Friday, November 11, 2011

My Compass of Want

Some more years ago than I can exactly remember, my daughter gave me a compass as a present. It was a round brass disk. Inside, under a glass, was a needle hovering over an etched, brass compass card.

A brand new, shiney brass compass. This is exactly what my compass looked like when my daughter game me mine.

I liked the weight of this compass.

I didn’t, however, know what to do with it. It was too impractical for navigational use on my boat. It was too kitschy for display on a shelf. Yet that’s exactly what it did for a few years.

Every now and then I would pick it up and play with it and wonder what I should do with this thing which couldn’t be used for either of its intended purposes.

One day, it came to me: I opened the cover, smashed the glass and removed the needle.

I had freed it of its imposed restrictions. Some people and things prefer the perfection of the needle. Others work better in the freedom of relativity.

Since many more years before my daughter gave me this compass, I have had a fascination with compasses. I can trace my awakening to their inherent metaphor back to a volume of poetry, “Compass of the Heart,” by Burlington, Vermont poet Robert W. Caswell.

I suppose I have always believed if given enough time to contemplate and enough space away from life’s loudness, we can all find the answers to our own selves; that we have a internal needle in each of our hearts which will guide us toward what is right. And good. And what we want.

Since the beginning of stories, humans have been fascinated with tales of finding magical providers of what we want.

Think of the magic lantern and its genie who grants wishes. Think of the Fisherman and His Wife, who catch a fish with such powers.

Even before written stories, the Aztecs carried fetishes; small carvings imbued with the powers to provide desired traits and qualities.

A compass is such a fascinating tool with complex paradoxes. It relies on an invisible force deep within the largest thing tangible to us: the Earth. Yet, the only way to perceive this powerful force is to create a delicate instrument. If manufactured correctly, it will always point in one direction. Yet by doing so, we can travel in all directions.

We use a compass to know in which direction to go, but to go in any direction, we must first know the destination we want.

So in essence, a compass helps us arrive at what we want.

And depending on what we want, a compass sometimes works best without a needle. Because sometimes the direction is not on a flat plane. Want can be a destination sometimes only achieved through time. And often through emotional turmoil. It is rarely a linear, logical or rational path.

In such ever-morphing territory it is easy to get disoriented and lost. Which is why is it good to have a compass that keeps you connected to your own inner powerful force and helps you relocate your want.

My brass compass had now become exactly this type of instrument. The compass of my want.

The way it works is much the way a standard compass works. I would open the compass and ask myself, “What do I want?”

The compass does not always provide a clear answer. Its power lies more in returning to it again and again, repeating the question.

The beauty of how it works is so simple that it is vulnerable to being dismissed: Any answer will do. Because then, of that answer, I repeat the question: “Is this what I want?”

So one answer leads back to the question, which may lead to a different answer, which is more of what I want than the first answer. Eventually I find a want which doesn’t seem to vary too much. The invisible needle settles into one direction.

The more I use my compass, the more nuanced the process has become. At its simplest, however, my compass is truly as magical as that: I ask it what I want and it helps me find my answer. Not always, of course, but often. Ok, maybe only often enough. Well, sometimes. The important times.

Some weeks ago, as you know, our boat burned and sank. We escaped with nothing more than the clothes on our back. Almost immediately, every one, in their desire to dispel our depression, suggested that we should get a new boat. It is a normal human instinct to want to cheer someone up, but now I know that what is most important is just to be there for someone who has just experienced a great loss. I needed people to simply acknowledge my pain, validate my feelings. Because then I didn’t have to feel guilty for my sadness.

Dolphins had died and there were five stages of grief to experience first before I could think about anything else. Get a new boat? I didn’t know if I wanted that yet. I didn’t know if I wanted to continue this journey. Some of me longed to be home again, in the comforting bosum of Vermont. Just rake some fall leaves. Spend time in my quiet study, waiting for the snow and letting my fingers eventually find the right keys on my manual typewriter to write about my loss.

But emotional retreat is one option not granted to the suddenly homeless. Jennifer had I had to face the immediate onslaught of relentless details, like temporary shelter, police reports, regaining access to communication, and money. Before I could deal with what I wanted next, we had to find to quite literally establish who were. We had lost all of our identification.

For the next few days, we were cared for by kind strangers in a hotel which was built on a cliff with a grand and dramatic overview of the harbor of Mahon. The beauty of our surroundings contrasted so perversely with the pain of our circumstances.

I would sit at the breakfast table, watch the blood-red sun rise over the harbor and speak to the harbor. “In your waters; there, just beyond that island, at the eastern end, on your seabed, rests my boat.”

We were waiting for salvage operations. For Dolphins’ remains to be floated and towed into the working docks for investigation and eventual disposal. From this over look, I would see her on that final funeral procession. I couldn’t decide if I wanted to see that or not.

It turns out, I missed that. We were in town when we got the call that the hull was out of water and waiting at the dock. We returned to the hotel for some work clothes, which we would need to sift through the remains. Before we left, I looked down from the balcony of the hotel.

From a couple of miles away, a sailboat appears small. Yet to her owner, you can make out more than anyone else. The shock of seeing her green hull and above the gunwales just black was instant, deep and painful. I’m glad I absorbed that first stab from a distance.

Arriving at the wharf and seeing the charred remains was like being drowned in a wave of blackness. The only emotional air I could gasp was expelled in the repetition of a single word, over and over again. “Fuck.”

At that moment, I was drowning in numbness. No feelings. Not even sadness, really. Just overwhelming numbness. Maybe like someone who has lost a limb and doesn’t yet feel the pain, but just looks on in a stupor at this hole in his body where once part of him was.

We took photos and we watched as the insurance investigator climbed into the huge tub of charcoal.

Then it was our turn. My brother Roland and I donned our coveralls, slipped into rubber boots, pulled on industrial work gloves, and stepped into the cold, soggy fire pit. Jennifer stood by to receive anything we pulled out.

Our mission was to see what, if anything, was worth salvaging. At best, maybe some of our jewelry, computer drives, or wallets. At worst, some disfigured items we could keep as mementos.

Thank goodness Roland was with me. His presence reminded me that we had a mission to complete. And he had the detachment I needed to make decisions about what to keep. I picked up an oval, bronze portlight frame and was confused about whether I wanted to keep this burnt bit or whether I never wanted to be reminded in this way again.

Piece by piece, Roland, Jennifer and I dissected and evaluated various remains. Then, scraping through the coals in the area where the desk once was, we found some our jewelry. Nearby, we found the melted mass that was once Jennifer’s purse, and inside, some credit cards and her drivers license.

We looked for more. In this spot, there was water in the hull too. So it was more like grabbing into coal slurry and then pulling up a fistful of soggy char and rubbing it slowly, letting it sift out of your hand to see if anything valuable remains.

On one such scoop, my hand reached something distinct. I pulled it out and it was my compass. With sudden clarity, I felt a bolt of certainty shoot through me. For the first time in a week, I felt the strong and positive pleasure of conviction. I looked at the compass in my hand and I instantly and reflectively thought, “I want to continue this journey.”

The relief of having my inner self suddenly swing toward such surety flooded me with joy. For the first time in a week, I knew what I wanted.

As I said before, the landscape of one’s emotions is not a flat plane. We all have many wants in us. Some are equally strong, yet conflicting. Jennifer and I had talks in which I would bring up the desire to go back to Vermont and start a sailing program. Or we could open some shop in Burlington and sell Turkish rugs. Or maybe even rent a house in the Mediterranean for a year. I could write and Jennifer would take cooking classes.

But then I would look toward my compass again. I had set it up in the various places we were staying.

What do I want?

The needle is steady these days. It points to a small town on the southwestern corner of Turkey. The town is called Marmaris. While the town itself is nothing special, we are told that it lies along the most beautiful, unspoiled stretch of Turkey’s shore with pristine beaches that can only be reached by boat.

And Marmaris is home to the Mediterranean’s third largest yacht harbor with thousands of boats. Many of them for sale by people whose needles of desire point elsewhere.

And one of those boats is a beautiful Hans Christian, just like Dolphins was.

We leave today. With a GPS on the dashboard and a brass compass in my pocket.

My Compass Of Want. I spent some time with a scrubby and pumice trying to get the soot off. I didn't get it all off. And that's okay. 


steve said...

Gorgeous essay and inspiring!

Joel Gardner said...

What he said. Whatever you choose to do, Mathias –– or whatever chooses you –– keep on writing.