Dead reckoning

(nobody does it better! – promoted by buhdydharma )

I stepped out on the porch a few weeks ago and saw a Mexican wedding cookie moon, sliced gently in half and laid on the silent cool black table of the night sky. Gauzy high clouds formed a foggy backdrop scrim against an inky proscenium.

The straight-edge half of the moon was dialed down to east-nor’east, as a quarter hour of midnight drained away on the clock of the galaxy.

Diagonally from the lunar slice, a pinhole light at seven o’clock. At two o’clock, a near-bright star flycast a wavering beacon of yellow diamond light. One half-eaten cookie moon in full blue-white, stretched taut between two mini-carat beams. The array was a jewel in the sky…a delicate, bright nightlight fibula.

My eye drew, my mind believed, a straight line between the bright objects. I became a sudden celestial navigator as my imaginary creative sextant derived the details of the heavens from my singular place in the audience on earth. I plotted the connection from me to the performer moon, bowing in her encore, twenty-plus degrees from the end of day horizon.  I mutely held my applause.

It is what the brain wants to do – plot a connection, determine the shortest line string between points and objects, and pull the impenetrable into the temporal and empirical. Create a point of reference from which to extend connections, build out that nexus. Such mental embellishment feeds our souls.

Maintaining a reference point is critical. We can design as many details around that point as we want, but the essential value of any perspective is based on where we have dropped our anchor or attached our ground. We can fix a position relative to where we have been; define how we are, who we are, and where we want to go in the future and then sail forward. If there is no established foundation to reference, no well-fortified port to return to, then we’re drifting without direction and any navigation becomes a pointless endeavor.

Consider the ancient mariners’ discovery of lands across a vast ocean and over the edge of the world. Finding the ends to the earth meant throwing a mental line forward into an unknown future. It didn’t mean blasting away the country of origin once the line to shore was dropped.

When all else failed then, and even now in our modern world, and the stars were not visible, navigation was achieved through dead reckoning , or the art and process of “estimating one’s present position by projecting course and speed from a known past position”. The term “dead reckoning’ may have been derived from an abbreviated version of “deduced reckoning”, or it may simply refer to an archaic definition of the term “dead”…there is still debate over its etymological origin. But, inevitably, to use dead reckoning is to navigate forward based on calculated assumptions of where you already are. Without the use of a sextant and the stars to determine position, dead reckoning can move you forward when none of the usual mileposts appear.

A long ago friend and former housemate of mine penned a Walt Whitman award-winning collection of poetry a decade or more ago that she titled “Because The Brain Can Be Talked Into Anything“. I’ve stored the wording of that title in my own brain’s catalog because it exemplifies precisely who we humans are and how we respond to things that are external and alien to our “Brain”.

We respond in strange ways. We assign human characteristics to animals, native legends to hulking geological monoliths that sit in the ocean or on a desert plain, mythological proportions to patterns of stars visible only from our own narrow earthly viewpoint. Perhaps we do this because we only stay sane if we pare things down to size or when we distill the scary or the infinite to a comfortable familiar.

We visually and mentally connect things in ways that relate to our own perspective and we call these “standards” or “rules” or “omens” or “harbingers”, or “acquired knowledge”.

We dialectically sort incongruent elements and determine relationships between them that without our input may possess no linkage. Maybe we do this because we must, because we need the defense of a known world. If we can’t recognize the world, we create it.

Me? Oh, well I transfer whimsical jewel-like qualities to orbiting objects in space. I want to draw that straight line between stars, but it is my straight line seen from my peculiar line of position. I yearn to manufacture reasonable analyses of behaviors and situations I don’t understand, so that I can place perspective on things that I formerly had no understanding of, make the incomprehensible personal.

If fear or hate adjusts the bearings we take, how quickly our process of analysis warps a carefully plotted course; it’s harder to return to the place we should have attached our own hand-forged grounding wire.

What is the world to us if our hearts and guts are filled with fear and hate?

A friend and fellow coworker flew back to Seattle from a five-day retreat in Maine (or was it Massachusetts?) a couple of weeks ago and related an incident that occurred in the TSA line waiting to enter the flight gate concourse before she got on the plane to return home. She – I’ll call her “Meg” – is around sixty years of age and so completely non-threatening that it’s ludicrous to think she’d be the center of attention in a line of passengers waiting for a plane. As she neared the TSA checkpoint, a well-dressed gentleman of around her age behind her in line – six or so people back from her position – suddenly called out loudly to the TSA agent, “She’s got bottles in her backpack and they should be checked!”  as he pointed frantically at Meg.

I mention this story not to comment on what the agent did then, or to describe what transpired between Meg  and the TSA agent, or to give any rationale on the audacity (snark) of Meg holding on to the partially empty, partially filled water bottles in her backpack. It doesn’t matter to me, nor does it startle me. Simple thing, really. She’s a collector, and a recycler, and a bit of a hoarder, I suspect, and I didn’t pursue why she was hanging on to these bottles or bringing them back to Seattle. But it terrified this gentleman traveler.

What startles me is how a line of position can morph, how daily navigation gets screwed up because fear or hate are adopted as reasonable, accepted attitudes. We lose the directions to get back home. Characteristics, or intent, or suspicion, or whimsy, or any one of the millions of adjectives we plant on a thing or on a person become reassigned, because fear and hate weaken the navigation. The simplest intent gets skewed into a potentially evil and suspicious act.

This fellow passenger, of like age to Meg and probable similar background, radiated fear, generated fear, and a kind of unresolved hate. Meg indicated that an aura of suspicion roiled through the line and she felt it directly targeted at her. Fear towards Meg? Towards someone he perceived as a possible terrorist? Or did he feel anger towards anyone he assumed was trying to bend the rules of transporting liquids on a plane? Ah, those rules. How pervasive and compelling are the fears that change (by Meg’s own description) an academically attired elder gentleman in a tweed jacket and khakis, business attaché and duffel in hand, into a suspicious alarmist.  What dark waters does this man sail through? When did he cut loose his anchor?

When we remove hate and fear from the calculation, are we safe enough to navigate into the future?  If it becomes impossible to use the stars, hell, to use our imagination for the territory ahead, can we still dead reckon the course?  

Meg told me that if she hadn’t been so tired from the retreat and the prospective flight home, and if she had been less shocked at the man’s demeanor, she would have turned to him and said, “Look at what you are doing. You should be ashamed.”

Perhaps we all should.

No half-eaten, Mexican wedding cookie moon last night. Plenty of stars.  Enough to navigate by. There was a time we had only simple tools with which to sail and fear was not such an obstacle.

(crossposted at Dailykos)

14 comments

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    • exmearden on November 15, 2007 at 12:52 am
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    kinda. Washed up on the shore for a bit…hand me that towel, please.

    • pfiore8 on November 15, 2007 at 1:16 am

    some are pilgrams, others explorers. then there are those who should have never left fucking home.

    i’m sooooo glad you’re back exme…

    • OPOL on November 15, 2007 at 1:24 am

    Beautiful work.  Welcome back old friend.  ðŸ™‚

  1. Meg. Bewildered at what occurs when we meet the real brave new world. I don’t have a passport am scared to get one. We all get caught in the web of paranoia with good reason. Tired is normal as we confront the day to day world of limited choices and real terrors.        

  2. for turning this into art, poetry and beauty.

    • Edger on November 15, 2007 at 3:51 am

  3. to chart a path for the future – to be able to be silent, by oneself and meditate, deep and long, get to an understanding of yourself and of your natural surroundings.

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