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When we’re in Provincetown, staying with our friend, Ed Stewart, we get into town by walking through the cemetery at Winslow Road and Jerome Smith Road, which holds mainly nineteenth century graves. Ed says it is “cemetery #2” because it is not the oldest one in town. #1 is at Winthrop and Court Streets and holds eighteenth century graves and a few older.

A person walking through the cemetery sees engraving on tombstones that says, “Lost at Sea,” under someone’s name, with a date sometime during the nineteenth century. The grave is often for a woman who is said to be the wife of someone Lost at Sea. This is a graveyard for the generation of Provincetown sailors and fishermen. Lost at Sea invites  story-telling in a way that Died doesn’t. I wonder lost how? Did the ship break up? Was he washed overboard? A whaling accident? The widows of these men lost at sea went on to live long lives, and apparently few of them remarried, but the story is not about them. The “man and the sea” is the narrative this cemetery tells. Knowing little else about them, we are forced to believe that the story is about the commitment of the men and their courage, and the devotion of the women, and the details that made them what they were.

Provincetown is completely transformed now. The fishing industry is almost all gone. The population is different. Yankees have been mainly replaced by the Portuguese, and the Portuguese augmented by artists and writers who have been joined by the LGBTQ community and the tourists, coming to Provincetown from all over the world, but the story is still about a man and the sea. There were thousands this week in Provincetown.

My thoughts, walking through the cemetery while in Provincetown for Bear Week 2016, still drift toward the lives of the dead. Hemingway wrote Old Man and the Sea, and Homer composed The Odyssey, both of which are confrontations between two powerful actors—the man and the sea—that are meaningful symbolically. Hemingway’s story is about the meaning of a man’s war with the sea—he loses—, and Homer’s is about a man coming home, and nature and civilization warring against that need to come home. The Odyssey is also an analysis of the whole Greek culture of the eighth century BC. But underlying all of this, we come to know intimately the Old Man and Odysseus, and we understand why they do what they do.

James Baldwin, speaking on “The Artist’s Search for his Integrity,” November 29, 1962, says, “It seems to me that the artist’s struggle for his integrity must be considered as a kind of metaphor for the struggle, which is universal and daily, of all human beings on the face of this globe to become human beings.”  If this is so, if all humans struggle to become human, then I think we have to remember their struggle.

Race Point Light begins in Provincetown in the summer of 2003, when the narrator is 65, and shifts through a series of snapshots back to 1943 and Pawleys Island, South Carolina, a beach on the same ocean 1000 miles away. How did he get from Pawleys in 1943 to Provincetown in 2004? Where was home? How did that feel? Was he almost Lost at sea? What was he responsible for, and what was his culture responsible for?  I see the graves and their markers, and I see the Pilgrim Monument. We need to learn more about a man who started out on Pawleys Island and ended in Provincetown. When I was writing Race Point Light, I wanted to write about this one man’s life and to tell the whole truth about his experience, as much as I could gather—how he found out about Stonewall, the first gay pride march, how he told his parents, who he first had sex with, how he defeated his culture and made a new one, the details that went to make up him and were required to understand his struggle—the glory of his life—and consequently were required for us to be able to know ourselves. Without these facts and feelings, whole generations of men and women will die and be lost to us, leaving nothing but gravestones which say only FATHER or WIFE. Since Homer, literature has been preeminently the form in which we store our memories, not just the men lost at sea, but all men and women.  In our books, we remember where we’ve been so we won’t forget who we are and how we got here.