Maybe you already know this:
When I was in my late 20s and in graduate school at Stanford, you came to give a talk about the American West. I think it was right before you published River of Shadows, your book on Eadward Muybridge and the technological west. I approached you afterwards. I told you that I was planning on leaving academia to pursue writing, the kind of writing you did, maybe, and I could use some conversation and direction. Let’s have coffee, you said. We exchanged emails. I screwed up my courage and sent you a note. You never wrote back.
It happens. You probably had oodles of people clamoring for your attention, even back then. Or maybe, just maybe, your reply got lost. In any case, I did not follow up. I was too starstruck. Nervous. Stuck in a long-learned silence.
Your chapter on Roger Casement in A Book of Migrations had inspired an entire undergraduate seminar I taught, on human rights and comparative colonialism. Then I read Hope in the Dark after September 11th, while facing the truth of U.S. militarism on Guam and Saipan. My now-husband, then a Silicon Valley software engineer, designed an electroluminescent horse-bike, based on the Muybridge photographs, for a very early Burning Man. I read Wanderlust, with the Great Walk on its cover, while (what else?) wandering the streets and parks of London, finishing my dissertation research, free and utterly confused. Your incisive and open-hearted writing on Occupy helped wake me from the fog of early motherhood (though not as much as the assemblies and working groups and marches themselves did—the word is indeed no substitute for the thing itself). Your work on sexual violence, perhaps most importantly of all, called me out of a deep silence around my life in college, helped me find words for and courage around my experience, helped me name myself: survivor.
When I learned that you practice Zen, as I do, I said to myself, “Of course!”
And when I saw last night that you wrote and published a piece on loneliness, inspired by Krista Tippett’s podcast on Hannah Arendt which I also listened to this past week, I put down my phone and started crying.
Right now I am working with the modern Zen koan, Does the Loch Ness monster really exist? Early yesterday I wrote this in my journal:
The monster for me is refusal of connection—loneliness—a deep, confused loneliness. Not refusal of connection to others, though that’s there, but such extroverted connection is so lauded, prescribed, even mandated in our culture—when I think of it now all I see are bright, shallow advertisements in my mind, the incessant play on a deeper, more inner loneliness.
So, really, refusal of connection to ourselves.
And in that moment of recognition of what it actually is, the monster really does exist, and I am it, it is more than in me. I am happy in my murk and water landscape, eating plants, small fish, letting fronds of lakeweed brush my leathery skin, listening to the buzz and rush of motors on boats passing on the surface overhead (looking for me).
I’ve been thinking so much of loneliness, and companionship, since listening to that On Being podcast. One can’t be lonely, Arendt said, if one thinks, if one is capable of keeping oneself company, of internal dialogue, and only then of dialogue with others.
In your piece, which two separate friends landed in my Facebook feed last night, after my children were asleep (and one emailed this morning), you quote the exact same part of Tippett and Lyndsey Stonebridge’s conversation that I reference, above. Here is the quote:
Stonebridge notes that Arendt advocated for the importance of an inner dialogue with oneself, for a critical splitting in which you interrogate yourself—for a real conversation between the fisherman and his wife you could say: “People who can do that can actually then move on to having conversations with other people and then judging with other people. And what she called ‘the banality of evil’ was the inability to hear another voice, the inability to have a dialogue either with oneself or the imagination to have a dialogue with the world, the moral world.”
We would absolutely not write the same essay about loneliness. But seeing you so swiftly and magnificently take that inspiration and spin it into words, then unfurl them across the virtual world and into people’s minds and hearts, woke up an old monster inside of me. A darkness, in the shape of discouragement, or comparison, or envy, that lies not very far beneath the beautiful lake of my life.
What in myself have I been refusing to connect with? Refusing to own?
A few days after my teacher gave me the Loch Ness monster koan, a young man unleashed violence in the Manchester Arena. That older man in power of whom you wrote responded with these words: “I won’t call them monsters because they would like that term.” He called them “losers” instead, like a child. As infuriating as that moment was, there was something intriguing about it. Nobody asked him to call “them” monsters. It felt so clear to me that he was talking to himself, refusing to name or talk to the monsters inside himself. Refusing to keep them company. The terrorists must “be driven out,” he said. “Obliterated.” This is like psychology 101, not a politics informed by either realism or compassion. It’s a fantasy of purity, an incapacity for inner or outer dialogue. Hence, his loneliness.
I am trying to be and do the opposite of that. I am trying to keep company with my own monsters, to name them, to allow them room in my imaginative world, to witness, as clearly as I can, the impact of that imaginative world on my lived relations. It is so, so hard. But it is an act of resistance, I think. Because if, as Arendt wrote, and Tippett reminded us, totalitarianism is “organized loneliness” and the “common ground for terror,” making people un-lonely is a political act. “Making people un-lonely is a good project,” said Stonebridge in that brilliant interview, “but how that’s going to happen, what politics you need for that to happen is going to be a very, very hard question.” It seems, however, that it must include a blooming of our capacity for introspection, for solitude, for swimming into our own deep lagoons with courage and curiosity, and then coming out to connect. Does the Loch Ness monster really exist? Yes and no. Meet me on the other shore and I’ll let you know what the journey was like.
Writing this letter is part of that journey for me, Rebecca. Of course I am not immune to fear or anxiety, but I feel capable now—partly because of Zen, and partly because of your stunning example—of speaking uncomfortable things out loud. I’m no longer paralyzed by that long-learned silence around what I really think or want, around being a creature with appetites.
You and I are friends on Facebook now. I took a deep breath around or just after Occupy, sent you a request, and was so excited when you accepted me! But I don’t follow you anymore. It was too painful. Toxic envy and confusion arose too frequently for my comfort. We even had a difficult exchange once, when I questioned something you wrote in a comment and then the comment disappeared and I did not know how to reorient or reconnect. Flawed heroes, vulnerable self-esteem, and all that. I check into your feed from time to time, and read what you’ve written that’s been posted by friends, which happens quite often. And I have the new edition of Hope in the Dark in the book pile by my bed, as a suggestion for a community book club that I keep threatening to start.
Because the world needs you.
But the world needs me, too. And I keep forgetting that.
And the world needs the Loch Ness monster, or maybe just the koan. It needs the question that cannot be answered, the stubborn darkness, the things that never, ever reveal themselves. The monsters that surface now and again, persistently, but never fully, never in bright electric glory or truth.
Too often in my mind the word “me” is preceded by “just.” Just me. Just a mom. Just an aspiring writer, living on a mountaintop, who failed to connect with Rebecca Solnit years ago, an event which may have (in the story I tell myself) changed my life. But that’s just a story. Just. A story. I tell myself over and over again. Here I am.
And so I practice. I practice setting my feet on the floor in the morning. I practice reminding my children to brush their teeth. I practice showing up for my community, the meaning of which keeps shifting, depending on where I am in my life. I practice catching words and phrases and dreams as they rise from the darkness, or flash by, and practice trusting them, trusting myself to sit down and write, to face my monsters, to live the life I have. Not the life I might have had if we had met in some San Francisco café, circa 2002, but the one I have right now. Right now, my practice feels really, really hard. It’s one of those times when I think of calling the doctor and asking for just a small dose of Lexipro or something handy like that.
I emailed my friend who emailed your article and told her how timely it was. I literally opened my laptop to work on this letter and there it was. I told her you have been like my shadow all these years. I thanked her for loving good writing, for sharing your work. I thanked her, also, for being so truly herself, and told her that I struggle to be me. She wrote back (I love her e.e. cummings emails): “i am glad that both you and your shadow exist, there is room for you both.”
Because when I wrote about Hannah Arendt in my journal, remember, I was not just thinking of loneliness, but also of companionship. The 3rd Refuge Vow—I take refuge in my companions— has been sweet and heavy in my heart a lot lately. When I settle into it, the garden lizards are my companions. The brown rustling snake in the strawberry bed. Breezes, blueberries, poppies, snap peas, the house standing empty beyond the fence, sky, skyscrapers, memories, monsters. No loneliness. And so I also added:
One can’t be lonely, I’ve been thinking, if one finds companionship not just in thought but in all being.
so thank you, rebecca solnit
for just being
in this complicated, beautiful
lake of monsters
And if you ever want to have coffee, definitely let me know.