On Friday afternoon I took a walk in Sosnovka Park, the "greenest place in St. Petersburg." Sosnovka is a massive, 302 hectare park with lakes and trees--thousands upon thousands of trees. The wind outside the park was fierce that day, up to 22 mph gusts from the east, just about the kind of lovely "peterskiy"* weather that freezes the veins of even the sturdiest of us. But when I entered the park, the wind disappeared. Or more correctly, it couldn't penetrate the tree cover. Even in winter with bare branches, the trees are tight, compact, and incredibly tall, hovering above like guardians protecting those who enter from the dirty, distracting city.
I found this simply delightful. I took off my hat and loosened my scarf and set out for a walk in the woods that felt like entering a skazka, a fairly tale. I expected Baba Yaga, the famed witch, to poke out her wart covered face any minute. I passed by scores of handmade birdhouses, some of them sturdy and well-made to withstand the winter, others not so much. One was even made from a cheap Kinder gift box. For some reason, that tickled me and I simply had to smile. The resourcefulness of Russians.
I began to walk with some sermon playing in the background. She was talking about theology and all kinds of heavy stuff. Let's switch to music. Music started filling my ears, a song or two that I like well enough, but after a few minutes even that was jarring, incongruent to my external experience. Let's switch to silence. I turned off everything and listened to the trees dance. To gaze upon row after row of trees and mile after mile of snow, and then to hear the trees move and the snow crunch under my boots was experientially fantastic. It was soft and serene, and in spite of the cold, it felt like my soul was taking a warm bath.
I walked and walked and walked, sometimes following one of the main paths, but then, upon passing a narrow, pristine, un-booted one, it would grab my fancy and I would head off on a new rabbit trail. Deeper, deeper, deeper I went, not a soul in sight, not a sound except for the occasional chirp from one of the many birds flitting here and there. At one point I saw ahead a man with his Doberman, unleashed of course (typical in Russia), the massive head of the dog sniffing the snow. I felt a trickle of concern--the path was narrow and there was nowhere else to go. But the big brute (the dog, not the man) passed me by without even lifting his head, and the man passed without said gesture as well. After 8 years in Russia, I am more than fine with that. We came to get away from it all in the forest, and respectfully, even in passing, we leave each other alone.
After an indeterminate time, but what felt like maybe 30 minutes by some internal clock, the first rumble in my belly signaled it was soon time for dinner. I might have a long ways to go to get back I thought. So when it seemed appropriate, I turned and did what most of us would do--I headed back the same way I came in.
Actually, what I should say is I headed back the way I thought I came in.
I backtracked and walked in the direction that felt like I was walking towards my apartment, but apparently my internal compass is not quite as accurate as the internal clock or internal hunger signal. Actually, my internal compass doesn't even exist. I'm not kidding. I don't know how it's possible to be this bad at sensing directions but I was simply passed by when God was handing out this particular gift. So all that to say, not surprisingly, I did not in fact head back the way I came in but zigzagged and jigjagged completely the opposite way I should have been walking.
After another 15 minutes or so of this, the forest did not quite look as serene and friendly as it once did. The serenity of being alone did not quite feel so peaceful anymore. White birch, white snow, blinding white in every direction, and the sky a dull gray above me. Not a soul in sight or sound. Those skazkas, they aren't far off. "Alone and lost in the forest," that's how they always start. Until Baba Yaga appears and invites you to "dinner." Which you find out too late--is meant to be you.
But Baba Yaga and her twisted food choices aside, I was much more concerned with my own belly and filling it with some chicken soup waiting for me at home. And not only that, daylight was dwindling. So I broke down and did what I did not want to do, and yet was the one thing I knew would save me from this situation.
I dug out my phone and tapped Google Maps.
As it loaded and I found myself in a mass of green on the screen, all I could see was the blue dot and how far I was from my entrance point. Holy moly, how did I get this far? How could I think I was going the right direction and end up on the other side of this park? I hadn't seen a main path in a long time but with the help of the blue dot and the little shadow thingy they put on it, I was able to start walking towards one. It ended up being a sled lane, with a nice wide path above it for people to walk on. Again, not a soul was in sight. I would walk for three minutes, five minutes, then pull out the phone and look--ok, still going the right way.
At several points, however, I was extremely tempted to get off this clearcut path and head back into the woods for what felt like a shortcut to my destination. But then I would pull out the phone and look and guess what? Those paths led away from where I wanted to go. How bad can my internal "map" actually be? (Again, let's face it--doesn't exist.) How inaccurate can my senses really be? It feels so right and seems so true! And yet those bodily senses, internal and external--they were dead wrong.
The only thing I could trust was the map.
And of course, eventually, that map led me home.
Somehow at this point it seems rather untrue to the spirit of the story to start any sermons. The story speaks for itself, at least, it did for me. It was a message I desperately needed to hear that particular day. I needed to be reminded of the fact of how much I personally need a trustworthy map not just in the forest but every day, in every situation I face. And the map isn't going to come from me. Some satellite far, far, far above me needs to show me the way home every time. I guess in biblical times they didn't have the word "satellite," but "the way, the truth, and the life" is as good as any name I can think of.
Often it isn't what we know that will save us, but what we know that we don't know. And only in admitting that will we find the salvation and guidance we so desperately need to walk out of the woods and find our way home.
*(in Russian, anything to describe St. Petersburg in adjectival form)