Tuesday, June 30, 2009


Maybe you were expecting a discourse on Ramon Lull, the alchemist turned saint whose feast it is, in which case you will be disappointed. If you are really desperate, check here, a year ago tomorrow.

This year I am in a geographical mode. I love maps. I think of myself as a cartographer manqué. I keep maps, I draw maps. I consider maps an art form and over the years I have subjected my family to shower curtains with world maps and plastic placemats with maps of the USA and tablecloths with maps of America’s vacationlands. I think the maps of ski areas make excellent wrapping paper. In the attic I still have the mouse nibbled maps I used to make in sixth grade geography class; they generally feature examples of a country or state’s primary products glued on (think cotton balls, wheat seeds, olives or French fashion); once I made a map of Africa with every country cut out of colored paper and then the whole continent fitted together like a puzzle. Projects like these were largely responsible for my not-enviable position as a teacher’s pet toady. Not enviable because the teacher in question was Sister Seven Sorrows and she had taken her vows before the Reformation.

The truth is that for all my love of maps, I am not a good draftsman and my maps are rarely accurate. Freehand I can approximate Africa, South America, the United States, and Italy. I need shapes with distinct protrusions : Florida or Texas, the Cape of Good Hope, the Horn, or the Boot. My best creations are the imaginary lands: Benaguay, Surlandia and the Wholly Sacred Empire of Walponia.
I copy maps.
But years ago Geoff drew them all freehand -- any country, region or city -- and now he is dead. On dinner napkins he could draw Europe in the Middle Ages with all the Papal states, or Manhattan with all the neighborhoods done in different colored crayons, even all the asymmetrical streets downtown. Perfectly proportioned outlines of the continents flowed from his fingers. I copy maps. Geoff had them in his head and now is buried.
Geoff went to Brown as a hockey star, became a classics scholar, fell in love with Alex who was my friend from Santa Barbara, and then went to law school.

When I saw the movie Philadelphia, so many years ago, based on Geoff's legal career, his wrongful dismissal lawsuit against the firm, and then his death, I was taken by surprise. It was not because I didn't expect to see Geoff and Alex transformed into movie stars, nor because they were called by the wrong names, but because I did not expect to be so stricken by the memory of Alex. The Geoff character in the movie didn't draw maps. At the time I considered that a grave artistic error; it always seemed to me, solipsistic as I am, the telling detail. But afterwards, when I heard that Geoff's family were suing the filmmakers, it became clear exactly why the maps weren't there: because they were the telling detail, they were the one thing that could have absolutely proven the family's case.
Even the trajectory from city to city is the kind of leap writers always make when they want their work to pass as fiction but can't help imposing the far-more-amazing truth: Providence was founded in 1636 by Roger Williams who'd been thrown out of Plymouth Colony, and he named his city Providence "in gratitude to his supreme deliverer", when it should have been gratitude to the Narragansett Indians who showed him the spring of fresh water at College Hill. Penn named Philadelphia after the city in Jordan (now called Amman) which Ptolemy II Philadelphus had named after himself, upon conquering the strategic seaport around 260 BC. Penn's appellation was meant to invoke the Hellenistic ideals of that great age. It is not known if Ptolemy, as in THE Ptolemy, cartographer and astronomer, was a descendant of the city-namer; but that's not what really matters, what matters is that he described the geo-centric universe, and that it stuck for over thirteen hundred years. He also seriously underestimated the size of the earth -- another wrong story.
In Paraguay – a landlocked country, hard to draw – they spell it Filadelfia.

For years I saved Geoff's dinner-spotted maps.

Imagine my delight upon discovering this beach towel with a map of El Salvador. Theoretically, one could lie on the black volcanic sand and learn geography at the same time. Except that one’s eyes are shut and one’s body is obscuring ¾ of El Salvador’s 20,972 square kilometers. Except that the beach towel is in El Salvador and we are here, where of course it is raining and beach towels are not called for.
And imagine my further delight on hearing just last night - in the marvelous Roundabout production of Waiting for Godot (catch it while you can) - that Estragon was also an aficionado of maps and in fact his small acquaintance with the Bible rested entirely on his fond recollections of colored maps of the Holy Land.
Now I must reprogram my brain to properly pronounce Godot as GOD-oh.


Diggitt said...

Oh, what a marvelous posting. At least a couple dozen separate things in it could be extended upon as metaphors for anything and everything.

"Telling details" deserve their own postings.

So do your childhood maps. Imagine what realities you could extrapolate from them if you could see them now!

As for Sister Seven Sorrows -- ever since I learned you didn't really see the pope, I am not sure I can trust you about nuns either.

Rebecca Rice said...

What a delightful ode to the art of map-making. It doesn't surprise me that you were the teacher's pet in elementary school!

On the subject of maps, one of my favorite paintings is the one by Vermeer where the girl is reading a letter at an open window with a map of the world in the background.