Where Do I Exist?

Phipps Conservatory, Pittsburgh, PA, winter 2019

Dear Reader,

How big is your existence? Do you have a large family, an abundance of friends, and call a few different locations home? Or, perhaps, does your path cross with fewer people and your home is just one tiny spot on the map? On my afternoon commute today, I started to think about my reality/ existence in terms of people and places.

In social network analysis, relationships are mapped by drawing connections between people (points on a field) with straight lines. Someone who is widely connected would be a point on the grid with dozens of lines stretching outward to other tiny points. Those of us with only a few connections, would have fewer lines. Let’s say on our map that thick lines signal strong connections like close friends and family, while thinner lines depict weaker connections, like acquaintances or colleagues. Picture your social existence—i.e. the people—as the quantity of thick and thin lines connecting to your point on a grid.

Now, let’s think about our existence in terms of places. Do you know heat maps? Think about maps that depict population. For example, picture a map that shows large, dark splotches over cities such as NYC and Los Angeles, but lighter, smaller splotches over the American heartland. Heat maps show us where activity (in this case, population) is concentrated. To map our existence, let’s create a mental heat map of “our places.” I will take myself for example, I grew up in Pennsylvania, which means my “existence heat map” would have some large, dark splotches over my hometown. However, I moved away for college, studied abroad a bit, and now live in Boston. Boston would get a large, dark-ish splotch, college a medium, dark splotch, and places I’ve visited, even just for a day, would be marked with much lighter splotches. So, like a population heat map, my existence map would show larger dark splotches where activity is concentrated and lighter splotches where activity is less.

Because my existence is a combination of my people and my places, it is now necessary to combine my social network grid (i.e. the people) with the geographical heat map (i.e. the places). I’ll use myself as the example. On my map, I see my large, dark-colored homebase splotch over Boston, but there are also other little splotches over places where I have lived and have visited in the US and abroad. Next, I must think about my people. There is point located at the center of my Boston splotch—this is me. Then, I think about my close connections—friends and family. Thick lines emerge from my Boston-based point and extend to family members in Pennsylvania as well as to friends both in the U.S. and abroad. I also have many thinner lines connecting me to colleagues and acquaintances around Boston.

When I stand back and look at my map, I see my existence. I see that my thickest lines connect me to those in Boston and in my hometown in Pennsylvania. I also see that I have splotches over places I have visited, yet, in some splotches, I do not have even a single thin line to connect me with a soul there (for example my solo trip to Colombia and Panama). Additionally, I curiously have lines extending to places I have never visited, which represents my ties to friends and acquaintances who have moved away.

I like my existence map. This map shows me where I’ve been and those who have been a part of my journey. This little mental exercise also helps me see where I am lacking. This year, I hope to draw more thick lines. I want to make more meaningful connections here in my Boston home. Additionally, I also hope to call more places home. Even just “living” rather than “visiting” somewhere for a few weeks would darken and enlarge the splotches on my existence map in a very satisfying way for me. What does your existence mental map look like, Dear Reader? I hope this year will bring you thicker lines and larger, darker splotches.

Love,

Raven

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