Krista Tippett, host: Rebecca Solnit describes her vision as a writer like this: “to describe nuances and shades of meaning, to celebrate public life and solitary life, to find another way of telling.” She is a contributing editor to Harper’s Magazine and the author of profound books that defy category. She’s emerged as one of our great chroniclers of untold histories of redemptive change in places like post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans. She writes that, so often, “When all the ordinary divides and patterns are shattered, people step up to become their brother’s keepers. And that purposefulness and connectedness bring joy even amidst death, chaos, fear, and loss.”
Rebecca Solnit: I want better metaphors. I want better stories. I want more openness. I want better questions. All these things feel like they give us tools that are a little more commensurate with the amazing possibilities and the terrible realities that we face.
Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being.
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Ms. Tippett: Rebecca Solnit’s books include A Paradise Built in Hell, Hope in the Dark, and a new collection of essays, The Mother of All Questions. She was born in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and moved with her parents to the San Francisco Bay Area when she was young. I spoke with her in 2016.
Ms. Tippett: I usually start my conversations with an inquiry about the spiritual background of your childhood, and — however you would define that. And as I look at the sweep of your writing, I see so many elements that, to me, are profoundly spiritual — a long sense of time, a robust commitment to hope. You describe your childhood in so many ways — in one place, these are words you use: “a scrawny, battered little kid in a violent house.” And I wonder how you would think about that notion of the spiritual background of your childhood. And it occurs to me that perhaps some of these things were seeded by absence, as much as by presence.
Ms. Solnit: I think that’s true. And when you ask that question, what comes to mind is a map of where most of my childhood took place. I wrote somewhere that I had an inside-out childhood, because every place was safe but home. If you went — just on the other side of the backyard fence was a quarter horse stud farm and then dairy farms and open space. And the landscape and the animals, domestic and wild, were this huge refuge and really fed me and encouraged me, and there was a sense of community with the non-human. And so that was if you went north, even just to the other side of the fence and beyond — it was just endless open space and oak trees and grasslands and wildlife.
And then if you went south, there was a really great public library. And the minute I learned how to read, it was as though I’d been given this huge treasure. Every book was a box I suddenly knew how to open, and in it I could meet people, go to other worlds, go deep in all kinds of ways. And I spent my childhood in the hills and in the books. And those — so that was not maybe what people think of conventionally as spirituality, but that was my company, my encouragement, my teaching, my community.
Ms. Tippett: That’s lovely. So the sweep of your work is wonderful, and it’s daunting, as an interviewer. But I actually thought I would start with — I’d just love to have a conversation with you about this piece that was in Harper’s not that long ago, about — I can’t remember the title of it. But it was ostensibly about the choice not to have children.
Ms. Solnit: Oh, yeah. It’s called “The Mother of All Questions.”
Ms. Tippett: “The Mother of All Questions.” And part of what you were reflecting on, or a jumping-off point for your reflection, was the fact that people are so curious about that and, in fact, so presumptuous about it. And I think you make the case very quickly that it’s a valid and life-giving choice, not to have children. But in fact, the piece, like so much of what you write, becomes a reflection on the vast expanse of what it is to be alive. And so there’s this: you said, “People lock onto motherhood as a key to feminine identity in part from the belief that children are the best way to fulfill your capacity to love, even though the list of monstrous, ice-hearted mothers is extensive. But there are so many things to love besides one’s own offspring, so many things that need love, so much other work love has to do in the world.”
Ms. Solnit: Yeah, exactly.
Ms. Tippett: And you say — I love this phrase: “There’s so much other work love has to do in the world.” I just feel like that’s so worth just putting out in public life and reflecting on.
Ms. Solnit: Yeah, and it’s partly — we overemphasize this very specific zone of love. It’s as though we’ve hyper-mapped it and obsessed about it and shone lights on it and things. And then there’s this whole other territory of relationships, to the larger world in particular and to public life, to — I hang out with a lot of climate activists, and there’s this profound love they have for the natural world, for the future, for justice. And that really shapes lives and gives them tremendous meaning. And it benefits all of us that they have this and that this motivates them, because they’re acting on behalf of all of us. And we should call that love. And we should look at the way that —
Ms. Tippett: And it’s a passionate love, right? It’s a passionate love.
Ms. Solnit: Absolutely. It’s just — it’s ferocious, and it’s protective the way that mother love can be. And if anything’s going to save the planet, it’s that love. But mostly we don’t even acknowledge that it exists, and so we have these blank spots on the map of who we are. And I want to try and fill those in and encourage people to go there, to recognize that actually, their lives can take place or are already taking place there and that this will give them this bigger sense of self.
Ms. Tippett: So a lot of the themes that run through your work, the things you care about, I want to say they’re outliers in terms of what we know how to talk about in public — certainly, in intellectual circles. And so maybe let’s talk about hope, because I think hope is one of those.
Ms. Solnit: I can talk about hope till, I think, the cows come home.
Ms. Tippett: [laughs] Well, I just — I want to start — somewhere you write that your fascination with this — maybe you began to articulate your fascination with this when you registered your emotions and the emotions of others in response to the 1989 earthquake in San Francisco. And my sense is that what you — how you responded and how you saw others respond — it was not, perhaps, what you would have expected.
Ms. Solnit: The amazing thing about the 1989 earthquake — it was an earthquake as big as the kind that killed thousands of people in places like Turkey and Mexico City and things like that. But partly because we have good infrastructure, about 50 people died. A number of people lost their homes. Everybody was shaken up. But what was so interesting for me was that people seemed to kind of love what was going on. And when I’d ask people, or when it would come up in conversation, because for years afterwards around here, people would be like, “Oh, where were you at 5:02, or is it 5:03 P.M., on October 17, 1989?” And people would get this expression that I later ran into when I visited Halifax, Nova Scotia, after a big hurricane there, when I talked — and then eventually, I did a whole book on this mysterious emotion. People would light up. And everything we’ve been told about disaster by trashy Hollywood disaster movies with Charlton Heston and Tom Cruise, everything about the news — is that human beings are fragile, disasters are terrible, and we’re either terrified because we’re fragile, or our morality is also fragile, and we revert to our best-deal, savage, social-Darwinist, Hobbesian nature, and go out raping and looting.
Those myths became a secondary disaster, worse than the hurricane that hit New Orleans on August 29, 2005, because that’s why it was — the city was shut off, turned into a prison city, why the police were shooting black people in the back, why people were not allowed to evacuate and supplies were not allowed in while people were dying of exposure and lack of medication and et cetera.
So that was part of where I got hopeful, and then also, in a larger sense, one of the things I’m really interested in is, what are the stories we tell, and what are their consequences? And are there other ways of telling, other ways — other stories that don’t get told? And hopefulness is really, for me — is not optimism: that everything’s going to be fine, and we can just sit back. And that’s too much like pessimism, which is that everything’s going to suck, and we can just sit back.
Hope, for me, just means a Buddhist sense of uncertainty, of coming to terms with the fact that we don’t know what will happen and that there’s maybe room for us to intervene, and that we have to let go of the certainty people seem to love more than hope and know that we don’t know what’s going to happen. And we live in a very surprising world, where nobody anticipated the way the Berlin Wall would fall or the Arab Spring would rise up, the impact of Occupy Wall Street. Obama was unelectable, six months before he was elected.
Ms. Tippett: But I wonder, as you just described that, just then, what you said — in those moments of disaster, of crisis, we come face to face with the reality that unexpected things will happen — as you said, that life is surprising, in good ways and bad. That’s just true. But is there something life-giving, even energizing, about people actually having to face those bedrock realities in those moments?
Ms. Solnit: Yeah, and there’s a way a disaster throws people into the present and gives them this supersaturated immediacy that also includes a deep sense of connection. It’s as though in some violent gift, you’ve been given a kind of spiritual awakening where you’re close to mortality in a way that makes you feel more alive. You’re deeply in the present and can let go of past and future and your personal narrative, in some ways. You have shared an experience with everyone around you, and you often find very direct but also metaphysical senses of connection to the people you suddenly have something in common with.
And then oftentimes, the people who do the really important work in disasters, which doesn’t get talked about much, are the neighbors. Who’s going to rescue you when your building collapses, when the ice storm comes, and the power goes out? It’s probably going to be the neighbors. And so the question is really two things. One is, how can we get there without going through a disaster, and …
Ms. Tippett: [laughs] That’s right. That’s the question, isn’t it?
Ms. Solnit: And I think of that as this funny way the earthquake shakes you awake. And then that’s the big spiritual question: How do you stay awake? How do you stay in that deeper consciousness of that present-mindedness, that sense of non-separation and compassion and engagement — and courage, which is also a big part of it, and generosity? People are not selfish and greedy.
So and then the other question is, why has everything we’ve ever been told about human nature misled us about what happens in these moments? And what happens if we acknowledge, as I think people in the kind of work that neuropsychologists and the Dalai Lama’s research projects and economists are beginning to say, what if human — everything we’ve been told about human nature is wrong, and we’re actually very generous, communitarian, altruistic beings who are distorted by the system we are in but not made happy by it? What if we can actually be better people in a better world?
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Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, I’m with the writer, historian, and activist, Rebecca Solnit.
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Ms. Tippett: A story I have always loved, that, to me — Dorothy Day, I just feel like, gets quoted all the time, more and more. Somehow, she’s really come to the forefront of consciousness. And you do write about — in your book, A Paradise Built in Hell, which I love so much — you write about the San Francisco earthquake of April 18, 1906, which killed 3,000 people and annihilated the center of the city, as you say, and shattered this hundred-mile stretch.
But Dorothy Day was in Oakland. She’s eight years old. She watches this thing that someplace you describe as — you say, yes, people fall apart, but in disaster, there’s also this falling together that we don’t chronicle. And she — the question she asked was — she saw, to me — this is me looking at this — she saw that people were capable of this; that all along, they knew how to do this, to take care of each other.
Ms. Solnit: Exactly.
Ms. Tippett: And she said, “Why can’t we live this way all the time?”
Ms. Solnit: No, that is her formative experience. She said, while the disaster lasted, people loved one another. And Dorothy Day is such a key figure for that book, both because the earthquake becomes a spiritual awakening and the template for what she pursues in her life, and because she’s somebody who had a partner and a child, and she kept the child, but she gave up family life for this larger sense of community she pursued as the founder of Catholic Worker. And she treated poverty as the disaster in which she would create this kind of communitas, this deeper, broader, higher, more spiritual sense of community than private life had offered her. And she’s so interesting as somebody who renounces it directly and connects this other sense so directly to disaster.
Ms. Tippett: Yeah, and you talk about — in all the places you looked, and in your own circle as you were in that disaster, there’s virtue that arises, and that there’s a joy — there’s a hope and a joy. And I was thinking about that phrase of hers, “the duty of delight.” So it’s not — so yes, there’s — she makes sacrifices that seem — that would seem extreme in the context of most of our lives. But that joy was also something she claimed and hung onto.
Ms. Solnit: “Joy” is such an interesting term, because we hear constantly about happiness — “Are you happy?” And it’s — emotions are mutable, and this notion that happiness should be a steady state seems destined to make people miserable. And joy is so much more interesting, because I think we’re much more aware that it’s like the light at sunrise, or the lightning, or something — that it’s epiphanies and moments and raptures, and that it’s not supposed to be a steady state, and that’s OK. And I think it’s a word that comes up a lot more in spiritual life than “happiness,” that millstone, happiness.
Ms. Tippett: Absolutely, yeah. You draw a connection often between, I would say, the reasonableness of hope and the reality of darkness. Would you say something about that?
Ms. Solnit: Well, I really wanted to rescue “darkness” from the pejoratives, because it’s also associated with dark-skinned people, and those pejoratives often become racial in ways that I find problematic. So I wrote a book called Hope in the Dark, about hope, where that darkness was the future — that the present and past are daylight, and the future is night. But in that darkness is a kind of mysterious, erotic, enveloping sense of possibility and communion — love is made in the dark, often as not — and then to recognize that unknowability as fertile, as rich as the womb, rather than the tomb, in some sense. And so much, for me, of hope is not, as I was saying, not optimism that everything will be fine, but that we don’t know what will happen.
A guest of yours whose name I’m going to mispronounce — Walter Brueggemann…
Ms. Tippett: Yes, yes, theologian of the prophets.
Ms. Solnit: Yeah, and I listened to his interview, and he talked about how much hope is grounded in memory. And I was so excited to hear someone say that. We think of hope as looking forward, but memory lets us know, if we have a real memory, that we didn’t know. We didn’t know the Berlin Wall was going to fall, and the Soviet Union was going to fall apart, and the binary arrangement those of us who are older grew up in, where it seemed like capitalism and communism and the Cold War standoff was going to last for centuries.
If you study history deeply, you realize that, to quote Patti Smith, “People have the power” — that popular power, civil society, has been tremendously powerful and has changed the world again and again and again; that we’re not powerless; that things are very unpredictable and that people have often taken on things that seemed hopeless — freeing the slaves, getting women the vote — and achieved those things. And I feel like so much of what we’re burdened by is bad stories, both people who have amnesia, who don’t remember that the present was constructed by certain forces to serve certain elements and can be deconstructed and that things could be very different, that they have been very different, that things are always changing and that we have agency in that change.
And one of the simple examples I often go back to is that when you and I were small, to be gay or lesbian or otherwise — something other than standard heterosexual — was to be considered mentally ill or criminal or both, and punished accordingly. And to go from there to national same-sex marriage rights is an unimaginable journey. It’s — and that’s a lot of what my hopeful stuff is about, is trying to look at the immeasurable, incalculable, indirect, roundabout way that things matter.
My friend, David Graber, has a wonderful passage about how the Russian revolution succeeded, but not really in Russia. It terrified, or at least motivated, leaders in Europe and North America and elsewhere to make enormous concessions to the rights of poor and workers and really furthered economic justice in other places. And if you can say that a revolution was successful, but not in the country it took place in, then you can start to trace these indirect impacts.
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Ms. Tippett: You can listen again and share this conversation with Rebecca Solnit at civilconversationsproject.org. We are expanding On Being’s Civil Conversations Project to be more of a resource for families and communities. Find audio, video, and a starter guide for beginning new conversations where you live and reinventing common life for this century, because the point of speaking together differently is to live together differently. Again, all that at civilconversationsproject.org.
I’m Krista Tippett. On Being continues in a moment.
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Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, I’m with Rebecca Solnit. Her writing celebrates the unpredictable and incalculable events that so often redeem our lives, both solitary and public.
Ms. Tippett: You have this wonderful sentence that “History is like the weather, not like checkers.” And you talk about — here’s another: “Sometimes cause and effect are centuries apart; sometimes Martin Luther King’s arc of the moral universe that bends towards justice is so long few see its curve; sometimes hope lies not in looking forward but backward to study the line of that arc.” It’s an un-American way of thinking, but it’s an essential way, I think, to inhabit this century, in particular.
Ms. Solnit: There used to be products advertised in comic books and things — “Instant results guaranteed, or your money back.” If disappointment is your goal, that’s a sure-fire recipe for it. For example, Occupy Wall Street was pronounced a failure before it had really gotten going, and at one point, there were Occupies in New Zealand and Japan and Europe — in California alone, there were about 400 Occupies at the peak, in late 2011. And they dispersed, as these encampments and people — in which people had these extraordinary dialogues. And the impact of those dialogues is hard to measure. But you can look at Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and Bill de Blasio of New — the mayor of New York, as people who are carrying those frameworks into the mainstream and into electoral politics. And you can also look at both national things — the movement against punitive student debt and the …
Ms. Tippett: I feel like what you're — you're kind of — you're drawing a map, and it's a different kind of map than we came out of the 20th century in our heads with, which is about how social change happens. I think maybe the image people go to, in a default way, is maybe the civil rights movement, simplified — large numbers of people on the street, a charismatic leader, and laws that get passed right in that moment.
So let me ask you this, because, one, I very much appreciated your writing about Hurricane Katrina and the world after Hurricane Katrina. And this is one of these places where we’ve told the story in a certain way. And we — and even from the very beginning, the story was narrated and presented in a way that was largely just incredibly demoralizing. If you met someone — say, a Martian, who — [laughs] who was not here and had never heard of this, how would you tell, start to tell, the fullness of that story of Hurricane Katrina, what happened to this city called New Orleans and how that history is still being made now?
Ms. Solnit: I should say that all my work on disaster draws from these wonderful disaster sociologists who had this — do this incredible work, documenting what happens in disasters, and have since World War II. I’m kind of their popularizer, and people like Kathleen Tierney. But — and they say there’s no such thing as a “natural” disaster, meaning that in an earthquake, it’s buildings that fall on you. So what are the building codes? Who lives in substandard housing? Who lives on the floodplain? Who gets evacuated? Who gets left behind? What happened to New Orleans is that the levees failed. About seven-eighths of the city flooded, meaning that a lot of it was from a few feet to 15 feet or more deep in water, and just all systems failed, and some hospitals were able to run on generators.
There was a supposedly — there was what was called a mandatory evacuation, but people who didn’t have the resources to evacuate were left behind to face what happened. So that’s the set-up for it that creates a disaster. In Cuba, when there’s a mandatory evacuation, everybody receives the assistance they need to evacuate, so it’s our kind of laissez-faire, every-man-for-himself system that left what were often portrayed as the “criminal element,” was a lot of poor women, single moms with kids, a lot of elderly people. And a lot of the guys who got portrayed as gangsters and things were the wonderful rescuers and these really able-bodied young guys who did amazing things.
Then things happen, like they basically get sealed off. You can walk out of the central city to dry land, but the sheriff of a suburb called Gretna, and his thugs, get on the bridge with guns and turn people back at gunpoint. You cannot walk out of New Orleans to dry land, so you’re trapped. You’re a prisoner, essentially.
Ms. Tippett: And that was because of the narrative they were working off, in terms of who these people were?
Ms. Solnit: Yeah, well, the — all the clichés that surfaced in the 1906 earthquake, all the crap about human nature, about how we all revert — especially poor people, especially non-white people — how we revert to our savage, social-Darwinist nature, were aired. And the mainstream media — and this includes The New York Times and The Washington Post and CNN and The Guardian, all the major news outlets — it wasn’t — were the unindicted co-conspirators, I always say. They start publishing all this garbage about how there’s mass killings in the Superdome. And that was just believed so much that the Federal Emergency Management Agency sends a gigantic tractor-trailer refrigerated truck to get what turns out to be six bodies, not the 200 that are supposed to be there.
There’s all these stories that people are shooting at helicopters, so you can’t have helicopter rescues. And so they mount a campaign, not to treat suffering human beings and bring them resources, but to reconquer the city. Kathleen Blanco, the governor of Louisiana, said, “We have troops fresh from Iraq, and they have M16s that are locked and loaded, and they know how to use them.” And it’s like, that is not a humanitarian effort. M16s are not how you help that grandmother dying on the roof. And some of those grandmothers died.
And so people were not a victim of a hurricane, they were a victim of vicious stories; of the media’s failures; of the failures of the government on every scale, from the city of New Orleans that left prisoners locked in flooded jails, to the federal government. And so that’s political failures, but behind those politics are stories.
And what’s interesting is that a lot of people believe those stories. And we often treat stories like they’re very trivial, like they’re story hour for kids or — but people live and die by stories. And people died of vicious stories in New Orleans. Everybody could have been evacuated in 24 hours. Everybody could have been evacuated beforehand.
Ms. Tippett: Well, and the stories you also tell that we don’t hear, which were life-giving — that in the immediate aftermath, more than 200,000 people invite displaced strangers into their homes through hurricanehousing.org, which I never heard about; that the massive number of people who went to New Orleans, who went to the Gulf Coast to help rebuild — that it was like the Freedom Summer in Mississippi, magnified a thousand-fold. So there’s also that taking place, and those lives, one at a time.
Ms. Solnit: And there was — from the very minute it all began, there was tremendous altruism. The first round of rescuers were people who were themselves inside the city who got boats or did other things to rescue people, who came together in buildings that weren’t damaged and formed little communities and took care of the vulnerable. But there are these extraordinary stories. And people really — that impulse to help is so powerful. And they talk — they call it “disaster convergence,” and it often becomes a problem, where you have — you remember after 9/11, people lined up around the block all over the country, to give blood. People really want to help. That’s who we are.
And New Orleans, for years afterwards, had all these people — church groups, and I saw amazing Mennonite builders rebuilding houses, and Habitat for Humanity, and I kind of loved it. It was the whole spectrum, from Catholic Charities to the Mennonites to pretty radical anarchists. And people working with Common Ground, which was founded by the Black Panthers and young white supporters and became a project that did a lot of different things, and not all of it worked out perfectly, but some of it was amazing, and it became really a part of the conversation. But they founded the first really good clinic for people who needed emergency care, who needed their diabetes medicine or their tetanus shot or their wound disinfected. And that split off into Common GroundClinic, which is still going strong more than ten years later. And that’s the kind of indirect consequences that I find so interesting to trace, is that here’s something that came out of Katrina that’s still helping people every day.
Ms. Tippett: Right. So we talked a little while ago about love and your idea that love has so many other things to do in the world, aside from these silos of loving our families and loving our children. So if I ask you just what story or people come to mind — if you think about the word “love” as a practical, muscular, public thing in New Orleans, ten years after Hurricane Katrina, what comes to mind for you?
Ms. Solnit: So many things; it’s a really magical place. People have deep connections in New Orleans. I would try to explain that people in New Orleans and Katrina lost things that most of us hadn’t had for generations. A lot of people lived in a neighborhood where they knew hundreds of people. They knew everybody who lived near them. They might have extended family. They might be like Fats Domino, who was born in a house in the Lower Ninth Ward, delivered by his grandmother. People live in their grandparents’ houses. They have these deep roots and wide branches.
And they engage in public celebration. They talk to strangers. And they — it’s a deeply Dionysian place, with the second line parades all — 40-something Sundays a year; not just Carnival, not just Mardi Gras. And it’s a profoundly spiritual place. So all these things are part of the place, and so they’re already really rich.
But a lot of people, after Katrina, felt like, OK, we really have to engage to keep this place alive. And there was a real rise in civic engagement, and a number of institutions around justice and policing were reformed. The police were actually taken over by the federal government, because it was the most corrupt and incompetent police department in the United States. They got a semi-decent mayor for a change, after a lot of corruption — particularly from Ray Nagin, who went to jail for it, the mayor during and after Katrina. And people really started to dream big, about “OK, here we are on the fastest-eroding coastline in the world, in a city that’s partly below sea level, in an era of climate change, increasing storms, and rising waters. How do we adapt?” And people are having this really exciting conversation about rethinking the city and how water works in the city, building systems of survival.
And again, this is like all disasters. The storm was horrible. It killed about 1,800 people. It displaced a lot of black people who were never able to come back, and impacted the continuity and mental health of the community. But it did create this engagement and this really creative planning of the future. And New Orleans might have just continued its gentle decline, without Katrina.
Ms. Tippett: Right, and it’s kind of an incubator now, isn’t it? Kind of a …
Ms. Solnit: Yeah, yeah, and a lot of the young people, these young idealists who moved there, fell in love with the place and stayed. And it’s complicated; some of them are the white kids who are gentrifying traditionally black neighborhoods. But they’re also — some — they’re not all white, and they are people who are bringing a passion for urban planning, community gardens; for thinking about these social and ecological systems. And the place is very energized right now in new ways, and it has retained quite a lot, if not all, of the energy it had before.
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Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, with writer, historian, and activist Rebecca Solnit. I spoke with her during the 2016 presidential election.
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Ms. Tippett: It seems to me that that story of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina becomes just an extreme example of a larger reality you see. And so here’s something you wrote, where it’s so beautifully stated — and in fact, each one of us individually, if we stopped to take it apart, has a story of a million events or actions or people without which we would not be. And you wrote, “Trace it far enough and this very moment in your life becomes a rare species, the result of a strange evolution, a butterfly that should already be extinct and survives by the inexplicabilities we call coincidence.” [laughs]
Ms. Solnit: Yeah, and it’s also about the unpredictability of our lives and that ground for hope I talk about — that we don’t know what forces are at work, what — who and what is going to appear, what thing we may not have even noticed or may have discounted that will become a tremendous force in our lives.
People in this culture love certainty so much, and they seem to love certainty more than hope, which is why they often seize on these really bitter, despondent narratives that are — they know exactly what’s going to happen. And that certainty just seems so tragic to me. I want people to tell more complex stories and to acknowledge that sometimes we win, and that there are these openings. But an opening is just an opening; you have to go through it and make something happen. And you don’t always win, but if you try, you don’t always lose.
Ms. Tippett: Yeah, you don’t always win, but I think I come back to your idea that history is like — and in fact, our lives — are like the weather, not like checkers. So your point, which actually is, I would say, is the kind of complexity that I think theology at its best imposes — that you walk through the openings, and perhaps you don’t win that battle, or you don’t see the result you hoped for; perhaps you outright lose. But the complex way you’re wanting to tell the stories of reality and of our lives is that whatever we do, there are always consequences that we don’t control and can’t see and can’t calculate, but they matter. They count.
Ms. Solnit: The guy I’m involved with loves to say, and I’m getting — it’s from Foucault, and I’m getting it wrong — that “We know what we do. We know why we do it. But we don’t know what we do, does.” And I love that sense that we don’t know consequences. We can learn and surmise. And that a lot of what matters is indirect and nonlinear. And it’s like even checkers seems too sophisticated and complex for the metaphor. I use bowling, where people are like, “Either we knocked all the pins down with this bowling ball, or we had a gutter ball, and nothing happened.”
And my wonderful environmentalist friend, Chip Ward, likes to talk about the “tyranny of the quantifiable,” and I’ve been using that phrase of his for about 15 years. And it is a kind of tyranny, and I think — and it does get mystical, where you have to look at what’s not quantifiable. Martin Luther King is assassinated in 1968. A comic book about how civil disobedience works out was distributed during the civil rights movement, gets translated into Arabic and distributed in Egypt and becomes one of the immeasurable forces that help feed the Arab Spring, which is five years old right now; and most of it doesn’t look that good, but they did overthrow a bunch of regimes. And the French Revolution didn’t really look very good five years out, I was saying the other day.
Ms. Tippett: Oh, I know. It’s so important that you point that out — that we — and also, our revolution. These things are messy, and they take generations. And we forget that, and we’re already calling it as a loss, and it’s absurd, really. It’s absurd.
Ms. Solnit: Yeah, and I think that there are really good points to be made that — for example, that overthrowing a dictator is nice, but you need democratic institutions. In Egypt, for example, the military was a power that didn’t go away. And you need to not just have that amazing moment in the streets and that rupture, but you need to have an ongoing engagement with transforming the system and making it accountable. But what happened mattered, nevertheless, and I think for people, many people in the Middle East, just the sense that it’s not inevitable that we live in authoritarianism; we are not powerless. And I think of Alexander Dubček — the hero of the Prague Spring of 1968, which was quashed — playing a role in the 1989 revolution that liberated that country.
Ms. Tippett: That’s so true, yeah.
Ms. Solnit: And I want better metaphors. I want better stories. I want more openness. I want better questions. All these things feel like they give us tools that are a little more commensurate with the amazing possibilities and the terrible realities that we face. And what we get given, so often, are just these kind of clumsy, inadequate tools. They don’t help. They don’t open things up. They don’t shed light. They don’t lead us to interesting places. They don’t let us know how powerful we can be. They don’t help us ask the questions that really matter and that start with rejecting the narratives we’re told and telling our own stories, becoming the storyteller rather than the person who’s told what to do.
[music: “Hopefulness” by Miaou]
Ms. Tippett: I’m very much a comrade in your reverence for something called public life and — which I think we’ve narrowly equated with political life, in recent generations, but opening that language up more. You’ve said public life enlarges you, gives you purpose and context. I want to come to this idea that — [laughs] maybe this analogy is more apt — we’re in the middle of this presidential election year, which is so confusing, messy, and there’s a lot of anger in the room. And where am I going with this? You — I don’t want to compare it to a natural disaster, but you said — [laughs] I think I am, in my mind. [laughs]
Ms. Solnit: Oh, go; do it. [laughs]
Ms. Tippett: But you said, in the middle of a natural disaster, there’s this joy that rises up. So on the one hand, we have this spectacle of — I think — let’s just say — I think I can safely say this: a presidential election is — which is not what any of us — how any of us would want it to be, perhaps. But tell me, where are you taking joy in public life right now? And that might have nothing to do with politics.
Ms. Solnit: Yeah, I totally agree we need a broader sense of public life, that it’s a sense of belonging to a place, by which I mean the physical place — the trees, the birds, the weather, the coastline or the hills or the farms…
Ms. Tippett: The people.
Ms. Solnit: As well as the people and the institutions. And it’s one of the reasons I love New Orleans. People really engage with each other, just in every day, and — whereas sometimes, living in the Bay Area, it feels like where I’m in a zombie movie; everybody’s walking around in a trance, staring at their phone, and nobody’s in the private world your phone opens onto.
But it’s funny the way you describe it, because I think there’s a kind of self-forgetfulness and a sense of having something in common that brings that joy, when it comes in disaster. And of course, a presidential election is the exact opposite. It’s partisanship and this sort of deep attachment to “I’m right and you’re wrong,” and the squabbling.
Ms. Tippett: But — so put that aside, because I think that’s not very joyful for you or me. But where are you finding joy in public life right now? Where do you want to look, in terms of the larger narrative of who we are and what we’re capable of and what this moment — you often talk about — you say, “Whenever I look around me, I wonder what old things are about to bear fruit, what seemingly solid institutions might soon rupture, and what seeds we might now be planting whose harvest will come at some unpredictable moment in the future.” So where are you looking right now with intrigue?
Ms. Solnit: The climate movement, which was this embryonic, ineffectual thing, ten years ago — and I was in Paris for the climate conference, and it’s global. It’s powerful. It’s brilliant. It’s innovative, and remarkable things are happening and real transformations. And ten years ago, we didn’t even have the energy options. We didn’t really have good alternatives to fossil fuel the way we do now, as Scotland hedged towards 100 percent fossil-free energy generation, as all these remarkable things happened. So we’re really in an energy revolution that’s an evolution of — a revolution of consciousness about how things work and how connected they all are, and this incredible kind of war of the world against the fossil fuel corporations. It's very effective.
But that's the pragmatic side. What I also see is these deep connections between people in North America and Africa and the Pacific — the Philippines, Asia — this global movement that's really coming of age and that has a kind of profound beauty, not in only some of the individuals I’m friends with who are doing great things, but a kind of beauty of creativity, of passion, of real love for the vulnerable populations at stake; for the world, the natural world; for the sense of systems and order — the natural order of the weather patterns, sea levels, things like winter.
Ms. Tippett: [laughs] Yeah, things like winter, yeah.
Ms. Solnit: Yeah, yeah — winter as it used — winter and spring as it used to be, where the bird migrations happened in coordination with these flowers blooming and these insects hatching, et cetera. And what we recognize, when we address climate change, is this infinite complexity that has a beautiful kind of order to it, and it’s falling into disorder. And so the love, the intelligence, the passion, the creativity of that movement is one. And there’s many other things I could say, but right now that’s just so exciting.
And it’s negotiating. It’s negotiating, and this is what hope is about, for me. It’s not saying, “Oh, we can pretend that everything’s going to be fine, and we’ll fix it all, and it’ll be as though it never happened.” It’s really saying, the difference between the best-case scenario and the worst case-scenario is where these people in the Philippines survive, where these people in the Arctic are able to keep something of their way of life. And we’re going to do everything we can to fight for the best case rather than the worst case — without illusions; without thinking that we’re going to make it all magically OK and like it never happened. And so that tough-mindedness is also really beautiful; that pragmatic idealism.
Ms. Tippett: That tough-minded hope.
Ms. Solnit: Exactly.
Ms. Tippett: I think you would give it that word.
Ms. Solnit: And hope is tough. It’s tougher to be uncertain than certain. It’s tougher to take chances than to be safe. And so hope is often seen as weakness, because it’s vulnerable, but it takes strength to enter into that vulnerability of being open to the possibilities. And I’m interested in what gives people that strength, and what stories, what questions, what memories, what conversations, what senses of themselves and the world around them.
Ms. Tippett: We’ve run — well, we’re just over about a minute. I just want to ask you one last question. It’s a huge question, but just where would you start thinking about this? How is your sense of what it means to be human evolving right now, as you write and as we speak? What contours is that taking on that perhaps you wouldn’t have expected ten years ago, or when you were 15 and miserable? [laughs]
Ms. Solnit: [laughs] Yeah, yeah. I was a really isolated kid, and my brothers teased me when I did girl things, so I wasn’t very good at girl things, so I wasn’t very good at connecting to other girls, and I was just the weird kid with her nose in a book. And so I have really wonderful people around me and really deep connections, and that’s incredibly satisfying. And it’s all kind of amazing.
I think a lot of us wish you could send postcards to your miserable teenage self. I always thought that “It Gets Better” campaign for queer kids should be broadened, because it gets better for a lot of us. My mother, in her ever un-encouraging way, when I won some big prize, said, “This is all such a surprise. You were just a mousy little thing.” [laughs] But it is kind of a surprise. And it’s like, to have this ability to participate and really maybe be helpful to other people — to do really meaningful work — it’s all just this kind of astonishment.
[music: “Narghile” by Randall]
Ms. Tippett: Rebecca Solnit is a contributing editor at Harper’s Magazine and a regular writer for publications including The Guardian and The London Review of Books. Her books include A Paradise Built in Hell, Hope in the Dark, and a new collection of essays, The Mother of All Questions.
[music: “Thule” by the Album Leaf]
Staff: On Being is: Chris Heagle, Lily Percy, Mariah Helgeson, Maia Tarrell, Marie Sambilay, Malka Fenyvesi, Erinn Farrell, Jill Gnos, Laurén Dørdal, Tony Liu, Brettina Davis, and Gisell Calderón.
Ms. Tippett: Our lovely theme music is provided and composed by Zoë Keating. And the last voice that you hear singing our final credits in each show is hip-hop artist Lizzo.
On Being was created at American Public Media. Our funding partners include:
The Fetzer Institute, helping to build the spiritual foundation for a loving world. Find them at fetzer.org.
Kalliopeia Foundation, working to create a future where universal spiritual values form the foundation of how we care for our common home.
The Henry Luce Foundation, in support of Public Theology Reimagined.
The Osprey Foundation, a catalyst for empowered, healthy, and fulfilled lives.
And the Lilly Endowment, an Indianapolis-based, private family foundation dedicated to its founders’ interests in religion, community development, and education.