Time to Go to the Lighthouse!

I’m overly excited to talk about Lighthouse. It’s such an important novel to me. And yet since my second, about-to-go-on-submission, novel deals quite a bit with this book, I have to be careful. No spoilers!

Although here’s one tidbit: I turned the lighthouse into a forest fire lookout tower in my novel. One I know from my childhood.

This is not the actual tower of my childhood. But it’s a good representation.

Lighthouse and I had a rocky start: Here I was in Senior freakin’ Seminar as a non traditional student with all of these bright English majors and I’m panicking because it’s a beautiful book but I’m lost. I know I can’t just enjoy it. I have to understand it, and I don’t. Or didn’t. It feels like Woolf gives with one hand and snatches that “truth” back with the next. I was hella confused and frustrated, because her essays were so straightforward by comparison.

Enjoying and embracing ambiguity has come slowly to me.

I was reading Lighthouse in bed that first time (my favorite place to read) on a rare morning at home and just not understanding it at all. Then, out of nowhere, we had an earthquake! In Indiana! The bed rocked as if I were in our vacation rental boat. The quake must have jarred something in me or the universe loose because slowly after that, I finally understood it. (Well, it took six times all told of reading it to really feel I had grasped it, but that day opened me to it.) If I were more metaphysically inclined, I would say Woolf “zapped” me during that earthquake. Maybe I should say it anyway.

Not before I felt like a wretched, ignorant loser in class, a fake, a fraud, behind the rest did I get it, though. They were a great bunch, but come to find out, some of them found their “insight” online, something I could never imagine doing because I’m so stubborn.

So I read it again. And again. Then there was class discussion, and I was relieved to discover I was getting it. I had always been a fan of stream of consciousness, so that wasn’t throwing me. I really can’t say what was except for sure that cursed, hopeless, existential-crisis making middle section. I needed some plot back or at least hope and fast before I got stuck there. But then, ah, then, life returned. Lily Briscoe with her art returned. And I knew everything would be all right, even if it did feel icky to have such mixed feelings about the characters.

Nowadays I don’t so much try to understand it as reference it, even though I’m pretty confident that I do understand it. For me it’s like flipping through a book of poems by Neruda. Though my Spanish isn’t great, I just get something from his poetry, first in Spanish, then the translation.

With Lighthouse I get that gilded, heady glimpse first, you know, the surface shine that makes you happy. And then I take the words in, focus on the meaning. Damn, is there meaning. It’s Morse code about life. Do yourself a favor and open it up pretty much anywhere and sample it.

When it came time to choose a book to write my senior thesis on, did I play it safe? Did I choose Alice in Wonderland or even Cuckoo’s Nest? I had other choices, too, but I’m Kit in A League of Their Own: “I like the high ones.” (Wait, does that movie title have echoes of Woolf? A Room of One’s Own? I say yes!)

Not only did I write my thesis on it but I was told I was the only English senior that year to receive a high pass. Boom.

Then I was asked to read it at the Indiana College Education Association Conference. I did. Oh, and I won first place, even though I planned to leave before the awards were announced because I’d had such a good time talking about the book I didn’t even consider I might win. It barely registered to me that there was an awards ceremony. I laughed and laughed when I so unexpectedly won, and if memory serves I bought something pretty with the prize money. Boom again.

Naturally when it came time to do my grad school thesis I continued the trend and wrote on Lighthouse. It was such a luxury to write even more about the book. I wish there were some way to write observations page for page about a book, and a place to share it. I know that would take years and I’m not sure anyone would want to read it, but that’s just how much I still want to know about the novel, how much it affects and guides me. I’m sure there’s so much more to discover about it. (Ooh, maybe there’s a new podcast to start?!)

No wonder, then, that I turned to my love of this book when I began my second novel. It’s been a challenge but so meaningful to wade into that great pool of words and sift them between my fingers. To mull on phrases and mysteries. To ask what’s behind the behind.

How can a novel be simultaneously lovely, dark, and deep? That bird flight of a POV, the cadence, the intertextuality, the clever use of an artist observing a couple to speak of marriage. All of this while Woolf also memorializes her own mother and the family’s summer trips.

I have multiple copies of this book. Ironically, of all of my class texts for Senior Seminar I borrowed my copy from the library because money was tight. I could hardly bear to give the book back. I only did so when I was able to find an identical copy online. And dear librarian, if you see pencil markings in your copy, I’m sure it was some other patron who did that. (I don’t condone abusing library books but I may have forgotten a time or two it was a library book I was holding since it didn’t have a crinkly (cellophane?) cover.)

Maybe this book won’t do for you what it did for me, won’t cause you to scrutinize anything and everything you’ve ever believed, but then again, maybe it will. I’m excited to run through it yet again.

Have you read Lighthouse? What did you think of it?

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