By Catherine DiMercurio
Sometimes we make a path both known and possible by drawing it.
When I was a child, one of the most delightful and satisfying experiences I knew was that of opening a fantasy novel and discovering a map in the opening pages. Whether it was Narnia, Middle Earth, Earthsea, or a lesser-known place such as Hed being depicted, I was captivated. Sometimes, I was inspired enough to sketch out my own maps, too, of places that had no stories or characters, but that I envisioned nonetheless. I penciled in borders, mountains, seas, rivers, and cities, making it up as I went along, happy that the only right way was the way I was drawing it.
I’ve been thinking a lot about those maps lately. Remembering the crackling sound of worn library binding, the smell of freshly mown grass. An old cotton blanket spread beneath a tree, half in and half out of the shade. Reading for hours during summer vacation, when it seemed to span far longer than a couple of months.
Looking back now, I can see more clearly what I loved about those maps, but would never have been able to articulate back then. They were an achievement in the realm of the impossible, a carving out of a something from nothing, from mystery, from void. They sketched out meaning and shape and form in line and letter from the unfathomable. How beautiful is that? To map out a place that doesn’t exist and give it to someone else and through the words you place around it, make them believe, or half-believe, that it is a landscape that could be traversed, at least by someone.
I think of half-believing, and what a gift it is.
I think of unmappable, shapeless places, the paths traversed between past and now, now and future, peaks and valleys of emotion, the roads and streams of memory and want that form through-lines through the course of our days. The longing to map it, to give it shape, is not so much about understanding where to go. It is more about acknowledging how little we really know of ourselves, the kingdoms of brain, heart, dream, past, ache, love, fear. What is the truth of our own personal terrain, what level of consciousness do we actually possess about why we do what we do and think what we think and feel what we feel?
I wonder sometimes how many neurological processes are involved in deciding which coffee cup to use, if I should say this now, will this sweater be warm enough, is this the right time for this action, or that. Theoretically, I suppose, one could map the firing of synapses, a decision in the brain to move the hand to reach for this cup or that sweater, but can any of the rest of it be traced? The way the memory of wearing that sweater the morning I sat next to you drinking coffee made me want to wear it today? It won’t be warm enough because it is a light sweater, but it will be warm enough because I will think of you all day.
I think we want to know which path to take and what obstacles might be faced on the way but we also want to know if knowing matters. I wonder if I’m on a quest at all, like the adventurers in the stories of my childhood, or am I free to discover as I go?
I wonder if we create urgency around time and destination because we feel we ought to, because everyone else is, and is there a way we get left behind if we don’t figure this out?
I think of mapping this hidden terrain because I suspect it’s more beautiful than I can imagine if taken in as a whole and I’d like to see it that way, if only for a moment. Would it be like standing in a clearing in the woods in the dead of night, waiting for that one moment when the moon slips free of the clouds?
What is (to be) lost and what is (to be) found?
Thinking back on those maps of fantasy worlds from childhood books, it is impossible, really to separate them from the stories that go with them, the characters who journeyed through these worlds, sometimes alone, sometimes with an unlikely band of adventurers. There was usually a seemingly impossible quest. Protagonists often were lead to discover that they couldn’t do it alone, and, just as often, that there were some things that they could only do alone. I get that now.
I wonder sometimes, if we’ve all been mapping out the same place, but each of us, from our own perspective. I wonder about the way we journey alone and together, and how easy it is to confuse the two.
I think about how difficult it is sometimes to admit there’s no map, though wouldn’t it be nice to know that as long as we kept the river on our left and continued north we’d be okay? I think about the clearing in the woods, and the waiting for the moon. When there’s enough light to see by, should we look at the map, or look around us?
The thing about maps is that they often lead us to believe there are right answers, best routes, clear paths, known quantities. And maps of fictional places always imbued in me a half-belief that anything could be charted, made known, ordered. In fact, we can barely map where we’ve already been, let alone where we currently are, even if the moon is out and shining on our clearing.
But, that doesn’t mean we can’t navigate. That doesn’t mean we can’t reach out a hand in the dark and lead one another. It doesn’t mean we can’t compare notes, learn from each other, see the way our paths are intertwined, because they are. We can cheer each other on the solo parts of our journeys, we can be cheered on, we can let ourselves be buoyed by cheers. We can lean on one another, in the dark or in the moonlight or as the day breaks.
And as far as maps go, the only right way is the way we are drawing it, and we make pathways possible when we imagine them and we can at least half-believe in that, because it is the same as believing anyway.