“It might have been the lighthouse spark / Some sailor, rowing in the dark, / Had importuned to see!” – Emily Dickinson
Kevan Manwaring discusses how a late summer camping trip to Cornwall inspired a profound shift into what he calls ‘lighthouse awareness’.
It was the end of the summer and I was determined to grab a last blast of sun before knuckling down to the new term, and so I headed to Cornwall – the wild, wave-besieged peninsula in the southwest of England. I wanted to blow the cobwebs away with some bracing coastal walks, camping in remote spots, and some wild swimming. I didn’t expect to have an ‘epiphany’, which has if not made me change my life, certainly made me change my priorities — the ‘myth’ I live by if you will (I took some Joseph Campbell with me), my modus operandi.
Gazing out across the glittering sea from a rocky headland it is hard not to think big thoughts — any coastline is the perfect place for some ‘blue sky thinking’, because the land falls away and the sea- and skyscape dominates. Also, there is a quality of light by the sea — a heightened effulgence caused by the sun’s beams reflecting off the water. It often feels like something is trying to break through: an immanence that is simultaneously beyond words, but also wishes to be expressed through you (maybe this is something writers feel in particular: artists might wish to paint it, dancers dance it, composers compose it, and so on). One can see why throughout the millennia mystics and visionaries have sought out such places. They are thin places where one feels closer to something transcendental. It is though something vast, ageless, and more-than-human is trying to communicate to us through a sunset, a ‘glisk’ of light (when a shaft of sunlight breaks through a cloud), the silent poetry of a soaring seabird, or the endless susurration of the waves and wind.
And so it is not surprising I started to have some ‘big’ thoughts after a couple of days of peaceful walking and swimming, when I tried not to think about anything in particular at all – but just ‘be’ fully present, in my body, in the moment: sun on my skin, wind in my hair, sand between my toes. Surrendering to it all. Letting myself be held by the swell of the waves, rising and falling like a giant’s chest.
As I walked along the cliff-top path one day around the Lizard Peninsula — where stunning lighthouses and lifeboat stations added dramatic points of interest on my walk — an idea came to me.
Forgive me if it sounds crazy, or blindingly obvious.
The sea is Spirit – it surrounds and affects everything. The land is Matter, which ‘matters’ while we’re alive (I believe we have bodies on this beautiful, broken Earth for a reason: to savour every second of the amazing, unlikely miracle of it all). The two are in constant conversation — on Earth the two collide or collude in us. Neither should dominate. The sea shapes the land; the land shapes the sea – neither ‘wins’. In the dance is the wild beauty of being alive.
So far, so good.
But sometimes some souls never quite make landfall in this life – they are ‘lost’ at sea, floundering in a fog of confusion, the classic Cloud of Unknowing. Or worse, they are suffering in a tempest, threatened to be smashed to smithereens. And so we need lighthouses – people and organisations willing to help these souls reach dry land. This may be as simple as a friendly ear, a cuppa, a hug, an act of kindness. Just being there. Listening. Not offering solutions or judgements. These ‘lighthouse moments’ may happen quietly throughout the day – in the way we choose to respond to an email, a comment; the way we choose to notice when someone seems ‘down’, when you sense all is not well. When we choose being kind over being correct. Other over ego. The selfless instead of the selfish. It isn’t about being saints though, or martyrs – just being ‘there’, a solid (or yielding), reliable, non-judgemental presence. We can be ‘lighthouses’ by just being who we are, by being role models and walking our talk. By helping others to shine. By offering the advice when asked for. Pointing the way. Sharing opportunities. Sending the lift back down, and holding open doors so the way is easier for those who come after us.
Sometimes, in extremis, we have to make direct interventions too – so, to extend the coastal metaphor, there are times in life when we need to be ‘lifeboats’. As a writer I would like to think of my writing as (ideally) a kind of lifeboat, to guide those ‘at sea’ safely ashore. A single poem can do this. A story that suddenly gives us a perspective, or a myth to live by. Someone understands what we’re going through. We are no longer alone. A hand reaches out and grabs you from the water. You weren’t waving, but drowning. But now you are saved. Works of art can be ‘lifeboats’: it could be an album, a painting, a symphony, a sculpture, a stained glass window, an installation, a podcast … anything. Remember all of the times you have found solace in something – a favourite book, film, poem, or garden. Let us make lifeboats, and let us be lighthouses. One day we may need that light, or lifeline, to guide us to safety. And even if we don’t we would still have led a good life – a brief, bright pulse in the dark – before we return to the sea’s embrace.
Kevan Manwaring, 3rd October 2021
Of course, the amazing courageous volunteers of the RNLI are helping lives at sea in a very real way and deserve our praise and support. Donate here: https://rnli.org/