In January 2011, I found myself on a bus that was slowly winding its way through the Japanese countryside and up into the mountains. I had the window seat and to my left, sat a lady. Damp leaves and thick layers of snow coated the ground like an aging carpet. Fog hung in the air, and smoke rose softly from the chimneys of farmhouses that were scattered on the landscape. There must have been forty shades of grey dangling in that view. Soft greys, blue greys, muted, ashy, gunmetal greys. There was smudged charcoal, crisp slate, and bruised looking shadows, all of which looked like a painting unfolding before my eyes, invisible brushstrokes coming out of the woods and the woodworks.
Unfortunately, the lady next to me missed it … all of it. She didn’t see the heavy mist, or the low hanging cloud that gently coddled the pavement ahead of us, and the stone walls beside us, the ones that were quickly becoming our past. She didn’t see it because her eyes were glued to a map that sat open on her lap. She studied the map with great focus. Looking up only when the driver announced the names of cities as we crept in and crawled out. As he said each name she would trace a line with her finger from the cities we were pulling out of, to the cities we were pulling into, as if determined to know exactly where she was on the map.
I used to love maps. I used to use them in a similar way because it made me feel like I had more control over where I was going. If I could pinpoint exactly where I was on the map, or locate myself on a piece of paper, I felt like I was the one driving the bus (pun intended). As if knowing exactly where I was physically would somehow translate into knowing exactly where I was mentally, emotionally, or spiritually.
I would hold my finger steady on the intersection I believed I was at and it was as if I was saying to myself, “I’m not lost, I’m right here.”
But that afternoon, as I watched this woman do exactly what I had always done, I began to question my use of maps.
“Why do I need to know how much longer it is until I get to where I am going?” I wondered. “Why do I need to know the distance from where I’ve been to measure how far I’ve come?”
Years have passed since that bus ride and let me tell you something I have learned since then. If you’ve never been where you are about to go there’s no piece of paper with lines, legends, or landmarks that’s going to help you get there. Everything you need to figure that out is already inside you.
The other day, I took my morning coffee and a book and went outside. I found a big, old tree stump to sit on and after reading for a while I looked down. The stump, upon closer inspection was beautiful and as I was pulled in further I realized that in addition to being an aged collection of roots, it was also a map - a multidimensional, raised relief, ring heavy, x-marks-the-spot, sheet-of-the-world, map. And looking at it made me pretty sure that in its heyday, everything it needed to know about becoming a grand tree it took from combining the sun and the soil with the map that was etched deeply within its skin.
So look out the window and watch the clouds as they weep. Look out and watch as the dark grey road in front of you as it seeps into the one you are on right now, future to present right before your very eyes. Because who knows? Maybe you’ve already arrived, maybe you are exactly where you are supposed to be. Maybe you’ll discover that right beneath the slowly dripping, sticky sap lies a wildly twisting topographical map.