Mapping the Spiritual Path
I’ve been thinking about maps a lot lately. When I teach college writing, I show my students how to make mind maps—hand scrawled idea orbs with spokes that look like spiders wearing suction cups on the end of their legs. When they write an academic paper, I explain that a thesis statement should function as a map, telling the reader of the trip they’re about to take. When I talk about writing spiritual journaling in my Writers’ Studio classes, we inevitably start discussing the spiritual journey, how a journal attempts to map the path we’re on.
Maps pop up in my writing, too. In the opening essay of my collection What Will Outlast Me? (forthcoming from Unsolicited Press 2023), I write about driving the section lines, which are another kind of map. The brainchild of Thomas Jefferson, section lines are the mile-by-mile grid that plotted out the wild regions of the newly territories won after the Revolutionary War, and they’re still in use today. In the rural parts of Nebraska where I grew up, roads are built on the section line, imposing a neat grid over the unruliness of nature. Viewed aerially, they are also surprisingly beautiful. Take a look at artist Shabtai Pinchevsky’s stunning collection of satellite grid images.
We tend to think of maps as a way of imposing order on chaos. A map—in its ability to show us the wisdom of those that came before us—prevents us from getting lost. With a good map, you won’t circle back in inefficient loops.
This is where the map metaphor breaks down for me. It’s a flat way of moving through space that insists on a linear logic. My spiritual path looks nothing like a Jeffersonian grid, but more like something that comes out of a broken Spirograph. There’s another diagram that I like to draw for students to describe the creative process. I start with a typical chronological line graph. I label inspiration, researching, experimenting, executing, refining, editing, receiving feedback. It seems straightforward until I map the recursive nature of bringing something into being. Every step of the way, I draw a circle looping backward to previous step. Creation takes reworking, revisiting, reseeing.
I think a lot of people right now feel like they’re caught in an endless cycle, redoing the same steps over and over in a way that doesn’t feel like making any progress. (Imagine those sad ponies at the fair. The ones who, harnessed to a turnstile, hang their heads as they plod around in an endless, weary circle with a sticky, cotton-candy coated child on their backs.)
There’s a spiritual notion that to we are doomed to repeat something until we’ve learned our lesson like in the 1993 film Groundhog Day. In the movie, a news team led by producer Rita (Andie McDowell) and weatherman Phil (Bill Murray) go on location to cover the Groundhog Day celebration in Punxsutawney, PA. Phil who’s cynical and obnoxiously self-absorbed, finds the whole weekend ridiculous, only to realize he’s been cursed to repeat February 2 over and over. Those around him have no memory of repeating the day, so Phil quickly knows exactly what everyone around him is going to do or say, and what perils might befall them. He breaks the curse once he until he learns to be unselfishly kind by helping those he encounters (while also making Rita fall in love with him because, hey, this is Hollywood.) Groundhog Day has become such a cult classic because the idea that we learn spiritual lessons by repetition is culturally engrained.
I’m not sure why certain themes repeat in my life and my writing. Perhaps they’re the work I’m meant to do. I don’t see my repetitive spirals as punishing, but I do think that seeing our lives only as linear, chronological structures is failing to imagine all the other ways we might map out our lives.
Writers and artists are susceptible to a nagging theme or haunting memory returning time and again to their consciousness. When I was writing What Will Outlast Me? I obsessed over the moments in my life when death drew startling near to me—and the deeper I dug into witnessing car accidents, pathology reports, and hurricanes, the more I realized how beautiful and exquisite life is. After circling those themes for years, I came to realize the gift of accepting my own mortality had taught me to cultivate mindfulness presence in a way I hadn’t before.
I like the way Elizabeth J. Andrew describes life’s reoccurring themes in Writing the Sacred Journey.
She explains recursive memory as “a tall lighthouse with a spiral staircase climbing the inner chamber. The events of a life are narrow murals painted vertically on the inside walls. As we grow and change, we pass the same memoires over and over. But each time we are higher up, viewing past events from a new perspective.”
We may find ourselves at the same spot again (a winter fearing COVID and retreating back to quarantining), but we haven’t stood still. We’ve worked our way up the spiral staircase, and the view is better. The sightline a little more expansive.
Do you know someone who would enjoy this post? Please pass it on.
What ways do you notice and “map” your spiritual and emotional locations?
What metaphors describe where you’re at in your life now?
Did you find insights from reflecting on the journal prompts?
Beautiful! As someone who struggles to write "outlines" and follow linear paths of writing, the idea of life spirals resonates deeply. I like the idea of seeing life as an ascension of a spiral staircase where we revisit the past with a new, wider perspective. That's the path of spiritual growth in my book. We get to see how far we've come from our "old" self and how we've improved. Glad you worked in Groundhog Day, too.
This is beautiful Sarah. I agree that thinking of life as a linear journey feels limiting, and I often find myself circling back to certain themes. I've also visited rural Nebraska and experienced those section line roads.