Beth Ayer is the web editor for a nonprofit mathematical research publisher, where she works with a content team to establish and implement web and social media strategy. Much of her work involves leading cross-departmental projects and communications efforts with a focus on furthering the interests of the mathematics community. Her professional background includes writing, project management, community outreach, web development, and teaching writing.
She is also the senior poetry editor and web manager for the Found Poetry Review, a biannual literary journal devoted to publishing experimental found and erasure poetry.
A Subtle, Misleading Curve
“An unaligned path was commonly caused by a subtle, misleading curve…” –Kevin Lynch
This has been one curvy, slippery, nonlinear year (you know, life stuff), and I’ve been wanting to write about it. As one does when things are out of order, I’ve been busy seeking order. So I tried to construct an idea for writing about finding my way, and did so by referencing the book The Image of the City by urban planner Kevin Lynch. Lynch writes about how the forms of cities (paths, landmarks, boundaries, etc.) affect how people navigate, and uses the term “wayfinding” to describe this navigational behavior and interaction with physical spaces. The wayfinding concept is also referenced in the Web Style Guide as a metaphor for web navigation in which developers can create the same types of visual and spacial references for web users that planners might create for city dwellers and urban explorers. In my day job as a web editor, I reference this guide often. So in the midst of some wayfinding of my own, I thought I’d lean on Lynch’s metaphor and find my way through all the uncertainty.
In retrospect, while I was looking for a path and structure, I ended up with an altogether overbearing concept and a map of an idea which was pretty successfully preventing me from making progress. I willfully disregarded Kairos, the “passing instant when an opening appears which must be driven through with force if success is to be achieved,” also, “the right or opportune moment.”Rather than responding to the moment creatively, I was trying to create artificial structure and escape the discomfort of uncertainty.
Contrary to Lynch’s idea of wayfinding, Rebecca Solnit’s writings (Wanderlust, A Field Guide to Getting Lost) suggest that uncertainty itself is a great boon for finding ourselves, and that darkness and chaos can help lead us to the places we wouldn’t find by following our great plans: “To lose yourself: a voluptuous surrender, lost in your arms, lost to the world, utterly immersed in what is present so that its surroundings fade away…to be lost is to be fully present, and to be fully present is to be capable of being in uncertainty and mystery” (A Field Guide to Getting Lost). In The Image of the City, Lynch considers “the elements of the built environment that allow us to navigate through complex spaces.” Street signs, the shape and angle of a skyline, public spaces, and so on. But what about our built environment actually hinders our ability to navigate successfully? And what intangible forces might act as navigational cues? Solnit says “the art is not one of forgetting but letting go. And when everything else is gone, you can be rich in loss.” We “cease to be lost not by returning but by turning into something else.”
In attempting to change course, I found that physical objects acted as manifestations of my personal status quo—my comfort zone. It is hard to dissociate from what seems like concrete reality: a living space, frying pans and window dressings and furniture arrangements and knickknacks that represent the shape of a life. Familiar restaurants and street corners. Porches and tree stumps. The way to and from, the written form of my address, habits intertwined with other people. It is common advice to periodically throw out old clothes and clutter, (how liberating it is to cleanse!) —but we can’t exactly toss out everything around us that makes us feel comfortable.
There is a thing in Rhode Island, the state I call home, where locals give directions by referencing landmarks that no longer exist (“turn right where X used to be…”). So the landmarks, those visions by which Lynch hopes to direct city dwellers, end up obscuring the route by casting a reflection of something long gone. We can’t successfully follow directions by referencing that old corner store, and I couldn't find my way forward by relying on my old familiar objects.
Lynch asks, “Can I find the way to where I want to go?” and I’m tempted to say that we can’t plan for such things. But we do need plans; where we want to go just isn’t always visible from where we are. I recently heard a writer (Jade Sylvan, referencing Kurt Vonnegut in his introduction to Slaughterhouse Five) describe authors as “pillars of salt,” unable to speak about the present, only capable of talking about the past and imagining the future. And often this is how we live, perpetually looking forward or looking backward, our lives as stubbornly recursive as palindromes. Or as William Faulkner says: “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
Even if we are able to grasp the present moment, it acts as a guide but never an interpreter. There is a certain amount of blindness involved in discovery, and navigating the unknown is how learning happens. This sort of serendipitous behavior plays out all over the web, from sites like StumbleUpon to “suggested content,” to social sharing and reading. We can debate elsewhere how beneficial this social mode of consumption is for our brains and our attention spans. But I’d like to think that—for the purposes of living—serendipity serves us more often than not; we just need to be discerning travelers, and be at least willing to follow an unexpected curve.