I hold tightly to my preschooler’s hand as we dismount the jostle of the crowded city bus. I gingerly step on the icy sidewalk trying desperately to be steady enough for both of us. He gleefully crunches his feet in a pile of muddy snow. We begin to trudge together down the pavement lined with a hodge-podge fancy skyscrapers and dilapidated old shacks.
My little boy chats incessantly about the trees and the cars and the birds flying overhead. I occasionally interject a sound of affirmation so that he knows I’m still listening. But as I listen I’m glancing around a bit nervously. Due to some road construction the bus took a detour today, and I’m not precisely sure where we are.
I know the general neighborhood we are in, and I know the general direction that I think we need to walk to reach our destination. But my lack of precision has made me a little unsettled. I glance at my phone and realize that the detour has also made us late, and I don’t have a lot of time for wrong turns or missteps.
I walk with some measure of confidence down the first two blocks. But then I see a tall blue building with an intricate tile design along the top. I recognize it immediately. I know I’ve passed it a hundred times on the bus. The problem is that I’m not quite sure if this is a confirmation that we are going the right way, or a signal that we have gone too far. Do I usually pass the building before the park? Does it come after the flower shop? I can’t remember. It is so familiar, and yet I can’t place it in relation to any of the other landmarks that come to mind.
My son stops to collect some fallen pine cones, and I gaze longingly up and down the street. I keep hoping for something that will jog my memory and put everything back in perspective. Nothing. Just this tall blue tiled reminder that familiarity does not ensure a clear path forward. I have been here before, but I still don’t know which way to go.
We reach the next intersection and I make a rash decision to turn right. I’m fairly confident that right is actually not the direction that we need to go. But, I am also convinced that if I go right I will eventually come upon something I recognize.
My son continues to collect pine cones. I don’t argue with him as he gleeful presents me with each one to safeguard in my purse. I dutifully pack them away. Each new pine cone sighting propels him down the sidewalk towards his next acquisition happily unaware of our predicament.
We continue down the road to the right, and sure enough we hit the park. Suddenly everything snaps into place. My brain conjures up a map that carefully connects the bus stop, the park, the blue building, and our destination. I am reoriented instantly. All is clear. All is familiar and safe. I know exactly where we are. I take a deep breath, and my lungs fill up with confidence.
We cross the street, and I direct my toddler down the sidewalk on the opposite side. We march back in the same direction that we came. Of course, he doesn’t notice or care that we are back tracking. He is elated that this side of the street has a whole new treasure trove of pine cones to collect. Somehow I don’t mind either. Everything feels different now. What was hurried confusion, is now calm and purposeful progress. Sure enough. We reach our destination in good time just beyond the shiny blue tiles that perplexed me before.
I catch myself mumbling aloud, “Sometimes you have to go off course just to find your bearings.”
I sit with this a while. It seems true to me. Sometimes the truth is counter intuitive. Sometimes we need to be still and quiet in order to be more productive. Sometimes we need to step out of our work in order to engage it in deeper ways. Sometimes we need an evening away from our kids in order to appreciate them fully.
If we push ourselves to grit our teeth and push ahead when we feel lost, we risk getting further from our destination.
Don’t get me wrong. There are times when endurance and perseverance are important. There is a place for gritting your teeth and soldiering on. But there is also a time for pausing to gain perspective.
A time to push in and a time to pull back.
Life seems to me to be always about knowing precisely what time it is. But maybe it is also about enjoying the pine cones along the way.