Books

Moths Drink the Tears: Memory and Loss in The Faraway Nearby

I admit to being tired of Scheherazade, who famously saved her own life and those of the virgins who might have followed by telling a story so good the rapist king delayed killing her, night after night. Is this anti-feminist of me? Anti-literary, even, to be tired of the prototypical story of the saving power of stories?

I first heard a watered-down version of The Arabian Nights as a teenager, offered as an instructive fable about what strong writing could do. I read it again in a book by a writer from my hometown, whose own storytelling was an act of desperation, the only act of solace she could give herself. It’s a powerful model, the woman saving herself with intelligence and astute ability to assess her situation. I’ve heard it most recently applied to Antoinette Tuff, the woman who stopped a would-be school shooter with her tough, kind words and empathy.

Perhaps it’s the implied counter-narrative that worries me: the idea that, if Scheherazade were a less compelling storyteller, the killer would have won. What are we to think, then, of those who don’t escape: that they were shoddy storytellers, or failed the test of building empathy with their captor? Who has failed when the story saves no one?

Like a stone into a pond, 100 pounds of apricots from her dying mother’s tree fell into Rebecca Solnit’s figurative lap. She spread them out on her bedroom floor, where some rotted, some were eaten, and others were canned for later contemplation or consumption. “There they presided for some days, a story waiting to be told, a riddle to be solved, and a harvest to be processed,” Solnit writes, and sets out to do that and more in her latest book, The Faraway Nearby. “I had expected them to look like abundance itself and they looked instead like anxiety, because every time I came back there was another rotten one or two or three or dozen to cull, and so I fell to inspecting the pile every time I passed by instead of admiring it,” she says about the attempt to choose the right one out of the excess of stories.

The Faraway Nearby follows the ripples the apricots left in their wake, each ripple a memory, a story, a fleeting and interdependent rise and fall, defined by what follows and precedes it: “The mountain of apricots that briefly occupied my bedroom floor was so many things besides food. It was a riddle and an invitation; it fed imagination and inquiry first.” Anything so sweet, pungent, and disordered can be all these things in the right hands. Solnit invites us to “Imagine all the sentences in this book as a single thread around the spool that is the book. Imagine that they could be unwound; that you could walk the line they make, or are walking it.”

The book begins and ends with sections named for the apricots, this Mediterranean fruit grown and harvested in California, but its narrative ripples outward, or inward, to explore the cold journeys of the Arctic, and the warmer, southern political and spiritual revolutions in Cuba and Himalayan Asia. “Burma, India, Bolivia, Cuba, New Mexico, California, Siberia, Alaska, Iceland: the red threads connect the islands and the continents that are just larger islands. In between are the ideas and conversations that connect lives and minds,” Solnit writes, trusting her readers to follow the threads with her.

This trust is part of what I love about Solnit’s writing: she counts her readers among the tribe of bookish children-turned-meaning-seekers for whom the leap from the island of a common family tragedy (the author’s mother’s decline into dementia and the difficult relationship that preceded the illness) to a study of the literature of the European Far North, researched from another island of Iceland, is not too great to make. Solnit longs, then stops longing, to be recognized by the woman who gave birth to her: “Much later, when she couldn’t come up with my name or our relationship, I didn’t care, since being recognized hadn’t exactly been a boon.” Mary Shelley’s Dr. Frankenstein, who “usurps a woman’s power of creating life,” chases his ill-conceived creation (who wanted to be recognized by his creator) into the frozen North, and “to that captain seeking the North Pole he tells his story.” Story follows story. Water follows water. As a reader, I will follow Solnit anywhere.

Maybe I’m wrong in using water in its liquid form to describe this book, which has, at another of its centers, an ice core. There is a visit to Iceland, a fascination with the cold, light, and dark of the North. In contrast to the way old age threatens memory, the way dementia melts holes in the brain, deep cold preserves it. “Nothing decays in extreme cold… Cold preserves almost anything. The very word freeze is synonymous in modern English with stopping time, stopping progress, stopping a film, and if time is a river, then perhaps its water may turn to ice.” Solnit holds this image of the North’s stability like a beacon through her mother’s dementia, and finally travels to Reykjavik, Iceland, for a residency at the beautifully named Library of Water. There, she reads in the company of “strangers and birds,” and continues her pursuit of ripples and threads, apricots and polar bears.

It is impossible to spend time in the north or to contemplate ice and its memory without recognizing its unprecedented loss. Solnit describes the ice cores pulled from Greenland’s ice sheet and other polar glaciers, whose “air bubbles contain the atmosphere of bygone millennia.” As ice melts, the earth’s memory is released in trickles of blue water, and the ecology and symbolism of the North is changing. “Ice the preserver” is melting away.

The Library of Water displays cylinders of melted glacial ice, “a memorial for what is not yet gone.” Shelley sent her protagonist to the Far North, where his story would be most easily preserved by a man whose ship sat frozen in ice; “Mary Shelley imagined nature violated in isolated examples beyond which were the constants represented by the wild places and the order of things. She never imagined that all of us could become Dr. Frankenstein, chasing and fleeing our altered creation.” In the North, warmth threatens—or changes—memory.

A thread of text lies along the bottom of the pages of The Faraway Nearby, as if unwound from “the spool that is the book”; a parallel narrative, easily ignored. On pages where the body of the text summarizes the radicalization of Ernesto “Che” Guevara, the single italicized line below reads, “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.

I call home a place on the same line of latitude where Solnit studied at the Library of Water: sixty-four degrees North. As I write this, the northern hemisphere is settling back into cold, but the stories about winter are changing, contradicting themselves, having pointless arguments about carbon credits and increasingly frequent “storms of the century.” If Scheherazade were a climate scientist, she’d have been counted among the rapist king’s victims years ago.

Climate communication now emphasizes narrative rather than data: ancient air bubbles tell stories, the tracks of a land-locked polar bear seeking food in an Arctic village tell stories, time lapse photos of receding glaciers taken by adventurous white men sponsored by Nikon tell great stories. The language of literature has shifted to include, it seems, anything that is not a graph. But if we assign the role of Narrator to a non-verbal being or a non-sentient process and hold our ears to the ground listening for a story about loss, can we hear anything else? Are these the stories that can save us? In the thread of text unwound at the bottom of Solnit’s pages is the recurring image of a species of moth that feeds on the tears of sleeping birds, and the observation that “you can feed on sorrow… (This is one of) the myriad stories the natural world provides that are as uncannily resonant as any myth.” Where the data provides shifting movement, changing temperature, sustenance, the storyteller sees loss. This is a choice. And the storyteller chooses the ending.

A year ago, I left the north to help sort through the belongings of a woman whose memory was going the way of the glaciers, the way of Solnit’s mother: melting, dissolving, releasing pockets of her own history. The stories she could still tell she told frequently and consistently. What couldn’t form a story often became a list, scrawled information on scraps of paper that built up on every available surface. As a note-taking, journaling sort of person, I struggled to abandon these notes, even if they no longer held any meaning for the woman who wrote them as her own act of minimalist storytelling. It was hot—forgetting weather—and we were tired, and it was trash day, so many of the notes were discarded, memories gone.

What I kept: the lists with my name in them, or those in which she sounded crazy, and turquoise earrings from my hometown bought before I was born. What I allowed to be discarded: newspaper clippings noting her mundane achievements, redundant photos of smiling faces. What I kept were less mementos of her life than the story I constructed about it, which was a story about loss. Moths drink the tears of sleeping birds, though the birds don’t know that what they’re doing is what we call crying.

Maybe this is what the story of Scheherazade lacks for me: the stories of the other women, whose lives could not all have been about loss, and whose deaths I can’t accept as the consequence of their own actions. Polar bears are not storytellers either, but I don’t believe this dooms them to a particular fate. Yes, we feed on sadness, “the distance between the hope at the outset and the eventual outcome.” But, as Solnit suggests, sometimes you must “give up your story,” the choices you’ve made about its telling, in order to tell a new one.

“We never tell a whole story because life isn’t a story; it’s a whole Milky Way of events and we are forever picking out constellations from it to fit who and where we are,” Solnit writes. The Faraway Nearby is the sort of book that illuminates who we are, the stories and places and histories that make us ourselves. Solnit’s apricots may not be what saves her, but she sorts, culls, and labels them because she can do nothing else. She tells stories because she lives, but may not live because of the storytelling. Maybe there’s no way to know the difference.

Erica Watson is currently pursuing her MFA in nonfiction from the University of Alaska Anchorage. She is a former desert rat who now lives on the boundary of Denali National Park, Alaska, where she does an assortment of tasks for money and spends a lot of time outside.