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Dance With Me Over by the Dart Boards, It's My Last Night in Town

from My Life's Work by Ben Seretan

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Celestial navigation. In the Fall of 2008 I found myself at the wheel of a tallship out of sight of land at 3 in the morning. My shift had just begun. I was to keep the ship pointed firmly and truly due East. I could feel the resistance of the rudder in the water behind us as I'd nudge the wooden wheel clockwise. We were heading deeper out into deep, deep waters and I was sleeping a few hours on a rotating schedule in a wooden cocoon where, if you pressed your ear to the wood, you could hear water. I couldn't sleep once and I read an entire Richard Brautigan book in one sitting.
Once we had sailed out far enough, a machine attached to the bottom of the ship would send a high-frequency beep down into the depths and then listen for any echoes with a microphone. The time in-between beeping and listening would then be used to determine the depth of the seafloor at that point. But the echoes were extremely faint and, being above the water, of course we couldn't hear them. So for the whole week we'd just hear beep, nothingness, beep, void, beep, no response. One underwater beep per minute, the prow otherwise silently cutting black water with the occasional creak of a rope or the pop of a sail suddenly catching wind. When it's the middle of the night on board a ship you have to take great consideration of one's night vision, so lamps and maps are consulted sparingly. Better to set a course, stay to it, let your eyes adjust, and rely instead on the shapes and locations of constellations.
Polaris, the north star, can be useful when sailing in the northern hemisphere. Not only is its position in the heavens a reliable indicator of "north" (a wonderful and unlikely occurrence in an otherwise stochastic universe), but it's position in the sky at night relative to the horizon will give you a steady estimate of your latitude on the globe. Near the equator, Polaris dips its toe into the horizon. Near New York, where I live, it's just under halfway up toward the dome of the heavens. 40 degrees latitude. And it continues to climb higher and higher. Apex of Earth, apex of the sky, Polaris gently tremelo-ing, a light fading in and out kept on by the celestial legs of some invisible exercise bike. If you don't know how to find the North Star, you can start by finding the big dipper and following the line made by the outer edge of its bowl (the side without a handle). The line those two stars makes points almost straight toward Polaris which, please remember, is not the brightest star in the sky.
I spent most summers growing up going to camps organized by my church. Once every summer there'd be a weeklong trip up to the San Bernadino mountains. Typical summer camp - cabins, sleeping bags, outdoor sports - plus worship songs, sermons, bible study, and Jesus-oriented crafts (I remember making a pendant out of three nails). One night, long after sundown, we went out for a hike. It felt perilous. We could barely see where we were going over a rough and rocky path that climbed up and up and up. But then we came to an alpine clearing, there was a break in the heavens, and we saw what the preacher and the the camp counselors wanted to show us - the milky white smear of the heavens, unobstructed and present and vivid. The unimaginable weight of God's splendor and us, blessed to be below. Our place in the universe.
More vaguely I remember going out to Joshua Tree for the first time with my uncle and my cousin. I remember sitting in a hot tub at a motel. I remember hiking through the desert and not understanding why we were doing it (I preferred the indoors). I remember looking up at the night sky outside of a bar with neon lights, trying to notice Comet Hale-Bopp streaking across the sky, the smell of cigarettes wafting. We couldn't see the comet and the disappointment now lets me know that what we were really hoping for was to have some kind of special place in the universe. We were there in that time and we pointed up at body leaving its perihelion. We were right there.

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from My Life's Work, released August 30, 2018

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Ben Seretan Troy, New York

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