July 29, 2011 § 18 Comments

Starting Out (at Scott's mountain bike race)

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.



§ 18 Responses to Navigation

  • Lindsey says:

    I think the only way to repay these kindnesses, these unexpected flashes of support – and, frankly, love – from the universe is to turn and offer the same to the next stranger who wanders into our own orbit. At least that’s my philosophy. This post is such a wonderful reminder, as all of your writing is, to look around me and to appreciate all the help that is here, all the ways in which I’m not lost, after all, but merely, as you say, shoring up. Thank you, thank you. xoxox

  • ayearoflivingwisely says:

    Beautiful. *eyes glistening* Pam I want to buy your novels 🙂 I would eat them up. Such beautiful writing as always. This is exactly what I’ve been feeling lately. It’s so easy to see the bad or maybe think of the bad is a better way to put it. Yet, the good is always around us, we’ve just been over looking it. I too have felt like I’ve wasted years doing stuff I regret, yet everything I’ve done has brought me to this point and I would never practice or do Kundalini (LOVE IT!) unless I had gone through all I had gone through in the past.
    LOVE that you got lost and ended up in Wales. I can just picture it now 🙂 Love not having anywhere to go. I worry about not doing enough, but then I remind myself that we are human BEINGS not human DOINGS. Hope you had a great trip in Pennsylvania!

  • […] and hone my Spanish skills. Exam tomorrow! Wish me luck Namaste —– Here’s a great blog post by Pamela over at Walking on My Hands that sums up exactly what I’ve been feeling lately. Pam never fails to amaze me with how much […]

  • Kate says:

    I love that this is called ‘navigation’… love that.

  • Erica Staab says:

    Loved this, thank you for this gift in my inbox today 🙂

  • I really, really needed this today. Thank you. It’s beautiful.

  • Beautiful post, from beginning to end.

    I, too, have a horrible sense of direction. I am sad that I now rely so heavily on my GPS, as some of my best adventures happened when I had no idea where I was going. And some of the best people appeared along the way.

  • I went from NH to an appt in Mass. On the way home I thought that maybe I missed a turn. Then I spotted the signs for Maine! Uh oh! But I got off the exit to turn around and there was a Hannah Anderson outlet. I was right where I was supposed to be! Aren’t we always? Beautiful post as always. I really look forward to reading your work!

  • Jorge says:

    Beautiful! I remember backpacking through Europe and just walking around the cities with no destination. Sometimes I would find beautiful places, sometimes I would go in circles but nevertheless it was a liberating experience. I have a very good sense of direction while driving but in life sometimes not so much. The last few years I have wondered about mistakes, wrong turns and difficult experiences. The last paragraph of your post sums up the answers I have started to find about my doubts in life.

  • Oh wow. What a beautiful post, what brilliant writing! I love all of it!

  • i leave a poem in reply

    lost by david wagoner

    Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
    Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
    And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
    Must ask permission to know it and be known.
    The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
    I have made this place around you,
    If you leave it you may come back again, saying Here.
    No two trees are the same to Raven.
    No two branches are the same to Wren.
    If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
    You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
    Where you are. You must let it find you.

  • Those missed turns are everywhere. Some with devastating consequences we only realize years later. Most – far more nuanced – a vague “what if” and an itch to know more about the road not taken.

    But then there’s appreciation for what we’ve learned (that required those unfortunate paths), and what we have (the ones we love).

    The what ifs and the second guessing don’t disappear, but they quiet. And we’re glad they do.

    Lovely post.

  • You took me to each place, to each turn, to each cellophane-wrapped pack of gum with your glorious, detailed words. And yes–the wrong turns, the time we’ve wasted…each turn us into ourselves. xoxo

  • Liz S says:

    Beautifully written, wonderful, with so many good points about being in the moment….but I have to offer a tender disagreement. The world is not always a nice place. Sometimes a car charger for your phone or GPS can mean avoiding a potentially bad experience.

  • How I wish I’d read this beautiful essay before I got royally lost last weekend, trying to make it back to New Hampshire from a friend’s house in upstate NY. It was 7:30 on Sunday morning, in a cornfield far from home, and my GPS died. I have a stupid phone and, stupidly, no maps in my car. I made a huge, wrong circle, crossed the Hudson twice, drove to Poughkeepsie, burned through half a tank of gas, sweated through my shirt, wept with anxiety, and finally after two hours of sheer confusion and one stupid mistake after another, pulled over, called my husband, and had him read directions to me from Google Maps off the computer. It was one of those moments when I lost all faith — and all grace. To say it was humbling is an understatement. So I have a very particular admiration not only for your writing here — breathtaking as always — but also for your willingness to be lost. I can tell you, I fought being lost tooth and nail, and it wasn’t pretty. Next time, I will think of you and do better. (Next time, I will have a road map, too!)

  • I’m a big fan of lostness, from Chet Baker’s “Let’s Get Lost” to the final scene in “The Sheltering Sky” where Paul Bowles asks Debra Winger’s Kit if she is lost. This made me think of a guy in Ireland who literally drove for miles just so that we could follow him and be delivered out of lovely lostness.

    Still, I sort of wish your mom and you had run into me in New York in the 80’s—so much of the very best of New York then was to be found below Houston, often way below.

    And I could taste the Oatcakes in my mind… wondering if they were Nairn’s…

    Some say we can’t even begin to be found… until we at least know we are lost. Whatever turns out to be true, and wherever we are, and are going, it’s nice to shore up via connections such as your lovely writing.

  • Christine says:

    My goodness, I was practically holding my breath as I read, because of how beautifully you told this story and because it held so much wisdom. Growing up and living almost my whole life in one place means that I haven’t been physically lost all that often, only a few times while on vacation. And to be honest, until a year ago I wouldn’t have even said I was metaphorically lost, but low and behold, we often come to a fork in the road that causes us to reconsider where we’ve been, and sometimes those places are hazy and foggy. But it doesn’t mean we weren’t there, as you said, only that we need to figure out what we picked up along the way.


    P.S. Thank you for continuing to inspire me.

  • Pam,

    Years ago, I spent a month in a small village in France. Turns out, that was my last shoring up time. (12 years ago). I lived in a village without a car or even a bus line. The last week, I rented a car and just drove. Before I knew it, I was crossing the border into Spain. When I tried to turn around and go back to my village, I ended up in another country I never knew existed – Andorra. A sweet village nestled in the Pyrenees mountains.

    And as far as supporting strangers and random acts of kindness, your visits and comments on my young , awkward blog have given me more sustenance than I care to admit.


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