So, as I was on my way out the door this morning for my daily walk, I decided to do a different route, for interest’s sake, and walked past a kidney care center that I’ve seen many times, but haven’t paid much attention to, ever since I moved into the neighborhood. Today I decided to stop in and inquire about their services, since as a kidney donor I need to do annual blood and urine tests to make sure all is in working order. I have a primary care physician, but he’s quite a drive away, and I thought how cool it might be to have at least this part of my life be right around the corner.
When I walked in the front door, which is merely feet from the sidewalk on the very busy major thoroughfare of Devonshire Boulevard, I was instantly hit with a room filled with very sick people all hooked up to dialysis machines. Feet from the street. It so startled me to be that un-buffered, to not, instead, walk into an office or lobby or receptionist’s desk first, before entering the League of Great Sickness. Because of my experience with the transplant, I’ve grown accustomed to that environment, so I wasn’t made uncomfortable; it merely startled me. And it was at that moment that I pondered the strangeness of my reaction. And the buffered culture we live in.
Everything is buffered for us. From waiting rooms and front desks that – ordinarily – shield us from discomfort until we’re ready and geared to walk through certain doors, to signs at amusement parks that warn about possible vomiting or nausea if we get on that roller coaster.
And it instantly took me back to a poetry and prose reading I attended years ago at this wonderfully bohemian coffee house in Glendale, and the eye-opening lesson I’d learned that night. I had signed up to read, had been in the midst of writing the book that incidentally has just come out (but this isn’t a plug, no way, I wouldn’t do that here … The Assassination of Gabriel Champion on Amazon … ), and had decided to read a passage I’d just finished working on, which included a rather graphic bit of violence.
After I read, I got some really great feedback which assured me I was on the right path with my writing. And then this couple came up to me, a husband and wife, and proceeded, as delicately as they could, to inform me that the both of them, at an earlier point in their lives, had been the victims of violence similar to the one in my passage, and that while they appreciated my writing, and the earnestness of its content, they really wished I had been sensitive enough to warn the audience ahead of time that this reading would contain some graphic scenes, because they were unprepared to listen to something like that, and would’ve elected to step outside.
“We didn’t want to walk out on you in the middle of your reading. We actually do believe in being courteous and respectful. We just kind of wish you had been as courteous and respectful.”
I had no defense or comeback. They were right. I didn’t know who was in my audience, or what someone’s background might’ve held. This couple certainly wasn’t asking me to censor anything, or to refrain from reading, or anything resembling a challenge to my freedom of speech and expression. They’d simply requested a warning, so that they could elect whether or not to listen. Perfectly reasonable.
I’ve never forgotten that, and because of that experience, so many years ago now, it is my absolute practice any time I’ve ever included a passage from one of my books on my website, or on any other public forum, and which may contain violence, sex, or strong language, to always include a disclaimer at the beginning of the passage. Of course, no such disclaimer is ever necessary for the books themselves. You’re a free agent. If you elect to pick up my/anyone’s book, then it’s your responsibility to read what the book’s about on the back cover, and decide for yourself if you want to dive in. But as for excerpts that appear anywhere publicly, if the passage contains strong content, I let people know. I’ve subscribed to that practice ever since that night of the kind, respectful, fragile couple who schooled me.
Today, as I ruminate on our buffering society, and our need to be cocooned from difficulty and discomfort, I question if that’s what’s best for us. Merely question. This thought is all of an hour old, and I’m still processing it even as I’m typing this. No judgments have been handed down yet.
But is it better that we be “protected” from reality; sickness and death, the scariness of roller coasters, or the contents of a book? Or might it actually serve us better to be thrust headlong into that great jolt of life in all of its layers of beauty and ugliness and bliss and pain?
We live in a more frightened society today than we did years ago. I don’t know, for example, a single parent who would allow their small children out alone on Halloween today, yet when I was a kid our parents almost never accompanied us. We were free to roam the neighborhood, and everyone knew and trusted the neighborhood. That’s not our reality today. I realize it, and I respect it. But I can’t honestly say whether I believe we’re a more violent culture today than a generation ago (I seriously doubt it), or if we’ve merely become pampered by a society whose principle commercial agenda is the selling of ease, convenience, instant gratification, and comfort. And the fierce protection of our rights to never let our precious feet touch the dirty ground. And fear. Our society sells fear.
Dare I extend that idea to include the insidious sway of the self-help culture, which insists that we “fake it till we make it”? And I actually feel a bit traitorous for even saying that, because I’m the biggest digester of self-help lit of anyone out there. You should see what books are in my purse right now. But that’s exactly why I know this to be true. Even memoirs are almost never about brave self-reveals any longer, being able to lay your own self-discovered flaws on the table, and merely from doing so, transforming them, for yourself and your reader. Which is incredibly powerful.
The self-help dictum says NO. We must never admit fear, jealousy, rage, pettiness. We must always be about self-promotion. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been “corrected” and reprimanded because I’ve dared to share my flaws in my insight-writing. The intention is always well-meaning; the person is clearly in my corner. But it makes me crazy nonetheless, because I can assure anyone out there that the sharing of those flaws has an intention, and is usually accompanied by an epiphany that makes it obvious I’m aware of its injury to me; that I am, just by writing about it, already in the throes of moving away from it, and toward something more evolved. There are those who just can’t allow you to be flawed in public. Because it might make them have to look at themselves.
The self-help movement was never supposed to be about anesthetization. It grew out of Eastern thought: Buddhism, the Yoga Sutras, the Tao, etc. But it has become something very pop/pulp indeed. The above-mentioned spiritual disciplines (my beloved gang!) never advocated denial. We don’t transform from our weakness and flaw and condition just by magically denying it, despite what The Secret promises. It takes hard work. And the hardest part of the work is FACING. Not being buffered by the warm-fuzzies.
And on that thought, as my dear friend Chokae Kalekoa likes to playfully say (with a rolled neck of course): “Namaste, Bitches!”
Did I really need protection from witnessing the patients hooked up to dialysis as I walked through that door this morning because Blanche DuBois couldn’t hold a candle to my delicate sensibilities? Should we be cultivating a world of Blanches? Or would we be better served by throwing ourselves into the water, as we do children when we’re teaching them to swim, because there’s nothing that steels our spine like feeling that great jolt of life? To remind us that we ARE alive?
I guess I clearly HAVE taken a position, after all. And me! I’m a coward! A cautious, hesitant, worrisome coward, who cries easily, and can NOT watch those Sarah-McLachlan-underscored commercials about animal cruelty. I’m almost always afraid of leaping, of being yanked out of my comfort zone. But I also recognize the incredible power and radiant beauty and ridiculous boundlessness of those who DO know how, and are brazen. I am envious of them.
One of my favorite quotes (you all know it), by Jack Kerouac, speaks to that very kind of human:
“The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.”
They’re the only ones for me too, Mr. Kerouac.
Angela Carole Brown is the author of three published books, The Assassination of Gabriel Champion, The Kidney Journals: Memoirs of a Desperate Lifesaver, and Trading Fours, and has produced several albums of music and a yoga/mindfulness CD. Bindi Girl Chronicles is her writing blog. Follow her on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram & YouTube.