lighthouse keepers

For more than thirty years, Margaret Winski lived at the Montauk Lighthouse on the eastern tip of Long Island.  Built in 1796,  it continues to operate, having been automated just before she moved in.

When I read her story, I had that brief moment when I thought, “I wonder if they’re looking for someone to take her place.”  I’m certain a great many others had the same reaction.

There’s something romantic about a lighthouse, although the isolation would be tough for most.  As Winski said, “A lot of people would go out of their minds, I think.”

I figured I knew someone who could come with me and who actually had a touch of lighthouse experience.

Last summer, Sue decided she wanted to do something completely different and volunteered for a week to help in the restoration of the Rock of Ages Lighthouse, located fifteen miles off of Isle Royale in Lake Superior.

Most of her time there was working on a nearby island, providing support for the team that, level by level, will be bringing the lighthouse back to life.  But she also got to visit the structure.

It was a step back into another era for her.  Everyone stayed in an old fishing cabin, without electricity or running water.  She’d fetch water from the lake for purification, work to make the cabin hospitable (she was there the first week it was opened), help with food, and (knowing her) make everything feel like home.

Away from the distractions of mobile phones and blaring media and general hubbub, she got to pause and reflect.  And see the stars.

In the fall, the volunteers gathered again, at the iconic Split Rock Lighthouse, where each November the names of those who died on the Edmund Fitzgerald are read as a ship’s bell tolls.  The romance of a lighthouse always has a whisper of a wish:  “Bring them home.”

Sue’s experience has provided me with an opportunity to sing (repeatedly) the first couple of lines of “I Want to Marry a Lighthouse Keeper.”  That song by Erika Eigen, barely a minute long, is an exuberant bit from the wonderful soundtrack of the bizarre movie A Clockwork Orange.  It asks a question that I might too, “I’d love living in a lighthouse, how about you?”

The first full day of the On Being Gathering in February opened with a poem called “Lighthouse Keeping” by Kay Ryan.  It ends:  “It is intimate/and remote both/for the keeper/and those afloat.”  Hearing it at that moment, I had to shake my head (and wipe a tear) as the words washed over me.

A recent CBS Sunday Morning segment featured a public art project in Chicago through which the talents of people with disabilities are on display via 51 lighthouses that are spread throughout the city.  The project was organized by Chicago Lighthouse, “a social service organization which works on behalf of the visually-impaired, physically or emotionally challenged, and military veterans.”

The introduction to that piece talked about the lighthouses as “beacons of hope.”  In our own lives, there are lighthouse keepers who have kept the beacons of hope lit for us.  For months and years and lifetimes.

Sometimes, now and then, we look up to see those flashes of light sweeping across the horizon and wonder how they do it, how they always seem to be there for us when we need them.  But often we are blinded by our own ego and self-interest, not even seeing the beacon, not realizing that we need guidance or comfort or just a quiet bay away from the raging sea.

Perhaps you’ve had a parent or a sibling or a friend or a mentor or (as I have) a spouse who has been there, shining that light when the storms raged around you, so that you could get home.

Just think if we all did that for each other.


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on being

I wrote in the last posting about coming together with those who we know well.  Now it’s time to reflect back on a gathering of strangers that I attended in February.

We met amid the California redwoods for some time away from the tumult of everyday life, drawn there by a shared interest in On Being, a radio show and podcast that is hosted by Krista Tippett.  (It originated as Speaking of Faith, a weekly public radio broadcast about religion and spirituality.)

Tippett’s intelligence, empathy, warmth, and good humor make her a naturally good interviewer.  And her guests are always interesting, “ranging from poets to physicists, doctors to historians, artists to activists,” to quote Wikipedia.  And then some.

What do they talk about?  Life.  Being.  This human condition that we share, as individuals and as people of the world.

Tippett has spoken of three “animating questions” that guide her work:  “What does it mean to be human?  How do we want to live?  Who will we be to each other?”

For devoted listeners, three other questions come to mind, heard during a short blurb for the John Templeton Foundation, which provides funding for the show:  “Who are we?  Why are we here?  And where are we going?”

Those questions should be enough to keep us busy for awhile.  How about a lifetime?

To deal with the challenges of the real world, On Being (the show) has now blossomed into The On Being Project.  There are regular writings from a slate of fine columnists, new podcast formats, and initiatives regarding theology, poetry, and — most importantly — having civil conversations with each other.

The On Being Gathering was another facet in that expanding realm of activities, the first time that listeners had been invited to come together.  A few hundred attendees were selected from more than three thousand who had filled out applications, in which we answered questions about ourselves.  It was a joy to spend three days with one another.  (This page will give you some sense of the setting and the people.)

I can barely scratch the surface of the gathering in one blog post, so I’m bound to come back to themes and ideas from it in the months to come.  For now, here are a few impressions.

There was, more than anything, a sense of a dual purpose, which Tippett characterized as “inner life and outer presence.”  The solitary listener of On Being (like me) may grow more thoughtful and inspired in response to it, but is that enough?  Or, are we are called to go outside of ourselves to be “bridge people,” those “bearers of calm” in a world that normally caters to the most strident and divisive voices?

That requires, as Tippett said that weekend, “a desire to want to be present to each other, to actually want to understand.”  Those qualities are too often absent these days, as we’ve devolved into tribes that demean and avoid each other.  Engagement is risky — “Why are you talking with them?” you might be asked by one of your own — but progress doesn’t happen without risk and an acceptance of our need to walk forward together.

We have to meet people where they are, to listen to them, and to not view each interaction as a chance to convice them that our dogma is superior to theirs.  We hope they will do the same, but we can start with ourselves.

That said, we are here to make the world a better place, so we must not just go along to get along.  As one speaker said, “You need to be a good Samaritan, but you also need to change the conditions on the Jericho Road.”

I certainly saw that spirit among my fellow attendees.  They are doers, not just listeners.  Many of them have created organizations to tackle important projects, are volunteering their time helping others, and are actively working for needed change in their communities.  (I felt inadequate in comparison.)  While they came from different backgrounds and traditions, they share one obvious belief:  We are all in this together.

The speakers and interviewees were outstanding, among them a NASA scientist, a well-known actress, faith leaders, and a number of writers.  The beauty of language was on full display in poetry and phrases of inspiration, which fill the pages of my notebook from the gathering.

There were some small-world moments during the weekend.  By chance, I took a chair at lunch by a former colleague of my daughter, and later in the large auditorium, I found myself talking with a head and neck cancer doctor who had done research work for the man who headed up my treatment team.  Who knows how many other such connections could have happened; I’m thankful for the ones that did.

As it was, my imagination was sparked by being with so many interesting people.  Sitting next to a woman who was making beautiful art during one of the sessions, I got to see, just a little bit, through her eyes.

One day is particularly memorable for me.  I spent two hours in the afternoon and two hours in the evening just sitting around the fire talking with people, telling stories of our lives.  (One of those encounters led to an amazing evening a few weeks later, which I will write about at a later date.)  Despite the trappings of “civilization,” it was not that different from what our ancestors have been doing for millenia.

In one discussion during the weekend, Tippett said, “We’re so complicated and bizarre.”  We are, but fascinating and beautiful and full of possibilities too.

If we are to go on being, we have some questions to ponder and, ultimately, some choices to make.


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coming together

June was bracketed by reunions.  At the beginning of the month, Sue and I attended my 45th high school reunion.  At the end, there was a gathering of my mom’s family.

The dictionary I got when I graduated way back when has this as a definition of reunion:  “A gathering of the members of a group who have been separated.”

My classmates and I shared a time and place.  We were born within months of each other and found ourselves in or around Luverne, a small town on the prairie in southwest Minnesota.  Fate brought us together, but we dispersed after graduation, the daily interactions with each other becoming a thing of the past.  The web of relationships became a network of one-to-one connections, many of which faded away as the years went by (although some have been revived via social media).

More than ten percent of the members of my class of 135 have passed away.  A year ago, I had reached out to someone about the arrangements for the reunion.  He responded, “Hope to see an old friend of 50 years.”  But he died suddenly in the fall.

I was tapped to lead a little program at the reunion.  Reading the names of those no longer with us was emotional for me; at one point I had to start over.  I knew them all, in one way or another, and some very well.

The other time my voice broke was when I was acknowledging the attendance of a friend who meant a great deal to me; I hadn’t seen him in over four decades.  What a joy to be with him after all these years.

Of course, there were a lot of people who couldn’t attend because of conflicts, and others who chose not to, for whatever reasons.

I remember talking with a classmate many years ago about coming to the next reunion we would have.  He said, “High school wasn’t that great of a time for me.”  Coming together for him may have meant opening old wounds.

Two years ago, I read a piece in the StarTribune titled, “Too late for kindness: Why didn’t I protect a bullied classmate in high school?”  It gets to me every time I read it.  “To my effin’ grave,” the author lamented in the last line, talking about the regrets he carries for the treatment of “the class oddball,” now gone.

The theme of the yearbook when we were seniors was “there is a season.”  The famous words from Ecclesiastes were interspersed with pictures from the big world out there and from the little world we inhabited.  Having lived these many years, the theme is no longer an abstraction.  To be sure, our personal ups and downs couldn’t all be covered in the brief conversations during our short evening together, but we knew that we had all been through a lot.  That made the gathering even sweeter.

A date has already been set to celebrate a half-century since we first went our separate ways, but we left not knowing what the future holds for any of us.

Four weeks after that night, we spent a great weekend with relatives.  Speaking of fate, the words of To Kill a Mockingbird apply:  “You can choose your friends but you sho’ can’t choose your family, an’ they’re still kin to you no matter whether you acknowledge ’em or not, and it makes you look right silly when you don’t.”

My mom was the oldest of six children who grew up in the tiny town of Rogers, North Dakota, founded at the intersection of two rail lines.  We met there, sixty or so of us, ranging in age from more than ninety to less than one.  My mom and her youngest sibling, Uncle Danny, are no longer living, although they were there in pictures and stories and memories of what once was.

Unlike at the class reunion, with this group you could see the sweep of generations.  You could notice familiar features and mannerisms among the young and old.

Some members of the family live in close proximity.  Many of us do not, but we’ve managed to keep in touch pretty well and see each other as often as we can.  Most of us are clustered in the Midwest, although we range from coast to coast.

Among us, we manage to tag each end of the political spectrum and spots in between.  “No politics!” my grandmother said decades ago in trying to head off some trouble, not knowing that today’s standoffs would be more harsh than ever and sometimes tear families and friends apart.  Thankfully, that scrum was left out of both of the reunions we attended in June.  We could see each other as people, not as opinions.

It’s hard not to get misty-eyed when reflecting on those who have shaped you, who have seen you at your best and worst — and who, despite your failings, would be there for you if you needed help.  They moved me and molded me in innumerable ways.  I’m sure I haven’t thanked them enough.


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back at it

A couple of years ago, I was treated for cancer on the base of my tongue.  Thankfully, it’s gone and I am doing well.

When I was diagnosed, I found that the communication demands of the job at hand were greater than I had expected.  So, I decided to send out a newsletter now and again to keep everyone informed.

I’ve probably written close to a million words for publication in my time, but almost all of them have been for “work.”  Most have appeared on my own sites, but at times I have written for other organizations, newspapers, magazines, and websites.  So, writing was not new to me when I started my cancer chronicles but the topics were — and, for the most part, the readers following along were new as well.

In truth, it didn’t take long for those newsletters, billed as “Tom’s health updates,” to become dominated by “Tom’s ruminations on life.”  (“Surprise, surprise,” said a former co-worker months later when I told her that.  Apparently I had a reputation.)

Based upon the replies that I received, it was clear that the dispatches struck a chord for many people.  And, since then, I have had more than one person (somewhat sheepishly) tell me that they wished I was still writing.  “Don’t take this wrong,” they’d say, “I don’t want you to get sick again, but I miss your updates.”

So this blog is a return of sorts.  I’m under no illusion that it will generate the same level of interest as my earlier efforts.  The new narrative – aging man seeks to send his thoughts out to the world – isn’t very compelling when compared to the previous one.  But if I’m able to be as open about this human’s condition as I was the last time around, maybe something will resonate with you.  It’s surprising what can happen when we share our thoughts with each other.

“I’m curious about a lot of things,” someone wrote recently.  Me too.  There will be a little bit of everything in the postings to come.  If you stick around and read a few (sign up here to get the postings delivered to your inbox), maybe you’ll find something of interest.  Please forgive my clunkers along the way.

No doubt the aging-man perspective will color some of the postings; it’s just where I am.  The poet George Oppen once said, “What a strange thing to happen to a little boy.”  I feel the same way.

But hopefully that sentiment won’t dominate the stories ahead.  There’s too much life to live and too many important things to write about to dwell too heavily on the passage of time.

In January, a bottle was found on an Australian beach.  It had a message inside, in German, from 1886.  There were thousands of such bottles tossed into the ocean over the course of more than sixty years, in an effort by Germany to study ocean currents.  None of the bottles had been reported found since 1934.

Perhaps someone will find my writing, hereby dropped into the ocean of cyberspace, more than a hundred years from now.  In the meantime, the messages are for you.  Let me know what you think.


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