July 29, 2011 § 18 Comments
I have a pretty terrible sense of direction, which I inherited from my mother. I don’t mean this in a self-deprecating way, like when people say they can’t cook or walk in high heels (both of which I can do fine) but in an honest way, as in I have problems with activities that involve spatial relations, like geometry or memorizing a dressage course. Figuring out how to get somewhere.
When I was little, my mom often relied on the help of strangers when we were lost. “Excuse me,” she said to a man once, when we were in New York City and about to cross Houston Street, which in the eighties, wasn’t the best neighborhood in the world. “Uh, you should really turn around,” the man told us. He spent a long time explaining where the subway was, and even quizzed my mom until he was sure she knew how to get back uptown. “See?” my mom said as we hustled back across the street, “New Yorkers are the nicest people in the world.”
When I was sixteen and was living in England for the summer while my dad worked at a college in Birmingham, my mom and I used our BritRail pass at least once a week. “Where do you want to go today?” she would ask me at the train station and together, we would lean in close over a Fodor’s guide. Once she asked the ticket agent where we should go, and he looked up, astonished and maybe even a little embarrassed for us. Crazy Americans. My mom thought that was hilarious.
During one of our trips, we headed for a town in the west of England. I forget the name. Maybe it was near The Cotswalds. It was supposed to be artsy and quaint, but when we got off the train, we were surrounded by fields of sheep. “Well, it’s definitely quaint,” I said, looking around. My mom looked worried. As we walked down the road towards the village, the signs were different. They were brown and the words had too many l’s and y’s. “Mom?” I asked and she shook her head. “I did it again,” she said. “I think we’re in Wales.”
Lately, I have been thinking of how much time I have already wasted in my life. All those weekends frittered away on Netflix movies or lying on the beach in my twenties. All that time I spent in San Diego, even after I knew I didn’t want to live there forever. All those crappy apartments and bad bosses and lousy boyfriends. I wish I started yoga when I was 20 instead of 30. I wish I went to grad school or found a career in investor relations sooner so that I could have more money now. I wish I wore more sunscreen. I wish, I wish, I wish. All those wrong turns. All those mistakes. All those days you don’t get back.
That day in Wales, my mom looked at a map and then shrugged. “What good is this going to do me?” she asked, folding it back into her bag. We giggled and then set off for the town’s High Street. It was 1989 and supermarkets and malls didn’t exist yet in the UK. We found a little store and bought a box of oatcakes, two bottles of Perrier and ordered a hunk of cheddar, which was wrapped up for us in parchment paper. We walked back up the hill to the station to wait for another train. We opened our packages and sat in the grass watching the sheep and the wind move through the uncut field. It was a long time ago, but for some reason I remember that day so vividly. There was something about our train adventures that felt decadent and somewhat mischievous. There was something about that summer, about being sixteen in another country – in the wrong country even – with those thick oatcakes crumbling in my mouth and nowhere to be. It didn’t matter that we were lost, because that summer, maybe more than any other time, I belonged to myself completely.
A few weeks ago, Oliver and I set out to visit my cousin in Pennsylvania. My aunt and uncle were in town and I wanted to see them as well as my cousin, her husband, and their own four-year old son. It will be an adventure, I told Oliver. He was excited to see his cousin and to have a trip without his brother. And it was an easy trip, although I knew I shouldn’t have taken the 95. We had some traffic but not much until we hit the Ben Franklin Bridge outside of Philadelphia. There, traffic stopped, and as we sat, high above the ground, my phone beeped. A message popped up, which read: Battery Low. Phone Will Shut Down Shortly.
No. That voice in my head started to panic. Because of my lousy sense of navigation, I had relied on my phone for ages. I never even looked at a map when I set out anymore, which had only made my directional handicap worse. I had everything in my phone: contact numbers, GPS, email. And shortly, I was going to have nothing.
As we sat in traffic, I scribbled out the phone’s directions on a notepad before it shut down. Highway 1. Lincoln Highway. Highway 13. I fumbled around in the glovebox and found a map of Pennsylvania that my father must have stashed in there. Thank God. I took a deep breath. I could do this. No problem. We would just get there the old-fashioned way. I wondered what my mom would have done and decided that she would get as far as she could go and then ask for help.
I made it to Highway 1, felt victorious for a few seconds, and then started to panic again. Had I passed the right road? Had I gone too far? I decided to stop somewhere and ask, so I pulled into the first Wawa I saw (because I prefer them to 7-11’s) and waited in line at the cash register with Oliver. “Mommy,” he asked, “Are you lost?”
“We’re fine,” I whispered and told him I would buy him a lemonade.
The man behind the cash register was wearing a turban and he smiled at me. He reminded me of my Kundalini yoga teacher and I instantly relaxed. I showed him my map and spread it out next to the jar of mini Reeses and racks of energy shots and cellophane-wrapped packs of chewing gum. “Excuse me,” I began, thinking of my mom. “I’m trying to find Lincoln Highway.”
The man smiled at me. “You’re on Lincoln Highway,” he said.
“I am?” Seriously, I thought. This is fantastic. I asked how far Highway 13 was.
“Oh,” he said, “Maybe four traffic lights. You’re so close.”
“Thank you,” I said and for some reason I felt the need to tell him that my phone died, that normally, I was more prepared than this.
“Oh,” he said again, “These things happen. Some days, mistake, mistake, mistake and you think, why is this?” He waved his hands and said, “It’s fine, this happens all the time.”
Back in the car, I followed the man’s directions and tried to make a left onto Highway 13, like he said, but there was a fork in the road and the intersection went three ways. I couldn’t tell where to go, and because I wasn’t sure which left to take, I went right. I do this kind of thing all the time. Rather than make a slight error, I choose to do things completely wrong, as if instead of just making a wrong turn, I would prefer to be in another country all together.
I had to stop again.
This time, I picked a Dunkin’ Donuts, where unfortunately, the man behind the counter didn’t know the area well. He gestured to the building next door and told me to go to the cigarette store.
“Excuse me,” I said to the man behind the counter of the cigarette store. He was selling lottery tickets. “Do you live around here?” The man looked shocked and a little bit scared. Crazy lady. I waved my map in the air. “I’m just asking because I’m a little bit turned around.”
“Mommy,” Oliver asked, clutching my hand. “What do they sell in this store?”
I bent down so I could talk into his ear. “Cigarettes,” I said, as neutrally as I could. “We’ll just be a minute.”
“I’ll help you,” said the man buying a lotto ticket. “Where do you want to go?”
“Yardley,” I said and he told me he lived there too. “I’ll meet you outside,” he said.
“Come on,” I said to Oliver, feeling as though I was reliving history, only now, I was playing my mother. There is something so humbling about being lost, about being unsure, about relying on people you don’t know. It always makes me want to cry, but not in a bad way. Sometimes I think it’s just relief at no longer being in charge, a sense of dropping the reins and surrendering. I really wanted to see my aunt and my cousin. I knew I was going to get there. I just wasn’t sure when. As Oliver and I walked back outside, I noticed the bright sunshine, the long line in front of the Rita’s Water Ice place next door, and the green leaves on the trees across the street, that summer feeling that only comes after a very cold winter.
The man came out and waved us over to his Ford Explorer. I stood a cautious distance away and Oliver pulled at my arm and told me he was hot. “I’m waiting for my wife,” the man told us and he waved at a woman with a red water ice in her hands. She walked over and we said hello. After she asked where I was going, she told me that I was very close. It was right around the corner. She started to give me directions but then her husband disagreed and they spent a minute or so arguing about it. “I’ll get the GPS,” he said finally and she went back to Rita’s to get more napkins.
He reached into his truck and turned on his GPS, and when the directions came up, he shook his head and smiled. “My wife was right,” he told me even though his wife wasn’t around to hear. “I should have known.”
When his wife came back, the man told me to just follow them, that they were going that way anyway. I shook my head and tried to protest. “It’s just down the block,” his wife told me. “It’s no problem.” Again, I had that feeling of wanting to cry, of wondering why I was ever angry or sad or confused about anything, because this world is such a very nice place. I marveled at how I could have ever felt lost when there was all this help, everywhere.
I ushered Oliver back to the car, told him what a good sport he was, and promised him that we were almost there, that before he knew it, he’d be playing in the back yard with his cousin. I followed the Ford Explorer out of the shopping center, across the street and down the block. Sure enough, after a third of a mile, we came to my cousin’s street. I had been so close, all that time, circling around, but missing the mark completely. I expected the man to stick his arm out the window of his Explorer and point to the street, honk his horn and drive off, but instead, they turned down the street ahead of me, driving slowly until we reached the house. He pulled over while I drove into my cousin’s driveway and they didn’t leave until I got out of the car and waved at them. “Thank you,” I yelled, but I knew that no one could hear me.
How could I say thank you? How do you repay those kindnesses that are just given to you, without any expectation of return? I have had so many of those people in my life, people who have just turned up and said, I have an extra bed, stay as long as you like, or I know someone at that company, why don’t I send them an email, or Turn around, that’s not a neighborhood you want to be in. I have been thinking about being lost, about all the time I think I wasted, that maybe wasn’t really wasted at all. There were all those years of wrong turns that led me to my husband. There were those bad jobs that taught me so much. There are those times where we feel so unfound in our own lives, so stagnant, and yet, maybe, that is where the magic is. Maybe instead of being lost, we are merely shoring up. We are in a gathering place, where the best thing to do is to sit in the grass, find some cheese and crackers, and wait for the next train.