I can go all my life without ever considering the textures of another human life whose heart beats just around the corner from where I live. Let alone a person, or a people, half a world away. I don’t think about them.
I’m aware that my toenail polish needs to be re-done, that I forgot to start the dryer, that I have an unheard voicemail. I’m aware that I feel hungry, when it hasn’t been that long since breakfast, but there’s a craving, maybe to distract myself from boredom or a nagging emotion I’d rather not have, by noshing on something. What do I want? Something salty maybe….
I am not aware, on the other hand, except in rare, brief moments, if ever at all, of that specific, particular fear in the belly of a child in central Phoenix, homeless with his mother, who slept fitfully next to her, in an alleyway on a piece of cardboard, his hand on her shoulder to reassure himself she’s still there, that she hasn’t left him alone to look for her dealer, even though she said she was never going to do that again, until he jumps awake at the snuffling of a stray mongrel. Now, even though it’s still dark, he obsesses about making sure to be on time for school, where there will be breakfast, even if the kids look at him funny because he smells bad.
I am aware of cat hair between the keys of my keyboard, of the prescriptions I forgot to order, of the questionable color combination of my sports bra and yoga pants with this particular tank top, of feeling discouraged and deprived at how slowly the weight is coming off.
I am not aware of how infectious is the laugh, when she isn’t so consumed with grief, of a twenty-three-year-old woman with two little ones in a refugee camp on the other side of the world, and how attached she was to her mother, who did not escape the dangers the young woman has fled with her husband whose single dimple and shining eyes still make her heart surge, and with her brother who is the cleverest in the family, but they had to leave their older sister behind, because she wasn’t strong, and not quite right in her head since she got hurt so badly, and it would have been more dangerous for the children, although they loved her so, and what will she do now? I’m not aware of the stories her Papa told her as a little girl, that she carries in her heart.
I don’t know why they had to leave. What makes that set of people hate this set of people? What happened to the wild, favorite cousin, who always won at street games, the best friend who shared her secrets when they were ten, the cranky old woman next door who complained about the noise of their giggling? The teacher who crinkled her eyes when she smiled? Did they get out? What sweetness was left behind in the mattresses and the cooking pots they could not bring along to carry on their backs? What memories did she carry into that unfamiliar place they have found to rest, and what was too terrible to remember, but had to be hidden away in the recesses of her mind, only to spring out in nightmares that make her gasp awake, staring, with tears rolling across the bridge of her nose and down, puddling in the palm cupped under her cheek?
I haven’t paid attention to what is happening to those people, strangers to me, foreigners, wherever they are. What fills my awareness is the detail of my own narrow life. I focus on what I want, what I’m afraid to hope for, what I tell myself I shouldn’t try, the things I judge or wonder over. But I don’t need to question if my front door will lock, or if the air conditioning will kick on to keep me comfortable. There is food in my freezer and the pantry. I own a fourteen-year-old car that never fails to start or get me where I want to go, and I have the money to put gas in it, or get it fixed if it breaks. I don’t have much of an investment portfolio, but I have a home that nobody will drag me out of.
Those other lives are out of sight, out of mind, for me. For them, some privileges I call rights cannot be imagined, must not be wished for, and will never be expected because to think of those things only brings on hopelessness, and distracts the attention necessary to find something for the babies to eat today.
But I don’t think about that.