The Slow-Cooked Sentence

Painful, beautiful, cautionary sentences by Rebecca Solnit

Rachael Conlin Levy

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.”

3 responses to “Painful, beautiful, cautionary sentences by Rebecca Solnit”

  1. kyndale says:

    It sounds like an interesting book! Your mom has done a really great job at letting each of you find yourselves without an overbearing influence. It takes a strong mother, with a good sense of self to let go of that control over her kids. ♥

  2. You’re right, Kyndale. My mom, like you, have been good examples for me.

  3. theresa says:

    “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>”
    As a woman with a sad relationship with her mother, I loved the Solnit for what I felt was a congenial and inevitable compassion. To recognize the shifts of power and how language attempts to preserve what’s been lost.

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