The phrase, “the map is not the territory,” was coined in 1931 by semanticist Alfred Korzybski. Ninety years on, it’s more relevant than ever for writers of creative nonfiction, memoirs, autobiography, and biography.

Why? Because the metaphor emphasizes the gap between our representation and what we seek to represent.

This gap is both necessary and useful: Without it, representation ceases to be meaningful. A “gapless” map, for instance, would reproduce territory in a one-to-one correspondence. It couldn’t provide a picture of relative position necessary for way-finding and would be useless as a map.

This gap is also a consequence of selection. By choosing to represent something, we  make choices. When making a map, for instance, we choose both a certain point of focus and a particular point of view. We consider which of our needs we must meet and which needs to meet of our fellow wanderers.

For writers striving to represent “the truth,” the map is not the territory can be a liberating expression. It reminds writers that there is—and should be—a gap between the territory they explore and the way-finding they offer in their book. 

The gap is not just a product of form but of function. After all, maps, aren’t only representative: They’re operative, too. As Rasmus Grønfeldt Winther writes in When Maps Become the World: [Maps] also function within our behaviors, our institutions, and our conscious and unconscious understanding of phenomena. Maps are not solely static, general, and abstract.”

Ultimately, that the map is not the territory should provide comfort: There will always be space between what is and what is represented. There’s no need to eliminate it. The reader simply requires a bridge—and of course a guide—to this new territory.

The post may be old, but the book is a classic.

Golden Shoes

Spring is not a comfortable season in Minnesota. The snow melts, the wind gusts, and the rain pelts. But then, the snow rudely returns. The wind persists in gusting. The rain insists on pelting. While some days reach, gloriously, into the 50s, many others stall in the 30s, threatening the goodwill of exhausted citizens.

But if spring isn’t comfortable, it is comforting. When songbirds return to the shrubbery, loons to the city lakes, and sunshine to the horizon, it reminds us that coldness will warm, darkness will lighten, and green things will grow.

In my house, spring also signals the return of the most comforting of all childhood tales, The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes. The story, written by Du Bose Heyward and illustrated by Marjorie Flack’s delicate, saturated pictures, wears its generational coziness on its title page. There, the “as told to Jenifer” invokes a beloved family tale handed down from father to daughter (and, according to Heyward’s biography, from mother to son).

Heyward may be better known for his 1925 novel Porgy, upon which the Gershwin opera, Porgy and Bess, is based, but he published The Country Bunny in 1939. It’s a story about Cottontail, a clever bunny “with a brown skin and a little cotton ball of a tail,” who wanted to be one of the five Easter Bunnies who brought eggs to children on Easter. 

But “the big white bunnies who lived in fine houses and the Jack Rabbits with long legs who can run so fast” laughed at her ambition. They laughed even harder when Cottontail, “much to her surprise,” found herself with 21 babies to take care of: “Only a country rabbit would go and have all those babies,” they said.

Cottontail put aside her Easter-Bunny dream and tended to her babies. As time passed, and her bunnies grew, she taught them to sweep, clean, cook, wash, sew, mend, sing, dance, garden, and create. When she heard that one of the Easter Bunnies had become too slow and Old Grandfather was to pick a new Easter Bunny to take his place, Cottontail brought her children to the Palace of Easter Eggs to watch the festivities.

Reader, she is chosen. Indeed, she displays such verve, such persistence, and such heart in her role that she is given the incomparable gift of the little gold shoes.

I love Cottontail’s story not only because it’s the softly feminist fulfillment of a dream. It’s also (if I may), a story about letting go of a dream so as to return to it with a more experienced, more nuanced perspective. Cottontail becomes an Easter Bunny not because of her steadfast, single-minded commitment. She becomes an Easter Bunny because her most challenging life experiences fostered the wisdom, kindness, swiftness, cleverness, and heart required to fulfill her dream.

That, to me, is a believable (or at least aspirational) heroism.

The book, it must be said, is a bedtime investment—a concise Mo Willems it is not—but its story about a timely triumph of kindness and heart is a tonic amidst the perennial cruelty of These Times, making every moment spent with it a true comfort.

Ferris Wheel

Against the black background of 500,000 lives lost to COVID, “vulnerability” feels like it has lost some of its millennial sheen. It’s no longer (just) Brené Brown’s shame, and an opportunity for open-hearted living. Today, it means feeling—and being—a persistent target for viral attack.

Although vulnerability can make us feel extraordinarily alone, “vulnerability” contains the roots of collective rescue. From Latin stock “to wound,” vulnerability once referred not only to our susceptibility to wounding but also to our power to wound. These referential foes–to be hurt and also to hurt–have flowered again during our pandemic year.

Now (as, in some ways, always), we’re vulnerable because we can be wounded, get sick, stay sick, die. We’re vulnerable because we love people who can also be wounded, get sick, stay sick, and die. And yet we’re also vulnerable because, in our vulnerability, we can wound and sicken others.

To be vulnerable means to carry an enormous weight, but its etymology suggests it’s not one we must–or even can–privately bear. Instead, the discomfort of our vulnerability can serve to remind us of our collective responsibility to safeguard one another.

As we pass the signpost marking a quarantine year, we can mark our progress not in days (ha.), but in terms of our ability to accept vulnerability as both weakness and strength. We now know the associated cost of denial: When we fail to accept our vulnerability, we relinquish the power we have to keep ourselves and others safe.

Wandering around the Albuquerque Airport Terminal, after learning my flight had been delayed four hours, I heard an announcement: “If anyone in the vicinity of Gate A-4 understands any Arabic, please come to the gate immediately.”

Well–one pauses these days. Gate A-4 was my own gate. I went there.

An older woman in full traditional Palestinian embroidered dress, just like my grandma wore, was crumpled to the floor, wailing. “Help,” said the flight agent. “Talk to her. What is her problem? We told her the flight was going to be late and she did this.”

I stooped to put my arm around the woman and spoke haltingly. “Shu-dow-a, Shu-bid-uck Habibti? Stani schway, Min fadlick, Shu-bit-se-wee?” The minute she heard any words she knew, however poorly used, she stopped crying. She thought the flight had been cancelled entirely. She needed to be in El Paso for major medical treatment the next day. I said, “No, we’re fine, you’ll get there, just later, who is picking you up? Let’s call him.”

We called her son, I spoke with him in English. I  told him I would stay with his mother till we got on the plane and ride next to her. She talked to him. Then we called her other sons just for the fun of it. Then we called my dad and he and she spoke for a while in Arabic and found out of course they had ten shared friends. Then I thought just for the heck of it why not call some Palestinian poets I know and let them chat with her? This all took up two hours.

She was laughing a lot by then. Telling of her life, patting my knee, answering questions. She had pulled a sack of homemade mamool cookies—little powdered sugar crumbly mounds stuffed with dates and nuts—from her bag—and was offering them to all the women at the gate. To my amazement, not a single woman declined one. It was like a sacrament. The traveler from Argentina, the mom from California, the lovely woman from Laredo—we were all covered with the same powdered sugar. And smiling. There is no better cookie.

And then the airline broke out free apple juice from huge coolers and two little girls from our flight ran around serving it and they were covered with powdered sugar, too. And I noticed my new best friend—by now we were holding hands—had a potted plant poking out of her bag, some medicinal thing, with green furry leaves. Such an old country tradition. Always carry a plant. Always stay rooted to somewhere.

And I looked around that gate of late and weary ones and I thought, This is the world I want to live in. The shared world. Not a single person in that gate—once the crying of confusion stopped—seemed apprehensive about any other person. They took the cookies. I wanted to hug all those other women, too.

This can still happen anywhere. Not everything is lost.

-Naomi Shihab Nye

I stopped at a red light on Mass. Ave.
in Boston, a couple blocks away
from the bridge, and a woman in a beat-up
old Buick backed into me. Like, cranked her wheel,
rammed right into my side. I drove a Chevy
pickup truck. It being Boston, I got out
of the car yelling, swearing at this woman,
a little woman, whose first language was not English.
But she lived and drove in Boston, too, so she knew,
we both knew, that the thing to do
is get out of the car, slam the door
as hard as you fucking can and yell things like What the fuck
were you thinking? You fucking blind? What the fuck
is going on? Jesus Christ! So we swore
at each other with perfect posture, unnaturally angled
chins. I threw my arms around, sudden
jerking motions with my whole arms, the backs
of my hands toward where she had hit my truck.

But she hadn’t hit my truck. She hit
the tire; no damage done. Her car
was fine, too. We saw this while
we were yelling, and then we were stuck.
The next line in our little drama should have been
Look at this fucking dent! I’m not paying for this
shit. I’m calling the cops, lady. Maybe we’d throw in a
You’re in big trouble, sister, or I just hope for your sake
there’s nothing wrong with my fucking suspension, that
sort of thing. But there was no fucking dent. There
was nothing else for us to do. So I
stopped yelling, and she looked at the tire she’d
backed into, her little eyebrows pursed
and worried. She was clearly in the wrong, I was enormous,
and I’d been acting as if I’d like to hit her. So I said
Well, there’s nothing wrong with my car, nothing wrong
with your car…are you OK? She nodded, and started
to cry, so I put my arms around her and I held her, middle
of the street, Mass. Ave., Boston, a couple blocks from the bridge.
I hugged her, and I said We were scared, weren’t we?
and she nodded and we laughed.

-Jill McDonough

What does it mean to work as though we live in the days of a better civilization? Although frequently attributed to Alasdair Gray (despite his disavowal), the line belongs to Gray’s contemporary, Canadian Dennis Lee.

In Civil Elegies, Lee writes:

And best of all is finding a place to be
in the early days of a better civilization
For we are a conquered nation: sea to sea we bartered
everything that counts, till we have
nothing to lose but our forebears’ will to lose.
But what good is that in a nation of
losers and quislings

Although Lee’s early work denounced Canada’s colonial complicity and earned him the Governor General’s award in 1972, he is better known for his children’s poetry. In fact, his poetry was a favorite of engineering professor Deb Chachra, who recently namechecked Lee in Metafoundry, her newsletter on the nexus of infrastructure, engineering, art, and individuals.

In Issue 73: Our Cyborg Collective Body, Ourselves, Chachra invokes the slow-burning apocalypse in William Gibson’s scifi novels (specifically, The Peripheral and Agency) to describe the current COVID crisis. She then cites Lee’s poetic injunction, calling on us to imagine a systemic, collective response.

What would it look like, after all, to build an infrastructure fit to serve a better civilization?

According to Paul Graham Raven, infrastructure is a “tool,” “an extension of baseline human abilities.” It’s a systematized technical augmentation–but with a biological input (us!).

In the context of COVID, we know our bodies have needs that manifest individually but must be met collectively: We become infectiously ill individuals, sometimes so ill we must be isolated from the collective to be cared for by the collective before returning to the collective. Needs like these are met (or not) through infrastructural responses, such as public health, also public education.

Yet, to build tools to meet the needs of a better civilization, we must not only identify needs that have not yet been met, but also determine those needs that have not yet been recognized as the collective’s responsibility.

In Sexuality for All Abilities, Katie Thune and I argue that there is an individual and a collective need for comprehensive sex education for young people in the special education classroom. While writing this book will not determine a better civilization, arguing for recognition of a collectively solvable problem may help hasten its arrival.

During the Trump years, critics have often felt a professional obligation to criticize the administration’s use of rhetoric to foster cruelty and perpetuate a fantasy of violence. The fantasy is rooted in what literary critic Richard Slotkin called (50 years ago) the “American mythogenesis.” And it tells the story of American identity and strength as dependent on “regeneration through violence.” Today, Trump extends the fantasy through language, partly by coding administrative action as valiant, partly by soliciting sympathetic readers to ascend from the rank-and-file to heroism in the life-threatening context of American life.

On the one hand, it’s just words.

On the other, it’s not.

Trump recently contributed a tweet to the perpetuation of this fantasy in response to the Supreme Court’s 5-4 DACA ruling. The majority decision, penned by Bush appointee, John Roberts, called the federal administration’s decision to terminate DACA “arbitrary and capricious,” noting it failed to provide adequate information that “policy concerns outweigh[ed] reliance interests.” Dreamers were consequently granted  temporary reprieve.

Trump’s response:

The aggressive language casts the decision as murderous, and its violent imagery facilitates the Manichean worldview on which fascism depends. It’s us against them, Trump warns, by any means necessary. Here, fascism’s nationalists are redefined as warriors. Because they face political opposition, which in Trump’s language endangers their lives, they are not only freed from the rules governing shared reality, they are freed from sharing in the common sense of reality at all.

The fantasy of violence works by way of a superficial imitation of the flight-or-fight binary. When matters of political disagreement are defined as a threat to life, any retaliatory action is justified, no matter how distorted the perception of threat.

It’s possible that a fantasy rooted in violent American myth is the most effective way to communicate federal policy informed by white supremacy. But we must recognize its use as a weapon that damages our shared reality. It’s not “just words” when it perpetuates a warrior worldview: It’s actionable, fostering systemic division and the violence attendant to it.

How can such a “war” be won? It’s not entirely clear. But most of us already know that weapons of violence and “shotgun blasts into the face” do not solve complicated problems.

It’s Earth Day, which means Transform Yourself with Climate Truth, my book with Margaret Klein Salamon, is now available from New Society! But because we’re quarantined in a pandemic while radical pro-gun extremists bully nurses, doctors, and state governments to sacrifice the weak—as if that’s a meaningful solution to the precarious futures of important industries (like publishing)—it’s a muted celebration.

Earth Day was established in 1970 on the presumption that Americans deeply cared about the environmental damage wreaked by industrial development. Bipartisan, cross-generational, and cross-class supporters verified this belief, publicly recognizing our fundamental human reliance on a healthy environment for sustenance.

Although the recognition is often collapsed into a niche interest in  “environmentalism,” it’s an extension of fact: We can’t bear children, raise children, be children, grow into adults, or function as adults without the benefit of clean air, good food, and drinkable water. This is the requirement of every member of our species, whether or not we care about sustaining the planet beyond our mere survival.

Today, care—such a crucial requirement for change—feels like a scarce resource. Callous examples of leadership reinforce the sense of finitude: Trump’s pride in his antipathy seems to inspire those who enjoy participating in a rigid Darwinian contest where every resource is limited. In this game, sacrificing the weak is the only available strategy for defining the strong.

Then, of course, there are those who must attend to so many pressures from so many sides that care can only be parceled out on an as-needed basis. COVID-19 has simply made manifest this pressure: Who can care about anything else when a minimum of 45,000 Americans are dead and 22 million Americans are unemployed?

When care is considered finite—whether because it serves “the strong” or preserves “the weak”—it can only be utilized in extremity.

Yet care is not a limited resource. In Transform Yourself with Climate Truth, Margaret argues that our environment is essential to our practical and spiritual lives, and we must care enough about it to prioritize its preservation. It’s not just a logical decision; it’s also an emotional one. The book guides readers to welcome the pain contingent on caring, because, by welcoming the pain, we expand our capacity to care.

Margaret is a psychologist, and she knows from personal and professional experience that caring can hurt. In fact, to care is rooted in Germanic Old English to sorrow or to grieve. While our desire to avoid pain is natural, it is not possible. And because it limits our ability to feel and thus to empathize, it should not be desirable. Pain is a part of life, sometimes a very big part of life: When we learn not just to withstand that pain but to welcome it, we become truly strong because we become capable of infinite care. 

bomb

We’re writing under a NWO here in Minnesota…and everywhere else. Schools are closed, and events, bars, restaurants, cafes, clubs, and anyplace else people want to congregate, are cancelled or shut down to flatten the COVID-19 curve.

It’s a new normal that can be hard to process in the permanent now of Twitter’s micro-moods. Some of us (or just me) are swinging between a fight-or-flight response to the immediate crisis and the more considered calm required to take care—of ourselves, our families, our communities, our jobs.

In this case, taking care may mean thinking through—like thinking through the consequences of choices about self-quarantining, social distancing, and vector-stymying so that we can take care of ourselves and each other.

But we can also take care by thinking through seemingly less impactful choices, like the words we use.

Because language is an everyday modus operandi, words sometimes feel arbitrary and unimportant. But even in their apparent meaningless (see Molly Young’s expose of garbage language, Mark Morgioni’s defense, and George Orwell’s 1946 anticipation of the same), words carry political implications.

The words of the pandemic, for example, have been shaped into weaponry for deployment in infectious warfare. Over the years (errr, likely throughout the history of language), war metaphors have been dulled by overuse. But such metaphors still signal the scale of struggle and the unity required to face and fight a common enemy.

Often, the referent makes the difference: When the federal administration chooses to refer to the coronavirus or COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus,” for example, it matters. An enemy called COVID-19, for example, requires armament in kind: masks, tests, hospital beds, a systemic and coordinated frontline—and rearguard—response. Since we know we don’t yet have these weapons in effective numbers, we know we cannot effectively fight this enemy.

An enemy called the “Chinese virus,” on the other hand, diverts attention from the weapons we don’t have (and why) by modifying virality with origins. It unifies an “us” against a foreign invader, and signals the need for weaponry of a different order (such as the border closures President Trump indicates have aided the fight). In this way, the racism contingent on and inherent to the distinction may not be considered by its users to be a symptom but salutary.

The challenges inherent to naming diseases are significant: Just ask the WHO. Yet, because language is not “a natural growth” but, as Orwell argued, “an instrument which we shape for our own purposes,” we should take care to think these challenges through. Our words won’t keep us safe from COVID-19, but they can make a difference in how and where we focus the fight.