My maternal grandparents were Amish/Mennonite. To this day I don’t exactly know how to write those two words, if they should be separated by a slash or a dash or some other form of punctuation. I suppose it doesn’t matter so long as you understand this one important point—when I stayed there, I had to entertain myself.
No television. No radio. No electronic games. Nothing.
It wasn’t all bad. Strip away all those technological whiz-bangs we surround ourselves with, and what’s left is real life. Sunshine and sweet breezes and garden dirt. That’s what became my childhood. And books. Lots and lots of books.
My grandfather’s den was where I’d mostly hole up when the weather was cold or wet. An old recliner, a massive roll top desk, and shelves of books. One in particular was always the first I’d reach for—a giant volume of ancient maps. Europe, Asia, the Americas, darkest Africa. I loved poring over those old things. To this day, I believe that’s where my love of all things mysterious began.
I have my own collection of books now, complete with my own volume of old maps. Replicas of those drawn by explorers and seafarers from a time when the world was wider and deeper. I still take that book down from time to time, just to think and imagine. That’s what the best books do.
My daughter was wondering about the Pacific the other day. Something about school. I came up here to my office and brought out my book of old maps, she reached for the Google Earth app on my iPad. Sometimes the space between generations seems more a chasm than a span.
We sat together on the sofa, she swiping and pinching the screen, me turning the pages and tilting the spine. She saw detailed photos of remote and uninhabited islands surrounded by clear waters. I saw vast stretches of faded emptiness pockmarked with mermaids and swelling waves.
She leaned on my shoulder and pointed to a spot in the bottom corner of the page. Coiled there was a serpent, mouth open to devour. “What’s that, Daddy?”
“That’s where nobody’d gone yet. They used to mark those places with pictures like that. Sometimes, they’d just write ‘Here There Be Dragons.’”
“Because it was a mystery. Something had to be there, I guess. Why not a dragon?”
My daughter went back to her screen. She couldn’t find any dragons on Google Earth. I figured she wouldn’t. We don’t think there are any mysteries in the world anymore. Everything’s been mapped and plotted by satellites whizzing above our heads. We think we have all the answers, know exactly where we are. There was a time when the center of the world was Jerusalem or Rome or London. No more. Thanks to GPS and Google Maps, the center of the world is wherever we happen to be. I suppose that’s pretty empowering in a way. And sad.
It’s worth mentioning that there are still plenty of dragons in the world. Only 2 percent of the ocean floor has been explored. Thousands of new plants and animals are discovered every year. Just recently, a group of scientists stumbled into a hidden valley in New Guinea that had never been seen before. The animals didn’t even run and hide from them. They had no reason to. They’d never seen a human before.
If there is anything I want my kids to know, it’s that there’s still plenty out there for us to find. I want them to love the mystery of life just as much as their father does. I want them to bask in the unknown. I want them to ponder it and find their places in its midst.