The compass directions have always been essential to my sense of belonging. I learned the four directions faster than I learned to tell right from left. When I would face north in first grade, I knew that my right hand was on my east side and my left hand was on my west side. (Our desks faced north in the classroom, and the American flag to which we pledged allegiance was on the north wall of the room.) It helped that I grew up in a Midwestern town in which all the streets ran either north and south or east and west. I could find my way around town because I always had a sense of which way was north, and I could always determine the other directions knowing which way was north.

In the olden days, people who woke up in a strange place while traveling looked to the rising sun in the east to figure out where they were and how to get where they were going. In other words, they oriented themselves. Nowadays, we speak of orientation for new beginnings—starting a new job, for example, or beginning a new school year. Orientation no longer requires determining which direction is east, but it still involves knowing where one is and what things surround one so that one can accomplish the required tasks.

My sister and her husband bought a house many years ago in a neighborhood/development that had curving streets and houses that faced various directions. Getting to their house confused my sense of direction; as a result, when visiting their house, I had the strange experience of seeing the sun setting in what appeared and felt like the northern sky. I promised myself that I would never live in such a neighborhood. Needless to say, I was not able to keep that promise. My house today faces northeast instead of east, and the sun never seems to be where I feel that it should be. I have noticed that even in the shower I become disoriented. When my eyes are closed because I have been shampooing my hair, I reach for the wall of the shower stall and instead touch the corner. I have been facing north, being guided by an internal compass and not by the actual shape of the stall.

Developers build neighborhoods with curving streets for two reasons. Sometimes they are following the contour of the land. Even where the land is flat, though, they design curving streets to force drivers to travel slowly. This is intended to make the neighborhoods safer, especially for children playing in front of their houses. I don’t know if that purpose is achieved. I know only that I lose my sense of direction, my orientation, in such neighborhoods. The sun, the moon, the brighter stars, and aircraft in the sky all seem to dart from place to place while I drive. I understand one reason for reports of UFOs suddenly appearing or rapidly moving from spot to spot. When the road curves, one’s sense of the sky becomes distorted.

As families and teachers prepare for a new school year, and as other people aim toward new beginnings, I hope and pray that we remain oriented. Knowing where you are is essential to accomplishing whatever you went there to do. J.

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