Compass: Go South

Luncheon in the Grasses, Sally Mann, 1991. Image courtesy of


Take I-66 from the Beltway and stay on it. It goes for an hour. Then take Exit 1 to I-81 and watch for the junction; you’ll want to head south.

You’ll notice I-81 is different from I-66. It’s I-15 more, and that means more mountains and less radio. You’ll have better luck with the AM stations, anyway. Spotlights in a barley field bear up at an old billboard that recommends AM 1020.1. “Sounds Right! 1020.1.” It’s an old ad so you’ll only hear static when you try, but tune two up and you’ll get Roy Acuff and His Crazy Tennesseans. You’ll remember that your father used to be a pretty good Roy Acuff until he found out there was already a Roy Acuff and had to start singing like himself instead. The radio mutters backbeats like a brittle tambourine; it’ll urge you to drive faster. You’ll humm along. For a second, you’ll doze.

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Compass: On Direction

The Gulf Stream, Winslow Homer, 1899. Image courtesy of

Hesiod’s Theogony starts off by telling where the story itself comes from: the muses teach Hesiod a song while he shepherds his lambs. His poems are created by the divine. They’re passed on by the voice of a goddess as it takes over his lungs.

The Greek epics open with an invocation. Tell me, muse, of the ingenious hero. Sing, muse, the wrath of Achilles, son of Peleus. Is it a plea or a command? But, either way, it says that inspiration comes from something else.

It comes through you, and your job is to get out of the way. You don’t lead it. You follow. So say the Greeks.

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Compass: Focus


Protractors and compasses were sold in sets at Office Depot, and I always wished I could mix and match the colors. I wanted a blue protractor and a green compass but I had to pick one so green it would have to be. Not a lime green and not an olive but some strange middle ground, like an unripe banana or maybe a bay leaf.

They were on the required supplies list, and though we rarely used them in math class I was always sketching circles on the scrap paper from my mother’s office. I started off shaky, and the hinge on the compass was a little loose, so even when I steadied the arc, my circle’s ends would never line up. I was frustrated.

But eventually I learned to hold it right, to position my fingers and flick my wrist just so, and I started to experiment. Who needed pencils when I could use pens, or squeeze in a crayon after I shaved its edges with scissors? My circles were good, and they were everywhere.

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Introduction: Compass

This month, we feature a series of short memoir posts centered on the theme Compass. James Wood ’14 describes our vision for this theme below.

Illustration to Dante’s Inferno, Plate I, Gustave Doré, 1857. Image courtesy of

I’ve only been lost in the woods once. Which, I’ve been told, is more times than most people have been lost in the woods. At the time, I remembered something that seemed important. What I remembered was science class in grade school. In that class, I made a compass.

Even now, I remember how: Get a bowl. Put water in it. Set it somewhere flat. Take a piece of paper and put the paper on top of the bowl. Steal a sewing needle from your mother’s kit and a magnet from the refrigerator. Bring them to class. Stroke the needle over the magnet, each time in the same direction, and repeat this step for a minute.

After that, it’s simple. You place the needle on the paper and move a corner of the paper back and forth to get the needle to spin. Then, you wait. When the needle stops, follow its point to find your way.

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