Saturday, December 20, 2014

Threads of Truth

When we were in Los Angeles this fall, we went to LACMA, where we toured the Japanese Pavilion and looked at kimonos from the mid-20th century. They were so strange, these hybrid things. They were the shape and design of something medieval, but meticulously decorated with contemporary inspiration: strands of DNA, loose interpretations of Sputnik, geometric Frank Lloyd Wright-ish lines and colours. They were beautiful, but also kind of sad. It was hard to picture who, exactly, would have worn these outfits, and where.

I've thought a lot about those kimonos in the past few month. For me, they've become a kind of symbol of the balancing act we all do in building up our identities. The contradictions we contain.

When I was in recovery, I encountered this idea of "radically accepting" one's own body. It works like this: instead of defaulting to self-loathing and disappointment every time I see or think about my appearance, I would just kind of...accept it. Attributes that were previously assigned a negative value were reassigned a neutral one. In practice, it meant that when I saw a picture of myself with a double chin, instead of hating the picture, and myself, and vowing to lose some weight, I would just go, "huh, I have a double chin in this picture," and then keep on keepin' on.

This is so hard. This is one of the hardest thing that I've ever had to learn. But in the end, I got better at it, and I realized that I could transfer this practice into other areas of my life. I could be in a shitty mood and all it meant was that I was grouchy, not that I was a bad person. Taking each thing as being its own tiny piece of a greater mosaic, and not the totality of my life, was revolutionary.

It allowed me to start recognizing contradictions, which doesn't often happen in black-and-white thinking. I could be both a good partner and also annoy my boyfriend. I could be attractive and also have frizzy hair. Both things could be true at the same time. The world, man! It's a big place! We can hold a lot of truth in here.

Anyone who listened to the podcast Serial can tell you that facts and truth aren't always super-obvious. Tracing the story of the 1999 murder of a high school girl, and her teenaged ex-boyfriend Adnan's subsequent investigation and conviction, the podcast was an unmitigated success. People made charts about the episodes. I texted a handful of people about the show constantly ("It's so good!" / "I KNOW SHH I HAVEN'T HEARD THE NEW ONE YET"). Someone even remixed the advertisement for Mail Chimp that ran before each episode; I know because I listened to that remix three times.

Serial was "about" Hae Min Lee's murder, but it was about so much more than that: how host Sarah Koenig schooled us all in investigative journalism; how the criminal justice system has blindingly bad flaws that are (slowly, sometimes) being corrected; about how defense laws do their jobs, and how inmates treat 18-year-old Muslim kids when they show up in the general population of a maximum security prison. But it's also about how we tell each other stories, and how those stories are—and aren't—always based on facts.

Sometimes, we need to chase facts down and beg them to talk: a Jay-on-Serial situation. Other times, we don't know if we can trust them completely: Adnan, definitely. Many times, we end up with a buffet of weird, conflicting information about a situation—or a person—and then we have to make a judgement call: what's happening here? Who is this person, really? And can I tell my facts from my feelings enough to know for sure?"

At the end of Serial, I wondered who Adnan was, really. He seems to be a contradiction: a guy who went to prison for murdering his ex-girlfriend, and despite his protestations of innocence, doesn't actually seem to mind it much. A model inmate in for life. A mosque kid who stole, a Muslim boy who had sex. A man convicted of a violent crime who got elected to the incarcerated equivalent of the student body government. A man who will never know a life outside of cinderblock walls—first in high school, then in prison—but who will make his friends barbecue sauce from scratch.

And some of the contradictions, I can understand. I don't think I could sustain the level of rage that I assume I'd feel at a wrongful conviction over multiple decades; at some point, I'd probably give in and at least check out the library. We know prison as a lonely and violent place, but I guess sometimes gregarious and good-natured people end up there; they need to fit in somewhere, too. Multitudes, man. This story has them.

But the way the podcase, and our brains, are set up is that multitudes are hard. We don't want conflicting evidence. We want a nice 140-minute action movie with an appropriate number of explosions and pithy one-liners, and we want the villain to be Russian, thanks. We want a yes/no: guilty or innocent? Beautiful or ugly? With Adnan, we have two truths: his, in which he is innocent, and the one belonging to the state of Maryland, which convicted him. He both is and isn't a murderer. It all depends on who you get your facts from. An entire identity follows suit.

Back at LACMA, those kimonos are arranged along a spiral walkway. You can either follow it up towards the vaulted ceiling, or down into the basement. Each garment is given its own special nook, and you can see many of them from any given vantage point. Sometimes, you can look down at see a kimono from an aerial view, and notice a detail of neckline or sleeve that would be otherwise undetectable. But you can't see all of them this way. You have to retrace your spiraled steps, go past the ones you've seen before, back down to the entrance of the building. Then you have to keep going, even further, to get to the others. It's the only way to see them all.