Going My Way?


If someone publishes a directory of all the people in the world according to how strong their sense of direction is, and they put people who have a great sense of direction toward the top of the list, and people who have no sense of direction at the bottom of the list, don’t even bother thumbing through the book looking for my name. Just turn to the back. To the last page. There, at the bottom. That’s me.

My wife is on page 1. She doesn’t just have a good sense of direction; she has built-in radar. She thinks of GPS as a prosthetic device. She has been known to say, “GPS atrophies your mind. It numbs your brain. It makes you even less able to find your own way.” She’s assuming, though, that the direction-finding part of your brain isn’t already numb. Which mine is. I was born numb.

It’s bad to have no sense of direction, but it’s catastrophic if you have no sense of direction and also can’t read a map. Reading a map requires a certain frame of mind, I think, an ability to imagine yourself “up there,” like God, looking down on the earth, and then you hold that bird’s-eye view in your brain, and look around you, and translate what you saw from “up there” to “down here.” Which apparently indicates that another part of my brain was born numb. To me, a map is squiggles and shapes, a kind of Rorschach test that I’m doomed to fail.

Yes, I understand the basics of up north, down south, back east, and out west. But the details seem to be exceed my bandwidth. As a result, when I moved here to Ipswich, I gathered only a vague notion of how to get through the center of town. (Newcomers, beware: It’s very, very complicated.)

For starters, I needed to learn that Central Street becomes South Main Street and South Main Street becomes County Road, all of which are 133, but also 1A. OK, no problem. It’s all one street. It just has a number of aliases. (Possibly due to a history of trouble with the law.)

I also came to understand that I come more or less from my place on outer Linebrook (“out west”), and then I bend more or less to the right as I head toward Hamilton (“down south”). The operative phrase here, however, is “more or less.”

The reality is, I enter Five Corners heading southeast; and by the time I make that seemingly slight bend to the right after the Choate Bridge — by the time I pass Elm Street — I’m already headed totally south. Sure, the road wiggles back and forth as it passes through this part of town; but gosh darn it, it still feels “more or less” eastbound to me. It doesn’t feel really, truly southbound until you make that very distinct final right bend past the Museum and the Whipple House. In fact, when I first came to town, I thought if I turned off onto Elm Street, past the police station, I would be heading north. Not east. North.

Which made it almost impossible to become an Episcopalian.

“Let’s try the Episcopal church,” I said to my wife, the beautiful blonde human GPS unit.

Certainly I couldn’t bear the shame of turning on my actual GPS unit with her in the car. So we set out trusting my own sense of direction. Or lack thereof.

I knew Ascension, the Episcopal church, was somewhere up there, on County. But I didn’t want to negotiate that awkward cross-traffic move that gets you from 1A to the stop sign at County. So I turned off early, on Elm Street, and drove past the police station.

Of course, I thought I was heading north. I imagined when I came to the T at the end of Elm, I must be at Green Street. So I turned right — east, right? — to get over to County.

“Do you know where Ascension is?” my wife asked evenly as I turned right.

“Sure,” I replied, exuding false confidence. “It’s on County.”

“We’re on County now.”

Indeed we were. Before I knew it, we were approaching 1A — the very intersection I had tried to avoid — but from the north. I had only one thought: How the heck did I get here?

I can now certify that it’s possible to drive this route over and over again — Elm, County, South Main, Elm, County, South Main, all right turns — without ever arriving at Ascension Church.

But when you have no sense of direction, you learn to adapt.

“Let’s try the Baptists,” I finally said.


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