I’m reading Rebecca Solnit, a San Francisco writer, historian and activist, whose book “The Faraway Nearby” is a study of story, her story, her mother’s story, our collective stories. She argues that sometimes we aren’t telling the stories, but the stories are telling us how to love and hate, to see or be blind. To be free, Solnit says one must learn to hear the stories, to question them.
I’ve read essays of hers that address Big Issues like climate change, but what I want to share are her sentences that examine the intimate and hurtful relationship with her mother. Why? Because it’s a cautionary tale that casts a long shadow, a darkness that reaches to the edges of my own story as daughter and mother. In “The Faraway Nearby” Solnit writes:
My story is a variation on one I’ve heard from many women over the years, of the mother who gave herself away to everyone or someone and tried to get herself back from a daughter… 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. My mother, who would light up at the thought that my brothers were handsome, rankled at the idea that I might be nice-looking. 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 arbiter of worth and worthlessness. There was nothing I could do, because there was nothing I had done; it was not my actions that triggered her fury, but my very being, my gender, my appearance, and my nonbeing — my failure to be the miracle of her completion and to be instead her division.
These are heavy sentences, and my sharing of them isn’t an inference on my relationships: My mother is a whole person who doesn’t live through her daughters or sons, and is a role model for me as a parent. And yet, there are memories where the self, myself, my mother’s self, my daughter’s self, was reduced. Solnit’s math made personal.
How does one safeguard against the shattering of the self, the breaking into glass shards that reflect and refract others’ light, unable to make one’s own?
Prevention might be found in seizing on something bigger than the self, bigger than the child, the spouse, the family. This is where Solnit’s personal essay touches her political one, her working-class hero takes control, tells her own story. Protection might also come with solitude. A few hours. A day. What about a weekend with only the silence and the self for company? It think somewhere along this path traveled between community and solitude is where one can, as Solnit says, “pause and hear the silence … and then … become the storyteller.”
The photographs of four sisters taken once a year for 40 years are beautiful in their honesty. Nicholas Nixon’s collection of the Brown sisters, begun in 1975 with the latest image just published in the New York Times this month, is a powerful documentation of aging. The accompanying text by Susan Minot clarifies the mix of awe and envy I feel as I view the sisters’ relationship.
“Throughout this series, we watch these women age, undergoing life’s most humbling experience,” Minot wrote. “While many of us can, when pressed, name things we are grateful to Time for bestowing upon us, the lines bracketing our mouths and the loosening of our skin are not among them. So while a part of the spirit sinks at the slow appearance of these women’s jowls, another part is lifted: They are not undone by it. We detect more sorrow, perhaps, in the eyes, more weight in the once-fresh brows. But the more we study the images, the more we see that aging does not define these women. Even as the images tell us, in no uncertain terms, that this is what it looks like to grow old, this is the irrefutable truth, we also learn: This is what endurance looks like.
“It is the endurance of sisterhood in particular… With each passing year, the sisters seem to present more of a united front. Earlier assertions of their individuality — the arms folded across the chest, the standing apart — give way to a literal leaning on one another, as if independence is no longer such a concern. We see what goes on between the sisters in their bodies, particularly their limbs. A hand clasps a sister’s waist, arms embrace arms or are slung in casual solidarity over a shoulder. A palm steadies another’s neck, reassuring. The cumulative effect is dizzying and powerful.”
My three sisters and I are anchored by children and separated by distance – Molly in Germany, Kyna in Fairbanks, Cheyenne in Reno and me in Seattle – so I don’t know when we will converge in one place again. Does even a picture of the four of us exist somewhere in the family photo albums? No matter. I pledge to record what the future will hold, deepening lines in smiling faces. I wish I could begin today.
I am reading “Wildwood: A Journey through Trees” by Roger Deakin, which describes a series of trips Deakin made to meet people whose lives are intimately connected to trees and wood. Deakin, who died in 2006, was a founding member of Common Ground. Among his environmental causes, he worked to preserve woodland, ancient rights of way, and coppicing techniques. I want to remember this section from his book:
Now and again you discover the perfect pen and carry it everywhere until one day you lose it. But nothing is so universally dependable, or comes so naturally to hand as a pencil. What could be simpler? For much of my life, I have lived with one behind my ear: either to mark out saw cuts or mortices for carpentry or to scribble marginalia or underlines when reading. I often write with a pencil. It suits my tentative nature. It allows me literally to sketch out ideas before proceeding to the greater definition of ink. It was the first tool I used to write or to draw, and still suggests the close relationship between the two activities. I know I shall never outgrow pencils. They are my first, most natural means of expression on paper. It is comforting and liberating to know that you can always rub out what is pencilled. It is the other end of the spectrum from carving in stone. The pencil whispers across the page and is never dogmatic.
For all the same reasons, I like a soft pencil better than a hard one. It is gentler on the paper, as a soft voice is easier on the ear. Its low definition draws in the reader’s eye, which must sometimes peer through the graphite mist of a smudge where the page of an old notebook has been thumbed. Rub your finger long enough on a soft-pencilled phrase and it will evaporate in a pale-grey cloud. In this way, pencil is close to watercolour painting.
A pencil is an intimate, elemental conjunction of graphite and wood, like a grey-marrowed bone. The graphite is mined from deep inside a Cumbrian hillside in Borrowdale, eight miles south of Keswick. Fired in a kiln to 1,000-degrees C to make the slender pencil cores, ranging in hardness from H to 9H and in softness from B to 9B, it is laid in a groove in one of the split halves of the wooden casing which are then glued together invisibly, clasping the lead tightly. But examine the cross-section of grain at one end, and you will notice it runs two different ways. In Tasmania there are trees they call pencil pines, but only because of the way they look. The fine-grained, slow-grown mother of all pencils is incense cedar from the forests of Oregon, where a single tree may grow 140 feet high, with a trunk five feet across, enough cedar wood to make 150,000 pencils. It is the incense cedar that infuses pencils with the nutty aroma I remember as I opened my pencil-box. In a scooped-out hollow in my Oregon pine work table in front of me lies a smooth, round pebble from the Hebrides. It sits snugly in the wood, like the pencil between finger and thumb, and like the hidden vein of graphite, poised inside the cedar to spin itself into words like gossamer from the spider.