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



Light in Uncertainty: The Candle of Peace

Note: My Thursday posts for December are loosely based on the weekly themes of Advent and the tradition of lighting the candles of the Advent Wreath. The candle for week two of advent is the candle of peace, sometimes called the candle of prophecy or preparation…
“We may have ten possible images of tomorrow and for each one of these there may be ten images of the next day, giving a hundred possible images of the day after tomorrow and a thousand of the day after that, and so on, which means that the uncertainty of the future increases rapidly as we move our imagination into it.” — Kenneth Boulding, “Ecodynamics”

My senior year of high school, I had a terrible dream that a good friend (Steve) became disabled from an injury sustained in a wrestling match. Steve was a state high school champion and being heavily recruited by colleges, so it didn’t seem implausible. I had moved back to Iowa for my senior year and my close friends were an expensive long-distance call away. But when I couldn’t shake the dream, I called my girl Pam. She said, “I’m so glad you called! I had a horrible nightmare last night about Steve!” She related her dream, which was very similar to mine, resulting in the same disabling injury. To say we were both freaked out by having had essentially the same dream would be to put it mildly.

I had come to know and trust a priest at my new high school, Father Lyle. As soon as possible, I shared the tale of the dream with him. His brief response to my dream was not what I had anticipated. “What will you do when it comes true?” he asked.

In a previous post, here, I shared another dream I had – this one the week prior to my grandpa Joe’s suicide.  In that dream, I met my grandfather in his new guise as a fire-eating bird (which is striking given the method of his suicide).

At the time I dreamed them, both dreams had the feel or appearance of prophesy – a foretelling of something to come. The first was clear and frightening – and never came to pass. The second was difficult to comprehend, shrouded in metaphor and layers of hard-to-grasp meaning. However, it was magical and comforting, even before the event it foreshadowed took place. In the hours immediately following my grandfather’s death, it offered warmth and comfort when both were unexpected.

And that, it seems, is the problem with prophecy: we never know until much later whether the vision, dream, stump-speech or sermon is actually prophetic or merely one of many possible futures woven whole-cloth from our imaginations. We would love to be certain, though, wouldn’t we? We want to know what the future holds as if, somehow, this will offer us a measure of control over our unpredictable, unruly lives. How can we be at peace when we have absolutely no idea what the future holds? 

I have found that the degree to which I am able to be at peace within myself – and to radiate that peacefulness outward into the world – depends on my ability to do the following:

1. Let go of my need to control how the future unfolds. It will unfold no matter what I do; no ouija board, storefront psychic or prophetic dream interpretation can accurately prepare me in advance. Now, letting go of control does not mean sitting on my hands (so I don’t chew my fingernails to the nub) and cowering in fear. Christian theologian, Henri Nouwen, coined the term “active waiting”, which he discusses in terms of the Christian scriptures. I love this concept, because it takes the act of waiting – which most of us hate, think of as a waste of time, or lack patience for – and shifts it from a passive to a proactive state. Active waiting presupposes that we are already on our way, not sitting bored at the departure gate.

2. Think of my life as having a purpose, and that my purpose is unfolding this very moment.  One of my favorite things about working with a life coach this past year has been that she challenges me to keep making this personal mission or purpose more clear in my thoughts, my words, and my choices. In this way, I am preparing for the future that will come. I may not control the future, but there are concrete things that I can do right now that will help to shape my role, and these things need to connect back to my purpose and values. Concrete examples abound – for one, my purpose has been unfolding to include addressing hunger in the world (both physical and spiritual hunger). Maybe someday this will mean a career change to work on the issue full time. But for today, it means being aware of and grateful for the food abundance available to me, having a healthy relationship with food in my own life, and seeking ways to contribute to both education and relief efforts locally (such as raising money for Kids Against Hunger or the film series I sponsored last year on campus).

3. Remember that relationship is the antidote to fear of the future. There are many times when I feel alone and lonely. These are the moments when I am most vulnerable to fear and begin trying to grasp at control of the future. We are meant to be in relationship:

  • with ourselves – spend time in reflection, examine our choices, learn about our own values and purposes; 
  • with others – family and friends, colleagues, even strangers; interacting in a genuine and loving manner with others mitigates the fear and the loneliness, and helps us create a community. I have found that the wider I cast this net, the less I am afraid of a hard landing when I step forward and take a risk because there are people willing to cushion me;
  • with God – I am convinced that we humans are spiritual beings; that whatever belief system we profess, being in relationship with the divine, with the sacred, is vital to our healthy functioning in the world.

So, as I reflect on the candle of peace this second week of Advent, I am working to be at peace within myself at this moment, and with the unfolding future that I cannot control. I pray that as I find some measure of peace within myself, I can share it with those around me – radiating peace into the world in much the same way a candle radiates light and warmth.

Peace be with you, my friends!

Flashback Friday: In My Wheelhouse

Iowa City, circa 1987.

Everyone seems to use the buzzword/phrase “in my wheelhouse” these days. Generally, they mean that something they’ve done or acquired is appropriately within their scope of expertise (or, if used in the negative, something that isn’t within their scope). In this photo, I was in an actual wheelhouse – a little house in a park, the inside of which is a moving wheel, like the wheel in a mouse cage. The idea of this playground toy is for children, who are short enough to stand erect inside the wheel, to run off energy by running the wheel in a circle.

In the first two years I lived in Iowa City, I spent a lot of time in this wheelhouse. The park was situated halfway between my apartment and the house my friend Martin Oliver was renting. We often wandered over to have a go at staying upright in the wheel (I never made it for long). Then, when I met Cathann Arceneaux, who took this photo, we went there to sit in the wheel and have rambling conversations about the meaning of life.

What I loved about living in Iowa City, and being in graduate school full-time, was the sense of developing purpose, growth in knowledge and ideas, of discovery – trying to determine where my own figurative wheelhouse was situated. My favorite thing about this photo is that I am relaxing in the wheel, taking a moment to enjoy just being. Those were rare moments at a time in my life when I had a full course load, a full-time night job, and a graduate assistantship. But what’s the point of having a wheelhouse if all you do is run? Sometimes, you just need to relax and breathe!

Recognizing the “Will to Meaning”

I hesitate to mention it here, but I haven’t felt really well for several weeks now. It’s nothing serious, just one of those things that leaves you feeling tired and weak. And after a while, tired and weak leads to depressed – not clinically, but definitely down. I hesitate to mention it because there are people reading this post who are dealing with lasting, serious or chronic health conditions and I feel like a heel for complaining.

The reason I decided to bring up my respiratory infection is not, however, to have a wider audience for my complaints. I started crying for no good reason during a meeting today. I have spent the past two evenings at home feeling cotton-headed, and emotionally isolated. And all of this is the result of a not particularly debilitating condition. What if I felt this way all the time? How would I cope with that? These questions have led me to think about my role in working with young people – especially those who struggle with depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation.

Some of you have heard me say that today’s students appear to have fewer coping skills and less resilience than the students I worked with when I entered my career twenty plus years ago. For some, this leads to an inability to take “normal” bumps in the road of life in stride (breakups, failed tests, etc.). For some, the life events they are attempting to take in are shockingly horrific. And this includes mental illness and personality disorders. A sobering truth: although college students commit suicide at a slightly lower rate than their age-mates who are not in school, suicide remains one of the leading causes of death among college students. This is a truth of which I am currently hyper-aware.

What can I do? My job is to do my utmost to keep them safe, to provide a safety net of concern, awareness and response when a student in crisis is brought to my attention. But what else am I to do as an adult who has successfully maneuvered through late adolescence and early adulthood? What are we all called to do to assist others who are struggling?

I try to stay away from making sweeping generalizations about our culture and how the “Jersey Shore” mentality is harming us all. But I do think the paucity of character and values in popular culture is detrimental to young people. And the influence of popular culture is multiplied by a vaccuum in their daily lives created by the disappearance of adults who are prepared to help them find meaning and purpose in life. Because we’re not talking with them about meaning and purpose. We’re talking with them about how to maximize their earning potential. We’re talking to them about filling their resume with activities that will help them stand out in a sluggish job market. They’re listening to their parents trying to figure out how to get above water financially, and they’re turning to vacuous tanned talking heads to escape their anxiety.

I’m not suggesting that we stop attempting to help our young people prepare for careers. I am suggesting, however, that we need to do a better job of recognizing the need for young people to feel that their activities, their work – their very lives – have meaning. That their lives have a purpose beyond that of basic survival and/or material comfort. And as sometimes happens when I am ruminating on such ideas, a perfect resource appears which can explain my jumbled thoughts better than I can. Yesterday, I saw the short film clip, below, over at The Better Man Project (a personal motivation blog I follow). I strongly encourage you to watch it – four minutes with the great Viktor Frankl, whose book Man’s Search for Meaning remains one of the most influential in my life. As always, Frankl speaks with eloquence and humor, and what he says is as true for today’s students as it was for the young people listening to his lecture in 1972. If we fail to recognize the “will to meaning” within an individual, we fail that individual. And the cost of that failure is very high – lives are, literally, at stake.