The title comes from the way Georgia O'Keefe signed her letters to loved ones after she moved from New York City to New Mexico. "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." (p. 108)
Solnit investigates those boundaries of the self.
The self is also a creation, the principal work of
your life, the crafting of which makes everyone an
artist. This unfinished work of becoming ends only
when you do, if then, and the consequences live on.
We make ourselves and in so doing are the gods of
the small universe of self and the large world of
repercussions. p. 53
I can't really tell you what this book is about, for there are stories within stories and sometimes connections are made, but then sometimes not. One thread is her mother and the Alzheimer's that is enveloping her. But then there are the stories of Frankenstein and of Che Guevara and of an interlude in Iceland and many others. I like books that take me for a labyrinthine journey, and this book does that for sure.
You can speak as though your life is a thread, a
narrative unspooling in time, and a story is a thread,
but each of us is an island from which countless threads
extend out into the world. p. 144
The Art of Preservation
The entrance to the labyrinth is apricots from her mother's tree; apricots that needed attention before they decayed, before they were rotten, and at the same time her mother was disintegrating.
One strand in that thread of the story is the act of preserving something.
I wish I could put up yesterday's evening sky for all
posterity, could preserve a night of love, the sound
of a mountain stream, a realization as it sets my mind
afire, a dance, a day of harmony, ten thousand glorious
days of clouds that will instead vanish and never be seen
again, line them up in jars where they might be admired
in the interim and tasted again as needed. pp. 83-84
What would you preserve if you could?
I would preserve the first glimpse of each child, each grandchild. And so many other firsts--the first taste of chocolate, the first shared secret with a friend, and the first sight of Paris. I would preserve my mother's next to last breath and a collection of "I love yous" -- how pretty they would be displayed in a glass bowl, sparkling in candlelight. How could I not preserve women gathered on the beach doing T'ai Chi together, absorbing the energy of the waves and the warmth of the sun and sand? And the feeling of being home when I walked in the back door of our once upon a time home, Sweetwater Farm?
What I would preserve are blessings gathered through a lifetime.
The Take Away
With a book like this it is not always easy to pinpoint its fruits.
What do I take away from this book?
I think I take away the reminder that each of us has more than one story going on in our lives at the same time, and some of those stories twist and wind around each other and can't be separated in order to find the beginning and the end. Some of those stories are influenced mightily by others' stories and not necessarily others' whom you can easily identify. Not always someone in your family tree.
Some are stories we tell ourselves, and some are ones we have been told and adopt for ourselves, but ultimately we need to choose which ones to preserve and what they are going to look like and sound like.
The present rearranges the past. We never tell the story
whole because a life isn't a story; it's a whole Milky Way
of events and we are forever picking out constellations
from it to fit who and where we are. p. 246.
Mary Hayes Grieco in a book I was reading at the same time, The New Kitchen Mystic, refers to the "front and the back" of our stories. I often refer, instead, to shadow and light, but Solnit sees story as "the point of entry to larger territories," (p. 194)
Listen: you are not yourself, you are crowds of others,
you are as leaky a vessel as was ever made, you have
spent vast amounts of your life as someone else, as
people who died long ago, as people who never lived,
as people you never met....There are other ways of
telling. p. 248.
Do you see why I can't tell you what this book is about and why I can't state in one sentence what the take away from this book is for me?
Still, however, I know it is a call similar to what the call of this stage of life is--to examine my story, to identify the threads, and to do the best I can to let go of what no longer serves the larger constellation.
The two jars before me are like stories written down;
they preserve something that might otherwise vanish.
Some stories are best let go, but the process of writing
down and giving stories away fixes a story in its
particulars, like the apricots fixed in their sweet syrup,
and the tale no longer belongs to the writer but to the
readers. And what is left out is left out forever. p. 239.
Through my spiritual practices I fill the jars and preserve the fruit and offer it to others, both in hopes that I will know my own essence, but also that others will be nourished.
Yes, there is the big story of the book, but then there are the lines that resonate all on their own. Here are a few:
"Never turn down an adventure without a really good reason." pp. 35, 74, and 250.
"Books are solitudes in which we meet." p. 54
"Your door is my wall; your wall is my door." 58
About Buddhist monks: "They lived in the trust that the bowls would be filled." p. 146
"Creation is always in the dark because you can only do the work of making by not quite knowing what you're doing, by walking into darkness, not staying in the light. Ideas emerge from edges and shadows to arrive in the light..." p. 185
Of course, I invite you to read this book or any of Solnit's other books, but I am also interested to know your ideas about story. And how about sending me a list of what you want to preserve?