“Childhood is a branch of cartography.”
-Michael Chabon, Manhood for Amateurs (which sets my thoughts arcing off in all directions, and which I fully, happily recommend)
Our world is overwhelming. Looking at etymonline.com, that word goes back to the Middle English whelmen, “to turn upside down,” perhaps with the imagery of a boat “washed over, and overset, by a big wave.” The world does that to us: it sweeps over the craft of our mind in a great roll of blue hues and thundered sounds, leaving us capsized, swamped, stunned by the vigor and strength and reality of what’s touched us.
To help ourselves sail in this wide sea, we each create a map of the world. In Chabon’s childhood, that was a map of the angry dogs, the openings where you could slip through a fence, and the houses where you could get a popsicle. As we get older, we add the routes we take to and from work, the mechanic we trust, and the quickest path to a first cup of coffee.
I can see my niece, eleven months old, making her map. When she wants to nurse and doesn’t see her mom, she’ll crawl off to bang on the door of her parents’ room. Her map doesn’t seem to extend beyond the house: when I take her for a walk, each streetlamp and each tree (we stop to say hello) seems new in her eyes: I can see her watching, learning. (Rough tall big thing, for now, but soon she’ll have more words: here there’s a tree good for climbing). When she starts to get upset in the house, I can do the same thing: present her with a red hat or a bit of yellow wrapping paper, and she’ll lose her fuss in the curiosity of this. What is this? It crinkles. Wonder of wonders, it tears in pieces with a little crrrsshh of a sound.
Watching my niece, I’m reminded that a line isn’t a river. My map is a representation, and like all representations, it can be wrong. No matter how good we are as cartographers, we’ll sometimes write “here there be dragons” when we could have written “come here, and learn to fly.” The cure for that, I think, is to go and look again.
Chabon reminds me that, fallible as they are, we need our maps. My niece can walk in overwhelming wonder because I’m carrying her, feeding her, making sure she doesn’t stay in the sun too long. It is good to be awash in wonder, but the water of our world can still be overwhelming. We make our map for the same reason people have always made charts of the sky and the earth and the currents: to know where we are, have a sense of what’s out there, and so choose our direction.
Lastly, Chabon tells me that each child needs the space to make her own map, to envision the geographic, emotional, and societal landmarks of her life as a whole that she can navigate. We can’t give children our maps: that would be a representation of a representation, with important facts lost each time, and mistakes perpetuated through the copies. As children–as people–as cartographers–we all go out into a world too wide to fully imagine. Born on spinning currents and protected by others’ love, we make a map, and so begin to turn our boat’s nose into the storm’s waves, or run with the wind.
Here, We write. Here I’ll live.