Michiana Chronicles: Mapping A Life

May 24, 2019

If you had to draw a map of your community, what would it look like? Or, a map of your life?  Maps are descriptive, impressionistic, and interpretive.  As cartographers from time immemorial have known: You can’t draw all the things.  So, what would you draw, in an atlas of What Matters to You? Maybe, you’d draw a map of your favorite dog walks, or one of special places to drink coffee or cocktails? Or, maybe an atlas of turning-point moments in your life that shimmer in your heart’s memory.

I fell in love with maps as a child, working a wooden puzzle of the United States, over and over … giving me a tactile memory of  the shape of each state, from the slender panhandle of Oklahoma to Louisiana’s comic boot. When I was old enough to throw a fishing line, I’d while away the early morning drive into the Colorado Rockies by unfolding my dad’s worn-soft map, tracing my finger along the South Platte River and finding the crooked spine of the Continental Divide.  Even now, when I plan a trip, I love finding just the right cunningly folded map to tuck in my knapsack for a quick consult on a city stroll or wilderness walk.  Maps give us a sense of where — and who — we are, and what we value.

Author Rebecca Solnit captures the ways maps make meaning in her wonderful collection, Nonstop Metropolis: A New York City Atlas, co-produced with a geographer. Google up the “City of Women” map, for example, and you’ll see a provocative re-imagining of the New York City subway system, with women’s names marking places we mostly know from historical men: Washington, Hudson, Frick, Rockefeller. Solnit says of her map that it “was made to sing the praises of the extraordinary women who have, since the beginning, been shapers and heroes of this city that has always been, secretly, a City of Women” — Woodhull, Sanger, Chisolm. https://nonstopmetropolis.com/shop/cityofwomen

There’s a like-minded project in the United Kingdom, where a group Tweeting as “RosiesPlaques” is hand-making round blue historical plaques, like the omnipresent English Heritage ones, but these mark sites in women’s history. (Did you know, for example, that in 1075 a 16-year-old girl held a castle for months against William the Conquerer?  Her name was Emma de Gauder, and now a plaque marks the spot in Norfolk.)  Closer to home, you can buy a book bag at Kathy Burnette’s South Bend independent book store, The Brain Lair (an anagram for librarian), decorated with a map of independent bookstores throughout Indiana  — an inviting guide for summer road trips.  You can see the map on the station website.

Credit April Lidinsky

We moved to South Bend 25 years ago, and on my long, looping neighborhood walks, I see the streetscapes through memories — as if peeling back layers of transparencies on my personal atlas. Here’s the tedious route we took on late summer nights, in the mid-90s, patting a wailing baby on our shoulders, during that endless Season of Colic. Here’s the block where that baby learned to ride a bike; here’s the route another child walked, probably hundreds of times, to the house of a favorite friend.

This year, while canvassing for candidates and door-knocking to get out the vote, I learned to use another kind of map — the MiniVAN data base for cell phones that directs canvassers to houses of likely voters.  The app is cunningly designed, like a Marauder’s Map from Harry Potter’s world, with pulsing dots guiding the door-knocker to front-porch conversations that now add more layers of meaning to my atlas.  After all, houses I might breeze by on a power walk are now richly textured with memories of conversations I’ve held on those porches — about income inequality, about the need for more community child care centers, about how far South Bend has come and who still feels left behind.

My long walks this spring have felt weirdly untethered.  It’s our first springtime without a dog in 22 years. Our sweet old mutt, Harley, died last fall, and I hadn’t realized how accustomed I’d grown to walking slowly with him. Now, I zip up my jacket and take off — free and fast, feeling the layers of melancholy and delight, moving through the past, mapped onto the present. I’m like a feminist Jimmy Stewart in the springtime version of It’s a Wonderful Life, reeling from place to place: “Hey there, favorite campus magnolia!”  “Happy springtime, you old patch of lilies of the valley and foaming redbud grove!”  “There you are, protest plaza and canvassing route.” Creating a map, like creating a life, is full of roads not taken, and topography deepened with meaning … always, often imperfectly, unfolding.

Music: "When I Grow Up" by First Aid Kit