As the daylight hours shorten and the leaves start to fall I think back to the beginning of this summer when our dog very nearly died. It’s a memory brought into sharp focus by a recently-watched film and the book I am reading at the moment. Laurie Anderson’s essay-film Heart of a Dog has a lot in common with Rebecca Solnit’s most recent book, The Faraway Nearby: both are digressive, looping, meandering disquisitions on storytelling and memory, and the connection between love and death.
Both works begin with the author confronting mortality. For Laurie Anderson it was the deaths in a short space of time of her mother, her partner Lou Reed, and her dog Lolabelle, while Rebecca Solnit’s book begins with the striking image of a roomful of apricots, harvested from a tree in her mother’s garden in the year of her mother’s descent into Alzheimer’s and, finally, death – a year in which, Solnit, too, is diagnosed with a life-threatening disease requiring major surgical intervention.
Both works have a shared concern with mortality, the patterns we weave in our lives, and the stories we tell about them. Both authors find consolation and meaning in Buddhist belief which, in Solnit’s words, ‘takes change as a given and suffering as the inevitable consequence of attachment and then asks what you are going to do about it.’
We watched Laurie Anderson’s beguiling Heart of a Dog a couple of weeks after the decidedly unpleasant experience of seeing another ‘dog’ film, Todd Solondz’s Weiner-Dog. Whilst also exploring themes of mortality, disease, depression Weiner-Dog (a film concerned with humans more than dogs) was, I thought, nauseating in its depiction of the cruelty inflicted on its eponymous canine and the unrelenting misanthropy of Solondz’s vision. The film’s penultimate scene flayed me.
In one of her digressions in The Faraway Nearby, Rebecca Solnit writes of how, in Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy-tale The Snow Queen, the scattered, splintered shards of glass from the troll king’s mirror reflects the trolls’ ugly perspective: ‘a cynic’s mirror that freezes the heart and distorts the world.’ As far as I’m concerned, that’s all that needs to be said about Solondz’s film.
Perhaps it came too soon after the trauma of nearly losing our own dog. When a dog enters your life it’s like a line from David Foster Wallace quoted by Laurie Anderson in her film: ‘Every love story is a ghost story.’ For their lives are short while ours are long, reinforcing again and again a lesson in mortality and coming to terms with loss and grief.
We had shared our time with a King Charles Spaniel before Fudge arrived seven years ago so we knew what the odds were: over half of the breed develop an inherited, genetic heart disease by their fifth birthday (as did Fudge), and more than 90% by the time they have reached 10 years (should they survive that long).
But, whereas the onset of the disease was slow and gradual for our last dog, for Fudge the crisis that came in her seventh summer was sudden and traumatic. At the end of a week of hot weather which may have exacerbated the condition, on a Sunday evening in June, we had to place her in emergency care. Later, at 4 am, we were woken with the news that she had suffered two cardiac arrests. If she had been with us in our home she would certainly have died. But rapid intervention saved her. In an oxygen tent and with IV lines attached her condition stabilised.
The next day she was transferred to the care of a cardiologist at Liverpool University’s Small Animal Hospital. Two days later we picked her up from the state of the art facility where expert care and the administration of drugs had placed her on the road to recovery. Recovery, but not cure: for the rest of her life she will need to keep taking those drugs.
For now, though, it’s a happy outcome: the dog that walks at my side on these late summer mornings is, superficially at least, hard to distinguish from the one who almost left us on that night in June.
Laurie Anderson’s film Heart of a Dog is haunted by her memories of the year when her own beloved dog Lolabelle, who had been her companion for many years, passed away. Not long after that she also lost her mother, and then, barely two years later, her partner of 21 years, Lou Reed. Heart of a Dog is the mourning process transformed into a kaleidoscopic film essay that stitches together disparate elements, interspersing animations and home video with Anderson’s violin compositions and soundscapes.
Anyone who has walked with one will know that a dog never keeps to the straight and narrow: it is always digressing, veering off the track to investigate some interesting smell, leave its own personal marker, or communicate with other dogs or humans. So it is with Anderson’s narration in this film which weaves a tapestry from personal memories and thoughts on such things as love, life and the Buddhist view of death, Wittgenstein’s linguistic philosophy, and observations on the impact of the Twin Towers attack on her hometown and American society generally.
At its core Heart of a Dog is Anderson’s lament to her deceased rat terrier. Without sentimentality she describes the pleasure of walks with Lolabelle in the hills that stretch along California’s seaboard, and how, when she went blind in her later years, Lolabelle began taking piano lessons with the help of a trainer and a special dog-friendly keyboard. Anderson’s footage of the blind Lolabelle playing the keyboards, her ears pricked and listening intently to the sounds she is creating, is both absurd and strangely moving. Eventually the dog became sufficiently proficient to give her own concert, with the proceeds going to benefit animals in need.
Also woven into Anderson’s narration are thoughts provoked by the death of her mother, a bereavement which left her feeling ambivalent at best, whilst provoking two remarkable childhood memories of near-death experiences. Then there is the loss of her partner, Lou Reed in 2013, only invoked towards the end of the film. The film is dedicated to his ‘magnificent spirit’ and his song ‘Turning Time Around’ plays over the closing credits as the camera pans across a photo of him with Lolabelle.
Afterwards, it is Lolabelle that you remember, just as Anderson remembers her life with Lolabelle – the companion who brought her great joy, and whose death left her heartbroken.
Anderson draws consolation from the Buddhist teachings of the Tibetan Book of the Dead that forbids crying for the dead:
When Lolabelle died our teacher said, ‘Every time you think of her, give something away, do something kind.’ And I said, ‘Then I’d be giving things away non-stop.’ And he said, ‘So?’
But finally finally saw it: the connection between love and death. And that the purpose of death is the release of love.
There are no dogs in Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby, but happening to read her book in the same week that I watch Heart of a Dog, I am struck by the chiming synchronicities between the two works. Just as Laurie Anderson probes the art of storytelling, of making meaning out of the random events of quotidian life, so does Rebecca Solnit, who begins with this:
Stories are compasses and architecture, we navigate by them, we build our sanctuaries and our prisons out of them, and to be without a story is to be lost in the vastness of a world that spreads in all directions like arctic tundra or sea ice.
To love someone is to put yourself in their place, we say, which is to put yourself in their story, or figure out how to tell yourself their story.
Storytelling is just one of the the threads which runs through this brilliantly-constructed collection of essays that begins with the story of a roomful of slowly-decaying apricots:
Sometimes a story falls in your lap. Once about a hundred pounds of apricots fell into mine. They came in three big boxes, and to keep them from crushing one another under their weight or from rotting in close quarters, I spread them out on a sheet on the plank floor of my bedroom. There they presided for some days, a story waiting to be told, a riddle to be solved, and a harvest to be processed.
As in Laurie Anderson’s film, the stories are Solnit’s own and those of the people she has loved, and as it was for Anderson, the stories generate sidetracks and deviations into all manner of subjects.
‘People disappear into their stories all the time,’ Solnit writes, contending that making stories – something we all do, not just writers – is an act both of creation and deception:
I am, we each are, the inmost of an endless series of Russian dolls; you who read are now encased within a layer I built for you, or perhaps my stories are now inside you.
And, Solnit adds, ‘We think we tell stories, but stories often tell us, tell us to love or to hate, to see or to be blind’:
Too often, stories saddle us, ride us, whip us onward, tell us what to do, and we do it without questioning.
‘The task of learning,’ she asserts, is to break free from the controlling narrative and ‘become the storyteller.’ She writes of how the fairy-tale inheritance from her mother of ‘a roomful of unstable apricots’ led her back to fairy tales, those tales ‘about trouble, about getting into it and out of it’. Trouble is, after all, ‘a necessary stage on the route of becoming.’
‘Pared back to its bare bones,’ Solnit writes, ‘this book is a history of an emergency and the stories that kept me company then.’ The emergency arises from the slow descent of her mother, with whom she had had a fraught relationship for decades, into Alzheimer’s and then death, and her own medical crisis.
If that makes the book sound like a solipsistic account of personal misery, it is not. Far from it. Rebecca Solnit is a discursive writer who constantly veers away from the point, since the point keeps changing. Her beautifully-crafted paragraphs swerve and roam, loop and circle back. Her thoughts are constantly in flight, her meditations a form of mental calligraphy encompassing personal experience, art, philosophy, politics and literature – often within the same paragraph.
My own story in its particulars hardly interests me now. The incidents have dissolved into the dirt from which certain plants grew, and the blooms of those plants or maybe only their perfume on the air, the questions and ideas that arose, are what still signify.
And Solnit is always positive, even in the face of what might seem overwhelming odds. The Faraway Nearby isn’t the first book of hers that I have read: among the others – such as Wanderlust and A Field Guide to Getting Lost – Hope in the Dark (recently re-published) most clearly set out her personal philosophy best summarised as a rejection of Alice’s assertion in Through the Looking Glass that ‘one can’t believe impossible things’. She wrote that book during the dark days of the Bush administration as a counter to the pessimism that followed the failure of massive worldwide protests to prevent the Iraq invasion. For Solnit – writer, environmental campaigner and global justice activist – there is another war that must be fought constantly against attempts to inhibit our collective imagination. In that war every creative act, every thoughtful inquiry, every opening of a mind is a victory for hope.
If hope was Solnit’s central message in Hope in the Dark, perhaps empathy lies at the heart of the winding paths of The Faraway Nearby. The book takes its title from a phrase with which artist Georgia O’Keefe would sign off letters to the people she loved after she had moved from New York City to faraway New Mexico. Solnit writes:
We’re close, we say, to mean that we’re emotionally connected, that we are not separate; or, we’ve become distant, to describe the opposite. After … Georgia O’Keefe moved to rural New Mexico … she would sign her letters to the people she loved, ‘from the faraway nearby’. It was a way to measure physical and psychic geography together. Emotion has its geography, affection is what is nearby, within the boundaries of the self. You can be a thousand miles from the person next to you in bed or deeply invested in the survival of a stranger on the other side of the world.
This concern with connectedness and empathy runs like a thread through the thirteen chapters of the book which themselves circle back and repeat. It’s there, too, in the segment which, like a hidden bonus track on a CD, also runs like a thread at the foot of every page, an essay which begins with the words, ‘Moths drink the tears of sleeping birds’, which sounds like the beginning of some imagist poem but is, in fact, the title of a scientific report on a species of moth on the island of Madagascar:
The title is a sentence, and the sentence reads like a ballad of one line or a history compressed down to its barest essentials. There are two protagonists in it, a sleeper and a drinker, a giver and ataker, and what are tears to the former is food to the latter. The story tells us everything we ever wanted a story to tell. There is difference. There is contact. You can feed on sorrow. Your tears are delicious. Moths drink the tears of sleeping birds.
In this blend of essay and memoir Solnit explores how we escape through stories, why we tell them, and the role played by empathy in our narratives. ‘Place,’ she writes is a story, and stories are geography, and empathy is first of all an act of imagination, a storyteller’s art, and then a way of travelling from here to there.’
To injure, to kill, to cause suffering in others, requires first that withdrawal of empathy that would have made such action painful or impossible, and intentionally cause pain in others requires you to kill yourself off a little in the process.
In the year of emergency, as Solnit’s life seems to be falling apart, she receives the gift of the roomful of apricots:
As a gift from my mother, or her tree, they were a catalyst that made the chaos of that era come together as a story of sorts and an invitation to examine the business of making and changing stories and locate the silences in between. ‘It is only by putting into words that I make it whole’, Virginia Woolf once wrote.
In the summer before her mother’s death, she is diagnosed with precancerous cells in her breast. ‘Life was in those days grim,’ she recalls, but she finds that illness ‘takes away all the need to do and makes just being enough.’ The emergencies that intrude into her life become ‘a rupture from which you have to stitch back a storyline of where you’re headed and what it means.’
In exploring the experience of her mother’s illness and that of her own, Solnit develops a complex narrative which weaves together thoughts on a great many subjects to produce a tapestry rich in insight. The book ends with a powerful, poetic image of acceptance, commitment and immersion in the river of life.
In an interview with the Buddhist website The Lion’s Roar, Rebecca Solnit states that her work has often been about ‘connections between things seen as far apart or disparate:
I try and encourage people. I take interest in pleasures and possibilities that are already all around us. I try and connect the present, past, and future in how I tell stories. I try to look for the alternatives and the overlooked entrances and exits.
She goes on to suggest that ‘we make ourselves large or small, here or there, in our empathies’:
Some empathy must be learned and then imagined, by perceiving the suffering of others and translating it into one’s own experience of suffering and thereby suffering a little with then. Empathy can be a story you tell yourself about what it must be like to be that other person; but its lack can also arrive from narrative, about why the sufferer deserved it, or why that person or those people have nothing to do with you. Whole societies can be taught to deaden feeling, to dissociate from their marginal and minority members, just as people can and do erase the humanity of those close to them.
Empathy makes you imagine the sensation of the torture, of the hunger, of the loss. You make that person into yourself, you inscribe their suffering on your own body or heart or mind, and then you respond to their suffering as though it were your own. Identification, we say, to mean that I extend solidarity to you, and who and what you identify with builds your own identity. Physical pain defines the physical boundaries of the self but these identifications define a larger self, a map of affections and alliances, and the limits of this psychic self are nothing more or less than the limits of love. Which is to say love enlarges; it annexes affectionately; at its utmost it dissolves all boundaries.
Empathy, imagination: essentials for being a writer, and for being a reader, too. ‘Moths drink the tears of sleeping birds.’ In the fourth of the thirteen essays in The Faraway Nearby, titled ‘Flight’, Solnit writes:
The object we call a book is not the real book, but its potential, like a musical score or seed. It exists fully only in the act of being read; and its real home is inside the head of the reader, where the symphony resounds, the seed germinates. A book is a heart that only beats in the chest of another.
Meanwhile the heart of our dog, my heart, continues to beat in her chest.
- Hope in the Dark (2012)
- Getting Lost: leave the door open for the unknown (2012)
- These books are made for walking: step one (2012)
- Too Soon to Tell: Rebecca Solnit’s case for Hope, continued (2013)