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The Scent of WaterGrace for every kind of broken
By Naomi Zacharias
ZondervanCopyright © 2010 Naomi Zacharias
All right reserved.
Chapter Onegreat expectations
When I was little, I sat in red flannel pajamas with footies, curled up next to my mother as she read to me the stories of Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and Snow White. I listened intently as my mind was captivated by the wonders of fairy godmothers with magical wands, adorable mice, and battles waged against evil and envy and all that was ugly in life. My eyes widened every time good triumphed over evil (in the end), the hero always got his girl, and they lived happily ever after.
As my dreams began to take shape, I, too, believed that life would turn out as it seemed it should: that darkness and evil would not prevail over the "happily ever after" that was mine. And when my life did not turn out the way it was supposed to, I felt I had been played for a fool. Life was certainly no fairy tale, and although cynicism was an obvious escape from the ache, I could not quite commit to it. I nostalgically looked back to the time, the hope, when I believed that life would imitate the storybook.
Modern-day fairy tales don't tell us the real story. They don't even tell us the rest of the story. They don't tell us what happens when the prince does not show up in time, or how to endure the potency of a poisonous apple. The End often appears in cursive at the point that the real story would begin. It is what nearly breaks the protagonists, what sometimes does break them, that is the real story. But it is not one for the faint of heart.
I felt great animosity for my own life, and when I referred to it with disloyalty one day, my father quietly said, "The shortest route is not always the best route." And when I was discouraged by the recognition that I had only a flawed story to offer to another, he released me into a truth: "There are no such fairy tale loves. The garden of Eden proved that," he wrote to me. "Love has to battle through. In fact, if it has never had to, one wonders if it can be true."
I can't be alone in longing for the fairy-tale life, and as I read the stories, I realized that perhaps we should all be careful what we wish for. To my surprise, as I fed my fairy-tale obsession and buried myself in research of famous narratives, I discovered it was not the fairy tales that had failed me. Clearly we have since watered them down to minimize the decidedly uncomfortable, but the original fairy tales actually affirmed my father's words to me. They were filled with lions and tigers and very grown-up darkness that actually offered critical insight into life.
In the 1800s, the Brothers Grimm published their story of Sleeping Beauty, which began with the birth of a beautiful baby girl. To share their excitement, her parents, the king and queen of a land far, far away, threw the grandest of parties. But they made a critical mistake when they forgot to invite a certain fairy to the celebration, and the scorned fairy retaliated by placing a curse on their child: At the age of sixteen, she will prick her finger and die.
A good fairy was not able to erase the curse, but she could alleviate the ultimate of horrors. Instead of death, the prick of her finger would incite a deep, deep sleep. The better of the curses also allowed for an escape clause: A love, true love, that was pure could awaken her. Thankfully, Sleeping Beauty was lucky enough to be awakened by such a true kiss, and all was as good as new. Or was it? She had been sleeping, waiting, and under the curse for one hundred years. During that time, her mother died from a broken heart and her fairy advocate twiddled the entire kingdom into a deep sleep to try to preserve some semblance of her life should the princess ever awaken. There was suffering—and not hers alone.
Ariel lost her majestic voice. Rapunzel wandered aimlessly in a desert wasteland for years in misery while the prince and father of her children was rendered blind and did "naught but lament and weep" over the loss of his wife. Cinderella was first orphaned, then enslaved before she tried on the glass slipper that changed her world.
We want the good part of the fairy tale, the culmination of all things good; and with such idealism, we have only preserved the idea of happily ever after. On the screen and in our minds we have rewritten the stories and forgotten about the battles the heroines chose to fight. The resolve is only significant because of the magnitude of the darkness. It required a love and justice that were extraordinary to redeem what had gone so awfully wrong. The love that was grand is powerfully intoxicating. But we have chosen to overlook the pain and the price that the players paid to find it.
The flaw is not in the stories themselves or in the restoration they portray. The flaw is in the happily ever after, since real life does not always end in such a way. Yet of even this fantasy we were carefully warned. The Grimm's Brothers' conclusion of Sleeping Beauty provided a caution: "They lived happily ever after, as they always do in fairy tales, not quite so often, however, in real life." It was the only disclaimer, the distinction made between real life and fantasy, for the rest remained quite realistic.
In his book Orthodoxy, G. K. Chesterton penned a chapter he cleverly titled "The ethics of Elfland," in which he claimed there are two requirements for every fairy tale. The first—one he calls the doctrine of conditional joy—is the necessity of the "if." If you don't return by midnight, the coach will go back to being an ordinary pumpkin. The second rule is what Chesterton calls the fairy godmother philosophy: The condition stipulated cannot be questioned. He further explains that no one can ever ask the fairy godmother, "how come?"—for to do so, he warns, would only beg another question. To ask, "how is it that I must leave the ball at twelve?" the fairy godmother could rightfully answer, "how is it that you are going there until twelve?" The rule is essentially this familiar bit of clichéd advice: "Don't look a gift horse in the mouth." In the case of fairy tales, we cannot require an explanation for the supernatural. The acceptance of the inexplicable is simply the way it works to be in the presence of miracles and mystery.
In real life, we would now do well not to draw our conclusions to an expectant close. When there is the chance of a miracle, but no guarantee of such, there will certainly be the alternate possibility of disappointment, fully explainable reality, and pain. This present world is not the best of all possible worlds. It is just the best of all possible means to the best of all possible worlds. heaven is the happily ever after. Until then, we still live with frogs and century-long naps.
There is, however, a "once upon a time." There are evil and heartache. There are darkness and our own dragons to fight. There are not the likes of singing mice, but there are details equally miraculous. More miraculous.
I wanted to leave the familiar—my own evil and heartache—and find people who were the most vulnerable; to be where something was tragically broken that was not me. It was not to feel comforted by seeing the pain of another, but rather to feel another's pain. I needed to exist outside of my own. Smooth and flawless held nothing to comfort me, nothing to teach me, and nothing to fill me.
The reality is that I was running from something I could not fix, a self I could not forgive, and a story I could not accept.
* * *
This is a story; it is not the story, for no life can be characterized by a single story. It is one that I started to see unfold when I walked into an unlikely room to listen to the story of another. It is not neatly packaged. It is far from tidy. But I do not need the balm of cynicism to endure its pages. Because it has been significantly rich. And because it is mine.
In his biographical novel of Michelangelo, Irving Stone unveils a discussion between the young apprentice and his teacher, Bertoldo. "To try to understand another human being, to grapple for his ultimate depths, that is the most dangerous of human endeavors," the instructor counseled as he brushed strokes of wisdom on his student.
So I start with the ever-important beginning that is mine and yours to claim.
Once upon a time ...
Chapter Twoobjects of fantasy
Once upon a time, I walked into a brothel and met a girl named Annie. I was not there by accident, but it was not a room I deliberately set out to find either.
I had been nervous the last time I was there as I walked down those narrow cobblestone streets, aware of the dark shadows against the brick exteriors of buildings that were deceptively beautiful. But once inside the door, I stood in a dimly lit maze of sparsely furnished rooms that each contained a woman who was for sale.
The first time I saw Amsterdam's world-famous red-light district, I found myself unable to articulate intelligent sentences for the next several days. I had previously been to the brothel-lined streets in Mumbai, India, where over 70,000 women worked in prostitution. They were behind bars, eyes of chestnut and onyx piercing the shadows. The streets in Mumbai were dark and ominous, and there was a sense of something that should remain hidden.
In troublesome blazing contrast, the district streets of Amsterdam were filled with blinking neon lights so you couldn't miss a detail, even if you wanted to. There was laughter, a sense of overt celebration. An old church sat empty and quiet near its center, a haunting suggestion that perhaps life here hadn't always been this way. Loud music filled my ears; fountains were lit with floodlights; bouncers tried aggressively to direct me into bars and theaters. Four hundred windows lined the streets, each with a red light overhead and a woman behind it for sale. They were all ages, including young girls whose papers claimed they were the legal age of eighteen but whose baby-smooth skin and wide eyes suggested otherwise. There were also women in their sixties who had worked there for years, a lifetime of standing behind their windows each night, waiting to be chosen and paid. The women were arranged like products in a store, each nationality on a particular aisle, as it were. To find girls from Africa, head to one end of the street. All of the girls from Hungary were on the next corner. I felt waves of nausea swirling inside me.
I was there to meet Toos, a woman who would quickly become my friend. She is the director of an organization called Scarlet Cord. Based in the red-light district, they are advocates for women both personally and legally and provide resources, counseling, and financial support to offer an option for a woman who wants to leave prostitution to be able to do so. They do not coerce; they do not use tactics of guilt. Their identified goal of liberating her to have an alternative is grounded in the belief that she is created by God and has intrinsic value that cannot be stripped from her and ought not to be exploited. The mission is not to tell a woman that prostitution is wrong and bring her out of sin; it is not to tell her all the things she is not. The mission is to affirm who she is.
Toos makes regular visits into the district each week. She knocks on the windows to introduce herself to girls working in the brothels. She leaves a business card and oftentimes a Bible or literature telling the true story of a girl who one day left the district for good. Over time, she builds a relationship with them, and icy expressions are transformed into sincere smiles when they see her familiar face. She walks through the streets boldly and without fear, seemingly oblivious to the looks her beauty draws from men. She is there for the women, and her focus is entirely on them.
* * *
Walking around the district, I expected to see men who looked disturbed, who looked like they belonged in such a dark place. Instead, I saw attractive men of all ages and nationalities. I saw fathers with their junior high–aged boys, pointing in this direction and that, seemingly giving a lesson about the way things work in this other world that in reality is just a part of town. I heard a man on his cell phone explaining to his wife that he was caught in traffic and would be home late that evening. I pushed through gatherings of guys and ignored their comments, pausing to glare at them with angrily offended eyes. There were four hundred women available to them, albeit unfortunately, but even that wasn't enough, and they behaved inappropriately to any woman they saw who was not available to them. Behavior they wouldn't consider displaying if we had passed each other on the street five blocks away was demonstrated without the slightest hint of embarrassment in this all-permissive zone. It was supposed to represent freedom. So why was it that, as a woman, I felt anything but liberated?
I looked up to see a group of college-aged American guys laughing gregariously, high-fiving each other in congratulations after their latest conquest before they descended into a dingy theater where their eyes and minds would be filled with images of men, women, and sexuality reduced to something that exploited and demeaned all three objects and the viewers simultaneously. They believed they were there to use the women, and they were right.
I didn't know where to look, for as each woman stood with her body exposed behind a window, I did not want to disrespect her by looking. But I didn't want to disrespect her by pretending she was not there. I do not think many passersby stopped to look into her eyes, the lenses that looked out from a soul inside. No, it is easier to pretend she does not have one. I saw the large tattoo on an upper arm, another on the left hip, of a girl a few windows down. They were the symbols of her pimp, a type of branding to signify that she was owned. Each telltale design served to alert other pimps that she was not available to them, for her body was the property of another.
* * *
Back in the dark room of a brothel, I spoke with one of the girls, and she rolled her dark-blue eyes in disgust at the men. She spoke of their foolishness, their ignorance, and how simple it was to extract more money from them. "Particularly those American men," she scoffed. She believed she was there to use the men, and she was right.
Some of the girls were hardened. Some were clearly frightened. Some were visibly bruised. Some were angry. They were all affected. As I took in the whole scene, I was deeply saddened, for this was a place where every participant was asked to be less than they are.
I am always a bit confused when people ask me about a particular girl I speak of. They casually ask if she "chose" prostitution. If I note that she was not trafficked, there is a visible shift in their eyes and in their interest. This one is not our problem, body language seems to say as we draw conclusions about the woman who was trafficked and the one who is there "by choice." The inference is that a woman who is there by choice has, in effect, created her own circumstance. It becomes easy to wash our hands of her and judge her, affixing our own ID label to her person.
The distinction offers a technical explanation, but the application becomes problematic—in part, because as the details were exposed in story after story, I was not sure there was any real choice for any of those girls. If the same things had happened to me, I think I would be standing on the same side of the window. In any event, how she got there did not alter my reaction to her present circumstance. Someone's willingness to subject herself to something has never made a harmful act any less exploitive or relieved the offender of responsibility. If this were so, then neither should we intervene on behalf of the abused wife who chooses to endure beatings or the laborer who willingly goes to work in the sweatshop because he needs an income in order to eat.
The reality that we live in is rarely as simple as we want it to be.
* * *
Once upon a time, people believed the world was flat. I can't help but wonder if this perception would never have originated in the east, where a texture beyond topography is attributed to life.
Excerpted from The Scent of Water by Naomi Zacharias Copyright © 2010 by Naomi Zacharias. Excerpted by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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