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This personal, lyrical narrative about storytelling and empathy from award winner Rebecca Solnit is a fitting companion to her beloved A Field Guide for Getting Lost
In this exquisitely written new book by the author of A Paradise Built in Hell, Rebecca Solnit explores the ways we make our lives out of stories, and how we are connected by empathy, by narrative, by imagination. In the course of unpacking some of her own stories—of her mother and her decline from memory loss, of a...
This personal, lyrical narrative about storytelling and empathy from award winner Rebecca Solnit is a fitting companion to her beloved A Field Guide for Getting Lost
In this exquisitely written new book by the author of A Paradise Built in Hell, Rebecca Solnit explores the ways we make our lives out of stories, and how we are connected by empathy, by narrative, by imagination. In the course of unpacking some of her own stories—of her mother and her decline from memory loss, of a trip to Iceland, of an illness—Solnit revisits fairytales and entertains other stories: about arctic explorers, Che Guevara among the leper colonies, and Mary Shelley’s Dr. Frankenstein, about warmth and coldness, pain and kindness, decay and transformation, making art and making self. Woven together, these stories create a map which charts the boundaries and territories of storytelling, reframing who each of us is and how we might tell our story.
Rebecca Solnit, essayist, social historian, cultural critic, activist, and author of twelve hard-to-categorize books, including the much-loved Wanderlust: A History of Walking (2000) and A Field Guide to Getting Lost (2005), is a worthy, stimulating companion on meditative excursions. The Faraway Nearby, at once memoir, literary criticism, and inspirational touchstone, is a meandering yet purposeful exploration of how we spin and follow stories, and of how they can lead us on a journey toward self-definition and empathy.
The Faraway Nearby is a difficult book to do justice to with a simple synopsis, because its very mission is to encourage you to lose (and find) yourself in its labyrinthine paths. But Solnit provides a helpful précis: "Pared back to its bare bones, this book is a history of an emergency and the stories that kept me company then, but what is an emergency?"
The emergency or "accelerated phase of life" in question was actually threefold: her mother's descent into dementia, which, once accommodated, actually improved what had always been a difficult mother-daughter relationship; Solnit's bitter breakup with an unsupportive boyfriend; and her "medical adventure" with a potentially dangerous carcinoma in situ. All this took place in what she refers to as "my city" (San Francisco), in a year she also (more frustratingly) chooses not to pinpoint. Through it all, she found distractions, escape, food for thought, and metaphorical import in a bumper crop of apricots, a summer in Iceland as the first international resident at the Library of Water, and subjects as diverse as fairy tales, Che Guevara, leprosy, cannibalism, Frankenstein, The Arabian Nights, Buddhism, and Virginia Woolf.
Her core focus is on stories and how they're told: "What's your story? It's all in the telling. Stories are compasses and architecture; we navigate by them, we build our sanctuaries and our prisons out of them, and to be without a story is to be lost in the vastness of a world that spreads in all directions like arctic tundra or sea ice," she begins. Stories also involve empathy and perspective: "We are all the heroes of our own stories, and one of the arts of perspective is to see yourself small on the stage of another's story, to see the vast expanse of the world that is not about you, and to see your power, to make your life, to make others, or break them, to tell stories rather than be told by them."
In patiently teasing out several versions of the story of Atagutaluk, a Nunavut woman in far northern Canada who ate the bodies of her husband and children in order to survive a terrible winter in 1905, Solnit demonstrates how a single story can take multiple forms. "To tell a story is always to translate the raw material into a specific shape," Solnit writes. You won't soon forget the astonishing coda to Atagutaluk's tale, which concerns the Danish-Jewish explorer Peter Freuchen, who wrote about her several times. Trapped in a sealed-off ice cave during a blizzard in 1923, he saved himself by shaping the only raw material at hand — his own excrement — into a tool that, once frozen, he could use to chip his way out.
Solnit's associations may seem random, but The Faraway Nearby is as precisely crafted as the raft on which she finally explores the Grand Canyon. The book's parabolic structure is a marvel, worthy of discussion: It begins with "Apricots," arcing through chapters headed "Mirrors," "Ice," "Flight," "Breath," and "Wound" before bending around the middle chapter, "Knot," unwinding, and then reversing the lineup back again to "Apricots."
Themes resurface repeatedly, refracted via fresh angles. This leads to the occasional redundancy, but more often the result is an intriguing connection between seemingly disparate ideas. A passage about young Che Guevara's empathy for lepers and later disassociation from others' feelings leads to a fascinating report on leprosy, which in turn leads to Solnit's realization that the disease's characteristic numbness is a useful way for thinking about her troubled pre-Alzheimer's relationship with her mother, who "had gone numb in some way, so that I became the limb that could not be felt."
To tie her seemingly random mental meanderings together, Solnit employs a sort of fourteenth chapter that runs in a single line along the bottom of each page like the sutures that bind books and the narrative threads that organize stories. Neither footnote nor commentary, this literal subtext spills over between pages and chapters, a rambling, somewhat affected distraction based on a scientific report on moths that drink the tears of sleeping birds, a metaphor for how we feed on sorrow. As a curiosity and unifying commentary, the marvelous gulls that take flight when you flip the pages of Terry Tempest Williams's When Women Were Birds are far more effective. Williams's book, along with Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, both share Solnit's thoughtfulness and deep connection with the natural world.
One way to discuss Solnit is by cherry-picking quotes — aphorisms, really, that occasionally flirt with greeting card triteness but remain provocative. "Difficulty is always a school, though learning is optional," she writes about the challenges she faced in her year of multiple crises. The mounds of apricots her brother harvested from their mother's abandoned yard that summer presented a more manageable urgency than her other problems, a race against time and decay, which she could win by transforming them into jams, chutneys, and liqueur. "Maybe preserves are where a historian's urges meet a cook's capacities," she comments charmingly.
Most of all, you'll want to zero in on her reflections on storytelling and books, her twin passions, which, while not entirely new, are rarely articulated so cogently: "Books are solitudes in which we meet," she writes. "The object we call a book is not the real book, but its potential, like a musical score or seed. It exists fully only in the act of being read; and its real home is inside the head of the reader, where the symphony resounds, the seed germinated."
The Faraway Nearby takes its title from Georgia O'Keeffe's sign-off on letters to loved ones after she moved to rural New Mexico, expressing both emotional closeness and physical distance in one swoop: "from the faraway nearby." Solnit explains, "It was a way to measure physical and psychic geography together." But it is also an apt image for what stories do for us: bring us close together and take us far away — all without moving anything but our hearts and minds.
Heller McAlpin is a New York–based critic who reviews books for NPR.org, The Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Christian Science Monitor, and other publications.
Reviewer: Heller McAlpin
In Praise of Darkness (and Light)
One summer some years ago, on a peninsula jutting off another peninsula off the west coast of Iceland, I lived among strangers and birds. The birds were mostly new species I got to know a little, the golden plovers plaintively dissembling in the grass to lead intruders away from their nests, the oystercatchers who flew overhead uttering unearthly oscillating cries, the coastal fulmars, skuas, and guillemots, and most particularly the arctic terns. The impeccable whiteness of their feathers, the sharpness of their scimitar wings, the fierceness of their cries, and the steepness of their dives were all enchanting.
Terns were once called sea swallows for their deeply forked tails and grace in the air, and in Latin, arctic terns were named sterna paradisaea by a pietist Danish cleric named Erik Pontoppidan, at the end of a turbulent career. It’s not clear why in 1763 he called the black-capped, white-feathered arctic terns sterna paradisaea: birds — or terns — of paradise. He could not have known about their extraordinary migration, back in the day when naturalists — and Pontoppidan himself in his book on Norway — thought swallows buried themselves in the mud in winter and hibernated, rather than imagining they and other birds flew far south to other climes.
Of all living things, arctic terns migrate farthest and live in the most light and least darkness. They fly tens of thousands of miles a year as they relocate from farthest north to farthest south. When they are not nesting, they rarely touch ground and live almost constantly in flight, like albatrosses, like their cousins the sooty terns who roam above the equatorial seas for years at a time without touching down. Theirs is a paradise of endless light and endless effort. The lives of angels must be like this.
The far north is an unearthly earth, where much of what those of us in temperate zones were told is universal is not true. Everyone walks on water, which is a solid. In winter, you can build palaces out of it, or houses out of snow. Ice is blue. Snow insulates. Water crystallizes into floating mountains that destroy whatever collides with them. Many other things turn hard as rock in the cold. Nothing decays, and so time stops for the dead, if not the living. Cold is stability and warmth can be treacherous.
Trees dwindle; shrubs cling to the ground; and further north nothing remains of the plant kingdom but low grasses, diminutive flowers, mosses, and lichens hidden beneath the snow part of the year; and nearly every species but the reindeer and some of the summer birds is carnivorous. In winter, light can seem to shine upward from the white ground more than from the dark sky where the sun doesn’t rise or rises for an hour or two a day. And at the poles themselves, there are not 365 days per year but one long night and one long stretch of light, and the sun rises once in the spring and sets once in the fall.
Their opposite is the equator, where every day and every night of the year is exactly twelve hours long. The further north or south you go, the longer summer days and winter nights get. In Iceland, each day of spring was several minutes longer than the one before, so that in May the days went from nearly 17 to 20 hours long, and by June there is no true darkness, no night. The sun dipped low around midnight or after and there were spectacular sunsets that melted into sunrises, because the sun never went entirely away.
That summer among the terns, I lived at latitude 65, about as far north as Fairbanks, Alaska, and one degree south of the Arctic Circle. If you go farther north, to, say, the town of Longyearbyen in the Norwegian Arctic at latitude 78, which I later visited, the sun rises in late April and stays above the horizon until nearly the end of August, when sunset finally comes — a few minutes before sunrise. There, winter is a night as long as that summer day, running from the end of October until the middle of February. The twenty-four-hour cycle of day and night we think of as normal and daily comes as a rush of rapidly changing days and nights, flickering like a strobe, between the great day and the great night that each lasts 1,000 hours or more.
Long ago, I had read about the white nights of St. Petersburg in Russia, at only 59 degrees north, and I had once spent a couple of weeks in the Canadian wilderness at that latitude near midsummer, when night was just a blush of darkness that generally began and ended while I was asleep in my tent. I had always wanted to see the white nights farther north, but actually living through them was a little disorienting.
In Praise of Darkness
Sometimes during that summer when the sky was often gray but never black, I would think that a task had to be done before darkness and then realize that there would be no more darkness while I was there, and it didn’t matter so much when I rose, when I slept, when I traveled. For me day and night were time itself, and I missed the rhythm and structure they provide. I missed stars. Darkness no longer shut me in: I shut light out to sleep. It was as though I had entered a landscape that itself never slept, never dreamed, that never let up the rational alertness of daytime, the light of interrogation and analysis.
The sensuality of night had never been so clear to me, darkness descending like velvet to wrap around you and enclose you in its black cocoon, to take you to your other self and others. In darkness dreams awaken and dreamers merge, which might be how passion becomes love and how making love begets progeny of all natures and forms. Merging is dangerous, at least to the boundaries and definition of the self. Darkness is generative, and generation, biological and artistic both, requires this amorous engagement with the unknown, this entry into the realm where you do not quite know what you are doing and what will happen next.
Creation is always in the dark because you can only do the work of making by not quite knowing what you’re doing, by walking into darkness, not staying in the light. Ideas emerge from edges and shadows to arrive in the light, and though that’s where they may be seen by others, that’s not where they’re born. But darkness is a pejorative in English, and the term has often carried emotional, moral, and religious overtones as has its opposite: the children of light, snowy angels, fair maidens, and white knights. “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that,” said the dark-skinned Martin Luther King Jr., but sometimes love is darkness; sometimes the glare is what needs to be extinguished. Turn off the lights and come to bed.
When you spend time in the desert, you come to love shadow, shade, and darkness, the respite they give to the menacing blaze of day that burns you out and dries you up. Heat is the desert as predator, just as cold is the Arctic’s biggest animal. Desert light is fierce, and at midday it flattens everything into a harsh solid, but early and late in the day, light is golden and every crevice and fold and protrusion of the landscape is thrown into the high relief of light and shadow. At those times day and night intertwine like dancers, like lovers, and shadows are as powerful a presence as the things that cast them, or more so, growing and growing until the sun disappears below the horizon and darkness spreads like water on the land.
Journey to the Center
There was only one dark place left in Iceland that summer, or so it seemed to me, and I went there again and again. Elín Hansdóttir, a young artist who had been instrumental in the chain of coincidences that brought me to Iceland, had made a labyrinth titled Path. In a big room in Iceland’s National Gallery, with the help of two meticulous carpenters, she built a zigzag route of Sheetrock that gave off that material’s dusty clean aroma. One person at a time entered Path, and a pair of watchers in the outer gallery monitored entries and exits and occasionally went in for a rescue, like lifeguards.
When you stepped in from the daylight and the door closed behind you, the space seemed to be absolutely dark and then your eyes adjusted to the faint, faint light. You could move forward when you were blind or wait until you could see, but placing a hand on one side of the walls helped you travel too. The path turned at sharp angles, so that you knew that you were being turned around and around, and you lost track of the distance that you were going.
The light that leaked through the intentional, careful cracks in the walls and ceiling was faintly lavender blue — it came from fluorescent tubes — and it streamed across the space in strange ways. It was easy to believe that what was dark was solid, what was light was spaciousness into which you could move, but reality as you bumped into it was often the other way around, with open blackness and hard pale surfaces.
Your expectations reversed, you moved deeper into the labyrinth, knowing now that you did not know what was solid, what was space you could occupy, but would have to test it, over and over. Path was a space in which you perfected the art of not knowing where you were, of finding out one literal step at a time. Did the path fork? Or was there only one route? How far did it go? Was the way out the same as the way in? All this would have to be found with the hands, eyes, and feet as you traveled.
At the end, the walls began to press together and it was as dark as it had been at that first moment you stepped in and closed the door behind yourself. And then you could go no farther. It seemed as though it ought to feel claustrophobic, but I found in it an embrace of darkness, a destination, a handmade night. There and back again took me 10 or 15 minutes by the clock, but the time inside had no such quantifiable measure. It was time apart, symbolic time, a slow journey to the heart of the unknown and the unknowable. I kept coming back all summer, seven times in all, once for so long the attendants grew concerned. I felt at home there, more myself than anywhere else in Iceland, somehow. Jules Verne’s novel about Iceland was called Journey to the Center of the Earth, and this felt like such a journey, or such a center.
A labyrinth is an ancient device that compresses a journey into a small space, winds up a path like thread on a spool. It contains beginning, confusion, perseverance, arrival, and return. There at last the metaphysical journey of your life and your actual movements are one and the same. You may wander, may learn that in order to get to your destination you must turn away from it, become lost, spin about, and then only after the way has become overwhelming and absorbing, arrive, having gone the great journey without having gone far on the ground.
In this it is the opposite of a maze, which has not one convoluted way but many ways and often no center, so that wandering has no cease or at least no definitive conclusion. A maze is a conversation; a labyrinth is an incantation or perhaps a prayer. In a labyrinth you’re lost in that you don’t know the twists and turns, but if you follow them you get there; and then you reverse your course.
The end of the journey through the labyrinth is not at the center, as is commonly supposed, but back at the threshold again: the beginning is also the real end. That is the home to which you return from the pilgrimage, the adventure. The unpraised edges and margins matter too, because it’s not ultimately a journey of immersion but emergence.
Paths, Empaths, Journeys Into and Toward, By Touch and By Ear
If Path was a book, it was about not knowing, about being lost, and about darkness, the darkness of the deep interior, a book you read with your feet. Anatomists long ago named the windings of the inner ear, whose channels provide both hearing and balance, the labyrinth. The name suggests that if the labyrinth is the passage through which sound enters the mind, then we ourselves bodily enter labyrinths as though we were sounds on the way to being heard by some great unknown presence. To walk this path is to be heard, and to be heard is a great desire of the majority of us, but to be heard by whom, by what? To be a sound traveling toward the mind — is that another way to imagine this path, this journey, the unwinding of this thread?
Who hears you? We live inside each other’s thoughts and works. You build yourself out of the materials at hand and those you seek out and choose, you build your beliefs, your alliances, your affections, your home, though some of us have far more latitude than others in all those things. You digest an idea or an ethic as though it was bread, and like bread it becomes part of you. Out of all this comes your contribution to the making of the world, your sentences in the ongoing interchange. The tragedy of the imprisoned, the unemployed, the disenfranchised, and the marginalized is to be silenced in this great ongoing conversation, this symphony that is another way to describe the world.
To hear is to let the sound wander all the way through the labyrinth of your ear; to listen is to travel the other way to meet it. It’s not passive but active, this listening. It’s as though you retell each story, translate it into the language particular to you, fit it into your cosmology so you can understand and respond, and thereby it becomes part of you. The word empathy originally meant feeling into, and to empathize is to reach out to meet the data that comes through the labyrinths of the senses. To enter into, we say, as though another person’s life was also a place you could travel to.
Kindness, compassion, generosity, are often talked about as though they’re purely emotional virtues, but they are also and maybe first of all imaginative ones. You see someone get hurt — maybe they get insulted or they’re just very tired — and you feel for them. You take the information your senses deliver and interpret it, often in terms of your own experience, until it becomes vivid to you. Or you work harder and study them to imagine the events you don’t witness, the suffering that is not on the surface.
It’s easier to imagine the experience of people most like you and nearest you — your best friend, the person who just slipped on the ice. Through imagination and representations — films, printed stories, second-hand accounts — you travel into the lives of people far away. This imaginative entering into is best at the particular, since you can imagine being the starving child but not the region of a million starving people. Sometimes, though, one person’s story becomes the point of entry to larger territories.
This identification is almost instinctual in many circumstances. Even some animals do it; babies cry in sympathy with each other, or in distress at the sound of distress. But to cry because someone cries or desire because someone desires is not quite to care about someone else. There are people whose response to the suffering of others is to become upset and demand consolation themselves.
Empathy means that you travel out of yourself a little or expand. Recognizing the reality of another's existence is the imaginative leap that is the birth of empathy, a word invented by a psychologist interested in visual art. The word is only slightly more than a century old, though the words sympathy, kindness, pity, compassion, fellow-feeling, and others covered the same general ground before Edward Titchener coined it in 1909. It was a translation of the German word Einfuhlung, or feeling into, as though the feeling itself reached out.
The root word is path, from the Greek word for passion or suffering, from which we also derive pathos and pathology and sympathy. It’s a coincidence that empathy is built from a homonym for the Old English path, as in a trail. Or a dark labyrinth named Path. Empathy is a journey you travel, if you pay attention, if you care, if you desire to do so. Up close you witness suffering directly, though even then you may need words to know that this person has terrible pains in her joints or that one recently lost his home. Suffering far away reaches you through art, through images, recordings, and narratives; the information travels toward you and you meet it halfway, if you meet it.
Few if any of us will travel like arctic terns in endless light, but in the dark we find ourselves and each other, if we reach out, if we keep going, if we listen, if we go deeper.
Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. from The Faraway Near by Rebecca Solnit.
I was really taken in by this book. It starts out slow but picks up momentum. All in all a great book.
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Posted November 8, 2014
Posted August 17, 2013
On Reading Solnit's 'Faraway Nearby' / Poem by Stone Riley /// 'Fair poet' friends say of me / but I am jealous of your words, / for you are myth itself to me. / (The beauty of your photograph / inside the cover leaf unutterable.) / Whereas I plod from word to word / to word like digging mud piled up / to make a verse, a verse, another. / (Thank whatever gods for thee.)
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Posted July 8, 2013
Posted May 31, 2013
When Clora woke up,the howling of the wind was louder,loud enough to hurt her ears. Her family had their things packed away in suitcases and trashbags.'I wonder where they're going.'she thought,'Maybe Florida again.'She got to her paws abd headed upstairs to her boy's room. She scratched the dooor and barked,"Come on boy,please answer!" He opened the door. Clora gasped. Tears stained the boy's eyes and cheeks. He looked as though he hadn't slept that night. He started to cry as soon as he saw her. Clora was worried,they weren't going on a short trip. She tried her best to smile but her boy just slammed the door. She whined and headed to the eat-den. The boy's mother was pouring dog food and water into all of her people's bowls. She eyes widened. The mother saw her and ran over to scratch her behind the ears."Be a good girl why we're gone."she whispered. Clora nodded. The door bell dinged. Clora ran to the door. The same men who came last night barged in. She growled. The men stared at her. The boy and his father came in and ushered the mother into the room. They grabbed their things and ran out the door. They got inside the men's car and drove away.'Be safe.'Clora silently prayed.@@@@Thx for reading! Remember to go to roti and rollo to read my other books. Plz go to inky result one to join my book contest. BAIZ!-Daze
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