Sonja Livingston

On “Light, from Faraway Places”

“Light, from Faraway Places” is just over a thousand words. I could easily write several times that length trying to unpack it and would probably still flounder. Like many essays, it knows more than I do. The wonder of the brief essay, in particular, is how much it can hold in its small hands, how much must be hinted at, the way its images exist in both shadow and light. These are the reasons I love the form as a reader and why I turn to it in my own work, especially with weighty or unwieldy subjects.

This essay touches on sexual abuse, poverty, and memory. I didn’t set out to write about any of those topics. One of the joys (and challenges) of writing is the way it often charts its own course. I’ve learned to notice what I notice and so on, but when it comes to the writing, I feel more like the fingertips set loosely on the heart-shaped planchette than whatever force propels it to the various letters and numbers on the Ouija Board.

One of this essay’s underpinnings—even as it interrogates the murky impression of a child taking refuge in a bathroom—is that memory matters. Beyond the significance of the content it attempts to excavate, the essay seeks to validate the act of remembering itself, no matter how imprecise or elusive the images we conjure. This is important, as writing from memory (and admitting it outright as we do with memoir) sometimes gets a bad rap. I don’t write memoir exclusively, but when I do, it’s not for lack of curiosity or imagination about the world around me, but, in fact, the opposite. Memoir can help one to know and to be known. Our stories have power and telling them can be a radical act in a culture that prefers silence from certain segments of the population.

That said, this essay doesn’t insert flashers or red arrows into the prose. Neither is it purposefully coy. It simply does its best to make sense of something in the half-light of memory, which is acknowledged in the first line:

And now a thing that can’t be told.

I prefer this “quiet” approach. I don’t have a problem with people making noise, especially about topics like abuse or poverty or the crazy ass outcomes of presidential elections. We should all be shouting our heads off. And I do.  But when I come to the page, I’ll have done my share of shouting and crying and carb-loading over the issue. The writing becomes a way to access a place beyond all that. A way to look at the thing from different angles, with a wider scope, and with the sort of stillness that might allow me to see something new.