MY husband loves maps. From his earliest childhood when his dartboard was a map of the world, he has been fascinated with those intricate lines and minuscule letters that make sense of the earth's surface. He loves the lore of the most exotic of the world's geography and can astound a tableful of Trivial Pursuit players with his answers to obscure questions.
But perhaps his most satisfying use of maps is to decipher the enlarged details of an area and find his way around an unknown place. He has navigated by car the congested narrow streets of downtown Cordoba in Spain and the dips and rises of the hollows in eastern Kentucky. He has found his way through the cities and villages of Israel and Italy, pedaled through the British Isles, and forded the wild rivers of Canada by canoe.
As I think of the journey to a new life that our family of six began four years ago, I sigh and wish there were a reassuring map of just where we were heading and the final destination.
When we set out from our familiar home, a farm in Kentucky, we thought the path ahead of us was short and full of certainty. Instead, the trail has demanded endurance and a will to keep on going, much like a hike we once took through the Daniel Boone National Forest in Central Kentucky.
It was late morning, and we'd planned a short hike before lunch to a natural rock bridge that the small map we had indicated would be clear and easy. Two hours later, as we scaled small hillsides and trudged single file through narrow pathways, we realized the map had omitted several crucial bits of trail. Each time we all stopped to rest and complain my husband would urge us on confidently: ``Keep on walking. It's not far.'' We made it back to our car three hours later, tired, hungry, and grateful.
The carefully charted path we had planned before leaving our farm included a one-year master's degree program in diplomacy and international development for my husband. This, we were sure, would guarantee employment in the field of third-world development where we would live a family Peace Corps style of work.
Eagerly, we awaited the day when we would set off to live a simpler, more useful kind of life. Even when friends joked about a life without microwaves and cable TV we laughed, heady with the anticipation of exactly that and of the new cultures we would find.
When the coveted master's degree did not produce a job, we realized just how competitive this field of international development really was and how many people were looking for the same path of service and simplicity.
It was inspiring to think so many other Americans wanted this way of life, even though this seemed to be a roadblock to our progress. It was time to chart a new trail.
Each of us must be the mapmakers of our lives. We travel down the comfortable or challenging routes our hopes and imaginations set for us. If we are neither lazy nor content to merely do the easy thing, we reach for a goal, a particular career or place to live or ideal to embody, and then we head with hope and some trepidation along our self-styled path.
We live in a country that offers us endless possibilities and places in which to embark upon our dreams.
Sometimes the unexpected dead end forces us to detour, and then we discover uncharted geography that makes for unplanned exploration. This travel amid the unknown is at times frightening or exhilarating, but always a chance to discover a brand new way of life.
When international development work became a dead end, we made the Foreign Service our new destination. With all tests passed and my husband's name on the hiring list, we waited for the day when he would be called to Washington DC and a subsequent posting abroad.
Our children were now primed for a life in some far-off continent, and we waited on pins and needles for the phone call, which never came. Once again, fierce competition had pushed my husband's name too far down the list, and he was never hired.
Four years later, still in the midst of traveling toward another rewarding goal, we have lived in three houses, in two states, in city, suburb, and village and find our map of life expanding as we dip down into deep valleys of disappointment and over the peaks of new experience.
As we watch our young daughters grow along the way, we wonder: Will this extended journey convey to them life's frustrating vagaries or will they come to know, with unshakable certainty, that all of life is a journey that unfolds, sometimes the way we plan and sometimes unexpectedly?
Our girls started out from a small Kentucky town where many people knew our name and where an exciting happening would be the birth of Gene's newest grandchild, announced from his diner's magnetic sign.
Since those nostalgic days, the girls have learned how to catch blue crabs by hand, to ride a metro, and to make homeless women smile at the downtown shelter we often visit. They have seen all the sights in Washington, ridden Percherons in the Lexington bluegrass, and sailed boats in Chesapeake Bay.
Throughout it all, the children have made new friends in new schools and found that once again they can belong. I hope these years of traveling toward our goal, toward a permanent, not rented home, may come to be part of a bright pattern in the mosaic of their lives.
During this, his last year of a doctoral program in political science, my husband will write his dissertation. With a competitive fellowship and highly praised comprehensive exams, he has been told his job prospects are good.
One year from now, according to our newest plan, he will be teaching in some university. We are not picky, just about any will do, although we have a list of favorites that we hold more like wistful possibilities and not as firm destinations. We have learned to be both resilient and highly flexible.
Underneath our bed is a stack of topographical survey maps that break western Kentucky into very detailed 5-by-8 mile chunks of land. Using these maps, we have driven down narrow two-lane rural roads where every dip and incline has been delineated along with each small graveyard, barn, and abandoned railroad line. We have known the satisfaction of taking a Sunday drive along these roads and anticipating each upcoming landmark.
And yet, when the time comes to look back upon our life and contemplate the twisting and turning paths, I have a feeling we will be grateful for the adventure of having created our own unpredictable, custom-made map as we went breathlessly along.
Each of us must be the mapmakers of our lives. We travel down the comfortable or challenging routes our imaginations set for us.