A Compass

Navigating Stolen Moments with a Grandson

Analogical compass abandoned on the rocks | Credit: nuttawutnuy - stock.adobe.com

I sat in the window seat with my grandson Felix during a lull in the rain. He was, as he would say, “a bit sad,” but I showed him there were diamonds in the treetops, and in the distance, in the V-shaped space between two hills, a muted gray ocean was visible, a little like a triangle, a triangle-shaped sea. Now birds were reappearing, fluttering and boisterous, and one tiny hummingbird was sipping nectar from a trumpet-shaped honeysuckle beaker.

He’s drinking the nectar, I told Felix.

“What is nectar?” he asked.

It’s a sweet liquid, I said.

“Like honey?”

Yes, like honey.

Felix lives in England, and we are here in Gaviota, and we waited so long for this visit. It’s a difficult pattern: long separations filled with yearning, interspersed with joyfully exhausting time together, and then he is abruptly gone, and the waiting begins again. Felix is almost 3 years old, and he is used to the fact that two of his grandparents exist as flat images on a computer screen most of the time and periodically become three-dimensional, but it’s hard for him to grasp the great distance he has traveled, more than 5,000 miles over land and sea to the edge of a continent, where everything is different from the Oxford streets of home. There are evening concerts of frogs and coyotes here; a muddy creek is tumbling across the path to the house; a windfall of oranges has dropped to the ground.

I knew I would never forget sitting in the window seat with my grandson during a lull in the rain. I impulsively reached for my knapsack and pulled out a small compass that I had bought at the park headquarters last fall at Furnace Creek, Death Valley. I never actually used it, but I liked knowing that I might, and I liked its DNA of southwestern desert and road trips and sunny days. I decided to give it to my Western wanderer, Felix.

I showed him the numbers and letters on the dial, and the way he could move it, and how the red arrow was always pointing north. He wasn’t sure what “north” was and it was hard to explain, but I told him that this was an instrument of navigation, and if we were outside exploring, it could show him what direction we were going or needed to go. I imagined that even the pilots of the airplane that brought him to California used some sort of compass to find their way through the enormous sky.

Having convinced Felix of the essential coolness of the compass, I found a chain and clipped it to the zipper tog of his jacket, and he immediately assumed the important aura of a navigator. He led the way back into the living room and announced that he now owned a little clock. “It’s not a clock, it’s a compass,” I said. But really, in this context, what’s the difference? We are suspended in a cloud. Distance and direction feel abstract and irrelevant, and time has taken the day off. And I’m smart enough to know that the sweet nearness of my grandson in the window seat holding a compass is the very yearned for vignette, the segment of narrative that gives everything meaning, or to which I ascribe meaning, either way. It’s the why and the where, the true north.

“Life is not a story, a settled version,” writes Patricia Hampl in The Art of the Wasted Day. “It’s an unsorted heap of images we are going through, the familiar snaps taken up and regarded, then tossed back until, unbidden, they rise again, images that float to the surface of the mind, rise, fall, drift — and return only to drift away again in shadow…. Call them vignettes, these things we finger and drop again into their shoeboxes.”

Those images keep coming at me. I ride them with delight sometimes, or rewatch them with tears. I shape them into stories, and I try to make sense, and the sands keep shifting, but the cardinal directions never change. We have lost so much, but we learn what we can count on.

Two days ago, Felix dropped a yellow roller truck into the culvert, and the rushing water washed it out of sight. Today, it appeared in the gutter, lower down, muddied and mysteried with the secrets of its adventure. How richly the days unfold! Now, he holds a compass and will one day get the concept of it, hopefully with a better sense of direction than his Nonna, but in the meantime, he has correctly surmised its similarity to a clock: faces with symbols, tidings to tell, clues to reveal, tools with which to sort and make sense of the winding streams of input.

Maybe someday, far into the hazy future, a man named Felix will remember sitting with his Nonna in a window seat after a storm, faraway in California. He’ll feel a sense of comfort, perhaps, recalling diamonds in treetops and the sea to the south. He’ll have a home in his heart. He will know which way to go.


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