Where are you going? In what direction are you facing at this very moment? Are you gazing into the eyes of the dawn as it crescendos in the east? Are you looking toward the North Star that guided your seafaring ancestors so many years ago? In this day of GPS and Mapquest, direction is less essential to survival than in past times.
Survival once depended on knowing that north lead to fresh water or that east was away from the tiger den. Many people are not consciously aware of their relationship to the Earth’s directions. I wonder if our ancestors would be shocked by how many people seem to wander ceaselessly, moving every few years, drifting from calling to calling, on an apparent search for who they truly are and for an indication of their place in the universe. Perhaps our forebears would have shown us how to tell direction by the observing the growth pattern of moss on trees or the shadows on the ground to help us find our way.
These days, we think of ourselves as coming from the North or South, or the Western Hemisphere, or the East Coast, but these designations often divide us without really having meaning about who we are. I grew up thinking of myself as a “Yankee,” because although my mother was from the South, we lived in the North. Whenever we visited her relatives in Alabama, I was reminded of my northern upbringing by the differences in accent, cuisine, and church denominations. Still, these things had little to do with latitude and everything to do with the historical accident of where immigrants settled centuries ago. I was a northerner not because I knew how to survive in the cold or loved the stark beauty of an Arctic landscape, but simply because I was born in the North.
I mourn what we have lost by forgetting the importance of directions. I only knew exactly in what direction I was going when I lived in Manhattan. Much of that borough is laid out like a grid with obvious north-south and east-west streets. I felt “on course” always knowing where I was, and also that I could find my way back home. I wonder if having my physical bearings helped me keep my spiritual bearings as well.
I have only known for a few years that some traditional cultures associate ancestors, bears, wolves, and earth, among other things, with the North. After learning this and realizing that I have always been drawn to history and gardens, and even adored wolves and bears, I felt as if I had come home. When I think about a direction’s deeper meaning, the world makes more sense to me. I know in my bones that east is the place to be reborn because it is where the sun rises each morning. I can feel that west is a place of moving between the worlds because it is where the sun goes at the end of the day before we enter night’s state of sleep. I look to the south and remember the transforming heat of the sun.
When your directional identity is no longer tied to your place of birth, you can choose what suits you best at that moment. In fact, I find that my directionality has changed over time. When I first realized that I was not necessarily a northerner because of where I was born, I became attached for a time to the southern attributes of being a sun-worshipper and lover of summer. I made a ritual of going out on the first day of real warmth, absorbing the sun’s essence, tingeing my skin pink so I could carry the sun with me all season. All of my favorite clothes were shorts and shells, as if winter were a time only for ashes and rags. When I transformed myself from north to south, new aspects of my personality—more cheerful and outgoing—emerged.
As I grew older, my attention moved back to the North. Last summer I devoured books about Viking voyages to Iceland and about contemporary life in the Arctic Circle. Then, this past winter when continual storms and cold made walking outdoors nearly impossible, I discovered snow shoes and the visceral thrill of walking atop mountains of snow and ice. More than that, I have come to accept my middle age and that I am becoming an elder, an attribute of the north. Maybe I became a northerner again because it was time to circle back to how I had been as a child.
We can also go beyond the traditional north-south-east-west. In many traditional cultures, up is considered a direction. It’s not simply our physical sky, but also our aspirations and dreams of Heaven. Down is a direction, although not into Hades, but rather into ourselves or the solid groundedness of the earth. Moving to center is also a direction. To me it is a still point, or a place where you need not go any farther because you are already there.
Via an airplane, my mother expressed her inborn relationship to the direction of “up.” Flying was not her hobby; it was her spiritual practice and the only time when she felt truly able to be her best self. She had been born a Southerner, but her true home was the sky. Long before she became a pilot, she was able to see the bigger picture as well as the details, like the eagle, and used that skill to root out social injustice and deceit whether in societies or acquaintances.
When I stop thinking of our world as a flat, two-dimensional map and remember that it is round like a globe, then directions connect rather than divide. Directionality is no longer a description, but a means. “South” is no longer a place, but is a way to get to other people whose way of life has things to teach me. Adding “up,” “down,” and “center” brings a spiritual element to the directions, as we use them to go deep within ourselves, or rise above a situation’s complications, or realize that each of us is the center of our own world and only we can make it the way we want it to be.
Our recent millennia have included times of separation and sorting—this nation is this way; that person is that way; I belong here but not there. We can no longer perceive of the world in such a way—we simply have too many opportunities to violently solve our differences, real or not. Changing how we think about directions can alter how we think about our world and ourselves.
When I face west, I am welcoming an entire hemisphere’s worth of people to my half of the world. When I face south, I am offering a little bit of my northern self as a gift to half the globe. Now when I feel lost, I can remember that I know exactly where I am because we are, each of us, the center of our own inner compass. I am never lost because wherever I am in the universe, that’s where I belong, and so do you.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~Author Bio: CAROLYN LEE BOYD is a New Englander who writes fiction, poetry, essays, reviews, and memoirs celebrating the spirituality and creativity in women’s everyday lives. Over the past three decades, she has published in women’s and feminist literary, art, and spirituality magazines, both in print and online. You may read her occasional musings and published writings, as well as download a free copy of her new novel at her blog, Goddess in a Teapot. You are invited to contact her through her blog’s contact page.