losing the map...

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On a quick jaunt to finish up holiday gift shopping, we ventured in to our local bookshops. On the hunt for one title, I stumbled on yet another book on science and wayfinding…

This topic has been calling to me for awhile now: why we leave, where we go, what we take with us, and how we get there.

While there in the bookshop, I did a thing I love to do, which is to find a place in the middle of the book and begin reading. Just to see if the writing opens something up in me. It’s immediately clear if it’s going to be a book I commit to and finish. 

One of the lines I read was a quote by Audrey Niffenegger about “…the different ways to react to being lost. Panic is one. Another is to surrender and ‘allow the fact that you’ve misplaced yourself to change the way you experience the world…’”

That grabbed me. “allow the fact that you’ve misplaced yourself…”

As if it’s no one’s fault by my own if I find myself in a place I did not intend to be. This, along with countless other books I’ve read about water and wind and landmarks and the shape of tree trunks, insists there are signs everywhere along the path. I just have to learn to recognize them… because this ancient wayfinding crucial to knowing how to get some place in relation to where I am – provided I know where I am...

This idea of being lost can be very scary.

I remember driving along the southern tip of Africa. Alone. Alternately crying at the magnificent beauty and cursing my ignorance at traveling by myself in terrible rains on roads with no edges. I took pictures of the mountains and the Indian Ocean from my car in places it was not safe to walk.

Along the Garden Route, I came to a place called Knysna, where I was met with a seaside ocean town on my left and a township on my right. The map of the area I’d printed out before I left Indiana said I’d need to turn right to get to the hotel. Up the hill, away from the ocean. I questioned this, but trusted the wisdom of the map. Trying not to stall the rented stickshift hatchback, I drove up a hill steeper than any I’d seen in the states and looked for 8 Gray Street. Passing 5 and 7 Gray Street on the right, then 4 and 6 Gray Street on the left... I startled when I came to a “T” in the road. Thinking I must have misread the map, I turned right, heading further up the hill until I found myself in the heart of the township. I took a slow breath, turned around and headed all the way down the hill to retrace my route.

Carefully weaving down the road, I passed 7 and 5 Gray Street on the now left, and 6 and 4 Gray Street on the now right. I still could not find the number I was looking for. At the bottom of the hill, I turned around once again, and headed back up the hill to the “T.”

No 8 Gray Street.

Needing a moment to think, I turned into a short driveway with a barbed wire gate and just sat there in the car, breathing, hoping a new idea would come into my head. After exactly 7 minutes and 36 seconds, I decided to ask someone for directions in the town at the bottom of the hill. I put the car in reverse and it stalled. It rocked slightly forward, towards the trees and a severe drop off into large gulch at the edge of the driveway. I tried again and failed, rocking even closer to the edge. A third time... failed. I began to shake as I realized I was completely alone and stuck with a very real possibility of careening myself and the car down the steep embankment.

A man appeared around the corner as he walked up the hill towards the township. I decided to take a chance. “I need your help, please. I am stuck.” In broken English with a thick accent I recognized as Zulu, he asked “How did you get this way?” I had no words to answer this question which seemed much larger than my current predicament. When I didn’t answer, he said, “Wait here.”

The man disappeared around the corner and a few moments later returned with another man in a car. The second man pulled his car into a nearby driveway and walked towards my car window. I repeated, “I need your help, please. I am stuck.” He shook his head, and in English much rougher than the first man, he said “Get out of the car.” I looked at my bag on the floor at my feet with my passport and all identifying papers. I took a deep breath and said, “Ok.” Stepping out of the car and leaving everything because I did not wish to offend him.

With visible effort the man was finally able to exit the steep driveway, parking the car on a nearby road at the bottom of the hill. I walked to meet the man as he stepped out of the car. Taking his hand in both of mine, I looked him straight in the eye and said, “Thank you. So much.” He smiled and walked to his car, where his friend was waiting. Shaking, I got into the car and turned left, towards the ocean.

All my planning and map reading had gotten me quite lost. I had misplaced myself.

I suppose it could be said I went from trusting a map to trusting a man, but having lived this, it seems that what saved me was finally setting aside the map and and trusting my instinct - leaning in to trusting the inconceivable kindness of strangers, despite so many stories I'd heard about why I should be afraid. 

And this changed my entire experience of the world…

always in motion,


p.s. the name of the book is: Wayfinding: the science and mystery of how humans navigate the world - by M.R. O'Connor

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