My GPS stopped working this past week. Where I once could set my desired destination and be guided by a calm female voice through the streets and freeways of my city, confident I’d arrive without getting lost, the voice disappeared, leaving me only with a small map on the screen of my cell phone—impossible to read while driving. I unfortunately discovered the malfunction as I drove to my drumming class, housed in a new location in an area of the city I do not know last Monday night. I turned on my navigation app and headed toward the freeway, only to realize my cell phone GPS was silent. I pulled to the side of the road and quickly studied the map. I arrived later than I intended, making more than one wrong turn. Three hours later, I headed for home, but mistakenly turned east instead of west, and again found myself in unfamiliar territory, struggling to read street signs in the dark and correct my course.
I walked into the house sometime later, frustrated and tired, and complaining about the failure of my GPS. “Your compass calibration must not have been working,” my husband said. He meant the device on the telephone, but he may as well been talking about my sometimes confused sense of direction, turning right, as I did when I exited the parking lot of my class, instead of left. I still am without a GPS, which probably means I’ll have to take my cell phone back to the store and ask for help, since I am now dependent on the device for getting me from point A to point B.
How, I wonder, have I managed without the navigational device for the better part of my life? Before technology intervened, I did just fine without one, doing what most of us did: asking for directions and writing them down before I got in the car. When Google introduced their maps, I printed the turn by turn directions out in large print and followed them. I still made wrong turns from time to time, but if lost, I’d stop and ask for help. On occasion, I’d arrive a little late, but I can’t remember a time that I didn’t get to where I intended to go—all without a GPS.
It got me to thinking about the preponderance of self-help books on the market–publications full of instructions for navigating through life. Did you know that self-help books represent a $10 billion a year industry? Whether we want to initiate change in our lives or we’re forced to change due to unexpected illness, hardship or losses, there’s likely a book, CD or DVD out there that will tell you how to do it. The thing is, as Dr. Jim Taylor states in a 2011 Huffington Post article, “The Problem with the Self-Help Industry,” when it comes to life change, “…you have to make the journey yourself.”
In her poem, “There’s Not a Book On How To Do This,” Sharon Doyle offers us a glimpse of her cancer journey as she describes sketching the composition for her autumn garden:
There’s not a book on how to do this,
but there is an emphasis on composition.
The trucks that slug by under our window
hold trombones, mirrors, dictionaries.
It’s not my fault they invade
the calm of trees like cancer. I
don’t have cancer anymore…
…I rarely remember the
uterus I don’t have. One of my sons said,
“You were done with it right away, right, Mom?”
I guessed so…
“There’s not a book on how to do this…” Think about it. Whether cancer, divorce, the loss of a loved one, job loss—any major life challenge—we don’t have a GPS or an instruction booklet to help us navigate through the upheaval, fear, or grief. We do have the comfort of friends and family, of physicians and helping professionals, but ultimately, the journey is ours to make, the road full of unexpected twists and turns, conundrums and set-backs. Yet little by little, we find our way and without even realizing it, begin composing a new life with each step we take—one that honors where we’ve been but also embraces what we have discovered in our journey.
Doyle’s loving gifts from her family, the birdsong and flowers, are symbolic of the support that gave her courage and hope as she made her way back to health. In the final stanza, we smile as we discover that her garden, as well as her life, has room for celebration:
I left vacant fourteen
trellis lightscapes for
(From The Cancer Poetry Project, p. 52)
This week, reflect on your life journey. It’s unlikely you were handed a GPS or a book of instructions to help you navigate challenges and find your way as your life unexpectedly changed in ways you never anticipated. What helped you navigate the rough waters of such profound and unexpected change? What internal compass—your beliefs, aspirations, or faith—played a part in helping you rediscover hope and embrace a new life? How have you left room to celebrate the gifts of life, of love and friendship so important in your recovery?