When I was 10 and first went to summer camp, I remember walking by the CampCraft hut, the place where outdoorsy girls gathered with a counselor who looked like leaves would grow on her as comfortably as hair. She would take the campers up the mountain, and they would learn to identify their surroundings, the plants and trees, the direction they were going. They learned how to build a fire and how to put it out again safely. They camped overnight – this sounded awful to me. I found the canvas tents on platforms primitive enough. I never thought about what it might mean to be able to find your way in an unfamiliar landscape, to know on which side of the tree you can find the moss, to start a fire when you need one, to use a compass to get back to familiar territory.
I chose more careful pursuits, like singing in the choir on Sunday, following the music and blending carefully so my voice didn’t stick out.
One summer, during a long car vacation, my father taught me how to read a map. Every day we would stop to fill the gas tank, and my father would ask the attendant for a fresh map. That night I would trace the journey we had taken, and the next night I would start again with a blank map, tracing the whole thing again and adding the new territory we traversed. I traced the numbered roads we took in our Country Squire to reach natural wonders and amusement parks and outdoor drama festivals, our trails previously blazed by others. Obediently, I learned the way.
I went from high school to college and out into the world with no idea that I could ever do something just because I wanted to do it. I played it safe. I tried to be just appealing enough but not *too* appealing. I married young. I had a family.
I could read a map, and I was trying desperately to follow the one I had been given. I didn’t know how to find my heart’s way around.
When I was 35 and the father of my children left our marriage, I found myself disoriented. I had lost my atlas, the guide to lifelong monogamy. We made promises! Weren’t we bound together? He got out, and even though being together was awful for both of us, I hated him. I blamed him for everything.
I scrawled fury and despair onto the pages of dozens of journals.
With neater penmanship, I attempted to redefine my life.
I carefully recorded unsettling desires pointing to women, not men.
I put the journals in a drawer.
I opened a new one and tried to draw a more familiar map, better suited to the Heteronormative Gazetteer. Maybe I hadn’t done things right. If I could be more domestic, more submissive, more available, less conventional – yes, I hear the contradiction. Around that time, I got my first computer. I printed out the directions I needed to take on trips. I always made sure to print the map, too, but usually it wasn’t big enough to help if I misread a sign. I spent my late 30s and much of my 40s following those directions, linear and inadequate. If I made the right turn, if I followed the list exactly…
This approach to travel left me more than once asking for directions in a New Jersey gas station when I got on 78 East instead of 78 West.
This approach to life left me more than once wondering where in Hell I was.
Imagine you’ve been living in a country where no one speaks the language you heard in the womb. Somewhere in the farthest, deepest corners of your consciousness you remember that language, but it’s been so long since you heard it, you wouldn’t be able to speak it yourself. In the course of your travels you cross into a No Man’s Land between the place you’ve been raised and the land where they speak those words you can only hear in muffled memory.
You decide not to go back.
How will you find your way? You can’t read the map; you have a feeling for the way the language sounds, but you do not recognize the printed words.
You look for a compass, if you’re one of those girls who signed up for CampCraft, but if you’re me, you give thanks for Siri and trust you’ll be able to find your way home again.
Or maybe home for the first time.