I’ve crowned this year, “Year of Essays.” And while I’d also really like to dedicate some time to the Outlander series and the free audiobooks I got when I cheated the system and got Audible for only as long as it took me to choose four free books — I may have stolen BJ’s too — approximately four minutes and thirty-seven seconds, I still want to read more nonfiction in the form of the essay. I want to finally unpack Annie Dillard, Virginia Woolf, and Annie Proulx from my shelf. Basically, I want to read more women who fought back. I’ve read A LOT of memoir and can swallow a short story in a sitting, but the form that always eludes me is the essay. Maybe because I’ve tried to write several about the same ex-boyfriend? And maybe because I’m not sure how to know when to stop writing an essay?
I think it’s only fair then that I start with Rebecca Solnit. She is the new age queen of the nonfiction essay. You may have seen her book Men Explain Things to Me all over Subways and feminist Instagram posts. Her latest Hope in the Dark is on my reading list for this year so that I can try to make it through a Washington Post Twitter feed without crying in the morning before I’ve even had coffee. However, I started with A Field Guide to Getting Lost. If you follow me on Instagram (@bookishcassie, shameless plug) then you know that I’ve felt very lost lately.
I actually think I’m losing brain matter, teaching kept me sharp. And I’ve always loved the poem by Elizabeth Bishop, “One Art.” During my worst year in college, the frustration came out in the form of locking my keys in my car. Even once overnight, while running in the rain, I lost my keys to a dead engine. I cried to the last triple A guy, on the twelfth time. You read that right, 12 incidents in a year of losing my mind long enough to leave my keys enclosed somewhere I wasn’t. In the beginning of our relationship, BJ was constantly losing things, or leaving them somewhere and forgetting them until just the right moment of overtime when we were walking out the door. He doesn’t do this anymore, but I remember it being a test for me, I thought. The little things we can handle due to love.
And I imagine these scenes of oddly connected things is what leads an essay. At the deconstruction of an essay, if demolished, it would be these strange miscellaneous tools and objects that we’ve weaved together, not like a loom, but like shaking-hand crochet, to make meaning. I think, at least, this is what Rebecca Solnit is doing in A Field Guide to Getting Lost. There were moments where it worked for me so hard that I was furiously underlining passages and moments where this read more like a text book than a thoughtful process of braiding moments.
In the beginning she loiters over the idea of distance and the color of distance, blue. We walk through mountains, towards an island on a dry lake, and through paintings — the amusement of painters in flight. This idea that distance and going towards it is a way of getting lost guides the reader through Solnit’s dreams from her childhood home. Memories from this place haunt her dreams although she left the place in her late teens. There’s the distance between men and gold, the distance of extinct animals who both come back and remain undone. This long-form essay is both a love letter to the distance of the desert and to a home that we can’t go back to. All of these geographically lost things given new homes on the page. What we can know, what we pretend to know, and how our previous knowledge fills in gaps that we shouldn’t fill in is all also a part of this. It’s our minds mixed with our place if I could describe it in the weakest terms.
“I survived not the outside world, but the inside one” (90).
I know this just sounds like some weird gak of nonsense, but it was beautiful at times. There were moments where I could have licked the words to hold them in and moments where I was falling asleep reading. I didn’t understand the ending on the Gold Rush trails, it all felt very boring-Oregan-Trail to me, but I think the message stands firm. One must get lost to know oneself. I’m sure some philosopher has said that well before me and in better form. We all do have something to find after all, right?
There were moments too when I was like “YAS, GIRL” because what she was saying was so true to what we’re currently living. If you wake up devastated to the news you read, then you are feeling somewhat lost in a place that no longer looks like the home we’ve built as a nation.
“In these terms, even nostalgia and homesickness are privileges not granted to everyone” (123).
If you don’t read that quote thinking about refugees that have been further displaced by new “Executive Orders,” then you need to pick up a newspaper, or phone a friend.
“Such moments seem to mean that you have surrendered to the story being told and are following the story line rather than trying to tell it yourself, your puny voice interrupting and arguing with fate, nature, the gods” (134).
This, the time we finally decide to stand, against any odd.
“Between words is silence, around ink whiteness, behind every map’s information is what’s left out, the unmapped and unmappable. One of those in-depth local or state atlases that map ethnicity and education and principal crops and percentage foreign-born makes it clear that any place can be mapped infinite ways, that maps are deeply selective” (160).
I’d be lying if I believed that where you were born didn’t immediately dictate about fifty-percent of your life choices. As a privileged American woman, I face the idea of sliding into complacency and believing I’m owed what I’m given. The other option is realizing my own privilege and trying to narrow those gaps by fighting side by side, and listening to those who are faced with far less than I. I think Solnit finds that deep connection to geography, to home, to the memories that we apply to every landscape we press feet to. I think Dr. Seuss and the mantra “Oh the Places You Go” would be the child version of this idea.
I can’t argue that this is a perfect book by any means. But the ideas in it, the way they’re imperfectly balanced against and for one another made this such a meaningful read. I will read the rest of Solnit this year and I will eat each word like a delicacy because I know not everyone, and especially not all girls are given that right.
And words are everyone’s right.