For as long as I can remember, I've had an obsession with maps. I see one, with its curved lines, neatly printed words, and tangible borders, and every muscle in my body relaxes.
Each time we embark on a long car trip, I reach my hand into the side door pocket and grab the dozen East Coast maps I keep stashed there. As we cross the Throgs Neck Bridge I put away my Long Island map and switch to the New York State one; when we are almost through Connecticut, I open up southern New England. Most of the time, our route is pretty staight-forward to the Berkshires; Massachusetts; Vermont. Even so, running my finger along the smooth lines gives me a sense of where I am; a definite place in the world. I have proof that I started at one point and am moving with purpose towards another.
Our car has a terrible navigation system. When we discuss this in public, I act as annoyed as my husband. Secretly, I am pleased. If our GPS worked as well as everyone else's, what need would there ever be for me to consult my favorite visual guide? When there is traffic on the Long Island Expressway and we are already late to my son's basketball game in Hempstead, I would be deprived the pleasure of opening up the map and figuring out an alternate route to the sports complex.
Last night my 7-year-old daughter asked me to do a puzzle with her. The kids had been off from school for a week and I was exhausted. When I saw that the puzzle was one of Asia, though, I immediately perked up and did it with her joyfully. Watching the countries snap into place was exhilirating for me. When we finished and she skipped off to her room, I sat with the puzzle and examined every inch of it, wondering how many of those places I would see in my lifetime.
puzzle of Asia
Whenever people ask the question about what you would bring to a desert island if you could only have one thing, my answer is a book. Sometimes I hesitate, though, with thoughts of a map in my head. I can sit with a map of North America for hours, learning the placement of the states--something that I can't memorize perfectly no matter how many times I try. Though not as stimulating, maps of sites like Disney World and ski slopes also hold my interest longer than most conversations.
I often wonder what it is about maps that excites me so. I used to think it was their characteristic colorfulness. But even a bland one, like the replica of an 1871 map of Long Island I received as a gift, gives me great pleasure. Or maybe, I sometimes think, it's just that I love to learn and each map provides a new study guide. But when presented with another form of visual learning tool like the Periodic Table of elements, I get bored.
1871 map of Long Island
Maps are a safe place for me. As I live my life, I plan for a future that is never secure. No matter how much time and effort I put into ensuring a certain outcome, I am plagued with the knowledge that I have no ultimate control of what is to come. Maps are the opposite of that uncertainty. While borders may change and countries will likely switch names, I can look at a map and, without fail, pinpoint something real.