I grew up in St. Louis – a city boundaried by the great Mississippi, the river that divides our country into east and west; a city with a monstrous steel arch marking the gateway to the west. As soon as I was conscious, I knew where the river was, I knew where the arch was, and so I knew where east and west were, north and south. It was a kind of knowing – this where I was in relation to space, where I stood on the compass – that was as natural and ingrained as knowing where my feet were – even with my eyes closed. I could feel it.
My next place was Vermont. Middlebury College stood in a valley with the Green Mountains to the east and the Adirondacks to the west. Finding my bearings here was almost too easy – I just had to look up and find the peaks. Et voila! I knew where I was. And I didn’t have to look for any alternative landmarks – you know, inside – to tell me where to go. The mountains did it for me, I didn’t have to. (And, I must say, my Julie ‘light’ was dull as all get out.)
Boston wasn’t quite as easy. Instead of the Mighty Mississip, I had the Atlantic Ocean. Though I couldn’t see it, I had a clue of where it was, but I started to lose that sense of always being able to locate my directions, my place without the physical guidepost. And, so, I started to tune into my own internal GPS. Slowly starting to trust my instincts to move in the right direction, simply because it felt, well, right.
Something about it felt good – terrifying – but good. And I stopped wearing a watch during this time- which seems somehow related. Do we eat because it’s noon or because we’re hungry? I mean, really. How freeing is that?
Fast forward to today. I live on a small island, one side of it is called South Beach. Two main roads that line the island are called South Road and North Road…everyone knows that we are a few miles out in the ocean east of the continental U.S. But, if you put me down anywhere on the island and told me to open my eyes and point north, I couldn’t do it. And I wouldn’t actually care. My internal mapping system muscles are stronger, and I don’t worry that I don’t know my directions. In fact, I’ve been known to my shrug my shoulders and roll my eyes at that fact.
Last week, I was in NYC and I started to think that this lost sense of ‘where the hell am I?’ now has little or nothing to do with the landmarks of where I actually am. A friend was giving me directions and said, ‘just head south two blocks.’ My eyes glazed over, my brain started to hum. South? I thought. Is she speaking Russian? Me no comprendo. I don’t capiche. Seriously, Manhattan is a grid, most of the streets are numbered – it couldn’t be easier to locate your own dot on its map.
I wonder if I’m now officially eschewing grids and lines and maps. I seem to be feeling my way around instead now all the time. The landmarks and guideposts have changed as I’ve gotten older – no, as I’ve become more myself. Instead of heading due ‘north’, I’m heading due ‘what feels right’. It influences my writing dramatically – instead of following a copywriting map, I’m following the things that turn me on. Bound for projects that inspire me, working with really wonderful people and, of course, creating my own way with my own words.
Still, though – sometimes I do get lost, turned around, confused. Unable to locate the place I want to go. Occasionally, I do need to know where north is. Those tangible points on the map in my hands become integral to the path I’m following on the intangible map in my head.
Thank god I don’t have a problem asking for directions. And then letting myself follow some kind stranger’s words…out of their mouth and off their pointed fingertip to the place I’m ready to go.
Image credit: Sarah G…’s