As I prepare for my trip to Massachusetts for our daughter’s college graduation, I leave you with this post I recently wrote for Lisa Ahn’s blog, “Tales of Quirk and Wonder.” I was honored to learn that it has won an “Alice Award for International Creatives” from thedisplacednation.com. Thought you might enjoy it. And, please tell us in the comments what inspires you in your work. See you next week!
Words and maps.
For as long as I can remember, I have been enchanted by the power of words to transport readers to a world they don’t yet know. To make them laugh. Or cry. 26 letters, put together in ways that can persuade, teach, entertain, even enrage.
And when I was a child, maps were a metaphor for a world I had not yet seen: all the places that existed far away from Harbor City, beyond the Kress’s Five and Ten on Market Street and the sawmill across the Southside Bridge.
Inspiration is a slippery thing to define. Are we inspired to do our life’s work simply because we are good at it? Or are we good at it precisely because it has inspired us so?
I am a writer come lately.
For a long while, other things got in the way: like raising a child by myself. Getting a teaching degree so I could make the rent and put dinner on the table, though the meals were sometimes meager. (My daughter still fondly remembers Cowboy Macaroni , though she didn’t know at the time the origin of—or reason for— that particular dish.)
But my side trips in life didn’t mean that I had stopped caring about my passions. They were just that: little detours.
I always came back to my two passions: words and maps.
I learned early on that words used in the right way, could make people pay attention.
When I was 5, my parents would haul me out to perform for company. Having an affinity for proper nouns, I could recite, in syncopated rhythm and alphabetical order, the first and last name of every child in my kindergarten class. From Georgia Bushnell to Andy Zimmerman.
My parents’ friends thought it was hilarious. Though I would have preferred their solemn attention to laughter, still, it left me drunk on the power of words.
I began memorizing the dictionary when I was in third grade, after winning my school district spelling bee and advancing to the competition at the Grays Harbor County Fair. I held the Webster’s Abridged Dictionary in my hands in the back seat of the car on the way, getting in some last-minute studying.
I lost miserably in that spelling bee, fouling out in the third round. But the dictionary became my friend.
I didn’t think about being a writer. Though I was in Honors English, Mrs. Finn, my high school counselor, never suggested I could do that. A goal of writer as a profession for a girl would have been as delusional as, say, expecting to become a brain surgeon or an airline pilot.
I resisted the dismal options open to girls at the time: secretary, nurse, teacher. I signed up for all the French and Spanish classes I could take, setting my sights on a career in New York City as an interpreter at the United Nations.
One day, I snagged a copy of Seventeen Magazine, reeled in by the cover headline: “You Can Work at the U.N.!” I flipped through to the article and was stunned to read that girls like me could work at the United Nations—in the secretarial pool.
Years later, after my marriage ended, I was teaching English to southeast Asian refugees. By day, I made hallway bulletin boards with a map of Laos, showing other kids in the school the stories my students had written, complete with pictures of their beautiful BAH-nah-nah trees.
Evenings, to make ends meet, I spoon-fed tender English phrases—“does this bus go downtown?”, “where is the rice noodle aisle?”—to their parents in night school.
All the time, in the back of my mind, I sensed that I wasn’t doing what I was supposed to be doing. I began writing in journals and placing a few magazine articles. But I was left with little time for my own creative work.
My fascination with maps started in fourth grade at Robert Gray Elementary School, with the pull-down maps and encyclopedias in my classroom. In my mind, if I could point to a city or a country, I figured it was possible to go there someday.
The summer I was nine, the encyclopedia man showed up on our doorstep with his suitcase of shiny red Encyclopedia Britannicas, just like the ones at school. I loved to read about the places with exotic-sounding names, like Senegal. Turkey. Mo-ROC-co. Minneapolis.
And there were enough maps to fuel my explorer self for months. Years even.
But when the encyclopedia man’s best offer turned out to be the $9.99 monthly plan, Mama shooed him away with her hand, like he was a bothersome fly. And just like that, it was over. I watched out the front room window as his station wagon peeled out, the gravel on the driveway spitting. I was crushed.
Next, I asked Mama if we could get the National Geographic. I had seen my friend’s father read them and I knew that there was a full-color, foldout map in every issue. Mama said we couldn’t afford it, that it was an expensive magazine more suited for grownups. But she got me a small globe that Christmas.
Maps continue to inspire me. Now, as a gift to my nine-year-old self, I have one of those big National Geographic maps on my office wall, with colored push pins stuck onto all the countries where I have new friends—from Twitter, from Facebook, from my blog. Someday I will visit them.
Words and Maps Together
Whenever my two passions intersected, I was truly inspired.
As manager of Writing Resources for World Vision, words and maps perfectly converged to send me to West Africa as part of a documentary team to tell the stories of projects helping third world families become self-sufficient.
I survived a sandstorm by taking refuge in the hut of a village chief, saw the miracle of women in a cooperative near Timbuktu, Mali irrigating the Sahara to grow rice, and told the stories of girls in a Muslim country who were for the first time getting to go to school.
Later, I was a grantwriting consultant, creating proposals to convince bankers and CEOs to give money so kids in third world countries would not die from drinking dirty water or diseases we had long ago eradicated in the first world.
Now, I’ve finally reached the point where I am putting together the pieces of my life, word by word, shining a light on one of the recurring themes of my life. Finding just the right words to express a life map of sorts: to understand where I started and where I am going.
I am writing a memoir.
I believe that we never really lose our passions. Jobs can come and go, but, in the end, we never forget what inspires us.
Do you have a thread weaving through and around your life?
A passion that inspires your work, whatever that might be at the moment?