My Mister likes to quote Akira Kurosawa, "The role of the artist is not to look away." I appreciate an idea like this on general principle; I like the idea that artists have a kind of responsibility to engage what's going on in the shaded, unsavory corners of our existence and use our work to shine a light on it, to comment on it, or maybe even do something about it.
For years, I would engage work around me with that kind of fierceness. I would check out movies or books or stories and think about what I was exposing myself to, and remind myself that it was all somehow fodder for the writing, that ultimately it was going to provide me with some tool or experience that would make me a better writer. I remember sitting (too) close to the screen at the Angelika and watching Irreversible with this idea gripped in my fist.
(It's definitely a movie I wish I hadn't seen. But it has given me a lot to think about: namely the question of whether a work of art--a film, a book, an experience, a story--can be perfect and at the same time horrifying. )
But things have changed. I'm not exactly sure when it happened, but somehow I became less enamored with the idea of exposing myself to as much as possible, especially to the stuff that is emotionally or psychically challenging. I remember, not long after my Mister and I moved in together, we started watching Mad Men. We'd get the red envelope that had three or so episodes on DVD, and we'd set aside an evening to watch them together. It's important to know at this time, I was wrestling with a lot of religious guilt around moving in with a man (a phenomenon I lay at the feet of my conservative upbringing) and I was panicking about whether or not I wanted us to get married. I loved him, and I wanted to marry him, but we weren't talking about it. And if we did talk about it, what would it be? Would it be me in an apron an pearls mixing martinis and basting pot roast? Or would I be the employed black woman, married to an unemployed shiftless man who was content to stay at home and play online poker all afternoon? (I seriously pinballed between these two extremes for, like, months.)
So we'd sit on the couch watching this show with its impeccable production value tell stories of tortured and complicated (white) people and I would freak out, sometimes internally, but mostly externally. Is this what marriage leads to: a general malaise, a need to self-medicate, dishonesty, animosity and ultimate betrayal and alienation?
I only made it into the beginning of season 2.
No. It's not what my marriage has led to, so far. But the stories that I saw on Mad Men, even though I was totally engaged, left me feeling discouraged and frightened. Same thing with Dexter. On a recommendation from someone, I checked it out, an M.E. in Miami with a special talent. It was amazing storytelling, really an actor's show that explored the psychology of character. At least, the season and a half of it that I saw. It became so flipping dark that even as I longed to know what would happen to these characters, I had to turn it off.
So I paint myself with the wide brush of sensitive: I'm too sensitive for this kind of programming. But is that really what it is. I mean, yeah, I'm sensitive. I don't get sarcasm, I don't laugh easily at myself or at others. Just ask me sometime about why I didn't like Before Sunset. But I'm not sure it's as easy as I'm a Nervous Nelly.
One of the ideas I sit with is an Ayurveda principle that everything our body takes in is a kind of food. We ingest our lunch, our terse email from our supervisor about the most recent project, coffee coffee coffee, any number of medications the docs have given us, free radicals, bad music, pesticides, violence, trauma, just as often as beauty, affection, green smoothies, quiet and peace--and more likely more often the former list than the latter. Some of this stuff is fortifying, and some of it is junk. So often there's energy around what we put into our bodies through our mouths. But what about our pores, our ears, our eyes?
This has been especially challenging for me as I consider images of bodies of color in the news. I've been wondering for some time now what it means that the media--social and mainstream--is willing to show and share such difficult images of bodies, often marginalized bodies, in positions of trauma and violence. I recently read this piece in ForHarriet.com and wondered what it meant that we were all engaging and sharing such difficult imagery without considering its effects, especially on those of us who identify with the citizens being photographed, being humiliated, being murdered.
Based on the images we've been consuming, pics and video, what is the story we're telling of our country, our culture, our time? What is the story of Black America? What is the story of Trans* America? What is the story of government in America? The stories we're telling each other about ourselves feel oppressive, devaluing, and frankly make me wanna shut it down.
What happens to us when we share image, when we tell story, that is triggering or trama-provoking? Do we create a kind of psychic ama for ourselves, that colors our relationships and interactions with others? Do we compromise our digestive fire? What does it mean for a story to be good: to be compelling, engaging, and well-crafted, and to still make you feel like shit? I'd be the first person to tell you that the job of good story is many things, but making you comfortable is not among them. But still, I don't know what happens to our individual or collective humanity when we take in stories that degrade humanity.
I tried so hard not to view pictures of Michael Brown's body lying in the street. Then one day one picture got in. And now I'll never forget it.
Yes, no doubt there is a difference between true story and fiction. But I'd argue it's not the fat bright line that we all want it to be. Good story is good story, whether it's political intrigue and corruption, the disappearance of young women, or procedural law drama. I have a friend who will argue the structural perfection of Anna Karenina and compare it to The Bold and The Beautiful. Craft is powerful. But is craft, is good story, more important than the effects of good story? I used to think yes, but I don't know anymore.
This matters to me because I like to make good story. I think often about all the things I put into my body. This matters to me because I think that the line between truth and fiction is shifting, in a way that doesn't serve the truth, in fact in a way that devalues it. If we can look at a photo of hundreds of Kenyan college students murdered, and it provokes the same reaction we have when we see a still from a Quentin Tarantino film, we've lost something, and we've robbed those college students of something. If we can the abduction of a street organizer in Baltimore, and it reminds us of some new film opening, we suddenly become a spectator in our own police state. Our agency as citizens evaporates, and we're entertained, or horrified, but whatever we are, we're distanced from the fact that that street organizer could be any one of us, and might be every one of us.
As a yogi, it's my responsibility to think deeply about what I put into my body because it has a profound effect on what comes out of my body. It changes my practice, my ability to seek and to manifest quiet and stillness. What I ingest becomes what I make, what I do, what I am. I want the craft of the stories--fiction and nonfiction alike--to be really solid. I also want to feel good after I take it in. I want to make the world good based on what comes out.
P.S. Can I say one more thing here? I am not in favor of turning off the tv or the computer and escaping to my mat, where life is all inhale and fairies and the light in you and the light in me.... That's not my scene, and I think to use yoga that way really devalues what it is, and sells all of us short. I believe in self-care and self-preservation. But I don't believe as using yoga as a narcotic. I don't know my sutras well enough, but there's some verse that talks about yoga being a tool for tolerating and engaging the world as it is, the reality of what is true. What is true can sometimes suck: whether it's tight hamstrings that won't let you move the way you want, or it's the continued and devastating loss of a fellow human. Yoga is a tool for staying present with the sensation, whatever it is. It's not a vacation.