Willow Wonderings

Maps & Compasses

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Everything I could ever need to know in life, I could learn from a backpacking trip.

It’s kind of like those posters that talk about the Golden Rules of Kindergarten: play nicely with the other kids, share your cookie at lunchtime, be friendly to the janitors, do your homework, don’t run on the playground if there are kids swinging nearby..

Only, in backpacking, it sounds like this: Bring what you need – no more, and no less – as it will all have to stay on your back. Take care of yourself before you start to care for others unless you want frostbite. Bringing Snickers along makes any trek more enjoyable. Prevent the blister while tending to your feet when they start to rub, or else small hot spots become major pains. Complaining about the cold doesn’t make it any warmer – but cuddling does wonders.

This weekend, I finished my semester-long Wilderness Leadership Skills Course with fourteen friends on a winter backpacking trip to Mount Rogers, Virginia. We were set off in groups of four with maps and  planned routes to meet throughout the weekend. Each of us contributed to packing our own gear, planning our routes, preparing logistics, and readying our minds and bodies for some pretty intense weather.

I love the cold – forgive me if I sound like a whiny Southerner when I say it was freezing. Like, wind chill below ten degrees when we woke up on Sunday morning, frost on my sleeping bag, snow covering the ground freezing.  

Given the frigid weather, backpacking this weekend taught me the importance of keeping a steady pace. When I was given the task of leading my group on an uphill hike under time constraints, I was afraid of falling behind and hiked at a much-too-rapid pace. I wanted to be efficient, and that intensity meant exhausting ourselves with spurts of energy. My group helped me to realize we could slow down, especially when navigation became tricky. We found our way, but we arrived to a cold winded plateau 1.5 hours early! I learned from this experience that going slowly and steadily, placing each step with intention, sustains the body and the spirit. The “slow and steady” approach to hiking and to life requires endurance and steadfast patience, but always produces more lasting enjoyment.

While navigating, I also realized that my rush to make decisions kept me from reading my map correctly. Our course leaders taught us to use maps and compasses in the classroom, though putting the skills into use proved to be more difficult. I tried to use the map to tell me which trail to take, to predict where I would encounter streams, and how I would know I reached my destination. I forgot, however, to orient my map with my compass first, and several times I thought I was walking in an opposite direction! This led to many confused moments of disorientation and searching for signs in the woods.

The experience of map reading reminded me of grappling with major life decisions that come with navigating through college. How do I want to spend my summer? What classes should I take? What do I want out of college, and what is my purpose? I read websites for study abroad programs, met with professors, and made countless pro/con lists. No matter how much time I spent trying to figure it out, though, I still found myself in an anxious place. I was trying to put my future on a map, a direct route of classes, programs and opportunities that match my interests. Only one component was missing: the compass.

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In my opinion, the compass is a wondrous and magical instrument. It orients us towards north no matter where we stand on earth, and once the arrow points northward, it also reveals our current direction of travel. When held level and adjusted for declination, the compass gives consistent measurement for us to position our map and find our bearings. It changes as we walk and change our position, too, giving new guidance in each moment.

Related to the spiritual journey, the compass is an inner voice that orients our hearts toward union with the Divine. Prayer and meditation practices always serve as compasses that re-orient me toward the Light. When the fears of my ego become calm in silence, I can listen to my heart’s whispering – do not be afraid, my dear, there is no wrong step. I hear a word to speak to a friend, a poem to be written, an instruction to care for myself that guide me in the present. This gift can also come through fellowship – often, conversations or letters with soul friends can reconnect me to discern God’s will aligned with my true voice.

Even if I feel in union with God for just a moment, I no longer felt disoriented by the multitude of options all staring me in the face. I trust the Way of Grace to open and close doors just at the right pace. This perspective sorts through the many voices of the world and keeps me faithful to create my own, individuated path – perhaps through community gardens, travels in Latin America, and poetry classes. There is no guarantee that this path will be safe, or that it will lead to expected “successful” places; I may become poor and I know I will take many risks. Yet I will never be navigating alone, for God accompanies through the soulful adventure of the unknown.

My best friend Kathryn has four words written artfully at the top of her task: Trust in your journey. She, along with many of my dear friends at Davidson, remind me to slow down and take a breath – especially my friend Hillary who helps me to question my rushed decisions and keep my expectations in check. The mountain is there to climb – but it does not have to be mounted all at once (we do have a life post-graduation, after all!). As my dear friend and mentor Kaela reminded me last week, when choosing between options, there is no reason to be anxious – for there is no way to stray from the wide path of one’s calling. Most importantly, trust in the journey means that we do not have to solely rely upon old maps to guide us – but we can let a supreme Love walk with us one step at a time.

My hope for the few weeks remaining of this semester, and for the New Year to come, is to remain oriented by the compassion of Divine guidance. I hope to see my journey as a labyrinth, to embrace its twists and turns knowing it will all lead back to the center. At the core, I hope to listen to that inner voice calling me toward the Light.

Tell me, wise reader: What is your northward mark that lies at the core of your navigation? What helps you orient your map?

I leave you with a quote from “The Calling of Voices” by Frederick Buechner. Peace be with you for your journey!

“When you are young, I think, your hearing is better than it is ever going to be again…You are freer than most people to choose among all the voices and to answer the one that speaks most powerfully to who you are and to what you really want to do with your life. But the danger is that there are so many voices, and they are all in their own ways so promising. The danger is that you will not listen to the voice that speaks to you through the seagull mounting the grey wind, say, or the vision in the temple, that you do not listen to the voice inside you or the voice that speaks from outside but specifically to you out of the specific events in your life, but that you instead you listen to the great, boring, banal voice of our mass culture…

There is nothing moralistic or sentimental about this truth. It means for us simply that we must be careful with our lives, for Christ’s sake, because it would seem that they are the only lives we are going to have in this puzzling and perilous world, and that they are so very precious that what we do with them matters enormously. Everybody knows that. We need no one to tell it to us. Yet in another way perhaps we do need to be told, because there is always the temptation to believe that we have all the time in the world, whereas the truth of it is we do not. Because surely Marquand was right that for each of us there is a point of no return, a point beyond which we no longer have life enough left to go back and start all over again.”

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