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
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