seats and fasten our seatbelts and take off in silence, lost in our inadequacy.
MAYBE THAT SENSE of lostness is an expression of inadequacy, our powerlessness before the world’s wretchedness. “Since once again, O Lord, in the steppes of Asia, I have no bread, no wine, no altar, I will raise myself above those symbols to the pure majesty of reality, and I will offer to you, I, your priest, upon the altar of the entire earth, the labor and the suffering of the world,” prayed the Jesuit priest and paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin on Easter Sunday 1923 in the Ordos Desert of Inner Mongolia.
Maybe that sensation of lostness is an expression of inadequacy, our powerlessness before the world’s wretchedness.
Haplessly we try to patch up this uselessness, this disjointedness of ours. We gather against it. Like the time my parents, sister, son, and I meet on the Canary island of Tenerife. We hike a lot. We hike down barrancas to coves; we hike up mountains to summits. We carefully plot our routes and drive our rental car to particularly alluring trailheads and walk hard and with determination, and we celebrate reaching each destination with a high five, an exhilarated chuckle of disbelief: we made it, we have arrived!
But then, a thousand feet or so below the summit of El Teide, the island’s main dormant volcano, we pull over by an absolutely pathless plane of beige volcanic foam. A tract of lava flow so smooth it feels spherical. Outcrops of darker lava liberally and with no order grow out of this pallor. Splotches of icy snow, disorienting in their bright white randomness. There is a parking lot: evidently the park rangers intend for us to be here. But there are no trails to guide us on the flow, no instructions, no specific terminus, nowhere obvious to proceed. Nothing to look forward to. The plateau ends in an abyss. Beyond, El Teide’s dark outer caldera banners out and out, and behind us, across the road from the parking lot, the only tangible landmark, the only point of possible direction, the volcano itself looms unassailable, unreachable.
It is so indifferently beautiful! So surreally uncharted! What to do with it? We walk in circles. We stand dumbstruck. A child picks up a handful of snow, tosses a snowball at a friend. The ball disintegrates in midflight into melting crystals that patter to the surface and evaporate in no time. The child’s arms fall slack: now what? And it washes over me again, so familiar, this sense of displacement.
My philosopher friend writes: “The self is a process, a flow like time or a river. The best one can do is guide oneself by some project, what Sartre calls our fundamental project, that is, if we can find one.” On the lava plateau I find a temporary project: I scamper up an outcrop, turn on my iPhone video camera, and document our lostness.
Against the ashen surface each person on the plateau is highlighted in his or her particular separateness. Like humans in outer space—all that untrodden, gravity-free expanse up there!—except in hiking clothes. Not a lot of conversation among us: the disorientation hushes. I wonder if anyone would hear me if I screamed, if a scream would penetrate the immense absence that cottonwools us. I don’t scream. I film. There is Dad. He is walking a few paces behind Mom. Their footsteps uncertain, slow: such an oddly disconnected space. Dad stops, wheels around, lifts his camera and aims it at my son. Dad, too, has found a project, a raison d’être on the white lava flow.
AT 12,198 FEET, El Teide’s summit is the highest point in Spain. The Guanches, a Berber-speaking people who fished and raised sheep and gathered fruit here until the Europeans colonized them and exterminated their culture through slave trade, war, and forced assimilation, believed that, once, the devil Guayota had kidnapped the god of light and sun, Magec, and imprisoned him inside the volcano. The world plunged into darkness. The people were instantly lost. A liberation of Magec by the supreme god followed; Guayota was jabbed down the crater; light was restored—and with it, humans’ ability to tell where they were going. It was Eden again, for a while. The islanders could not, of course, predict the cultural annihilation that lay ahead. Pedro de Vera y Mendoza, who helped conquer Tenerife in the late 1490s, slaughtered most of the Guanche men and sold the Guanche women as chattel. Now the Guanches are lost forever.
I have read somewhere that “Teide” comes from the Guanche word for “hell.” How thoughtfully compact: heaven and hell on the same 785-square-mile island.
ONE BEWILDERING THING about that lava flow is the complete absence of paths. I think of Machado—“Traveler, there is no road, the road is made by walking”—but truly we do prefer there to be a road of some kind, a sense of purpose. What is a road? An escape, the shoah, an exodus. A hejira, a pilgrimage, a hope. Muslims pray: “Show us the straight Path.” What is a person without hope? A person lost. But for all we know, the point of arrival may well be a trackless lava flow.
OR WE MAY NEVER arrive at all.
The most trafficked migration route in the world today lies across the Mediterranean Sea. Hundreds of thousands of people have taken it in pursuit of imagined lands of plenty, in pursuit of hope. This may have been how the screaming man on the plane wound up in Barcelona. This route is also the deadliest. Since 2015, more than fifteen thousand people have perished in the crossing. “Great mother of life, the sea,” wrote Rachel Carson. “The beginning and the end.” Its tidal pull the aching call of the primary womb, insatiable. The perished migrants’ road across it a journey that leads nowhere, heaven and hell in one.
For four centuries the route of the world’s most immoral migrations, too, lay across the sea. Back then Europeans shackled Africans not to return them to Africa but to traffic them out. That route was perilous, too. Tens of thousands of people stolen from Africa during the transatlantic slave trade carpet the ocean floor with their bones.
For a time, the Canary Islands served as a naval base for that slave trade. From the slopes of El Teide I look for traces in the ocean. It is blue blue blue.
THE REASON MY FAMILY meets in Tenerife is because some of us are dislocated, déplacé. My parents and my sister arrive from St. Petersburg, Russia, where they live and where all of us were born—to be semantically precise, all of us but my son were born in Leningrad, USSR. But my son and I left Russia years ago, when he was seven and I was twenty-eight, and we moved to the United States. We are migrants. My son flies to Tenerife from Ohio, where he attends college. I fly in from Senegal, where I am researching a book about boundaries. In a way, our disjointed family outing on the white lava flow is a visual metaphor for our apartness.
I am an immigrant, and I am also on the road a lot. I was a war correspondent for many years; later, I researched books in central Asia, in West Africa. It is as if, for me, the road has become a destination in and of itself, a place from which I can begin, a starting point, a state of commencement, of setting out, something maybe as simple as a stanza from a Bei Dao poem:
The road, the road
Is covered with a drift of scarlet poppies.
(Machado, you trickster: the decision to do the walking is a road in and of itself.)
The question I am asked most frequently is this: You are not from here, where are you from? Everyone wants to know. My hosts in Afghanistan or Iraq or Senegal, defenders of their ancestral homes from foreign armies, from their own abusive governments, from cataclysms and man-made devastations. My settled neighbors in the United States, who are trying to pin down my accent, my background, my ethical allegiances. I am perpetually working on my response. If I trust the questioner and we have some time, I explain that I grew up an outcast in a country that no longer existed, an underweight and sickly specimen of a despised minority, a Soviet Jew. That I moved away, and keep moving, transient, in transit: the Wandering Jew. Ahasuerus. The defender of no claimed geography. It makes for relatively effortless travel. It makes for uncomfortable silences, odd hesitations.
The question I am asked most frequently is this: You are not from here, where are you from? Everyone wants to know.
If I feel like being flippant, I offer a response I learned from my nomadic Fulani friends in the Malian Sahel, with whom I spent several seasons herding cattle, researching a book, and hoping to walk away from grief. (To sum up: the book came out; the grief remained; my feet grew some good callus.) The Fulani say: We are here now.
But I don’t know what my Eden is, if it even exists. That is the point. I stand on an empty plateau. It is a privilege. In another version, I am in handcuffs, screaming in the back of a plane.
IF, AS MY philosopher friend says, the self is a flow, then it desires movement. “Solvitur ambulando,” promises Diogenes; my Fulani friends have been walking, generationally, for ten thousand years—but it seems their path may be ending. Chasing clouds in the time of climate change has had them struggling over vanishing resources for decades, and now, the war over Mali’s northern desert has spilled southward into the bush. In some areas, local governments have forbidden Fulani nomads from camping in the bush, in others, from riding motorcycles, in both cases depriving those on the move of freedom of movement. Last summer, settled people marched into one village, separated Fulani residents, and massacred them. Two months later, outside another village, militiamen killed eleven Fulani people walking to a weekly market. Ethnic cleansing is an outlet for an ancient and visceral mistrust of the rootless, the dehumanizing hatred of the nonsettled. Here is Toni Morrison in The Bluest Eye: “Cholly Breedlove . . . having put his family outdoors, had catapulted himself beyond the reaches of human consideration. He had joined the animals.”
I don’t know what my Eden is, if it even exists.
President Trump has said of some migrants: “These aren’t people. These are animals.” The massacres of Fulani people in the heart of Mali have the same origin as concentration camps for migrant children on the US border with Mexico.
Of course—this is how I comfort myself against my own homelessness—Western civilization (from the Latin civis, a townsperson, who is settled: a bürger) doesn’t mind and even loves a migratory artist: Roberto Bolaño, say (“The homeland of a writer is his tongue”), or Georges Perec, who wrote: “We should long ago have got into the habit of moving about, of moving about freely, without it being too much trouble,” or an artist who romanticizes nomadism, for instance, Bruce Chatwin. But that’s because in the eye of most townsfolk an artist is already necessarily deranged, wild, rootless, one whose mind wanders—a griot who for her otherness will be buried not in a proper cemetery but inside a tree.
Like an animal.
Incidentally, it was a trilingual Fulani poet and religious leader who, two hundred years ago, delivered Sufi Islam to rural West Africa on the tip of a spear: a nomad jihadi who converted sedentary animists. All the great monotheisms were founded by nomads: in the absence of physical walls we must create boundaries of the soul. The Prophet Mohammed himself was a nomad, raised by Bedouin. Two poets were assassinated at his behest.
IT IS LATE SPRING, and I am driving on Interstate 10 through the northern Chihuahuan Desert in West Texas, en route from Senegal to a casita on a small ranch where I will write my book. Humans first came to the region thirteen thousand years ago, maybe earlier. Then, in the 1530s, came Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, a grandson of de Vera y Mendoza, the murderer of Tenerife’s Guanches, and paved the way for the genocide of local civilizations—first by the Spanish Catholic conquistadors, later by the Anglos with their mythology of homesteader supremacy. The land to either side of the highway maps a history of pain. Splotching lavender and gold and green, with horse pastures and wildflower leas, the land is also exquisitely beautiful, if you believe that natural beauty can be indifferent to our joys and sufferings, if you can appreciate El Teide rising majestic over its despoiled island. Seeing beauty amidst iniquity seems a tall order, but I insist we must—otherwise we will not survive our own history of violence, we will stop falling in love and die off as a species. To resolve his feeling of discordance, Ledgard endeavors to “find a still point in a wilderness that was free of any human thought or memory” in a national park in the war-wracked South Sudan, one militarized border away from the origin of humankind.
Seeing beauty amidst iniquity seems a tall order, but I insist we must—otherwise we will not survive our own history of violence, we will stop falling in love and die off as a species.
Two hours from my destination, I drive head-on into a massive storm. Lightning stabs everywhere, white, purple, curlicued, jagged. The creosote wind of wet desert fills the car and then rain slams onto the highway. Distant horses that muzzle grass are no more, wildflower meadows become smears until everything just becomes white. Ashes of a bombed city look this way when they flake down to earth. Volcanic ash, too.
I slow to a crawl, but it doesn’t really matter how fast or how slow I am going: I am lost in the wet whiteout, and there is really nothing to do but be lost, embrace the lostness. This is probably cheating, since the embracing, the choice of it, is a kind of direction. But this storm is just so crazy beautiful, and I pull over and cut the engine, and it will have to do for now.