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The Faraway Nearby Book Club: We Tell Ourselves Stories

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the faraway nearby rebecca solnit book club

I was 16 when I learned I did not have blue eyes. I don’t actually recall how the discovery was made, but somehow in the course of applying for a driver’s license, I was made to check Green. Not Blue.

I knew my eyes were blue from my baby book, which I loved to read as a child. I fingered the peculiar plastic-coated I.D. bracelets from the hospital, taped on the inside pages. I peeked at the snips of dark hair, saved in an envelope from my first haircut, a stark contrast from the towhead I’d grown into. It was right there on page 6:

Color of eyes: blue
Color of hair: dark brown
Brows: very light
Lashes: none (a follow up note in my mother’s hand: “later, they were dark”)
Complexion: pink
Shape of head: very good (relief, again)

It seems I was born like a cat, with baby blues that later turned to green. While eventually I acclimated to the truth, it was troubling for some time. This sense of betrayal conveniently ignored the fact that those same eyes—green, not blue—looked at themselves in the mirror day after day and never breathed a word.

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” writes Rebecca Solnit, and I find myself wishing she’d used a period there, instead of a comma. I want to believe we tell ourselves the good stories, the right stories, the ones that really will help us live. But she did use a comma and went right on talking about the other kinds of stories we tell and the other kinds of reasons we tell them.

We tell ourselves stories in order to live, or to justify taking lives, even our own, by violence or by numbness and the failure to live; tell ourselves stories that save us and stories that are the quicksand in which we thrash and the well in which we drown, stories of justification, of accursedness, of luck and star-crossed love, or versions clad in the cynicism that is at times a very elegant garment. (The Faraway Nearby, p. 3)

She’s not even saying yet whether the stories we tell ourselves are true. Sometimes our stories are true. Sometimes our stories are not. Sometimes, I daresay, our stories are both, and at the very same time. They are true and they are not, and they can look us right in the green eye and we wouldn’t know for certain, but we live as though we do.

Maybe it’s that we get fuzzy on the details. “Memory,” she says, “is a shifting, fading, partial thing, a net that doesn’t catch all the fish by any means and sometimes catches butterflies that don’t exist.” (p. 12)

And maybe it’s not just memory but context, the way green eyes are prone to change themselves, turning up one day more blue or green or gray than they did the day before, depending on the color of one’s button-down Oxford shirt.

No matter. Either way, we tell ourselves these stories, the ones that keep us alive, the ones that make us grow numb, the ones that wrap themselves around our ankles and pull us under, and it’s really quite a remarkable day when we discover a new story, or perhaps a piece of an old story we’d not ever considered before.

Solnit recounts the fairy tale of “The Wild Swans” in brief. It’s a story of eleven enchanted brothers, young men who are swans by day, human at night. Their only hope for wholeness, for disenchantment (what she tells us is the “blessing of becoming yourself”) lies with their lone sister. She is charged with the complicated and impossible task of knitting mail shirts for each of them from nettles gathered with her bloodied hands from churchyard graves. Somehow, because fairy tales work this way, she accomplishes the task (or nearly does), casting the shirts over each of her brothers just moments before she herself is to be burned to death.

There’s the youngest brother, though. The last in line. She didn’t have time to finish his second sleeve, so when the shirt goes on and he transforms back into a man, one arm remains a wing. One brother remains “eternally a swan-man.”

The story of the swan-man was one I had never heard. Oh, I’d told my own version of it, the same story you’ve perhaps told yourself, about the one arm that isn’t what it should be. Incomplete, just like the mail shirt that failed to fully transform the youngest brother. Are all of us, in some way, our own iteration of the swan-man?

In Hans Christian Andersen’s full telling of the story, when the brothers fly across the sea with their sister in tow, it is the younger brother’s wing which shields Eliza (yes, that’s her name) from the sun. It is the younger brother’s strong white feathers which encompass Eliza when the waves crash upon the rock where they are standing. There’s a story right there, if a younger brother wanted to tell it.

Some people, as it turns out,  like green eyes, even favor them to a deep baby blue. Some people, as it also turns out, appreciate the way a swan’s feathers fan out where there might have been a sleeve.

_______________

We’re reading Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby together. Are you reading along? This week we read the first four chapters, in which Solnit wrote of the power of story, about aging parents, about memory and adventure and the solitude of the writer. (Yes, she wrote of a dozen other things; these will be full weeks together.) Tell us about your stories—the ones that are most powerful (for life and for not living) and what makes them so. What other themes in the reading echoed in your own thoughts? Perhaps you’d share with us in the comments, or if you wrote a post on your own website, feel free to share a link.

And we’d love for you to join us again next week for chapters 5-7.

Wednesday, February 19: The Stories We Tell Ourselves (Chapters 1-4)
Wednesday, February 26: Chapters 5-7
Wednesday, March 5: Chapters 8-10
Wednesday, March 12: Chapters 11-13

Photo by Nick Harris1. Creative Commons license via Flickr. Post by L. Willingham Lindquist.

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Your Comments

34 Comments so far

  1. jdukeslee says:

    My baby books told me that when my babies were born, their eyes would probably be grayish or blue. Something called melanocytes respond to light, after all that time of being in the dark. If there’s a little melanin, eyes will stay blue. If there’s more, eyes will turn green or hazel. It takes about a year for the melanin to do its work, so it’s hard to predict eye color before a baby turns one.

    Maybe that’s what we all need to do. To spend some time in the light, to give ourselves space and time to become who we really are.

    And to know that the feathers, they help us really fly.

    {This is an exquisite piece of writing.}

  2. So many highlighted sections, but I’ll pull this one because this is exactly where I came from in the past year and half {to telling and clutching my story now}: “Despair compresses you into a small space, and a depression literally a hollow in the ground. To dig deeper into the self, to go underground, is sometimes necessary, but so is the other route of getting out of yourself, into the larger world, into the openness in which you clutch your story and your troubles so tightly to your chest.”

  3. Laura Brown says:

    Well, when Joan Didion first wrote that sentence, in her essay “The White Album,” she did end it with a period. She gives examples that are a mashup of fairy tales and news:

    “We tell ourselves stories in order to live. The princess is caged in the consulate. The man with the candy will lead the children into the sea. The naked woman on the ledge outside the window on the sixteenth floor is a victim of accidie, or the naked woman is an exhibitionist, and it would be ‘interesting’ to know which. We tell ourselves that it makes some difference whether the naked woman is about to commit a mortal sin or is about to register a political protest or is about to be, the Aristophanic view, snatched back to the human condition by the fireman in priest’s clothing just visible in the window behind her, the one smiling at the telephoto lens. We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the ‘ideas’ with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria — which is our actual experience.”

    So the truth of these stories we tell, that’s part of the question, isn’t it? To try to make sure we’re not leading ourselves or someone else off a cliff with the stories we tell? Is there something intrinsic in us that makes us want to impose a narrative line on our experience?

    Interesting about your eyes. I think we all have the disorienting experience of coming to question some story we’ve been told.

    • Really fascinating quote from Didion. I suspect these two authors are neither the first nor the last to use the line. :)

      Yeah, I was quite put out about the eyes. I’m not sure why. But these days I marvel more at how I could go a decade and a half and never recognize they were not the color I was told (and told others) they were.

      I think we tell the best stories we can at any given time. There are stories I tell myself (and others) now that I didn’t have the wherewithal to tell when I was 16. And so many stories I’ve told before that I can’t bring myself to tell now. But I’ve told them because I believed them to be true.

      • “I think we tell the best stories we can at any given time.”

        Thank you for this. I’m going to be carrying it around with me today.

        I love collecting stories–especially family stories. I’ve realized, lately, that the stories I remember and the ones my siblings remember don’t always match up. It doesn’t mean we’re not remembering the same stories, just different pieces of the same ones, I guess. And we’re all re-telling them the best way we can.

        Though I have been known to improvise a few details now and again.

        • Solnit talks about this, the improvisation of details. She tells of the apricot tree: “there is a picture of me in my 20s, my feet planted on a couple of bare boughs, pruning shears in hand, looking at ease up there.”

          Then she pulled the old Polaroid out of the box: “actually I was standing atop a tall ladder next to the tree with something unrecognizable in my hand. It was my younger brother in the companion snapshot who was standing in the apricot tree itself with the pruning shears.”

          We rewrite our memories all the time. Change the details without realizing. I do suspect that the truth of the story that opened this piece it’s possible that I discovered my green eyes well before 16, but the more memorable aspect of it is having to check that box on my license app. I only know for sure that I believed them to be blue long past when I should have realized they were green, and that I was indignant about it when I finally did.

  4. Lyla this post is so beautifully written. I can’t highlight a favorite part because I am swooning in a sea of gorgeous prose. Wobbly weak in the knees.
    I am grateful to have this group discussion in place as this story hits very close to my own heart and soul places.
    I have a mother with dementia. It may have been a bit lonely to read through this lovely book alone. I look forward to discussing it here.
    Her writing voice reminds me a bit of L.L. Barkat’s. Anyone else here the ring of the familiar?
    What a glorious choice. Back to the pages of the book. More later….ewm

    • Would be a very poignant read for someone in the midst of a similar journey. I hope you find the the comment space sometime to take the edge off the loneliness of that walk. And I look forward to your ongoing thoughts. :)

  5. It’s taking me a long time to get out of the first chapter as I’m lingering over every line.

    There’s this whole apricot thing.

    And “empathy is first of all an act of imagination.”

    And this: “Memory, even in the rest of us, is a shifting, fading, partial thing, a net that doesn’t catch all the fish by any means and sometimes catches butterflies that don’t exist.”

    I can identify with that.

    Then there’s this fairy tale thing and “Disenchantment is the blessing of becoming yourself.” And I never thought about how fairy tales focus on the powerless.

    And this: “In the preferred stories the last years of life are golden and the old all ripen into wisdom, no decay into disease that mimic mental illness and roll backward into chaotic childhood and beyond.”

    Collapsing into childhood chaos is one of my biggest fears. And I think if it has to happen how I want it to be swift like my mom’s brain cancer.

    I want to write like this woman!

  6. Oh, and then there’s this whole story thing at the bottom of the pages… I’m glad I didn’t get this on Kindle!

  7. OOPPS. My comment got cut off :) What is missing in cyber space is this. I love this book what am I missing at the bottom of the pages, the real pages. Someone fill me in on what is missing from my kindle. I LOVE this book so much. Going to buy the version that has real pages and a real spine asap.

    • In the print version, she writes another chapter in a single line across the bottom of each page. It begins like this:

      “Moths drink the tears of sleeping birds. This is the title of a short scientific report from 2006, and the moths are a species on the island of Madagascar named Hemiceratoides hieroglyphica, but the title is a sentence, and the sentence reads like a ballad of one line or a history compressed down to its barest essentials.”

      You’ll like. :)

  8. Sheila Dailie says:

    At the end of a long Wednesday, I had forgotten about this discussion beginning. So glad to be reading this and the validation that it gives to my own experience. “You freeze up in childhood, you go numb, because you cannot change your circumstances and to recognize, name, and feel the emotions and their cruel causes would be unbearable, and so you wait.”

    Though I recognized this about twenty years ago, most people that I was brave enough to reveal that numbness looked at me with frozen eyes, like it was impossible to not feel for such an extended period of time.

    Plus, I have loved the playground of Lyla’s mind for as long as I have been privileged to know her. (Just for the record, she was one of the first to listen to my numbness!)

    • I think it’s true that the numbness is a necessary mechanism, if one isn’t yet in a place to manage an experience otherwise. Hopefully, though, we find our way to put color back into our blue and white fingers and toes, sooner than late.

  9. “The Wild Swans” was one of my favorite Hans Christian Anderson fairy tales as a child. It gave imagery to my perception that there is always someone in a family that has a broken wing or a wing that shouldn’t be there. I understood the desire of the sister to protect and restore. And, I understand so well why Solnit makes the connection between fairy tales and her mother’s Alzheimers. My mother had fairly early onset Alzheimers, and it lasted over 10 years. When she stopped talking, that silence was harder than all the wretched losses caused by Alzheimers that had gone before. I do particularly love the first chapter, as someone noted above. I read the book first in December and now I am rereading it. There are so many wonderful stories, but one that resonates most for me is apricots/mother story. Daughters have such complex relationships with their mothers. What do you do with too many apricots? What do you do with a mother’s legacy? In the “Ice” chapter, Solnit makes so many profound statements about the nature/problem of the self. I like so much the sentence (p. 53, print book) that “Many of the great humanitarian and environmental campaigns of our time have been to to make the unknown real, the invisible visible, to bring the faraway near, so that the suffering of sweatshop workers, torture victims, beaten children, even the destrucion of other species and remote places, impinges on the imagination and perhaps prompts you to act. It’s also a narrative art of explaining the connections between your food or your clothing or your government and this suffering far from sight in which you nonetheless play a role. The suffering before you, in your own home or bed or life, can be harder to see, sometimes, as is the self who is implicated.” Solnit writes always, and beautifully, as an environmentalist.

    • The apricots form such a compelling thread throughout the book, and yes, so many ways to see relationship through them. So, what *do* you do with too many apricots? ;-)

      • Well, in answer to the question “what do you do with too many apricots?” I would say that I have learned to practice the art of allowing rotting/benign spoilage to take place. A better way of saying this might be to answer–to practice the art of composting. We have to allow the artefacts of our loved ones’ lives and our own lives to subside, to be in the category of the unuseful. An example: when we cleaned out my mother’s root cellar we had to throw away 90 quart jars of canned plums. I had to stop myself from thinking my mother’s life had been a failure because she had made too many canned plums or because no one had eaten them. Should she have been doing something else more “useful”? Is throwing them away useful or not? Not every apricot can be eaten. Not every aspect of our mother’s life can become part of us. It is all so imperfect, which is where rottenness comes in. But composting or compostedness is a nicer word! I hope this makes some sense.

  10. Vicki Addesso says:

    I am always interested in the subject of memory. I’ve kept a journal for over 35 years, & I write memoir sometimes (co-authored a book about the relationships between mothers & daughters, wrote about my mother and myself) so this quote enthralled me:
    “Memory, even in the rest of us, is a shifting, fading, partial thing, a net that doesn’t catch all the fish by any means and sometimes catches butterflies that don’t exist.”
    Often, in the memoir writing workshops I have taken or taught, the discussions revolve around “truth” and “memory”, their relationship to each other. And I have come to realize that my memories are my truth…even though I know that memory is not perfect/complete/fool-proof. My memories of a particular event from my childhood can be at odds with how my sisters or brother remember the same event. It is what & how I remember things – & what I do not remember/have forgotten – that has shaped who I am now. The way I have remembered carries emotions & a perspective that guides me forward. And memory is fluid…as I age, mature, change, gain experience, the memories I have carried for so long are washed in a new light, and my connection to them, my emotions about them, cause me to see new truths in them.
    I have read the first 2 chapters so far, and am so enjoying this book – looking forward to moving on. So glad I discovered the writing of Rebecca Solnit.

    • The idea that our memories are variable, and not completely reliable can be a bit jarring, but it’s so true. I remember things quite in a different way than others in my family would. I think if we each independently recounted any given event, we’d have five different accounts. It’s just the way it works. And yes — the way we have remembered these things shapes us, for better or worse. Love that you recognize now that there are still new truths to be found in those memories. Thanks for coming in, Vicki. Happy to see you here. :)

      • Vicki, I have ordered your book. I love the title “Still Here Thinking of You: A Second Chance with our Mothers.” It occurs to me that Solnit’s writing fits right in with your writer’s group (which led to your book). There is so much that we cannot realize about our mothers’ lives until we have walked to the same place in the road. We do have a second chance, especially if we write about the relationship. I like what Solnit says in Chapter 3, “Flight,” about the writer, always battling solitude, but bringing the faraway (the reader) to the nearby (the writer). She writes on p. 64 that “Writing is saying to no one and to everyone the things it is not possible to say to someone.” That someone is often a parent. Through her writing I feel Solnit brings her mother nearby, which is a good place for a mother to be, if it is possible.

        • Vicki Addesso says:

          That quote…”Writing is saying to no one and to everyone the things it is not possible to say to someone.” practically knocked me out of my seat! It was a long and complicated process, to write about my relationship with my mother – often I questioned my motivation…what was the point/who cares? But I was compelled. And writing with others (the 3 women other women in our writing group) was such a comfort. The support and guidance we were able to provide each other was wonderful. But most important, to share our stories, and see ourselves & our mothers through the eyes of someone else, that was life changing. It was healing. I don’t think I could have written such personal stories in isolation. Reading Solnit’s book (I have never read her before, but now I can’t wait to read everything by her) is so inspiring. She travels on words, through time & space, so confidently – and it is such a solitary enterprise. I am inspired to work harder at my writing, and not to be so afraid of the “aloneness” of it all. (I so hope you enjoy our book!) Peace.

  11. Vicki Addesso says:

    “It was as though the book had become a door; people were entering the book and then stepping into my life and drawing me into theirs.” Wow. Rebecca Solnit’s writing is so beautiful, so seamlessly flowing, it seems effortless – & yet, to write like this must take such dedication, focus, and passion. She wanders from subject to subject, back and forth from the completely personal to examining literary masterpieces, from the apricots strewn on her floor at home to the landscape of Iceland – and it all makes sense, it connects, it is weaving a tale. And in the midst of telling this tale, she steps back, and looks at herself as a writer, as a person in the moment writing these words, and is able to see how they (the words/the book) travel on from her to become part of another’s life. And then she can see how the words she has written, the book she has made (like a poem is made, like a chair is made – “Making a poem is like making a chair; a poem is as real as a chair and sometimes more useful.”) becomes something else, something useful, this door through which we can pass.

    • L. L. Barkat says:

      Vicki, I was quite struck today, reading about Solnit’s development. I think the fact that she read *a novel a day* for years while growing up is what probably gave her such incredible skill, as she took in the structure of language and story so deeply, for so long, before ever becoming a writer.

      I’m with you. She’s really something. :)


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