I am sitting in a coffee shop in my hometown of Dubuque one frigid January Saturday. Outside, the wind howls and the temps have dipped to -30. Inside, I look around at this shop I have never entered, but which is in a room familiar to me all the same. It used to be Theresa Delaney’s living room, when we were in grade school at St. Raphael’s. The entire neighborhood in which my friends and classmates lived has been turned into boutiques and shops of one kind or another. As I sit there, thinking about how surreal it is, the front door keeps opening of its own accord.
The barrista comes from behind the counter to slam it shut each time. The third time he says, “You probably think its the weather, but trust me, we have ghosts. This happens no matter what kind of weather we’re having.” As he returns to his post, I find myself wondering, “Are these ghosts anyone that I know?”
I start thinking about this small midwestern city, my hometown, and about how so many things about it are familiar to me despite the long years in which I have only visited. Much of the city is imprinted on my soul. Thinking about it, though, I realize that what I carry within me isn’t so much the actual city, as it is my version of it.
I remember learning about “memory castles” used by great thinkers back in the days before the printing press or Moleskine notebooks were invented. In their minds, these intellectuals (mostly members of religious orders) would build a castle with many rooms and specific features. Each thing they wished to remember, they would carefully place in a specific location or superimpose on one of the castle’s features. This allowed them, once proficient at the technique, to remember and retrieve huge storehouses of information.
I think, “Like a memory castle, there is a map of Dubuque that I carry within me that bears only minimal relationship to the actual city’s map.” This map contains my memories and my memories of emotions. Attached to each site on the map are sensations, values, concepts experienced or learned throughout my formative years. My spiritual self is intrinsically tied to this map, as is my understanding of self in relation to the larger world.
The map in my psyche looks something like this:
Each location on the map is both a real place (the Fenelon Place elevator, the bank weather tower, the Carnegie-Stout Public Library) and an icon for the meanings I have associated with it (examples listed on the map above).
I carry this map with me, wherever I go. But when I return to Dubuque, my personal map and the actual map, while related, don’t actually match. My brain wants them to align, and I find myself playing a mental game much like alternately closing my right eye, then left, while looking at a stationary object. The object always appears to move slightly, although I know it doesn’t really. This quick perceptual shifting never works – the alignment will not happen. I have to choose each time to be in the exterior city or in the interior city – I can’t fully inhabit both at the same time.
For this reason, I treasure the small pieces of time I am alone in Dubuque. These turn out to be moments when I can sit in an actual physical location and touch the wealth of internal information I’ve stored in its metaphorical twin. Its a bit of a deep moment — like sitting in the coffee shop that used to be Theresa Delaney’s living room. Whatever keeps blowing the door open may be the wind or a ghost — but I can’t help thinking it might also be my other self (the self who has continued to inhabit my internal Dubuque long after the external self moved away) coming to join me for an Americano, extra-hot.
(Note: this post, and the map drawing it contains, are adapted from a journal entry I wrote several years ago)