I was just a young boy at the time, unaware of how fortunate I was to be growing up on a remote Bahamian Island. Our electricity came from a vintage Lister 7kw generator which we called “Tin Lizzie” with her wind-up, crank-start bar, much like the old fashion cars. The smell of diesel dripping from her loose gears would mix with the salt air and drift through the tall Casuarina pines swaying in the ocean breeze. It was delicious.
Our drinking water was drawn from a deep well blasted by dynamite in the bleach-white limestone. Seafood was abundant; a fishing pole, Hawaiian sling or hand line produced unimaginable delicacies without fail.
All we really needed was a deep breath and our bare hands to fetch conch from the turtle grass off the shallow floor of Cutlass Bay, (at the south-end of the island, red circle, in the map below).
Being so off the grid and far away, there were no TVs or phones to distract us. My sister, Abby, and I had no choice as children but to find ways to entertain ourselves. We learned to swim, fish, snorkel and SCUBA dive before we were 10 years old. Every time I hear music by Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Scotty or Exuma, I drift back to the island and I’m a child again.
We also learned to appreciate the ocean and its extraordinary marine life. And on occasion we discovered how to escape from a curious shark by climbing on shallow reefs, avoiding fire coral and sea urchins, until the shark lost interest and moved on.
Aviators and other extraordinary people visited us from around the world in a variety of aircraft. I knew at a very young age I too would fly some day.
We had a live-in tutor who educated Abby and me on everything from history and philosophy to math and survival. And then there was Brightman Nottage, a Cat Island native considered by the villagers to be an Obeah Man, (in photo below), also known as a “mystic man,” who helped raise us in an island kind of way. In many ways Mr. Nottage was my Gandalf. His simple life and love of people was an inspiration to everyone who knew him.
He was a master story-teller with the gift of island wisdom. He taught us not from books, but from real life, about the immediate real and through his example. Here are 3 life lessons Mr. Nottage shared with me when I was just a boy. They’ve served me well these past 50+ years.
One day we were walking along the beach and I noticed several Portuguese Man-of-War floating towards shore. Mr. Nottage looked at me, and in his thick Bahamian accent said, “You know what ‘de teach us?”
I said “Yes! Watch where you walk and swim, they sting!”
He smiled and said, “Dat’s true. But de other tíng ‘de teach us is about initiative.”
Mr. Nottage went on to explain how the Man-of-War are moved by the wind and ocean currents. They wait to be shoved and often end up lifeless on the nearest beach. “Like ‘dem,” he said, “we can wait for t’ings to happen, or we can make t’ings happen. But you see what happens if we wait?”
Lesson 1: Take Initiative
We can change the direction of our life without stinging others along the way. We have a choice. We can wait to be shoved and end up like the Man-of-War dead on some random beach, or we can take initiative and chart our own course, plot our own destiny.
I remember telling Mr. Nottage I was bored one day. He suggested I practice giving a speech down by the ocean. He wasn’t joking.
“But what will I talk about?” I asked.
He said, “Speak to ‘de Ocean. Let ‘de Ocean know how much you respect it and everyt’ing in it.”
“But the Ocean can’t hear me.. It can’t respond!” I said.
“‘De Ocean can hear everyt’ing you say. Speak… ‘Den listen. It will respond.” He assured.
I went to the edge of the Ocean, stood in ankle deep water and delivered an impromptu speech, and waited. But nothing happened. I gave it another go. But this time as I finished, a huge wave crashed on shore. It was then that I realized what Mr. Nottage meant: The sound of the crashing wave was much like that of a crowd of people clapping with approval — and I liked it!
Lesson 2: Respect Everything
Mr. Nottage reminded us to take in the vastness of the ocean and stars above, but he also encouraged us to discover the beauty in smaller things as well, like a flower, bird, plant or insect.
Lesson 3: Enjoy the Moment
We get so busy in our rushed lives that precious moments pass us by without a second thought. “Slow down,” Mr. Nottage would say, “Look around and take in ‘de beauty of t’ings. It’s everywhere.”
Through simple acts of kindness and love, Brightman Nottage, the Mystic Man of Cat Island, taught us about initiative, respect and slowing down to enjoy the moment. He kept the darkness at bay for us back then and his light remains with us today.
Obeah Man Come Back! We miss you…