- Memoir as ProcessSomething Other than Remembering
new york, grove press, 2014. 300 pages, paperback, $16.00.
london: penguin press, 2014. 259 pages, paperback, $12.85.
Lately I have been thinking about memory and remembering. Reading lots of memoirs will do this to a person. But Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk and Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby do something to the genre that changes it; these are memoirs about the presence of the past, personal and historical, and reimagining that relationship. These books are not so much about remembering as they are about expanding memory to include books, stories, and histories beyond experience to create new understandings of a self and its possible futures. In both, the process not only brings the past into the present, but also follows new threads: rereading is not only remembering, but also engaging in ways that recontextualize one’s life; memoir less memorializing than generative revising, happening in the present tense. They do something to the idea of time that changes the heart of what we mean when we talk about the self. H is for hawk, not Helen, although even that distinction will threaten to collapse; the faraway nearby is both the way Georgia O’Keefe signed her letters and how what is far draws near, becomes personal, turns on questions about place and about identity. We all have other histories.
Right now, for example, I am on the plane at the beginning of a trip from Detroit to England. I am remembering 40 years of coming and going from this [End Page 225] place. I will see the man who was my first love and lover, himself 30-something years married to someone else. I left him behind when I moved back to the U.S., too familiar with a life in places that never become home. Only recently have I come to fully understand this against the backdrop of the corporatization of the U.S., where moving, and not just moving up, were normalized, against a backdrop of immigration and the struggle to fit into the middle class. In this history, moving on became essential to who I was and could ever be, whether I looked backward, forward, or at the present moment. Like Macdonald and Solnit, I needed to do more than remember.
So in the midst of remembering to create a different kind of future, I too read and reread books, mine about birds, looking for some way to create threads that might help me know home. My father had a nickname for me: Nancy bird. It was a different kind of starting place. I started feeding birds too, even trudging through snow all winter to feeders at the back of my yard. I did this amidst a history of moving on that I didn’t want to be stuck in. Migration seemed like a way to start a new rhythm of returning. When a Cooper’s Hawk appeared in a nearby tree, surely sensing easy prey, I was reminded that Helen Macdonald’s H is For Hawk was sitting on my shelf. And because the hawk brought to mind the ways that sustaining one set of lives leads to the death of others—the prey for the hawk—I was also reminded of the story that runs along the footer of Rebecca Solnit’s book.
In The Faraway Nearby, Solnit creates in the footer along the bottom of every page a version of her life worth exploring in contexts outside of her own experience. It begins: “Moths drink the tears of sleeping birds.” Above, she writes about a pile of apricots from the tree of her childhood home, which her brother sent when the home was sold. What can we learn from these two ways of being in the world, one in which subsistence is a rhythm of giving and receiving; one in which time limits the existence of a living thing? The birds live even as they give their tears, the apricots are rotting and must be attended to if they are to be preserved. One rhythm emerges from the...