Lost

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I inherited a disability from my father. It wasn’t evident at birth. Instead, this quirk was revealed only as I matured. My affliction is subtle, allowing me to safely fly under the radar in most situations. I’ve developed a number of coping mechanisms to help me masquerade as a competent adult who knows her place in time and space. But when the connections in my brain were forming, a hiccup prevented the development of a sense of direction. Whenever I step outside of my familiar territory, I am robbed of any innate sense of where I am in the world.

My issue first came into focus when I got my driver’s license. Even after spending most of my childhood in my small town, any intuition I thought I had on to how to get from point A to point B proved untrustworthy. Street names held little meaning for me because I lacked understanding of the larger grid. Landmarks were no help. Familiar buildings failed to guide me in a world I’d known all my life, where every block held a memory. I had lots of details but no spatial memory needed to tie them together in my mind. To further complicate my situation, my rural community required a drive of approximately 45 minutes in order to reach civilization. In the new modern world, my survival strategies would be deemed primitive. All I had to rely on was a paper map and the kindness of strangers. Lacking technology or skills, that’s all I had.

When I consider all the times I’ve been lost while driving, it’s difficult to even pull up specific examples. It’s been such a common occurrence that my memories are comprised mostly by the emotions that surface. The realization builds slowly. I notice something that seems out of place, and I’m unsettled. A roadside sign confirms that I’m not going in the direction I intended. My heart speeds up as the car slows down. Shame paints my cheeks pink and frustration fills my eyes with tears. The bully in my brain begins his taunting.  Desperation and fear duke it out. Finally, I surrender and throw myself on the mercy of some random gas store attendant (who may or may not give good advice.)

I moved to Chicago after college, and was quickly overwhelmed by the traffic and its unfamiliar layout. It used to make me crazy when well-meaning friends would tell me that the foundation of their directional sense was the simple knowledge that Lake Michigan is always to the east. (How could I use the lake as my guide when I couldn’t see it past all the big buildings?!?)

Handwritten, step-by-step directions approved by my friends were my security blankets. I didn’t leave home without them. They told me how to get to the grocery store, how to get to Target, and how to get to each job interview. (Not arrogant enough to assume I could do an on-the-spot mental reversal of the steps, I also made corresponding “how to get home” lists.)

Eventually, I caught on. Learned some street names and the directions they ran. Thankfully, the major city streets went for miles and miles, providing me with assurance that if I could simply get on Halsted and go north, I’d eventually find an intersection that I recognized. And I have to confess that the lake did eventually become a helpful landmark. I consider my years in Chicago foundational in helping me learn the meanings of the words north, south, east, and west. They’re still not hard-wired in my system, but at least we’ve been introduced.

Knowing my limitations has caused me to work with them and inspired me to incorporate some helpful practices. I build extra travel time into my plans whenever going somewhere new. Carpooling with friends often provides me with a wiser navigator or at least someone with whom to share the adventure. Google Maps is my new guardian angel who lives in my cell phone. Above all, I find comfort in the knowledge that I have direct access to the One who sees me at all times, and is able to guide me home.

I came across a quote yesterday in a book that struck a chord with me. It put into words what I have felt in my own experience and what I see around me in those that feel lost in their own lives. Ann Patchett wrote: “My mother used to say that the more lost you are, the later it got, and the more you had invested in not being lost. That’s why people who are lost so often keep heading in the same direction.

I know what it feels like to be lost and yet to keep going, not wanting to admit defeat. Both on the road and in life, I’m well acquainted with the internal demons that prevent progress. Pride makes me act as if I know what I’m doing. Fear shuts my mouth to keep me from asking for help. Shame ties up and isolates me when I’m lonely and hurting. The only solution I’ve found is to face them head-on. Admitting my weakness brings relief and freedom. Surrender is the first step towards being reoriented. Pretending is exhausting, so I try to live honestly.

If I am ever asked to share what I’ve learned at a support group for the directionally challenged, my advice might sound something like this:

When you’re lost, what you need most is someone you can trust. Something fixed, and certain, to guide you. Clear boundaries. Wisdom from someone who possesses a better perspective on where you are and where you want to go, who can see the bigger picture. Someone who has your good at heart and won’t mess with you for his own amusement. When you’re frequently lost, it’s worth considering whether your trust has been misplaced. It might be time to find a more trustworthy guide.

Choose unchanging landmarks. Getting your bearings involves returning to basic truths you can count on and come back to when nothing else makes sense. On the road, these may mean fixed points like rivers and buildings. In life, it’s worth investigating the claims of the One who called Himself “The Way, The Truth, and The Life.” (John 14:6) Figure out what you really believe. It’s worth the effort to find a reliable compass.

Finding the way is usually a gradual process. Step one: admit defeat and surrender to the fact that the route you chose isn’t going to get you where you want to go. Step two: choose to listen with an open mind. Step three: change direction, staying alert for the next indication that you’re heading the right way. (Warning: this process requires the following: humility, willingness to repeat each step as necessary, and a sense of humor that permits you to laugh at yourself.) Step four: celebrate with relief and gratitude when you arrive safely at your destination. Give credit where credit is due, and don’t get cocky. Every new leg of the journey will be unfamiliar so don’t be fooled into thinking you can make it on your own.

Pay attention. Read the signs and obey them to keep from running into dead ends or going in circles. Lots of people roll through life following the person in front of them, getting sidetracked and never arriving at their intended destination. Not all roads lead home. As Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Notice your surroundings, and make intentional choices. If they don’t get you where you want to go, make a note and choose differently next time.

My disability keeps me humble. My good friends know not to trust my intuition on the road. (If I say to go left, you’d be wise to turn right!) But as I navigate through this confusing world, I am carefully kept and gently guided. My internal GPS may have some bugs, but I venture out in dependence and trust, thankful for the One who journeys with me.

* From Ann Patchett’s collection of essays: This is the Story of a Happy Marriage

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signs, signs, everywhere signs…

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Saturday morning was a holy day of sorts for me as a runner. I have the good fortune to live in the city that boasts the largest half-marathon in the country, one which I have personally completed three times in the last ten years. The Mini Marathon kicks off a month of festivities in the city of Indianapolis, leading up to the Indy 500 auto race on Memorial Day weekend.

A nagging injury has plagued me for the better part of the last year. I was unable to even entertain the idea of running 13.1 miles with 40,000 of my closest friends this time around. I’ve been faithfully working toward rehabilitation and taking baby steps to get back on track. Over the past six weeks, I’ve been religiously following my back-to-running schedule. Some of those early “runs” were a mere five minutes in length. But like a turtle plodding along the path, I persevered and hit a milestone that morning: a thirty minute run.

So while my friends were running the “Mini”, I embarked on my own “Micro-Mini” in my own neighborhood, along my routine route mapped out years ago. The early morning spring air, cool breeze and bursts of color in the pink and white flowering trees lining the path conspired to make me feel like I was springing to life as well.

In order to honor my commitment to slow progress, I wouldn’t yet be able to complete the whole four-mile route. Nevertheless, I jogged with a light heart, content when it was time to turn around after a mile and a half, just about the time I reached my daughter’s school. As soon as I did, I saw a sign on the side of the road. I’m sure I’ve driven by this same point without a second thought for nearly a decade. But this time, it got my attention.

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It struck me that I have mere months left until I arrive at the top of life’s proverbial hill and start descending. I’ve arrived at the midpoint of life and a new decade stretches out ahead of me. It hit me: this is it, my life. The implications and reality of this fact suddenly came into sharp focus, like the stark black of the text in front of me.

It’s my children, not me, that are now squarely situated behind institutional walls designed to help mold, shape and prepare them. I long ago launched out in the sink-or-swim reality of the grown-up world. There are limits and responsibilities of my new season that should and do slow me down. I’ve grown in awareness of the need to reduce my speed and to find a pace and a rhythm – in running and in life – that suit my physical and spiritual needs. I’ve ventured beyond the school zone, so my growth is my own responsibility. I don’t want to stop learning now but it makes me wonder what wisdom I’ll discover in this quickly approaching new season.

Once confronted by this truth, I began wondering what other signs along my path have gone unnoticed as I zoomed past on my way to whatever was next. It wasn’t long before more of them appeared.

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The construction season is well underway here in our Midwestern city. The ground has thawed, temperatures have moderated and improvements are in the works all over town. The roads I depend upon to get me where I need to go have been or will soon be torn up by heavy machinery. Some are being rerouted, others are having pothole cavities filled and getting a fresh coat of blacktop. Traffic patterns have been unraveled as a result. These interruptions to my routine have made me travel well out of my way and added time to my commutes. What irks me is that just when I think I’ve got an alternate route secured, a new project begins and thwarts my plans.

This morning, though, I’m on foot, not behind the driver’s wheel. As the neon orange signs grab my attention, I consider how these messages translate to my personal speed and direction.

Their obnoxious color shouts that now is the time to slow down and pay attention. Recklessness and speeding cause me to disregard safety. When I’m self-absorbed, I am blind to the impact of my choices. These signs remind me that there’s a price to be paid for exceeding limits. And that the directions I’m following might not get me where I want to go. I may moving at a fast clip, oblivious to my surroundings, laser-focused on my own agenda. But if I believe that I’m not the main character in this story called life, I have to remain alert and open to holy interruptions. I have to surrender when course corrections are necessary and trust that the One who installs the signs will get me where I’m supposed to be.

The alternate road may not be the most direct way to get from Point A to Point B. It may wind around and wander off the beaten path, maybe even through areas I’d prefer not to visit. But when I trust the Navigator and carefully listen to His instructions, I know I’m in good hands. I’ll never really be lost.

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Just past the construction signs, I round the corner into my subdivision. This time, it’s the neighborhood watch sign that catches my eye. My heart fills up with gratitude as I consider the community in which I’ve been planted. When we purchased our home, we purposely opted to live in close proximity to others. Having grown up in a tight-knit small town, a place where everybody truly knows your name, I want my kids to have the same benefit, to feel rooted and known.

Neighbors are like family members- you don’t get to choose them. But when you put down roots and engage with them they become a part of your story. A healthy neighborhood allows us to experience interdependence, everyday care and a safety net of connection in a world that is increasingly disconnected and lonely. The sign might have been placed there in an effort to deter criminals but it stood as a reminder to me of the gift of being known.

IMG_20150502_082357158As I slow my pace and begin the home stretch, this image on a happy yellow background stands out against the bright blue sky. I’m only moments from reentering my current role as mother. This sign’s warning serves two purposes. It’s a call to watch over and protect their lives from harm. Kids, in their innocence, live unaware of potential danger. Their little minds and bodies need protection, of course. But then I remember that their childhood – which is fleeting – does too. They need to have space and freedom to run, explore, pretend and play.IMG_20150502_132421175(1) As do I.

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My thirty minutes are up, and I begin my cool-down, slowing to a walk. As I turn down my street, a final sign greets me. I smile at its message: STOP. Commonplace reminders like this one show up on every corner. Their red faces stare right at me and demand my attention. Ignoring them will get me into trouble. Obeying them will preserve my life.

Grateful for this half-hour pause in my day, I reflect on the importance of stillness, which I found while in forward motion. And even though I couldn’t earn a medal with the masses, I received the rewards waiting along my own course.