22 November 2011

Dead Reckoning

"In the midst of this chopping sea of civilized life, such are the clouds and storms and quicksands and thousand-and-one items to be allowed for, that a man has to live, if he would not founder and go to the bottom and not make his port at all, by dead reckoning, and he must be a great calculator indeed who succeeds." – Henry David Thoreau

"...and in these same perilous seas, gropes he not his way by mere dead reckoning of the error-abounding log?" – Herman Melville, Moby Dick, or, The Whale


We reckon the times of our lives by significant and insignificant moments, before and after babies are born, after the wedding, before the divorce, before I lost my job, after the drought of 2011, after Daddy died. These moments give us a fix in time so that we can navigate our brief but busy lives on this planet. I thought most of my reckoning moments had passed me. My babies are grown up, I’ve been divorced twice, married the man of my dreams, moved to Australia, moved back from Australia. Perhaps, in the future, grandbabies will be born. Perhaps my elder son will marry. Certainly there will be fixes to take that my stepdaughters create – more for their father than for me. For these are vicarious bearings, bearings borrowed from another sailor.

This summer, however, I took the mother of all reckonings. Our house burned down. We lost everything that existed within those walls. Even the few souvenirs (an autographed copy of John Densmore’s biography, an Orient & Flume glass puffin -- a gift from one of my oldest friends -- my husband’s military medals –- we never found mine -– piles of compromised possessions that still need evaluation) did not survive unscathed. This is our point in time, the moment from which we will reckon all other bearings. It is our dead reckoning, for we know where we were when it happened, but we had not plotted our course nor taken our bearing.

What is it about these events that make them so momentous? Is it the pure emotion of the event? The ending of a long (or bitter) marriage? The death of a loved one? Which moments define us more than others? Is it the mere scale of the event that creates the most turmoil -- that moment in time that defines the rest of one’s life?

What is it about a voyage that causes some moments to be remembered beyond all others? Which bearings, which fixes, which reckonings are most important? The moments one remembers are those that cause the biggest change in course. Sometimes those moments are happy, pleasurable moments. I can certainly see how my life changed after my first child was born. The birth of a child, especially one’s first, changes everything. Even though one may have been partnered for a considerable time, ever mindful of another person’s wishes and priorities, when making plans and charting one’s course, a first child changes the kind of voyage one is on. It may even change the vessel. For as long as one lives, there is some kind of connection, even if estranged, or adopted. This is a life-changing moment.

My course changed also when his brother was born two-and-a-half years later. But they did not change as much. Child #1 caused a course change; child #2 meant only that we had to take on more provisions, increase the watch. His diagnosis, at eleven weeks, of meningitis certainly had its influences. But rather than changing course or vessel, it brought the voyage to a standstill. We took on water. The storm of the disease strained and sprung the planks of our little family boat, and we took on water. We nearly drowned. But he survived, after six grueling weeks of bailing the waters of our fears, the bilge pumps running around the clock. That event, much like running aground, caused a weak spot that eventually healed. He and the voyage that is my life recovered and resumed, if a bit wary of the weakness and with a renewed sense of the unpredictability of life’s voyage.

The divorces definitely caused course changes, losing one’s navigator, or one’s compass, but often they took me to better ports, my having been on the wrong course in the first place. Shipmates one day and enemies, with guns aimed at one another the next, but when the smoke cleared, one heads for the next port with a lighter load and a healing heart.

Then there are life’s storms. Certainly hearing one’s spouse ask for a divorce is the sound of thunder and wind on the horizon. Surely having a child diagnosed with an illness that is sometimes fatal creates a place on the chart to which one never wants to return. But then there are those tempests, those crises that swamp the little boat of your life and send everything stowed aboard, even you, to the bottom. This is a house fire. A literal sinking, where all is lost, when people say to you, “Thank God you’re safe.” Maybe so. But you do not feel safe. You feel lost, lost at sea, clinging to whatever flotsam that survived the complete break-up of your craft, holding on for dear life to a piece melted glass, a shard of pottery, a player piano roll with the title torn off, cutlery that has rusted, dishes broken and shattered like the order of your life. And there are those – even you – who say, “They are just things. Things are not important.” They are thinkers, philosophers, people who have never endured a house fire. But you have, and some days you agree with them, and your lost possessions are indeed just things. Other days, they are a stuffed rabbit your mother gave your when you were eight-years old, a handmade christening gown, your husband’s baby pictures, a John Lennon lithograph, two cases of Dublin Dr. Pepper, your husband’s new shoes, his favorite hat…all now as lost as if they were lying at the bottom of the Laurentian Abyss or the Mariana Trench, in some deep hole at the bottom of the sea. These are not just things, things forgotten, misplaced, misused, or used up. These things were here; now they are not.

From this reckoning, all other fixes will be taken. It no longer matters how fast you travel or how long you travel. You know where you are or where you’ve been. You are after the fire. All else was before the fire. You know the date, the exact longitude and latitude, the place in the chart of that reckoning.

Just as if you held the sextant in your hand and sighted the sun, just as if you had the most accurate Global Positioning Satellite device at the helm, you know this bearing. And whatever rescues you, as you travel along, past all those other bearings: children’s birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, favorite television shows, the mail delivery, feeding livestock, baking cookies, there it is, looming in your past like the Titanic’s iceberg. It is always there.