Orienting by Victoria Baldwin

Orienting by Victoria Baldwin | For Educators

"Naming something is a way of giving it permission to exist" - Eula Biss  

For my birthday this year, a map of the United States, mounted on white foam standing against the fireplace, wrapped in sea-green tissue. For the first hour, other presents don't come into focus. The map, precise and looming, lords the living room while breakfast is made, taken away, cleaned up. The cats weave between our legs, settle close. We play a Bob Dylan record, open the windows to early July.

Since I'm just staring, you ask if this is the right one, if I had wanted another. I don't have words. This is the best-made map of the United States you'll ever see, done by David Imus from his farm in Eugene, OR. Over 10,000 hours of work, over 10,000 hours of love made visible. Best of Show this year in the Cartography and Geographic Information Society, this is a work of art, a mastery of design, a naming guide, a reckoning of orientation, of place.  Carrying roads, time zone distinctions, neatly placed lists of local attractions, topographical shading, my hand moves with rivers and roads.    

White-haired, dressed in blue, constant and almost permanent, a man who speaks in mad-dog and river tongue taught me about the age of water and wind, how time doesn't begin to stretch long enough, can't wrap around them. How we follow rivers to find a source, use them to get to each other, use them to orient ourselves, however false that orienting may be.  Because it's not a source of the thing that matters, but the trail it leaves, reference points it offers, names, assurance that yes, this happened, this existed, this exists, we exist.    

Almost any map can be found online now. But something there is lost. Perhaps because maps feel better when they can be unrolled on a dining room table, flat and sure; perhaps because that weight of an atlas in my hands tells me I am here, tells me I can find myself among everything else, lets me press my hand against paper, line up the map in my skin with the roads and rivers and mountain ridges I know, learning this land through osmosis. Perhaps because, in the middle of Iowa at night, without internet or cell service or a familiar road sign, I am not lost. Because I watch how the sun moves. Because a compass is tethered to North, and a printed map in my hands is better than anything on a screen; with dimension, texture, weight, a smell, it lets me hold on, grip the spine and point here.    

Alone, in my room after cake and all the fuss, palming the Midwest first, I trace the mitten, the chef, all the way down to his Louisiana toes. I breathe in close, breathe every detail like it's Thanksgiving and the kitchen door swings open, just a little. Everything is clear, unfurling into decadent certainty. I feel solid for the first time in years. No more moving around, losing touch, getting lost, reaching. Texas can't get up and walk away. Alaska won't float back to Russia. The sea can't swallow Nebraska, make a hole out of Michigan's thumb, suck down the chef's hat. I nail the map to my wall, left of my bed.    

My own marvel, my own cartography, I name rivers and towns into my pillow, counting memories, my body of land. Salem, Hershey, Scottsburg, Cincinnati, Kalamazoo, Traverse City, the Boardman, Minneapolis, Mississippi River, Minot, Red River of the North, Lignite, Portal, Wild Rice River, Missoula, Casper, Sheyenne River, Pocatello, Elko, Loveland, Santa Fe, Rio Grande, El Paso, Lubbock, San Juan River, Odessa, Tucson, Santa Monica, Topanga Creek, Bend, Cannon Beach, another Salem. Each time I add another until I feel located enough to sleep, cup names under my pillow, mouth North, murmur home.

"Orienting" was published in "Cellar Door", a literary magazine at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois.