Monday, April 10, 2017

A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit

Imagine yourself streaming through time shedding gloves, umbrellas, wrenches, books, friends, homes, names. This is what the view looks like if you take the rear facing seat on the train. Looking forward you constantly acquire moments of arrival, moments of realization, moments of discovery. The wind blows your hair back and you are greeted by what you have never seen before. The material falls away in onrushing experience. It peels off like skin from a molting snake. Of course to forget the past is to lose the sense of loss that is also memory of an absent richness and a set of clues to navigate the present by; the art is not one of forgetting but letting go. And when everything else is gone, you can be rich in loss. 
One of my favorite parts of this project has been mining the books I read for my favorite quotes--a practice I never formalized before, and one I've always wanted build. Partly to separate my quote bookmarks from the signposts that mark my progression through a book and partly to distinguish my pages from the ones Christopher has marked in the books of his I borrow, I've started dogearing the bottoms of pages to signal that they hold passages I want to return to. I couldn't go two pages in this book without folding down a corner, and the bottom edge is so fat with dogeared pages that it won't close anymore. Solnit's meditation on loss ranges far and wide: she covers the loss of objects, of places, of people, of cultures. Reflections on her own losses alternate with researched chapters on a massive variety societal losses: European colonizers wandering into the New World and losing themselves, painters developing techniques to show the loss of objects in the distance. Her essays balance a detailed, descriptive eye with beautifully articulated reflections that both sharpen the emotional response she is able to draw out of her reader and reassure us that not all is lost.

Her experiences of loss and losing are tied to geography, so the book is anchored in a sense of place: the desert, the Bay Area, the American Southwest. Each is beautifully and poignantly described as is the bittersweet feeling of losing and gaining new homes. Even if your geographical touchstones are elsewhere, her reflections feel universal:
Perhaps it's that you can't go back in time, but you can return to the scenes of a love, of a crime, of a happiness, and of a fatal decision; the places are what remain, are what you can possess, are what is immortal. 
There isn't much of a narrative arc here--Solnit covers a truly massive amount of seemingly unrelated ground--but there is a narrative spiral. The essays are all tightly wound around this idea of loss and they circle back to it's role in the human experience. Each enumeration of loss--whether it's an explorer losing his way in the wild or the loss of a beloved friend--is paired with (sometimes rambly sometimes concise) reflections on what we learn from them:
That the world is wild, that life is unpredictable in its goodness and its danger, that the world is larger than your imagination?
As I said before, this review easily could have just been dozens and dozens of quotes. My reflections pale in comparison to hers, and there were entire pages that I underlined and filled with exclamation marks and stars. I don't think I've felt this intertwined with a book in a long time, and I spread out reading its 200 odd pages over weeks because I didn't want it to end (but then couldn't pick anything else up because nothing was as good). It reminded me how much I enjoy essays, and gave me a renewed patience for a kind of rambly, introspective writing, jumping from thought to thought and metaphor to metaphor, that I usually roll my eyes at. I'll leave you with my favorite metaphor--a two page long passage that I underlined in its entirety and re-read over and over and over:
There isn't a story to tell, because a relationship is a story you construct together and take up residence in, a story as sheltering as a house. You invent this story of how your destinies were made to entwine like porch vines, you adjust to a big view in this direction and no view in that, the doorway that you have to duck through and the window that is jammed, how who you think you are becomes a factor of who you think he is and who he thinks you are, a castle in the clouds made out of the moist air exhaled by dreamers. It's a shock to find yourself outdoors and alone again, hard to image that you could ever live in another house, big where this one was small, small where it was big, hard when your body has learned all the twists and turns of the staircase so that you could walk it in your sleep, hard when you built it from scratch and called it home, hard to imagine building again. But you lit the fire that burned it down yourself.
[...]The people close to you become mirrors and journals in which you record your history, the instruments that help you know yourself and remember yourself, and you do the same for them. When they vanish so does the use, the appreciation, the understanding of those small anecdotes, catchphrases, jokes: they become a book slammed shut or burnt. Though I came out of this house transformed, stronger and surer than I had been, and carrying with me more knowledge of myself, of men, of love, of deserts and wildernesses.  

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