mind maps and minutiae

mind maps and minutiae


Walking with my eyes turned down, I often see small things that others don’t. Mushroom caps under skeletons of leaves, rabbit tracks in the snow. Tangles of string, fast food wrappers, and movie tickets.

Once, a sparkling red headband for a very small doll.

Another, a dead field mouse, tiny and still cute, but for the way its lips pulled back from its teeth.

I’d seen that field mouse before, alive. It nested nearby, and if I walked quietly, I could spot it in the grass. When a student dropped half of her breakfast bar, the mouse raced onto the sidewalk for its bounty. I watched, delighted, a few steps away.

I saw that little body for several mornings straight, feeling an obligation to it that I couldn’t meet.

I’ve always been better with sentences than stories, sidewalk cracks than street names. I look so much at the acorn caps caught in the hollows between tree roots that I forget to see the world around me—and even when I remember, I find the act of looking—really looking—extremely difficult.

When I started reading about cartography, I didn’t notice for months that many medieval maps feature Christ’s head, hands, and feet at the world’s edge. I’d been too busy searching for the Garden of Eden.

It’s still hard for me to look at a map and notice what’s actually there. I prefer reading a description beforehand because, even with a full-page, full-color image, the world (and the map representing it) seems so busy with information as to become invisible to me.

I can’t speak confidently about the path from point A to point B. I just move between the sight of something I love to the sight of something else. My mind maps the world by accumulated moments, not meridians or measured steps. Walking to work, I go from the rabbit hiding under the blue spruce to the ducks that paddle between snags of trash to the raven—my favorite—who sits cawing on the streetlight, fluffing his neck feathers, ignoring my gaze.

I am really, really good at missing the big picture.

Once, I hiked the Cape Flattery trail in Washington with a friend. Looking over the water, the morning sun filtered through scarves of fog. I wanted to see that landscape as it was, so I closed my eyes and pictured its cliffs and salted trees. I opened my eyes. The landscape I’d conjured was incomplete; the cliffs and rocks altered beyond recognition; the circling seabirds forgotten. I repeated this several times, trying to bring my memory closer and closer to what was real.

When I look at the trail’s end on Google Images now, I can see that I’ve lost it, overcompensated: too many rocks, too twisted trees, too great of waves.

Almost all writing teachers tell their students that the word “revise” means to “see again.” I am starting to suspect that I never see at all. If I shut my eyes to test the real world against the landscapes of memory, when I open them again, I see that I’ve been in the act of imagination. That the real only exists for me as long as I focus intently on it, its every outline and contour and shade.

I walk to work, and after the ducks and the raven, there’s a bend in the path with a bird that I rarely see. Something small, finch-like. Mostly, I hear it calling. Two long notes: high, then low. I almost never spot it, even with the winter branches bare against the sky. I stand and look anyway, searching for a small singing shadow, spending as much time as I can spare.

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learning out loud

learning out loud

TERRA INCOGNITA: Or, My Husband’s Inner Life

TERRA INCOGNITA: Or, My Husband’s Inner Life