After finishing Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby, I revisited some of her previous books, including Field Guide for Getting Lost which has a recurring chapter title of “The Blue of the Distance”.
Like Susan Orlean, Solnit is one of those writers whose work can seduce and annoy me at the same time. What I think at one moment seems profound strikes me as shallow and silly on a second reading, and then I come back and find new insights.
Her blue of the distance relates to how what we see in the distance looks so different when we actually reach that point on the horizon. The blueness is a trick of the eye, just like blue sky and blue water that are not really blue.
I remember a friend of mine writing a piece years ago in which he said he didn’t like westerns as a movie genre because they always had “too much sky”. I’m preparing for a trip to Oklahoma where I grew up, and going back I am always struck by its flatness and the abundance of sky and the distance of the horizon. I could always see what was beyond where I lived and never felt at home on what was supposed to be home.
I grew up on a farm which provided both a connection to the land and a sense of isolation that shapes my personality to this day. To see friends took real intention since they lived miles away and required being driven there by my parents.
Living in San Francisco, a city of seven hills, I feel much more grounded with so much vertical clutter on the horizon. I have Twin Peaks and Mount Sutro to the west, the towers of the Civic Center to the north, the slopes of Bernal Hill to the south, and Potrero Hill on the east.
These four points are companions as I walk the basenjis each morning and evening.
I think as Mount Tamalpais to the north and Mount Diablo to the East as my “firewalls” — barriers that nurture and protect me in my little 49 square mile urban environment.
Wednesday marked the 10th anniversary of my mother’s death. Shortly before she died, I put up chair molding in my bedroom. For some reason I thought of that white perimeter of wood as a shield against the deep mourning I felt in the days and months after the left. A more immediate firewall that I had built to protect me from pain.
In 2012, I made a dramatic life/career decision to leave international work after nearly 25 years. I had spent half of my year travelling, having the rich experience of seeing Vietnam, Bukina Faso, Haiti, Peru and a couple dozen other countries. But I sacrificed health, relationships and a sense of home and place as a result. I have not been in airplane in almost two years, and my journey of the past year and a half of working locally has been as dramatic as my past ones where I was forever chasing the far blue on the horizon.
These days I seem to look for less protection from pain in a cocoon and more to be freed to the sky. Twenty-four years ago this week, I was in a remote village of Mali where I was struck by the brightness of the sky at midnight. The only lights besides candles was the brilliant symphony of lights above. One night there was a lunar eclipse, and the villagers beat drums and chanted to “coax the cat swallowing the moon to release it” so there would again be light to traverse the night. When I asked one man if he really believed in the ritual, he said, “They have done this for centuries, and the cat always releases the moon. So why should they stop if it works.”