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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