Friday, August 29, 2008

Personal Narrative

A narrative is the story of an event, or the linked set of events that form a plot. For there to be a plot and sense of forward momentum, there must be a set of driving values and a conflict amongst those values, and a sense of an eventual outcome.

I’m looking around me at these Western bodies and I see networks and layers of narrative, bodies with stories, names and backgrounds, symbols. Each body weaves language around itself like cocoons, or rather grows itself like a snowflake, configurations of identity built off crystallized cultural stuffs, expressing personal narratives. And bodies come together and communicate between themselves, creating further patterns of language that spin themselves together into community narratives, and the communities weave themselves into (and from) the larger narrative of a city. It is rich, the air here.

Montreal is a city of narratives par excellence; a city of style and interaction and art. Every individual, it seems, designs him or herself and formulates a narrative: clothes have symbolic value, alluding to one’s own system of ordering the universe. We may not all understand what each other is saying, but we see each other in Montreal and recognize that we are saying something. Clothes are not accidental.

Style extends from clothes and tattoos to values, language and employment, the key components of identity. And broader narratives form: I practice yoga, and others who are very different from me share my love of the practice and together we create a new narrative, where each of us is a word and together we make sentences and story held together by certain values: a commitment to positive and loving values, sharing, respect for the body, health and conscientious living.... We are the yoga community. When I lived in Montreal as an adolescent, I took part in a very different narrative, but one just as dense; a youth counterculture based on negative values of rebellion, shedding expectations and escaping pressures. We had our own vocabulary then also, and our own symbols. And I see any number of other narratives that I don’t participate in: there are churches and synagogues, there are immigrant and minority communities. There are other narratives that I could participate in if I lived here, and I am tempted to come back and dress myself in them again.

An individual identity is woven from its body’s own words and beliefs, and expressed in one’s own stylistic decisions and manifestations—clothes, what kind of house I live in, how I move around the city, the language I speak and how I spend my time. All these are spun ideas that dress a body in personhood. And people come together on the basis of matched values and create higher orders of narrative, dialogues amongst themselves that evolve new symbols and create new states of affairs and institutions: there would not be a yoga studio unless there was more than one person who believed in the underlying values of yoga and this specific way of realizing them. And as the community narrative consolidates, as more yoga studios spring up and the practice diversifies and more voices join the discussion, the community discourse becomes its own reality that in turn generates the raw material that minds use to sculpt the identity of their body. Someone can choose yoga as a way of dressing who would otherwise not have had the words to express exactly that feeling. Identities become more sophisticated, but also one step removed from the original being they are representing. I am no longer primarily my body: I am a yogi and a traveler and a queer and I will present myself accordingly through my manner, style and speech and the communities I speak into and from. Bodies generate their own values and identities, the expression of which creates communities; and at the same time communities generate words and styles that bodies take on as symbols of their identities.

And it continues upward: a city is made of interlacing communities, interacting like coloured threads in strip of material, creating a unified sensory experience when you take a step back and squint. New York has a million possible vocabularies, and countless intellectuals have spent their careers sorting through them and giving them names and reasons. To an insider, New York is like a mini-Europe, each native belonging to a given culture and language, and holding an opinion on the others they share the space with: the Brooklyn guys, Jersey, Long Island, punks, health nuts.... But even as an outsider, the tapestry is rich: walking into that city gets you caught in a buzz of chatter and possible language and all you have to do is hold out your hand and you’ll come back with a fist full of words that are just your size.

Toronto is a city where people go to work, and the communities have to weave themselves through the grey cement buildings of the dominant financial district, settling in tidepools of living cultures like Kensington market, the Danforth, the universities, Toronto Island....

Each city has a narrative, based on its history and the diversity of communities that live in it and how strong a voice each one is given. And each community has a narrative created by the discussions amongst the individuals that make it up, discussions made up of the unique interests and vocabularies of individuals. And each individual has her own narrative, based on the values that she embodies. And each individual expresses her values in how she talks and looks and lives; and she gains the vocabulary to express herself by listening and absorbing the symbols of the community. And the community narratives exist within a context of an urban tapestry and voice themselves according to the pressures and tones of a shared cultural space: yoga communities are different in Montreal, Toronto and New York, because the city itself has a different overarching vocabulary that sets the tone and context in which the subculture defines itself.

My body is a living organism with this brain that forms complex ideas. There are things that I feel are true and ways of being that I believe lead to the best possible world, and these are my values. I look for ways to make those values take place in the world around me and I express them through my being and through my ideas: this is my identity. When I share my ideas, I communicate with people: this network of communication is a community, and through a community, new ideas are formed. I borrow from this culture, and my identity expands. I am no longer only a belief in health and the body, but I am a yoga teacher and practitioner, as opposed to other things (and in addition to other things.) My identity becomes one step abstracted: I can call myself something, and I can dress the part and people will know something about me. Many communities, perspectives, possible realities weave together in a cosmopolitan Western city, and my symbols take on different meanings depending on the context, and accumulate a different momentum based on how broad or narrow my vocabulary.

It is different on Phnom Penh. In Phnom Penh, each person holds up their own narrative: this is who I work for, this is my business, this is the country I come from. I articulate my own definition based on the scant resources of the city. There is usually only one person per identity here, and we each present ourselves for who we are, not for the culture we embody.

Maybe that is why underneath the traffic and karaoke, Phnom Penh always feels so silent. We make our own identities by our actions. We create our own communities as an act of will and they disappear if we turn our backs. There is something liberating about this, and limiting, also.

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