The other night I awoke in darkness with the name Grace Darling ringing in my mind. I knew who this was, having read about her as a child, but why now? Why wake me?
Grace was a Victorian England heroine whose daring rescue of some shipwreck survivors, how she rowed out into the gale from a lighthouse and pulling them off a wave-swept rock, had captured the public's fancy. I lay awake and thought about the story of her life and the nature of a hero. How there is the original brave act and then there is the enshrining of that person into the state of HERO. For Grace, that last part helped to drive her into an early grave.
Grace Darling was the daughter of a British lighthouse keeper on the Farne Islands near Lindesfarne on the Northumberland coast and one stormy night in 1838 a ship drove onto a nearby reef. By morning's light a few survivors could be seen huddled on the rock beside the broken off bow of the ship. Here is where things come into focus. The lightkeeper and his young daughter launch a twenty foot rowboat and work their way around in the partial lee of the low- tide rocks and take off the first few survivors. Two of those sailors help row the 'cobble' back to the lighthouse against wind and weather and later the lightkeeper makes a return trip with the sailors to pick up the rest of the living.
The father of Grace must have taken sober thought about the whole venture because Grace was the only one of his family available to help handle the boat, but she had grown up on this lighthouse and was a strong and steady young woman. Apparently it was she who declared that they must launch the boat and rushed outside into the storm to begin pushing it into the water. At first they ran before the wind through a narrow gut or passage and then turned the corner into the lee of the low tide rocks and worked their way across to the wreck. Even in the lee of these rocks though, there would have been waves foaming right across the reef and the wind's strength was unabated and blowing the underpowered boat away from the partial shelter. Just two people, a man and a girl, rowing a heavy wooden boat, watching for every calmer patch, working the eddies, feeling the immense power of the ocean waves, struggling to force their boat across the wind. Two frail human beings pitting their skill, strength and determination against the storm.
There are many other details to this story to be found on the Grace Darling website www.GraceDarling.co.uk but besides trying to understand why I had this night visitation from close on two hundred years ago I was interested in trying to form a realistic image of the whole event. Heroes these days can be as insignificant as the person who plucks your cat from a tree, and the seekers for the golden fleece or Ulysses on the way home to Ithaca are a long way back in prehistory. Still, whatever the function of the hero for the greater society, there are those moments when some people rise up and perform in an extraordinary manner. Grace and her dad, easing their boat through the storm performed at their peak and others caught a whiff of something amazing about human beings and celebrated it.
So, have I figured out why I awoke with Grace Darling on my mind? Perhaps it does have something to do with heroes after all, about those moments when we all reach for courage and take it firmly by the hand. Maybe it does us all good to seek above our 'station' for something extraordinary in our lives or to be ready when the call comes. Wake up! Grace Darling!