Notes from the directionally challenged

by Karen Topakian

North South East West

Four simple words that produce within me great anxiety.

Growing up in New England, in the tiny state of RI, east meant water. Narragansett Bay.

South also meant water. The Atlantic Ocean.

Then I moved to San Francisco. And lost my directional bearings.

Here the ocean lies to the west. But the Bay still sits to the East.

In RI, you can always drive west. In SF, you can never drive west. Without getting wet.

My father* possessed a keen sense of direction probably honed during his years as a navigator in the Army Air Corps in World War II. Whenever I visited him in RI and borrowed his car, I panicked when I got lost. Unlike most cars, his had no maps. “Why don’t you have any maps in the car?” I asked him. “Because,” he said, “I always know where I am going.”

*My father would have turned 87 on Dec 13, I miss his no nonsense communication skills.


  1. I am directionally challenged! Funny, I always explain it by referring to my having grown up in Hawaii, on an island. How interesting that your father has the same geography education I did: I was either going toward the ocean or toward the mountains – until Hawaii became a state and got federal highway funding, nobody used ‘east’ and ‘west’to direct others or themselves to a destination. A funnier consequence of federal funding: We actually have a highway called an ‘interstate!’ Think about it.

  2. North South East West: As human Albatross, we have learned to orient ourselves at one level by whether or not we can see the sunrise or sunset over water. At another level by where the people we love are. At this point in time, we are between worlds; at the edge of the North Sea in Scotland and on the banks of the Pawtuxet with my 87 yr old dad who maintains the spark and the fire despite a cold wind in his lungs.

    In some odd way movements west always produces moments of wonder and inspiration. So… you can imagine our suprise while reading the Providence Journal in the darkness before the dawn the day after Christmas, to find a half page article that strikes an inspirational chord. The article provides a narrative of a moral and effective life well lived. The passion, focus and hard work continues to move mountains and inspire the rest of us. You are your own compass; your navigation remains impeccable. All the best to you and all you care for in the coming year. TnR

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