This was the month of reading The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit. I have read a few of her books, and always start them with enthusiasm (I’m interested in the same stuff she is!) and gradually feel distracted and deflated. I figured out what it was this time, pointed to by a line in the book: “Like a lot of visual artists, she mostly plunged into the difficult books through which you hack your way slowly.” That line describes my taste in books, but I had always attributed it to my mild dyslexia (if it’s going to take me months to get through a book I want it to be worth the time). Solnit’s connection feels right, though. I read for texture and flavor and bits of ideas far more than for plot or characters, and I enjoy feeling lost in a sea of words that are inviting me to connect into a whole. And that way of absorbing art makes more sense for encountering and absorbing visual art more often than it does reading a book. Solnit’s books are documents of her thought process going through the world, reading meaning into things she finds along the way, and making connections. For me, the joy of reading a book is making those links, so reading her books feels a bit like opening the in-flight magazine to find the crossword already filled in. I can learn from the insights, but the fun and work of discovering them has already been done.
As I was finishing the book this morning, I closed it to find the white cover set off by a fan of pink sticky notes marking bits of text that crystalized a thought. Her words are always lovely, and the time she spends with these ideas leads to a clarity that I rarely achieve in my own muddled ideas.
One of those stickies marked this passage:
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 on someone to whom to say them. Matters that are so subtle, so personal, so obscure, that I ordinarily can’t imagine scything them to the people to whom I’m the closest.
I think this is what Feral is for, at least for me. A space where things that don’t have a place to be said or drawn or made are welcomed.
I made this frog last month. It’s over 5 feet long (stretched out from the tip of its toes to its would-be lips), made from soft green plush (outside) and red/pink satin (inside). Its organs (lungs, spleen, heart, liver, gall bladder, stomach, intestines) spill out of a long slit in its belly. It lies on a stainless steel table standing on pink platform legs. I don’t make much personal work—a piece like this every two or three years. They each come from a very personal space, but I hope they are open enough to be inviting of other people’s interpretations. Solnit’s book revolves around a difficult time in her life, and the stories she told and discovered to help her interpret what she was experiencing. The frog comes from a similar impulse, but the meaning is buried underneath layers of plush and batting and maybe humor and metaphor. I don’t know whether this is hedging, or whether it allows people their own way in. The details of my story aren’t important, but the gesture felt like it was. The act and feeling of reaching deep inside, inviting another to do the same, and trying to be clear-eyed about what you find there. The tearing apart is the first act, the examination is the second, and the rebuilding is the last. This piece was conceived in the midst of the first act, made in the second. I don’t know what will come next.
Solnit offers me a path forward:
A labyrinth is an ancient device that compresses a journey into a small space, winds up a path like thread on a spool. It contains beginning, confusion, perseverance, arrival, and return. There at last the metaphysical journey of your life and your actual movements are one and the same. You may wander, may learn that in order to get to your destination you must turn away from it, become lost, spin about, and then only after the way has become overwhelming and absorbing, arrive, having gone the great journey without having gone far on the ground.