Embracing Uncertainty: Rebecca Solnit’s Field Guide to Getting Lost

“Leave the door open for the unknown, the door into the dark. That’s where the most important things come from, where you yourself came from, and where you will go.”

Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost

I’m lying on a cushioned sofa inside a wooden cabin in Montezuma, Costa Rica. A storm is raging and heavy drops of water that find their way inside reach my feet. Everything is quite wet: the wooden logs that form a roof let the water in, the cushions I lay on are damp and my hair, I feel, has not been completely dry in days. The book I’m holding with both hands has doubled its size and is now a container of sand and seawater. There is no phone signal or wifi here, there’s no one in sight, just me and my sadly damaged copy of Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost.

I put the book down and look outside. “It’s not about being lost but about trying to lose yourself”, Solnit writes. I look around. Am I lost? I tried, I think, to lose myself on this trip. And I find myself short of money, stuck in some remote beach, reachable only by boat. I am alone, too. But I’m not lost. I have a plane ticket to go back home, I have let my mother and my boyfriend know where I am. Moreover, I am travelling with a friend, although I don’t know where she is at the moment.

“It’s not about being lost but about trying to lose yourself”. I don’t feel lost—that is, physically lost, lost somewhere—, but I feel open to being lost. I keep looking around and thinking of those words. Once I felt the need to travel every now and then to lose myself—on mountaintops and remote places, miles away from home—. Then I felt the need to travel to find myself. Now I know those things are the same, and I travel to let both happen to me. I think of something Emerson wrote, “The way of life is wonderful: it is by abandonment.” I think of this and I think I understand, at least I begin to fathom, what Solnit says. I’m not lost here, but I’m open to being lost, I’m okay with uncertainty. Not here, but everywhere I go. I read again, “It’s not about being lost but about trying to lose yourself”, and I got a warm feeling inside me. 

“The world is blue at its edges and in its depths. This blue is the light that got lost. Light at the end of the spectrum does not travel the whole distance from the sun to us. It disperses among the molecules of the air, it scatters in water. Water is colorless, shallow water appears to be the color of whatever its underneath it, but deep water is full of this scattered light, the purer the water the deeper the blue. The sky is blue for the same reason, but the blue at the horizon, the blue of land that seems to be dissolving into the sky, is a deeper, dreamier, melancholy blue, the blue at the furthest reaches of the places where you see for miles, the blue of distance. This light that does not touch us, does not travel the whole distance, the light that gets lost, gives us the beauty of the world, so much of which is in the color blue.”

When I came back from my trip to Costa Rica, I was still reading A Field Guide to Getting Lost. I spent about four weeks reading it, underlining paragraphs, rereading chapters, reading parts of it aloud to myself and to others. The book is not only an impressive piece of writing—part essay and part memoir—, but also a neverending invitation, a Chinese box containing a thousand references to visual arts, literature, music and architecture. The book begins with the physicality of being lost and the origins and meanings of the word, only to expand its meaning: to get lost in the world, to get lost inside oneself, to lose people, to lose things, to get lost from people. Loss, memory, distance, longing and absence are some of the themes of the book.

Solnit argues that “it is the job of artists to open doors and invite in prophecies, the unknown, the unfamiliar; it’s where their work comes from, although its arrival signs the beginning of the long disciplined process of making it their own […], [while scientists] transform the unknown into the known, haul it in like fishermen; artists get you out into that dark sea.” And that is exactly what she does; “invitation” is precisely the word I’d use to describe this book: an invitation for the unknown and the uncertain in our every day lives to take place, an invitation to abandonment, to embracing the various mysteries of the world. An invitation, too, to accept and reconsider all those qualities of being lost that we might think are “negative”, such as loss, nostalgia, wilderness, desire and distance. 

One of the things I most enjoyed about this book was how Solnit approaches and redefines words like longing, distance and desire. These are words that imply absence: we long for something that we don’t have, we measure distance between where we are and where we are not, and we desire things we do not possess. Solnit, on the other hand, gives these words a meaning of their own: “when everything else is gone, you can be rich in loss.” To be rich in loss, rich in absence, in longing and desire: not to be lacking but to be able to experience these emotions as inherent part of being human:

“I wonder sometimes whether with a slight adjustment of perspective [desire] could be cherished as a sensation on its own terms, since it is as inherent to the human condition as blue is to distance? If you can look across the distance without wanting to close it up, if you can own your longing in the same way that you own the beauty of that blue that can never be possessed? For something of this longing will, like the blue of distance, only be relocated, not assuaged, nu acquisition and arrival, just as the mountains cease to be blue when you arrive among them and the blue instead tints the next beyond. Somewhere in this is the mystery of why tragedies are more beautiful than comedies and why we take huge pleasure in the sadness of certain songs and stories. Something is always far away.”

Only if we understand this can we truly begin to embrace abandonment and loss, and experience the joys of all those absences that surround us. In Solnit’s book it is easy to see loss and absence as enriching experiences rather than despairing ones: nature and wilderness, lonely tasks like writing, the risks of falling in love, the implications of ruins in a city, the colour blue in the distance, particles of light that get lost on their way from the sun to us; all of these allow us to lose ourselves, and losing ourselves means nothing more than being present and fully aware, if only temporarily, of our true place in the world. 

These definitions of getting lost are traced back to both Henry David Thoreau —“Not till we are lost, in other words, not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations”—and Walter Benjamin —“to be lost is to be fully present, and to be fully present is to be capable of being in uncertainty and mystery”—. To be lost, then, means really to be found, and it is only through transformative experiences—art, love, loss, grief, travel— that we begin to find our place in the world, and in a mysterious world like ours, that is means to accept that our place in it is uncertain, yes, but never unimportant, everchanging but vital, connected to all. This world is full of mysteries, and to be lost is to accept the mystery, to accept “that the world is wild, that life is unpredictable in its goodness and its danger”, and the only way to do it is by abandonment

“Is it that the joy that comes from other people always risks sadness, because even when love doesn’t fail, morality enters in; is it that there is a place where sadness and joy are not distinct, where all emotion lies together, a sort of ocean into which the tributary streams of distinct emotions go, a faraway deep inside; is it that such sadness is only the side effect of art that describes the depths of our lives, and to see that described in all its potential for loneliness and pain is beautiful?”

To read Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost was indeed a transformative experience; it’s one of the books I have most enjoyed reading lately and perhaps the one I have underlined the most. Solnit knits together anecdotes, pieces of history, art criticism and even fiction in what I believe to be the best non-fiction book I’ve read in my life. This book is a dizzying ride around the word “lost” and its importance, its variations and its necessity in a world where it gets harder and harder to be lost. 

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“Mad, bad and dangerous”: Mary Wollstonecraft & Mary Shelley’s Lives

Review of Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and her Daughter Mary Shelley by Charlotte Gordon

Whew. I’ve been absent from the blog for a while now and it feels a bit weird to be writing again, so bear with me, please. I’ve been having a hard time with my reading (!!!) and finally managed to finish a book, something I hadn’t done since July (!!!). Do you ever have these weird reading slumps where you want to read but as soon as you start you’re like, ugh? I had been feeling that way for a while and it sucked. I probably began to read five or six books that I have no intention to continue reading any time soon. But that’s life. Fortunately, there have been many exciting things happening in my life, of which I will write about soon. But enough about me, this post is about the wonderful book that brought me back to life. Shockingly enough, it is not a novel.

I came across a copy of Romantic Outlaws earlier this year. It was 70% off, hardcover and beautiful, so I bought it. To be honest, I am not good with biographies. I love reading about authors I love, but it’s hard for me to stick with non-fiction books in general, so I read them in parts, often while reading something else. Anyway, while on this reading slump I thought, what could be better than to read about badass women? I needed some motivation! So I gave the book a shot and oh boy was it awesome.

The book is a dual biography, which is interesting since Mary Wollstonecraft didn’t get to know her daughter, Mary Shelley. She died a few days after giving birth to her. It is also interesting how Charlotte Gordon intertwines the narratives of their lives: we read one chapter about Wollstonecraft, then one about Shelley, in chronological order. Although I thought this would be confusing—especially because they’re both named Mary—, it was not so. Also, this technique shed some light on parallelisms in their lives and their intellectual pursuits: Mary Wollstonecraft’s life and writings would play a very important role in the upbringing and life choices of her daughter Mary —and of other Romantic poets like Percy Shelley and Lord Byron—, perhaps the more so because Mary never got to know her.

Both writers had their share of hardships and heartbreaks, as well as many contradictions between their philosophies and their lives, aspects that the author of the book not only highlights, but also defends. I must say it is refreshing to hear how Gordon portrays her subjects, especially Mary Wollstonecraft. The book is in a constant argument with previous critiques of Wollstonecraft’s works and correspondence.

Although nobody can deny that Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman is a crucial text for feminism and human rights, her figure has been neglected due to certain “contradictions” in her life (chiefly that she tried to take her own life after a breakup, although now we can say that the depression with which she struggled her whole life was not only caused by said breakup). However, the powerful insight and the extensive research behind Gordon’s biography sheds light on the complexities of a woman who was way ahead of her time, a woman who not only argued for the rights of women and their place as rational creatures, but who also fought for women to be able to enjoy the same sexual and emotional liberties as men. Mary Wollstonecraft’s life was not only hard and heartbreaking but also dramatic and exciting—*cue The Man by Taylor Swift*— . I am very comforted by the idea of a woman travelling alone, joining a group of revolutionaries and founding a school for girls in the 18th century.

“Who was the ideal woman? Mary [Wollstonecraft] asked. Was she a fainting maiden, easily fatigued and naïve? No! She was a resourceful intelligent human being. Mary, as usual, was alone with her ideas, a single candle in the darkness”.

And what can I even say about Mary Shelley? Running away at sixteen, travelling across Europe with a handsome poet—*Style by Taylor Swift plays in the distance*––, having sex at graveyards and then casually writing a literary masterpiece. That’s the life.

“The life she dreamed of, filled with love and passion, seemed impossible, a glorious adventure that happened to other people, not her”.

Of course, Mary Shelley’s life was much more complex than that. She had her share of misfortunes, like the deaths of her children or Percy Shelley’s sickness, not to mention the blatant oppression she suffered because she was a woman, the rejection from mostly every social and literary circle in England (“mad, bad and dangerous” was how the press referred to her), etc. Gordon’s book also challenges the popular idea that both Shelley and Byron helped Mary write Frankenstein. One of the most interesting parts of the book is when Gordon talks about how the three Romantic poets influenced each other’s writing. I guess you could say the book is as much a biography as it is a study on English Romanticism.

“Artists. Poets. These were the true prophets, the ones with the most profound vision […] No self-respecting Romantic writer (with the exception of Edgar Allan Poe) would ever have admitted (as Poe did with The Raven) that his work was the result of a careful intellectual process, a cold and pedestrian endeavour of plotting and outlining. Sudden burst of inspiration, visitations from spirits in the night—these were the true sources of art to Mary and her friends”.

My favourite part? The stories behind Frankenstein‘s genesis. There is a whole chapter about the famous reunion in which Mary and Percy Shelley, Lord Byron and John Polidori gathered around the fire to tell ghost stories. It was on that night that the idea of a human body reanimated with electric energy occurred to Mary. It was also on this night that Polidori came with the idea for The Vampyre, a novel which would later inspire Bram Stoker’s Dracula. There are many accounts about that night and the writing process of the novel—Percy Shelley’s letters and poems, Mary’s diary, Polidori’s diary— that Gordon goes into.

Biographies are funny because even when you know you will never be able to comprehend someone else’s life, their motivations and intentions, their hopes and fears, fully—and the more so when these people lived two hundred years ago—, you end up with a narrative that is not only about its subjects, but also about its author, its author’s time and, most importantly, a reflection on literature itself, on fiction and on the limits of language and the written word. What can we know of these legendary women? Perhaps not much, perhaps only what we see through the glass of our own experiences, but to find in that things that resonate with us, here, now in 2019, is magical.

In conclusion, this book is the perfect mix between juicy literary gossip, drama, feminist theory, literary theory and history. It reads just like fiction because the author is obviously passionate about her subjects, it’s almost like hearing a friend rant about their favourite authors.

This book was powerful enough to bring me out of my reading slump. It also made me feel that I’m better after reading it: I have always enjoyed reading about women who fight for what they believe in and who dare to make their voices heard in a world that is, to our day, chiefly shaped by men. So, here’s to badass women like Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley.

Have you read any cool biographies lately? I am currently looking for recommendations for what to read next.

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