Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Emotional Maps

I’ll admit it; I’m one of those people that studied abroad and just can’t quite get over it. One glorious semester in Melbourne (properly pronounced “Melbin”), Australia was all it took for me to become completely infatuated with the land down under. I can say without reservation that I am able to relate anything and everything possible back to some aspect of my time abroad. Things like comforters, sweaters, and workmen all too easily became “doonas,” “jumpers,” and “tradies.” While my family and friends roll their eyes and sigh impatiently, I recount how we almost hit a kangaroo with our car or the time I ate a coconut straight off of a rain forest palm tree. Even the most obscure circumstances became viable fodder for another “One time in Australia…” anecdote.
It is absolutely astounding how easily a person fixes their mental associations to a place. In this way, a random geographical location- a place on a map- is able to forge a deep emotional connection to a person who bears no affiliation to that place other than happenstance or wanderlust. Yet, the emotional connection is one that is both real and powerful.
Six months ago, I told myself that I would stay forever. Here was this beautiful, soaring country with its dangerous and simultaneously delicate landscape full of gorgeous sunsets and the bluest waters imaginable. I had made a life for myself there with a new home and new friends. I remember thinking that it had all felt like a dream; but as with all dreams, one must eventually wake up and face reality. “You cannot stay,” said the government. “You cannot stay,” said Loyola. “You cannot stay,” said my family. They didn’t understand; I had become Australian. I had even started to like Vegemite!
Growing up, I had looked at maps all the time. I put pushpins into the places I had been (New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania). Places like Australia and New Zealand had once seemed so far away, little lumps on a globe and nothing more.
In his work, “Pacific Maps and Fiction(s): A Personal Journey,” Albert Wendt makes many insightful and especially astute observations. One in particular caught my attention. He refers to maps as “the grids through which we read reality. We each have preferred maps, learned maps, what we believe our cultures, our nations, ourselves, were and are.” (61) Wendt understands what it is to have a distinct and close connection to a certain part of the earth and to internalize that place into a characteristic of who she is, just as she might catalog herself into the category of left-handedness or an August birthday.
Wendt reasserts this point on page 64 when he considers, “Without realizing it then, these early maps would shape my life and determine that I too would become a teller/writer of stories, and that my stories would return often to draw from that storehouse of maps, wisdom, and dreams.” Again, he credits the maps in shaping his life and determining who he would become. Furthermore, he places the maps in the same category as wisdom and dreams, the “storehouse” from which he may later draw.
When I put a pushpin into Australia, officially recognizing my journey for the first time on a personal level, I had many of these same feelings. Once a person lets a place on a map define them and who they are, a connection is forever forged; a bond is made that is so profound and so permanent that it becomes something that no one (not the government, not your home university, not even your family) can ever make you leave behind.

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