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”)
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
Buy The Faraway Nearby now