Water on the wrong side

Chicago Central Area 1915My 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.

[Psalm 121:1–2]

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. 

15 Responses to "Water on the wrong side"
  1. Well, I adapted to the hills east / water west paradigm immediately. I grew up in East Allentown PA. John Woolman mentions on how he walked from the Moravian community in Bethlehem, west through the forest. That forest was my neighborhood (and it was still forest to a great extent when I was a child).

    That said, as a child, I would go out the my front porch of our little house on Rittersville Hill and look NORTH to Blue Mountain (30 miles away across the Lehigh Valley). South Mountain was behind me. So my orientation was never based on east/west, but rather based on my North/South orientation to the Appalachian Mountains. So looking to the Berkeley Hills for a guide was a very easy adjustment.

    However, in any other context, I recall my front porch to remember which way is East. I always know that when I face North (Blue Mountain), East is to my right. Then I recall and miss the constant low rumble of the forges and blast furnaces of the Steel that came from that direction. It is all silent now.

  2. Oh Gosh how will I ever find my way without my body of water on the East?
    I’ll Look to the Lord lol He is a great GPS. And I need a Global Positioningj System. Thank Brian!!

  3. Thanks, Brian. Ps. 121 is one of my favorites, especially as put to music in the Scottish Psalter. Why are the hills of the Psalms holy, I wonder. Maybe because of Mt. Sinai?

  4. It’s good to lie your bearings occasionally and have to approach every day things more thoughtfully. Nice piece.

  5. Dear Brian, thank you for this sweet little essay. My daughter, Cassandra, and I have our embedded orientation in reference to the Bay Area and, yet, we both live in the East. We have our moments of disorientation when we cannot find either hills or water. I shall read Psalm 121 and will remain hopeful! At least, William Penn was a great designer of an urban landscape! Thank you, Marilyn

    • Thanks, Marilyn! Being a transplant is not always straightforward. And I think visual navigation in Philly might have been easier back when they couldn’t build any higher than Billy Penn’s hat… but now there are all those tall buildings and he’s not so easy to find.

  6. Born in Berkeley, west of my environs always = Water.
    Hence, visiting relatives in Long Beach CA was constantly confusing. Helping visitors here who do not have firm touchstones to get their bearings is not easy
    (hills and bay=east and west) and at this moment makes me feel
    for other searchers…searching for truth and faith…who have yet to find firm touchstones for navigating life.

    • Thanks for reading, Nikki! Helping others to find firm touchstones (and/or foundation stones) is definitely one of our challenges. Thanks for your ministry in this regard.

  7. Yeah, it took me some years to figure out east and west in East Bay. Judging by the misdesignation of south Oakland as “East Oakland,” I suspect that we are not alone in this confusion.

    I, too, look to the hills for my orientation. Even so, I suspect that God prefers the “flats” of East Bay; at least I do. KB

  8. OK, another Chicagoan (Chicagoite?). I don’t remember orienting on the lake, although I grew up within (long) walking distance of the lake. I remember going to the lake early in the morning, before anyone else was up. In the hot summer that was a good way to start the day cool, calm and collected. Since there was some foliage between me and any buildings I could imagine that I was alone with God out in the country, with no city in the way.

    John Henry

    • Thanks for reading, John! Though I never spent as much time there as you, the Jackson Park lakefront early in the morning is definitely one of those rare places in Chicago where one can feel one is not surrounded by metropolis.

  9. I was born and raised in Chicagoland and still have the same experience of orienting to the water – 35 years after moving to the Bay Area! Thank you for the practical and spiritual reminder to look to the hills.

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