The Points of the Compass

One dry day in July, a hot wind swept me through the sun-scorched fields of central Iowa.  I was a blinking red dot on a GPS unit, gliding though a near-perfect grid of rural county roads where east, west, north, and south meet at right angles, rushing rushing ever towards and away.  The corn in the fields was particularly high for this particular day in July.  It was high, but it was also skinny.  Skeletal, in so far as corn can appear skeletal.  Apart from the heat, the day appeared perfect – blue sky, bright sun, wispy clouds. I was on my way to my cousin Julie’s wedding.  Traveling together in the car were three generations of my family, though it may as well have been four: my grandmother, my aunt, myself, and two of my cousins.  Though technically we are cousins, they were each born when I was in my early twenties and that naturally puts us in different age (if not genetic) generations.

If thoughts are like music, then I might say that during that drive I had in my mind two different cheerful melodies playing over a soft and sad chord progression.  Julie was about to be married in a small-town, Midwestern-style wedding with a good number of family members present to celebrate.  I hadn’t seen many of the aunts and uncles in a few years and I was looking forward to the time together, to helping with whatever still needed doing, to playing with kids of cousins.

As we whizzed past the rattling corn, I got a series of texts from my mother: Tytus Zayin Porter had finally arrived in this world.  My sister Lauren had safely given birth to her first child that morning, though not without a long struggle and the near reality of a caesarian.  I suppose it is called labor for a reason.  Though I had hoped she might wait (as much as any overdue woman can wait) until the wedding was over and I had joined them in California, I was happy at the news – the thought of meeting him in a few days made me smile. Beneath these two pleasant thoughts was the awareness of my good friends’ pending divorce.  It did not overshadow the others, but it colored them with a shade of heartbreak.  The progression of sorrow, however distant to my immediate experience, changed the tenor of my thoughts.  I had not heard from either of them in a few weeks, but I knew that one story of love lived together was ending.  And yet: here before me, another love story was beginning and a new soul had drawn his first breath.  My head swirled with thoughts of life.

Bound together as I was in that moment with three other generations of a single family, I thought that perhaps it was just about all the life a soul could contemplate in a day. A compass has four points, however, and I did not in that particular moment dare to think about the fourth point.  We had just that morning left my grandfather in the hospital where he was being treated for a relatively minor infection.  It was serious enough that he would miss the wedding, but minor enough that we were confident he would be back home the next day.  And so we drove on, flying over the beautiful thirsty world while I pondered life and love and heartbreak.

Being already a portentous day, it seemed that death would not be left out.  Later that evening, before settling in for the night at the hotel, I opened my email and fell upon the final point.  A note from a fellow teacher said that one of our high school seniors had been killed that morning in a tragic accident in Holland.  My heart broke and my mind leapt back to the last moments I had spent with him.  I thought of his wide grin as we chatted about the music he planned to work on over the summer.  We laughed at how often people mispronounced his name, and I asked him to think about helping lead the Composers’ Club in August.  Then we waved goodbye.  He was the last student I spoke with at the close of the school year.  It was the last I would speak with him.

As north is to south, so life is to death.  There is no journey in which the one does not eventually give way to the other.  North becomes south and south becomes north – when a seed dies, life begins, and every life must one day end.  And as east is to west, so is the way of love with that which is not love.  I do not know what to rightly call the opposite of love.  Hate is too simplistic since hearts and lives are broken in many ways – rejection, abandonment, even indifference might be a more fitting opposite.  Love does not lead to any of these any more than these lead to love.  They are two ends of a road, stretched out infinitely in either direction.  Each is a way to be walked, struggled, discovered.  It is a road upon which it is possible to double back many times over – where the needle, pointing the way of love, may swing through death to find that itself in the way of hate; where indifference may spin through life to discover the direction of love. And so it was that the perfectly opposed and inseparable points of a compass – life and death, love and heartbreak – met in my mind one day in July.

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