Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Cartography, boundaries and mapping my life

I sometimes think of my life as a cartographical dilemma. I am my own city-state, surrounded on all sides by other city-states. We engage in constant negotiation over boundaries. Where can we build bridges? Where would walls be more appropriate? How do we negotiate? What’s more, these cartographies are medieval maps, hand-drawn relying on instinct and supposition, story and emotion. They don’t have the distant satellite view of a modern map, though they are every bit as much influenced by politics and desire and perhaps more honest because of their individual nature. 

The metaphor falls apart, of course, when the human heart comes into the equation, as it must even on physical maps with geographical and geological boundaries. What are my personal borders? How do I reconcile their flexibility - the incursions I will accept from one person are not the same as those I’ll accept from another - with survival? The limits of those incursions can even change within a relationship - what was okay yesterday is not okay today.

I wasn’t raised with clear boundaries. It was understood that my plate would be eaten from, that who cared for whom and when was fuzzy, so perhaps it makes sense that I have tended to care for people well beyond when most would have stopped, have tended to accept more responsibility for the actions of those I love than is reasonable. 

In the last few years I’ve had opportunity to examine my own boundaries, to think about where I end and others begin with a clarity I wish I had exercised years ago. 

This isn’t an easy essay to write. This isn’t an easy essay to write in the context of a hard world, where good people are driven beyond their breaking point and need help. This isn’t an easy essay to write in this hard world, where good people will accept the help offered, and then ask for more than you can give because all they can see is their own need. 

I struggle with this last point. It isn’t unreasonable for these good, broken people to ask for more because, after all, I’ve been able to give before. I’m rarely clear with my limits because I often don’t know them until I’ve exceeded them. And even when I’ve exceeded them my tendency is to keep trying, to attempt to fix things that aren’t mine to fix, things I cannot fix because the solution was never in my hands to begin with. So, ultimately, I can’t blame these good broken people for continuing to ask for more, more, more. The responsibility really lies with me, with a need to communicate more clearly, to lay out clear limits sooner, without becoming hard-hearted and rigid. I think maybe the key lies in remaining flexible, honest and clear. It lies in understanding my own limitations which may help me ultimately be more compassionate and able to render care, because I will know when to stop before I break.

Which brings be back to maps. There is no GPS for relationships and the human heart. But, maybe, there could be maps. A good map is easy to read. It suggests a world with easy routes and boundaries. You know that this land ends here, that this road goes there.  You understand what you can and cannot cross and the landmarks you’ll see along the way. 

I am my own cartographer and must refer to my illustrated map complete with smudges and scribbles and warnings that “here there be monsters,” so I can continue to navigate these complex relationships. And I need to remember that I cannot read anyone else’s map, only my own. I can only mark my own boundaries. I can only put up my own warning signs. I can only modify my route, by my own map, as my own navigator, not by the back seat driving of someone else’s need. 

(c)2012 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License


  1. This was utterly perfect. I feel like stealing it - that's how good it is. I have so many broken friendships that would have likely survived had I only had a map.

    1. thanks, Cathy. If you riff on this let me know, I'd love to read your thoughts. And yes, if only we had maps, it would help sometimes.


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