Our Reading Lives

The Scripture of Rebecca Solnit: On Books That Help You Survive Life

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My bedroom at home (some people I know now refer to their version of this place as “my parents’ house,” but it is still home to me) overlooks a small forest on the other side of which is the local high school’s baseball field. On purple spring nights, as I would read or paint my nails, I could hear the crack of aluminum bats and the swell of crowds. It was an adolescent symphony from which I was totally disconnected; something I had a vague curiosity about, but that somehow didn’t apply to me at all.

I got older. But that feeling – that somewhere across the trees were people living their lives, doing things differently, doing things I couldn’t quite access – persisted after high school. After graduation, Life took my handful of close friends, put them up to her lips, and blew. We landed all across the country. I looked up, blinking, and was suddenly in Michigan, in a dorm room overlooking a courtyard. At night, people would smoke in the courtyard, and even in the winter, low laughter found its way under my pillow. It was like being haunted; I never saw these people, just the brief flickers of cigarettes being lit.

That first year in college, I was reading a lot of Rebecca Solnit, and she introduced me to the concept of “the faraway nearby.” It was a term that began with the artist Georgia O’Keeffe, who after moving to New Mexico signed her letters with the phrase. Solnit describes the faraway nearby as “a way to measure physical and psychic geography together…you can be a thousand miles away from the person next to you in bed, or deeply invested in the survival of a stranger on the other side of the world.”

There was something desperate in my correspondence with my high school friends.  We wrote long, flowery emails about nothing in particular – the weather, certain buildings on campus, how homesick we were or weren’t. We called each other walking home from parties, leaving voicemails for the sleeping recipient, “Hi, I’m scared, I’m drunk, it’s late, I love you.” The faraway nearby lent a name to what I was feeling. We were further away and closer than ever. Having spent most of high school aching to be somewhere else, I finally felt connected to home – while walking the still-unfamiliar streets of Ann Arbor. We started signing our missives like O’Keeffe.

 Much of what Solnit wrote about in her collection The Faraway Nearby became more and more relevant as time passed. Solnit wrote “you can rescue someone from danger, but not from change and death; the soldier who survives the battle becomes someone else, something else, somewhere else,” and this soldier became a friend who suffered a trauma and came home to us thinner and steelier than before. Another spent the summer in Brooklyn, and then the next in Bolivia, the following fall in Greece, the winter in Johannesburg, running simultaneously towards and away. Solnit wrote of travel that “distant places give us refuge in territories where our own histories aren’t so deeply entrenched and we can imagine other stories, other selves, or just drink up quiet and respite.” This friend titled her travel blog “From the Faraway Nearby.”

It became a Bible of sorts. There was a passage to consult for everything. Little by little, however, things changed. For more than a year I carried around unhappiness like a stone in my pocket, but I started leaving it at home, more and more often. I started to like Ann Arbor – and then I started to love it. Emails and letters became less frequent, because , as always happens when one becomes content, I had less to say. Finally, at the end of my sophomore year, I read a new book, The Feast of Love by Charles Baxter.

It was not about traveling, art, or time. It was about, of all places, Ann Arbor.  It was about relationships that sometimes didn’t work out and sometimes did. It was about the Midwest. It was about things that suddenly rang true for me, because I was a person whose “nearby” had started to hold more appeal and whose “faraway” seemed increasingly so. It wasn’t that I felt less connected to my  high school friends – I still consider them my soul mates. It was just that for the first time in basically forever, I was starting to make my way through the trees, so to speak. I went to a party and actually had a good time. I impulsively Facebook messaged a cool girl from my French class and she became one of my best friends. I told a boy “I love you” and I meant it.

I turned to The Faraway Nearby for distance. I turned to The Feast of Love for closeness. To the people around me, it may have looked like nothing changed – I was still reading a book by my bedroom window. But for me, everything had changed. Near the end of the novel, one of Baxter’s characters remarks: “I’m no longer a story. Happiness has made me fade into real life.”

I think I’m still a story. Maybe, though, I’m no longer a Solnit essay.