26 september 2020
A guide for the reluctant reader
Dit praatje hield Micha op 9 september om 16:00 bij het ILUFU
Setting out to go for a walk, is very much like setting out to read a book. Not only do you have to find time, to walk or to read, you need to put in the effort. Perhaps not much effort, but reading and walking do take a specific effort. The effort of leaving.
That is why I don’t always feel like going on a walk, just like I don’t always feel like opening a new book. This is not something I am proud of.
To be honest, I would like to be the kind of person who always goes on long adventurous walks, or who constantly reads books. I would like to be that person with more appetite for adventure and surprise.
Perhaps it’s laziness that prevents me from putting on my hiking shoes more often. Perhaps it is my inertness that makes me open fewer books than I would like. I quite like wandering around in the comfort of my own house. Cleaning up dishes, rearranging piles on my desk or watching a long and boring cycling race on TV. I like making coffee for myself and browsing through the newspaper without really engaging with the pages in front of me.
And yet, just as I have never regretted finishing a novel, I don’t think I have ever regretted taking a long walk. Once I am reading or walking, I often can’t stop. So why do I stall?
The easy answer is that I can’t read a book and walk at the same time.
That’s why opening the Salt Path and finding that it took me on an exhilarating journey through the south west of England, was such a joy. Walking and reading at once was, if you permit me to make a pun in a second language, a Winn Winn situation.
A silly joke, but as a comedian I would like to believe there is a truth even in the smallest play on words.
Reading Raynor Winns books helped me understand why I am both a reluctant and devoted walker/reader.
Like most of her readers, I started with the Salt Path. Seduced by its beautiful cover I started reading and simply could not stop.
The more I read the more I grew convinced that this exhilarating, true story was much more than a heart wrenching account of what had happened to its author and her husband after they lost their home and health in a few days’ time.
For me the Salt Path became a book about the importance of reading.
Or perhaps importance is the wrong word.
Because if anything, reading the Salt Path is a humbling experience. If there is one point the oceans, the cliffs and the harsh weather teach us as we join Raynor and Moth on the Path, it is how small, fragile and unimportant we humans really are.
The riveting descriptions of nature bristle on almost every page. Reminding us, in all its beauty and cruelty how little influence we have over our own lives. Impressing on us how temporary everything is that we hold to be important.
So perhaps the Salt Path was not about the importance of reading. But it is, or can be read as an investigation into the act of reading. The Joy of Reading and the Pain of reading.
“We needed somewhere to settle our thoughts and come to terms with what had happened,” Raynor Winn writes in the 4th chapter of the Salt Path. She is of course referring to her personal life, but that line might as well be an explanation of why mankind created literature:
“We needed somewhere to settle our thoughts and come to terms with what had happened”
A few lines later she writes about the farm she and her husband Moth had suddenly lost: “at the farm we could shut ourselves away from everyone on our island. That’s what the farm had been to us, an island.” Raynor and Moth were forced to leave, made homeless. But that Island, I thought as I turned the page, is also me. Walking around in the comfort of my own house and mind. Postponing the moment, I would leave it all behind and open a book.
It is passages like this that make the Salt Path so much more than a beautiful and heartwarming memoir.
“Packing a rucksack when you are 50 just is not the same as when you are twenty,” Winn writes a few lines later. “30 years of manual labor, damage that never quite heals, but stays malevolently in the background. Stiff from three years fighting a court case, hunched over the laptop.” I don’t want to sound like Oprah, but the older we get the more baggage we carry, and the harder it becomes to add something to that load. Like walking, you can’t enter a book without taking who you are and have become with you. That’s what makes reading and walking meaningful. But also, sometimes difficult.
Both Raynor and Moth are stiff when they embark on their journey.
But when the book is finished their stiffness has transformed into flexibility.
For Moth, walking was a medical miracle, but for most of us, reading about their journey was just as miraculous.
The miracle of literature is how it rejuvenates us without renouncing our age. It makes us flexible because it expands the space, we live in. Not by denying the cruelty of the world we live in, of the decay within and around us, but by somehow owning that loss. Looking it straight in the eyes and coming to terms with it.
Reading the Salt Path is not a walk in the park. It is intense, sometimes painful, but always beautiful.
Only two-thirds into the book Winn realizes that she, not Moth, is the one that still needs to come to terms with how their world has changed. Just like we, the readers, have to come to terms with the fact that the story we are reading is not only about the characters on the page, but about us, the readers.
After finishing the Salt Path, Raynor an Moth stayed with me for a long time. I, like so many readers, had grown fond of them. The more people started reading the Salt Path, the more I hoped its success would get their life back on track. Or perhaps back on a more comfortable track.
But when The Wild Silence arrived, I was also curious whether Winn would again be able to write a memoir that was more than the sum of its parts.
I was not disappointed.
If the Salt Path is an anatomy of reading, The Wild Silence is, I think, all about the act of writing.
Just as in the Salt Path where Winn is thrust into a new life, we learn that writing the Salt Path, was also thrust upon her in a cruel manner.
Yes, she had always wanted to be a writer, partly because her mother had often punished her by making her read. And the more she read, the better she liked that strange punishment.
As a parent, I found it quite reassuring that even the great writers and readers needed some encouragement to get started.
But Winn only became a writer when her husband Moth was having trouble remembering the trip that had been so important to them. The writing started as a revolt against the loss of memory.
The Wild Silence is in many ways a revolt against loss.
The loss of a mother, the loss of a home, and also the devastating ecological loss taking place all around the world.
Not a revolt that believes it will necessarily stop the destructions, but one that records it. Documenting what we have lost by paying close attention and bearing witness.
This is of course what writing can do.
But wanting to write and being able to writing are two different things. In order to start the writer has to accept who she is, where she comes from, and what she has lost.
Raynor Winn takes us with her as she tries to come to terms with who she is. When she writes about the death of her mother, her memoir writing is again unflinching and beautiful, heartbreaking and filled with the cruel details of life as she revisits the cottage where she grew up:
“Real, this was real, this earth, this land, these trees, real.
Hidden in the darkness of the strait vertical trunks I was invisible, my existence blurred, these trees had always been here for me, bushy and low when I was young, tall and swaying now.
With my eyes closed I let myself feel the wind of trees.
The pin in my head, so much loss, I needed the soft earth to suck me in, to hide me from any more loss.”
As so often in her books, the land and the language become one.
But how to make a story out of all that wild silence?
“Quantum physicist would explain the possibility of something coming from nothing, by the theory that when matter and antimatter particles come together in a vacuum, they cancel each other out, there annihilated.
But if you change the energy in a vacuum to an electromagnetic field, then that annihilation event produces energy. A whole set of new particles that have a mass.”
Winn writes, adding she knows verry little about physics. But she does know about writing and how the smallest particles can attract meaning. Just like a bare field can attract new wildlife, if you let it be, trust it, and pay close attention:
“Having lost just about everything we owned,” Winn continues, “and entered a life that felt like a hollowed space, in which I was merely existing. Then perhaps I was in that vacuum. And yet even in a vacuum, it is possible for the energy to change, almost without warning.”
This is the miracle of writing. Finding that vacuum, and trusting something new will come, is what a writer does when giving words to a Wild Silence.
I could go on and give numerous examples of how by describing seemingly normal memories Winn shows us what it takes to write. But like always when talking about a book, the best thing is to read it, or to re-read it.
But let me give you one more example that I found to be both enlightening and inspiring.
In order to write, the writer must learn to trust not only herself, but also other people who will read her book.
Trust that they will not punish you for being honest.
But also, to trust that readers will walk, with what you have given them.
Winn describes how not long after having sent her story into the world, she strikes up a conversation with a backpacker. The man tells her he had been living on the streets when he read about a homeless couple that had walked the Salt Path. The story had inspired him to borrow camping gear from a charity shop and started walking. A walk, he said, that had already changed his life.
Instead of telling the man that she was the woman who had written that story, Raynor Winn let him continue. Convinced that this was his moment, not hers.
You need to be humble, and brave, to completely trust people with your story. To write a book and give it away. Winn describes how difficult is was, and how rewarding, tot to find this trust.
Once it’s in print, a true work of literature will become a guide book to others, who will use it to find their own path.
“We just needed a guide book,” Raynor Winn writes at the beginning of the Salt Path as she heads off to the local bookstore, “a guide that covered the whole trail”
I for one feel very lucky to have come across her guide books. They have told me about reading and writing and living. How to go about it and why we continue: To stay flexible.
That’s why even after finding a new home, Moth and Raynor set out to Iceland for yet another walk. Like all of us they have to keep moving to stay in shape.
We walk and read and write to trust and adapt to an ever-changing world. And also to speak out about injustice, whether it is the way we treat our homeless or the way we treat our planet. Not because we can necessarily change the world, but because if we want to change, we must, at the very least, be informed.
We all need guide books in our lives. Raynor Winne has given us two guide books that have. been of tremendous value to me. Because they gave me appetite, courage and an urgency to keep moving. To stay flexible and look for beauty in the smallest details..
“I can’t stay where we are,” Moth says after they have been evicted, “I need for somewhere else to call home!”
The truth is, we are all constantly evicted. Sometimes by a legal injustice or death. But as much as we look for shelter there is no escaping change itself.
But why end with me trying to formulate a conclusion when Raynor Winn is so much more poetic and precise in the closing paragraph of her last book:
“Life reforming, and reshaping, not with men’s intervention, but without it.”
A winter sprawl blow curtains of rain towards the land. A storm we had seen coming from a far horizon.
Don’t be careful on the stairs. Run up them. Run up them as fast as you can, with no fear of clocks ticking or time passing.
Nothing can be measured in time, only change. And change is always within our grasp. Always simply a matter of choice.
I closed my eyes and let the sounds come. Let the voice come. Calm and hushed on a rising wind hissing through rocks. In clear water falling through sunlight, carried on a gull’s cry over sea against cliff. Somewhere beyond the blurred line between water and air.
The sound in the leaves as I had hung in the branches of the willow tree. And crouched in the dark woods.
It had always been there, whispering with the waterfalls and the ditch, the dear on the mountainside. The seals calling beneath foggy headlands.
The voice behind it all, a sound beyond connection or belonging,
The hum of particles vibrating to the energy of life.
The voice of the beating pulsing wild silence of the earth
The voice of home.”