Finding my way in a map

I have an umbrella with a map of downtown Columbus on the underside. I love this umbrella. It is big and sturdy, and I feel protected under it from whatever the skies throw at me. It also marks the map of where I spend over 95 percent of my life. I can locate my house right there on this map; the neighborhood school my children went to; and Goodale Park, where they practiced rec-league soccer. I see my office building and all the other places I’ve worked for the past 30 years. Under my umbrella, I find my church on Capitol Square, as well as my favorite hangouts, from coffee shops to libraries, museums, and parks—and every restaurant in between. I walk my dog in the confines of that map, and I’m hard-pressed to find a reason to wander off its edge.

This too is a kind of protection. It’s Blake’s “World in a Grain of Sand.” It’s my world in the folds of an umbrella.

I also just love maps, and fall into them whenever they draw me to their edges. I can visit and remember places I’ve been—sometimes with the aid of Google’s little yellow man to get a street view on line. I can go to places and times and worlds I can only imagine—except that they are right in front of me in the form of a map that I can enter. I have always liked stories and novels that include maps, and get hopelessly lost in them. Forget GPS; give me a good paper map. Like time, a paper map is impossible to fold back exactly how it was before you unfolded your journey in it.


Lost without a map

The best thing my mother ever taught me was how to be lost. I have come to realize as an adult that I find my way by getting lost. This is not just a clever turn of phrase. I mean it quite literally. When you are lost you notice everything about where you are. Most of the time, for me, this has involved an adventure. I can find my way around Chicago, New York City, and Boston without a map—almost by smell, having been lost in these places as many times as I have visited them.

I learned Philadelphia’s terrain the hard way when I got separated from family at the Thanksgiving Day parade with my young daughter Lilly. I didn’t have a cell phone back then, nor did I have a map with me; we were lost. We found our way through Philly’s crowded narrow streets back to the train station, guided by familiar buildings—and by individual people who seemed to pop up out of nowhere and point us in the right direction—we wound our way back to the right train platform and back to my sister-in-law’s house. That was one of the only times I can remember being afraid because I was lost. I bet I could do it again, though, without a map.

Of course, this notion of getting lost and finding one’s way is also a metaphor. It is a way to find your life’s vocation—what you are called to do—and to live into it. It is also, of course, a metaphor for the larger conditions we find ourselves in. Being lost both literally and metaphorically makes you see what is around you, to feel a particular place and time—and let it take you in. You have to open up and be on alert at the same time. Sometimes you have to open up a map or ask for directions. You have to trust yourself, your own process, and other people.

Such is how I ended up living on the underside of an umbrella.

But the pandemic world seems to have no map. And a drawn-out process of vote-counting can leave us feeling unmoored and lost. How can we find a way? I am reminded of this poem Theodore Roethke wrote in 1953. What does it say about keeping going? What does the poem mean for us in these times? 

The Waking

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.
I learn by going where I have to go.

We think by feeling. What is there to know?
I hear my being dance from ear to ear.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Of those so close beside me, which are you?
God bless the Ground!   I shall walk softly there,
And learn by going where I have to go.

Light takes the Tree; but who can tell us how?
The lowly worm climbs up a winding stair;
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Great Nature has another thing to do
To you and me; so take the lively air,
And, lovely, learn by going where to go.

This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.
What falls away is always. And is near.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I learn by going where I have to go.