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Getting lost is a lot like learning humility. After the initial shock, it can become not only a virtuous but a cheerful experience. I managed it once, in London.

Some friends with whom I was visiting the city decided one evening to romp around both formal and slangy corners alike and go to a dance in the East End. I wasn't at all in the mood, and besides, I've danced well only with mops and brooms, partners who mercifully spared any feet to be stepped on. But lifting me over their heads, my friends carried me through a maze of big and little streets to the bright open door of the dance hall.

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There, however, I escaped. When their attention was diverted by a rush of girls to greet them, I jumped free and took off, zigging and zagging down streets and alleys.

Finally, out of breath, I stopped, astonished to find myself in a small square lit by streetlamps of many colors, blue, rose, yellow, green. It was a sort of after-dark fair, where people were sitting in little stalls, selling everything they could - perfume, handkerchiefs, scarves, beads, baby shoes, gloves, even crumpets. A woman with eyes so black they had blue tints in them wanted to sell me a pair of women's lace gloves. ''For your young lady?'' she said. I said I had no young lady. But then she smiled so sadly I bought the gloves anyway.

Buying them, giving myself a commitment to love and be loved, was crazy and nice, but it was when I went down into the subway to ask directions to my hotel that I really started to enjoy being lost, to savor the sheer goodwill and generosity of it.

Never have strangers been so kind to me, so generous with directions. And I didn't mind at all that four of them in a row gave me the wrong ones to my hotel , thus causing me to set a new record in changing trains.

The things I saw, things I'd never have seen otherwise, were wonderful. I saw an old flower woman sitting on a bench along a subway wall, her flower basket empty but for one yellow rose. She had taken off her shoes and was rubbing her feet, on her face a beatific smile to be done with the day's hassles. From her I bought the yellow rose.

I saw a news vendor on the platform who had a coal-black beard that was all snowy white under his chin, as if a winter sun were peering out between storm clouds. From him I bought the evening edition.

I saw a very old scholar taking a nap in the seat across from mine on one train, an open book on his lap, his brow etched with the tiny lines of a lifetime of learning. Just before I got off, he awoke and smiled down at his book, as if to beg its pardon for dozing in his old age. Then he smiled at me, too, and said, ''The great light is growing dim.''

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When I came up out of the subway, finally headed in the right direction, I was greeted by a sky where only one star remained to be seen. God had not shut out all the lights in His house. He'd left one on to guide souls homeward so none need get lost.

My treasures that night weren't many. A pair of gloves, a rose, a newspaper, the memory of a smile, a star's light. But what is life made of but such things?

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