Ascending roughly seventy feet from the craggy rocks and ceaseless waves below, Montauk Point is like the prow of a tremendous ship facing the full fury of the Atlantic.
Eric Jay Dolin, Brilliant Beacons: A History of the American Lighthouse, p.60
From time to time, people in my life have commented on what they perceive to be bravery in my actions.
This is uncomfortable for me. Why? Because while it’s true that in many cases I have needed to be “brave” in order to make the “right” decision, and while in most of those cases I’ve done what I’ve felt to be “right,” I’ve never felt that the term “brave” assigns credit to the correct people, or even fully captures my own intentions.
For a long time, I was not strong enough to see or speak to this reality. I either took too much credit or not enough. And I certainly did not understand the complex motivation(s) behind what I was doing. Now that I do, it’s time to clarify. I need to make one last point. I need to explain Montauk.
At the age of eighteen I packed my bags for the Bronx. Four years later I packed them again for Boston. Then back to North Carolina, then back to NYC, and most recently, to the suburban mecca that is Long Island. All of this in less than ten years. All of this for love.
When I say love, I don’t just mean love directed at me. I mean the kind of love I am called to through faith, the kind of love that brings justice and solidarity over subjugation, fear and hatred. The kind of love that has the power to change not only people but also the conditions in which we find ourselves living. Brave love.
I am not always brave. Despite my best intentions, sometimes love tires me out. And when I am tired, sometimes I falter. And when I falter, sometimes fear wins (if only for a short time). When this happens, I make fewer “right” decisions. Instead of choosing the sort that requires bravery and reflects the values and beliefs I strive to live out in both words and actions, sometimes I choose the sort that’s enabled by the path of least resistance, and reflects the values and beliefs of a culture which prizes groupthink designed to engender separation and fear. I’m not proud of that.
But love works in mysterious ways, friends. Love can do a lot. Love gives me strength to balance patience and persistence, and to put the good of the whole above any selfish desires or fears I harbor. Love gives me strength to believe love can win in the first place.
So if we are going to speak truthfully to the nature of my life, let’s stop pretending any of this is really about bravery. Bravery is the last point, the Montauk, of any difficult but “right” decision in my life. It starts from the same place each time. And that place is love.
My last trip to Montauk came in a bizarre season of life. I was in over my head with the stress of graduate school, a long distance relationship, working too many jobs that brought in too few wages, and the coming-on-way-too-fast realization that my life was not only pulling me in different directions at that point, but in fact, that it had been for a very long time.
I was white and well-educated, but I was also a woman, where these credentials could only take me so far. I was a southerner, though I had chosen to live above “the line.” I was a proud Catholic and social progressive, but I was afraid of owning these identities without first knowing this was “safe.” Truth be told, my fear even broached communities where, in retrospect, it was safe — largely because I feared I wasn’t any of these things enough, and because I didn’t know how to be any of these things except in silence. For that stage in life, I considered it a radical step to own distinct identities at all, let alone be well-versed in how to fully live them.
In short, life had rapidly become one wave of ideological and geographical changes after the other. And, like undertow, just when I thought I had life set, I’d get sucked out to sea again, swirling around in the tumult, out of breath, confused about what direction was up, and only just in time remembering my training — Ryan, swim sideways until you can get your bearings.
That winter, I went to Montauk with some friends and the man who you’ve come to know as Husband. It was only for the day, but I needed that trip. I needed to see that, even when we go all the way to the end of the road, as far as we can possibly go, we can still turn around and find our way back home. I was motivated, principally if not entirely, by fear in this season of life.
Right before we left, we took a few photos by the beach. And Husband and I snapped a few shots of the lighthouse (pictured below).
I’d like to tell you that after the trip, everything immediately ironed out. But it didn’t. My relationships with many incredible people suffered in the ensuing seven months. I earned my graduate degree but fully burned myself out before the real work had even begun. And I ended up leaving a town I had come to love deeply before I was anywhere near ready to leave. It was the beginning of the end of a lot of things, that trip to Montauk Point.
The lesson I learned from that experience is a lesson that, ironically, I had delivered to a mentee not long before I left. No (wo)man is an island. Living love, being brave, doing important work, all of these things require community to be sustained. All the light in the world can shine, but someone has to tend the light or it will not last. We need more “tender” types in this world.
It’s been over half a decade since that fateful trip. A lot has changed since then. But what inspires me has remained the same. The love I witness from friends, family and strangers challenges me to be the best me every day. Even when we don’t see eye-to-eye, even when I might otherwise let fear be the arbiter of my decisions, even when I fail.
Love makes me brave – and, in turn, helps me be capable of living brave love. When that happens, all sorts of impossible things come within reach. Because love reaches further than we might see, safeguards more than we might hope, changes more than we might expect. We just have to mind it.
And so, as liftingthevale draws to a close, I’ll leave you to ponder – nay, live – the lesson of Montauk. Like a lighthouse atop a rocky shore at the end of an island, be brave, love.
Ryan Vale McGonigle