Have you ever returned to your childhood hometown and gotten lost? I spent last week visiting my parents and as we headed out to run an errand my mom asked, “Do you want to drive?” I said I would if she wanted me to, but that I would need directions. After a nanosecond worth of thought, she replied, “That’s okay. It’ll be faster if I drive.” Although I grew up in the area, I haven’t lived there for over three decades. My familiar landmarks have changed and I’ve lived and worked in several different cities since I left home. Yet, somehow there’s an expectation that I should know my way around the area. The odd thing is that this expectation conflicts with the fact that my whole family knows I am directionally challenged.
Why am I directionally challenged? I’ve come to a few conclusions. The primary one is the whole notion of north, south, east, and west is an abstract concept to me, much like the atoms and molecules I studied in chemistry. Compass directions are not concrete concepts. Having grown up where the mountains are to the east and the ocean is to the west, I was completely disoriented when I married and moved to a place, where in the words of my husband, “If you are driving towards the mountains, then you are heading north and if you are driving towards the desert, then you are heading east and if you’ve reached Disneyland, then you’ve gone too far west.” Even better yet, he used to persuade me to use the sun as my directional guide by making statements like, “If it’s the later part of the day and the sun is on your right side, then you are heading south.” My reply to that was, “What if it’s the middle of the day and what if I’m driving at night? I don’t see how the sun or the mountains can help with directions if you are driving at night and can’t see anything!”
Another thought about being directionally challenged is that I have an unusually good memory and am a visual learner. Compass directions have no meaning to me, but landmarks do. Give me a physical landmark and it makes an imprint in my brain. Directions like “Go two blocks and make a left at the purple building with the yellow trim and the blue shutters make more sense to me than “Go two blocks and turn east.” Unless I’ve been to a place before, I have no visual map to retrieve in my head. But if I’ve been to a place before, it’s no problem finding my way back.
Being directionally challenged is not a flaw, it’s just a different type of operating system. Maybe Thomas Wolfe was right, You Can’t Go Home Again, of course, unless you know how to get there!