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



Internal Landscapes, Part 2: Maps of Meaning

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)