Charting Your Course

I am several books behind on my project of writing up the ideas I have taken from the books I’ve read. This is partly due to the fact that writing blog posts is somewhat low on my personal priority list right now – but it is not entirely due to that. After all, I’ve written several other blog posts while the books keep piling up in the “to write about” pile.

I think the problem is that I’ve been stuck on what I should write about the book that comes next in my chronological list of books I’ve read, Moonlight Sonata at the Mayo Clinic, by Nora Gallagher. I’d wanted to read this book since I read a related short ebook, Accompany Me, for my now-archival short ebook site, Tungsten Hippo. I found the short ebook very thought-provoking, and assumed that Moonlight Sonata at the Mayo Clinic would be thought-provoking as well. It did not disappoint me.

Cover of Moonlight Sonata at the Mayo Clinic, which is somewhat stylized picture of an iris and pupil

But when I came to write about the ideas I took from it, I got stuck. It is not that the book didn’t provide me with ideas: Gallagher’s thoughts on navigating scary symptoms without a definitive diagnosis are full of ideas about what it means to be well, how to support a loved one through a difficult time, and more.

Those ideas didn’t seem to fit here, though. However, there is one idea I took from the book that I find myself coming back to a lot, and that I think does fit in this space. It is the idea she opens the book with: That we navigate our lives using mental maps that we don’t always realize we’re using, and that sometimes the best way forward requires a new map.

The metaphor Gallagher uses to suggest this idea is of the navigational maps ancient mariners used to plot their voyages. She opens the book with a visit she took to the the Hispanic Society of America, in New York City, to see their ancient maps. The jewel of the collection is Juan Vespucci’s 1526 map of the world, or mappa mundi. But what captured my attention was her description of the books and charts called derroteros (roughly, “pathways”), which Gallagher explains the ancient mariners used to guide their path through known waters. Each derrotero represented what the curator of the exhibit called the navigator’s “subjective truth” – what that individual experienced to be true, and used to guide his future journeys.

This idea has stayed with me because I think it is such a powerful metaphor for how we navigate through life. We refer to the maps other people have drawn and shared to get our general bearings, but to plot our course, we go to our own derrotero, a chart through the treacherous waters of our fears and ambitions, our responsibilities and our personal needs.

In the book, Gallagher finds herself off her previous charts, as she faces a mysterious illness and struggles to get a grasp on what is happening to her. I think there are much more mundane ways in which we find ourselves outside of the knowledge stored in our life’s derrotero: career changes, new parenthood, changing phases of parenthood, and a good old-fashioned mid-life crisis have all at some point dumped me into unknown waters.

In those situations, I turn to the larger maps – the mappa mundi others have shared. In many ways, that is what this book blogging project is, and there is much guidance to be found in these larger maps. However, the idea I took from Gallagher’s book is that sometimes you have to sail off the edge of the known map, either because you’re in a rare situation or just because of your own individual reaction to your unique combination of circumstances. When that happens, there’s nothing to do but to take the risk of plotting your own course, and adding to the store of knowledge in your personal derrotero.

There is much, much more to Moonlight Sonata at the Mayo Clinic than this idea. Gallagher’s writing is wonderful, and her story is gripping. I am glad I read the full book! But I’d have gotten my money’s worth from this book even if I’d never read past the description of her visit to the maps at the Hispanic Society of America in the opening chapter. The metaphor of the interplay between a personal derrotero and the shared mappa mundi is one I come back to often as I think about the course I’m plotting through my life.

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