Finding your True North

by Steve Brock on February 15, 2017

The challenge

I was challenged by something I just read a few days ago in Dan Kieran’s book, The Idle Traveller: The Art of Slow Travel.

He quotes these lines from Philip Larkin’s “Home is So Sad:”

“Home is so sad. It stays as it was left,
Shaped to the comfort of the last to go
As if to win them back…”

Kieran then asks himself, “In my love of travel, had I begun to view my home as a means to an end, a destination I occupy but don’t really understand?” He continues:

“Wherever you happen to be geographically, travel actually takes place in your brain, so applying the mindset of the traveller to where you live is an interesting way to think about what it means to go on holiday.”

The journey

With that thought, Kieran heads out one day to explore areas around his own home that he has driven by, but never really experienced. The story of his journey inspired me to do the same thing. To get to know the place I call home better in the same way I would if it were some exotic, distant destination.

I drove to a parking lot not far from our home. Then I left behind both the car and my presuppositions about an area so close and yet so far away.

Finding your True North - The Interurban TrailThe trail

The Interurban Trail  runs both north and south of Seattle in two separate segments. I chose this day the southern part, an asphalt path that follows the route of the old Puget Sound Electric Railway trolley that ran here from 1902 to 1928. I’ve biked other sections, but not this one. And today, I walked.

Discoveries old and new

I’d traveled a few miles when I had my first hint that the discovery wasn’t necessarily to be found around me. Sure, there were interesting sights. Low areas now behaving as ponds from the recent snowfall and rain. Playful ducks cavorting in these waters. A shy rabbit darting across the trail when the coast seemed clear.

Industry abuts the trail as do houses, railroad tracks and, eventually, the backside of a shopping mall. All of these were somehow more interesting today than I would have thought. But revelatory? Not really. Surprising. Nope.

An unlikely find

What was unexpected was what I felt as I encountered the sheer normality of these places and sights. I was happy. Content beyond words. Downright joyful. Why?
I could try to rationalize the effect of coming home last week from a long overseas trip. Or the simple pleasure of being outside after a week indoors. Or a host of other factors. But as I walked, I found my answer.

True North Control

Embedded periodically in the trail are these shiny metal disks, markers that, I assume, serve as engineering guides:

True North Control marker

True North Control. This one stumps even Google. I can’t find the actual definition of what these are for. But here’s what they meant to me.

On this day, I had found my True North. I was given not what I thought I wanted — a day to explore and understand better the world around my home. Instead, I received what I needed. Presence. To my settings. To myself. To God.

What do you really want?

Recently, I’ve also been reading James K. A. Smith’s intriguing book, You Are What You Love. In it, he makes the case that it’s not what you know that causes you to live the way you do. It’s what you desire. And the scariest part of that? What we think we desire and what we deep down truly do may not be the same thing.

I left today thinking I needed adventure, albeit of the local kind. I thought I needed to engage my external world. But instead, what deeply satisfied me occurred more internally though I believe it was triggered (as is almost always the case in great travel) by the external surroundings.

What I found along the way was my True North, a mixed up sense of direction, desire and even the Author of all those.

Hidden all around us

God hides in plain sight all around us. Our True North is always available to us. But we forget. We lose sight of what matters. We get confused and we cease to understand what our True North is.

I personally think it’s one of the great tragedies of our age. We pursue what we think we desire without understanding our deeper longings. We travel aimlessly supposing that happiness comes in the journey without realizing that we are made for a direction, a destination.

Remembering what matters

Today I was given the gift of presence. Of peace. Of joy. Of remembering and rediscovering that God gives us what we need even when we think we want something else. And when he does, we find that indeed, that was what we truly longed for but didn’t realize we desired.

So what do you desire, deeply long for? Do you really know? Or do you, like me, need to take the time to just head out on a journey of discovery — perhaps as close as your own backyard — to find that everything you’re pursuing around you isn’t what will satisfy you. Only your True North can both lead you there and meet you there.

But when you find it, you realize that though you may have journeyed far, you have in fact reached your true home.


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Forgetting grace – Part 2

by Steve Brock on December 13, 2016

Forgetting grace - Madrid visa in passport

After losing my passport in the Madrid airport and then finding it, I was now faced with a new dilemma: How could I ever make it through this huge line for passport control in time to make my flight?

I ran ahead toward the front of the line. And there, right where I’d left him was the same official with whom I’d spoken before. I held up my passport. Again, the look of disbelief, but this time in a good way. Others were clamoring for his attention but thankfully, he understood my dilemma and asked them to wait. He told me to follow him as he walked to the head of the line and made way for me four people back from the front. Again, my words of gratitude couldn’t convey my appreciation.

Appreciation was not what the guy behind me was feeling. I heard him mutter something in English, not to me but to a couple taking way too long chatting with the immigration officer. I apologized for cutting in line but explained my situation. He said that he had arrived three hours earlier and still might not make his flight either. It’s a good reminder that even if you don’t lose your passport at the airport, getting through the airport for international flights can take far more time than you expect, especially during busy travel times or periods of heightened security.

The two of us waited anxiously and then, finally, the passport control official waved me forward. A few questions, the thunk of the immigration stamp and suddenly, I was back in motion, running down the concourse. The signs told me it would take 20 minutes to reach my gate. I halved that and made it to the gate three minutes before departure time.

Somehow, against all odds, I had made my flight.

I had prayed all the way through this process and all I could tell my relieved family when they saw me on the plane was, “God is so good.” And for the next hour as we took off and I finally settled down after this whole fiasco, all I could do was praise God for his kindness and grace. There was no doubt in my mind that God had performed a miracle. He had pulled the needle from the haystack and opened the doors to get me on this flight.

But as we cruised westward at 38,000 feet, something began to change. I replayed the scenario over and over. What was a miracle a few minutes ago became a carefully plotted explanation of how it all occurred. My passport likely got caught inside the X-ray machine. Someone found it and handed it to the right person to go in their equivalent of a “lost and found” pile. I worked through enough people to finally find the one who knew of this and voila! I had my passport back. And getting back on time? It was just smart on my part to have found the same guy who had helped me before.

In no time at all, I had explained away my miracle.

How can that be? How? Because I do it all the time. The Madrid airport was just a more dramatic example of how God comes through for me all the time in situations big and small. And at first, I am grateful. But soon after, I forget what really happened. I forget grace. Or more specifically, I choose to believe more in my own explanations than to concede that maybe, just maybe, God is real and active and concerned about things like lost passports. Or rather, the impact that lost passports have on his children, people he cares for so deeply.

I pray for miracles and when they happen, I am quick to dismiss them. The rational side of me isn’t comfortable with the possibility of divine intervention and mystery. But here’s the coda of this story.

I may have forgotten grace in the comfort of that flight home. But now, when other crises occur or I awake at 3 a.m. with some concern that no rationalizing can salve, I think back on my passport. It has become more than a government document now, a means of clearing borders. It is a symbol.

It represents answered prayer, God’s coming through in difficult straights. But most of all, it symbolizes that I am not alone however much I may explain away God’s presence and intervention into this material realm. I cannot prove God. But neither will I disprove him by refusing to believe that he still acts, intercedes and loves. That little blue passport book is a testament to a grace that continues when I remember it and even when I don’t.

It’s a symbol that at the end of all of this, it’s not just a passport that was found.


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Gaining when we lose

by Steve Brock on December 20, 2014

Greatest BooksOne reason for starting my new blog, was to focus not just on travel alone, but on the intersection between travel and creativity.

When you look at that intersection, one immediate commonality is learning. Sometimes we travel just to get somewhere. And sometimes we create without actually acquiring any new skill or experience. But for the most part, we pursue both travel and creative endeavors primarily because we do want to learn. We desire to explore and broaden our understanding of the world.

As I’ve been doing some research on the ways in which we learn, I came across some interesting insights from Professor Monish Pasupathi in The Great Courses series,“How We Learn.” In a section on learning languages, she notes that unless we learn a second language as we’re acquiring our first in our youth, it is very difficult to become fully fluent in another language. We can reach high degrees of proficiency, but even that comes easier the younger we start.

Most of us who have tried to learn a second language as adults can attest to the challenges, so none of that was news to me. What did stand out, however, was this: In the process of learning our primary language as infants and children, our brains actually close down and shut off the ability to master another language to the same degree.

Apparently, our brains are efficient machines that know when they have what they need (at least for language). Ever wonder why a child can hear a word, often just once, and retain it? In childhood, our brains are still in the formation stage. As we gain increased mastery of one language, it’s like our brains know they don’t need additional input in that area, things like knowing how to decipher other sounds or form those sounds physically. So we actually cease being able to learn another language in the same way.

With languages that use, for example, clicking sounds formed in the back of the throat, once you’re an adult, you physically can’t reproduce those sounds. You don’t have the muscle ability to pull it off and likely you never will be able to develop that completely.

So what does all this have to do with meaningful travel? The obvious answer is that learning new languages is hard. The less obvious but more interesting idea, at least to me, is this: God has created us in such a way that to master some abilities like our primary language we have to lose abilities in other areas.

What? Cut down on our options? That seems un-American or something. We love choices. The more, the better. No matter that more choice actually tends to overwhelm and confuse us. Or that having more choices usually undermines satisfaction with the final choice we do make.

What I’ve learned from my work in branding and in my study of calling, however, is this: More isn’t always better. Knowing your brand or knowing your calling helps you say “No” as much as it helps you say “Yes.” Just as great authors create great stories as much by what they leave out of the tale as by what they include, so it is for us. Often less really is more.

In a world where we’re bombarded by choices, it’s reassuring to realize that saying “No” may be one of the most freeing things we can do. Whether it is limiting what you see on a trip – going deeper rather than wider – or mastering one particular skill rather than flitting from one experience to the next, saying “No” can actually set us free.

I could mourn that I’ll never be fluent in another language. Or I can rejoice in the one I have and delight in using it to my best ability. This doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try to learn other languages. It simply means I should keep my expectations realistic and be grateful for the language I have.

In fact, this is a good reminder at this time of year to be thankful for all I do have. To celebrate the gifts I’ve been given and not to worry about those I do not possess. And to express in the words of my mother tongue this simple yet profound thought:

Merry Christmas.


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