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Cassie Premo Steele Headshot

On Egypt and First World Choice

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I wake from a dream. The images flash through my mind: me, in bed, next to my husband. I go to check on our daughter, who is down the hall staying in another apartment with an Egyptian woman and her kids. The beds have no sheets, no blankets. I have a blanket. Just one. I put it over my daughter, but it is not enough. It is not right that I have one blanket for my one daughter, and this woman and her children have none. Paralyzed by my inability to choose to make the situation right and fair, I wake from the dream.

In my waking life, I am not with my husband. And I am not in Egypt, but my dear friend is, and I am worried. My friend is American -- and Catholic. She moved to Egypt less than a month ago with her husband and children to work at a school there. School was supposed to start today, but it has been delayed a week because of the violence.

In my agitated post-dream state, I start thinking about choice. Five months ago, I came out to my husband as a lesbian. It was not a choice. It was truth, and growth, and revolution, and even in the midst of my great sorrow and upheaval, it was an act of love.

We believe in choice in America. But even before this happened to me, I had a rocky relationship with choice. When my gay stepdaughter came home from her first year in college and lectured me on the social construction of sex and gender, I listened, and then I told her, "Socially construct the dishes."

Because, as a wife, it seemed to me, my choices were more defined by who I was, as a woman and a mother, than what I wanted.

My friend in Egypt posts Facebook updates several times a day. Getting groceries. Leaving for work. Heading home for 7:00 curfew. Her friends respond with support, and love, and concern. What they don't say, but I know they must be thinking is "Why did you choose to go there?"

It's hard to understand the collapse of choice until it is happening on top of your body. Sexuality, revolution, death, and love -- these are things that happen to us whether we choose them or not. Only someone whose life is so cradled in first world privilege can afford to deny this.

I know enough about my friend to know that it wasn't a choice. Her moving to Egypt was similar to my coming out -- for her and her husband and children, it was about truth, and growth, and revolution, and now, even in the midst of their great sorrow and upheaval, it is an act of love.

Almost 20 years ago, I wrote my dissertation about how multicultural American women's poetry witnesses to traumatic history. Recently, my girlfriend and I watched the 2012 documentary about the poet Audre Lorde.

I mouthed the words as I watched Lorde begin to read one of my favorite poems:

For those of us who live at the shoreline

standing upon the constant edges of decision

crucial and alone

for those of us who cannot indulge

the passing dreams of choice...

I want to say it has taken me 20 years -- getting married, and raising a gay stepdaughter, and becoming a mother, and teaching Feminist Theory, and writing book after book, and coming out -- to understand these lines. But I would be lying. I still don't understand.

Because choice is an American dream. And like a dream, it exists beyond logic. It appears in the night, under cover of dark, and we believe in its illusion because the governments and corporations and laws that are really making most of our choices for us are sleeping in the next room with plenty of blankets. They may give us one now and then. And then we might fight over it amongst ourselves. Or we might find a way to share the blanket. But the choice of what to do with one blanket is not a choice.

Audre Lorde's poem ends with the famous lines:

So it is better to speak

remembering

we were never meant to survive.

Sexuality, revolution, death, and love -- these are things that happen to us whether we choose them or not. Only someone whose life is so cradled in first world privilege can afford to deny this. We may want to shelter ourselves from the reality of our lack of choice. We can drive to Bed, Bath, and and Beyond and wave our hands at the shelves and say, "Look at all the blankets! Everything is fine!"

Yes, there are plenty of blankets. Yes, there is more than enough. It is just that some have too much and others not enough. And as long as we think we have a blanket because we chose to receive one, nothing will change.