An hour had passed before I realized I had taken a bit of a detour. It wasn’t so much the wrong route completely, just a different one, a potentially longer one, a route that inserted itself into my day and upended my travel schedule. This did not go over well.
I am a planner. I do maps, the old school, unwieldy kind that you have to unfold over your steering wheel or surreptitiously duck behind a building to unfurl on a street corner. When I travel long distances, I often have directions printed on paper, a map, and a GPS. I want my bases covered. I want backup. I want control.
In the days before smart tech did the thinking for us, I would arm myself or anyone else with directions so detailed they read like Proust. If you come to the great stone church with the yellow rose bushes in front, the one with the gazebo on the left that has the statue of Mary surrounded by three angels in it, one angel has a chipped wing, you’ve gone too far. I’m a big believer in more is more in those cases. I mean, the last thing you want to do is miss your turn and GO TOO FAR. The horror. I am more than a little seduced by the robotic voice that calmly and methodically redirects you no matter how tangled up you get in the nest of roads lacing up Any Town USA. Recalculating, says the voice, but what I hear is: You’re not lost, you’re not forgotten; I will find you.
When you detour you’re immediately thrown off balance. It’s unexpected and jarring, like sliding from the womb. It was clear from a few quick back and forth glances between the GPS and my paper directions that I was headed into parts unknown. I could turn around and retrace my route, adding what felt like a pound of time onto my already tight schedule or I could venture onward and put my trust in something waiting to reveal itself.
I exhaled and gave in to the mighty powers of the technological tracking device that I had shifted into my lap so I could swipe a look at it every few minutes as if to mentally say, “Are you with me? Are you still taking me to where I need to go or is this the part where we bang a left into the giant sink hole or washed out bridge?”
Knowing there are terrific possibilities in the detour—stumbling upon the best ice cream stand in North America, running across a vista of mountains and trees that steal your breath away, getting to see the birth place of James Brown by accident–does not make it any less nerve wracking, and I think it’s because these temporary alterations to our paths are subtle reminders of who’s really in charge. Spoiler alert: not you.
Our parents and grandparents knew the detour as a fact of life. As children and young adults of war, the detour was inevitable like June brides and . My mother used to recall the story she heard as a young girl about her father’s cousin walking home over the Italian Alps after World War I. Apparently there was simply no other way to get there from here, no chirpy robot keeping him company, no head to the airport and put yourself on the next flight home. As if waking up one day in a watery trench trying not to get killed wasn’t life interruptus enough. When the haze lifts you’re left to pick up and find your own damn ride home. I wonder if that almost seemed like a welcome detour for him at that point, if it helped him surrender to the literal road not taken.
We are called to move in different directions all the time, but we don’t always hear, we don’t always want to head down the less traveled byway without a damn good reason. Oh, because it’s where I’m supposed to be, GUS? Really? Are you sure? I know I can’t stand my job/partner/life/family/self and have been begging you for some serious intervention action here, but I was thinking more along the lines of winning the lottery or waking up as Oprah. You know, some form of divinity where you do most of the work? Can I at least have a hint about what’s up around the next turn, you ask, pausing hoping to hear that soothing mechanical voice purr, Recalculating, you’re not lost, you’re not forgotten, I will find you.
Instead what follows is silence save for the hum of wheels on pavement and the ticking of your heart as you realize you have no other choice but to adjust to this new course, to pay attention to the signs, to try and learn this foreign geography, to be lead instead of insisting on leading.
That’s where the real knee pit sweat kicks in. It’s when we’re forced to admit that we’re not really driving and detours aren’t mistakes or disasters or even inconveniences, they’re invitations to lose yourself for a little while and maybe find yourself there, too.