Mapping the Un-Mappable: When Maps are at Their Best

Mapping the Un-Mappable: When Maps are at Their Best

You meet Piglet so perfectly: three chapters in, brushing some snow away from the front of the beech-tree where he lives, spotting Winnie the Pooh slowly pacing around a cluster of trees a little deeper in the forest, and trotting over in his striped shirt to see what’s going on. He’s a lovely, excitable little fellow with an outstanding set of ears.

“Hallo!” said Piglet, “what are you doing?”

“Hunting,” said Pooh.

And with that, two of the most special characters I’ve ever met – “We'll be Friends Forever, won't we, Pooh?” asked Piglet. “Even longer,” Pooh answered. – meet each other for the first time in the southwestern corner of the Hundred Acre Wood (doubtlessly my favorite map in all of literature), in a place marked WHERE THE WOOZLE WASNT.

The best of friends, tracking Woozles.

The best of friends, tracking Woozles.

It’s called that because you quickly learn that Pooh is tracking what he thinks may be a Woozle, and as they keep circling the trees they notice more and more paw-marks in the snow that baffle Pooh and scare Piglet. How many Woozles are there? Tiny Piglet, feeling a little bit more threatened by the increasing number of tracks, doing his best to stay poised:

“What?” said Piglet, with a jump. And then, to show that he hadn’t been frightened, he jumped up and down once or twice more in an exercising sort of way.

His fear gets the better of him, though, and excuses himself to take care of an important thing that he “forgot to do yesterday and shan’t be able to do tomorrow.”

It’s not long after that Pooh realizes they had been following their own tracks around the tree – that there were never any Woozles after all. He feels a bit down about it all (I wish he didn’t harbor the self-deprecation that he does), his spirits raise when he remembers it’s time for lunch, and then the chapter closes. When you pick back up again, you’re off to meet Eeyore. Six-year-old me must have been as mind-blown then as 34-year-old me is now – the most important book of my childhood, the most beautiful characters, all set in a forest I still would love to visit.

Rereading it a few times recently, in Winnie the Pooh, you can see the origin of so much influence in my life:

  • In my copy – the book I’ve owned the longest, and therefore, the keystone of my library – younger-me scrawled my full name in a rather cluttery way, the way I’d probably write it now if I did it left-handed. I’ve written my name in every book ever since, along with the day I finished it, where I read it, and maybe a note or two about what I thought.
  • It showed me what it means to truly listen: Some people talk to animals. Not many listen though. That's the problem. And perhaps a lovelier example, one tying listening and patience together: If the person you are talking to doesn't appear to be listening, be patient. It may simply be that he has a small piece of fluff in his ear.
  • It gave me so many ideas about love. As in: Some people care too much. I think it's called love. And, maybe my favorite: “I don’t feel very much like Pooh today," said Pooh. “There there,” said Piglet. “I’ll bring you tea and honey until you do.”
  • Friendship and companionship, too: “I wonder what Piglet is doing," thought Pooh. "I wish I were there to be doing it, too.” 
  • And the rather odd comfort I find in pockets, parts of my pants and shorts I’ve always used rather intentionally and deliberately: But Piglet is so small that he slips into a pocket, where it is very comfortable to feel him when you are not quite sure whether twice seven is twelve or twenty-two. 
  • It offered a happy device for sleepless nights, one I forgot for a few years but am happy to re-remember: But [Pooh] couldn't sleep. The more he tried to sleep the more he couldn't. He tried counting Sheep, which is sometimes a good way of getting to sleep, and, as that was no good, he tried counting Heffalumps. And that was worse. Because every Heffalump that he counted was making straight for a pot of Pooh's honey, and eating it all. For some minutes he lay there miserably, but when the five hundred and eighty-seventh Heffalump was licking its jaws, and saying to itself, "Very good honey this, I don't know when I've tasted better," Pooh could bear it no longer.
  • It taught me that the best moments are the shareable and anonymous ones, humdrum even: And really, it wasn’t much good having anything exciting like floods, if you couldn’t share them with somebody.
  • Lastly, it’s also where I got my tendency to text things like, “Oh!”: "Oh!" said Pooh.

And perhaps it was the first map I ever loved. One I still do, and would love to show my own children one day, pointing out places like OWLS HOUSE and RABBITS FRENDS AND RALETIONS and the SANDY PIT WHERE ROO PLAYS. The majesty of it all is enormous, but I’d like to wander back to that place on the map I mentioned earlier: WHERE THE WOOZLE WASNT, the only place on the entire map recognized for the absence of something.

The best map in  any  book.

The best map in any book.

Here, it says, right here around these trees in the snow, is where a Woozle never was (you never meet a Woozle throughout the entire book, in fact). Not its brief glimpse and then disappearance, the actual non-existence of one, an encounter that simply never happened. It’s a remarkable thing, I think, because it seems to run counter to the essence of maps: aren’t they there to show us what is? To point out a river or a city or a street – something, anything tangible?

Instead, what happens here is something unconventionally delightful: the mapping of something traditionally unmappable – a moment two dear friends shared, an activity, one of those easily forgettable (though immensely sacred) sessions of togetherness that come and go most often without celebration. Moments, I would argue, that beckon celebration, that the lovely poet Wallace Stevens describe better than I ever may be able to:

Out of this same light, out of the central mind, We make a dwelling in the evening air, In which being there together is enough.

Which makes the above quote from The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet even more correct. T.S. Spivet is another one of my favorite characters: a little boy who thinks in maps, charting everything he can to try and make sense of the world. The book itself is so visually spectacular as well – maps and diagrams running along each page, his cartographic mind on display.

And so I was wondering: what are some of my recently unmappable moments I’d like to pause on? Where aren’t some of my Woozles? Let me start with these:

  • Where I didn’t wear shoes when I was traveling.
  • Where I decided, after about a dozen different samplings, that Youk was the best lemon soda in all of Greece, and that Rhodes made my favorite honey.
  • Where I gasped at a shade of blue I’d never seen and swam in that shade of blue for hours and hours.
  • Where I fell in love with the softly ringing bell on the front of the trams in Jerusalem.
  • Where I couldn’t really wash the salt from the Dead Sea off me and my sunny salty crusty skin felt so wonderful.
  • Where I saw the look on my Mom’s face when we all surprised her and realized that moments like that are the absolute essence of life and that I’ll do every damn thing I ever can to create and encourage and share them.
  • Where I learned how delicious lamb kleftiko was and that it literally means lamb “stolen,” originating from the Klephts who would steal lamb or goats and cook the meat in hidden underground ovens in order to seal the flavors and smells and avoid being caught.
  • Where I made a list of all the ways I’d transported myself when I was traveling in Greece and Israel: bus, train, car, moped, walking, swimming, running, airplane, climbing, jumping.
  • Where my scooter ran out of gas on Karpathos.
  • Where I realized the peace that comes with not hearing a goddamn thing about Donald Trump.
  • Where I was happily re-reminded that America is far less important than it thinks itself to be.
  • Where I met an ice cream maker, a tattoo model, a man from Belgrade who shaved my face, a professional hula-hooper, and a tour-guide who within minutes was telling me about his divorce.
  • Where I slept outside.
  • Where I slept by a beach.
  • Where the ocean was my bedtime soundtrack, one of my favorite sounds of all time.
  • Where I came back to Brooklyn and woke up to a thunderstorm.
  • Where I had a wonderful chat about Jane Austen and Oscar Wilde and Tennessee Williams in a quiet bar in Tel Aviv.
  • Where I decided that it’s quite a lovely thing to do to arrive somewhere ancient by boat.
  • Where I remembered how impulsive traveling is the best kind and that all I need or want is a backpack with a few things in it.

I'm happy with this map, incomplete as it might be, as it locates some of my favorite places. And if T.S. Spivet is also right about this – "I would not know what to say to you, except this: there was never a map that got it all right." – then I'm even happier.

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