Not a harbor

Annisquam Lighthouse, Cape Ann, Gloucester, Massachusetts, September 2012

Annisquam Lighthouse, Cape Ann, Gloucester, Massachusetts, September 2012

“The past is a lighthouse, not a harbor.” — origin unknown

Change can be difficult even for those of us who crave novelty.  It’s especially frightening when we are brought face-to-face with our own mortality, or that of someone we love.  If we have been blessed with happy memories to treasure, letting go can be almost unbearable to contemplate.

When unwanted change or loss is forced upon us, it helps if we take solace in our gratitude for what we’ve had in the past, and allow that foundation to give us strength to face whatever the future brings.  The blessings of our life are a bright light shining to guide the uncertain way ahead and bathing us in glowing warmth.

On the other hand, if we have predominantly unhappy memories, it is all too tempting to withdraw into our pain and resentment.  We may use our anguish as an excuse to harbor ourselves from further sorrow.  Again, the lighthouse is a helpful metaphor.  So many — maybe even most — of the great works of art and literature, as well as other forms of human progress, have come directly in response to suffering.  Grief can be a helpful teacher no matter how unwanted the lessons.

When I look back on the painful aspects of my past, I know that I have learned at least as much from my difficulties as I have from my accomplishments and joys.  The full spectrum of past experiences, from horrible to heavenly, have something helpful to contribute to my future.  It may take years to fully realize the depth of life’s blessings, or to appreciate the wisdom that has come from sadness.  But the lighthouse remains, beaming across the distance, even when the waves are too rough to allow me an uninterrupted view of its illumination.

This post was originally published seven years ago today. The original post, comments and photo are linked, along with two other related posts, below. These links to related posts, and their thumbnail photos, do not appear in the blog feed; they are only visible when viewing the individual posts by clicking on each one. I have no idea why, nor do I know how they choose the related posts. That’s just the way WordPress does things.


  1. Judy from Pennsylvania

    Hi Julia,

    I continue to be amazed at the blog entries you’ve composed, all of them combining beautiful photographs with words of deep wisdom. Usually I visit your site here just every few days and then I catch up with reading them, often more than once just to soak up all that each one contains. Thank you for continuing to post these treasures from you files.

    I hope you and Matt are doing well despite the unprecedented upheavals in your life and the lives of all of us. As I recall what my parents and grandparents said about the shocks of The Great Depression and the then Pearl Harbor and WWII, this seems at least equal to that but it has hit all at once. Your first two paragraphs today seem uncannily relevant.

    To me, the lighthouse is a symbol of my faith in God.

    Have a blessed day, and may we all find joy in even the smallest of our many blessings.

    • Hi Judy, sorry I’m late getting to this comment. It somehow ended up in the spam comments; I have no idea how or why it got there. Just when I’m sick of scanning through the spam comments with all sorts of ads for bogus and/or obscene “products” instead of just bulk deleting all the spam, I find the odd comment from a genuine reader who somehow ended up in spam.

      Thanks for your kind words about the blog. I saw where someone had written that this is like the Great Depression and The Spanish Flu combined into one terrible storm. We’ll keep hanging in there and pray that it passes soon. Incidentally, on the video you linked, I recognized some of the lighthouses (including Pigeon Point, a photo of which I’ve posted here) and in a minute or two, I recognized that the song, which I’d never heard before, is a version of a tune that I used to hear Jeff singing to himself. ❤ Thanks for being here with us!

  2. Good morning, Julia!
    Wow, what a great metaphor! I had not thought of my past as a lighthouse, but I can see now that it is, as it provides both illumination to look forward, and also a solid foundation, from which I have pushed off.
    While some people may not have had quite as firm a foundation from the start (or could have had a solidly negative start), it is easier to launch one’s self into life from solidity than from chaos or stagnation, and the water is more fresh and alive out in the open sea.

    • Yes, foundations are so important. And I think most of us, despite whatever dysfunction may lie in our past circumstances (and I think almost everyone has at least some) also have many points of stability to guide us. It’s important to focus on what is right about our history and not get mired in what was less than ideal. We can certainly be grateful that illumination comes from both good and bad experiences.

  3. Julia, have you stopped blogging? I hope you are doing well and managing your health during these challenging times. I’m still recovering from major foot surgery, so I’ve moved from six weeks of couch isolation to the “were all in this together” covid isolation. Be well.

    • Hi Alys, how wonderful to see you here! Oh dear, I’m afraid I didn’t know you had surgery (or maybe knew but it got lost in the flood of events). I did know that you had had some problems with that foot. I hope you are feeling much better now. Yes, I made the decision to quit blogging some time ago. My last original post was on November 4 of last year. But my “backlist” was so deep at 1100+, and so many had written me to ask if all was OK, that I decided to re-post the old ones, at least for the time being. I have forgotten most of what I wrote and published, so I figured almost everyone else has too! And of course there are many new readers who were not with us in those early years. At the time I quit, I didn’t know whether it would be a permanent decision, so I didn’t publish any sort of swan song saying “this is my last post.” For now, re-posting seems a good alternative. There is much more I could say on the topic (I can just hear some who know me well saying “When do you NOT have much more to say?” 🙂 ), but that’s another discussion for another time…Thanks so much for checking in! You are precious to me.

      • I had a torn tendon in my left foot and was awaiting surgery in early December when I slipped on a client’s wet floor and fell hard. At the time I thought I had broken my elbow and of course, the shooting pain in my foot got worse. In the end, she had to repair two shredded tendons with stitching and grafting. The muscle wall started encroaching into the damaged area and I had a lot of scar tissue so she cleaned that us as well. They drilled a couple of holes in the ankle bone and put in a “safety belt”, a sort of permanent suture to strengthen the ankle. It’s been a long and painful recovery, fully off my feel for six weeks. It’s now week eight and I”m finally walking with an air boot.

        How are you filling your days?

        • Oh dear Alys, that sounds like quite an ordeal. I hope you are experiencing rapid recovery at this point. How do I fill my days? The question makes me smile. One thing that did not change in this new phase of my life (as a widow) is that I NEVER have as much time as I’d like, especially now that Jeff is not here to help with anything. But to give a more specific answer: I am still managing two large homes by myself, with the help of reliable lawn care guys, and still enjoying being able to divide my time between them. I am spending time with friends as I can, although that has mostly gone digital lately. I am planning (and then as it turned out, mostly cancelling) several exciting trips that hopefully will be rescheduled at some point. I’m caring for Matt full time at my home(s) during the shutdown, by my own choice now that his program and volunteer library job are, like everything else, closed, and his sponsored care provider is having to home-school her children and care for the other young man with disabilities in the home where Matt normally lives on weekdays. And I’m gradually, lovingly clearing and sorting and parting with the accumulated possessions and memories of over 60 years, allowing myself the luxury of taking all the time I want to get it done. I’m still enjoying books and music, and lately have been making more time for cinema. I’m walking outdoors more since the shutdown than I have at any point since Jeff died. Since the shutdown, I’m meeting with my church family online now instead of in person– which as it turns out, has the added benefit of enabling me to meet with more than one church family, since most all the churches I’ve been part of are now streaming their services. I’m sure I’m leaving out something, but this is more than enough! 😀 How about you? What are you eager to resume after your foot heals and the world gets back to something that passes for normal?

          • It’s nice to hear that at some point, Matt will have both a program and a part-time library gig to return to. It must give his days purpose. I’m sorry he’s had to forgo it all for now. I think that’s the challenge for many of us: the loss of routine. I miss volunteering downtown with homeless women. I spent two or three afternoons a week there, in addition to serving as board vice-chair and offering support to our ED. I miss working with organizing clients, and I miss (for different reasons) free mobility. I long for a hike or a long walk, but even twenty minutes around the block sends me scattering for an icepack and an Ibufrofen.

            Two large homes sounds like a lot for one person. Our house is only 1,800 square feet, all on one floor, and very easy to maintain, so that makes life easy. I’m sorry you had to cancel travel. We’ve had to cancel my niece’s college graduation in May and we’re not able to visit Mac at university. I mostly worry about all the folks we know that are out of a job, people who cut hair, teach exercise classes, perform in theater, etc. They’re all suddenly caught flat-footed without any good alternatives. Silicon Valley is an epicenter of the Covid-19 outbreak, so we’re following the rules and being careful, trying to do our part to flatten the curve. I have two friends and a client, all nurses, carrying a heavy burden. I can’t begin to imagine what a day is like in the hospital under such stressful conditions.

            • Alys, I hope that your ability to walk without pain gets better as this strange way of life drags on with no immediate end in sight. Walking has helped Matt and me so much. There’s something about getting outside in the daylight, greeting neighbors (from a distance, of course) and seeing the trees and sky that combine to make the stay-at-home order easier to bear. Yes, our health care workers face a tremendous burden. I spoke this morning with a dear friend who is a nurse. She is not easily rattled but she says it’s getting really scary. And my heart breaks for all the people who have worked so hard to build a career or a business only to see it all shattered with very little chance to prepare. How frustrating that we need their services almost as much as they need to be working, yet we are shut off from each other for now. Life is so fragile, but aside from outright war, I never dreamed so much could change so quickly.

              Your home is almost exactly the size of our home on the central coast, 1990-1993, and those were the happiest years of our lives. I remember we had just had to sell a lovely, brand new home when Jeff got orders to California. It was much larger than the aging home on base we were assigned, which first looked unbearably shabby and small to me. But in less than a week– really only 2-3 days– I was happier than ever and loving it. The storage areas were very good, we made it our own, and as you say, it was much easier to maintain, though I had to do some heroic cleaning at first. I remember thinking that in California, we spent so much time outdoors that we really didn’t need a lot of house. I am gradually getting myself ready to sell the York home. It’s over half empty now. But I still enjoy being there in the neighborhood I’ve loved for over 16 years, with all the same neighbors (except for one house that recently sold to a lovely young family) that have been there since we first moved there. In this shutdown, it’s nice to be able to go back and forth between the two. It gives us a change of scenery, and the infection rate in York County is much lower than in NoVa, though it’s climbing. Plus I love being able to work in the yard (our York lot is much larger) and it’s more therapeutic than ever. Also, home values, although they may have declined a bit, haven’t crashed nearly as much as many other investments thus far. So for now, it’s good I haven’t sold it yet. But you’re right, I have way more house than I need. I didn’t really plan it that way, but life throws us many curve balls.

  4. mike c

    1100 on the back list. Finally made it out to Gibb’s garden for the first time and caught the Daffodills in full splendor. All 1.232 million of them. I tried to send a pict out to you of one of their magnificent Contorted filberts. Here the garden club is on hold, as are many other things. I am worried about my youngest son in NYC. But at least he is not commuting on the subway for now. Did i mention he is a PHD candidate in Education? I guess the home schooling is going OK. We can’t visit Norah or JoJo for the time being and that is painful. I am still going to work ,but dom’t know how for how much longer. I think Governor Kemp is getting close to calling for a state shut down- though I understand there are some counties with few cases indeed. Who could have ever predicted this onslaught?

    • Wow, how cool that you finally made it to Gibbs garden. As you know, daffodils just multiply more and more over the years, so it is destined to get even more fabulous over time. Still, someone put an awful lot of work into it, so we are lucky to be able to enjoy it. I did get the photo of the contorted filbert. Do the filbert nuts grow on such a tree? I don’t blame you for being worried about your son in NYC. I didn’t remember about him being in school, though you may have told me at some point. Hopefully he can continue that from home. I never see my grandsons at all, so the pain is something I am used to now that their parents are totally estranged from us, and the shutdown has not made a difference for me in that respect. As with other forms of grief, one eventually has to move on. As far as who could have predicted this pandemic and the chaos it has wrought, actually several scientists did, at least as far back as 2007 when the authors of this article specifically called the eating of bats and other exotic animals that carry coronaviruses “a time bomb.” (See page 683 of this lengthy scientific article — it’s not 683 pages long– it’s “only” 35, but it is paginated for the Clinical Microbiology Review, in which it appears.)

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