The first time I left the country, I was twenty-one. I’d just graduated from college and started working on my Master’s, and I took off on a whirlwind tour of Europe. In three weeks, I visited eight cities and stopped in half a dozen more. I did this on a tour that, unbeknownst to me until I landed in London, consisted primarily of overprivileged eighteen-year-olds. On the bus, there was a clear separation between those of us who were older and actually appreciated where we were, and those who were younger and were there primarily to take advantage of Europe’s lower drinking age. I wanted to tell these second ones, “Kids, chill. In two months, you’ll be in college, and people will give you beer. I promise.” But that’s a story for another post.
Needless to say, the divided group was a recipe for disaster. What kept our ragtag bunch of young Americans in one piece was our tour guide, Vittor. Vittor was one of those people who seems to have been born for the sole purpose of shepherding tourists around unfamiliar continents. He spoke at least four languages, had no discernible nationality, and possessed an unidentifiable accent that could only be described as Vittor-ese. Vittor was tall and lanky and quickly determined who in his group had come to Europe for which purpose. As I boarded the bus on time each morning (not hungover) and asked him for directions to museums whenever we got to a new city, it didn’t take him long to figure out my purpose on that trip.
Whenever we reached a new destination, Vittor pulled out a batch of maps. He did not, however, have enough for all of us, so he asked, “Okay, who wants the map?” And it was first come, first serve. About a week into the trip, a lot of people stopped taking the maps (don’t need them to find the pubs, I guess), but I was still at the front of the line each time, hand out, ready for the blueprint that would chart my path through fresh terrain. By the end of the trip, neither I nor Vittor even had to ask—he automatically handed me a map every time.
The tour finished in Munich, where we were shuttled to the airport at the ungodliest of ungodly hours, and said our goodbyes to Vittor. When it was my turn, he gave me a hug and said, “Ah, Jessica. You always have the maps,” and here, he pulled back, hands on my shoulders, and said, “You always know where you are going.” I thanked him and got on a plane and got on another plane and something like fourteen hours later was back in California, where I’d spend the next two years earning my MFA and writing a book, which would only be one of many books I would write over the course of the rest of my life. I always knew where I was going.
I was thinking about that trip the other day, how it was over five years ago, that I haven’t left the country since then, that I finished my MFA three years ago, and how much has changed in that small amount of time. I thought of Vittor and the last thing he said to me, and I wondered if, even after only knowing me a few weeks, he could sense what kind of person I was. Could he see my drive, smell my intent, feel the vibrations of determination I gave off? Perhaps this is just wishful thinking, or merely the need to ascribe a sage wisdom to my disheveled guide, but I’ve always believed he meant what he said to me metaphorically as much as literally.
Now I want to tell him, “Ah, Vittor. If you could see me now.” I don’t have the maps. I don’t know where I’m going. I have ideas, but I’ve always had ideas. Of the many things I lack in this life, ideas will never be one of them. I have goals I’m trying to reach with less strain and agony than I used to, but I have no certainty that I will achieve them or that they’re right or that I won’t wake up tomorrow and realize, once again, I’ve beaten my way onto the wrong path. I have hopes and dreams, but I have no guarantee that the people necessary to make those a reality will find their way into my life, or I into theirs. What I wouldn’t give for an unkempt tour guide to hand me a map.
As I write this, I’m sitting on the couch, looking out on a gray sky and a setting citrine sun that’s throwing light onto the west sides of the trees. I am in Portland, Oregon, and I do not know how I got here. I mean, I can trace the decisions that led me here. I can even tell you the route I drove in my Honda Civic. But if you had asked me five years ago if I saw myself living in Portland, I would’ve said no. If you’d asked me six months ago if I saw myself staying in Portland forever, I would’ve said yes. If you asked me now, I’d say I don’t know.
There are a plethora of fist-in-the-air, march-onward quotes that say you don’t have to know your whole route, as long as you know your next step. That even if you don’t have everything you desire, you can find joy in what you do have. That what you want right now might not be what you want tomorrow, and so the One who is withholding it from you may be doing so for your own good. All of these tend to be unhelpful because all of them discount the fact that some of us go to Europe to look at art and like to have maps and want to know where we’re going and how we’ll get there. But realizing you don’t always know where you’re going is part of growing up (apparently), and learning how to sit on the bus and appreciate the scenery anyway may be one of the hardest things you’ll ever have to learn. You have to hope it’ll be worth it. You have to hope you’ll figure it out. You have to hope that someone has a map, even if that someone isn’t you, and trust that He knows where you’re going.