Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Remembering Martha’s Vineyard and Wade Johnson

Atlas Was a Woman, oil on canvas, 12" x 14"

I was painting something partly from memory at the base of the Edgartown Lighthouse a week ago. The day before, I had sat there and seen a woman go out on the beach and spread a blanket, which billowed briefly as she flung it out in the wind and the sun. I had noticed how it conversed with the sails on the horizon, showing a kind of signal apropos of Penelope, perhaps, and the others of Odysseus. Or maybe she is Atlas, and Atlas is a woman. I had long ago considered something about a picnic blanket and the map of the world to be synonymous when we are very small children, and our mothers produce all the geography of our early life, first in the astronomy of their own body, and then in these quadrangles, which they come to occupy later, perhaps alone, as this sun bather was about to do.

And as I painted, I was listening instead to the wise man of the lighthouse converse with my wife, Lynne, somewhere behind me. Their voices would waft in and out of my consciousness, as painting makes one deaf at times, and I marveled at the calm and intelligent and passionate strains of this Thoreau of our times – a certain Wade Johnson, as I would later meet him – the lighthouse keeper, and in his own words, the light keeper of that little place in the world.

He would point out that people from all over the world came here, and he didn’t care which side of politics they were on, when he sent them upstairs to witness the view, they came down different. He called it the Wow factor, which brings us all together in the experience of wonder. He said that in life, this vestige of architecture that was originally created for hope and rescue, for the reckoning to safety by early mariners, was still performing its function in a charged political climate.

He thought the thing to do was bring people together in this way, around the drive to preserve and save this place, and our shared world. He would address his charge of public responsibility onto Conservative and Liberal equally. He would trick some into going up for free, on his invitation, and he said that no matter how hard the case of “what, me pay for that [lighthouse, public project, your salary]?” a visitor suffered, he would always pay as he left, softened by the solvent of sun and far-sightedness into a wiser persona.

I think it is not only the landscape they saw up there, which moved them; perhaps also the fact they had to duck through a little opening at the top to get on the walkway around the light that humbles like an old monastery door in Greece; and perhaps it was these things together with the time it takes to reflect on the voice and the man who waits below. The ideas of Wade Johnson are so articulate, so freshly wholesome, so knowing and yet hopeful, so innocent, yet so ready to reason. He is highly educated, but stands in the commons, delivering the citizen’s news to his fellow citizens, enlightening and uplifting them, at a moment when the world seems a financial jumble.

One by one, the world’s citizens look from Wade Johnson’s lighthouse, and before they leave they have a bit more confidence about what can still be done. I think perhaps he may know the President, and that he would be a welcome guest of his, as they share the kind of Common Sense which is native to the people of our country. A little more cooperation, a little more trust in reason, and we might move forward once again.

I have pleasantly, industriously, sometimes in frustration that opened into progress, spent a few hours painting, lulled by the conversation that drifted over me. Perhaps this leant the painting its particular bliss. I think an earnest voice, a clear voice, a calm and wise voice, is what we need. This is not a man of impatient lectures, nor a man who sees the world as a tomfoolery of hoaxes wrought on us by scientists. No, our tradition of wisdom and common sense, of thoughtful and considerate passion, of hope in the present as well as the future, is created every day the lighthouse keeper is at his post.

Wade Johnson sees the boats into the harbor and the vacationers back to their play. He oversees the center of the world, the way Thoreau considered Concord Paris. It is just as important to be intelligent where you stand. It doesn’t require a stage, or a special province, nor the city as such. And yet, a lighthouse is a signal – the one where you can find him. This is a sample of America, this is a hope in the world.

Me, Wade Johnson, and Lynne


August 21, 2011
-- Philadelphia