Sunday, April 28, 2013

Kinship With the Sailor

Is it naiveté that suggests to me that I share a kinship with the sailor? I know nothing of boats or tides, bows, sterns, port or starboard, but somehow a part of me is convinced that the sailor and I bear a likeness. This sentiment is not altogether ungrounded. I am a son of the prairie. We're not the covered wagons, used when white men first traversed this land, called prairie schooners? Did not Laura Ingalls Wilder remark in her Little House series about the similarities between the wind-blown prairie grass and the rolling swells of the sea? Cannot both prairie and sea leave one with the sense of having departed altogether from the rest of humanity? Is not the ocean, like the prairie, a vast and flat expanse disappearing into an unending horizon? Did I not, while studying in the tree-strewn, suffocating crush of Mississippi River Valley bluffs and cities, find solace looking across the enormous flat openness of Lake Superior?

These comparisons, however, are weak metaphors. They express similarity, but at the cost of revealing deeper dissimilarity. My kinship with the sailor rests not in what lies below us, but rather on that which graces the sky above. Only on the sea or on the prairie has one ever really seen the moon, and the stars.

By way of habit, I always scan the night sky, looking to find the Big Dipper. There it hangs, always visible, always in the north. When I know where north is, I also know where home is. Only when I visited Australia could I not find the Big Dipper. It was disconcerting. Though I have never been required to navigate across unknown distances guided only by the stars, these nautical road signs have guided me in other ways. As an undergraduate, the movements of Orion told me when it was time to go to bed. If he had disappeared from view, I was up too late. In moments of doubt, to look at the stars and from them be able to look toward home gave me courage. In times of loneliness, to know that my family could step outside and see the same stars as I saw gave me comfort. The stars ground; they tell me where I am, and where I come from. They remind me who I am.

I think think this must be true for sailors as well. Modern navigational equipment aside, I think they must all know that when worse comes to worst, the stars can guide them home. There is something holy about such knowledge. God Himself, after all, led the Magi by a star. Is it so strange that he should use them to lead me as well, to remind me who I am and in so doing, remind me whose I am?

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