The wisdom of my childhood implied an urgent necessity to always be aware of the “big picture.” Up until recently that wisdom informed my life. I now challenge it.
Several weeks ago — as the first leg of a move from California to the East Coast, my daughter and I drove across country. That in itself was not a particularly remarkable accomplishment. People do it every day. I, for example, had done that drive four or five times previously. Before each of those across the country trips I studied my maps. I went to the auto club for “guide books” and “trip-tiks.” I, before each of those cross-country drives, charted my route to become aware of the “big picture.”
This trip was different in many respects. This was the first cross-country drive my daughter and I had made together. That was different. When the trip began, my daughter had just entered the second trimester of her first pregnancy. That was certainly different. We drove my 1996 Jeep Cherokee. At the beginning of the trip the odometer accurately registered 274,521 miles driven primarily on Southern California freeways. Beginning a cross-country drive from which, we knew, the Jeep would never return or might possibly not complete was definitely a different way to begin the day.
Filling all available cargo space with delicate dishes and musical instruments and warm winter clothes also differed from my normal routine of driving 33 miles to work expecting to drive the same number of miles home at the end of the day, carrying only my lunch bag. If the Jeep broke down during one of those daily drives I could feel confident that I was close to a reliable mechanic. Leaving that certainty felt very different. It even felt a bit scary but then venturing into uncertainty generally feels scary.
On the rainy morning of our departure, I still believed I knew the “big picture.” Not only could I see the trees, the forest was also clearly visible. I remained the captain of my ship. I could chart the course. Except for one thing. We had no maps.
The trouble with empowering another person to “chart the course” is that we are no longer in charge of the journey. I had happily turned the charting over to my daughter. A child of the digital age, she cared not for paper, foldable, comforting maps. And so it was that we began our journey on that rainy Friday morning with none. What we did have, she explained with unshakable confidence, was a cell phone. I was assured that it was a “smart phone.” It looked plastic to me. Nevertheless, off we went.
For the next 2,783 miles I only imagined the “big picture.” From her cell phone my daughter planned our routes and our days and, yes, our nights. She chose restaurants based on multiple available reviews. She reserved hotel rooms again after reading reviews. She even located a most amazing and generous and patient Jeep dealership in Little Rock when we suspected engine trouble. We visited scenic wonders and cultural phenomena and found our way to each of our many destinations with information viewed on a small piece of plastic.
At one point I became so desperate for even a glimpse of the “big picture” that I furtively tore out a national weather map from a complementary newspaper left at the door of our hotel room. The sparse information on that map offered me no comfort. The “big picture” of our trip and of the vast continent across which we drove existed only in my memory and imagination.
Six and one half wonderful days after it began, on an equally rainy day, our journey ended. We had arrived. The drive was over. The Jeep had survived and we had thrived.
I still have that weather map of this continental country. It shows not one highway, offers no topographical information, and didn’t even accurately identify the weather fronts of the day on which it was published. And yet on that trip I gained a sense of the “big picture” from it and felt settled even though logic screamed that what I held was useless.
Why, I wonder, did I so yearn for a map showing greater than a day’s drive distance? Such additional information would have neither hastened nor deterred our progress. Why, I also wonder, did my daughter require no such reassurance that our road existed as part of a greater system or that our destination was reachable? Perhaps she has evolved further in the acceptance of life’s uncertainties than have I.
I think we would all like to see the “big pictures” of our lives. We’d like to know our destinations and where we are along the way. We’d like to know if we are on the right road and where our own I-40 fits in relationship to I-10 perhaps to help us at the very least determine whether or not we should change routes. We want to see the whole forest of our lives.
Of course, we get it that such information is, aside from fleeting and rare glimpses, denied us. Perhaps our digitally aged children have acquired — certainly not inherited — a greater comfort with uncertainty. They don’t need the big picture possibly because they innately know they won’t get it.
For those of us still yearning to see both the forest and the trees, sometimes holding a weather map torn from a free newspaper at the hotel room door can at least assure us that the big picture does exist even if we never get to see it. So it is that — before I toss the crumpled and torn and useless weather map into the trash along with other antiquated behaviors and longings — I yearn for one more look at the big pictured forest to catch just one fleeting glimpse of the method with which my yet to be born grandchild will chart its life courses.