Embracing Uncertainty | Plugs, Coffee and Sextants

The quadrant quickly evolved into an even more accurate device, called a sextant, which incorporated a telescope and a wider measuring arc. These additions permitted the precise determination of the ever-changing, telltale distances between the moon and the sun during daylight hours, or between the moon and stars after dark.

Dava Sobel – Longitude

I only wanted two things in San Francisco a few weeks ago. Coffee. And a plug. I had flown out to the city by the bay to host a dinner. It was a grand evening, but after a long day of travel, I wanted nothing more than to go to my hotel and sleep. I didn’t plug in my computer or my iPhone, so when I settled in for an espresso at Sightglass Coffee the next morning, I started to do “the walk.” You know the one. The one where you wander around, looking at walls, under tables, usually about a foot up, and look for outlets, plugs. Not. A. One. So, I asked the staff. “Nope. We don’t have plugs. Or wifi.” At this point, I thought, well, that might just be a Sightglass thing, so being a coffee lover, I packed up my things to find a new space. And plug.

From one coffee shop to the next. No luck. No plugs. I was getting frustrated. Granted I was lucky to be in San Francisco on a blue sky day, in between storms and rain, but geez. What was the deal? As I poked my head into Vega Coffee on 12th and Folsom, my frustration was peaking. As the coffee shop owners informed me that they did not have plugs or wi-fi, a man, with his dog, was kind enough to point me in the direction of another coffee shop, just up the street a couple of blocks. On Folsom. On the left side. For all of the suggestions from Apple Maps for coffee shops, at this moment, the most accurate device to finding what I was looking for was a man and his dog. However, the magic than unfolded next was a clear sign that what we are looking for is not always what we find. When we embrace uncertainty, we may find our way by getting lost first.

The last time I wrote on the notion of Embracing Uncertainty was at the start of 2016. Unpacking the concept shared by Brené Brown. We were a few months into the second year since Maureen’s passing, caused by the progression of her breast cancer. After almost 10 years with the disease, it had “snuck out,” metastasized, and reached the lining of her lungs, causing fluid to build up. As I wrote in the Love of My Life last November in a post on Tzedakah – Being Kind, having just read Promise Me by Nancy Brinker, Maureen passed for the same reason as Susan G. Komen. Metastatic pleural effusions. At the start of 2016, while Maureen and my kids were still on break over the holidays, we went to Lost Maples, west of San Antonio, for a hike. The picture in my post shows Maureen’s hiking boots at the trailhead. She loved this hike. This place. We had hiked there together before, as a family. However, this hike was different. There were only four of us on the trail. Of course, we knew that Maureen’s #wingprints were all around us. I closed that post with these words, “I will continue to write as I move down this uncharted trail.” Although I left Maureen’s boots there that day, she is always with us, and she was with me as events unfolded on Folsom that beautiful afternoon. Even though we always want to know where we are going, we have to get lost first.

Unfortunately, when you launch Apple or Google Maps, you really can’t put in a destination called “unknown.” You have to be going somewhere. You have to know your destination before you start. But, here’s the thing. We don’t. None of us. We may be able to look out to the horizon, like with the sextant. But what if what you are looking for is on the other side of the horizon? What if you live in a time with only a way to find latitude and not longitude? That is the whole story in Sobel’s book from where the quote above is pulled. The concept of longitude was first unveiled by Erasthones in the 3rd Century BC, but until 1761, you could not tell longitude at sea, on long voyages. In 1714, the English Parliament started a contest for the first person to tell longitude at sea within a half degree. For almost 50 years, the sextant was still the best tool available. Until John Harrison, a clockmaker from Yorkshire, cracked the code (Dava Sobel, Longitude). And, now, of course, with GPS, we can follow our blue dot on a smart phone screen to find our destination.

However, for me, in San Francisco, I was guided to my destination by a man and a dog. By fate. My destination that morning as I left my hotel was for a day of rest, relaxation, and reflection. It wasn’t until I stopped following my map, though, that what I was looking for found me. And, it wasn’t a plug in the wall, but the plug that has the power to connect us all to the universe, those moments of deja vu, of realization, those moments where a new future opens itself to you. A week ago, Friday, at the Young Survival Coalition, I looked around the room at 680 young women with breast cancer, and their co-survivors, a term from YSC that I really adore. These young peoples’ maps, like Maureen and I 15 years earlier, suddenly had its destination ripped from it. Once you or a loved one hear the words “you have cancer,” you are at sea. Adrift. Without longitude. With no bearings. No idea where you are going. In most cases, you can’t even see the horizon. The next day.

The day Maureen passed, 10.21.2014, I was suddenly thrust out to sea. No longer a co-survivor but a survivor of a different kind. Adrift. Alone. But not. A father of three. 15, 13, and 11. Taylor, Kyla, and Katelyn. We were sailing together. Trying to find our way. As I wrote in 2016, I was on an uncharted trail. I did not know my destination. I still don’t really. None of us do. With cancer or without. However, as I entered this coffee shop at 14th and Folsom, everything started to become clearer. The barista let me know that yes they do have a plug, at an emergency table in back by the roaster. And, then, Kinani, the shop owner, shared with me why there aren’t plugs or wi-fi in San Francisco. You see there is a big freelance community out in the city by the bay. For all the big tech, there are a lot of individuals. That, when they find plugs, become “dwellers.”

However, Kinani also shared with me something else. Something deeper. Something powerful. My love for coffee was about to be connected to my embrace of uncertainty. Connected to the book Longitude that I had read many months earlier at the recommendation of a dear friend in Austin. For you see, Kinani’s coffee shop was called, Sextant. Yup. Sextant. Right when I think that the day that I had planned had come apart, it came together. These exquisite beans from Ethiopia that he ground, tamped, and pressed hot water through for an beautiful shot of espresso used to find their way to their destination, on ships, using sextants to guide their way out of Africa.

It is at these incredible moments of collision that everything becomes clear. As we approach the fifth anniversary since Maureen’s passing, my uncharted trail has gained clarity. My day of reflection in San Francisco required me to get lost first though. Just like I had become lost on 10.21.2014. My sextant has always been love, a love of Maureen, a love of people, a love of new ideas, a love of possibility, a love of changing things, for the better. And because of a man and his dog, I have found my sextant. I still don’t know where I am going, but for the first time, I have found my way.