Maps Inside Heads

As a child, my house was full of maps, on the walls, tucked into folders, printed onto pillows, I would run my little fingers over them connecting place to place, but I always preferred to navigate by imagination. I would begin with the empty space just behind my eyelids, then my imagination fleshed out the world around me so that a tree or house or roadside memorial told me where I was and where to go, and so I learned to navigate with my own perspective, creating a map inside my head that only I could read.

Now, I wonder if everyone’s perspectives create maps inside of them, serving as links to their stories, better accessed by imagination. Because with imagination, and a touch of curiosity, a scar or wrinkle or hair could be the key to opening a door into someone’s experience, into their stories. As author Kurt Vonnegut wrote, “Those of us who had imagination circuits built can look in someone’s face and see stories there; to everyone else, a face will just be a face.

Strapped in a Booster Seat

Childhood commutes left unfinished stories in my wake, each trip was an opportunity to get lost in thought, to imagine the lives of all of the people we passed. Strapped into my booster seat, I marveled at the thoughts and lives contained in each person. I wondered, I worried, if the world had enough space for all those thoughts. As these thoughts overwhelmed my small self, I unconsciously trusted the drivers —my parents— knowing they would keep me from getting “lost in the big wide world”.

And as I got older, looking at maps grew to feel strange, too far removed from my world: on a map, cracked sidewalks and pedestrians became street names and distances. Looking at a map felt like looking into another dimension, one that covered the entire world. In his book Solitude, Michael Harris refers to an exchange in Lewis Carroll’s Sylvie and Bruno when characters discuss a startlingly familiar “map of the country, on the scale of a mile to the mile!” This map could never be used for, if unfolded, it would smother the earth and “shut out the sunlight!” Digital maps assure the user that there is always a place to go and a way to get there, until the non-map-world —the real world— fades. As Harris writes, “every map, whatever its veracity, is straining to reduce enormous and uncertain surroundings into something legible.

Capture Worlds Unfolding

Imagination made my world legible. Imagination made my curiosity, about the stories and world around me, boundless. And while maps help us comprehend the universe and link vast distances, maps can’t capture our internal experience, but throughout time and space, art does have the ability to navigate worlds unfolding within us. In her poem “Rout” Mari Evans explores a commuter’s internal experience (5),

By Mari Evans

treading air
     eyes wide against the
you delicately maneuver

the rubbish jungle steer
broken field through
heedless cars
practiced and resolutely

an infinite and private

Authors on the Sides of Buildings

Near the end of a redemption visit to Indianapolis, I followed the GPS to 339 and 448 Massachusetts Avenue and as soon as the car stopped, I began to wander. I wandered past Ann Dancing my hips swaying in time with hers, pausing by the giant Brick Head 3 while my family reached out to touch the sun warmed surface. Down the sidewalk a man sat wrapped in blankets, beside his bench sat a cart, inside the cart sat a leashed cat wrapped in a grey sweater. As I watched, a barista —the same one who would later make my coffee— took out trash and stopped to pet the cat and chat with the man. The GPS led me into lives and exchanges that changed before my eyes.

Then, there, waiting for me was Kurt Vonnegut, his giant face casting his stories into my head as Pamela Bliss’ brush strokes cast his shadow onto the brick wall. I continued down the block to 448 where Mari Evans stood sentinel. Michael “Alkemi” Jordan painted Mari’s eyes onto the brick, and those eyes seemed to nestle into the space “Rout” has carved into me. All at once, I was in the presence of Kurt and Mari and it felt like time traveling, felt like standing inside history.

“Mari Evans Mural” by Michael “Alkemi” Jordan
“My Affair with Kurt Vonnegut” by Pamela Bliss

Back in the car, I could still feel the nonchalant gazes of the cardigan draped figures as I opened my phone, and plotted the route home. As the GPS directed the driver, my mind drifted as it would when I was strapped into a booster seat, so long ago. The authors’ presence made me think of art’s ability to pull times and peoples and thoughts together into a single work of art, into a single point on a map, to remind us that we are all traveling and navigating and making life and maps up as we go along.

Painting references:

Mari Evans, source: Poetry Foundation
Kurt Vonnegut, Ulf Andersen, 1988