I read Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby a few weeks ago, back when I got word that my students would be returning to school in-person for four days each week. I had spent the year alternating back-and-forth between remote learning and hybrid teaching, and I wanted normal. Not-staying-home-not-wearing-a-mask-not-teaching-second-grade-online-and-in-person-at-the-same-time normal. We’re all in the same place; you know the feeling, and we’ve stayed home and worn masks and taught (or learned) online for over a year now to keep each other as safe and well as possible. But I wanted to work with my students on reading centers in small groups again; to use the playground at recess or eat lunch in the cafeteria again; and to have enough balance to be able to read and research and write here again, too.
That last one’s just for me; I’ve missed sharing family stories and exchanging research ideas here. I’ve missed all of you, and I hope you and yours are doing well.
In The Faraway Nearby, Rebecca Solnit explores the ways we build and navigate our lives out of stories–both our own and others’–and how we are connected by empathy and by imagination. Solnit is one of my favorite writers, and the book had been in my to-read pile since the previous summer. But I finally decided to pick it up a few weeks ago because of the title: the faraway nearby. It’s almost too perfect of a phrase to describe now; isn’t that how we’ve all felt over the past year? Solnit explains her choice of title, a reference to Georgia O’Keeffe’s letter signature:
Georgia O’Keeffe moved to rural New Mexico, from which 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.
Georgia O’Keeffe composed a similarly-titled painting–From the Faraway, Nearby–in 1937 following a camping trip to Arizona with photographer Ansel Adams. The painting depicts a deer skull with large horns up-close that hovers over the far-away desert landscape; both the horns and desert hill–the foreground and background of the painting–meet in the middle, linking the faraway and the nearby. It’s a painting of an untouched, lonely-feeling place (O’Keeffe’s words, not mine) that evokes longing and loneliness, and its poetic title measures distance and proximity as an emotional state of mind and a physical location.
A few weeks ago, back when I got word that my students would be returning to school in-person for four days each week, The Faraway Nearby (as a phrase) captured the feeling of the past year’s worth of distance and uncertainty and allowed me to explore and reflect on storytelling at a time when I missed storytelling here the most. But the school year is finally over; I have finished all of my lesson plans and packed up my classroom, and we even celebrated by letting students pie their teachers in the face (I’ll have to share the video of that one later). I want to research and write again; I just have to figure out where and how to start. Maybe I’ll share an old family recipe of my grandmother’s; I could write about the fire at the Hodge Opera House that my family put out, my great-great grandmother’s heart-shaped locket, our DNA connections to an island in Sweden, or the photos I found of the family’s churches in Germany. There’s a folder–and a box or two–of records and photos that need to be shared.
I’m not sure where or how I’ll start, but it’s good to be back. From the faraway nearby–