For activist and writer Rebecca Solnit (b. 1961), memory is the story we use to keep us company. Hope is the memory of things that haven’t yet happened. Through these structures, we form our existence, our consciousness.
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.
This tethering to stories and narratives echoes the words of British novelist Penelope Lively: “Memory is ballast.”
Through tales of her childhood, family, and things as vast as Mary Shelley’s landscapes in Frankenstein and as specific as apricots, Solnit pulls the extended parts of herself back into the fold, back into a cohesive whole.
[The places we love] give us continuity, something to return to, and offer a familiarity that allows some portion of our own lives to remain connected and coherent. They give us an expansive scale in which our troubles are set into context, in which the largeness of the world is a balm to loss, trouble, and ugliness.
The name of the book, The Faraway Nearby, refers to a habit of Georgia O’Keefe who signed her letters “from the Faraway Nearby.” The alluring idea of transcending the places that gave us certainty.
My story is a variation on one I’ve heard from many women over the years, of the mother who gave herself away to everyone or someone and tried to get herself back from a daughter.
Solnit is gathering parts of her scattered self—or forming herself against the ruins of her mother’s shore. The book is not only about storytelling; it is Solnit doing the storytelling. Standing in the shoes of her younger self and building new architecture.
To love someone is to put yourself in their place, we say, which is to put yourself in their story, or figure out how to tell yourself their story.
The drawback of this book (I’ve read it a few times, and I always conclude thus) is that while Solnit fully empathizes with her younger self, she fails to find empathy for her mother. Her mother remains the villain. I think she is aware of this shortcoming, however.
We tell ourselves stories in order to live, or to justify taking lives, even our own, by violence or by numbness and the failure to live; tell ourselves stories that save us and stories that are the quicksand in which we thrash and the well in which we drown.
From her coinage of the phrase “mansplaining” to her ever-watchful eye towards injustices, environmental degradation, and the most untouchable kernels of hope, Solnit is a consistent writer and a contemporary force.
Accompany this book with tales from unparalleled storyteller Maya Angelou, who somehow, in the middle of a horrid century, emerged a force of light: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings or her last book before she died, Mom & Me & Mom.