Aligning My Compass

Is life worth living if you don't know where you're going?


The woman in the Harris Teeter bathroom kept talking. "I've gotten so used to these faucets that when I go home, I hold out my hands and wait for the water to come on. Then I remember I'm not at work!" A cashier, she'd grown accustomed to the automated faucets in the fancy bathroom of the company's flagship Morrocroft store.  

Walking out to the registers, she turned to ask me a question. "How do you get to Rock Hill from here?"

Suppressing a giggle, I calmly gave her directions — she asked me to start from the parking lot. When I finished, I just shook my head as I headed to the deli counter. Everywhere I go, people stop me to ask for directions. They stop me in parking lots, at traffic lights, on sidewalks, at stadiums, in stores, outside stores, and even in other cities. They may be black, white, Latino, foreign, old, young, alone, rich, poor, dressed up, dressed down, or not dressed much at all. It's happened so much that I've quit calling my husband to report on it. "You just look like you know where you're going," he teases. Maybe it's because I love maps, but how can a stranger look at me and know that?

February is my favorite month for finding my own direction. For more than a decade I have spent time at the beginning of each year studying the road map of my life. I try to approach it with a little of Socrates tempered by Mark Twain. The former wrote, "An unexamined life is not worth living," and the latter added, "The unexamined life may not be worth living, but the life too closely examined may not be lived at all."

By February the insane expectations of the holidays are over, and so is another year; I've made new file folders for the metal cabinet in the corner of the office and sent the tax documents off to the accountant. I can finally rest, and my frame of mind is relaxed enough to think about what's happened over the last year. Outside the earth seems bound up in silence, but it is a silence of expectation, of waiting for buried seeds to wake up. So while everything is quiet and still, I take time to reflect.

Several years ago a retired NFL player contacted me to write a book about fatherhood. As we worked together, our conversations occasionally turned to Charlotte men he knew — their business plans, investments, and career goals. It seemed strange to him that many of his successful friends had not studied their own children with the same care they took over finances. He would ask them, "Have you written a business plan for your kid?" He didn't mean that a child is an asset, but that a father should give as much thought to directing and building his child's life as he does to building a portfolio. Most of his friends confessed they'd never thought about it. It's so easy to focus on things that deliver quarterly reports, instead of those that make the obituary. When I get to the end of my life, I don't want to be caught with a similar blank look on my face, realizing I ignored the important things in favor of the urgent things.
Going out of town, alone, is the best way to get to the bottom of what's on my mind and in my heart. I've tried a lot of places — a cabin on the North Carolina border with Tennessee, a friend's home in Blowing Rock, a condo at the Isle of Palms — but my favorite place, so far, is the Battery Carriage House Inn in Charleston. Tucked behind a nineteenth-century mansion near the waterfront, the carriage house is an easy walk from restaurants and shops in the city's rich historic district. Breakfast arrives on a silver tray and bedrooms are decorated in traditional Southern style. The hidden gardens are a refuge, even in February, and the back window of my favorite upstairs room overlooks the private garden of an adjoining house. The climate in Charleston this time of year is mild enough for walking and sometimes biking, and the summer crowds are long gone.

By not being at home, and by being alone, I find myself with no responsibilities and with no human to talk to—no one to influence my opinions, to bounce ideas off of. It's much like the way I arrived in this world and the way I will leave it; alone. I am forced to take responsibility for my own thoughts and ideas as played out by my actions.

I usually start by looking through the previous year's calendar. The New Yorker magazine sells a book-style calendar I've been
using for a decade, so I now have a sensible row of well-ordered books of different colors. With each year that passes, I improve the way I keep it, remembering to write down things that ordinarily wouldn't find their way onto a calendar: a book I've read, a movie I've watched, an impromptu evening at a restaurant. Touching the pages brings to life a moment, now lost, and several hours of this gathers and compresses the year into a remarkable density.

A calendar is a shocking account of the outcome of one's intentions. There's no arguing with the events on a page. You did, or you didn't. Such an account puts me in front of my own mind, something increasingly difficult to accomplish when surrounded by the constant stimulation of ordinary life. I get in the car and turn on the radio; I walk in the house and turn on the computer, the television, the CD player, and check voice mail; I go for a walk and talk on my cellphone. It's too much diversion to advance the examined life.
Once I've remembered the year, the questions begin. What patterns do I see? What was good? What wasn't? And in the year ahead, what do I want to accomplish with this gift — my life? Have I loved the people around me? Where have I failed? Am I using my talents? Am I being lazy? Am I active or reactive? How am I improving my health? The list goes on. Such examination has helped me to stay focused on career goals. For example, several years ago a friend asked me to enter a lucrative business venture with her. I agonized over it, but forced myself to say no because I knew it would keep me from better things. It turned out that was the right decision. On a more personal note, these yearly evaluations have helped me to stay consistent in reaching out to my daughter, who lived with her father after we divorced. For years our relationship was difficult, and I often felt hopeless. But I wrote down my purpose and stuck to it. She is in her late twenties now and calls me almost every day, always ending with "I love you." If I'd gotten off track, I might not have reached this destination.

I've been meeting with a group of women for several months; we're all looking for more direction. The group began when a friend and I decided to go through some exercises in an article we found on Martha Stewart's Web site. These include checking drawers and closets for things you've saved, then asking yourself why they matter. You write down movies you've watched more than once, and then think about why you go back to those stories. You list five people who are doing something you would like to do.

More women keep asking to join us; it tells me that people are restless, and are searching.  

In Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Alice asks the Cheshire Cat for directions. "That depends a good deal on where you want to get to," the Cat tells her. After some thought, she decides she doesn't care where she goes, "so long as I get somewhere." This month, I'll be walking the streets of Charleston, trying not to call people I know, or to otherwise distract myself. I'll be smiling when yet another disoriented stranger stops to ask for directions; it happens when I least expect it. And I'll try to not be an Alice, who was content merely to arrive somewhere, anywhere.   

"Oh, you're sure to do that,' said the Cat, ‘if only you walk long enough."

Laurie Prince's essays appear regularly in this magazine. E-mail:

Categories: Life Lines, Opinion, The Buzz