The Faraway Nearby Book Club: Living Inside Your Breath

I was nine years old when Jennifer Harris threatened me every day on the schoolbus so that I ran as fast as my scrawny legs would take me up the hill to my house after the bus dropped us behind her apartment building. One day, tired of the chase, I got off the bus and taunted her, uttering a word I believed I’d just made up in the moment and would only learn years later was a gay slur neither of us would have understood at the time. But she did recognize the challenge, and took it, using her fists, feet and unsophisticated vocabulary to solidify alpha dominance for all future bus trips.

On my hands and knees on the asphalt, it may have occurred to me to wonder how I got there. It wouldn’t have occurred to me to answer, “You volunteered.”

Earlier today, in the midst of a series of events more absurd than I’d like to recount here, I did think to ask the question: How did I get to here? The answer is the same as it was when I was nine: I volunteered. I created the life I’m living, and when the walls feel too close, it’s often because of something as simple as choosing to live and breathe in that room.

In The Faraway Nearby, Rebecca Solnit relates the story of arctic explorer Peter Freuchen, who volunteered to live on an ice sheet in northeast Greenland in 1906-1907. He stayed in a nine by fifteen foot house and went out each day (during the dark winter months) to take weather measurements. The men who’d started the excursion with him had gone, and wolves had eaten his dogs.

It was so cold that even inside his cabin, even with the small coal stove, the moisture of his breath condensed into ice on the walls and ceiling. He kept breathing. The house got smaller and smaller. Early on, he wrote, two men could not pass without brushing elbows. Eventually after he was alone and the coal—’the one factor that had kept the house from growing in upon me’—was gone, he threw out the stove to make more room inside. (He still had a spirit lamp for light and boiling water.) Before winter and his task ended and relief came, he was living inside an ice cave made of his own breath that hardly left him room to stretch out to sleep. Peter Freuchen, six foot seven, lived inside the cave of his breath. (p. 200)

Freuchen volunteered for the post, and then the very act of his breathing (is there anything more basic for survival?) bit by bit shrunk the space in which he lived to something barely larger than himself.

It was as though in the stillness of a dark winter alone, he had disappeared inside himself. No one to hear him, to answer, to turn the experience into a story, or to tell stories to pass the time, just breath. …he got so lonely he developed friendships with the teakettle and pots and pans. It was a baptism by ice, and when it was over he was of the arctic… (p. 200)

The way back out of himself, for Freuchen, was a matter of winter drawing to an end and leaving his house of breath. For others of us, it may be a journey more like the slow, hands-to-the-wall walk through Path, a labyrinth constructed of gypsum where Solnit would often go to experience darkness in the neverending daylight of an Icelandic summer. Path, she wrote, “was a space in which you perfected the art of not knowing where you were, of finding out one step at a time.” (p. 187) She describes the experience as an enclosure of another sort, or perhaps similar to that of Freuchen’s house, shrinking around him even as it took on more of himself.

All the while a subtle deep bass thump like a heartbeat sounded. It reminded you that you were deep within, enclosed, contained, unborn. On you went, and on some more, unsure, unknowing, unseeing, twisting and turning. At the end the walls began to press together and it was as dark as it had been at that first moment you stepped in and closed the door behind yourself. And then you could go no farther. It seemed as though it should feel claustrophobic, but I found in it an embrace of darkness, a destination, a handmade night. (p. 187)

We choose these tight spaces, volunteer for them in a sense, with a breath here, a step into the darkness there, an agreement with another or with something far less animate, and when we fumble our way to the center, the smallest space, we turn and work our way back out.

The end of the journey through the labyrinth is not at the center, as is commonly supposed, but back at the threshold again: the beginning is also the real end. That is the home to which you return from the pilgrimage, the adventure. …it’s not ultimately a journey of immersion, but emergence. (p. 188)

To remain at the center, the perceived end, is to take only half the journey.


We’re wrapping up our discussion of Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby this week with the final chapters, 10-13. What themes in the reading echoed in your own thoughts? Perhaps you’d share a favorite quote from the book with us in the comments, or if you wrote a post on your own website, feel free to share a link.

Wednesday, February 19: The Stories We Tell Ourselves (Chapters 1-4)
Wednesday, February 26: Bodies, Betrayal and Love (Chapters 5-7)
Wednesday, March 5: Tears and the Ice Queen (Chapters 8-9)
Wednesday, March 12: Living Inside Your Breath Chapters 10-13

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

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  1. says

    Yikes! I will admit that I got claustrophobic just reading those descriptions. Such an interesting set of contrasts – an ice cave, a black-as-night maze and a labyrinth. That last one, I love. And I walk one a few time a year and experience what you (and she) described here. The breath-cave? The ink-black maze? Omigosh, my anxiety level just skyrocketed even thinking about those. As always, Lyla, beautiful writing. Hoping you’re finding your way to the other end of whatever labyrinth you find yourself in today.

    • says

      I get claustrophobic when the cabinet door is open next to me while I do dishes. Any of these settings would have been enough for me to be looking for the “eject” button. But the Amazing Shrinking Cabin of Condensation and Breath? Oh dear. Breath + condensation = vaporized spit. I’d have fared better with the wolves, I’m afraid. 😉

      Nevertheless, the labyrinth is an image that will stay with me a long time. Nice to see you here, Diana. :)

  2. says

    And then we ask ourselves… just why did I volunteer for this? And sometimes we really don’t know why. And sometimes we do. And sometimes it doesn’t even matter. All we know is… we are not going to volunteer anymore. Lest we die in our own breath cave, eventually.

    This piece is so profound that I find myself not really wanting to speak back. Like a deep piece of music, I simply want to close my eyes and somehow get lost in it and let it say things to me in ways I can’t necessarily perceive and cannot answer back to in words.

  3. says

    Well, now you have me thinking about times my breath volunteered me for something that later made me feel conscripted. (And thinking back to the years I gave up dissing for Lent.) Also thinking about how breath can be the one necessary thing that breaks these caves open. The way in is the way out. Peter Freuchen was entrapped by his own frozen breath, true. But it also saved him from being eaten by the wolves that ate his dogs. As Solnit tells us, when he went out to perform his daily work, he sang, “badly,” to keep them at bay. (Did he ever sing TO them? His predators were also, at that point, his only living companions.)

    That information about singing connects to something else I’ve been thinking about. 2012 was the happiest year of my life in a decade, and there are several reasons for that (not least among them a book contract). But I’m becoming convinced that a larger part of it was that I sang every day, and sang TO or WITH people on many days.

    I’m thinking some other things about breath, too, but instead of filling up a comment box here, maybe I will breathe it into my own blog.

    • says

      True enough, and in the spirit of the labyrinth, breathing got him into the tight spot, perhaps breathing in some way would take him back out.

      Curious to think whether singing to the wolves–rather than trying to frighten them into staying away–would have lessened the danger somehow. It would have been precarious either way, I imagine.

  4. says

    I am sitting down to write while watching a swirling curtain of snow outside the window in Ithaca. We started out the day at 50 degrees and by midnight it will be in the teen degrees! It is a beautiful but dangerous snow. So it has been a good day to reread Chapters 10-13 (while sitting in a hospital waiting room as my husband underwent cataract surgery) . These last chapters are intense, haunting. The Far North asks so much of its inhabitants, whether permanent or transitory. The stories of Peter Freuchen (a man six foot seven living “inside the cave of his own breath”!!!), Atagutaluk, and the Skeleton Woman gave me almost literal chills and reminded me of the saying that truth is stranger than fiction, though maybe one should say, as strange as fiction, considering the fantastical nature of Hans Christian Anderson fairy tales. The last chapter, the second “Apricots” (didn’t realize about her mirror-image table of Contents until I got to the end), offers a refreshing personal admission about one of the essayist’s problems: “Essayists too face the temptation of a neat ending, that point when you bring the boat to shore and tie to the dock and give up the wide sea. The thread is cut and becomes the ribbon with which everything is tied up, a sealed parcel, the end. It’s easy to do, and I’ve done it again and again, sometimes with a betrayal of the complexity of what came before, and sometimes when I haven’t done it, an editor has asked for the gift wrap and the ribbon. What if we only wanted openings, the immortality of the unfinished, the uncut thread, the incomplete, the open door, and the open sea? What if we liked the brothers to be swans and the nettles not yet woven into shirts, the straw better than the gold, the quest more than the holy grail? The quest is the holy grail, the ocean itself is the mysterious elixir, and if you’re lucky to realize it before you dock at the cup in the chapel.” (p. 249) The words “the immortality of the unfinished” feel very true and poignant to me. Life forms do die, and each death is an End. Appreciating the complexity of the journey, in a work of art such as The Faraway Nearby, is our very best shot at immortality. I think I shall have to read this book a third time!

    • says

      The story of Ataguluk was compelling, though also unsettling, but had much to say about the way we survive.

      I didn’t catch the mirroring of the chapter titles until part way through the first time either. It was clever (and I loved the supplemental story running along the bottom of the pages).

      This is something that is such a challenge for us as writers, to resist the urge to use that ribbon to tie up the ends. I think it can be a real gift that a writer gives a reader when he writes in such a way that either asks questions or invites the reader to ask them, but doesn’t provide definitive answers. There’s a discomfort (for both) that can come of that, but it also can allow the reader to enter into the writing in a different way.

      Solnit is philosophical enough to answer some questions as she goes along, but she also very skillfully leaves these things without specific answers and particular applications, allowing us to find our own selves in the midst of stories that have a universal truth to them.

  5. says

    Yoga instructors say that how you breathe is a metaphor for how you live your life, and that clarity comes in knowing how to use the one to manage the other. Some of us are deep breathers, others of us, not so much, we take in sips, express sighs; but we all have to fill up and empty out and in some kind of stable rhythm that works in concert with all the rest of the body’s rhythms. A solid like ice (a metaphor for life’s curveballs?) can get in the way, cause us to breathe in a way that disrupts or chokes off and suffocates. And that’s when we need help, maybe the ventilator that will do our breathing for us until we can find again the space we need to breathe on our own.

    • says

      The idea of the ventilator is really something, Maureen. How many times do we need that, something to breath for us (something so very basic to human functioning) for a while so we can rest and regain strength.

  6. says

    I’m with Diana. My anxiety went up just reading about his remote and isolated life without heat, no less. With only his breath as evidence of life in his ice-y prison, I wonder what kind of mental strength {if any} is required to live that kind of life. I found it hard to read such dismal circumstances because I questioned if that’s truly living at all, how is that? Yet, as we turn the scope on us to mirror the question of “how is that”, I can relate to volunteering for something which led me to difficult situations where breathing was a chore unto itself. But I assume there are things which go beyond my control, such a my heat source breaking down on me, which reminds me every breath I breathe is also Divinely appointed to inhale and exhale, otherwise I’d be expired. So I may volunteer, but other things volunteer ME. But despite the source of volunteering {or the whom}, there is a Divine providence which keeps me intact, breathing, and alive enough to make my way out of it, just like Peter Freuchen. :)

    • says

      Right, definitely not the job for everyone! :) And yet, I think that he did have a real life out there, isolated and with wondering daily, I’m sure, if he’d survive to the next. He had a purpose in being there, work to do. I was very interested to read how when the winter ended, “he was of the Arctic” and went on to continue in similar work and exploration. Many of us, I think, would have been looking for assignments in the tropics afterward. :)

  7. Sheila Dailie says

    The ghostly frozen images of the house of breath will haunt me for a long time, especially after one of the coldest winters I can remember. And Diana, the dark maze gave me inner shivers, too!

    However the sentence that loops reruns through my head is this: “Things that never lived don’t die…” Perhaps because of the emergency (pg. 249) with my mother-in-law, and watching the movie “Gravity” it held a deeper poignancy. As I continue to move closer to being an “older woman” my heart’s desire is that people will know that I truly lived!

    • says

      As much as I don’t like the sense of feeling enclosed, I am so intrigued by the labyrinth that I think I would like to experience it. :) (You know, just once… )

      That is a powerful statement. A person can live in an inert state so to speak for a very long time, I suppose, and on some level it becomes questionable when the moment of dying actually occurs. (Did the person, for instance, “die” when he decided to deny his soul breath, and food, and drink, or only when his body caught up to it?)

      I do wonder, though, if it’s as important that people would know that one lived in such a way, or that, more simply, that one would truly live. That is to say, I’m not sure if that sort of living can fully be done under the shadow of whether people know it or not. :)

      • Sheila Dailie says

        Hmm, you pose another intriguing line of thought. Perhaps I should have more specifically said that my family would know….

  8. says

    Lyla… I haven’t read this book (although it’s on my list now after reading this), but I just want to say that your keen insight always lights up important things (that maybe I don’t even want to look at).

    And how did that happen for me this time, through your words? With you answering your own question (everybody’s question at one time or another):

    “How did I get to here? The answer is the same as it was when I was nine: I volunteered.”

    So, from outside the book but glad to have the chance to eavesdrop :) thanks….

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