“There is no good answer to how to be a woman; the art may instead lie in how we refuse the question.”
Rebecca Solnit, The Mother of All Questions
I started with Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby, a memoir, but not exactly, beginning at the end of Solnit’s relationship with her mother, when her mother is dying from Alzheimer’s. But it is not about how she handles the disease or how her mother loses herself, although it is all there folded into her story.
So she writes this beautiful book, The Faraway Nearby, which is configured in a spiral, beginning with apricots and ending with apricots; with a whole lifetime in-between. The apricots hold as a literal thing she receives and as a metaphor; they are the bitter and sweet of life. They will completely decay if she does nothing, and it seems at times she does not want to face the enormity of the task. But we see that doing nothing does not actually postpone life… or make life easier to manage; in fact, it often makes life worse, which is what I love about the apricots as reason to begin and end because it is not until she makes jams, and jellies, and chutney that she is able to move again, which includes moving around her bedroom since the apricots were taking up space. In the end, she finally gets all those apricots off her bedroom floor, but not without losing a few, and let’s not forget all the hard work that goes into turning apricots into a variety of foods to be eaten with friends or given to friends. A happy ending in a way…, although, happy might not be the correct word, but I’m thinking of what comes out of the gift delivered to her doorstep as joyful since she was able to make it through to the other side of sorrow. Joy cannot be purchased with someone else’s pain; it’s all your own pain that goes into it.
Essentially, Solnit, weaves her story and the many stories she tells within the book, around apricots, as a way of exploring loneliness that gives way, eventually, to an understanding of aloneness, and to deeper and unexpected connections. The life we read about, Rebecca Solnit’s and many others within the story, are organic, like the apricots; there is no controlling them, mostly. This is not to say one does not work toward goals, make choices and work hard, but we cannot simply control our way out of loneliness, heartbreak, and, in general, the many difficulties which make up a life.
We can feel the depths of loneliness in those apricots. And Solnit gives vivid descriptions of how they ooze and decay, but, interestingly, her ability to stand in the loneliness does not give way to anxiety over what to do with them. While anxiety, depression and a sense of doubt over what to do might show up, like Mara showing up to tempt the Buddha, Solnit never runs away, although she does take a contemplative break.
Through the apricots Solnit is able to bring smell and taste into her narrative; loneliness is no longer one dimensional. Solnit gently guides the reader into it all, as if we all had landed in the strange land of C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. Her trip to Iceland feels like the solitude of quiet one experiences underwater: she is the first International resident at the Library of Water, and we feel as if we have been submerged with her. In Iceland things slow to a meditative state.
While she tells her story and stories within stories the reader feels her deep aloneness at the same time that her solidarity with the world and others is also felt. She is far from the child who escaped to Narnia:
“The child I once was read constantly and hardly spoke, because she was ambivalent about the merits of communication, about the risks of being mocked or punished or exposed. The idea of being understood and encouraged, of recognizing herself in another, of affirmation, had hardly occurred to her and neither had the idea that she had something to give others” (63).
But then out of this loneliness, this escapism comes the quiet of reading; the conversation begun with authors long gone; she is held by the words of others and she emerges as someone who writes and begins to see what it is that attracts her to the art of writing:
“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 no someone to whom to say them” (64).
Writing, then, is actually being in conversation, only your interlocutor has not arrived yet. Not so bad since most of our real life interlocutors are not even paying attention.
The Faraway Nearby is how Rebecca Solnit not only became a writer, but traveled through the loneliness and became a person able to be alone and doing what she does as her choice; not as a result of a bad, good or indifferent childhood.
“I started out in silence and traveled until I arrived at a voice that was heard far away… “(64)
The Faraway Nearby is as well crafted as a quilt stitched together by a community of women. It is an offering Solnit makes to the reader and says, here, here it is, here is my life. Perhaps, there are some who will be disappointed that it is not a book that forgets what a life really is and gives a chronology. For this reason Solnit is so hard to pin down. Wait, this isn’t a real memoir? Or an autobiography? Not exactly. But, it is real. More real than that which seems to forget how language works; how storytelling forces the storyteller to acknowledge every word ever read or heard by the current storyteller; and how sometimes things are closest when they are faraway, as it happens with her mother, who is far away in the deep of Alzheimer’s and paradoxically is able to be nearby in a way she never before was able to be.
The Mother of All Questions is Solnit’s latest work. It is more compact and focused on the political and psychological implications of violence against women, silence, and books that do the things just mentioned to women, things we like to call, ‘women’s issues’ or ‘feminist concerns,’ but really are violations against human beings and are all of our concern. Her book does not exclude men and does not try to harm men in any way. It both includes men as women and takes on women as well as men. It is a book that is conceived, at least the first essay, out of assumptions made regarding what Rebecca Solnit was saying about her past and present in The Faraway Nearby.
She begins with the Mother question, which she probably thought she answered when she wrote an entire book about it called The Faraway Nearby, but this is not the theme of the book, it is more like the beginning of the end, a sort of… let me spell it out clearly since the other book did not work for you… then she moves on to address silence, violence against women, and thoughts about books promoting aggression towards women — all subjects about which she has written in the past, sometimes extensively and direct and sometimes not, but always there making us aware that none of this is new and none of it has gone away.
How does one deal with the “mother of all questions?” Most women have had some experience with defending themselves against the mother question, the when, why and what’s wrong with you implied in the asking, “do you have children?” In this essay, which thinks through the question of becoming or deciding not to become a mother, she tells the story of an interviewer whose questions reduce The Faraway Nearby to a mere explanation for why she is writing and not child-birthing — Solnit writes:
“Her question was freighted with astonishing assumptions about what I had intended to do with my life and her right to intrude upon that life. The book, The Faraway Nearby, was, I thought, in a quiet, roundabout way about my long journey toward a really nice life, and an attempt to reckon with my mother’s fury, including the origin of that fury in her entrapment in conventional feminine roles and expectations.” (M…Q p. 8)
I sometimes want to wrap Rebecca Solnit’s beautiful sentences around me like a shawl so that I could actually use them to make a response to intruding questions. Or, I could just wear the following sentence around my wrist and glance at it several times a day:
“There is no good answer to how to be a woman; the art may instead lie in how we refuse the question.” (p. 5 Mother of…)
You can insert man in there too (If you are feeling left out).
There might be, though, a good answer to how to be human, and perhaps that is where Rebecca Solnit is hoping to take us. We must go beyond our little selves and the confines of our culture, in order to begin asking better questions, and refusing to answer the ones that promise to take us to the same old places.
Solnit reflects in The Mother of All Questions:
“Why do such bad questions so predictably get asked?” (M…Q p. 6).
Her answer leads her to one particular question:
“Are you happy?” (M…Q p. 6).
Although, this question is not often direct, it is often the major assumption behind questions that intrude upon our private decisions, the ones we make and then must justify when we are asked where do we live or what do we do for a living or if we have children. The brilliance of Rebecca Solnit is she writes it down in order that we may begin to think about it. When all of a sudden you find yourself flailing about trying to defend your life choices, it might not be, most likely is not you making bad choices; in fact, it is probably the question. The assumption lurking about in these rigid questions is, you are happy or not because you have what our culture promotes as worth having or not having. The assumption, too, is there is only a few right choices; all the others are your failings laid out on the table for all to see. And, the biggest assumption is that if a question is put to us then we must answer it.
Happiness, Solnit points out through research done by Todd Kashdan (M…Q p 11), is not something you can control by chasing it down. But we all know this, right? I mean, we know that you cannot chase after a happy life. Although, there are a lot of ads out there making such a claim, and so our knowing becomes all confused. Deep down, however, we know that outside stuff cannot make us happy, and we also know that happiness is not all that easy to define. Rebecca Solnit is not content to leave it at that and argues, perhaps the happiness question is a detour around other harder questions like:
“Do you live according to your principles? What does your life mean?” (M…Q p10),
to pick out a few tough questions she lists.
I wonder if the harder questions are harder to get to now or if it has always been the same … generation after generation unable to ask the harder question? On the one hand, today we have the benefit of education, leisure time to spend reading, and books and research on topics like happiness, and neuroscience to back it up; whereas years ago, for instance, if I think back to my grandmother who was born at the turn of the twentieth century, I do not believe she actually knew how to think about her life other than how she was told to live it by her mother and a society steeped in traditional roles. She did what she had to do and lived mostly without thinking, she had the right or ability to do anything else.
It is as if consciousness finally broke through to all the classes at some point in the 70s when the tension became so great and the world could no longer hold people in place and unaware. Life came forth out of the ground. Our minds changed, universally changed, and were suddenly able to reflect — a new genesis.
My own mom had a hard time dealing with these questions, and in fact, such questions made her feel ashamed, since there were women questioning all the norms and sending the message to her that what she was doing, raising her children, was shameful. For whatever reason she did not see change coming and thus was not prepared for it. We are now better equipped to think such questions as “What does your life mean?” , but the old question of happiness, mostly tied to what you do and have still hangs around, as Solnit points out, and so the feelings of shame have not been eliminated for much the same reason as why my mom felt shame, which is the question that is the mother of all questions and for which Solnit takes pains to write an essay: “there is no good answer for how to be a woman…” . But women keep looking at each other and judging each other and themselves as if there were a good answer.
Can we save ourselves from the bad questions? Can we begin to ask questions with more depth? I suppose a question with depth would require a longer time in conversation, and lately I find most people are too busy to be in conversation. Probably, the worst thing for meaningful conversation has been the human mimicking of our technological tools. How difficult it is to have a conversation with someone without being handled as if you were just another gadget that could be fast forwarded, stopped, paused or shut off at any time.
Solnit’s brief essay on the big question of motherhood ends with a surprising and hopeful turn. At least, I see it as hopeful to deal in love and to think about love, because, in the end, wondering whether or not you should or should not become a mother is a question that ultimately rests on what you believe love is and how it can be expressed.
“But there are so many things to love besides one’s own offspring, so many things that need love, so much other work love has to do in the world” (M…Q 9)
Her book is a challenge to come to know love; to begin understanding that there are many ways to give love, express love, be loved and love the world. In the end, our bad questions are limiting us to bad answers when it comes to how we love.
Solnit is not just offering a labor of love; she is laboring to consider deeply just what love is: one can hear The First Espistle of Paul to the Corinthians: 13, in “A Short History of Silence,” which is the next essay in The Mother of All Questions:
“Love is a constant negotiation, a constant conversation; to love someone is to lay yourself open to rejection and abandonment; love is something you can earn but not extort. It is an arena in which you are not in control, because someone else also has rights and decisions; it is a collaborative process; making love is at its best a process in which those negotiations become joy and play. So much sexual violence is a refusal of that vulnerability; so many of the instructions about masculinity inculcate a lack of of skills and willingness to negotiate in good faith.” (M…Q 31).
And so there she goes right to the heart of it all; the central and perplexing condition of being a woman and having your freedom limited by fear of rape and violence. How is it that such violence can occur and what does it mean when most of society permits it through silencing the victim? What does this say about how we understand love?
Rebecca Solnit asks the hard questions that our culture still refuses to consider.
The Mother of All Questions. Haymarket Books, Chicago, IL., 2017.
The Faraway Nearby. Penguin Group, New York, 2013.