Released in March by Counterpoint Press, Molly Caro May’s Map of Enough is an eloquent memoir that details her journey of figuring out what home is, where it is, and how she fits within her own concept of it. May moved around a lot when she was growing up, and so her identity became that of a person from nowhere—a transient woman who thrived off of movement and exploration. But then she goes to Montana with her fiancé and discovers the value and power of putting down roots. As she and her fiancé build a yurt on their land, May begins to question the ways in which she conceives of her identity, as well as how she interacts with the world. It’s a powerful memoir that wrestles with the complexity of personal identity. In this interview, May discusses the prevalence of movement in her identity, the ways in which she discovers herself through writing, and how engaging with nature and our surroundings lead a person to better understand herself.
The Doctor TJ Eckleburg Review:A major theme in Map of Enough is building—whether that’s building a yurt, a relationship with a future spouse, or re-building a part of your identity. How do you think writing this book contributed to the ways in which you have built and continue to build different aspects of your life?
Molly Caro May: I spent four years building the yurt: three months physically building it, two years living in it, and then two years writing it. “I can’t escape the yurt!” became my refrain. And by yurt, I mean all of it—the story, the reflection, the language of how to share it. Telling the story forced me to honor that story. There were times that I doubted all of it. Would anyone care about this? I had convinced myself that my life in our yurt in Montana was mediocre, not very interesting. Even though I had chosen, yes chosen, to make a book about it. Here I was writing about the fact that I hide behind the identity of being “exotic”; and, clearly I was still hiding, because it terrified me that the story (to me) wasn’t exotic enough. “It’s just Montana, it’s just a yurt,” I would say to friends, which isn’t really fair to Montana or the yurt. I didn’t know what the story was about until I was more than halfway through writing the book. That’s part of the joy of craft for me. You just go. You go and unfold and eventually the truth pokes up from the bare dirt. Writing the book grew me up. I can look back on it now—at the alligator eyes in wood, the blue ice over the creek, the elk outside our yurt, my persistent fear of the mountain lion, my finding some calm—and feel deeply grateful for it. I got the chance to ask “What did that mean to me?” and then write it down on a page in the hopes that my question would touch someone else’s question about their own life.
TJE: Home is a concept that shifts and takes different forms and meanings throughout the book. What sort of concept of home do you think is at the center of your work?
MCM: The Home Within. That’s what I want people to take away from the book. Part of my madness stemmed from realizing that we (my friends and I, largely my generation) were relying solely on external pieces—the perfect mate, perfect job, perfect place—to satisfy a sense of wholeness. In the book, I call it a disease of bettering. We all want something better. It’s a privileged position to be able to even consider or contemplate these things. After a few months in Montana, I felt called to ask what I was always running from, why it was so easy for me to bolt. I asked The Land and got sensory answers. Wild animals are contained, very aware of the within and therefore the without. I continue to be struck by that. I write about “the thing behind my ribcage” often in the book—that beating center of self that no one can destroy, run you away from, or burn down. There it is. I had never been introduced to it properly. Consider The Land our mutual friend who made the connection. Of course, beyond the philosophical, we all have to live in a physical place. So where is that place for me? Chris and I have struck a deal of both/and, instead of either/or. We’ve created a home base in Montana. But every 5-7 years, we plan to leave for a year and go somewhere new to us. It’s critical for me to expose my daughter and myself to newness. I still believe that shake-up leads to growth. I still crave the foreign. But I want to have a taproot somewhere.
TJE: While a transient life is something you identified with as you grew up, when you built your new life in one central location (Montana), you were, in a way, still transient as you hiked from cabin to yurt throughout the memoir. What role does movement play in your identity now?
MCM: Ah, movement has been ever-present the past two years. Chris is now building a proper house on the land by himself. Being a one-man job, it’s taking longer than expected. Part way through my pregnancy, we finally fled the yurt because I was too sick to not have running water nearby. We moved into the shop/garage on the land. My daughter spent her first months there and then we moved into a friend’s basement in town, and now we are moving back into the yurt for summer until the house is done. I can’t even conceive of what it could be like to have one place to put my forks, my underwear, my books, our plants. It’s been a period of living out of suitcases—in the same town, which sort of kills any allure of movement. I’ve never been so eager to settle in my life.
TJE: In Map of Enough, you include many gorgeous descriptions of Montana. This book, therefore, could be considered a piece of nature writing. What are the ways in which you think nature contributes to a person’s experience of the world?
MCM: There’s a reason kids are drawn to nature. There’s a reason people usually vacation at the beach or in the mountains. Nature both amplifies and diffuses personal drama. First, it can amplify. We feel the diligence of ants. We feel the sorrow of the rain. We feel the flare up of a forest fire. Of course, those words (diligence and sorrow and flare up) are human words. Nature encourages us to touch in with that rhythm within us. Then comes the letting go. I know for me feeling feelings and letting them go hasn’t always been easy. I don’t think it is for anyone. Nature is the perfect example of all of that. In that way it’s a medicine. Then there’s the obvious We are small narrative. When you stand surrounded by five mountain ranges, you don’t feel like only your world matters. I’m a better person if I’m in touch with nature.
TJE: In the memoir, you ask “How do you grow into someone you like?” (60). What sort of growth do you think you experienced not just through the experiences that are described in the book, but through the actual act of writing it?
MCM: By default, I became very comfortable editing. I went through drafts and drafts, as you do. I trimmed the fat and saw what was left. I added some fat back. I read tons of books. Then I stopped reading altogether. I pasted the names of my writing mentors (no, I don’t know these people, I just adore them) on my computer: Terry Tempest Williams, Pam Houston, Ed Abbey, Barbara Kingsolver, Maxine Hong Kingston, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Brian Doyle. Then I took them all off. There was a lot of back and forth. Input and then no input. This was me trying to hone in on my voice. I knew I wanted to reach beyond people who read nature-writing. I don’t know whether I’ve done that yet. What this book really allowed me to do was get whimsical with language and subject matter. Mostly, I learned how to trust my voice. The process of trying to sell it (that’s a whole other story) really encouraged me to stick by what I had done. You can’t write a book and not be transformed.
TJE: While the setting and circumstances in the book can, at times, be described as quite solitary, much of the book is about human relationships—both with the self and with others. How do you think place can influence these different types of relationships?
MCM: I used to prickle when Chris and I walked through the woods and he didn’t initiate or continue a conversation. “What do you mean you don’t want to talk?” I’d sigh when he explained that he just wanted to be quiet together. For me, quiet together sounded boring. But being on The Land has taught me about the necessity for silent togetherness in partnership. Because it’s more and more rare in 2014, it now feels imperative for me. And I don’t mean silent together on our iPhones. I mean doing nothing but walking and not talking. I often tell my city friends, the ones I haven’t spent much time with outdoors, that I want to smell them. What I mean is, “Can we walk together, just exist together, without analyzing everything, just so I can be in your presence and you in mine, so I can smell you as you sweat as we walk, so we can be animals together?” I crave more of that. On a practical level, if you are isolated, you depend on your neighbors. You also depend on yourself more—something I thought I had done before Montana but hadn’t really done. So much of this is about disposition and character. I love the pulse of crowded places. I feel inspired and then immediately overwhelmed and paralyzed. I need to stare at a tree to find what is true inside of me. Then I can re-enter the bustle.
TJE: The book is written in a very quiet, meditative prose. This makes me think about communication and I am curious if you consider writing to its own type of conversation.
MCM: Yes! I am always in conversation when writing—with myself and with other people in the world. I do a lot of out loud talking, self-interviewing, pretend conversations with strangers to get my thoughts clear. John Steinbeck wrote, “We are lonesome animals. We spend all of our life trying to be less lonesome. One of our ancient methods is to tell a story begging the listener to say and to feel, ‘Yes, that is the way it is, or at least that is the way I feel it. You’re not as alone as you thought.” Some people write without an audience in mind, but I can’t do that. I write both for my own pleasure and growth and to communicate.For this book, I plunked my cousin’s best friend Sarah down in front of me. Not literally. I had only met her once, on a road trip the three of us took around New Zealand for a month. There was an ache in her that matched mine and she became the representative for my audience. She didn’t intimidate me. She held a raw space. I emailed her to tell her so. I really had to knock a few intellectual boss-type people off my shoulders. They were looming and I could just hear them saying “That’s stupid, that’s sentimental” as I was writing. It’s a strange thing with a first book. You feel, in some ways, that you are asking for permission to be a writer. That I had to bat away. I always want to be in conversation. That’s why I write.
TJE: A reoccurring question in Map of Enough is “Where are you from?” Keeping the book centered on this question, you enter into wonderings about history. You state, “That’s what I wanted. History. A lineage. I had anointed myself with the only one I could: I am from nowhere. Because everyone has to be from somewhere; because no home thrives by being fragment; because we all, out of necessity, construct a narrative about ourselves” (164-5). I consider this book to be a part of that narrative you created for yourself, the way in which you gave meaning to your experiences. So, where do you go from here? How do you see the narrative of your life continuing to grow upon the publication of your memoir?
MCM: Picasso had a blue period. I like to think that we all have periods in our life. We could name them, make them chapters and this reflective storytelling is powerful. It allows me to categorize and then to release. I don’t want to be the yurt woman forever. Actually I’m no longer her. That was an era. It came to a conclusion and then I integrated it and moved on. Right now I’m a new mother asking questions about what it means to grow, birth and care for a daughter, especially in the presence of my own mother who is nearby now. For the past two years, I have seen everything through this lens of emotional inheritance, body and beauty. The Map of Enough was about my father’s lineage and I think my next book will explore my mother’s lineage. That isn’t a tidy goal, or something I intended long ago. It has happened organically. And the book after that, who knows? I’m excited about what will come. As an artist, I get to make art out of life. What’s better?
Molly Caro May is a graduate of Middlebury College, and has worked as a teacher, artist’s model, apple and cherry picker, lab assistant to a clinical herbalist, barista in a seaside town, opera caterer, field assistant to a frog biologist, conservation program developer, mentor to at-risk teenagers, vegetable farmer, and was an editorial assistant at Norton in New York City. She now lives with her husband, daughter, and hound in the Gallatin Valley of Montana. This is her first book.