Thursday 24 October 2013

Getting Lost

'A Field Guide to Getting Lost' by Rebecca Solnit was a most peculiar book, another one I think from the stable of Brainpickings. It said lots of interesting things, I have a whole list of quotes to give you, and yet it didn't say very much at all as a conclusion, I am just left feeling 'what the hell was that supposed to be about'. It is, as it says in the title, about lostness and belonging, and how pervasive the one is and how elusive the other. Maybe if I launch into the quotes it will come back to me why I persisted with reading.

On walking at the Great Salt Lake when the water level dropped:

"I walked across ground that was sometimes ribbed sand, sometimes smooth, that sometimes caved in underfoot, as though there were pockets of air underneath, that sometimes squelched so that my footprints were surrounded by paler sand where the water had been pressed away by my weight. With that long line of footprints unfurling behind me, I couldn't get literally lost but I lost track of time, becoming lost in that other way that isn't about dislocation but about the immersion where everything else falls away." (p.35-6)

This links tenuously to the next:
"the word 'track' in Tibetan: shul, a mark that remains after that which made it has passed by - a footprint, for example. In other contexts, shul is used to describe the scarred hollow in the ground where a house once stood, the channel worn through rock where a river runs in flood, the indentation in the grass where an animal slept last night. All of these are shul: the impression of something that used to be there. A path is a shul because it is an impression in the ground left by the regular tread of feet, which has kept it clear of obstructions and maintained it for the use of others. As a shul, emptiness can be compared to impression of something that used to be there. In this case, such an impression is formed by the indentations, hollows, marks and scars left by the turbulence of selfish cravings." (p.50-51)

Interesting snippets and family stories meander, seemingly aimlessly, through chapters, interspersed with her own travels and vague philosophical musings. Here she visits an aunt shortly before her death:
"The river we had been flowing flowed into the sea, becoming broad and tranquil at its mouth, and the afternoon light lit it to silver, the same silver of the sea. I looked and two things that had been stories seemed fact at that moment: the belief of many coastal tribes that the souls of the dead go west over the sea, and the description of death as the point at which the river enters the sea. I had driven my aunt to her death, or as it seemed in that luminousness, still like the moment after a peal of thunder, both of us to meet death. The forest we had come from seemed darker in this cool blaze of water and light, and we had entered the colourless, radiant landscape of death. charged with something as vital as life, too majestic to be terrifying, transfigured into another world." (p.61)

Occasionally she seems to capture for me something subtle about the human condition and just drop it randomly into the book:
"Even in the everyday world of the present, an anxiety to survive manifests itself in cars and clothes for far more rugged occasions than those at hand, as though to express some sense of the toughness of things and of readiness to face them. But the real difficulties, the real arts of survival, seem to lie in more subtle realms. There, what's called for is a kind of resilience of the psyche, a readiness to deal with what comes next." 
And this, about the nature of adulthood:
"I had been on my own since I turned seventeen, and that early independence made me old: I was never sure anyone would pick up the pieces if I fell apart, and I thought of consequences. The young live absolutely in the present, but a present of drama and recklessness, of acting on urges and running with the pack. They bring the fearlessness of children to acts with adult consequences, and when something goes wrong they experience the shame or the pain as an eternal present too. Adulthood is made up of a prudent anticipation and a philosophical memory that makes you navigate more slowly and steadily." (p.108-9)

But really it was the lovely almost poetic turns of phrase that made the book so readable:
"Once I loved a man who was a lot like the desert, and before that I loved the desert. It wan't particular things but the space between them, that abundance of absence, that is the desert's invitation. There the geology that underlies lusher landscapes is exposed to the eye, and this gives it a skeletal elegance, just as it's harsh conditions - the vast distances between water, the many dangers, the extremes of heat and cold - keep you in mind of your mortality.
With other men you get to know their families, with this unhurried man who seemed like a desert hermit, animals seemed to fill that place, and they were always around his home. Solitude in the city is about the lack of other people or rather their distance beyond a door or wall, but in remote places it isn't an absence but the presence of something else, a kind of humming silence in which solitude seems as natural to your species as to any other, words strange rocks you may or many not turn over." (p.129-131)

Sorry if the review is a bit vague, it is not easy to pin down the essence of the book. In an era that seems obsessed with 'finding yourself' it is quite refreshing to encounter someone relishing the notion of 'lost', not fighting but embracing. Solnit trawls through cultures and history to find for the reader stories about lostness and intermingles them very effectively with her own stories, thoroughly engaging and thought provoking. 

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