Tuesday, February 2, 2016

A Field Guide to Getting Lost

A Field Guide to Getting LostA Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

All your life, you've never seen
A woman taken by the wind

Fleetwood Mac, Rhiannon

I simply could not get these lyrics out of my head as I read Rebecca Solnit's remarkable book of essays A Field Guide to Getting Lost. Truth be told, Solnit could be an amazing philosopher if she organized her thoughts a little more tightly. But she is, at heart, a cultural historian, an activist, and a journalist, and not a philosopher. I admit that I went into this book hoping for something to act as a compliment to one of my favorite reading discoveries of recent years, Frederic Gros' A Philosophy of Walking. So in ways, I was both disconcerted and pleasantly surprised that Solnit's work was not what I was expecting.

Is any book exactly what we were expecting? What a boring world that would be, if that were true of all books.

My "gripe" about the book, as outlined above, has more to do with me than with her. And it is a very minor complaint overshadowed by Solnit's brilliance. Most of the time, I felt that the book delivered on its title. At times, I was lost, but not lost in a panicked or annoyed way. I was glad to be lost in Solnit's reflections on everything from the death of friends to disconcerting dreams to desert tortoises. Solnit's thoughts flow with great ease, internally, though they may seem a little jumpy when bouncing from subject to subject. Transitions aren't her strength. Immersion is.

Take, for instance, the exploration of what "lost" means:

Lost really has two disparate meanings. Losing things is about the familiar falling away, getting lost is about the unfamiliar appearing. There are objects and people that disappear from your sight or knowledge or possession; you lose a bracelet, a friend, the key. You still know where you are. Everything is familiar except that there is one item less, one missing element. Or you get lost, in which case the world has become larger than your knowledge of it. Either way, there is a loss of control. Imagine yourself streaming through time shedding gloves, umbrellas, wrenches, books, friends, homes, names. This is what the view looks like if you take a rear-facing seat on the train. Looking forward you constantly acquire moments of arrival, moments of realization, moments of discovery. The wind blows your hair back and you are greeted by what you have never seen before. The material falls away in onrushing experience. It peels off like skin from a molting snake. Of course to forget the past is to lose the sense of loss that is also memory of an absent richness and a set of clues to navigate the present by, the art is not one of forgetting but letting go. And when everything else is gone, you can be rich in loss."

If I based my assessment of the book on prose alone, I would grade this book among the best. Her turns of phrase are scintillating, her metaphors envelop the heart and mind, and her sometimes strange insights are enlightening and beautiful, as demonstrated in her musings on butterflies and their transformation:

The people thrown into other cultures go through something of the anguish of the butterfly, whose body must disintegrate and reform more than once in its life cycle . . . the butterfly is so fit an emblem of the human soul that its name in Greek is psyche, the word for soul. We have not much language to appreciate this phase of decay, this withdrawal, this era of ending that must precede beginning. Nor of the violence of the metamorphosis, which is often spoken of as though it were as graceful as a flower blooming.

I found this paragraph poignant, mostly because of my background. I was raised as an Air Force brat: Born in Germany (on U.S. soil, literally - when the military builds a hospital overseas, they fly over a dump-truck load of dirt from the States and drop it into the pit that will serve as the hospital's foundation. So, yes, I can be President of the United States, technically), then moved from place to place, Texas, the Philippines, back to Texas, to Italy, Minnesota, Nebraska, England where I graduated high school (barely), then on to adult life in Wyoming, then Pennsylvania, California, Utah, and, now, Wisconsin. And these were "living" situations, not "traveling" or "touristing". I was resident there. I lived there. In the Philippines, we lived in a house on stilts and my dog was eaten by the locals; in Italy, we lived among the Italians for most of our stay, only moving into Base Housing a few months before we left; and I came back from England with an accent - which was great for getting dates, incidentally - and colourful phrases and words like "sod off" and "wanker" - which doesn't get you dates. You can imagine the impact that this had on my life. I left a lot of friends behind, most of whom I've never seen again. I don't have a "home" to go to. Home is wherever my family is (currently my parents are in California, though I don't consider it "home") or wherever I happen to be (Wisconsin feels more like "home" than anyplace else, probably because we've been here 20 years). But part of my "home" exists only in my imagination, in memory. The base we lived at in Germany has been made into a public airport. The base I lived at in the Philippines is literally buried under volcanic ash. San Vito, Italy is now, partially, a town - they tore down the barbed-wire-capped fences and let people build residences and stores and markets when the Air Force moved out. Still, about 80% of the property there is simply abandoned. The base I lived at in England, RAF Chicksands, is now a British spy base - they won't let me back on except for short tours that are very strictly shepherded (my brother went on one a few years back and didn't even get to see our old house, though it was, literally, just down the hill from where the tour guides took him). So while I got to see the world anew every few years, there is some residual pain from the friends I left behind or who sometimes, because of the nature of being Air Force brats, left me behind.

I still dream of those places that are no longer places. Or no longer the places I know. Yes, everyone goes through that to some extent: buildings are torn down, people move, parking lots are made over old fields. But I'm talking about something more profound here. I cannot go back to Clark Air Base housing in the Philippines. San Vito has little, if any semblance to the place I knew as an adolescent. Chicksands is strictly off-limits to me outside of a guided tour to the place I once delighted in roaming and meandering around at my leisure. In many ways, I was born lost, I grew up lost, and I will always be lost, whether I'm looking forward or backward on my life. I still dream of those places, wandering around, always looking for friends who are not there in places that are strange, alien, twisted. I am often lost in those dreams and awaken confused and grasping for something to ground me, an anchor in the place my body occupies at the time.

The places in which any significant event occurred become embedded with some . . . emotion, and so to recover the memory of the place is to recover the emotion, and sometimes to revisit the place uncovers the emotion. Every love has its landscape. Thus place, which is always spoken of as though it only counts when you're present, possesses you in its absence, takes on another life as a sense of place, a summoning in the imagination with all the atmospheric effect and association of a powerful emotion. The places inside matter as much as the ones outside. It is as though in the way places stay with you and that you long for them they become deities - a lot of religions have local deities, presiding spirits, geniuses of the place. You could imagine that in those songs Kentucky or the Red River is a spirit to which the singer prays, that they mourn the dreamtime before banishment, when the singer lived among the gods who were not phantasms but geography, matter, earth itself.

Amen, Sister. Hallelujah!

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1 comment:

  1. Coming to this a little late! Solnit has some interesting insights, conventional and otherwise. My favorite is: "Or you get lost, in which case the world has become larger than your knowledge of it." You can go for metaphorical miles riffing off that kind of observation - which is why her treatment seems almost tailored for fellow authors. I may just pick this one up at some point. Thanks for writing about it!