Driving along the curving ocean road, the cliffs to my right and the crashing waves to my left, I head north, wondering who it is I’ve become.
Chartreuse succulents with purple flowers line the highway and I see a sign for a lighthouse turnout. I pull into the dirt parking lot and see the trail that winds along the rocks and the plants, twisting out to a lighthouse on the edge of a cliff; painted white and red, the glass at the top reflecting the sun’s light.
I wear so many titles; wife, mother, writer, artist, teacher, chef, maid. Wear each like a uniform, often dirty without time to throw it in the wash. I keep pulling these identities over my head.
There is an old worn sign, 2.3 miles at the trail head. The cold wind whips my hair around my face and I clip it into a bun. The sun is warm against my skin, contradicting the wind. Just as I am a contradiction, a little piece of many opposing stories.
Before I threw my things in the truck, before I started driving up the California coast, I called my friend and told her that I no longer knew who I wanted to be. She blamed motherhood and my dedication to my child; prefacing that it was not “bad” but that I had left no room in that relationship for me. It feels like a backhanded compliment; you were such a brilliant mom that you stopped existing as anything else. Why does it feel like an insult?
I disagreed. Still disagree. Will probably always disagree.
My muscles are tired from the driving. I stretch as I walk along the trail. The flowered ocean fauna is sprinkled with tiny lady bugs. A flock of cormorants sun themselves along the crags beyond the cliff edge. I look at the inside of my wrist, a tattooed reminder of my creativity, my muse. A tattooed reminder of who I am, who I thought I was, who I will someday become.
You see, motherhood has not been about letting myself go. It has not been about losing myself. It has been about becoming something more, someone more. That is part of my question, who am I today? Who am I when all these puzzle pieces pull together and create something larger, something more than they were individually.
I am not going through this question of identity simply because my daughter is starting her own life. The truth is, I have never known.
I get bored with identity.
I can feel the skin on my neck beginning to burn, despite the ice of the wind. My skin has always been a sort of villain in my story, blistering and rebelling, crying out as if the sun were pricking it with daggers. I keep going. I am closer to the lighthouse now and can hide inside, give my skin a moment to convene with the shadows.
The lighthouse is small, perhaps only two stories tall with a lean-to type building on either side of the tower. A small straw colored cat sits on the steps leading into the lighthouse, holding a mouse in her mouth.
“Hello, friend,” I say to her.
She drops the mouse which scurries along the step, only to be stopped by a small orange kitten, batting and playing and practicing.
The mother cat mews at me, gracefully moving from the steps and rubbing against my legs.
I squat down to scratch her neck, morphing her body to fit into the curve of my hand. Her purr is louder than the wind or the waves.
“She likes you.”
I jump a bit, having lost myself in the moment of affection. Standing in the door is an ancient man, the lines carved deep beneath a grey shaggy beard. He’s wearing faded overalls over a thick sweater, a black knit beanie on his head and an unlit pipe hanging from his mouth. His eyes twinkle and dance.
“Sorry to scare you,” he says. “I see you met Cheetah. If she thinks you’re safe, you probably are. You might as well come on in.”
The moment he said the cat’s name, she pranced up the stairs and into the lighthouse. The kitten had it’s nose pressed up against a wooden crack, it’s tiny paw batting at something just out of reach. I smiled to myself, imagining the relief of the little mouse as it taunted the kitten beyond the lighthouse boards.
I stepped up the wooden planks into the lean-to style quarters attached to the tower; my eyes take a moment to adjust to the light. A small bed with thick woolen blankets neatly made sits in the corner. A small kitchen shares the room. There is no wall separating the room from the tower and I can see the spiral of the stairs moving upward, tracing the inner walls. On the opposite side of the spiral stairs is another room filled with tools and what appears to be containers of kerosine. A small round table with two cups and a steaming tea kettle sit in front of a window that looks out over the ocean.
“I’m sorry, I thought this was a museum?”
The old man chuckles. “Aye, it is. You might call it a working museum. I show people around. But you’re the only one today. Call me Abe.”
“Are you expecting someone?” I gesture to the cups of tea.
“Oh, I saw you coming some 20 minutes ago. I thought you might like a drink before you see the tower.”
I laughed, “Do you treat all your visitors like this?”
“Only the ones feeling the weight of the world.”
That makes me pause, and my face must show some sort of surprise.
“Oh, you wear it around your eyes. You don’t know who you are, you’re on some mission to discover yourself.”
“Is it that obvious?” I stutter, and suddenly I find myself holding my breath. I hadn’t realized how much tension I wore in my skin, how rigid I felt. I start to laugh.
Again, I see the twinkle in his eyes.
“Let’s have a bit of tea before you go up to see the lens and the view.”
We sat at his little table and for a few moments, we were just quiet. Cheetah curled up at the base of the bed and I could still hear her purring. The old man poured tea from the kettle, filling the little china cups to the brim. The tea smelled of herbs and had a golden glow. He began to drink and sat back into his chair, his eyes closed, in perfect contentment.
He’d poured us both from the same kettle and so I trusted that it must be safe. I took a sip and found myself relaxing, the tension is my shoulders letting go. The tea had an earthy taste, woody yet sweet.
“What is it?” I asked. “It’s almost familiar, but not quite.”
The old man kept his eyes closed, but responded as if it were a sacred secret.
“It is the root of one of the sea cliff plants. They grow in abundance, and you don’t need to kill the plant to take a bit of root. When you cut a bit, it seems to grow back faster. Or perhaps that is because I always thank the plant.”
We drink in silence for a few moments. Finally the old man opens his eyes to refill his cup. As he does, he says, “So, what is it you think you need to find?
“I’m not sure it’s finding anything,” I say. “It’s more that I feel like there is something I’m supposed to do, but I don’t know what that is.”
“Ahhh, the dilemma of purpose.”
“The dilemma of purpose?”
“Yes, some people walk through this world never giving it a thought. They just live their lives, work their jobs, and move through the experience. Some live their lives like it’s a cliffhanger, everything is a drama with a great climax. Some know their purpose from their earliest memories; they know they were meant to be a doctor or an actor or a writer or a pilot, and they do everything they can to achieve that. Some, like you, never quite know.”
“What am I supposed to do about that?”
“What do you want to do about that?”
That makes me pause. I take a sip of my tea.
“I don’t know?”
“What if you aren’t supposed to know? What if that is the great cosmic joke? What if the ones who want to know the most are the ones that spend their lives searching?”
“Well that isn’t very fair, is it?”
The old man laughed.
“Who said life was fair? What if this life is only the seed and you become a seeding in the next?”
“But I want to know what type of plant I’m growing into.”
“Does it matter?”
I thought about that for a moment.
“I don’t want to be a weed.”
“Weeds are only plants growing where someone doesn’t want them. Do you think you are a weed?”
I smiled, “No. I don’t think I’m a weed. And some of the most beautiful plants are considered weeds.”
“This tea, for example. There are many that rip it from the ground, but when we treat it with love, it helps us heal.” He took another sip.
We drank the rest of our cups in silence.
“Why don’t you go up to the light room and see what you see?” said the old man, Abe.
“Thank you for your kindness,” I said, still unsure on what my journey was but also feeling a sense of peace.
He walked me to the lighthouse stairs and patted me on the shoulder.
“May your journey be safe,” he said.
I look up the steep spiraling staircase. It seemed to go up and up, much taller than the two stories I saw from outside. I began to climb. With each step, I think about my life so far. I think about my gifts at the arts and at writing as a child. I remember falling in love with my husband, thinking he was my perfect match. I remember the birth of my daughter, and how much love I had in that moment. I remembered the moves, the trips, watching my family change over time.
I come to top and enter the inner gallery surrounded with glass. In the center sits the lens, ridged glass that focuses the light as it spins to warn sailors of danger. It is not moving now, not on this bright sunny day.
I turn to look through my reflection, through the glass at the top of the lighthouse–before me is the wild ocean, a rough world of hardship and beauty. And then I pull focus back to the woman staring back at me. Her freckles stand in hard relief from her skin, ruddy from the wind and sun. The lines have deepened around her eyes and through her forehead. Her lips have thinned and the hair at her temples has become white and kinked. She is also one of hardship and beauty, beaten by a rough world, softened by love and age.
I think about the man’s words, Abe’s words, “the dilemma of purpose”. It often sits on the tip of my tongue, an answer I just can’t quite find.
Perhaps this life, which has stretched late into my 40’s, has only just begun. Perhaps I am still only a seed with all my potential still before me. Perhaps this is not my only life and my only chance to get it right. Perhaps there are lives before me.
Perhaps I am here to just question.
I smile at the woman in the reflection, and turn to head down the stairs.
The climb down seems shorter, the floor comes more quickly. I hear voices talking and wonder how long I spent staring into the sea and my own reflection. As I come to the final turn, I realize a rope has been tied across the base of the stairs. The room is now painted bright white and where the bed had been is bookshelf next to a postcard rack. Where his table sat is a countertop with a register. A teenage girl sits behind the counter, staring intently at her phone.
“What are you doing up there!”
I turn and see a woman standing where there were once tools; now filled with glass cases and written descriptions. She is frozen behind her name tag, her face flushed. There is a family of four staring at me.
“You are not allowed up there!”
“I’m… I’m so sorry. There was a man here, and he told me I could go up.”
The look on the woman’s face changes from a sort of shock to red and angry.
“I have been here all day,” growled the woman as she marched over to the stairs. “There have been no men working today, and I would have seen you.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I spy a photo on the wall in black and white. It is of a middle-aged man in a thick sweater and overalls. He stands in front of the lighthouse with the ocean behind them, a small cat leans against his leg, posing for the image.
The woman sees my eyes shift.
“What are you looking at?”
“Him,” I said. “The man in the photo. He’s the one who told me to go up. He was much older, but it was definitely him. And that’s Cheetah, his cat.”
“That’s ridiculous,” said the woman, but her face had gone pale.
I walk to the photo.
There he stands, much younger, less lined. I traced my finger over the gray tones of his face.
Attached to the base of the frame was a little gold plaque;
Abraham J. Williams 1872 - 1965 The Keeper of the Lighthouse Serving 1893 - 1965 "May your journey be safe."
As I walked the path back to my car, the sun setting along the horizon, the fog rolling in, I looked back at the tower. The silhouette of a man stood up in gallery, preparing the light to guide the ships. I could see his grizzled beard. He raised his hand to me and I raised mine in return. The light of the lens lit up and began to turn.
This Week’s Prompt – The Dilemma of Purpose
17. The main character goes on a trip alone to gain perspective
Include: lighthouse, flock, muscle, sprinkle, insult, cliffhanger, cheetah, chartreuse, wrist, seedling
I had a tough week last week. Sometimes I am just overwhelmed with this idea of whether I am on the right path, whether I am doing whatever it is I’m supposed to be doing, and what my purpose even is. So the arrival of the prompt this week seemed like synchronicity.
When I started writing, I just started writing as me. I posed it as a “what if my daughter was in college and my husband was busy working and I just went on a road trip to try and discover who I am and what I will do next?” I dumped some of my thoughts and feelings into the keyboard, following the inspiration of the required words while still being within me as the character.
It was interesting that one of the words was “wrist”; how am I going to incorporate the word wrist, I thought? My inner wrist in the real world holds a tattoo of great importance to me, and that tattoo is important around my feelings of who I am. Perhaps my writing this week is helping me find the answers to my own questions, and that tattoo and the story behind it are perhaps part of my answers.
Whether it was this story, or my thoughts on who I am, this week did inspire me to take a new step in my art. I’m working on creating a second website, linking it to this one, that will highlight and offer professional prints as well as original pieces or my art. Is this my journey? I don’t know, but art and writing have always been a part of my path.
The idea that Abe wasn’t in our current time, or of this plane of reality, didn’t occur to me until I had basically finished the story. I originally had him in more of a museum like space and couldn’t figure out how she would say her goodbyes, or honestly that they would even have this philosophical discussion.
As I pondered their ending, it occurred to me that perhaps he was the spirit of the lighthouse. Perhaps he only came to those who needed a good talk and a good cup of tea. Perhaps, once she came down the stairs, she would see the museum as it really was.
One of my favorite books is “Jonathon Livingston Seagull”. I quite literally changed my life in high school. While I haven’t read it in many years, I recommended it to a local teacher a few weeks ago. This story has me feeling like I need to go back and read it. I think I found a certain inspiration there, even if that inspiration is some 30 years in my memory. It is a book on the philosophy of life and learning.
Finally, I leave you with of a picture of me and my grandpa Mike. The man in the story reminded me a bit of him, even without the bushy beard. Perhaps because we would always take him to Bodega Bay when we would go and visit him at his farm in Santa Rosa, and I imagine this lighthouse somewhere around that area. We used to sing his favorite silly songs as we drove. I think what reminds me of him the most is that my grandpa always had a twinkle in his eye.
I believe my love of words was passed down from my grandpa Mike, through my dad, directly to me. My grandpa was the first US born son of Russian immigrants, born in 1908. They were Molokan religious refugees, immigrating for freedom to follow their faith. Despite being raised in a Russian speaking community, and leaving school after the 6th grade, my grandpa loved words.
My dad recently showed me photo albums that my grandpa filled with quotes, philosophy, and jokes, cut from American magazines and newspapers. My dad also has note card boxes filled with 3×5 cards, covered in his favorite quotes. I did the same as I grew up, and still keep those journals. I honor my grandpa for this love.
If you liked this story, I hope you will share it with someone you love. Thank you for spending a bit of time with my thoughts, dear reader. If you’d like to read more, you can sign up for my weekly newsletter here.
Next Week’s Prompt
18. A child’s dream literally becomes true
Include: high school, captivate, portfolio, argyle, witness, fertile, eyebrow, pentagram, thirsty, guidance