We Shall Not Be Going to the Lighthouse Today

I saw five lighthouses today, and at each one, I told my children that “We shall not be going to the lighthouse today”, and every single time, they almost started crying. I’ve been laughing about this, in an extremely immature fashion, but I’m also sad about how I can’t seem to stop joking about this thing that hurts them, even if it’s transitory and easily remedied by the fact of real lighthouses blow over by a clear, cold wind. Ah.


We’re walking back on the lakewall and I meet Mum with her dogs. The boy is running ahead, his head full of the lake and its tidepools and wind. The girl and my husband are lagging, her short legs in almost comic contrast with his long swinging stride. Mum and I talk about the wind, which is palpable and cold. It pushes, insistent, but with an insistence that is less gentle than the similarly palpable sun. We talk of our separate walks: she to the point, we to the lighthouse.

The girl is mad for the lighthouse. She has demanded that we return this morning, despite our carefully worded choice to her: the lighthouse or the island. She chose the island, but returning by the lakewall she saw it again. We give in, and go, but I say it again, the horrible joke, the unfunny untruth, “We shall not be going to the lighthouse today.” She doesn’t hear me; she is far ahead, running, and I shout her back to hold my hand. The narrowness of the wall, her short legs, the insistent wind. I imagine the cold of the water, how horrible it would be to jump down and fish her out. No need to think of this. Her hand is small and warms my palm.

I don’t know how I work this into conversation with Mum on the lakewall on the way back. There’s a conversation before this about the dogs, their age. “To the Lighthousetakes place on the Hebrides, you know. I’m assuming Skye; the outer ones are too remote.” She and I have been to Skye, and the Uists ten years ago, no almost fifteen, the two of us in a car going from London where I’d spent a semester. Fifty miles from Hadrian’s wall, I, the map reader because I couldn’t drive on the wrong side, I saw a little triangle on the map that read “Carrawburgh, Temple of Mithras,” and began repeating this phrase at every opportunity, in the boomingest voice my lungs could muster.

We went. How could we not? It was Carrawburgh, Temple of Mithras. There was a small gravel car park, and a fence with a cattle grate, and cattle on the other side. In the car park was a German couple in a small car, having a fight. It ended with him stalking off to the ruins and her steaming in the car. We walked around the ruins, although the word “ruins” implies it was something other than a stone square on the ground with the roughest rock hint of an altar. Roman soldiers sacrificed bulls here, bathed in their blood, fortified themselves against the blue-streaked bodies of the Picts just over the wall. Now it was a stone page left carelessly in the grass. We read what we can.

On South Uist, the nearest of the outer Hebrides, it was just past mid-summer, and the sun was nearly constant, as close as we were to the arctic circle. The wind was not insistent, but demanding. The wind was cold and salty, and the land rose and fell with the tides. The sea continues to surprise me when I’m near it, raised as I was with a lake, The Lake, the Lake Superior, which crashes and gurgles like a sea, which kills and rages, but doesn’t breathe or slop. The sea never stills to glass. Archaeologists were excavating the home of Flora MacDonald, who housed Bonny Prince Charlie on his failed, bloody foray into Scotland. I wore everything I owned and the wind still poked its cold fingers through the weave of my clothes. The Ramsay’s house is somewhere just around the corner now, a ghost house, broken slowly by the wind, by the sea air. It lays like a page on the ground, but uncleared by archaeologists, so that the stone sleeps beneath earth and the harsh moss & winking heather. Keep the doors closed and the windows open.

The night before we’d sat around in the small trailer and talked about The Lighthouse. That afternoon I put down the cross stitch I only seem to work on in the car and read the first section. I tell Mum that I didn’t really get it as a freshman, when I read this first. Back at 19, I re-read the first six pages several times, because I simply couldn’t believe that I’d decided James was the protagonist, and then it turns out there is no protagonist, or all are protagonists. The society is the protagonist, the family, maybe. But not the term “society” that implies detachment, sociology, an idea of order as seen from above. But this time, the stream of consciousness felt easy, unforced, intuitive. I had invited Mum to join the group read when it started, but she talks now about how she couldn’t revisit this sadness, how she wept at this book when she read it in grad school. My husband asks why it’s so sad and I can see my mother’s eyes become reflective when she talks of the loss of Mrs. Ramsey. That she could die! That she could live and then die!

I’m thinking of Grandma Fran suddenly, my mother’s mother, who died, and her loss is a great lake of still, saltless water somewhere under my lungs that makes it hard to speak. Maybe Mum is thinking of her too, but she has her own lake, and it goes unmentioned. We talk about Joyce, and Ulysses, how Modernism often relies too heavily on the Classical mythology in ways that make it opaque to me. I express how surprised I was that the Stephen Dedalus of Ulysses was the same person as the one in Portrait of the Artist, how one captured something about my adolescence, and the other was kind of a jerk. I say that I didn’t understand the politics in Ulysses because I’m a bad student of history. Like, who is Parnell?

Mum leans forward. “But what about the dinner table fight about Parnell in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man?” Oh, but I get that entirely! The emotional reality of the argument wasn’t about politics at all, and I saw myself blinking through Stephen’s eyes at the domestic rage that is the sister of the political. Here is where we can talk about Grandma, about her Mum, who is the same woman, but in parallax. We talk about Grandma Fran and her sister, devout Old World Catholics both in their different ways, and how Grandma loved to take big swings at the Pope at the dinner table that were designed to connect with Aunt Helen’s devotion. The men would leave the table as quick as they could. One cannot catalog the history of a family like the dates and battles of history; it will not run linearly. The way Woolf breaks our consciousness into separate, connected, ruptured understandings that flow from one eye to the other – this is the web of my mind.

Earlier the woman at the coffee shop told me there was a nesting killdeer, which is a shore-bird with the long, funny legs and rock-like plumage, living right near the start of the lakewall that leads to the lighthouse. To protect their nests they fake a broken wing, dragging it lamely on the ground, to lure the predator away. I’ve forgotten to look for her on our way out, our way in. Her eggs are there, somewhere, living rocks in with the more placid ones. Why do I want to find her and provoke her automatic response? Maybe because she shields her babies with a brokenness I understand, until the predator moves far enough away and she flies. She flies. 

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