Long ago I participated in a jeep race in the Sahara Desert. It was an all-women’s very serious competition.
I’m not exactly the rugged jeep type, although I do believe in girl power. Contestants trained for over a year to compete in this race. It was very expensive to participate and I kind of rolled into it by accident. At the time, I was part of an Arab-Jewish theater group in Israel. As a PR stunt they selected one of the Palestinian actresses and me to be the “Peace Team.”
They didn’t really care that we had no idea how to drive a jeep or that in no way, shape, or form were we prepared for an adventure like this.
Since my beautiful, sweet Palestinian sister and I did not know what we were getting into, we decided why not?
We can do this! We can do anything. Ah, the ignorance of youth!
It ended up being much harder than we thought.
We were thrown into an extremely competitive hard-core outdoor 4 x 4 competition. We got lost. We got dehydrated. We were scared out of our minds.
We broke the jeep. We had crazy adventures.
We told each other our darkest secrets and became closer than you can imagine.
It was intense and at times depressing as hell.
We cried a lot and sometimes fought like an old married couple.
But in the end we survived with a kick ass story to tell and AMAZING photos.
I was the navigator on the team and was given the nickname “Dr. Geography,” but not because I was such a great navigator.
Navigating is not an easy skill. You need to know how to calculate. You need precision. You need to know how to read a map, maybe to read the stars and have good intuition.
Navigating new situations in life also requires making good choices, and sometimes stepping out of your comfort zone.
Navigation also requires wisdom.
At Homeboy Industries after you go through the training process, some people become what they call “navigators.” The navigators literally and figuratively help the new trainees plot a course to have a job, stay clean, and leave their old ways behind. That is one hell of a route to navigate.
As I watch my students navigate life, deal with the struggles of finding where to live and the challenges of past mistakes, I’m always in awe.
What I know to be true, what I learned on those long, long rides in the Sahara Desert, is that even the clearest of paths can have unexpected twists, turns, and turbulence.
You need to be creative and willing to take an alternative path while staying in the same direction.
That’s not easy, but always a possibility.
A student of mine recently expressed how hard it is to navigate everything he has going on right now.
“Ms.,” he told me. “I feel lost. I don’t know how to navigate all of this.”
I looked at him and smiled. “One step at a time. You know, when you actually navigate with a map, you need to look at the coordinates and figure out how you’re going to get from point A to point B. You pick a route and start. You might not always get to where you wanted to go, but really, it is about the journey and being in motion.”
He looked down at the floor and said quietly, “I am staying in motion, but I need to keep my line straight and not go in the wrong direction.”
“Okay,” I said to him. “What’s your North Star?”
“What does that mean?” he asked me.
I explain. “Well, old fashioned navigation used the stars. If you look at the sky, you need to figure out which is the North Star. When you know where north is, you figure everything out based on that.”
“Ms., they teach you crazy shit in that army you were in,” he mumbles.
“Actually, I didn’t learn that in the army,” I tell him.
“I learned it in the youth movement I was in. Part of any basic navigation will teach you that. You can download an app on your phone that shows you the star constellations. It will show you the North Star. Seriously,” I add.
He continues to look at the floor.
“Look at me for a second,” I say gently.
He picked his head up. His eyes were moist. He was very emotional. He shook his head and said, “I can’t.”
“Listen to me,” I tell him.
“When you get overwhelmed and you’re feeling lost, think about what your North Star is.”
“I don’t want to go back to jail,” he said quietly.
“That’s not your North Star,” I say.
“Your North Star isn’t something you don’t want. Your North Star is something you do want; it is where you are going, not coming from.”
He laughs out loud, and says to me, “Ms., you are a pain in my fucking ass.”
“Thank you,” I said. “I’m honored.”
We both laugh.
“I can’t do this,” he said to me again.
“I don’t know what my North Star is. I don’t know what the Southern Star is. I don’t know shit.”
“Blah blah blah,” I say.
“That is such incredible BS. Tell me something you want to happen, something that you want really bad, crazy, pie in the sky.”
“Fucking hell, Ms. Now I have to have a pie in the fucking sky?”
I giggle. “Just tell me something you think you could never have, and you want.”
“Okay, Ms. Game on,” he says.
“I want to own my own house.”
“BINGO,” I tell him.
“Being a homeowner is your North Star.”
I turn the attendance paper from class around and I write on the blank side: “Ownership Deed.”
“Navigate yourself to this house, Dude!!”
Something shifted. He got it and relaxed and, for a moment, the sadness subsided.
“Your shit is crazy, Ms., but I get it now.” He smiles.
“That’s all that matters,” I say.
Sometimes when my students get it, it’s a little weird and abrupt. They say goodbye and leave me fast. Maybe because I got too close. Maybe because they want to go. Maybe I am a little too much or sometimes I push too hard.
He looked at me, snatched the attendance paper from me with his “ownership deed,” laughed, and walked away.
We are navigating crazy times these days.
The path is not clear but, as always, the North Star is there and should lead the way.
For me it is to be safe.
To keep the house clean, because with five of us here that can be a challenge and a half.
I want to be grateful every day for what I have.
And in these crazy times we all must remember to be in service, teach, and be present for those who need us.
Find your North Star in these foggy, hard times and try as best as you can to navigate your way there with patience and conviction.
What I am holding on to the tightest is faith.
I believe it’s going to be OKAY.
I believe we will come out on the other side stronger.
Most of all, I believe in believing.
When I am standing on the edge of the cliff and feeling nauseous and afraid, I literally close my eyes, take a deep breath and look for my North Star of faith. I know it will lead me to where I need to go.
I don’t know if my student ever made it to his house. I saw him a few times after that conversation and then we lost touch.
My North Star tells me he is okay and, hopefully, he is still walking in the right direction.
I pray in these hard times you see your star.
If you don’t, keep looking.
I promise you it’s there.
Naomi Ackerman is a Mom, activist, writer, performer, and the founder and Executive Director of The Advot (ripple) Project a registered 501(c)3 that uses theatre and the arts to empower youth at risk to live their best life.