For almost two years now, I’ve been making a dress. I bought the pattern and a roll of fabric on holiday in Wales, but I didn’t have a sewing machine (or tailor’s chalk, or pins, or enough time, or enough patience) and I didn’t know how to sew, so what I was really buying was the possibility of becoming the sort of person who could make a dress.
For a long time the paper bag full of potential gathered dust in my wardrobe, until finally, one cold winter weekend, I brought it over to my boyfriend’s mother’s house, she set up her sewing machine, and we began to make the dress together.
To see or to help a garment come into being, to witness the transformation, is affecting. I don’t want to put too much importance on this – it’s just an item of clothing – but still: out of fabric springs form. This particular fabric, though, purchased because it felt warm and heavy on a cold Welsh afternoon, has a very loose weave, and unravels easily – forgiving if you need to unpick stitches, but dangerous, likely to fray: at any moment things might fall apart.
To describe something that’s not quite right, or that’s becoming not quite right, we use this language of un-making. It’s unraveling, we might say. She’s come undone. When I was 16 my mother taught me how to knit and I made half of a fog-purple scarf over winter break before I got restless and gave the hobby up. Around the same time I was listening to a lot of Weezer and the line “If you want to destroy my sweater/Hold this thread as I walk away” got lodged in my head, even after I’d abandoned the project. Sometimes it’s easier to destroy something with a thread than to create something with a thread; sometimes, though, a thread is what the whole world is made of: it’s a lifeline.
Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby is a book about threads, and a book made up of threads: “in the old way of saying it, tales were spun; they were threads that tied things together and from them the fabric of the world was woven.” Solnit spins familiar tales. Her mother gets old, and sick. She herself gets sick, and then well. A child falls down a well and is rescued, but ultimately her rescuer can’t rescue himself. An artist paints an escape route and sets himself free. Scheherazade tells her stories to save her own life and the lives of countless others. People die, or are born, or reborn.
“All stories are really fragments of one story, the metamorphoses,” Solnit tells us, and there’s an undertone of resignation or acceptance of this, of the slow march of time, the inevitability and invisibility of change: the soldier survives his war but is not the same man he was, and the cannons are melted down and reconstituted and eventually become a weapon for another war.
The Faraway Nearby is like the vanitas still-life paintings Solnit describes, in which soap bubbles hang in the air around inanimate objects – bowls of fruit and skulls and works of art – like “the second hand of the clock in the painting, ticking time away[…] In words one might describe the ephemerality of bubbles, but in paintings the moment of the bubble and its beauty persist; that basket of apricots is nearly four hundred years old and the bloom is still on the fruit.” Like these paintings, Solnit’s book simultaneously represents and transcends decay. It begins and ends with apricots, with the decay and the preservation of a hundred pounds of fruit, borne by her mother’s tree and harvested during the onset of her mother’s Alzheimer’s.
Decay and preservation are at the heart of the book, which is partly about what it means to be alive, in a body, even when that body fails to keep the self contained within it safe from harm. Solnit, diagnosed with ductal carcinoma in situ, which can turn into invasive, malignant cancer and which she describes as “having something ticking inside me that could turn out to be a clock without even an alarm or could be a bomb set to go off at some much later date,” is saved from a potentially fatal illness by doctors and surgeons and stories and then preserved in the pages of her own book.
But, we also know, she’ll ultimately go on to perish anyhow, just like the rest of us. “I often wonder at the endurance of the inanimate,” Solnit writes, describing the dark blue suit her mother was married in: “The wool suit threatens to outlive everyone who knows or cares about it.”
It’s a book of threads, and also a book of circularities: “even decay is a form of transformation into other living things, part of the great rampage of becoming that is also unbecoming.” Becoming becomes unbecoming becomes becoming. As in the folk tales and legends that Solnit recounts or tucks between her own memories and forgettings, things in the world of The Faraway Nearby are constantly tugging at the fabric of reality, constantly inverting expectations, changing the rules. Like the episode of The Road Runner Show that Solnit recounts, in which Wile E. Coyote tries to trap Road Runner:
At the point where a road ends in a precipice, he places a canvas on which he paints an extension of the road, complete with the red cliff on one side and the guardrail on the other. The Road Runner neither smashes into the painting nor falls through it, but runs into it and vanishes around the painted bend. […] Your door is my wall; your wall is my door.
The characters and the places in Solnit’s stories have this in common: they’re all bursting the seams of expectation, turning walls into doors. The far north – land of paradox, of white nights and black winters – comes to represent this topsy-turviness. It’s where Solnit goes to recuperate after sickness and surgery, but it’s been in her mind for a long time – “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. […] Nothing decays, and so time stops for the dead, if not the living. Cold is stability and warmth can be treacherous.”
In The Faraway Nearby, as in the far north, everything and nothing is in opposition: preservation and decay, comfort and discomfort, night and day. As with a runner whose knees ache as she traverses a familiar route, feeling elated and deeply at home in spite of the frank encounter with the physical limits of her body, dis/comfort is not purely one thing or the other.
Put another way: sickness and loneliness coexist with healing and connection, and to read this book is to come to terms simultaneously with your own isolation and your own interdependence, your integral role in some greater human drama. Like it or not, lonely or not, you’re a part of a story, some story, any story – evolution, revolution, the birth and inevitable death of the universe.
The Faraway Nearby is a book about stories, or a story about books; it’s about the kind of place-making we engage in when we (re)tell or hear or remember or forget. It’s a form of travel narrative, about the travel we engage in by thinking, loving, reading, writing, empathizing. “A place is a story,” Solnit tells us, “and stories are geography, and empathy is first of all an act of imagination, a storyteller’s art, and then a way of traveling from here to there.”
Solnit goes to Iceland, to the Grand Canyon, and these places mean something. But the geography that Solnit excels at describing is a more metaphysical one – the places we invent, the spaces we share, the alternate understanding of distance captured by Georgia O’Keeffe and adopted for the title of the book:
We’re close, we say, to mean that we’re emotionally connected, that we are not separate; or, we’ve become distant, to describe the opposite. After years in New York City, Georgia O’Keeffe moved to rural New Mexico, from which she would sign her letters to the people she loved, ‘from the faraway nearby.’ It was a way to measure physical and psychic geography together. Emotion has its geography, affection is what is nearby, within the boundaries of the self. You can be a thousand miles from the person next to you in bed or deeply invested in the survival of a stranger on the other side of the world.
I come back again and again to this idea of the geography of emotion, the faraway nearby, the transcending power of connection. Just as I’m sitting down to begin this essay, I get a message from my mother, who’s visiting a friend in Utah and unable to sleep. Her insomnia temporarily erases the 7-hour time difference between us, makes the fact of my living in one country and her in another irrelevant, and we have a brief, casual chat via Twitter. I send her a link to an excerpt of The Faraway Nearby online. She sends me a link to a page on the National Park Service’s website about the Toroweap/Tuweep area of the Grand Canyon. There’s a photograph of an overlook, the silver river cutting through the canyon. “Tomorrow we are going here,” my 5,000-miles-away mother tells me. “Actually, tomorrow is today and I have been awake most of the night. Nice to feel you’re awake with me and fleetingly connected.”
I think about the kind of space that a relationship creates: a space that thrives on shared experience, on overlap. Distance may cause a relationship to suffer, but it is not the defining feature: it is not what makes us near or far.
Nice to feel you’re awake with me and fleetingly connected.
In Iceland, Solnit encounters a labyrinth, created by an artist friend, which she visits frequently, seeking respite from the incessant summer daylight, seeking the generative, creative fuzziness of the dark. She writes:
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 pilgrimage, the adventure. […]it’s not ultimately a journey of immersion but emergence. Ariadne gives Theseus a spool of red thread to help him escape the Labyrinth in Crete […]. You unspool the thread on the journey to the center. Then you rewind to escape.
In The Faraway Nearby, Solnit has created a labyrinth. Even the chapters are structured to mimic the act of unspooling and then rewinding, so that we travel towards and through and then away from the center (Wound – Knot – Unwound) and eventually arrive back where we started (Apricots), the chapter headings inverted.
“All imaginative, engrossing books are landscapes into which readers vanish,” Solnit writes, and I certainly vanished into this one, and then emerged – consumed but also regenerated. Writing about the abundance of “stories of cannibalistic consumption” (Hansel and Gretel, the German fairy tale “The Juniper Tree”), Solnit points out that “cannibalism and resurrection often go together” – that’s the nature of this kind of consumption. A story consumes us, or we consume a story, and something is created in the process – an idea, a connection, a new thread.
A sense of loneliness underlies The Faraway Nearby, but so too does the sense that a thread runs through everything, that everything is connected. Every artist or doctor or explorer or revolutionary that Solnit invokes is connected, in some way, to her story and to the reader, too. Disconnection or true distance is impossible. As the photographer Subhanker Banerjee says, “I went to the arctic, thinking that I’m going to a faraway place remote from my home country. As it happens, the arctic is connected. Today, after ten years, I call the arctic the most connected place on the planet.”
So with The Faraway Nearby, Solnit has created a labyrinth, but also a web: a world wide web, which, much like the World Wide Web on which my own story appears, is not separate from or inferior to the material world. “We in the West have been muddled by Plato’s assertion that art is imitation and illusion; we believe that it is a realm apart, one whose impact on our world is limited, one in which we do not live,” Solnit tells us, but, as she shows, there is no realm apart: “People disappear into their stories all the time. We live in stories and images, as immersed in them as though they were Wu Daozi’s inkpots; we breathe in presuppositions and exhale further stories.”