March 17, 2006

Cornucopia / Cynthia Dewes

Knowing where you are and where you’re going

You know how people have obsessions. They love chocolate, exercise or keeping their nails trimmed square across.

Well, I know a person who loves, absolutely loves, maps.

This man has accumulated God knows how many maps over a long period of time. They include the free gas station maps of yore, U.S. geological survey maps, maps in books he reads, maps in atlases, you-name-it.

They are housed (overflowing is a more accurate description) in two map chests designed exactly for that purpose. The drawers are wider than longer, and not very deep so that they may hold a number of large, folded maps. This is supposed to foster neatness, but take my word for it, it doesn’t happen.

This gentleman volunteers at the local library, assisting in the history department, history being another of his numerous passions.

There, he helps people look up their genealogy, assists parish historians in finding old church records, and so on. And whenever a question of location comes up, his “boss” refers customers to him to produce or interpret the correct map for the occasion. He’s the “Map Guy.”

Conversations with him are often interrupted by his departure to find a map to illustrate whatever subject is under discussion. This is especially true when you’re talking about military history, Civil War history or any old history there is (or was). People who are used to him are not put off by this, and his oldest son has even inherited this disarming trait.

Maps are also prevalent when talk turns to travel. No one dares mention something like, “Gee, wouldn’t it be fun to see Alaska?” before the maps are out, covering every available inch of table space, flopping their corners into the salsa and chips. And, if travel plans progress, no inch of the proposed destination will go unexamined. It almost makes the real trip redundant.

Reading a mystery novel recently, after the person in question had read it, I found a handmade map tucked inside. The novel was about murders committed on an island, and on his map he’d drawn a diagram of all the structures on the island, their proximity to each other and the murder scene, etc. Although I didn’t realize that I needed a map to enjoy the book, I was surprised to find it rather helpful.

Needless to say, this man has a great sense of direction and always knows where he is. You could drop him in the middle of a desert and he’d know not only which way was north, but also which direction led to civilization.

This is the exact opposite of yours truly, who lived in the same house for 20 years before realizing that it faced west. In fact, whenever I get off an elevator with the Map Guy, he grabs my arm because he knows I’ll start off in the wrong direction.

All of this has led me to think about maps in relation to life. Many of us start out with a kind of road map for where we’d like to go: a career, marriage, places we’d like to visit.

Some of us have no map whatsoever and, yet, seem to find a path to fulfillment. Others wander cluelessly, winding up at dead ends or disastrous destinations.

Maybe Lent is a good time to reroute ourselves with new maps, of course, with the help of God, the divine Map Guy.

(Cynthia Dewes, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.)


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