Blue is the colour of distance. Blue is the colour that dissolves into the molecules of the atmosphere at the reaches of horizon. If I close my eyes and imagine blue, I am transported to a state in which I drift, at peace, through endlessness. 

Writer, traveller, luminary, Rebecca Solnit has written a meditation on the art of getting lost. A Field guide to Getting Lost is part memoir, part scientific discussion, part poetic flowering. It is an essential companion for an intrepid traveller, or day-dreamer, or misfit. For Solnit, blue is the colour of longing and desire. Blue is the colour of travel and undiscovered lands. The cover of this slim and unforgettable volume is, of course, awash with shades of blue. The pace of her writings conjures afternoons drifting on a blue boat over an endless lake, under an enormous sky, with an Alpine range in the distance, marking the blue horizon with a patchwork of purply blues.

I’ve been revisiting Solnit’s thoughts on desire and the colour and moods of blue. This is not an obvious match. Desire is something that we are most often uncomfortable with. Desire is something we reject and try to eradicate, either by neglecting or overpowering it, or by succumbing to it and satisfying it. We repress and feel shame over our desires. Or we destroy and create in order to realise them. This concept of desire can evoke images of passion and creativity in shades of red. If one looks at the map of energies - bodily, mental, spiritual and emotional - as expressed through a system of ‘chakras’ that correlate to our endocrine system in Hindu philosophy, the colour of desire, creation and destruction is orange. Blue is matched with artistic expression, with cognition and clarity of vision, with intuition. 

Solnit asks the reader, however, to look at desire differently. What would it mean to sit with desire, to accept it as an end itself and not demand action or resolution, but merely acknowledgement? For Solnit, desire is something to inhabit as a perpetual state of longing, of movement and openness to change. 

From this perspective, desire is blue. In the way an artist might use blue to create a sense of distance in a painting (Leonardo da Vinci is said to have been one of the first artists known to experiment with blue pigment in this way), Solnit uses blue in her writings to craft a feeling of perpetual movement and a disposition to distance. Solnit finds the beauty in what is far away, within ourselves and without: ‘Somewhere in this is the mystery of why tragedies are more beautiful than comedies and why we take a huge pleasure in the sadness of certain songs and stories. Something is always far away.’

What would it mean to sit with desire, to accept it as an end itself and not demand action or resolution, but merely acknowledgement?

Image author's own. Underberg, South Africa.

Image author's own. Underberg, South Africa.

The workings of memory illustrate this point. It can be the case that we have a vision or impression of our pasts that we hold onto, turn over in our minds and treasure. Say, an early happy memory - I have one of my 3rd birthday. I am playing on the front lawn of our family home with my brothers and dogs, there’s ice-cream, cricket bats, and laughter all around. Yet, what if I am to suddenly encounter a photograph of this day that contradicts my memory, that shows it to be incorrect? I discover that my 3rd birthday was spent at the seaside with a set of brattish, bullying cousins whilst it poured with rain outside. Now the distance of my memory has been interrupted by a present and approximate artefact - the photograph. It is now irrefutable that what I so treasured as a far away impression in my mind, has been ruined. My original memory has been over-powered, and something is lost: ‘Some things we have only as long as they remain lost, some things are not lost as long as they are distant.’ 

For Solnit there is something beguiling and romantic about the horizon, about purply blue mountains in the distance. The journey towards them, for her, is never ending, never to be fully realised. This is Solnit’s point about desire, it should be accepted and observed, valued and not necessarily realised, but rather, inhabited as a state of perpetual being. Venturing into the unending horizon of blue means getting lost. Getting lost means accepting change: ‘The things we want are transformative, and we don’t know or only think we know what is on the other side of that transformation.’

This is the perspective of the lifelong traveller, the nomad, the artist. It is the artist’s job to comprehend the unknown and to experiment and venture across boundaries. It is the artist’s role to navigate the unstable and challenging terrain of critical inquiry. At the heart of this pursuit is not just inquiry for the sake of knowledge creation, but self-transformation through inquiry. Artists, like travellers, embrace the inevitability of themselves as unstable identities, as people who continuously evolve and adapt. This is no small undertaking because what is so frightening about change is loss. Through change we lose parts of ourselves, like bits of luggage, books and scarves (hopefully not a passport!), left at a potpourri of locations, marking out a colourful, snaking map as we traverse onwards.  

The art of getting lost, and the work of an artist, is therefore being able to let go of oneself, generously, boundlessly and endlessly. And yet concurrently, the art of getting lost is being able to fearlessly define who we are at any point over this expanding lived map of perpetual change. This is precisely what Solnit embraces - this is, for her, the wellspring of a creative life. Perpetual, undefined change. This is also exactly what an intellectual giant of the the 20th century, Walter Benjamin, defined as the ‘art of straying’; a delicate tit-for-tat between loosing your way and loosing yourself.

Venturing into the unending horizon of blue means getting lost. Getting lost means accepting change

Image author's own. Post hike yoga in the Underberg, South Africa.

Image author's own. Post hike yoga in the Underberg, South Africa.

But then what if, when getting lost and venturing into the blue, something goes horribly wrong? What if when venturing we are suddenly forced to retreat and draw ourselves back ‘home’? Perhaps we fall seriously ill, or loose a loved one. Is that a failed journey? Is there ever such a thing as a failure whilst journeying? 

Solnit does not address this concern, this unintended and less romantic outcome. But my feeling is that she’d remind us that a return, or tragic deviation, is no less profound and important as a step towards the horizon. This is because the horizon, the blueness of perpetual desire and change is always there, a parallel orientation to ourselves and creative life no matter our actual course. Every journey into the abyss must have a point of departure, geographic, symbolic, or emotional. There is no journey without a point of departure, and therefore by implication no journey without an option of return. But there is no regression or failure in return unless you loose site of the horizon. The art of getting lost is therefore also about maintaining your orientation to the blue horizon, regardless of where you are.

Encountering the unexpected and deviating from an intended path is a central aspect of life’s work. Kushanava Choudhury reminds us of this is his memoir of his return to his home city of Calcutta after decades of study and immigrant life in the US, The Epic City. Bewildered and constantly thrown off course by the stinking, haphazard, eclectic crush of Calcutta’s streets, he is taken under the wing of an old uncle, who reminds him not to despair as he falls further and further behind in his plans to write a book. All the delays, mishaps, chance encounters and interruptions of a Calcutta day are ‘work’, ‘it’s all work, son’.

There is no journey without a point of departure, and therefore by implication no journey without an option of return. But there is no regression or failure in return unless you loose site of the horizon

Image author's own. Drakensburg Mountains, South Africa.

Image author's own. Drakensburg Mountains, South Africa.

Nevertheless, getting lost is so unlikely today. It’s actually difficult. We have apps, we have constant communication, we scope out every turn of our plans before we even embark on them. We can survey and anticipate everything, at any time. The view of the purple and blue mountains on the edge of the skyline now arise with the expectation of knowing. Simultaneously, through Google maps the blue horizon is the brown and green detail of a inch by inch familiar street. In these times, getting lost an act of rebellion. Solnit writes that getting lost is, ‘mostly a state of mind, and this applies as much to all the metaphysical states of being lost as to blundering around the backcountry.’

If getting lost can be an act of rebellion, so to is going ‘off-line’. Slipping under the radar of social media and stumbling about the world ‘incognito’ is these days wildly subversive. Another book written by Solnit’s is titled Wanderlust, and in this volume she recounts the history of walking. She describes walking in our time as ‘the scenic route through a half-abandoned landscape of ideas and experiences’. To walk, she writes, is to take a ‘subversive detour’. I often think of Wanderlust as I feel the delicious freedom of taking a break from social media. Being connected is something so powerful, positive and essential to our contemporary lives, yet it is also suffocating, demanding and confrontational. Getting lost is about quietly slipping away from definitive categorisations of yourself, and thus opening yourself up to uncategorised experiences, and a life of discovery. In this way getting lost is gaining so much more than you had before you set out because “when everything else is gone, you can be rich in loss”.

Get lost in blue, who knows what you’ll find.