Keeper of the Light

John Cook was a lighthouse keeper for 26 years, joining the Australian Lighthouse Service in 1968. He tended Tasmania’s kerosene powered lighthouses at Tasman Island, Maatsuyker Island and Bruny Island.

In his memoir ‘The Last Lighthouse Keeper’, he shares the physical, emotional, and psychological challenges he faced manning the lighthouses. He says,

“Life in the lights found your weaknesses, which could overtake you if you let them… The lighthouse sometimes seemed to me like a giant tooth that would shred away at your life and gleam at you all the while.”

The role of a lighthouse keeper could be summed up in three words, ‘Tend the Light.’ The light had priority over all else and was the very reason for their presence on the island. Their job was to ensure the flame was lit at the designated time and was kept burning throughout the night, such that the searching beam was uncompromised. It was the light that brought reassurance to seafarers, warning shipping of dangerous and inhospitable coastlines, providing a navigational point, and ensuring a safe passage. John Cook knew that the lighthouse would demand all that he had to give. He says,

“The tower was lit, and the light began to turn. I stood and looked at it with the same dumb awe I would have looked upon a spaceship. There it was, the heart of my life… The simple but incredible apparatus was the grand and cruel centre of my entire orbit.”

Given the demanding workload, the adverse weather conditions, the treacherous environment, and the vigilance required in watching over the light, keepers needed the support of other team members. When John Cook and his partner, Deb, went to Tasman Island, they joined two other couples.

But living in a small community in a remote location that is difficult to access and has minimal contact with the outside world, throws up many challenges. Questions of fairness, trust, dependability, and honesty were always being tested. Everyone had their personal struggles, and often there were personality clashes. John Cook says,

“What you must learn when you are stuck with people is how to eat round the rotten bits of the peach. Somehow, we had to get along.”

Historically there have been keepers who have struggled with the demanding lifestyle and have been overcome by their circumstances, seeking refuge in the sea. John Cook says,

“Men vanished over the years from lighthouses all over the world, and the stories were told of them, scaring the newcomers. But I knew then what it was that vanished them. It was the ocean in the head. It got in and soaked your brain.”

John Cook

When John Cook accepted the position of lighthouse keeper on Tasman Island, he was looking to distance himself from the life he knew, the life he had messed up, the life that had spun out of control. He was wanting to start over.

John Cook was passionate about his work. Some would argue that he was obsessive. He wanted to be a valuable team member. He wanted success. He wanted to feel that he was being useful, productive, reliable. He soon discovered that being a ‘keeper of the light’ not only applied to his working life but also to his personal life. In fact, he would never achieve his ambitions as a lighthouse keeper if he could not keep the fire burning in his own life.

Like John Cook, we are all ‘keepers of the light,’ the light within, the light that illuminates our life, bringing direction and purpose. The light is our life and without the light we are desolate, wandering around in the dark, not knowing who we are or where we are.

The light is our life and without the light we are desolate, wandering around in the dark

But the ‘light within’ is constantly under threat and demands our vigilance if we are to weather the tempest and keep the flame alive. One of our most potent threats is our past. Even though it sounds contradictory, the past is ever present, even the past that is unknown and unspoken can have a negative impact on our lives.

What is it you need to ask?

For many years John Cook was not satisfied with the explanations given for his father’s death. On one of his return visits to mainland Tasmania he asked his mother for the truth. She explained that like many survivors of World War I, his father suffered ‘shell shock’, what we refer to as post traumatic stress syndrome. After the war he was employed by MI6. There was a scandal, and his boss was found guilty of passing on information about gun placements on ships. Although not implicated, he wore some of the shame. When he received a letter to enlist again, it tipped him over the edge, and he ended his life.

There comes a time, a right time, when it is beneficial to dig a little deeper and unmask the forbidden past. Although we may not like to admit it, all families have their secrets, shameful events that have been covered up for fear they may ruin reputations and jeopardise relationships.

Then there are the present realities that threaten to derail our lives. For John Cook it was the failure of his first marriage due to his infidelity and the chasm it created between himself and his three children. He described the feeling as ‘constant indigestion.’ He had to keep ‘swallowing the loss, trying to keep it down.’ He loved his children and he wanted them in his life. It was the little things that caused the ache in his heart. He says,

“I’d never wanted to be responsible for a broken marriage. Especially seeing what it did to children… One mistake and everything had come undone. No more bath times and messy breakfasts. No more school art on the fridge. No more little hands in mine.”

John Cook attributed his personal failures to his thought patterns. He allowed his mind to roam free, creating narratives that may have sounded plausible but were far from reality. He says,

“All my life I have most often suffered and been defeated by what my own mind has served, rather than by actual events.”

What is it you need to do?

There are many things we can do to ‘tend the light within.’ Here are two:

(1) Look to the heavens

When we ‘look to the heavens,’ we immerse ourselves in something that is so much bigger than we are. We are captured by the beauty and mystery and filled with a sense of wonder. John Cook found refuge in the vastness of the heavens. It altered his perspective and brought a renewed sense of belonging. He says,

“Sometimes I would go out on the balcony, especially on a clear night with the stars shining bright, and I would lie on the floor of the balcony and stare at the stars, watching the light beam rotating like a huge carousel, and I would just let myself blend into this magical world. Let myself be stitched into the patchwork of the planet…”

(2) Show the love

When the light within begins to flicker, we need to take immediate action and there is no better remedy than to find someone or something to love. For a life without love is no life at all. John Cook and his partner Deb had a menagerie of pets including two dogs, a Scotch terrier (Lucy), a dachshund (Stinky), an orphaned ‘Joey’ or baby kangaroo, chooks, and canaries.

For whatever reason, Lucy, the Scotch terrier, did not take to living on the island. Perhaps the inhospitable weather wore on her nerves. She became lethargic and would not eat. She seemed content sitting by the fire, not wanting to move. John Cook feared that she was dying of boredom and decided to take matters into his own hands. He picked up Lucy and carried her down to the landing. The water was swirling and looked icy cold. He threw Lucy into the deep. She went under but came up again, looking completely bewildered. John Cook dived in and rescued her only to throw her in again. This radical treatment seemed to work. It released something in her. She became invigorated and grew to enjoy her swims.

It taught John Cook an important lesson. If he were to keep the flame burning in his life, he needed to act when he was feeling down or depressed. He needed to do something that would enliven his senses and awake in him a renewed desire to go on. His life as a lighthouse keeper provided the perfect antidote. He says,

“I loved the life of the island because I knew my body was more alive than it was on the mainland. In some ways, it was more stimulating to have your senses turned up.”

John Cook’s life was one of extremes. There were moments of magic and moments of madness and everything in between. I cannot help but think that it is a good description of my life and perhaps yours as well.

Author: Bruce Rickard

Reflections on Suicide and Staying Alive: My son's suicide changed everything. I felt an obligation to understand why anyone would want to end their life. My regular blog posts explore the causes and prevalence of suicide and what is needed to sustain a healthy mind and a hope-filled future.

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