I was the baby of the family, accustomed to being led around by the hand. My reputation lacked direction. At the Jersey Shore one year, my uncle made me lead him to the grocery store, and then the deli counter inside the grocery store. Where was the restaurant where we had made reservations? We were on a spit of sand too narrow to become lost upon.
And after I had led him he would ask me, “How did you get here?” He would make me attempt to name the streets I had walked, the corners I had known, how long it had taken to arrive. I didn’t know. Those maps weren’t mine. Some days the streets had different words to me.
On the mountaintops, the Minoans built sanctuaries in sequence with the rising sun’s equinoxes and particular stars: points they found to be constant, and therefore, significant to their civilization. We look for what is dependable in our landscapes when we do not know what is consistent in ourselves.
I went to elementary school in the woods, I was mostly friends with rabbits and dogs. I went to middle school, the gym teacher made fun of me for not being able to find the cafeteria. “I sure hope you don’t grow up to be a pilot or anything.”
Then it was September, three planes crashed. One in New York, one in a field in Pennsylvania, one in nearby D.C. Los Angeles, where my father was born, felt very far away. The principal came on the intercom, talked about the good guys. I didn’t understand what he was saying. I was certain the collision was the fault of a woman like me who lost her way because she didn’t understand the language of charts and maps.
I did know a few things. I knew the route that my parents drove from our house in the country to the grocery store, thirty minutes into town. I knew where the road changed from paved asphalt into gravel, signifying that we were almost to our door. I knew how to follow in the wake my older sister carved through the crowds at the mall. Sometimes I preferred to follow strangers instead. My mother was mostly afraid.
When the landscape shifted and became unrecognizable, that’s where I felt safe.
The wobble of the Earth on its axis changes the position of the pole stars. Points of navigation shift from age to age. Ancient maps no longer apply.
Sometimes I have dreams about finding my the way across an ocean by taste alone, of knowing the direction of the wind by its feel on my face.
It was easy for my father, he had hitchhiked his way across North America with his older brother at 11. He knew something he didn’t say. My sister kept a tight grip on my tickets. When I shaved my head or when I smiled I looked like a boy. In some pictures I almost could have been him.
In this body my needle wobbles and wavers. When I was 21 I moved to Harlem and lived with an angel who taught me about numbers. But Harlem wasn’t for me; I was fixated on fear, and the needle on my phone crept me forward block by block. My movements were charted by satellite. There were reasons why on Friday nights street signs got turned around. Cartography, like any obsession, is the process of ignoring everything except the one thing being mapped.
The map of Pomponius Mela, the earliest Roman geographer, divided the world into five zones, and asserted that only two were inhabitable. Maps decide where the world ends and begins.
When I didn’t speak to my parents I would sometimes pull up a satellite image of home. The terrain from above was unrecognizable. Where was my sandbox? The rope hanging from a sycamore? But if I looked for a few long minutes, the shape of my house emerged in the blurry outline of an oak.
The unknowns are now not what is measurable, but the meaning of what we are measuring. I think this might be the last wilderness through which nobody will find their route.