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July 28, 2000.
The Ship's Compass: Part I
Real Audio

Central to everything and still the most beloved and carefully enshrined object on any ship is the compass-at the center line of the hull, housed in its binnacle, decorated with brass, often lovingly engraved and embossed, the whole compass container is suspended in gimbals that conspire artfully to maintain it level. Attached to the magnetic needle and turning with it is the compass card which turns on a central bearing and is immersed in a clear fluid (usually alcohol) to damp its motion. When you watch it quivering and turning the card appears to be the most capricious, unstable thing on the boat-a transitory, balancing, white butterfly, nervous and poised for flight-the most startleable, fidgety thing aboard.

But it is the most constant. Through thick and thin, storm and calm it maintains its stable relationship to the planet, and even with the ship sinking or in flames, always holds the same heading, always points the same way. One has to learn to accept the fact that this bowing, curtseying object is the only fixed thing on the entire ship. For in truth it is pointing in one direction while the boat moves about beneath it. And it is the boat on which we sit, our apparent fundament, that is the ephemeral, bowing, curtsying thing. While it is the compass in its binnacle shrine-no, not even the compass but its inmost, most apparently agitated, turning and gimbaling card which is fixed and about which we heave and roll. We need to understand and accept this enigma for until we do we cannot learn properly to steer a boat.

There is, on the outer ring of the brass housing within which the compass card floats a single engraved line, placed so as to be visible from the extreme angle at which the helmsman sees a compass while steering. It is this line that indicates the heading of the ship. One steers so as to align the desired bearing on the compass card with that steady line on the edge of the compass housing. People unfamiliar with boats often take weeks to get the hang of holding a compass course and develop all kinds of bizarre mnemonic devices and tricks to help them recall which way to turn the wheel or tiller to make the card turn toward the line. Their problem is they're thinking about the problem backwards; the tiller steers the line not the card-the card holds itself fixed in space, so that in steering, what you do is bring the apparently immovable line onto the bearing of the apparently "gyrating" card. Even though everything tells you it should be the other way around, it is the line that can be moved by the tiller, not the compass card, That stable line I see is the moving ship and that wavering gimbaling card the solid earth over which the ocean and its upper turmoils lie.

So often in this life we have it backwards, and find out only after the fact that it is the wavering, balanced, indeterminate thing that is the centered constant, and so discover (usually too late) that it is the unmoving indicator of our course which is, in fact, dancing all around, flickering like some mad flame. (I have encountered this when I misjudged the love of a beautiful woman who was scaring me with what I mistook for capriciousness only to discover that she was practicing the core of her art-the very thing I now know will allow our lives to chart a constant course to any port.)

Ah my soul, take a firm grip on the evanescent-on your most precious and delicate dreams-for they are stable. And recognize that the secure paths in life, its declared stabilities often lead to fluttering desperation, inner madness.

2000 - Roger Payne

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