Part of my sabbatical I am spending alone in a cabin in the Kentucky bluegrass country. Google Maps predicted that it was a 6+-hour drive from Atlanta via I-75. Even in normal day-to-day driving, I hate traveling the crowded interstate. Especially I-285 and I-75 out of Atlanta, people driving at high speeds, with enormous impatience for anyone who slows them down even for a heartbeat. Add to that the drivers whose speed is erratic, first slow, then fast, distracted by their cell phones or the noise in their heads, and– Well! driving becomes something of an endurance test.
For sabbatical time and travel, I wanted something more interesting (and relaxing). I took the back roads, those two-lane highways that meander through small towns and broaden briefly to four lanes. Or three lanes as they twist through the mountains. Speed limits vary from 55 mph to 45 to 35, and back again, often with no clear indicator as to exactly what the speed limit is at any given point. But the GPS on my iPhone was all set, and a quick glance could tell me exactly what the speed limit was, as well as precisely where I was.
(As I passed a few houses with large Confederate flags, and more than a few billboards warning me of the imminent return of a very white Jesus, I wondered, If my skin were Black, would I dare to take the back roads?)
I was within 1-2 hours of my destination when my phone began to signal “Low battery.” No problem. I had brought along a charger for the car, of course! I plugged it into what used to serve in older cars as a cigarette lighter (for those of us old enough to remember), and then plugged it into my iPhone.
Nothing happened. I tried unplugging and replugging. Still no charge. I wiped off the plug end a little to clean it. Still nothing. I checked the lighter end of the charger: power was going to the charger, but not to my phone. I searched my mind for an explanation: Maybe this is the charger to my previous iPhone and doesn’t fit the new phone? I berated myself for not having checked on all these details before I left home.
Looking at the GPS map, I realized that, even if I had come by major highways, at this point in the journey I would be on country roads and state routes. After a moment of panic, I pulled over to a gas station/convenience store and asked to purchase a map. The young man looked at me above his mask; I could see he was puzzled. “I’m sorry, ma’am,” he said sincerely. “We don’t carry maps.” When I told him about my phone signal, he seemed anxious to help me find a solution. “Go to the resort up the road a ways, and ask there, ma’am. They may have a state map.” As I thanked him and returned to my car, it occurred to me that, with the advent of mobile phones, maps have gone the way of payphones. No one needs them, and there’s no profit to be made; so they have simply disappeared.
I could not find the resort. And in any case, there was no guarantee that they would have a map. The red low-battery indicator was getting thinner and thinner. Soon my phone would die. I pulled off to the side again and hurriedly wrote down the Google Map directions: R → Hwy#X, L → KYHwy#Z. I didn’t have time to write how many miles from point to point, but thank God I wrote down which way to turn!
The phone went dark. And that’s when I felt the shift. Imperceptible at first, but a definite shift in my brain. Not just in thought–a physical shift. I realized with surprise that a part of my brain that has lain dormant as I become more dependent on computer and cell phone technology was waking up. I began to be more present to the road and the signs along the side, because I could no longer depend on a cheery recorded voice (with an Irish accent) telling me, “In a quarter of a mile, turn left on Highway 49.” Since I wasn’t sure of the distance between points, I had to pay close attention to my scrawled directions and the route numbers. Even so, the mileage signs sometimes contradicted what I had written down. At one point I stopped on a two-lane country road with few cars and asked a woman in a bright pink T-shirt who was mowing the lawn along the road, “Am I going in the right direction to get to the Sisters of Loretto?” An impatient driver behind me honked and roared past, almost hitting her as she turned off the mower and came toward my car. “SLOW DOWN!” she yelled. I looked to my right; there was no place to pull off. So another driver, more patient, waited behind me while she gave me directions. No route numbers, just “the first right after the light,” and so on. I thanked her and drove off. At a couple of points I had to make decisions she hadn’t warned me about. Which way to go at that fork in the road? I fell back on my intuition and the direction of the sun. I began to smell the fields, the cows, freshly mown grass. As the tires of my car passed over the pavement, the fresh asphalt made a sticky whirring sound I had not noticed. I kept going, and I reached my destination with a sense of immense relief, and only an hour later than I had planned.
In his book Seven Thousand Ways to Listen, poet Mark Nepo writes about one time “driving the back way to work” in the snow and finding himself suddenly uncertain exactly which road he was on: “When I lost track of my context, I had to slow down considerably, but that allowed me to hear the snow falling on the covered branches. My way became immediate, and, if I hadn’t relocated myself my path would [nevertheless] have unfolded one step at a time, one turn at a time, one fresh experience at a time.” (italics mine)
When I lost track of my context, I had to slow down considerably…. My way became immediate….Mark Nepo, Seven Thousand Ways to Listen, p. 46
My mother, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, lost track of her context: as an LPN (Licensed Practical Nurse), as wife of a Baptist minister, as mother and grandmother. And, in Nepo’s words, her way “became immediate.” For hours she would recline with her head cradled on her hand, and gaze out at the tree just outside her window. For two and a half years, in all seasons and weathers, she commented on how beautiful the tree was every time I went to see her. “This music!” she exclaimed with wonder, as I placed the headphones on her ears. “It’s so beautiful!” We could not talk about the past or the future. Nor could I share stories of my life, which was beyond the limit of her sight. She did not recognize the names of her children’s spouses, and drifted off, her eyes glazing over, when I told her about current events at the church where she and my father were members. At one point she turned to me and asked, with investigative curiosity, “Who is your father?” When I told her, she looked thoughtful and repeated to herself, as if trying to get hold of a slippery fact, “Wesley Shipp is your father….”
We could not talk about the past or future. But anything present, inside or just outside of her room, as well as everyone and everything we passed in the hallway, became the subject of an observation or a story. “That woman’s bedspread is the same as mine,” she said, lowering her voice. “There’s a story behind that bedspread….” Her eyes would widen as she listened to the music on the iPod I had prepared for her and exclaimed, “Oh! ‘Slow Boat to China’!” She began to dance, lying in her bed, moving her body side to side, gesturing with her hands as she sang fragments of the song. When my parents were courting, Dad often sang to her, “I’d like to get you on the slow boat to China, all to myself alone.” Two weeks before she died, she turned to me with a conspiratorial look, “He wants to get me all to himself. Alone.” Her eyes twinkled. “I think I’m gonna let him!”
Everything, even the future, was present tense.
My mother taught me much during that difficult time about how to be fully present with her. Now I sit here, gazing at the trees outside my window, in the woods in Kentucky. And I hear her voice: It’s so beautiful.
One might reasonably think that having a GPS would allow me to be more fully present, without having to tend to the details of route numbers and which way to turn to get where I’m going. Instead, what I discovered when the GPS died was that something in me had fallen asleep. In waking up, in being present to the details, I became more present to everything.
Don’t get me wrong: When I leave here, the GPS will be on and set for my next (expected) destination. After doing a little more cleaning, I found that the car charger actually does work with this phone. However, this time I think I will write out the directions ahead of time. And I’m going to keep looking for a printed map. After all, I don’t want to lose that sense of alertness, that attentiveness, the experience of being fully present that woke up in me when the GPS died.