It’s time for a true confession: I have a plastic magnet on my refrigerator that is a riff on Ralph Waldo Emerson’s quote, “Life is a journey, not a destination.” My mother gave it to me as a not-so-subtle reminder that our time here isn’t a straight line with a definitive end point, and that it’s impossible to predict all of the twists and turns on life’s path.
Barrie Jean Borich’s multilayered memoir takes this sentiment to its outermost borders as she visually and literally interlaces cartographic terms with her own personal history. Borich uses “insets” within the maps, or chapters, to talk about her family, her lesbian husband, her friends and her childhood. She includes illustrations of a unique variety of vintage and antique maps to represent her geographical wanderings across the Midwest and other parts of the world.
The memoir begins as Borich is lying on a table at a tattoo parlor. “I choose now, at age fifty, to treat the surface of my back as a cartographer’s canvas. … The artist inks a dual city skyline. My Chicago in the center. My Minneapolis to either side.” Borich is in the middle of her life, and even though she has lived in Minneapolis for the past 30 years, she is still tied emotionally and geographically to her childhood in Chicago.
Travel and movement are main characters in this memoir. Borich touches upon her family’s not-so-distant Croatian roots and their migration to the United States, her aging parents’ move to Florida, and even the short drive from St. Paul to Minneapolis as she and her partner pass over the Lake Street Bridge. Borich’s favorite view of the city’s skyline is from this vantage point. “As we hover over the cerulean zipper of the Mississippi, the city is a small mountain range of blue and amber glass.”
She also writes about her most intimate journeys within the land of her grandmother’s encroaching dementia, her own road to sobriety, her “emigration to the late 1970s Lesbian Nation,” and her reflections on her long-term commitment to her partner, Linnea, writing that “The truth of anyone’s marriage is that we live our lives more complexly than maps can convey.”
Thanks to Borich’s unconventional approach, “Body Geographic” is as much a thoughtful meditation on the world at large as it is a telling account of Borich’s own voyage through life. “In a fully conscious geography,” she writes, “the landscapes of memory loop in and out of the body … a constant circle of departure and return.”
Meganne Fabrega is a freelance writer and a member of the National Book Critics Circle.