A couple of years ago, a magazine editor called to ask me to try out a new piece of exercise equipment and write a column about it.
“I don’t really use exercise equipment,” I responded.
“Really? Not even a treadmill?”
“I tried one a couple of times, but I got too winded,” I said.
“Isn’t that…” the editor paused, then pressed on. “Anyway, we’re not looking for an expert. We want you. We’ll send you the Bosu ball and you have at it. Preferably with your children watching. It’ll be hilarious.”
“Also,” I said, “I should probably tell you that I don’t seem to be able to understand instruction booklets. Even if they’re written in English.”
“That’s perfect. Make it part of the story. This is going to be good.”
Clearly, I had found a niche market: writing from the standpoint of extreme ignorance and either triumphing over that ignorance, or failing miserably to the great and hilarious delight of readers who would then feel better about their level of competence. Or, I hoped– to the delight of similarly affected people.
My husband had to blow up the Bosu ball because the instruction booklet used red flag words like “flap”, “casing”, and “fasten” (“fasten”? How? For the love of God, HOW?) But once the ball was up and operating, I did manage to flop through an exercise routine thanks to an accompanying DVD. I had to pause the DVD’s cheerful fitness lady a number of times and rewind, but she was far more effective than written instructions (even with diagrams) would have been.
I am what teachers call a “hands-on” learner. I have to get down in the dirt and plant the seed myself to understand how vegetables grow. Then I have to forget to water the seed, finally realize that I’ve killed it, and plant it again. This process may have to be repeated four times before I get a carrot. But personal history has shown that I will eventually get that carrot. For what I lack in information or skill, I make up for in determination, animal instinct, and luck. It also doesn’t hurt that I seem to have a low threshold for humiliation.
A few months ago, I bought a guidebook for the region of India that we will be visiting. I chose the guide that had the prettiest pictures and an illustrated time line of Indian history. I took the book to bed with me for several nights in a row and I liked the glossy pages and the way it smelled. I’d flip to a section about one of the cities we would be visiting. Agra, for example, home of the Taj Mahal. I’d start to read the information and then I would experience a familiar phenomenon. My eyes would glide over the copy and I would get to the end of the page, unable to retain any of the information that I had just read. I tried slowing myself down, picking apart each word individually. But even when I read it like a first grader, I couldn’t absorb a thing.
To be clear, I read a lot. I jump from novel to novel like a head louse in a mob of kindergartners. But when it comes to instruction manuals, guidebooks, and textbooks I’m at a complete loss. On the whole, facts bore me.
Which is why I cannot vouch for the accuracy of anything I write. I would argue, however, that accuracy is different from truth. It is because of my intellectual resistance to facts, that I have to ask myself frequently, “Is this true?” And the answer comes back from my gut, my heart, and what I would call the “commonsense” side of my brain (I’m betting that side actually exists under fancier nomenclature, but I’m not going to look it up because we all know what I mean).
I can only write about what is true for me. And sometimes what is true, changes. What I know about India is inchoate. My information is mostly anecdotal, gleaned from family and friends who have visited. When I get there, that information will either make sense to me or it won’t. I will absorb new information, sift impressions, and toss out old ideas.
This is how I have ever truly known anything.
When I come home, what I know of India will be in my bones.