The Point of a Compass

Compass by waltstoneburner
Photo by waltstoneburner via Flickr Creative Commons

I left home before graduation and moved in with him when I was seventeen. My mother called the police and said he was “harboring a minor.” The police car picked me up at his apartment to take me home. I went back the next day. She also took my passport. I reported it as stolen, and he bought me a new one. We went to the courthouse on my 18th birthday and signed the marriage certificate. A month later, we were on a plane to Israel. 

The first compasses did not always point north. Early compasses pointed east.

Mother: “You need to ask yourself, why did you decide to marry him, and go to a foreign country with him? Why have you stayed together this long? Do any or all of these reasons still exist? Whatever you have done or not done, or whatever he has done or not done, is it forgivable? Can you move on and stay together?”

Compassare, from Vulgar Latin, “to pass or step together.”

I left him when I was 25—when I met Sasha.

Elisheva: “Some of the things you say sound eerily familiar. I tell you when a man or woman does not feel satisfied it takes on a life of its own. I’m glad about the way he has made you feel. Every woman wants to feel lost in love (or lust) as you are.”

It has a magnetized pointer free to align itself with Earth’s magnetic field.

Mother: “I know this may sound strange to you, but somehow I feel that I am to blame for your present situation. Maybe if I had been a better parent, or maybe if I did not give you money to go out, you would not have met or become involved with this guy.”

It’s crazy to me how the same woman who has always insisted on a woman’s financial freedom would think that having access to funds is how a marriage falls apart. Being broke(n) is not what should keep it together.

The Chinese south-pointing chariot worked like a compass but used dead reckoning. Dead reckoning is the process of calculating one's current position by using a previously determined position.

Parenting, however, probably is relevant. My last memory of my parents together is from when I was a toddler. “Stop, Edmond!” she said in a whiny (almost playful?) voice. Daddy had hair clippers or some hair-cutting tool. He was trying to help my mother trim her nose hairs. This is my first childhood memory—the only memory from that time until they separated when I was five.

Mother: “As your mother and the person who has sustained you so that you could live your dream of being in Israel, I need to know why a loving husband and loving children were not enough for you, when that is all you said you wanted. I want to know why you appear to have no sense of shame or moral compass.”

Errors, as always with dead reckoning, would accumulate as distance travelled increased.

My dream had been to be a photographer and move to Paris after a study abroad. After my mother told me to choose something practical, I settled on international relations because I love to travel. Before I met him, I had planned on studying in Washington, D.C. I got accepted to all my top choice universities: George Washington University, American University, and Georgetown University. He was there when I received one of the acceptance letters in the mail. When I showed it to him, he covered his face, his back against the wall, and crumpled to the floor. He thought it was over. I thought he was going to cry. Still—he said he was going with or without me.

Cheryl: “I advised your mother to give you some time and space to sort things out for yourself before trying to explain to the whole world.”

Mother: “I want a letter of explanation and copies of the poems. This is no time to be stubborn and arrogant. But if you want to go down that road, well so will I because I am sick of your unnecessarily nasty attitude. I will block you from taking one frigging dime from my account—just who the hell do you think that you are—I will pay rent until August and let the chips fall where they may as far as anything else.”

We arrived in Israel with nothing but the duffle bags on our backs. There was also a stowaway—I was pregnant before we’d left and didn’t realize it yet. When my mother found out, she didn’t congratulate me, she said, “I don’t care what happens—I’ll pay for everything—but you’re going to college.”

A diagram called a compass rose displays the orientation of the directions. The rose is aligned with the real directions in the frame of reference.

My mother has been married twice. Neither marriage was to my father. Whenever I asked her why she left my father, she would only say “I’ll tell you when you’re older.” When I was older she said, “Why do we have to talk about it?”

Mother: “If he so easily fell in love with you, couldn't he fall in love with someone else just as easily? Does he have some latent disrespect for you because you left your husband and your children so easily and could you leave him easily for someone else? What about your reputation as a woman?” I left to live a few blocks down the same street. I came to braid their hair, take them to the park, and for long walks. I spent the night when Sheva had performances. That was in May, and by the end of the year, I was back in the apartment with them and Sasha. I hardly call that leaving my children. Leaving your children might look more like sending her to live with a relative six states away, for seven years, and seeing her only twice.

Cheryl: “Please do not be overly concerned about what you think other people think. At the end of the day, it really is not important.”

Most modern compasses utilize the 360-degree system of indicating direction on the compass. Zero and 360 degrees is north, 90 degrees is due east, 180 degrees is due south, and 270 degrees is due west.

I moved three times before I was eighteen. The first time I was five years old. My parents separated, and my mother took me from Buffalo, NY to Baltimore, MD. The second time, my mother sent me from Baltimore to Alabama to live with my grandmother when I was about six or seven. The third time, I was on summer vacation in Buffalo, right before my thirteenth birthday. My mother asked me to come straight to Baltimore to live with her after a seven-year hiatus, without going back to Alabama to get my things. I left with only what was in my suitcase.

Early forms of the compass rose were known as wind roses since no differentiation was made between a directional point and the wind which emanated from that direction.

In Israel—after a hostel in Tel Aviv, a hostel in the Old City of Jerusalem, a stint in Azaria East Jerusalem, and a couple of years in Ramat Beit Shemesh—my last move was to Jerusalem.

In the Middle Ages, many maps, such as the Hereford Mappa Mundi, were centered on Jerusalem with East at the top, meaning that the direction “up” on the map corresponds to East on the compass. Later, compass roses, around the time of Portuguese exploration and Christopher Columbus, show a fleur-de-lys that marked north and a cross that marked east, showing the direction of the Holy Land.

Mother: “Do you really want to stay there or come home?”

There is something about the word “home.” Every time someone uses it in reference to the States it irks me. Home? What is home? By then, I’d been living in Israel for longer than any American city.

The Jerusalem of Gold Compass website advertises, “All roads lead to Jerusalem. Just open the cover and find your way home. An amazing compass needle that points in the direction of our hopes and prayers…Jerusalem! Anywhere in the world…The Jerusalem Compass™ will point you in the ‘Right Direction’!”

The man who did it was her boyfriend. He lived with us in Baltimore. For some reason, Adel (her mother) was suspicious after I’d said something about a boy’s bathroom and a girl’s bathroom. She gave me a teddy bear and asked me to point on the bear where. After the bear incident, my mother told me I was going on a trip to visit my paternal grandmother in Brewton, Alabama. That “trip” lasted nearly seven years. I saw my mother twice the entire time. While I was in Brewton, she married him.

Users of the Jerusalem of Gold Compass complained that the compass was merely modified so that the needle pointed north but displayed east. This means that, for many people, it still points in the wrong direction.

In those years, my grandmother let slip stories of my mother having to go to court with a black eye.

Mother: “Well if you are aware of the pattern and you have a desire to break it rather than repeat it, it can be broken.”

When my parents were together, my mother worked while my father took care of me.

When we were together, I went to school while he took care of our two daughters.

My mother left my father when I was five.

I left him when my oldest daughter was five.

She sent me to live with my grandmother.


Mother: “I just made a suggestion. I feel like they are my kids just as much as they are yours.”

No— they aren’t.

Mother: “Below the courtesy and understanding, your husband has the same level of contempt for me that you do. He actually blamed me for your present situation. He thinks that I would not be a fit parent. Grandmothers raising kids are not inherently bad.”

I’m ashamed to admit it now, but I used to hate my grandmother, especially after getting hit with the switch. Once it was a yard stick. Once I had a bruise on my left thigh so large that a social worker came to the house. I didn’t understand why at the time. I never told.

The Jerusalem of Gold Compass website describes its product as: “A warm keepsake that is gold plated, and of heirloom quality. It will last forever, and be passed down from generation to generation.”

Mother: “I feel cheated from my fairy tale ending. I was hoping that you would break the mold. Most of the Black women in this office are either single or divorced.”

My mother divorced him while I was living in Alabama. She wouldn’t tell me that story either. She never remarried; she’s been single since I moved out.

Cheryl: “I have the highest respect for the institution of marriage, which is why I’m not married.”

Mother: “Whether you want to acknowledge it or not, I have been there, done that. As a woman, I think that every woman should always have a fallback position, and it is better to have your own place rather than live with someone else. If the relationship works out, fine. If it does not work out, no one will be able to ask you to leave.”

The magnetic compass was first invented as a device for divination as early as the Han Dynasty. Chinese fortune tellers used lodestones to construct their fortune telling boards.

Mother: “Maybe Sasha was a bad decision or maybe he wasn’t; only time will tell because there is no crystal ball. If you have any doubts as to whether it was a bad decision, do you want to compound it by living with him? What if you two have an argument or a breakup—where are you going to live then? You just met this guy, so how can you really know him? I want to know how you see your future with or without this new man.”

By the time I met Sasha, the Ministry of Interior had stopped renewing our visas and they had refused to grant me a student visa. “The university can accept who they want. We don’t have to,” the clerk had quipped. The only future I could see was being an illegal immigrant cleaning toilets with a master’s degree.

Mother: “This is how young girls get in trouble all the time; they meet a man and he is not who he appears to be and she does not keep in close contact with her family or people who love her. Did you know that women and girls are sold into slavery and prostitution every day?”

I didn’t need a man to sell me. I’d sold myself for my husband’s plan: to live in the holy land. I was the one who was not who I appeared to be. False virtuous woman. I’d lost faith long ago. As Cheryl used to say, “Every woman is a prostitute. The question is what is her price.”

Elisheva: “We have only been married for a year although we have been together for six. I pray that we can avoid discontentment and resentment in our marriage.”

What she really means is, she hopes she doesn’t end up like me. The funny thing is that Elisheva and I had bonded overnight while she stayed with me on her first visit to Israel. Our connection consisted in shared stories of “borderline” domestic violence. Her husband had broken a door in a fight. “We’ve tussled,” she’d said. My husband had pushed me against a wall by accident resulting in a black eye. It was the only time I wore make-up. He’d looked at me horrified and never put his hands on me again. That is, until the time he’d jacked me up against the bathroom wall when he’d thought another man had seen me naked. But I wasn’t afraid of him. This isn’t even why I left. It was feeling like god must not love me if becoming an honorable woman wasn’t enough. It was the subtle sense of dissatisfaction, the loss of orgasm, the dreams deferred. Her narrative was akin to mine. Over vanilla coffee, talking all night with Elisheva, it had been a relief to feel like it was normal.

Eventually someone noticed that the lodestones were better at pointing out real directions. They designed the compass on a square slab which had markings for the cardinal points and the constellations. The pointing needle was a lodestone, a spoon-shaped device with a handle that would always point south.

It all started on Independence Day. Leslie had stood me up and I was not interested in my husband’s plans. I called Marc. “Eh, I’m working tonight but I’ll connect you with some of my friends and they’ll take you wherever you want to go.” He gives me Danilov’s number. That night Sasha and Danilov are waiting for me at the bus stop like true Russian gentlemen.

I went out with the alternative, artsy Russians for a second night in a row. We end up at Noche bar and sit in the lounge upstairs. There are two couches and four of us now. The other two sit on one couch. Sasha sits down and I sit down next to him and end up on his shoulder.

“Are you comfortable?” he asked me in Hebrew.

“Yes. Are you comfortable?” I asked him.


My head rested in the dip of his shoulder like two spoons.

Compass: “3. a roundabout journey, a detour.”

Mother: “I hope that this situation is not going to adversely affect your studies and that you will get your M.A. as planned.”

To compass, c.1300, meant “to devise, plan.”

“As planned.” How could I have planned that Sasha was the only one who didn’t live in the city center? That he was the only one who happened to live on my exact street? That he would walk me home each night? That something didn’t feel right about it all and then, it did. It all happened so quickly. Two weeks in and I found myself moving in. I had a panic attack while he was making room for my clothes in his closet.

But don’t get me wrong. I didn’t “slip and fall on it.” I wanted an irreversible action. I wanted to cross the point of no return. If anything, that was the only plan.

A gyrocompass is a type of non-magnetic compass which is based on a rapidly spinning wheel and the rotation of the Earth to automatically find geographical direction. Gyrocompasses have two significant advantages over magnetic compasses: (1) More navigationally useful than magnetic north, they find true north…

I keep telling this same story: I wanted to be a photographer, but my mother told me to do something practical, so I picked international relations because I wanted to travel the world. I was going to do a study abroad in Paris. I was going to learn Japanese. I was going to backpack in Europe. I was going to—

Compass: “5. anything circular in shape, globe, the horizon.”

After I started my M.A. at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, I applied for a study abroad program in Greece. I don’t know why I applied. It was only after I got accepted that I realized I couldn’t go. Our visa requests had been denied, but my husband said we weren’t leaving Israel, or at least he wasn’t going anywhere. If I left, I might not get back in. I couldn’t leave the kids; I couldn’t take the kids. I told him that I felt trapped. We discussed a trial separation. Then, we never spoke of it again. That was a year before that fateful Independence Day.

Compass: “7. enclosing line or limits of any space or area.”

Cheryl: “I ache that you would be so overwhelmed you felt the need to walk out of your own life and not know that you could have told me anything.”

I met Cheryl at a McDonald’s. She was waiting patiently in the back of the line, so I decided to help her. “You’re not going to get service like that in Israel,” I told her before calling out “EXCUSE ME,” in a typically Israeli demanding tone, which got her order finally taken. While waiting for her food to arrive, I found out she worked at the UN and we exchanged information. A long time went by before we spoke again, but once we reconnected, it was an instant bond, and she became my adopted mother. Cheryl was the type of woman who adopted family wherever she went in the world. We’d spend hours with each other and my girls regularly. I helped her with phone calls in Hebrew and invited her to dinners; she helped me with my daughters and became my guru. Sometimes she’d say things that I didn’t understand about my husband or freedom. It was only in retrospect that I realized she had been my prophetess. She that has ears, let her hear.

Mother: “I don't know what you are going to tell them, but it is going to be clear to them at some point that their parents are living apart.”

I didn’t tell them anything, but they started asking me why I don’t sleep at home.

One of the meanings of compass is derived from compasser, from Old French, "to go around, measure, divide equally."

Mother: “I have already voiced my opinion that I think you should have custody. I don't see why I don’t have any voice in this matter since I have been the one supporting them, you, and him for the last seven years. If you decide to let him take the kids with him that is your decision. I absolutely don't agree with it and don't come crying to me about it later when things become ugly again or you feel that you have made the wrong decision. Since I am paying the rent, I have the right to ask him to leave. You are the one making things difficult. Is he really the better parent or you just want your freedom?”

Said the mother who had seven years of freedom.

Compass: “3. b. crafting contrivance or artifice.”

Mother: “He also said that you were just using me, that the only time that you talk to me is when you want something and that I was taking the position on the apartment in an attempt to curry favor with you. I have gone through some painful shit with you and I don’t need you or your husband to keep throwing it up in my face. As gratitude, you are treating me like I am your enemy.”

And yet, never once in those days did it occur to me that she was trying to protect me the only way she knew how. Never once did I consider, imagine her fear of history repeating itself. That perhaps she knew—as Cheryl had once told me—but didn’t know how to say in a way that I could hear, freedom isn’t free.

The earliest reference to a specific magnetic direction finder device for land navigation is recorded in The Wujing Zongyao (“Collection of the Most Important Military Techniques”) in the Song Dynasty in China. The device is recommended as a means of orientation “in the obscurity of the night” when “troops encountered gloomy weather or dark nights, and the directions of space could not be distinguished...”

Before it all happened, Cheryl said once, out of the blue, “If you don’t get the freedom you need, you’re going to blow up your family.”

I didn’t answer.

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