Latitude, Longitude, and True North: or Navigating by Tie-Tack
February 5, 2017 – First UU Church of Wausau
Rev. Laurie Bushbaum
Call to Worship: by James Vila Blake
Love is the spirit of this church,
and service is its law.
This is our great covenant:
To dwell together in peace,
To seek the truth in love,
And to help one another.
Reading: Tie Tack by Rev. Gordon McKeeman
There are many relics in our home—objects to which important memories are attached… Each recalls some journey, event, or person that is a part of your life’s experience. They’re … religious objects that summon up powerful recollections. One of my favorites is my tie tack. It’s an opal, full of fiery iridescence.
The tie tack was an unexpected gift. Its former owner… came out of the church’s worship one Sunday. As I greeted him, I noticed his tie tack and I said to him, “What a beautiful opal!” On the spot he took it off and gave it to me. I was both delighted and chagrined. I took off my tie tack, a flaming chalice, and gave it to him. It was far from an equal exchange.
More important, what he did in that fleeting moment was very typical of him… He lived quite an ordinary life… a salesman of advertising novelties, so he spent much time in his car traveling from client to client. He spent a significant portion of his driving time thinking of ways to improve the community. He could be counted on to suggest some modest and simple change that would make a positive and real difference in people’s lives…
One of my joys associated with wearing a necktie is to put on my tie tack. I have quite a few of them, but the opal is always my choice. It’s a ritual. I put it on and remember the man who gave it to me, and I resolve to find in this day some opportunity to continue what was his real life’s work: doing something simple, modest, and useful to improve the life of the community.
Over the many years I have worn my tie tack, many people have admired it. To many of them I have told the story of my acquisition of it and of what it means to me. With each telling I have confessed that I ought to give it away since that’s how I obtained it—by admiring it. Some day I know I will give it away, together with its story… Meanwhile, I keep wearing it and keep reminding myself of its meaning in my life.
Sermon: Latitude, Longitude and True North: or Navigating by Tie-Tack
Many of you probably know that bats, with their tiny eyes and enormous ears, navigate in the darkness by echolocation. As they fly at night they emit sounds, undetectable to the human ear. The sound bounces off nearby structures. From the returning sound waves, bats can “read” the size and shape of what is around them. This is how many bats navigate. Not all bats are the same: Fruit bats have small ears and a huge eyes, which gives them nearly perfect vision at night.
What I learned from the book Natural Compass is that many young birds are able to navigate back to their nests after just a few test flights. And then “taken to a new home after just one or two brief outings and confined for up to several years, pigeons will nevertheless generally return to their natal loft at the first opportunity.”
Did you know that honeybees “dance” to navigate among their food sources? They draw accurate maps to food by wiggling their backsides and the direction of their wiggle communicates the direction of their food to other bees. More specifically, their dances generate distance and direction coordinates. Pointing up refers to the sun and then the dancer reveals the relative direction of the sun by wiggling left or right. This is honeybee trigonometry. Just think of how much dancing is contained in a jar of honey!
Now that we have covered bats, and the birds and the bees, what about ants? It turns out that “ants can navigate the Sahara desert by measuring their visual flow. They count their footsteps and make it back to their homes despite the uniform appearance of their surroundings and their small size.” Who knew ants could count so high?
Animals use visual landmarks as well as auditory landmarks as navigational tools: like the sounds of a wind current over a mountain. We have all probably heard as least one true and amazing tale of a beloved lost pet traveling hundreds of miles back to their homes. While scientists have studied a number these scenarios, they really don’t know how cats and dogs can do this. Is it love that guides them?
Like other animals, we, too use our sight, sound, and touch to navigate. 2,500 years ago, a Polynesian Chief and sailor navigated the open seas of the Pacific ocean in an outrigger canoe for five weeks and landed successfully 2,000 miles from where he started. Since early Polynesian sailors had no compasses, sextants or maps, they learned to read what was at hand, mainly the water. Due to necessity, they learned to read the waves as if they were maps… They read the height and intensity of waves to determine their location and direction.
In addition, Polynesians used their basic knowledge of cloud formation over land as a tool, and they forecasted weather – based on the color of ocean and sky. Knowing the migration patterns of other animals gave them additional markers for their communal mapping systems. Like most sailors, they used the stars at night. Polynesians described distance in numbers of canoe-days of travel from island to island. Most importantly, every village had a revered navigator who maintained and passed down the navigational wisdom through story telling. Maybe we navigate by story?
Over time, we humans have become more and more innovative as we figured out how to navigate without using land references. The story of a 9th Norseman, named Floki – who first intentionally navigated his way to Iceland, provides a few fascinating tidbits. His first tool was the North Star.
Floki also had a sun shadow board, which was used each day at noon, if the sun was shining, to determine if the ship was on course. The shadow board was placed in a deep container of water so that it was floating level. Then the pin in the center of the board marked the shadow of the noon sun. If the shadow of the sun was outside the marked circles on the board, the sailors knew they had travelled too far north. But if the shadow extended too far inside the marked circles, they had moved too far south.
However, on a cloudy day, the Norse travelers might have been out of luck but for a special property of the sun stone. It so happens that a mineral called Icelandic Spur, changes color as it is turned in the light. So on a cloudy day, a Viking sailor took out his stone and could still read the position of the sun at noon. Since no sunstones actually survived the Viking Age, many historians thought they were simply the stuff of legend. But in 1990, on a ship that had sunk in 1592, scientists found a chunk of sun stone, about the size of a bar of soap. They tested it and guess what? It did indeed work as a navigational tool. Sometimes we navigate by using the materials at hand and brilliant observation.
The final tools used to navigate to Iceland were birds; 3 ravens brought on the voyage for this purpose. The first one released flew back to Norway, which told Floki he was not very near his destination. The second raven circled above the ship and eventually flew back to the vessel, communicating that there was no land close enough to fly toward. The third raven, given its freedom days later, took off to the northwest and did not return. Floki set his ship’s course to follow this final bird and landed the boat in Iceland.
Humans have invented increasingly more complex forms of navigation, but it never occurred to me that a person could navigate through life with a tie tack. But, in part, that is what Gordon McKeeman did. Every time he wore that tie tack, he was wearing a navigational tool. Sitting there anchored to his chest it reminded him what his values were, and how he aimed to walk through each day guided by those values. We navigate with our values and Principles.
As I was cleaning my basement a few years ago to prepare for the installation of new carpet, I was sorting and packing books. I came across a cool little plastic case of maps of the Twin Cities that a friend had given me, maybe 10 years ago when she moved out of state. She told me how unusual and amazing these maps were, but I never looked at them. Until that day when I was cleaning the basement. The set of maps were created as part of a design competition in Mpls in 2000. They’re called Knowledge maps. There is a map that tells the history of food in the Twin Cities, especially the history of grain in the founding of the mills along the Mississippi River.
There is a map of the arts in Minneapolis featuring everything from the huge Mpls. Art Institute, and Orchestra Hall to the quaint fairy garden of a private residence. There is a map of spiritual places. And a map that describes the cultural settlement of the area, first by Native people and then the various waves of immigrants: the Scandinavians, the Germans, The Irish in St. Paul, the Eastern Europeans in Northeast… the newest waves of Hmong who immigrated after the Vietnam War, and the Somali fleeing their own Civil War.
There is even a “smell map” of the Twin Cities containing information explaining odors and fragrances throughout the area.
Each map in this fascinating set covered the same piece of ground but with a different viewpoint: food or history or art or industry, culture, natural resources. And I realized that I, too, have layers and layers of maps in my mind, in heart, even in my muscle memory. And with my own knowledge maps, I make my way.
After reading Rev. McKeeman’s lovely piece about his tie tack, I picked up a basket and wandered through my house planning to pick 5 things by which I navigate…This is what I chose.
First I went for a photo album. I know that I navigate most of my day by memory; the memories of my family of origin and the places I have called home. These are the experiences and stories that tell me who I am and where I’ve been. For better or worse, these foundational places created certain touchstones in my core. Some have served my well and I keep them as treasures. Others I have had to remove, set aside, or let-go to follow my path. But memory is a major navigational tool.
Even my list of things to do for the day, I could not do without my memory which provides the context for each day. So I realized, that perhaps, even though something that symbolizes my memory is the first thing I gathered, maybe memory doesn’t actually go in the basket. Maybe memory IS the basket. Maybe Memory is not a compass point but the compass itself.
My mother’s dementia worsened over the years and progressed from being slightly inconvenient to almost defining her life…. In that process I witnessed the orienting and dis-orienting effects of losing, first her short-term memory and then most of her long-term memory. It raises questions for me.
Who are we without our memories? Exactly how does memory orient us? What happens when we discover that our memory does not match another person’s memory of the same event? How is it that our perspective of a particular event changes from the changing vantage points in our lives? Memory is navigational tool.
The second item I put in my basket was this piece of birch bark. I grew up in places where I was outdoors most of the time, running in the woods, swimming at our beach, taking off on my horse. My dad taught me to ski when I was 3 years old. I run, cycle, hike; I’m happiest outside. What I know is that I lose my internal, spiritual bearings if I am in a congested urban area for very long. When my family goes to visit relatives in NYC, I am always the first one to get claustrophobic. I start gasping for trees and the quiet of wild spaces. In part, I navigate by my need for natural beauty.
The quilt of mine hanging in front of the pulpit symbolizes another way that I navigate – through creativity. I come from a long line of artists on both sides of my family and my mother filled our home with creative fun. I need creative time like other people need food. It took me decades to understand that while I am creating something I am actually engaged in a navigational process that keeps me both very grounded AND free to explore utterly new, internal landscapes.
I put a book in my basket of things by which I navigate because there are books that have changed the course of my life. I remember learning in college, to read and understand the sheer beauty of poetry. I felt suddenly as If I knew another language, that I could hear sounds beneath the sound of everyday conversation. There is a special shelf of books in my library at home, lined up in order. These books, when I read them, were like the windows at the core of my being suddenly flying open. I still steer by these core thoughts, images and ideas. We navigate by what touches us and inspires us.
Being in a UU church for the first time when I was 20 years old, and reading a pamphlet I picked up, was a life changing moment. I have been steering with UUism ever since. And so, as a token, I would put a flaming chalice in my basket, and perhaps a clerical stole. In discovering UUism I found my spiritual home, a community that dates back centuries, as well as my life’s work. Certainly I navigate by the spiritual and ethical demands of ministry, and the blessings of my calling.
Finally, I navigate by the wedding ring on my hand…It is a daily reminder of the core commitments, sacrifices, and love that structures much of my personal life. We navigate by our promises.
As I thought about these items in my basket I noticed that, for the most part, these are things that bring me happiness. Perhaps you have heard the proclamation by the psychologist Carl Jung, to “Follow Your Bliss.” While writing this the other day it occurred to me that Truest, “True North” isn’t out there. For me, True North is the home in my soul or Self – whatever you call the deepest, or highest truest, part of you. I am convinced that knowing who and what we are – is the surest way to navigate through the world without getting utterly lost.
Of course even if we follow our bliss, we still may sometimes feel that we have just sailed over the edge of the world. We can be on the path and still feel lost. Even by attempting to follow our True North we will encounter terrific challenges that require course corrections. Our daughter is studying abroad right now, in Patagonia, Chile. She and 7 other college students are camping for 3 months in the Patagonian wilderness studying field conservation biology. My husband was planning to give her his father’s field compass to take with her. My father-in-law had just passed away and he spent his life in the field studying baboons, so this was going to be a very special gift. But then we discovered that my father-in-law’s compass was magnetically weighted in such a way that it would not work in Patagonia. These days, they make Universal compasses, but we decided to buy Alice one weighted especially for the Southern Hemisphere because it would be more accurate.
Sometimes, someone else’s old tools don’t work for our navigational purposes. Or we decide to change directions. Like many college students, I changed my major a few times until I ended up where I thought was right. Along the way, most of us will need to consult our sun stone or compass or tie-tack over and over again.
After all, this is a journey. Hopefully, we never arrive at a place where we feel there are no inner landscapes left to explore. All our days we can refine what we know. All our days we can be curious. All our lives we can learn to navigate with more love. What tools do you carry?