Skip navigation

Tag Archives: Rebecca Solnit

“The seashore is an edge, perhaps the only true edge in the world whose borders are otherwise mostly political fictions, and it defies the usual idea of borders by being unfixed, fluctuant, and infinitely permeable. The seashore is the place that is no place, sometimes solid land or, rather, sand, sometimes the shallow fringe of that huge body of water governed by the remote body of the moon in a mystery something like love or desire…

“The sea lapping like a cat at a saucer of milk, or rather, since it is the liquid which acts, the sea like a vast saucer of milk lapping at a recumbent cat. The sea laps at the land, or the sea is in the lap of the land…

“The sea that always seems like a metaphor, but one that is always moving, cannot be fixed, like a heart that is like a tongue that is like a mystery that is like a story that is like a border that is like something altogether different and like everything at once. One thing leads to another, and this is the treasure that always runs through your fingers and never runs out.”

– Rebecca Solnit, “Seashell to Ear”

“When the Spanish laid out cities in the Americas, they began with the plaza. Every place had a center, and when a place has a center, you know where you are. What terrifies me about sprawl is the sense that there are no centers and no edges, just a random quilt of strip malls and subdivisions all the way to the horizon. Such places make me feel adrift, without a sense of meaning or direction. I’ve always thought that San Francisco’s livelier public life wasn’t about our virtue, just our geography, symbolic and practical. We’re full of centers and boulevards, starting points, destinations, and alluring routes between them. The place just seems to encourage marching and gathering and walking. This might be what people mean when they call San Francisco the country’s most European city…

“Cities are where people are citizens, where they coexist in public, generating that public life so vital to a democracy, which depends on our sense of connection and trust in strangers, who become less strange when we move among them every day. Too many American cities are just vast suburbs, with people segregated by race, income, and avocation, and by their dependence on private automobiles to get around. Even in true cities, democracy, citizenship, public life can be just words. But in UN Plaza, you can stand and look east at TRUTH or west past Bolivar to image the curve of the earth over the blue horizon toward Asia; or you can just look your fellow human beings in the eye and know that you’re a citizen, of a city, of a state, of the world.”

– Rebecca Solnit, “The Heart of the City”

“Finding ways to appreciate advances without embracing complacency is a delicate task. It involves being hopeful and motivated and keeping eyes on the prize ahead. Saying that everything is fine or that it will never get any better are ways of going nowhere or of making it impossible to go anywhere. Either approach implies that there is no road out or that, if there is, you don’t need to or can’t go down it. You can. We have.”

– Rebecca Solnit, “Pandora’s Box and the Volunteer Police Force,” Men Explain Things to Me

“The grounds for hope are simply that we don’t know what will happen next, and that the unlikely and the unimaginable transpire quite regularly. And that the unofficial history of the world shows that dedicated individuals and popular movements can shape history and have, though how and when we might win and how long it takes is not predictable.

“Despair is a form of certainty, certainty that the future will be a lot like the present or will decline from it; despair is a confident memory of the future. Optimism is similarly confident about what will happen. Both are grounds for not acting. Hope can be the knowledge that we don’t have that memory and that reality doesn’t necessarily match our plans.”

– Rebecca Solnit, “Woolf’s Darkness,” Men Explain Things to Me

“As the years have gone by I have wondered if we want another language for emotion, if we would rather speak of deep and shallow, because the things that move people to tears are sometimes joyous and because the attempts to ward off sadness so often ward off depth instead.”

– Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby

“Sadness the blue like dusk, the reminder that all things are ephemeral, and that because there is time there is change and that another name for change, if you look back toward what is vanishing in the distance, is loss.”

– Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby

“A physical therapist told me that chronic pain is treatable, sometimes by training people to experience it differently, but the sufferer ‘has to be ready to give up their story.’ Some people love their story that much even if it’s of their own misery, even if it ties them to unhappiness, or they don’t know how to stop telling it. Maybe it’s about loving coherence more than comfort, but it might also be about fear – you have to die a little to be reborn, and death comes first, the death of a story, a familiar version of yourself.”

– Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby

“I sometimes think everything comes out even in the end, but an end that arches beyond the horizon, beyond our capacity to perceive or measure, and that in many cases those who trespass against you do so out of a misery that means the punishment preceded and even precipitated the crime.”

– Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby

“Malcolm told me a story about pronghorns, the North American creatures sometimes confused with antelopes. They can run at speeds of nearly sixty miles an hour, much, much faster than any of their existing predators. Some biologists think they’re still outrunning the dangerous species that went extinct at the end of the Pleistocene, specifically the cheetahs that existed on this continent. Malcolm asked what each of us is still outrunning and whether we can tell when our predator has been extinct for ten thousand years.”

– Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby

“The whiteness of the page before it is written on and after it is erased is and is not the same white, and the silence before a word is spoken and after is and is not the same silence.”

– Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby

“It’s easier to imagine the experience of people most like you and nearest you – your best friend, the person who just slipped on the ice. Through imagination and representations – films, printed stories, secondhand accounts – you travel into the lives of people far away. This imaginative entering into is best at the particular, since you can imagine being the starving child but not the region of a million starving people. Sometimes, though one person’s story becomes the point of entry to larger territories.

“This identification is almost instinctual in many circumstances. Even some animals do it; babies cry in sympathy with each other, or in distress at the sound of distress. Neurologists now talk about mirror neurons. You see something you crave, you feel something painful, and areas of your brain respond. You haven’t only witnessed something but also translated it into your own experience, you have felt with and for that other. But to cry because someone cries or desire because someone desires is not quite to care about someone else. There are people whose response to the suffering of others is to become upset and demand consolation themselves.

“Empathy means that you travel out of yourself a little or expand… The root of the word is path, from the Greek word for passion or suffering, from which we also derive pathos and pathology and sympathy. It’s a coincidence that empathy is built from a homonym for the Old English path, as in a trail. Empathy is a journey you travel, if you pay attention, if you care, if you desire to do so. Up close you witness suffering directly, though even then you may need words to know that this person has terrible pains in her joints or that one recently lost his home. Suffering far away reaches you through art, through images, recordings, and narratives; the information travels toward you and you meet it halfway, if you meet it.”

– Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby

Part of the opacity of visual art for so many people is that each work of art functions as a statement in the long conversation of art making, responding to what has come before by expanding upon or critiquing or subverting it. To walk into an exhibition can be like walking into the middle of a conversation that doesn’t make sense unless you know who’s talking and what was said earlier or know the language that’s being spoken, though some artworks speak directly and stand alone.

Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby

“We know the facts, but we don’t always realize them with that imaginative, emotional engagement that makes them vivid forces and deciding factors.

“…The moment when mortality, ephemerality, uncertainty, suffering, or the possibility of change arrives can split a life in two. Facts and ideas we might have heard a thousand times assume a vivid,urgent, felt reality. We knew them then, but they matter now. They are like guests that suddenly speak up and make demands upon us; sometimes they appear as guides, sometimes they just wreck what came before or shove us out the door. We answer them, when we answer, with how we lead our lives. Sometimes what begins as bad news prompts the true path of a life, a disruptive visitor that might be thanked only later. Most of us don’t change until we have to, and crisis is often what obliges us to do so. Crises are often resolved only through anew identity and new purpose, whether it’s that of a nation or a single human being.”

– Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby

“I asked for help. I was not much in the habit of doing so… It’s partly because we imagine that gifts put us in the giver’s debt, and debt is supposed to be a bad thing… But there are gifts people yearn to give and debts that tie us together.

“Sometimes to accept is also a gift. The anthropologist David Graeber points out that the explanation that we invented money because barter was too clumsy is false… Before money, people didn’t barter but gave and received as goods ebbed and flowed. They thereby incurred the indebtedness that bound them together, and reciprocated slowly, incompletely, in the ongoing transaction that is a community. Money was invented as a way to sever the ties by completing the transactions that never needed to be completed in the older systems, but existed like a circulatory system in a body. Money makes us separate bodies, and maybe it teaches us that we should be separate.

“I once read an account about a wealthy Turkana man in Kenya who offered to slaughter a goat in his guest’s honor and then used one of his impoverished neighbor’s few poor animals instead of a goat from his own large herd. The guest was perlexed, but the man who had offered his neighbor’s goat eventually explained that he was thereby weaving him into the web of obligation and future gifts, strengthening his ties and his position, earning for him goodwill that was better than goats. The goods would continue to flow in both directions, but the immaterial goods mattered more and in losing his goat the poor man became a little richer. The host became someone he could go to for help and eventually did, receiving far more than a single goat.”

– Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby

“…it was not the disease of leprosy itself that caused so much damage to hands and feet. The disease strangles nerves, kills off feeling, and what you cannot feel you cannot take care of: not the disease but the patient does the damage…

‘Pain, along with its cousin touch, is distributed universally on the body, providing a sort of boundary of self. Even after surgery, [leprosy patients] tended to view their repaired hands and feet as tools or artificial appendages. They lacked the basic instinct of self-protection that pain normally provides.’

Physical pain is often lonely, felt only by one person who must trust that others will believe and emphathize… Empathy is the capacity to feel what you do not literally feel, and Brand taught his young patients a kind of empathy for extremeties that no longer seemed part of themselves. ‘I feel you,’ people say. If pain defines the boundaries of the body, you participate in the social body with those you empathize with, whose pain pains you – and whose joy is also contagious.

Some empathy must be learned and then imagined, by perceiving the suffering of others and translating it into one’s own experience of suffering and thereby suffering a little with them. Empathy can be a story you tell yourself about what it must be like to be that other person; but its lack can also arise from narrative, about why the sufferer deserved it, or why that person or those people have nothing to do with you. Whole societies can be taught to deaden feeling, to disassociate from their marginal and minority members.

Empathy makes you imagine the sensation of torture, of the hunger, of the loss. You make that person into yourself, you inscribe their suffering on your own body or heart or mind, and then you respond to their suffering as though it were your own.

…To injure, to kill, to cause suffering in others, requires first that withdrawal of empathy that would have made such action painful or impossible, and to intetionally cause pain in others requires you to kill yourself off a little in the process.

…You errected a wall between yourself and annihilation or horror and sometimes it then walled you off from life.The wall itself sometimes grew like a disease if left untreated. Those with leprosy lose only physical sensation; it is the rest of us who tend to lose moral, emotional sensation around their suffering. Which is to say that leprosy was for millennia a psychological disorder of whole societies, though it was a bacterial infection of only a minority.

…To feel for someone enlarges the self and then that self shares risks and pains. Perhaps it’s impossible for anyone short of an enlightened being to carry the weight of all suffering, even to recognize and embrace it, but we make ourselves large or small, here or there, in our empathies. I met a Thai Buddhist saint once who for twenty years took on tiny tokens and charms people gave him so that he would carry their suffering. Eventually he wore a cloak of a couple hundred pounds of clanking, chiming griefs at all times, and then it became too heavy or he’d carried it far enough, and he put it down.”

– Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby

“A book is a heart that only beats in the chest of another. The child I once was read constantly and hardly spoke, because she was ambivalent about the merits of communication, about the risks of being mocked or punished or exposed. The idea of being understood and encouraged, had hardly occurred to her and neither had the idea that she had something to give others. So she read, taking in words in huge quantities… gorging on books, fasting on speech, carrying piles of books home from the library.

“Writing is saying to no one and to everyone the things it is not possible to say to someone. Or rather writing is saying to the no one who may eventually be the reader those things one has no someone to whom to say them. Matters that are so subtle, so personal, so obscure, that I ordinarily can’t imagine saying them to the people to whom I’m closest. Every once in a while I try to say them aloud and find that what turns to mush in my mouth or falls short of their ears can be written down for total strangers. Said to total strangers in the silence of writing that is recuperated and heard in the solitude of reading.

“…This is the odd compact with strangers who will lose themselves in your words and the partial recompense for the solitude that makes writers and writing. You have an intimacy with the faraway and distance from the near at hand.”

– Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby

“Libraries are sanctuaries from the world and command centers onto it… They are, ideally, places where nothing happens and where everything that has happened is stored up to be remembered and relived, the place where the world is folded up into boxes of paper.”

– Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby

“This is the strange life of books that you enter alone as a writer, mapping an unknown territory that arises as you travel. If you succeed in the voyage, others enter after, one at a time, also alone, but in communion with your imagination, traversing your route. Books are solitudes in which we meet…

“Writers are solitaries by vocation and necessity. I sometimes think the test is not so much of talent, which is not as rare as people think, but purpose or vocation, which manifests in part as the ability to endure a lot of solitude and keep working. Before writers are writers they are readers, living in books, through books, in the lives of others that are also the heads of others, in that act that is so intimate yet so alone.”

– Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby

“The bigness of the world is redemption. Despair compresses you into a small space, and a depression is 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 need not clutch your story and your troubles so tightly to your chest. Being able to travel both ways matters, and sometimes the way back into the heart of the question begins by going outward and beyond. This is the expansiveness that sometimes comes literally in a landscape or that tugs you out of yourself in a story.

“I found books and places before I found friends and mentors, and they gave me a lot, if not quite what a human being would. As a child, I spun outward in trouble, for in that inside-out world, everywhere but home was safe. Happily, the oaks were there, the hills, the creeks… the open space inviting me to leap out of the personal into the embrace of the nonhuman world.”

– Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby

“For mothers, some mothers, my mother, daughters are division and sons are multiplication; the former reduce them, fracture them, take from them, the latter augment and enhance… The queen’s envy of Snow White is deadly. It’s based on the desire to be the most beautiful of all, and it raises the question of whose admiration she needs and what she thinks Snow White is competing for, this child whose beauty is an affliction. At the back of this drama between women are men, the men for whom the queen wants to be beautiful, the men whose attention is the artbiter of worth and worthlessness.”

– Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby