Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Cosmic Explorer, Destination Unknown

There is a story I've told my students for years, and it turns out that I've only been getting it about half right. I first read the real story in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, by John Berendt, and it goes like this:

Poet Conrad Aiken used to like to sit in a Savannah cemetery by the spot where his parents were buried, drink martinis, and watch the shrimp boats pass by.* One day a boat named Cosmos Mariner sailed past. Aiken saw this and was quite taken with the name. Later that evening he looked it up in the shipping news and found this: "Cosmos Mariner; Destination unknown."

This is part of the inscription that Aiken chose for the bench that is his own headstone, where he now lies in the cemetery beside his parents. The other part of the inscription reads: "Give my love to the world."

I didn't get the story too terribly wrong, I just messed up the name of the boat a bit. I've always remembered it as the Cosmic Explorer. But you know, I like the incorrect name better. Coupled with the second half, "Destination unknown," it seems a perfect instruction for life: We are all explorers on a journey in unknown waters. Like any voyage of discovery, peril, danger, and sorrow can be found at every turn. But there are also beautiful islands to behold, and they are named Grace, Mercy, Kindness, and Joy. The trick is to make it through the storms to the other side, where they await us.

I was thinking about this on the drive home from San Angelo this weekend. I was listening to a radio program called Humankind, an episode titled "American Resiliency," in which they examined the question of what makes some people more able to withstand hardship and disaster than others. Two things stood out among the things that the psychologists and historians on that program said about people who are resilient: They are part of a community of people on which they can rely, and they are able to focus on positive things even in the midst of the most terrible circumstances.

Oh, and there was one more thing one of the historians said that gave me pause. He said bad things that happen are a normal part of life, but we've forgotten that in the past couple of decades in this country. It seems we've grown complacent and logy, as if we believe we're permanently tied up in the safety of a port. We've forgotten that in reality, like it or not, we are all of us, most of the time, on a journey in unknown waters.

This past week has been a rough one, hasn't it? The shootings in Arizona are too awful to comprehend. Peril. Danger. Sorrow. We need a safe harbor.

Or maybe not. Maybe what we need is to square our shoulders and continue the journey, for grace, mercy, kindness, and joy are out there, too.

There's just one thing, though. All hands need to pull together on the boat. But it seems impossible to achieve this, doesn't it? What has happened this week in the aftermath of the tragedy in Arizona has been predictable and almost as depressing as the senseless shooting itself: The blame game starts up almost immediately. And then the heated rhetoric begins. And now the heated rhetoric about the heated rhetoric.

Robert F. Kennedy once said that one-fifth of the people are against everything all the time. It seems to me that right now in this country, that one-fifth of the people are driving the rest of us aground. They are not interested in reason. They are not even interested in grace, mercy, kindness, and joy. They are only interested in their own self-serving misery and infecting as many people as possible with their disease. They are even perversely gleeful about this. But too easily, the rest of us get caught up in the same virulent unhappiness and anger, and then instead of focusing on the positive, and what we can do that is right and good, we begin to founder.

Well, I vote we leave that malcontented one-fifth off the boat at the next harbor. Just ditch 'em there. They are merchants of misery, profiteers of hate; let them trade their wares somewhere else. They are cranky, selfish, addicted to celebrity and power even when it is bought with the pain of others, and they make us needlessly angry with each other. We don't need them. We can send them a postcard when we reach the island of Joy. It will read, "Give our love to the world."

Once we refuse to allow that perpetually dissatisfied one-fifth to influence us, we shall draw a deep breath and become strong again. We shall be a community, focused on the positive even when faced with senseless tragedy, resilient and sound, able to stand all storms.

Bad things happen, because it is life, after all. But we can do good things in response, because we are strong.

This good ship is the Cosmic Explorer, destination unknown. All willing and able hands on board.

*Maybe you think this is morbid, but perhaps you wouldn't if you'd ever taken my "Landscapes" course. Cemeteries are actually quite peaceful, and full of stories.

It's not too late to join the Bike Garden Challenge: 2011 miles in 2011 for the South Plains Food Bank farm! If you'd like to help out, just leave a comment on this post, or email me at Be sure to state specifically that you'd like to pledge a penny a mile ($20.11) to the challenge.


  1. What a great idea! (The cycling, that is, although the rest of the post is good, too. I'd love to put the cranky people ashore.) I'm in for a penny a mile.

  2. great cemeteries and the book...I am on board the boat and would gladly help that 1/5 ashore and ensure they don't get back on...the Robert Kennedy quote is one of my favorites and so is this post....I know bad things happen to people which prompted my blog to be born when they happened to bravo and of course I would love to pledge a penny a mile...:)

  3. Su--Thanks! Be sure to watch this space in a few months so that you'll know when I hit the goal. You'll send your pledge directly to the Food Bank on their website. Much appreciated!

    Donna--Thanks for the pledge! And yes, bad things happen all the time, don't they? THe good news is that we rise above them all the time, too. We forget that sometimes, I think, when the darkness swirls around us.

  4. That was very well said, and I too am ready to leave the confrontational contrarians, who say no just because someone else says yes, waiting in port. If all of us begin using and exploring the words of maybe and perhaps things might move in more positive directions. There is too much at stake right now to be mired down by pettiness.

    You can count on my pennies, just let me know when and where.


  5. Les--I agree. Let's spread some positive around for a change. And thanks for the pledge! I won't let you down.

  6. this is a wonderful post. I have been wondering if there is something about our culture that makes us think it is possible to live without hardship and pain. Difficulties can make us stronger, and make us appreciate love and joy all the more.

  7. Thank you Susan for the post. It was very moving.
    I think that you are absolutley right and I myself have allowed the nabobs of negativity to intrude in my thought process.
    Thanks again

  8. Commonweeder--It does make us stronger. Going through the fire tempers us, and forges us into iron.

    David--As always, thanks for your thougthful comment.

  9. Put me in for a penny a mile, too! And I'll be there to help you unload the cranky baggage when we come in to spacedock.

    (Apparently the word verif agrees, too, since I am required to type "ireellym." I reelly m.)

  10. Thanks, Sherrie! I know I can count on you for both. :D

  11. What a wonderful writer you are! I have loved discovering your blog! And please...count on my pennies as well!

  12. Lovely post, Susan. Count me in as a hand on deck as the Cosmic Explorer sails on! I'm doing my bit to live my life in a way that I hope spreads the Ocean of Light in the world. (And I've already pledged my penny a mile--which somehow doesn't seem enough. I think I'll up that to two cents, big spender that I am.)

  13. Thanks on both accounts, Susan! Every bit helps. And I'm glad you're coming along on the good ship Cosmic Explorer. ;-)

  14. Wow. This post really spoke to me. I intend to pass it on in the hopes that others will take heed.

  15. Thanks Cindy. I've been thinking about this all week and finally decided to say something.

  16. I've always liked that story you've told us, and I love it in regards to the rest of the post! I'd like to pledge a penny a mile too!

  17. Thanks, Emily! I love the story, too, and I'm so glad you're supporting the South Plains Food Bank. Jenifer Smith and I were just talking the other day about the presentation that you and Sriyutha gave there!

  18. Wow- I loved this post.

    Here in Ghana, and seeing the people here and how they live and how joyful many are despite terrible things that have happened to them, I've been thinking a lot about what makes some people more resilient than others. I've met some remarkably resilient women here.

    And I agree with your follow up comment that hardship tempers us and makes us stronger. Americans need to get out of the safe harbor a bit more and do some cosmic exploring of their own.

    (I also really liked what you had to say about ditching the 1/5 of people who will always drag you down...but my comment is getting too long!!)

  19. Ready to board ma'am. Bravo Susan! I love your blog...can't believe I worked at Tech for 6 years and never met you. (Now in NM).

    I agree with you about the malcontents...I'm so weary of the yammering and blame game and the endless "us and them".

    Best of luck with the Bike Garden Challenge...a wonderful cause. I used to volunteer at the South Plains Foodbank.

  20. Sarai--You are going to have so many stories to share when you get back. Looking forward to having a good visit with you.

    Geri--The Cosmic Explorer is ready to take you aboard!

  21. thanks for this susan, well said.

    have you considered christening your bike "the cosmic explorer"...? surely we can have a bike bumper sticker custom made for your great 2011 excursions...

  22. Andrea--As a matter of fact, the thought did occur to me! I've been looking for the perfect name for it ever since I bought it, and so now there we have it...

  23. I love to look out for something fun, unexpected, unusual, moving - whatever - every day. On Monday I stumbled across your blog and found myself going back through lots of posts. So much to think about and laugh at. I am really taken by your cycling challenge, and thinking about how I can take it, or something similar, myself. Thank you again.


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