#EssaySaturday USA 25 March: Sealight

Picture credit: Chris Ray

I never see the dawn, except in winter.

At my latitude, summer’s evenings last long. One tires, and cannot understand one’s ennui, for full daylight still bathes the sky. Time meanders, unhurriedly. The sea is calm and the sky is languid, yet the sun is jealous of its audience. It will not bow, nor give up the stage, and the stars repose behind its veil until late. At summer solstice, even deepest night carries a glow. And long ere I ever wake, the sun has topped the eagles in their flights.

The earth has seen trillions of dawns in its time, ever since the coming of Theia, the ancient planet that is no more. That intercourse of worlds, the orgastic past that year by year recedes behind us, set our globe spinning at a dizzying pace: a six-day re-crafting of our world in that apocalyptic genesis would have lasted but a single day and night in our contemporary age of human dominance and grief. And our reconstituted Gaia was, at first, far more tormentress than mother. (Earth’s first eon is called the Hadean, hell-on-earth.) But that same cosmic cataclysm also wrought our moon and birthed the tides that washed her primordial, sterile shores, suckling the nursery pools that would one day teem with life…. And one fine morning –


(April, come she will.) Barnacles make for good footing on the steep granite boulders that tumble down into the sea, if you have the right shoes. I set out in their direction this morning in a well-worn pair of boat shoes, first traversing the space between two neighbors’ houses, past the no-trespassing sign (“That’s alright, it’s for the tourists, not for us”), across the road (“Hold my hand, cars speed around that corner”), then along the dusty path through fields of grass and blossoming shrubs (“The bees won’t hurt you; they’re just here for the flowers”), onward to the brink of the lighthouse-bluff (“Kipper, stop pulling and I’ll let you off the leash; okay, now you can be an ibex”), and down the sandy cliff to the rocky shore (“Careful, Alex, stop bouncing and watch your step”). Iain has grown well past his nine years in body and in mind. He usually spends his time on these outings moodily poking a stick into the sand along the slope. Alex hasn’t yet turned five. He keeps close, but jumps and scrambles over the boulders with boundless energy, scaring me half-to-death. Kipper, at seventeen months still a gleefully incorrigible puppy, only recently realized that he can swim. (He fell in last week after spending a year’s worth of visits skittishly skirting the water’s edge, pining for the geese that mocked him with their honks from a hundred yards offshore.) This morning, as has become his new habit, he schussed down the cliff with abandon and is already paddling in the shallows, waiting impatiently for his humans to catch up and throw the first of many sticks for him to fetch, with his breed’s undauntable enthusiasm, from the sea. The barnacles somehow don’t bother him at all.

Tidepools festoon the curve of the craggy point below the lighthouse. The rocks form a jumbled amphitheater, descending from its bare topmost balcony to a first tier flecked with lichen, then a mezzanine gripped by the hardiest (or most foolhardy) of the barnacles and mussels, and finally descending to the orchestra stalls where their less bold brethren rub shoulders with the swimming fish, the skittering crabs, and the swaying kelp. In each pool, a separate drama plays twice daily. And even if there is no audience, the show never goes dark. It is a subtle production, and it does not call attention to itself. The dramatis personae are small, some even invisible. They are not loud, they do not flash with vibrant color, and they largely care not when a bumbling human passes by. Beyond the denizens of their own watery island, their concerns extend primarily to the Damoclesian threat of birds.

My three boys (with eight feet among them) have no interest in such things. The shortest lives moment by moment, the middle largely hour by hour, and the tallest broods on an interior, timeless realm. I brood as well, on the world’s strange turn of fate that has brought us to this serendipitous and surreal retreat. The idea of a vacation house seemed, for much of life, a mere fantasy. Even when we found ourselves privileged to afford it, it felt somehow fictional. This is not the life either of us had known as children. How did we come to have such possessions undeserved? They cannot be real. Yet for the past two years we have been making Sealight our own – the woven rope furniture, the nautical flags, the island sketches, the nature photographs, the lighthouse kitsch adorning walls and shelves. These were the fruits of good fortune and long hours and, some would say, of selling out. They were also salves for still-raw personal and familial griefs. But I won’t say any more about those, I think. In any case, this place has fast become our sanctuary from a continental world, a striving for some ideal fairyland that never existed, except in the desire of the imagination.

Yet it is real, too. When my career’s assaults on a fragile sanity became too much to bear, Sealight was there to allow the battered mind to breathe. When the Christmas season deposited a twentieth layer of sediment on my stratum of filial grief (he died in my arms at sixty-one, consumed within by a cancer so brief and merciless that I barely had time to learn its name), Sealight was there to blanket the flayed, naked soul with solstitial marine fogs and candlelit nights. And when, not long after we bought the place, a bereft mother orca navigated the waters offshore with her child’s corpse in unceasing vigil, Sealight knitted me to her. I remembered my final family trip with my dad before he died, when, in a small boat in these very seas, I met a relative of hers as a baby. He was playing in the sparkling summer waters in a century and an era now passed into history. (That calf also is no more, and his mother also lives on.) And as I followed the watery, funereal procession from afar for its seventeen agonizing days, I perceived afresh that we are not alone; that we share this world with other beings who love; that they, like we, have souls; and that they like we are gladdened by the sun’s kiss upon the water, thrilled by the birth of a child, and broken when farewell must come.

Now, I stare absently at a school of tiny fish in the nearest pool and remember all these things, as Kipper stands confused and dripping by my side, Alex searches for more sticks in the rocky crevices, and Iain muses on the unsteady hold of salt grass upon the sand dunes. We are not so different from the school of fish in their fragile tidal cloister. They wait for the tide to return and release them from the confinement of the pool. We wait for suspended time to return and release us from our island sanctuary, for the schools of children to play together again, for Stella to be with her colleagues once more, for a homecoming to the world we knew, all just exactly as we had known it. How long will it be? Another week? Another month? Perhaps even the end of May? No, surely not; April alone is cruel enough. We have embarked only on a transient retreat to our fortunate island shelter from a quick-passing storm. Or is this – the thought unbidden comes – a modern-day Decameron?

“Daddy, can we go?”

Silence. Reverie unpierced.

More loudly: “Daddy, I’m ready to go home now.”

Hmm? What’s that? Home. Where is home?


Our first homecoming was in June, but not to the world we knew, for nothing was as we had known it. The once-deserted city streets had seen crowds again, but not in quotidian pilgrimage to the temples of mammon. The flash-bang smoke testified otherwise, from Washington to Washington and in countless places between them. Our un-marched suburban cul-de-sac appeared just as before, but each strolling neighbor had become a visible face of the microscopic enemy. I found I could no longer run on the narrow footpaths I knew so well. My heart raced each time I passed close by another of my species. Most seemed (bafflingly) unconcerned. I took to zigzagging from side to side of the wide suburban streets to keep distant from them. Society had become more isolating than hermitage. Thus the summer sands drained slowly yet too-swiftly through the glass, and with them the hope that the world would rise again in fall. If we must still live alone, then (said I), let us go again to live among the fish and crabs. Let us see how much the fox kits, born in spring in a culvert down the lane, have grown. Let Kipper resume his tormenting of the neighborhood deer and his absurd ambition to catch the pair of bald eagles that perch upon the lighthouse. If we must yet wait, let us wait in communion with the mountain horizons-over-sea, and let us feel the kiss of the sun on the water once again.

(August, die she must.) Another morning. Though summer nears its end, the sun has made its presence too-well known before I wake, even before first light. Across water, across valley, past hills, in the lee beyond the eastern mountains, it has baked the parched pines. It has scorched the desiccated grass. And then a wind, and a spark, and ashes return again to ashes, dust to dust. One need not see the flames, nor feel their heat, nor even the heat of the sun, to know of them. The sea is all around us, the ripple of the waves remains in the ear, but the cacophony of the gulls and the geese falls silent. The low tide’s pungent, twice-diurnal perfume of renewal and decay goes missing. The mountains, whose towering stature renders them imposing even at a remove of many leagues, fade like clouds into the dun. Even the ever-present lighthouse, but a quarter-mile distant, loses its solidity. The sea is calm and the sky is languid, yet the air stinks in the nose and sticks in the throat and abrades the eyes. There will be no walks or sticks or tidepools today.

Picture credit: Chris Ray

Summers in this corner of the world are traditionally glorious. The pleasantly warm air and exuberant sunshine are (or were) the recompense for nine months of autumnal, hibernal, and vernal gloom. The breezes carry the siren calls of the mountains and the waves. The wildflowers bloom, the salmon run, the orca play, and by August the dark-of-night’s slow return reveals a creamy milky way arcing from horizon to horizon. Today, however, there will be an enforced estival hibernation. Our excursions outdoors will be limited to no more than fifteen minutes at a time, carefully scheduled to allow Kipper sufficient relief in the fewest outings possible. And even indoors the air will not be much better. We will each have smoked several imaginary cigars by bedtime.

I initially constructed the Big Ball Machine in the spring as a child’s play fort. Though it takes its name from an installation in a Dutch children’s museum across which we stumbled online, it is otherwise unique – a work crafted from the refuse of mass production into a handmade folly, the only one of its kind in the universe. The frame is built from wood scraps, and the rest is cardboard bound with duct tape. It has three window cut-outs and a functioning door (magnets serve as a latch; crumpled paper wrapped in tape serves as a knob, centrally positioned in hobbit-fashion). But the boys largely ignored it. So I began adding sloping cardboard tracks around it, descending its roof and weaving inside and out until they reached the floor, down which we rolled the miniature pool balls pilfered from the combination foosball-game table over which Santa had lost sleep two Christmas Eves before. Its complexity grows with each day’s boredom. Today, a new path will be added and the hours will pass slightly less interminably, while the world burns.

A virus drives humanity outdoors, where the breezes can waft it safely away. Then those breezes bring the smoke that drives us back in. Caution, the world seems to warn: Not intended for indoor or outdoor use. As I open the third roll of duct tape for this kinetic assembly of detritus, I wonder, is this all a cosmic joke?

“Can I get past you, Daddy?”

No movement.

Nudging: “I need to be where you are to test the track.”

“Oh. Sorry, Alex. Here, let me lift you up.”

“Thank you for the great new path on the Big Ball Machine, Daddy!”

Smiling, in spite of myself: “You’re welcome, Alex.” My God, I envy a five-year-old’s resilience, and ignorance.

My obsessive-compulsive tendencies outlast a child’s interest, even when that child shares my genes. Alex soon starts asking for screen time, and for a while I resist. Iain is building his own track on the Big Ball Machine, his style more improvisational and devil-may-care than my own. Soon enough, however, he joins Alex in the quest for another hit from the glowing rectangle-bong. Numbers prevail (two against one). But the designing, measuring, cutting, taping, testing, correcting, and repeating help to keep my mind (partly) off of the pea-souper in progress outside the windows. Still, I pause to check the AQI from time to time. Mid-200s. Shit.

I no longer reckon the future in expectation of a world we knew, nor of a timeline for its return. The pandemic will end, of course. Whether by means of vaccine or herd immunity or acclimatization to another endemic disease or even mass death, it will find a finish. But the parching, the burning, the cooking, the drowning of our globe – these will never end in our lifetime. At best, we will hold the crumbling world together with duct tape as each new crack appears. Until we don’t.

Eventually, the brown day begins to drift towards a charcoal evening. As the eleventh hour shades into the twelfth, I step out onto the deck. All is quiet. Still no call of birds. The sea lions, whose nightly bellows unfailingly carry for miles across the water from their haul-out rocks, have nothing to say. And the western sky is of blood. Not the blood of a fresh cut, flowing a vivacious cherry red. Nor the turquoise anoxic hue of tired corpuscles homeward bound up widening veins. Rather, an orange-brick mottle stretching outward from a central sun-clot in the evening air, at once subdued and garish. A hint of pink appears, just enough to satirize the idea of beauty. Then it is gone; the sun, defeated, sinks; but smoke remains to cloak the stars of night.


(September, I’ll remember.) Through early fall, we beat on against the current as the boys’ liquid crystal-filtered worlds unspool each day, waiting in our island redoubt for some sign that might portend society’s rebirth. Each night, we scrutinize infection statistics and political polls like ancient priests deciphering burnt entrails. But clairvoyance requires asking the right questions. One evening, I am startled by an unusual gasping noise. I glance down from my perch on the ladder, a strip of duct tape stretched between my hands, to see Stella in the doorway, crying.

“What happened?”

“RBG…. She just died.”

“My God.” There is nothing more to say.

On a Thursday in October, Iain’s school announces its triumphant return to in-person classes the following week. We duly clean, wash, fold, pack, double-check, load, set out, come back for forgotten items, then leave again (for real this time, dammit!) to catch the ferry to the mainland. By Sunday’s end we’ve settled back in at home, and our island idyll ebbs back into its mist of non-existence. Iain returns to school in person on Monday. For one day. Then his school closes once more. Neither his nor Alex’s would reopen again until spring.

And so, after weeks of sitting on the hallway floor outside Alex’s room, ready to spring into action should he have technical issues accessing kindergarten on a tablet, after counting down each agonizing day until an election that feels like opening the lid on Schrodinger’s cat, after watching the tragicomic onset of society’s slow unraveling in its wake, and after an unsociable suburban Thanksgiving meal that seems to epitomize the essence of our fruitless vigil, we heed the crepuscular island’s call once more, packing for a stay at least through mid-January (the earliest date, we’ve been assured, that schools might open again). Whatever else may be, Advent should at least feel a little adventurous.

Sealight is an upside-down house – the better to reverence the views. The elevated deck in the back looks out onto grassy fields dotted with gnarled firs and the thickly forested hill beyond them. The deck in front, which stretches along the whole upper floor, presents a panorama, anchored by twin mountain crest horizons far away: on the left, the foreground a tangle of islands and channels leading to the mainland; on the right, a strait with waters wide enough to hold pleasure boats, sailboats, fishing boats, freighters, tankers, and cruise liners, and still feel vast and wild as it fades towards the ocean beyond sight; in the middle, the austere lighthouse throne of the eagle couple surveying their watery realm and (on the clearest of days) the beautiful, superlative peak known locally simply as “The Mountain,” one hundred twenty-five miles to the south. Between these decks, the upper floor centers on the vaulted living room with its windowful façade, on the top ceiling beam of which I once hung nautical code flags spelling “Sealight” while balancing on a ladder perched precariously atop the bench on which Stella sat for my stability, cradling her face in her hands in terror (for my safety) and bemusement (at my idiocy).

The ten-foot tree stands proudly in the eastern corner, adorned with two generations of ornamental memories (a clay golden retriever in a doghouse labelled “Kipper” is among the most recent) and girdled by an electric train on the carpeted floor. Each window contains the approximation of a candle that (in theory) automatically turns on each day at four and off each evening at midnight. There is no fireplace; stockings hang from windowsills instead of a mantle.

Saturnalia. Outside, it is pitch-dark by four-thirty. On many evenings, gales howl off the strait, sometimes battering the windows with a frigid, driving rain. This evening is calm, the sky saturated with stars, the raw marine air bone-chilling despite its stillness. The boys have been tucked in and Kipper has had his final outing and the bedtime treats that are his self-evident and inalienable right. I stand on the back deck, shivering, and press the button to illuminate my watch. It has been twenty-two years, to the hour, since my father’s soul slipped through my embrace and left his inert body behind.

Picture credit: Chris Ray

Above, Cassiopeia points to a faint smudge. That is Andromeda, the farthest matter in space that is visible – just barely, on the darkest of nights – to the naked human eye. Its faint light comes from ten times as many stars as the number of all humans who have ever lived. The light we now behold shone from those stars in an age when Homo habilis was first beginning to use stone tools, sixty thousand times as long ago as I have been alive. Yet that span of two-and-a-half million years is less than one five-thousandth of the full sweep of time in our universe. These thoughts comfort me: my griefs and worries, the year’s sorrows, the world’s perils shrink to naught beside such grandeur. My spirit thus quieted, I go inside and prepare for bed.

The darkness is still complete when I awake the next morning at seven-thirty. It will be the boys’ last day of virtual class before the holiday break – as with all else this year, a surreal prospect, featuring virtual visits with virtual moving images of relatives scattered across the continent. The grinder, however, emits its entirely familiar purr as I pour water into the reservoir and position the paper filter. The purr stops and I remove the plastic bin, tip the grounds into the basket, close the lid, and press the brew button. The water-drop icon obediently illuminates. In the windows, about eighty percent of the candles have gone out as advertised, but the remaining twenty percent have refused. With a similar ratio of resignation to annoyance, I locate the remote and manually turn off the rest. Then I go around and, one by one, raise the eight window blinds and open the two pairs of drapes. The sky is paling, and there is a faint glow over the eastern mountains.

The house begins to stir with cranky yawns. I return to the kitchen and begin warming and plating the cinnamon rolls and pouring the orange juice and milk. The coffee maker burbles. I pour a splash of milk into my mug (today’s is “Daddy, Iain 2019”) and add three spoons of sugar. Then I carry the plates to the table and fetch napkins. As I look up I glance out the front windows.

Picture credit: Chris Ray

Dawn is near. The boys remain heard but unseen for the moment, and I walk closer to the windows and stand beside the tree. The eastern mountain crest is now silhouetted beneath a vibrant orange glow, and a welter of pink and purple is spreading over the sky from left to right, interlacing as it grows with the naked branches of the trees between us and the cliff. The blinking of the lighthouse stops just as the Mountain begins to materialize on the horizon at its elbow. The twilight continues to grow, touching the southwestern mountains across the strait. The glow is now everywhere: palpable, exuberant, alive. The colors begin to quiver, as lovers quake before their climax. I realize that my own breath has paused. And in that moment, the eastern peaks are suddenly touched with fire – not of destruction, but of renewal; not of death, but of birth; not of despair, but of hope; not of sorrow, but of joy. Thus, for one exquisite, infinite instant in a winter of discontent, I watch the sun rise in the east.


By mid-afternoon, it had all become too much to bear, and I had to get out of the house. I pulled on my winter running gear and set off westward along the road (there is only one connecting the point to the rest of the island), huffing in the cold early January air as I made my way up the steep hundred vertical feet to the top of the hill. As I crested it and continued down the gentler slope beyond, I could see a little piece of Canada across the water in the distance. A forbidden land, its border closed and its ferries stilled since the previous spring. A land I envied in that moment. I longed to plunge into the frigid waters and swim towards it, not caring if hypothermia took me along the way. I ran along the road towards it for many miles before turning and making my way back. The day’s sorrows continued long into the night before the business was done and I retired to a fitful sleep. The next morning, as on all mornings, our world’s problems remained, and we awoke to them as we always have and always will.

Our planet’s woes are great, our species’ ignorance encyclopedic. Yet some truths are certain. One day, the sun’s death-throes will be earth’s end. All consciousness is ultimately ephemeral, all matter temporary. But between now and those distant fates, the future is a secret we can only learn in living and in dying. And just as it has countless times before, whether celebrated or unmarked by human eyes, the dawn will always come to renew each day for as long as the earth rolls.

Chris Ray

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *