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personal writing

Thar Be Monsters

I grew up near the ocean. My neighbor was a sign maker, the original graphic artist, but his heart seemed enamored by the sea and all its folklore and romance. He had a small collection of old maps that he loved to share. During my tragically brief time with him, we always found ourselves in front of an old map every day I spent with him.

“Theah be monstahs” he’d say with his thick New England accent and point to the edges of the maps. He’d indicate where the map maker would add a hint of something fearful, filling the navigator with a sense of dread and discomfort: a fish with a lion’s head, a creature with huge, hungry eyes and jagged teeth, or worse, the slow, gradual fade of waves into nothingness. It was a not-so-subtle warning for all who, driven by passions, longing, and profit, were forced to the edges of the world, “you don’t want to go here.”

At the time, it filled me with a sense of superiority. I was more knowledgeable than those grizzled, hardened explorers of long ago. I’d laugh to myself, picturing them chewing on their cob pipes facing the prospect of reaching a point where they – and their wild, tattooed, bare-chested, throat-cutting crew would be effortlessly sung into the waves by sirens. They would question their desires, check their bravery, and stay within their mapped lines because those delicate artful lines were clear, defined, known – and safe.

“There be monsters.”

But my ridicule for those sailors has turned to sympathy, and I realized those map makers exploited them. Sailors didn’t go to some Explorer’s School. The maps supplied them beyond what only were shadows of fear in their minds. Their uncertainty drove them to rely on maps and the opinions and fevered visions of map makers looking to capitalize on their fear. It was the edge of the world, so there must be monsters. Most likely the world’s first epic storytellers, Mapmakers sharpened the shade of doubt and uncertainty into horrible images and myths. Those cartographers made their illustrations real enough to give the world’s most adventurous a vocabulary of fear and terror. “There be the unknown,” the sailors said to themselves, “and there be monsters.” they were told by the map makers.

I can say, as many, life has brought me to the edges of my map. I am dealing with map makers who profit from creating visions of lion-headed fish, sirens, and worse, supply endless waves of shallow platitudes and mysticism. None of which do anything more than batter my decks and encrust my bows with useless salt and barnacles. All of it urges me to stay within The Realm, the most defined, clear, and safe area.

But just beyond those small, safe waves, beyond the green wooded islands laying in my horizon, lies the answers to the questions – and more questions – my crew discusses over many grogs: “What are we going to do for work? What will the world be like when we’re our grandparent’s age? How can I change any of this?”

And these terrible questions bring us into grim, angry silence. The pall of the map edges loom in our heads. The dark unknown is assaulting us hard daily, hourly, and resting in the pit of our stomachs or wrenching our shoulders. Some of us found it easier to believe the maps where the simple answers are and no monsters.

Now, I’m older, hopefully not as old as I will be, but old enough now to see what I believe was the actual lesson from my hard-working, sign painting grandfather.

The maps always got bigger.

A brave few sailors cast aside the fear of the uncertainty, the shades of horror, and pointed themselves into the wind. They pushed past the edges of their maps, not through reciting words of encouragement but grim resolve and diligence. They dealt with stress and anxiety – on dark nights, still seas, and battering sun. They confronted their monsters and shared the bigger maps with all of us.

I can speak for myself, and I thank the friends and people who inspired me. They will never know what a gift they gave me; the vocabulary to explore without relying on a map but the acceptance of a future stumbling and crashing through the wind, waves, and ignoring the noise of bad maps. I am changing myself with the grim resolve inspired by those who expanded their own maps, simply, quietly enduring and exhausted by stress and cut by razors of salt and uncertainty. I am committing to helping and being helped by whatever crew of fellow explorers I can find. I am fearful of exploring the shadowed edges of my map, but I know what lies ahead is not the finality of being eaten by an impossible manticore, but a journey, and the unknown is what it will always be – change and opportunity.

Here be my monsters.