Maps, Imagination, Empathy

When I saw the small map printed in The New Yorker recently, I scanned it immediately and expanded the picture to show the long span over the ocean between Buffalo and Paris to Syria and beyond (just imagine land under those add-ons). Having a mental sense of where things are helps (me).


My grandmother had a large map of the world tacked to her dining room wall. She began mapping as a girl tracing the long distance traveled by her parents from Germany to North Tonawanda and again during World War II when her four sons were dispersed to different locations and she made it her job to track their whereabouts. During Viet Nam, she kept watch on war activities in relation to where her oldest grandson was stationed. I observed how her curiosity and engagement with faraway places brought those places closer and more intimate. I regularly ponder maps and draw my own diagrams for getting around unknown areas even though map apps and GPS are commonly used now. 

Recent online commentary criticizes westerners for their “empathy gap” during violent attacks in Syria and Paris, as the outpouring of support has been directed mostly to France. Many of us cannot locate Beirut or Damascus on a map, but we more likely have experienced a Paris visit to gaze at the Mona Lisa in the Louvre, drink bowls of coffee at a sidewalk café, and snap photos at The Eiffel Tower. Others know Paris through books and movies only. Then there are those who have little interest in Paris or any travel to new terrains.

Connection breeds empathy.

I visited for a few days years ago and I was lucky enough to stay with actual Parisians, but the time was less than ideal as I was somewhat ill with a cold. I remember a lot of wandering in the cold of early December while my friend worked. My ability to decipher a menu in French the was limited so I ended up eating a lot ofomelettes. And…the Louvre Museum was closed that week due to a workers strike. Much of my appreciation for the place comes from the writings of Simone de Beauvoir and Anais Nin, Joni Mitchell’s lyrics, and Jean-Luc Godard’s film, Breathless–Jean Seberg in her striped boat shirt and cropped hair. Drinking coffee from a bowl still makes me feel French.

Last Summer, Toby brought me this souvenir from her trip…


Both fans of cheesy vintage tourist shop items, such as snow globes and pens; this red, white, and blue tower is even more iconic and meaningful than even just a couple months ago.

The attack on culture, modernity, and the western world is heartbreaking. At a time when we have never had more people engaged in the new ideas, expression, creativity, and compassionate living; the terrorists who act out to destroy all that have no place in a global society. As people displaced from their homes in Syria must find refuge in places not entirely welcoming, I wonder how that will work. 

What will happen next?

The words of poet Diana di Prima speak well to this situation…


November 2015

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