It was a rainy morning when I set out on foot to find my way to a new destination. For the first time, I was on my way to my voice teacher’s studio; he had previously taught on campus, but now it was more convenient for us to meet at the studio, instead. I walk nearly everywhere I go, and saw no reason why this should be any different. Google Maps, in its infinite wisdom, had told me that it should only be a ten- to fifteen-minute walk from my apartment, and (as always) I told myself that I could use the exercise.
So, with a cursory glance at the directions on my screen, I embarked into Somerville, the great unknown.
My apartment lies on the border of Cambridge and Somerville, and each suburb has a very distinct feel. Cambridge, largely consumed by Harvard University and MIT, is permeated by a feeling of affluence (or, at the very least, proximity to wealth). Streets are tree-lined, homes are three-storied, and everything is just a bit more spread out. Not all parts of Cambridge are well-off, of course—a quick trip through the neighborhood around Central Square will confirm that—but the neighborhoods where I live and spend most of my time are much more like a Volkswagen than a Buick.
Somerville, by contrast, is largely a blue-collar neighborhood. (For folks back home, Cambridge is more like Wauwatosa, while Somerville is more like West Allis.) In many places, it’s still full of large, old homes, but most of these have now been subdivided into tenancies. Architecturally, Somerville is characterized by rows of flat-fronted, box-like dwellings that have siding like houses but stairs up the side like apartments. (Long before Toyota invented the hybrid car, Somerville invented the hybrid residence.) It’s the sort of neighborhood that might have been nice enough once, but now seems a bit worn and tired. While in Cambridge you might see a Mercedes (or two) gracing a circular driveway, Somerville features cars up on blocks and dogs barking behind chain-link fences.
You get the picture.
To return to my story, I had barely crossed the line into Somerville before I realized that I was completely lost. My capability with directions is roughly 50-50; I’m good at following step-by-step instructions, but I get disoriented easily. Things never seem to look quite the way they did on the map—and in this case, I hadn’t even brought the map with me. I remembered the sequence of turns, but not exactly where I was meant to take them, and I began to fear that I would not be making it to my voice lesson on time (if at all).
I tried to remember where I had come from and orient myself that way, but it can be difficult to keep track of your former steps once you no longer know where you are. I then tried to picture where I was going and steer myself towards that, but it turned out that I had completely reversed the suburb in my head. As I grew more and more frustrated, my efforts essentially devolved into trial and error.
Finally, in a flash of inspiration, I realized that the only thing I could do was make my way to a high place and get my bearings from there. I came upon a street rising up to a bridge over the railroad tracks, and decided to see what I could see. The hill was actually somewhat steep, and when I got to the top, my efforts were rewarded. Finally, I could see where I was and where I needed to go from there.
Looking down from the bridge, I realized that I was actually only a few blocks from home. Looking in one direction, the taller buildings of the campus stretched out towards the west. Just down the tracks, I could see the next railroad crossing, which was familiar to me from some of my early morning walks. And looking down the tracks in the other direction, I could begin to make out my destination: “downtown” Somerville, and the studio I sought.
While I was only lost for a maximum of fifteen minutes, the view from the railroad crossing brought me a huge sense of relief. I saw that what I needed to do was not remember all of the directions or perfectly picture my route, but reorient myself from a new perspective so that I had a general idea of where I needed to go.
I was reminded, actually, of the opening lines of Dante’s Inferno (which are much more beautiful in the original old Tuscan dialect eventually adopted for all of Italy, but I’ll give you Allen Mandelbaum’s excellent translation because I’m nice like that):
Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,
ché la diritta via era smarrita.
Ahi quanto a dir qual era è cosa dura
esta selva selvaggia e aspra e forte
che nel pensier rinnova la paura!
Tant’ è amara che poco è più morte;
ma per trattar del ben ch’i’ vi trovai,
dirò de l’altre cose ch’i’ v’ho scorte.
When I had journeyed half of our life’s way,
I found myself within a shadowed forest,
for I had lost the path that does not stray.
Ah, it is hard to speak of what it was,
that savage forest, dense and difficult,
which even in recall renews my fear:
So bitter—death is hardly more severe!
But to retell the good discovered there,
I’ll also tell the other things I saw.
Like the entire Divina Commedia, Dante’s opening lines are a beautiful representation of loss and redemption. He uses the metaphor of losing himself in the midst of a dark and twisted forest to explore the reality of being adrift in life. One of my favorite things about the whole work is Dante’s decision to use “nostra” rather than “mia” in the very first line. He does not say “in the midst of my life,” but “in the midst of our life”—all of ours, the human experience.
Eventually, Dante encounters guides who lead him through hell, purgatory, and finally paradise. Paradise, the highest hill of all, is the place where Dante finally comes to understand all things. He has gained the perspective of the divine, and this perspective leads him home. While the very first lines of the work show us a lost and bewildered Dante, the final line of the Inferno show him reemerging into the light: E quindi uscimmo a riveder le stelle—And so we emerged to see, once more, the stars.
For Dante, the stars would not just have represented heavenly light. The stars were sailors’ best tools for navigation, too. Seeing the stars meant the ability to navigate—to find one’s way again.
We’ve all been lost at some point in our lives—not just on the streets, but in our heart. When this happens, go to your high place. Look to your Paradise. And remember to turn your eyes upward to see, once more, the stars.