My wife and I are both city people, used to navigating the urban environment by right and left turns, which usually map reliably enough to north and south, east and west. We lived for many years in Chicago, which is one of the most regular cities in the nation. Laid out on a mostly featureless plain, there are just a few interruptions in its regular Cartesian grid: the Chicago River; a handful of diagonal streets, most of which pre-date the grid because they began as trails blazed by animals and then used by Native Americans; and, of course, Lake Michigan, which bounds the eastern edge of the city. For much of our time there together, we lived on Chicago’s north side, less than a mile from the shoreline. We became used to orienting our mental map to the lake—it was always east, so if you knew where the water was, you could figure out the direction you needed to go.
We left the Midwest eight years ago and relocated to Berkeley, California. We found ourselves once again embedded in an urban grid bounded by a large body of water, with one critical difference. Berkeley is part of the East Bay, so called because it stretches out along the eastern shoreline of San Francisco Bay. But to our consternation, we realized—the water is on the wrong side! For our first few years here, we were constantly getting things reversed along the x-axis of our town’s grid. Whenever we tried to give someone directions, or tell one another about a new place we had discovered, we’d say, “head east—sorry, west—on Dwight…” Our familiar mental map had failed us; the water was on the wrong side now.
It’s taken me several years, but I’ve (mostly) learned to stop orienting myself by the waters of the bay. Our slice of Berkeley is known as “the flatlands,” an area fairly close to the bay, with the hilly part of town further to the east. These days, if I can’t figure out which way I should be going, I take a moment to try and find the hills, and then I can get my bearings. This actually works considerably better than thinking about where the water is—the hills are visible from most of the places where I spend my time, and the bay generally isn’t.
I lift up my eyes to the hills—
from where will my help come?
My help comes from the Lord,
who made heaven and earth.
This mental re-orientation has also afforded me an opportunity for spiritual re-orientation. These days whenever I look around to try and find those more trustworthy landmarks, I think of the opening of Psalm 121. As I lift my eyes to the hills and avail myself of their help, I remember also the help of the Lord, who made all that I see before me. The water may be on the wrong side for me now, but I am thankful that having to find a new way to tell east from west has also given me a new way to become aware of God’s presence.
Brian Young is a 2008 graduate of the Earlham School of Religion and serves as part-time pastor of Berkeley (CA) Friends Church, by whom he was recorded as a minister in 2015. He is married to Stephanie Strait, and they live in Berkeley with Mordecai the pug dog and Violet the tabby cat.