Lately, I’ve really enjoyed reading Rebecca Solnit’s work. You may have heard of her book, Men Explain Things to Me, which I have yet to read (but is on my growing list!). I ended last year with The Mother of All Questions, and I definitely recommend it for anyone and everyone who cares about the world…yes, I understand this puts you in a position where you automatically qualify if you’re an inherently good person. Anyway, read it! You won’t be disappointed.
Today, I want to share a few quotes from A Field Guide to Getting Lost. Solnit is incredibly quotable…her writing is thoughtful, honest, powerful, and full of meaning. She writes with purpose and spouts of genius seem to freely flow from her words. I love that Solnit uses her writing not only as a means to say what she believes, but also to tell the stories and sentiments of others. She celebrates other artists and thinkers in the development and support of her own ideas. To give you a taste of her magic, here are seven quotes that I really enjoyed.
1. “The mystic Simone Weil wrote to a friend on another continent, ‘Let us love this distance, which is thoroughly woven with friendship, since those who do not love each other are not separated’ For Weil, love is the atmosphere that fills and colors the distance between herself and her friend.” (p. 31)
Because in Ireland I am far from the friends and family I grew up with, I’ve sometimes resented the physical distance. When I read this quote, I felt a sense of comfort and gained a further understanding of that resentment. Maybe instead of resentment, it is actually just the aches of separation. If I did not love my friends and family in the United States, I would not think of myself as separated from them. So, thank you, Simone and Rebecca for reminding me of the goodness behind my occasional negative feelings and thoughts. I do love this distance, and will continue loving every circumstantial distance between me and my family and friends (old and new).
2. “There is no distance in childhood: for a baby, a mother in the other room is gone forever, for a child the time until a birthday is endless. Whatever is absent is impossible, irretrievable, unreachable. Their mental landscape is like that of medieval paintings: a foreground full of vivid things and then a wall. The blue of distance comes with time, with the discovery of melancholy, of loss, the texture of longing, of the complexity of the terrain we traverse, and with the years of travel.” (p. 39)
To illustrate this quote, I’ve chosen an image of The Last Supper painted by Maesto Duccio in the Medieval period contrasted with Leonardo DaVinci’s famous last supper painted in the Renaissance period. In DaVinci’s version, you can see into the distance of the background. Though it’s not clear what, there is obviously something beyond what’s in the forefront. This concept of a coming-of-age understanding of distance fascinates me. Distance can be frightening and overwhelming but exciting all at the same time. If our minds were forever fixed like those of a child, imagine the possibilities we would not conceive of.
3. “The people thrown into other cultures go through something of the anguish of the butterfly, whose body must disintegrate and reform more than once in its life cycle… But the butterfly is so fit an emblem of the human soul that its name in Greek is “psyche,” the word for soul. We have not much language to appreciate this phase of decay, this withdrawal, this era of ending that must precede beginning. Nor of the violence of the metamorphosis, which is often spoken of as though it were as graceful as a flower blooming.” (p. 81)
Using the butterfly as a symbol for understanding a transformation undergone in an individual’s life is a powerful metaphor for any situation. I can relate very specifically to Solnit’s description because I entered another culture in moving to Ireland. I realize I am in a predominantly English-speaking western society, nevertheless, my Irish life vaguely resembles my American one. In my adjustment to living here, I experienced unexpected internal hardship and can attest to the experience of a “phase of decay.” My experience in Ireland has made me a different individual, and I would not describe the process as graceful. Despite the discomfort of change, there is undeniable beauty in its outcomes. I am humbled and more grateful as a result of the process of adjustment, discovery, and reexamination.
4. “Mountaineering is always spoken of as though summiting is a conquest, but as you get higher, the world gets bigger, and you feel smaller in proportion to it, overwhelmed and liberated by how much space is around you, how much room to wander, how much unknown.” (p. 151)
As someone who truly loves the pursuit of the summit, I enjoy the message behind this quote. It shares a thought I’ve had, but was not able to put words to. I’ve had the pleasure of summiting mountains in the United States and abroad. Initially, I think my affinity towards climbing was about the conquest and appearance of strength and bravery. Through experience, I’ve learned that I had a very limited understanding of the complexity within the activity. Reaching a summit is a mental and physical achievement; it also serves as a reminder of the powerful expanse of the world and an opportunity to question our individual significance.
5. “Worry is a way to pretend that you have knowledge or control over what you don’t--and it surprises me, even in myself, how much we prefer ugly scenarios to the pure unknown.” (p. 165)
I like to present an aura of carefree, happy-go-lucky living, but I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a worrier. I worry about where I’ll find my next job, if I’m doing “enough” each day, if I’m being the best friend I can be, how I’ll accomplish my goals, I even worry about what I’m going to do with free time. At times, I’ve definitely wished for something known to replace my worry—even if it’s not something I’m necessarily excited about. For me, there is comfort in knowing for the structure and sense of control it provides. I have to remind myself that worrying is not a problem-solving state of mind. I am far more content when I embrace the unknown and allow my worries to subside. In living a creative life, it’s essential for some things to be left unknown. I will continue to strive to further accept this notion. Regardless, I am grateful to hear that Solnit has felt similarly, despite her success.
6. “In 1957, Yves Klein painted a globe his deep electric blue, and with this gesture it became a world without divisions between countries, between land and water, as though the earth itself had become sky, as though looking down was looking up.” (p. 168)
Yves Klein’s attraction to color is something that I share with my own artistic practice. I am impressed by his use of color as a tool for erasing the fractures and separations we’ve created in our communities and world. This action of erasure should be done repeatedly and in any form possible. It does not literally have to be done with the symbolic painting of a globe, but if we each found our own tools for reducing the ugliness of fragmentation, we could break down some serious barriers of injustice and inequality (and possibly prevent new ones from forming).
7. “Material objects witness everything and say nothing. Animals say more. And they are disappearing.” (p. 187)
This quote demands an examination of the value society places on things—both living and non. I don’t have any wonderful insights to add to this statement, but as a lifelong animal-lover, I support efforts to preserve every species we have left on this earth. Though some are more lovable than others, I think we can learn something from every living thing and how it behaves and interacts with its surroundings. If we all spent a little less on the material and reallocated those funds towards preservation of the living, imagine what we could accomplish.
I hope you enjoy the snippets of Solnit’s work as much as I do. It was incredibly hard to choose only seven quotes, so if any of these leave you wanting more, get your hands on a copy of the full book. Here’s a link to the book from one of my favorite online bookstores (BookDepository, they always have free shipping worldwide). Happy reading!