Inner Cartography for the New Year

How to Make a Map of Your Heart

First things first:
when you set out
to chart the landscape of your being
set aside every other map you’ve held
with longing and frustration.
They will get you nowhere,
which is to say,
your heart is off their edges.

If you can manage it,
don’t worry about the tools you have
or the colors you carry –
you will find what you need.
Leave behind, too, your previous drafts,
as they cannot account
for your seismic activity.

You are always becoming.

Start with slow and simple steps:
take in one square inch at a time.
Or you might begin
with a bird’s-eye view,
construing the contours
with broad, sweeping strokes.
It matters less how you begin
than that you begin at all.

You will get lost.
It is inevitable.
I’m telling you now
so that it will not surprise you.
But of course it will,
and you will wander wild lands
you never imagined you could contain.
You will find your way out,
and whether you plot
a carefully considered cartography
or simply scribble in
“here there be dragons”,
you will,
no doubt,
Come back that way again.

Sometimes you will start over.
Occasionally you’ll have to tear up your attempts.
And every once in a while,
what you thought was a mountain
will turn out to be the foothills
of something entirely new.

Be forewarned:
you will never finish.

But this is not a curse –
it is an invitation
to toss away the inks of certainty
and the gold leaf of perfection,
to sharpen the pencil
that is your attention
and give it to the loving wonder
that compels you to write
one word in the key:



I am neither a spider nor a bird

Another journal entry … a few weeks into my return. Even before I came back to the U.S., I had the irrational urge to skip the plane ride home and run as far away as I could.  This desire came in intensifying waves all summer, so I decided to go on a spiritual retreat to a place called the Farmhouse; my hope was to do the same kind of preparation for re-entry that I had done for my year abroad while at Taizé.  Of course,  this preparation came several weeks into the homecoming – and would last only 5 days rather than 5 weeks – but at that point I decided to take what I could get.

August 8, 2011

Last night/evening, I arrived at the Farmhouse.  Walking in was like coming home – to all the homes I knew and loved in Grand Rapids.  Dinner was delicious and the conversation stimulating, and the next-door house with my room, while not as home-like, was comfortable.  But then I took a walk in the woods, and that’s when I realized how wrong things were.  Not with the place, but with me.

I looked through the isles of corn to the small forest with great anticipation – the moon above the trees certainly helped to give it an adventurous quality – but my entrance was less than magical.

It’s funny – all last summer, I missed the cicadas and felt that the season had an empty space without their singing, but this summer, now that I am back in North America, I’ve found the cicadas’ sounds grating and distracting and even aurally claustrophobic.  I felt that way last night, too, and when I entered the woods, the twilight darkness intensified the claustrophobia.  I realized with dismay that my sandals, while sturdy and good for walking, exposed my feet to the poison ivy that I a) hadn’t had to deal with in Europe and b) had forgotten about as a problem to guard myself against.

So I picked my way carefully.  I was beset by persistent flies and mosquitoes.  The enormous dragonflies winding around me in the corn fields had felt like guardians, but these bugs buzzed in my ears with alarming regularity and yet managed to remain uncatchable.  I ran into spider webs, the oppressive heat pressed closer the deeper I got into the trees, and I hurried out on another path short of breath and flailing my arms to ward away everything I possibly could.  I’d never felt my self so fully reject the forest, and I knew I would have to return.

But not then.  I let myself be pushed away into the cornfield paths, rejoicing in the pastel moon and marveling at how my body was rejecting my homeland and seeking to flee.  The same way a body might reject its own organ.  I had hoped that leaving my parents house would calm my urge to run away as far as possible.  But the demons were not a symptom of my location.

I did have one positive experience with the woods, and it actually had to do with the spider webs I kept running into.  I thought about how often the spiders have to rebuild their homes, how it is a part of their rhythms and necessary for their sustenance.  There is such a beauty in their home-building work.  And I thought about how even the word “nesting,” a word used so often by my generation, comes from the lives of birds, and they rebuild their houses every year.

Of course, I am neither a spider nor a bird – I am a human woman – but certainly there is a good deal of beauty to find in this season of my life.  And plenty of nesting to do.

Two days after a homecoming

It seems to me that there is a lot of information out there about culture shock and a traveller adjusting to foreign cultures, but I haven’t heard a lot of stories about people when they come home.  Perhaps that’s because all the stories are comparatively less exciting and, well, less foreign, but I think ending the sojourner’s story with the flight home is akin to ending a meal before all the silverware has been used: there’s something missing.  It’s not a truthful account of experience.  The return from the adventure is often seen as the last few moments before the credits roll, but of course real life doesn’t work like that.  You can’t edit the rest of a return out of your life.  And I think the confusing return to a homeland has a lot to say about who we are as Christians, as an in-between people.  I don’t pretend to offer any deep insight here; I will just recount experience.  I start off rather bleakly.  Bear with me.  From my journal, after my return to Grand Rapids, Michigan:

June 30, 2011

I’m not even sure where to begin. First of all, I am acutely aware of how anyone in Sparrows [coffee house] could read my writing.  Theoretically, at least.  We speak the same language, even if my handwriting is atrocious.  Not that I think anyone is going to be peering over my shoulder, but it makes me feel very exposed.

For some reason, I am terrible at writing when things are actually happening.  I also don’t know why I can’t shake my desire to catch up, which is never really possible anyway sine the feelings and reactions aren’t fresh.  And what do I hope to accomplish by writing everything down?  Who is my audience?  One thing I do know, however.  There have been entire episodes of my life that had slipped my mind before I read a journal entry about them.  But again, to what purpose am I remembering?

I think, to find a narrative.

This morning when I woke up, the insulation along the roof seemed oppressive, everything felt close and inescapable, and I wondered again why I hadn’t run away to Kazakhstan.

I decided to call my mom.  How glad I was to to be able to pick up a phone, whenever I took a fancy, and explain my thoughts to someone.

I saved up all my emotional disturbance for returning rather than leaving.  There’s no one great thing – other than finding myself in my homeland.  Which is, of course, not my home, just as I knew it wouldn’t be.  Prior to leaving, I wouldn’t let anything hit me because I knew I needed all my stewing energy for traveling.  Any time I did realize the import of every ticking second, I sprung for a book and drowned myself in other people’s strange lives.

Last night I finally felt the crushing weight of things moving faster than I know how to process them.  And even if everything did slow down, I still don’t think I’d know how to process them.  Every step out of Kathleen and Sarah’s house is overwhelming, sometimes to the point where I can’t catch my breath. (Though I’m not sure if that’s the result of overwhelming life or overwhelming comparative pollution.)  When the cashier at Sami’s Gyros complimented me on my bag, I hadn’t the faintest idea how to respond.  [People don’t do that in Eastern Europe.]  I’m afraid of people smiling at me because then I’ll have to expend the energy to smile back, so I put on my best disengaged European face and hope people don’t think I’m too rude.  The fact that I can understand every word people say is jarring and distracting; there’s still a catch in my chest at recognizing a fellow English speaker.  And I have the upmost difficulty not paying attention to what they are saying.