We greeted one another in the hallway this morning a few minutes before the students of Cohort A would be entering the building. Through medical masks he joked about his elderly mother losing her memory. He phones her daily and is sometimes challenged to find conversational topics. With care and generosity, he plans each call. On this past weekend, he and his partner had walked his old neighbourhood, the street where his family home still stood, the street where he purchased his first house, and he planned to tell his mother what had changed and what was the same.
“But what about our house? Is it the same?”
“Well, they’ve added a third floor.”
“Where is it? In the backyard?”
“No. I said it’s another level, a third level of the house.”
“But where is it?”
I listened to his story and kept looking for evidence of memory loss, but couldn’t locate it. I wondered if this conversation between mother and son had little to do with memory and more to do with mapping. She had moved, migrated from a home she knew, and the description couldn’t be mapped in her mind.
We parted, the masked students began entering, taking seats six feet apart, opening laptops and phones. At the start of every class, we all read for twenty minutes, a moment of communal indulgence in any book; hopefully a book they love with no other purpose than love. I sometimes share lovely lines or beautiful wisdom offered by the book that I’m reading, and today, I picked up where I had left off in a remarkable collection of memoirs called, A Map is Only One Story: Twenty Writers on Immigration, Family, and the Meaning of Home. Each essay, each story in this small book transports me to some other world and I sit spellbound at the front of the classroom imagining the motions necessary to depart and arrive in some other place on a map. To find a home and sense of belonging in the unfamiliar.
I’ve always felt the value in slowing down the rush to consume the action of a story, in taking time to situate it in place. I used to assign the making of maps for novels and short stories where setting played a symbolic or significant role. I wanted them to imagine these places. But then the internet came. Maps from stories appeared online which they downloaded and handed in making this assignment completely meaningless.
I wonder now. If someone gives you a map of your home, do you really understand your place? Or perhaps, instead we make our own, mapping the journey, remembering the past as something fixed in the mental map of our minds.