From the Faraway, Nearby - O'Keeffe

far·away + near·by – noun – \ˈfär-ə-ˌwā\ + \nir-ˈbī, ˈnir-\

: very distant + not far away


I began my day in the dark, and in the dark I will enter the death of sleep once more. Each day is a journey from dark to dark. But in the middle, the light.

It’s the light that shines from one direction or the other and reveals to us where we are, where we will be. The shadows of light indicate whether we are coming or going. The brightness of the light tells how long til we get there. The proximity of light tells us whether we are faraway or nearby. From dawn to midday to dusk. We are here. We are there. We are here again.

Recently, when I should have been here, I’ve been there. When I should have been there, I’ve been here. I have confused the faraway and the nearby. Partly because there is so little light. Mostly because I have covered the light and let so little of it shine. In the nearby, it’s hard to see the faraway. In the faraway, the nearby is unrecognizable.

Only the light sees them both. The Light is the Faraway-Nearby.

In Georgia O’Keeffe’s painting From the Faraway, Nearby, she plays with the light and its perspective; she removes size and scale as relative; she focuses the Faraway and Nearby in equal proportions. The enormous animal skull and the rolling foothills share space as if the viewer is both here and there at the same time. The artist depicted both objects with such detailed realism I trust the painting more than my eyes. Something seems wrong. It must be me.

But even the skull possesses too many antlers to be real. The bifurcation of the sky, too distinct. The mountains, too smooth. This wasn’t just about the antlers or the mountains. This was about the faraway, “a beautiful, untouched lonely-feeling place,” O’Keeffe wrote, and about the nearby, and not about the middle place where too often we get lost, even in the light.

“To love someone is to put yourself in their place, we say, which is to put yourself in their story,” writes Rebecca Solnit, in her book The Faraway Nearby, named after O’Keeffe’s painting. “Which means that a place is a story, and stories are geography, and empathy is first of all an act of imagination, a storyteller’s art, and then a way of traveling from here to there.”

And that’s what I’ve been missing as I muddle through the dim light of the middle place. Without empathy I am neither faraway—in your story—or nearby—in my story. I am stuck, and the light makes things seem so real, but they aren’t.

That’s why the Faraway-Nearby, the true Light, had to come close, to incarnate, to empathize, because otherwise, we would never find our place in His story, and the traveling from here to there would be very far indeed.

It’s as Joseph Brodsky writes in his “Star of the Nativity.” The star is “from far away—from the depth of the universe,” but also “from its opposite end.”

In the cold season, in a locality accustomed to heat more than
to cold, to horizontality more than to a mountain,
a child was born in a cave in order to save the world;
it blew as only in deserts in winter it blows, athwart.

To Him, all things seemed enormous: His mother’s breast, the steam
out of the ox’s nostrils, Caspar, Balthazar, Melchior—the team
of Magi, their presents heaped by the door, ajar.
He was but a dot, and a dot was the star.

Keenly, without blinking, through pallid, stray
clouds, upon the child in the manger, from far away—
from the depth of the universe, from its opposite end—the star
was looking into the cave. And that was the father’s stare.

The Faraway-Nearby came near then far. We are here. We are there.

God with us.



Image of From the Faraway, Nearby linked from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Definitions of my word of the week are from Merriam-Webster Dictionary Online.