Mapping Adoption Journeys: The Cartography of Healing

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As a writer and artist, I see maps in many ways, as canvases, as metaphors, as information. I love this quote from Peter Turchi’s Maps of The Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer.

“…The earliest maps are thought to have been created to help people find their way and to reduce their fear of the unknown. We want to know the location of what we deem life-sustaining and life-threatening. Now as then, we record great conflicts and meaningful discoveries. We organize information on maps in order to see our knowledge in a new way. As a result, maps suggest explanations; and while explanations assure us, they also inspire us to ask more questions, consider other possibilities.”

I considered that paragraph through the lens of adoption.

In adoption, we tend to create our own maps, and they often are missing significant signage, exact locations, and detailed directions. Our maps often change a lot over time, from what we thought we knew to be true when the journey began, to what we later see through different eyes, with new information, with deeper understanding. There are all sorts of roadblocks, dead ends, surprises, unexpected twists and turns. Maybe if we don’t have a map, we can create our own.

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In addition to Peter Turchi’s Maps of the Imagination, I also highly recommend Jill K. Berry’s book Personal Geographies: Explorations in Mixed Media MapmakingNeither book is specifically about adoption. I’m drawing (literally and figuratively) from both books in considering ways that adoptees, first mothers, and anyone with “missing pieces” in their family history can draw a new map, whether real or imagined, with the information they have at hand. In so doing, perhaps a new measure of healing can occur.

I think of my daughters, and how they might create a map from the small Ethiopian village where they  spent the first 5 years of life, drawing an arrow then about 200 kms north to Addis for several months, then to Bole airport, to Rome, to New York City, to Washington, DC, to Maryland. Those last 5 locations all were visited in one day.

That map would show an astonishing, life-changing journey. Imagine experiencing it through the eyes of a 6-year-old. Imagine contemplating it through the eyes of a 25-year-old.

I think of adult adoptee friends who traveled to the US from Korea as children, and genuinely have no idea where they were for years of their lives prior to arrival here. The map is blank. But their lives did not start upon arrival in America. Perhaps the creation of a new map could help clarify feelings, could consider possibilities in a healing, calm way.

I think of my friend Angela Tucker born in Tennessee, who then spent about a year with a foster family, and was adopted in northern Washington state. Her map would largely consist of Washington, Bellingham to Seattle, but recently she has revisited Tennessee, no well-marked map in hand, tracking down places and people she once knew, though in a different lifetime. (See the amazing, powerful documentary Closure to learn more about her journey.)

I think of birth mothers who can draw a map of pregnancy and delivery, but then the path goes dark. Their child’s travel continues, but the first mother is no longer part of that journey. Imagine the possibilities of creating a map that the two could share, showing where they’ve been and what they’ve seen in the intervening years.

Take a look at this “Computer Heart Map,” from Personal Geographies:

Computer Map Heart from Personal Geographies, p. 42

Computer Map Heart from Personal Geographies, p. 42

I love the possibilities here: a series of islands, shaped like a heart, with places like “Adolescent Straits,” the “Sea of Forgiveness,” and islands that the artist has named “Dreams,” “Ideas,” “Abandonment,” “Adoption,” and “Learning.”

I’m thinking of all these possibilities in connection with the Association of Personal Historians national conference in November. I’m presenting a workshop titled “Adopted and Estranged Families: Rebuilding a Personal History.” This is the description:

“Many people don’t have the luxury of knowing their family. Those who are separated by adoption or just estranged from their birth family still need to know where they came from and how to embrace their cultural origins. In this workshop, Maureen will discuss methods to find information, help normalize difficult pasts, and celebrate complex histories, even if birth records are not available. You will learn about innovative approaches using mementoes, DNA services, adoption records, new technologies, and more. And you will learn that even if conventional methods and research materials aren’t available, you still can have powerful personal history stories.”

One of the “innovative approaches” I will share include maps, and ways to create and re-imagine them through art, filling in some blanks, or at least re-framing them, with the goal mostly of moving toward healing.

Final thought today: Miles Harvey, author of The Island of Lost Maps, is quoted in Personal Geographies: “Sometimes a map speaks in terms of physical geography, but just as often it muses on the jagged terrain of the heart, the distant vistas of memory…”

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