The Heart of the Matter
Saturday night in south Phoenix I park across from a friend’s bungalow, the beats of Norteno music and Reggaeton pulsing from homes nearby. Traci greets me with hugs and ceramic mugs brimming with wine. I do not mention I am trying to avoid the alcohol into which I have lately descended too deeply. I cannot speak the words to define those nights of vertigo, the tip of the vodka switchblade gliding into my thigh and all the rest dissolving. My infinite capacity for self-destruction renders me mute. I cradle the mug like a chalice, licking my lips.
We fall into the familiar and I feel the barbs of dissonance uncoil as I share my struggle to reconcile two competing halves of self. We speak of work, school, and relationships. I whisper my reservations regarding all I’ve been taught to be true – those formulas for fulfillment my mother worked so diligently to perfect. Traci knows this story like the rhythm of her own body. She is an Anne Sexton poem made flesh, confession second-nature and intuition fierce.
By candlelight, we deconstruct the status of women and girls, in our own culture and beyond. Someone shares an account of a girl losing her virginity in the cramped, fluorescent stall of a public restroom. Another, the brutal stoning of a woman captured for posterity through shaky footage on a cell phone. I think of my mother as a kindergartner, shy and curious, enduring the probing and insistent fingers of the school’s handyman. At 13, she tried to kill herself. At 21, she left college to elope. But I mention, instead, the epidemic of fistulas plaguing women in the developing world, and of rape as both an ancient and modern weapon of war.
Silence pervades. Traci inhales deeply on a cigarette, exhaling mirages into the night air. Her dogs wrestle near the wall, and howl along with the music blaring down the block. She shifts and speaks, her voice gentle and clear. “How’s your marriage?”
And suddenly we are where we began, at the heart of the matter, this juncture of intimate entanglements to which all our conversations inevitably return. We dialogue in rounds on commitment, separation and monogamy. We swap experiences of passion and unrequited affection. We offer intellectual analyses of our own experiences in hopes of understanding ourselves as well as we understand our world.
Because inundated with opportunity and burdened with expectation, I am truly a 21st century American woman. As adept at social awareness as I am at superficial achievement, I am well-educated and appropriately appreciative of the privilege. I am able to condemn the most nebulous of concepts as part of a web designed to oppress my sisters around the globe. I possess a near thorough understanding of multicultural norms and can recite a litany of abuses specific to the women of Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Mexico. I know from what conditions the products I use originate, and take pains to spend my cash humanely.
It is the inner landscape which confounds. That churning universe of psyche I strive to illuminate with bursts of intellectual prowess, like sudden supernovas. Career and community come effortlessly, but I sink quickly in the morass of personal relationships. I am my mother’s daughter, groomed for worldly success but remarkably ill-equipped to negotiate tumults of emotion, heartbreak, and intimate connection.
Saturday night in south Phoenix, we sip dry, red wine and solve problems not our own. The music has died and crickets have taken up a cacophony around us. The conversation turns to poetry and the refuge of good books. Looking up into a charcoal sky I wonder, is this all there is?
In the grainy video, the girl stands rigid and mute, her chador lifted over her head, her face hidden from view. The whips of the long, tawny switch whistle through the air and crash into the backs of her legs. A corona of men, reedy and wind-burnt, seethe around the nucleus of her small body, grimy hands tugging at her veil. I watch from a soft chair, coffee steaming on a desk strewn with books and art. An urban sea of traffic moves relentlessly outside my window. My cats stretch and yawn and wait for dinner.
I click through the headlines and dire prognostications for our future, as a planet and as a species. My computer is a portal though which the world is rendered intimately immediate. Another video, and I catch a woman on dusty ground, her face smeared with blood, her dark hair a halo. She is struggling to rise, her thin frame trembling, as men surround her, raining blows upon her head and kicks to her kidneys. She will not survive this assault, filmed for the world on a cellular phone.
“Why do you watch these things?” My family is exasperated. Their patience with my horror and anxiety is wearing thin. A friend confides she refuses to view such spectacles of human degradation, for fear the images will remain seared into her consciousness forever. But I am compelled by a heavy sense of obligation, a commitment to my sisters whose voices are choked, whose bodies polluted, by the global realities I am far too privileged to know firsthand. I live amidst the luxuries of literacy and unceasing supplies of potable water. I have always had the advantages of clean sheets and warm clothing, education and vaccination. I am gifted the indulgence of a mortgage and student loans.
I understand that for every image or article depicting the oppression, the exploitation, the dehumanization of a woman or girl, there are thousands more whose stories will never be told, whose voices we will never hear. As I type these words, the scent of soy candles and body lotion enveloping me, a woman is being raped. I cruise the internet for deals on new shoes and a 7-year-old girl is sold into bondage so her family can eat. Now, a woman is buried alive, now a girl is screaming as her clitoris is severed with a shard of glass.
What can I do? There are micro-loans to finance, rallies to attend, candlelight vigils to promote via Facebook. Volunteering for an hour a week at the local DV shelter, vegan bake sales in support of Afghan girls, a petition to sign and forward to my friends. The impotence is glaring.
So, I bear witness. Again and again, I seek out the stories of my sisters plagued by the currents of a kyriarchy we all must learn to negotiate. I’m a winner of the birth lottery, draped in survivor’s guilt like a hundred Girl Scout badges. Perhaps unconsciously I believe salvation lies in this gruesome voyeurism. Perhaps I long to cleanse my sins in the digital footage of others’ misfortune, obscuring my own culpability in these tragedies. The diamond ring I wear – whose blood did it finance? The tennis shoes collecting dust in my closet – what child was enslaved to make them? The flavored latte with which I reward myself – how many books would that fund for girls in Nepal learning to read?
The guilt, the glimpses into a world I will never know, the causes and crusades of so many like myself is not enough. It will never be nearly enough to make recompense for the evils of our world or ameliorate the dangers of western excess. In this way, we are all shackled. Choice gleams like a mirage in the desert when I consider the life I’ve been gifted. What choice beyond consciousness can any of us truly enjoy when faced with the global machinations of greed and fear?
I am resolute in my determination that the stories of victims will not be ignored or forgotten. At least, not by me. I owe them more than this – I owe them my freedom, my comfort, and a great portion of my identity. I cannot fathom how many pounds of flesh would balance such a debt. I lack economic strategies and social solutions. I have no answers, but I do have a voice. And for this reason, I will not turn away.
A social work student, Amanda Muir greatly enjoyed the depth and scope of the CGCC creative writing program. She considers the program a phenomenal asset to the community and hopes it will continue to flourish.