Mapping Life: The Cartography of Words

by Guest Blogger December 17, 2014

by Jae Newman

Much of the news right now could make you want to cringe inside. It’s enough to make you wish humans hibernated. I watched Obama’s speech on Ferguson. I’ve also seen photographs of two boys buried alive by a slow plow. Another story I read was about a child near Atlanta who was taken from his mother and forced to live behind a fake wall. What’s worse than that? The child’s mother never reported it to the police.

In spite of all these headlines, I choose to believe that there is a future that will transcend all our collective ignorance and pettiness and that we are, as writers, to be an active force in bringing that reality to fruition. I’m not talking about the ambition of idealists. I’m talking about navigating people through the darkness until we find streams of light to follow.

This starts with safeguarding our own vision of humanity. We need to remember there is goodness in this world, even if it seems fleeting. There are stories that affirm this. One about a girl who has cerebral palsy, but despite her disability, is one of the best writers in my class. Another about a woman who, even in the depths of a prison camp system, maintained her gentleness and found a way to wrap boiled rice in cellophane for her beloved. Countless others who battle depression and anxiety every day, who put in an ordinary day’s work in extraordinary fashion.

Although these stories will never be headlines, they still mean something. Do our lives tell the stories we want told?

***

When I was a child, I loved geography. I spent my free time drawing maps and plotting out the course of my favorite explorers in different colored pens. There was a kid in my class named Marc who went on to serve in the army. Before that, however, I knew him as the smartest kid in class (who didn’t want anyone to know it). We used to sit in the back and quiz each other.
Who was the first man to sail around the world?
Who was the first Englishman to sail across the Atlantic?
Who was the first explorer to sail around the Cape of Good Hope?
Marc knew all the answers, but it delighted me to try to stump him. Occasionally, I’d get him on a technicality. I know he let me win, and that’s why I’m telling the story.

***

For about a decade in my life, whenever I saw a plane taking off or landing in the sky, it tore a small hole in my heart. Headlong into a process of self-discovery of my own identity, every plane I saw reminded me of my own separation from a culture where I might not feel so “other.” That’s how I thought for the better part of my twenties. I was a harbor of radioactive identity.

Then a curious thing happened. I boarded a plane bound for Korea. Through the generosity of those people who supposedly didn’t understand me or my vision for who I would become, I found myself as a hesitant explorer ready to sail around my “Cape of Good Hope.” Although I was primed to become someone or something that my imagination ached for, I should have realized that sometimes being is enough. It is no coincidence that in my first step on the ground in my mother country after 28 years, I nearly tripped headfirst off the tarmac. Whoever said God isn’t funny is dead wrong.

Years after that trip, I realize that who I was didn’t have as much to do with the mysterious place I was born. Even the event of meeting my birth mother wasn’t as transformative as I hoped it would be. I felt broken and wanted this trip around the world to fix me, but it did not. It was a different kind of exploration that brought that healing.

Only later, while caring for my wife on bed rest with our second child, did I realize something important about myself: the most significant explorations we take are the ones where we ask ourselves tough questions. If you are goal-oriented as I am, beware of the trappings. It’s easy to start seeing people as those around merely to help you accomplish a vision. We are gifted creatures when it comes to vanity.

There were certainly a lot of other people on those ships, and yet the trivia says only one explorer was first. That’s just not true. In fact, old Ferdinand Magellan died in the Philippines. He can’t really be credited as the first explorer to sail around the world. Those other sailors must have gotten really lucky.

***

We are all explorers called out onto the waters. The compass by which we choose to plot our course determines how we will live in the intermediate territories where we realize we are off the grid. Spiritually speaking, we have to be on guard about where we find our directions.

I choose to believe in the activity of a God who plans to restore the entire world. This belief, at times, seems juvenile to me. There are days when I wonder how the God of the Cosmos has time to maintain the border of the heavenly expanse and earth and help me sow faithful rows of seeds into the lives of my family and friends. I am reminded, though, that explorers never tire of naming things, and I am grateful for that. I am grateful that the roads before us are named and lit, even as real danger exists in the world.

Flannery O’Connor says you have to shout to the deaf and draw large, frightening images for the blind. We are in the business of map making. Make your marks and symbols bold. Press them firmly into the page.

Ours is the task of reminding communities what is sacred and what is possible.

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Jae Newman, author of Collage of Seoul (Cascade Books 2015), lives in Rochester, New York, with his wife and daughters. He teaches writing courses at Monroe Community College and Roberts Wesleyan College. His poetry has been published in many national journals including: The Bellingham Review, Redivider, Karamu, Saranac Review, and Rock & Sling. In 2008, his poem “Honeymoons” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. A graduate of the MFA in Writing Program at Spalding University in Louisville, Kentucky, Newman has recently completed a MA in Theological Studies at Northeastern Seminary. 




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