The headline I saw on Google News read, “Kate Upton says body shut down after Antarctic bikini shoot.” Beside it were various thumbnail photos of an almost-naked young woman in various poses against the tundra. I’d imagine her body was touched up digitally (to remove small traces of cellulite, perhaps, or at least to remove any bluish tinge from her lips and skin), but for publicity reasons the Antarctic background had to be real. So in short bursts over several days, Ms. Upton exposed her body to subzero temperatures until her vision began to blur and her hearing temporarily failed.
Now, as a writer I understand the power of juxtaposition. And I can certainly understand the appeal to Sports Illustrated of doing just about anything to make more money.
But is desire really so easy to separate from any trace of empathy? Shouldn’t looking at a picture like that just make you feel cold?
It’s been a hard year for my family, health-wise. My wife carried a lot of extra amniotic fluid during her pregnancy, which turned out to be caused by a defect in our son’s esophagus and trachea. We spent the seven weeks after the birth splitting time between our two children at home and the NICU at Primary Children’s hospital waiting through three surgeries and one emergency intubation. A few weeks after our baby got home, I spent a few days as sick as I’ve been since getting married. After a case of mastitis, my wife got a terrible rash which turned out to be evidence of a newly-developed penicillin allergy. And after that, she developed a galactocele, which sounds like the sort of problem a character might get on Star Trek but is actually a rare form of milk-filled cyst which, as it turns out, can suddenly and painfully abscess and require surgery.
There’s a whole industry that produces desire through altered and idealized representations of bodies, a whole industry that operates by making the physical unreal. But I can tell you: love grows deep when we’re reminded just how real and how fragile human bodies are.
I want to tell you a little about what the sealer said at my cousin’s wedding last year. While my cousin and her fiance sat next to each other on a couch facing the window to the outside, the sealer told them a core Mormon story–about how we existed forever before we came here to earth, and about how our existence here sets our course for a forever yet to come. After that story, he asked them to stand near the altar and look into the series of reflections in the mirrors on the side walls. As they stood there, he reminded them of another core Mormon story: about their relationship to the countless generations before and after them, about their bonds and obligations to their ancestors and descendants.
You are standing in the center of eternity, he told them.
And then they knelt there at the altar, on two axes of the eternal, and were bound together.
Our world is less made of facts than of interpretations.
So I believe that stories matter. Heavy or light, visual or verse or prose, they help us orient ourselves in the universe, help us weave meaning out of the events and choices that make up our lives.
Not all stories,of course, are equally helpful. We need stories of love and desire. We need to wrestle with the two, need to fight to make sense of them when they work together and when they are at odds. But in our days, those that aim to exploit tend to be better funded than those that attempt to enlighten. Working on an honest moral map can feel lonely and pointless.
Then again, when has it ever been easy to tell a story that brings us closer to truth?