Let's Get Lost

Born without a sense of direction, I turn left when I should turn right and can't tell the difference between east and west

There have been so many roads not taken, or mistaken, or taken wrongly—also highways, freeways, even hallways. Born without a sense of direction, like everyone else in my family, I turn left when I should turn right, can't tell the difference between east and west, and have been known to panic in hotel hallways. When J.R.R. Tolkien wrote, "Not all those who wander are lost," he was not talking about the Clark family. We wander, all right, and we are lost.

My mother claims to have a sense of direction, but it's not true. She may know where she's going, but she still has this habit of exiting for no reason. I remember a college trip I took with her. I'd doze off and wake up to see her panicked expression and her arms stretched their full length, gripping the steering wheel, almost shaking as she veered off the main road towards the exit.

"Mom, what are you doing?" I'd shriek. "That goes to Hoboken!"

"Help me! Help me!" she'd shout back. "Where am I going?"

"Main road, Mom! Main road!" She'd turn her wheel sharply to the left, and we'd swerve back into the flow of traffic. I soon learned never to fall asleep with my mom at the wheel.

The rest of my family is no better. When my mom had an extended stay in the hospital one time, I'd run into my siblings in the strangest places. "What are you doing down here?" I might ask my brother, coming across him in the hospital basement near the morgue.

"Oh, you know," he'd say. "Looking for the cafeteria."

"I know," I'd nod compassionately. I'd been looking for the parking garage myself.

RELATED: No Direction Home

Speaking of parking garages, they are the absolute worst for people with our affliction. When my family gathered together on the same occasion of my mom's illness, we came in five different cars and parked in five different spots in a multilevel parking garage. End of the day found us hopelessly wandering the multiple levels, sometimes crying in despair, searching for our vehicles. Until my amazing 13-year-old daughter, born with sense of direction intact, came up with a solution.

"You guys all need to park on the top level. There are always spots up there, and you'll always remember where you parked." Genius! Each day we'd wind our way from level to level, passing open spots all the way up, until we arrived at the top. The ease of mind knowing we'd find our cars at the end of the day made the long climb worthwhile.

While my daughter was spared the family failing, others of the next generation did not fare as well. Take Bennett, for example, the oldest grandchild in our family. At a beach vacation in North Carolina (beaches are notoriously treacherous for Clarks), Bennett set off on his own for a walk along the shore, never—it seemed—to return.

RELATED: The Story of Every Waitress

"Where could he be?" my sister Jane fretted. "He left hours ago!"

"Should we call the police? Tell a lifeguard? What?" I wondered aloud.

"I found him!" my 80-year-old mother exclaimed triumphantly, entering the house with a beleaguered and weary Bennett in tow. "He was laying on the beach just down aways. He'd almost made it to the passthrough! I actually stumbled over him!"

"Yes," said Bennett. "I'd given up." Given up and laid down, prepared to meet his maker. Sad, really.

Giving up is not the usual Clark response to being lost, although it has happened on occasion. My brother says he had to give up his fledgling acting career because he couldn't tell stage right from stage left.

"It just caused too many mishaps. I couldn't take the embarrassment anymore," he moaned. So he went on to be a reporter where he wanders the streets on assignment, alone, without an audience. It's better that way.

No, usually Clarks persevere. Like the time my sisters and I somehow drove ourselves into the middle of Chicago's Puerto Rican Day parade, on the way to our brother's wedding. We'd tried to take a shortcut—never a good idea for Clarks—and landed right between two souped-up cars, decorated with beer cans, with shirtless men hanging out the windows. We smiled bravely, adjusted our wedding hats, and rolled up the car windows, despite the fact that it was 90 degrees and the air conditioning did not work.

"Just smile! Look pleasant!" my sister Jane hissed, as we watched a car jump the curb and spill more men, throwing punches and shouting, onto the sidewalk.

"Is that a rumble?" my other sister, Genna, asked interestedly. "Oh my God, oh my God!" I prayed. "Just get us out of here!" We did finally make it to the wedding, and with a darn good story to tell.

Of course, the invention of GPSs has helped my family somewhat. But they are far from infallible. At first I loved my GPS—the sound of her voice, slightly accented with a bit of old England—calmly telling me to turn right, turn left, stay the course, gave me a sense of calm and confidence I'd never felt before in a car. But then I'd find she'd dump me at the most inopportune times—going through the Lincoln Tunnel entering Manhattan, for example.

"Which way? Which way? Where do I go?" I'd ask her, exiting the tunnel. No response.

A panicked glance at the screen revealed the kiss of death words "satellite connection failed" and off I'd go to explore the bowels of New York City.

It's taken years, but I feel I've finally come to terms with my problem. I explain to the kids in the carpool, as I circle the neighborhood looking for houses I've been to hundreds of times before and still can't find, "I have a disability. It's just like dyslexia, only it's the part of my brain that deals with direction. Do you make fun of people with dyslexia? No! So don't make fun of me!" That usually shuts them up.

My explanation of "directional dyslexia" works with kids. It doesn't always work with adults. I had a particularly unpleasant conversation with a man from the gas company the other day. I needed someone to come locate the underground gas pipes in our yard.

"Where do you think the pipes are?" the man asked.

"I'm pretty sure they're in the back yard," I responded with confidence.

"What quadrant is that?" he haughtily replied.

"Quadrant?" I gulped.

"Yes, you know ... is it in the northeast quadrant of your yard? The southwest? What quadrant?"

I started to sweat. I can do this, I thought. I can see the sun rise out the back window. The sun rises in the east. So my backyard is east. That must be true. But wait the sun rises in the east on the East Coast. I know this because I've seen it happen at the beach. But the sun sets at the beach on the West Coast. I've seen that too.

"Ummm," I said, "wait a second. The sun always rises in the east, right? Even though it sets at the beach in the West Coast?"

The man remained silent. "Oh for God's sake!" I exclaimed, my voice rising in panic. "Why do you care what quadrant my backyard is in? I'm not good with directions! I have directional dyslexia! My back yard is in the back!"

The man paused for a moment, then replied, "Well, we can probably find it. But … ma'am? The sun always rises in the east." I hung up the phone in shame.

Being with people who share my disability definitely helps. A car full of Clarks, for example, is a joy to experience. No one pompously says things like "go north" or "head east." When we find ourselves out on country roads with no idea where to turn, we don't really worry. We don't give the driver advice, don't try to help, don't get out crumpled maps and try to read them. We sit back and reminisce about lost times of yore. We don't care if the road not taken is the right road or the wrong one. For we Clarks have learned that all roads get you where you want to go—eventually.