A Cartography of Purpose


“A map does not just chart, it unlocks and formulates meaning; it forms bridges between here and there, between disparate ideas that we did not know were previously connected.”
― Reif Larsen, The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet

On a Saturday evening in early August, we stopped at the visitor center overlooking Duluth. Despite the haze in the air, and storm clouds rapidly approaching, the view was spectacular. I snapped a few photos, located Spirit Island with the assistance of the picture-graphic helpfully displayed below the plate glass windows, and used the restroom. Then, before we left the center, I wandered over to the literature display. Jackpot!

Back at the car, I happily stuffed a handful of new maps into my bag, anticipating an opportunity to pour over them in the near future. I’ve always liked maps. I’ve often thought this dates back for me, not to a love of history, but to a love of fantasy novels. Since Tolkein, fantasy novels have included obligatory maps and charts. I even own a volume of “Maps of Imaginary Places” – Middle Earth, Osten Ard, The Beklan Empire, Earthsea and many more – are places I’ve loved and visited in my imagination many times.

My past liking of maps has been eclipsed, however, by my current obsession with them. I have been collecting them since last fall – not collector’s items or costly maps, mind you; I collect free maps. They can be folded, multicolored road maps, such as the state map and state-wide bike trail map I nabbed in Duluth. They might also be small, black and white maps like this business card I picked up at Rustica:


Maps I love don’t need to be geographical in nature, either. I’ve discovered I’m not alone in this passion for maps and cartography; in fact, it is something of a trend the past couple of years. Maps lend themselves as pictorial markers for life’s journeys, whether through physical space or through interior, emotional and psychological space. There are publications and online sites devoted to this style of mapping. In an article on Brain Pickings, Maria Popova discusses this saying that the new cartography “places people rather than geography at the heart of the compass to construct a provocative new conception of cartography as wayfinding for the soul, not the body…expand the conception of a map as a flat reflection of geography and reclaim it, instead, as a living, breathing, dimensional expression of the human spirit.”

I find this particularly interesting, for several reasons. First, I drew such a map in my journal a number of  years ago (and wrote about it, here). Second, I’ve begun to wonder exactly what this latest frenzy for maps indicates about me and/or my life – is all of this curiosity and obsession a disguised attempt at “way finding” for my soul?

In my wondering, I’ve discovered a pattern that stretches throughout my own personal history: I tend to get hopelessly lost.

I have moments (days, months, even years) of extreme lucidity when I know who I am and feel that I am where I need to be – or am facing/moving the right direction. And then that sense of direction evaporates. On the map of my life, I have difficulty finding the “You Are Here” dot, much less the “X” denoting a destination. In the middle of a path, it disappears. I stop journaling, which serves as both my sextant and my telescope – what I use to see ahead, to measure my inner distances. I forget to have faith, substituting anxiety and fear for hope and trust. Without my instruments, I drift. Tacking one way then another without aim or direction.

Is it any wonder that, at such times, I find maps so appealing? Just give me something straightforward to follow, something that allows me to rest in my decision-fatigue: a winning lottery ticket, a how-to-manual, an owner’s guide, a girl-scout handbook. The problem with a new cartography that is “wayfinding for the soul” is that one must create the map as they go along, rather than having the compass points neatly delineated ahead of time.

Perhaps everyone feels this way. Perhaps adult life is exactly this sailing into uncharted waters, underprepared and hesitant. Perhaps this is why we create tools to chart our progress (set goals, make bucket and to-do lists). I don’t know, really. I only know that, for me, the process of making my way through this life is one of starts and stops. Of backtracking and moving circuitously. If I am my own cartographer, I am creating the map of my life one blind step at a time, hoping that what is revealed is a life of purpose, a life that has been well-lived.

“When you’re a cartographer, having to make maps sort of comes with the territory.
― Jarod Kintz, A Zebra is the Piano of the Animal Kingdom



3 thoughts on “A Cartography of Purpose

  1. For me, al least in part, maps are a way I plan an adventure. I derive great pleasure in planning a trips and having it work out as planned or if my contingency plans proved adequate. They also allow me to dream about places I’ve never seen and remember places I have been.

    1. Bob, thanks so much for visiting my blog and taking the time to comment! I loved the photo you shared on Twitter – clearly you’ve got great experience in actually using maps! I’ve really only scratched the surface of appreciating them 🙂

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