Thursday, September 30, 2010

Directions, maps, and compass: Navigating on the road -- and off

When I set off on the Great Road Trip East, I started in Oakland, California and pointed the car in the direction of Minneapolis. I figured if I covered two states, one set of mountain ranges, and one time zone each day, I'd make the trip in three days.

That is, if I didn't get lost.

I downloaded directions, which gave me point-to-point instructions, right down to which way to turn out of my driveway. Basically, my directions were simple and idiot-proof: Take interstate 80 east and turn left at Des Moines. That was good for about 1800 miles.

I also brought along maps, because maps pointed out small towns, larger towns, and the spaces in between. Maps told me when I crossed the Rockies and where the Wasatch Range lay. Maps pointed out the North Platte River, which so many pioneers followed west -- and I now followed east. Most helpful, at least on the Great Road Trip, maps revealed rest stops, gas stations, and the Golden Arches of McDonald's, where I could caffeinate for the road ahead. This was good information to have.

I also brought along a compass, just in case. The compass lived on the dashboard, and it always pointed to "true north." For some reason, that gave me great comfort. One foggy morning in Nebraska, I couldn't tell whether the sun was rising or where. I pulled into a rest stop to consult the compass, just to make sure I was still going east. When directions fail, when maps lose their bearing, a compass can orient you in deep fog. That deep fog can be physical or spiritual; it can be personal or institutional. Compasses are kind of good to have around.

This is kind of a trinity of travel paraphernalia: each one does something the others do not.

Directions are linear, moving from point-to-point. They are enormously helpful, if you know precisely where you're coming from --and precisely where you're headed. Directions are sequential, like cookbooks, giving a step-by-step plan of action. First, peel; then, puree -- not the other way around! Finally, directions are bossy: they tell you what to do. And after all the decisions that went into packing up my old place and setting up my new one, my executive capacity had snapped like a worn-out rubber band. I needed someone else directing traffic.

Maps are planar and spatial, surveying a particular terrain. They display relationships; they tell you what's alongside. Here is this range of mountain; there is that river; twenty miles ahead you'll find a rest stop. Finally, maps are simply descriptive. They display the quadrants of the known world, laying them out for you to figure it all out. While directions say: "Do this!" a map, in contrast, says: "Here it is."

A compass offers basic orientation. Nothing more -- and certainly nothing less. A compass provides the most comprehensive -- but least specific! -- kind of guidance. They are useful when the destination is not known. Or not clear. Or has not yet been manifest.

Now I've arrived: I'm here. And I did not get lost.

I've thrown away my directions, because I'll never be making the journey from that place to this one ever again. I've put away my maps, because I'm not on the road.

The compass, however, I keep in my pocket, for it provides sturdy and unflinching direction for days whose destination is unknown or unclear or not yet manifest. If only the endpoint of each day would arrive in a little envelope outside my door like the morning paper.... But to navigate the days off road, a compass gives the best guidance.

Off-road travel is really different from being on a great road trip. I find myself listening for direction. Sometimes that comes from friends and trusted confidants, both in what they say and what they leave unsaid. At other times, that compass comes from some internal gyroscope that spins away, pointing me in both right and wrong directions.

Mostly, I just try to pay attention, hoping Isaiah got it right:

"And though the Lord give you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction,
yet your Teacher will not hide himself anymore,
but your eyes shall see your Teacher,

And your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying:
'This is the way, walk in it,'
when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left."
(Isaiah 30:20-21)

This is the journey of ordinary time.


  1. Marty, Why is it that ordinary time is so much more appealing that normal? Something to ponder. Perhaps normal evokes norms and rules and standards one can not meet, while ordinary time alludes to the grain that grows even as the farmer sleeps. One is law-like; the other gracious? LDL

  2. I really connected with and love the way you've described the functions of the "trinity of travel paraphernalia." My daughter is attending college in Chicago (we live in California) and we borrowed a friend's GPS device to help us find our way to the closest Target, etc., to pick up all the necessities that weren't worth paying to ship or pay airline baggage fees for. While the GPS was wonderful for telling us exactly how to get from Target to Office Depot to the mall and then back to campus, there was no context; even though we never got lost, I never REALLY felt like I knew where I was either! I guess I am basically a map person--maps lay out the options and let you pick one. I haven't much experience using a compass (and I wasn't very good with one when I tried), but your post has given me much to think about--the offer of basic orientation is nothing to sneeze at when you are no longer in familiar territory.

    I'm not sure I would agree with LDL that ordinary time is more appealing than "normal" (at least not for me, the map person!) During the rest of the church year, from Advent to Easter, it is pretty clear where we are heading--we can take some side trips along the way, but there isn't much question about where we are being directed. In ordinary time, however, all bets are off and we have to figure out the next steps ourselves--like Marty, "trying to pay attention and hoping Isaiah got it right." Maybe if I can get better acquainted with the compass, I'll spend a little less time feeling lost.

  3. In the last month I have driven to Eastern Oregon, to Astoria on the coast, and then down to Klamath Falls--and your post about directions, the map and the compass all ring true to me.

    A book to read-- Margaret Silf, At Sea with God, Sorin books, Notre Dame--- an Englishwoman using metaphors of navigation, etc. in our spiriutal life. She has written others as well, but the chapters on discovery of navigation, where everyone thought it would be about star gazing and it turned out to be how to tell time at port and at sea, is a wonderful story of discovery, as well as her application to our journeys.

    Blessings on your beginning there-- and keep writing!
    Susan Kintner, Portland, OR