Saturday, August 11, 2012

On Finding a Sense of Direction

For 15 years, I have been coming to Somers Point, NJ, to meet up with a close friend whom I only see once a year. Another long-term friend of hers gives us the use of his cozy ranch house (with central air) while he is abroad. I fly or take the train. She picks me up and does all the driving. For 15 years I had no idea where I was or where we were going beyond our straight walk up the bike path or the occasional late afternoon meander to one of our watering holes a mile away. She was my tour guide, and I relied on her to get us to our destination--the Acme, the movies, Atlantic City, Ocean City, the market with the fresh Jersey produce, the shopping plaza with our favorite store and its annual markdowns. Occasionally, she would take a wrong turn, and I was of little help. The area was just a set of landmarks to me, with no connective tissue. There were no maps in the car, and until recently, no GPS. And all those years I didn’t pay attention because I didn’t have to.

This year because of an illness in the family, my friend had to cancel our pilgrimage, and my husband, a mid-westerner who had never been to the Jersey Shore, agreed to come in her stead. We drove down from Boston. Although I have GPS, I always Mapquest a journey and study the map, zooming in on those final steps. When I am behind the wheel, I want to know the contour the trip, to understand when the GPS lady is steering me wrong. She often does. Mapquest wanted to take me to a different exit from the one we usually take. I took in the shape of the town. The main road names were familiar. But this time I saw their relationship to each other--how far apart they were, where they intersected, where the bridges were connecting us to the island communities along the coast. I created a mental map of the region for the first time.

I listened to the GPS lady, with her monotone voice, and we did what she said (because Mapquest had also endorsed that same final route). As we exited the Garden State Parkway at Exit 30 (instead of the usual Exit 36) and came to our required left turn, I had a Eureka moment. All of a sudden, the world was familiar. But unlike all my previous journeys, I now understood where we were and how we could get to all our haunts. Perhaps I had absorbed some of the specifics after all these years, but this was the first time I had a big picture, and all the pieces were falling into place. What surprised me was how empowering that was. Previously, I had ceded control, and now it was in my hands.

I think there is a life lesson here. Even as adults, sometimes it’s freeing to let others guide us for awhile, to make short-term decisions. That is especially true in times of grief or illness. Other times, we yield responsibility because we are on someone else’s territory or we don’t want to be the bossy one. But in general, we shouldn’t rely on the GPS lady for direction. She doesn’t know our needs. Far better is to have a big picture in our heads--to know that we can take different routes to a destination, that we can even meander a bit, if we so choose. We can do our own “recalculating,” thank you very much. And if we get a little lost, it’s fine to ask for help.

As for me, I am going to appreciate Somers Point and surrounding towns in a whole new way. But next time I am here with my friend, my challenge will be to keep my mouth shut, even if I think I know a better way, because part of friendship is knowing which battles to fight and taking Exit 36 rather than Exit 30 isn’t one of them.

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