When I was nine years old, my dad and I spent the day at the Adler Planetarium in downtown Chicago.
Against his better judgment, he let me wander through the gift shop, where I proceeded to talk him into buying me a box of plastic, glow-in-the-dark stars and planets. When we got home, we worked together to transform my room.
I took the sticky backing off each one while Dad moved and climbed the ladder, taking each star from my little hand and carefully affixing it to my dictated position on the ceiling. When we were done, Mom came in to admire our work. She flipped off the lights, and the three of us took what would become our customary positions, side by side on the fluffy rug that softened the surface of my hardwood floor, looking up at the stars and making up our own constellations. I still chuckle at the one my dad dubbed “Porkus Minor”, a small blob of stars that does appear to be a piglet if you look close enough.
After that, every time we went to a museum and saw those plastic stars I got to bring a box home. And just like the first time, the decorating ritual and family stargazing followed. The routine stopped when I ran out of ceiling.
I almost took them down when I turned sixteen. I got out the ladder. But I couldn’t bring myself to climb it. Those constellations had become my own personal planetarium, and every night I’d lie in the only bed I’d known, in the only room I’d ever slept in, and with the glow of the streetlight to illuminate the ceiling, I’d focus on a series of stars and pretend I was outside on a beach somewhere else in the world. In Greece. Hawaii. Brazil. Portugal. Bora Bora. Then I’d drift away into lucid dreams about the places I wanted so much to see.
Which brings me to the map.
Another thoughtful gift from my father, which he truly intended to be as treasured as my night sky, decorates the largest wall in my room. One day last winter—with my travel dreams on his mind—he spent a secret hour in the garage adhering this giant paper map of the world to a foam-core board. He beamed as he presented it to me along with a small box of red pushpins. “You can mark all the places you go,” he said as he centered it on the wall, then stood back to admire his work.
I was grateful. But unlike the stars, which I can always count on to take me away to the places I dream about, the map serves only as a reminder of the reality that I’ve been nowhere.
The little red pushpins live in a pathetic clump around the state of Illinois. I took a class trip to the capital last year, so there’s a pin in Springfield. We once took a family camping trip to Boundary Waters in Northeastern Minnesota. We spent one Fourth of July kayaking in Grand Rapids, Iowa. My aunt lives in Northern Indiana. That’s it. Four pins.
The colorful expanse of paper, with its topographic mountain ranges and changeable shades of blue to depict the various depths of the ocean, is a map of the world, but it isn’t mine. My world is much, much smaller. A near-perfect three-mile square, neatly framed by streets on three sides and Lake Michigan on the fourth.
For sixteen years, my life has existed within these three miles, in a space that often feels as small as the tip on one of my map pins. Each day perfectly fine, but exactly the same.
Until the first day it wasn’t.