Sunday, July 31, 2011

Clearing the Streets

One night in my early 20’s, long before the GPS, I was following a sales lead, which led me into a Baltimore neighborhood I had never been in before.  I did have a map of the city, but I felt the streets I was on weren’t matching up with what I was reading on the big fold-out.  I eventually found the home, but I didn’t make the sale.  I could have asked for directions from the couple I was trying to sell, but I didn’t want to seem so foreign to them.  So I drove off, but again I was lost within a few blocks.  My inner map wasn’t serving me at all, but then my inner compass clicked on.  I was southwest, and I wanted to get northeast.  But how do I do that?  And suddenly my father’s voice was telling me again, “The city is a grid.  If you’re lost but you know which basic direction you are, you can find where you want to go by remembering one thing—Charles Street runs north and south and Northern Parkway runs east and west, and they both cut through the city.  So when you’re lost, start driving in the basic direction you want to go; and when you dead end, turn right and then make the next left and follow that until it dead ends.  Keep doing that and eventually you’ll hit Charles or Northern…and you’ll know where you are.”  And so I began the pattern.  And fifteen minutes later, I saw the sign for South Charles, and I was back in my comfort zone.  Back on the right path because of what my father had learned having gone before me all those years ago.
Getting lost was my fault really; I should have prepared for the drive as my father would have, by actually preparing.
My dad would have made a good Indian scout, had Baltimore City been his reservation.  He knew the ins and outs and all the nuances of getting around in his city, as he liked to call it, with a real sense of ownership and pride.  His familiarity with his city grew from continual exploration from the moment in his youth he could stretch his independence to the next street, the next block, the next neighborhood.  First on foot, then on a scooter made from the wood slats of an old orange crate and the wheels off a busted skate, graduating to biking on a bike he borrowed from his friend Dottie, and then finally bus and car.  He would follow one street as far as it would go.  And when it ended, he would cut over one street and follow it all the way back, eventually working his way across Baltimore’s woven streets.  He always felt it was important to know his immediate world around him.  Perhaps it gave him a sense of comfort, or it spared him from wasting time later, or maybe it was for an escape.  Regardless, this knowledge, and dare I say skill, served him, and my sister and me, very well.
Although we ended up living in the next county over, once my sister and I were old enough to drive, we were often back in Baltimore, visiting, playing, and eventually working.  When either of us would begin to drive to our new jobs, we figured we would just hop on the interstate and head south to whatever exit we would need.  When we said this, my father would shake his head at our ignorance.  The interstate was always “dangerously” fast.  Backed up.  Unreliable.  Something, of course, we hadn’t anticipated; but surely, in our youthful arrogance, we knew we could navigate.  So, without fail, a few days before a job would start, Dad would say, “C’mon, we’re going to make a dry run.  There’s a better way.” 
He had already gone ahead to investigate the right path for us, not too fast, continual movement, least chance for stopping in a backup.  And now he would put us on that path.
In Deuteronomy 31:8, Moses prepares Joshua as his successor, before all of Israel, with these words of comfort: “It is the Lord who goes before you.  He will be with you; he will not leave you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed.”  This assurance from Moses is not exclusive to Joshua.  The promise is that God is with us, always and everywhere.  But not just in the present; he is also ahead of us, down the road, scouting a path for us, the right path.  Because Moses assures “He will be with you,” the implication is that even when we don’t see God He is still there.  We should be at peace that God’s presence is not in our control; it just always is, around us, ahead of us, working for us…whether we like it or not.  I came to find that that’s just how my father worked.
When I was kid, one of my closest playmates, Chris, lived in an apartment in the same Victorian house where we rented ours.  The convenience was fantastic, to me.  But to my dad, not so much.  Chris wasn’t a bad kid; he just followed some impulses where most of us would listen to our inner voices when they told us, “Don’t do that.”  But Chris was my friend, and as a result I would too often follow Chris into situations that may have been less than legal, or be a little more destructive than desired, or trespass in areas where we weren’t very welcomed.  In short, when I played with Chris, I got into trouble a bit too much. 
We liked playing together so much that we thought things could only be better if each school year we were in the same class.  Then, obviously, we could play that much more.  But, at the end of each summer, when class lists were posted on the bulletin board in the foyer outside the gym, so students and parents could drop by and see a few weeks in advance which class you were in, not once was Chris’ and my names listed in the same class.  We figured eventually that the luck of the draw would work out in our favor.  No such luck.  It wasn’t just that we wanted to play during the school day, but there was probably a fear that the other may find another friend to play with without the other there to run interference.  Which is just what happened.  Even though we lived in the same house, we still managed to part ways, and eventually Chris moved away.
Years later, I was recalling my grammar school angst, wondering out loud to my dad what had ever happened to Chris.  It was at that moment my father confessed to me that it was because of him Chris and I had never shared a class.  “Each summer I would go to the school and ask that you two not be put in the same class,” he admitted.  “I just felt that if you two were in the same class, well, let’s just say I don’t think you would have had the same opportunities for success.” 
Without retracting my jaws at the hinge, I couldn’t have hung my mouth open any farther.  “Are you kidding me?” I demanded.  I was stunned, my mind quickly computing the degree of my father’s betrayal.  I mentally played out some of the fun and hijinks Chris and I could have shared.  And slowly I began to realize, in spite of myself, that he was right.  I wouldn’t have gotten a thing done except be sent regularly to the principal’s office.  I eventually admitted to my dad that he was right, begrudgingly. 
What I would have resented as a child, I now realize is what I value about my dad, his presence in my life.  Which is still felt, whether it’s guiding me as I raise my children, or whether he’s speaking to me when I’m lost on back streets.  But what I value most is not just what I saw and heard from him, but especially what I couldn’t see from him—when he was clearing a path, farther down the road. 

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