I never have any idea where I am. I lived my whole childhood in the purple foothills of the same five-square-mile town and I still couldn’t tell you whether you turn left or right on the single thruway to get to the grade school or the grocery store, or how to find the houses of any of my childhood friends. I can’t tell you how to find the conspicuously modern angles of the apartment building in the small Mississippi town where I lived for three years in graduate school, or even easily direct you from my old house in Austin to the bright little bar where I wrote much of my first book. I never know how far I am from the airport or the highway. I can’t read a map effectively, and even though it’s less than half a mile from my current apartment in London, I couldn’t get to the Thames without the artificial voice on my cell phone—set to an Australian accent so its omnipresence is less tiresome—­calling out turn left every 250 feet. Half the time, to remember which way is left, I have to imagine for an instant that I am picking up a pen.

Even on a much smaller scale, space makes no sense to me. I walk all the way around the perimeter of a room to reach a door that’s immediately to my right, and I set my glass down half an inch from the edge of the table with such frequency that anyone who knows me well gets used to nudging it back again and again over the course of an evening in this small, choreographed two-step. As a girl, I put my shoes on the wrong feet so reliably that my parents directed me just to behave in defiance of my inclinations: if I thought a sneaker should go on one foot, put it on the other. This is a strategy I still use sometimes: if I’m certain an office is to the right out of the elevator, I go left down the hall. I’m almost always wrong about the layout of the world.

I come, after a while, to recognize landmarks—pale-blue awning of the nearest dry cleaner’s, wrought-iron railing along the railroad bridge, surprise of a green-painted storefront among all the brick—which is how I learn, eventually, to navigate some frequent paths of travel, but no collection of spaces, no matter how habitually I move through them, ever knits into any kind of coherent map inside my head. I’ll be wandering in the city convinced I’m miles away from anywhere I’ve ever been, and then turn a corner to see the shapes of my own block rising up as if transplanted, their familiarity more unsettling than encountering something new, proof I lack a homing instinct of any kind.

There’s a neurological explanation for at least some of this. The ability to process information about distance, angles, and direction—to reason, essentially, about the physical expanse around you—is called spatial cognition, and the oxygen deprivation at birth that caused my cerebral palsy resulted in some injury to the neural structures that make this kind of reasoning possible; it’s as if there’s a blown fuse in the wiring of my brain. Lights from down the hall provide a little glow, but the chamber is permanently dim.

Even beyond the oxygen deprivation, though, it turns out that, in young children, spatial cognition begins to develop concurrently with what professionals term independent locomotion: the ability to get around under your own steam. Essentially, you gain the capacity to map the world as you begin to move intentionally through it, the brain wiring in sync with what the body does. I never wiggled or crawled effectively, my muscles too spastic and stiff, and I didn’t learn to walk until I was four, which is too late for typical cognitive progress to occur. There’s an allotted developmental window for the needed synchronicity to come to pass, and if it doesn’t, it’s impossible to perfectly correct the disjunction. With attention, you can create some new neural pathways, alternate routes to comprehending space, but you can’t retrace the steps you should have taken.

 

My terrible sense of direction is a long-running joke among family and friends, who know better than to trust my baseless assurances that I’m positive we’re heading the right way this time, and for a long time my lack of spatial awareness mostly felt like an inconvenience, minor in comparison with my difficulty walking, or my chronic pain. But I’ve been thinking, lately, about home and navigation: what it means to be perennially dislocated, what it means when space, no matter how you try to fathom it, refuses to coalesce into a place you know.

 

Displaced from their breeding pools, marbled newts can find their way back home only when certain stars are visible; they spend whole days paused with their bellies pressed to the ground, waiting for the sun to set, the clouds to clear. Homing pigeons’ compass mechanisms rely on the sun, but when it’s dark or clouded over they can feel the earth’s magnetic field. Iron particles collected in their beaks will always tug them toward true north. Honeybees navigate by polarized light, give directions to one another relative to the position of the sun. Bats and cave swiftlets and porpoises map intricate and perfect distances from echoes. And even some mollusks, base and faceless, are thought to hold a topographic memory of the land, finding their way via familiar contours, the rises and gullies they remember how to fit inside. All these bodies that know home somewhere inside them.

It isn’t at all that I don’t get attached to landscapes: the exact color of the clay in the mountains where I was raised, part rust, part something redder; the miles and miles of cool blue flat driving through a Mississippi January morning; the wildness of California palm trees in the winter. There’s a scent of Virginia magnolia, dusk-sweet and too much, that I can call up instantly, and my favorite sound is the particular loud, humid crack of a weirdly rainless Southern thunderstorm, come out of nowhere and then gone again. But you could put me down on the land I love most in the world and I would still be lost inside it: the familiar made alien and unsteady by my inability to fuse its fragments into a whole.

I have lived in six different cities and towns in the past ten years, and now two foreign countries in the past six months. Without really meaning to, I’ve made a life composed almost entirely of leaving and arrival, a life where it’s reasonable to never know my way around. I’m new, I say, or, I’m about to go, or, I don’t live here, I’m just visiting. I think: This isn’t my real life.

At a medical library in London, I stand in front of a photographic print of the human brain and spinal column strung with nerves, magnified to many times its size. Hung there on the wall, huge and in black and white, it looks more than anything like a tangle of netting and driftwood and rope, like a raft someone assembled swiftly, in a panic, trying to survive a storm. I keep thinking of the last stanza of that Adrienne Rich poem “Song”:

If I’m lonely

 

it’s with the rowboat ice-fast on the shore

in the last red light of the year

that knows what it is, that knows it’s neither

ice nor mud nor winter light

but wood, with a gift for burning.

 

If there’s any territory I should know well, it’s the country of my own body. So much of my life has been devoted to attending to its margins and features: its tenuous center of gravity; the tense curl of my hamstrings and heel cords; the banks of calluses along the perimeters of my feet, hardened from years of walking on my toes with my feet listing stubbornly to one side; the thickets of scarring behind my knees and at my ankles; the fading ridgeline where they sliced me open at the spine. I’ve had so many cartographers and architects: doctors’ appointments and surgeries designed to know and map my body, alter its geography, to make it more habitable. It, at least, should be comprehensible: place instead of merely space.

But here there is a double alienation. Because the world refuses to grow knowable and navigable, because my brain cannot compose a cogent map, my body is rendered new to me each time I try to move through space. Each turned corner is an uncharted expanse I have no idea how I will traverse or respond to. And because my body itself has been reshaped so many times, both through the intentional, artificial manipulations of surgery and by its own ongoing and present disintegration, I can’t truly know or trust its geography either. The tectonic plates of who I am are always shifting. My friend Susannah has also had a great deal of surgery, her own profound erosions. This heavy grief, finally shared with another person, yielded a nearly instant bond between us. We both know there’s no returning to the beginning, no knowing who you’ve always been, no going home again. But we also know that there’s no staying where you are: that the moment that your body sutures together into a whole and steady place you know, something will give way and you’ll be changed to mere parts again.

Sometimes I think I’ve made myself into a constant traveler as a defense mechanism. On a practical level, it’s a bad strategy: to compound with still more newness the permanent unfamiliarity my brain and body engender, evolving practical obstacles in every unmappable place. But in another way it makes a kind of sense. I’d rather be a stranger, transitory and alone, because of something I decided than as a consequence of something in me, some lack that proves again and again just how damaged an animal I am. Constant motion camouflages the extent to which I’m alien even to myself.

 

Again and again I return to Rich’s rowboat, beached on the cold shore. I think: I don’t know where or what I am. But then I consider how, in laying out a litany of what that rowboat knows it’s not, Rich transfigures it  again and again in the course of a single line: boat to ice to mud to winter light and finally to wood, raw material whose most miraculous property is its ability to burn, break down, change. How it’s a gift to alchemize to something else.

In the world of a poem, it’s an advantage to be inescapably a stranger, an explorer. The task is so often to render the familiar changed and charged and new, or to chart a path through constantly evolving territory, thick with shifting shadows. The woman in Rich’s “Song” drives continually onward, leaves behind mile after mile / little towns she might have stopped / and lived and died in, but the poem itself holds all those possible lives at once. The fragment is rendered its own small, self-contained place, its capacity for continual transformation a gift of metaphor, music, and line.

To work your way forward when you are permanently lost means, yes, to be exhausted and adrift, a stranger in a strange land. But, as a writer, it also means living in a state of endless discovery. The world unfurls itself anew each day with dawn’s first cold breath on the city. You reencounter what you are: lonely like a body with a gift for burning.