I asked for directions today. Having run out of cellular data for the month, I only have my limited familiarity of the city and friendly strangers to rely on.
“Turn that way and go north,” an older man wearing a boater hat told me.
I nod, but I don’t know which way north is.
In class yesterday, we watched a short film from the 1970’s called “Power of Ten.” In it, a man is depicted lounging on a lawn in Chicago within a one square meter frame. Each ten seconds, the frame zooms out 10^1 meters. Within five minutes of repelling into deep space, the viewer finds themselves 100 million light years away. Circulated by NASA, this film seems to underscore the triviality of life on earth—the smallness, the cosmic loneliness, the unlikelihood that we’ll ever fully understand our position in the universe.
I write this because, after a period of time, it becomes easy for one to be certain of the space they inhabit. I grew up in the same suburb my whole life; I know well that there’s a Walgreens Pharmacy next door to the Dunkin Donuts on Ogden Avenue, that, on a good day, it takes me 8 minutes to get from my driveway to my high school, that my favorite sandwich shop is closed every other Monday. Most importantly, I know I’ll never be lost. Even in New York, a city I once found daunting, I feel safe, comfortable, and at home. I can rely on my corner deli for blueberry bagels at any hour. I can navigate the subway system. I can give tourists restaurant recommendations.
But this certainty only covers the minuscule spans of Earth I’ve come to inhabit, both by chance and by choice. This is to say that there is so much that I do not know yet, or will not ever know.
It usually only takes a few months for someone to master the space they inhabit. By master, I mean to live out the mundanity of daily life with ease. Some might say the period of disorientation which comes before acclimation is an inevitable discomfort to to bear. I say that this is the gold mine. I’ve never experienced something as enthralling as not really knowing or, even better, surrendering to not really knowing.
North could’ve been any direction at all, so I picked one. I walked around Sydney, taking extra time to gaze up at the tall buildings, and out towards the Pacific ocean, and down to my feet as I tried to shuffle back onto the right (left) side of the street in confusion, and out as business men waited in line for burrito lunches. The not knowing where to go or what to expect when I get there is blissful.
To be here—to be confused, unsettled, to be unsure of where to get a really good latte or where to buy stamps—is to zoom out of my one square meter of certainty. I’m not 100 million light years away, but I’m far enough to feel distant from home, the way astronauts probably feel when they see Earth as a cloudy blue sphere from the International Space Station.
After walking for while, I sat down on a bench in a plaza. A traffic sign in the distance caught my eye, the sunlight reflecting off of it. “Northern Beaches,” it read, with an arrow pointing north. I smiled. I know which way north is.