I wake, again, to rain. The gray fingers of sky peer through the fading maroon curtains our landlord left from the previous tenant. I push one aside. The power lines droop lazily between poles like cat’s cradles, the city sheathed in silver. Two men in lungis stand on the slick edge of a rooftop to survey the damage of the floors below. Watching them makes me nervous, so I drop the shade. I tug aside my blanket, flip off the mosquito repellant switch, and pad across the cool marble, trying to psych myself up into going outside. I pull on one of the few remaining clean shirts from my drawer and trace the sweat that has gathered at the nape of my neck; I heard the AC click off at 4am with another power outage, and judging from the status of my phone battery, it never came back on. I sling my purse over my shoulder, slide on chappals, and head downstairs.
Outside I pull my skirt up and knot it at my knees—indecent by Indian standards, but there’s no other way around it today. The road my house is on has caved in, a giant chasm exposing power lines and water pipes stretching underneath the underpass beside us, and even the workers who have been working for the last couple of days have resigned themselves until this wave of clouds passes, seeking shelter on the steps of the vacant restaurant next door. I wade past the construction, the brown water licking my calves. The chaiwallah on my street pours his tea in the ritual I’ve always admired, artfully pouring the burning liquid from one hand to another until it froths perfectly to the top, the ordinary everyday miracle of never spilling a drop. He sees me watching and waves at his assistant to stop pulling the metal gate of his tea stall shut. “Ullea vaanga, akka!” (Come inside, sister!) he calls and beckons me under. “Closed! Closed! Many rains! Cyclone! Vaanga!” I want nothing more than to stop, but I know that he needs to go home more than I need tea, so I shake my head, tell him to take care, and continue.
A sign scrawled across a piece of cardboard on the door announces “INJECTION ROOM CLOSE GO TO EMERGENCY.” The emergency room floor is drenched; my sandals nearly slide off my feet as I sit on the bed. If this room is still in working order, I’d hate to see the injection room. As the nurse draws the curtains, I feel them slosh around my ankles. The nurse gives me my final rabies shot a day late, my plan to go yesterday foiled since the bridge to my usual hospital was declared inoperable. She, like the four nurses who have stuck needles in my arm over the last 28 days, raises her eyebrows and asks how I got bitten by a rabid animal. I timidly tell her I tried to rescue a stray cat. “Why?” she asks, unamused. “It looked so little and an automan was going to run it over–” “But it was a stray cat.” “But it was hurt.” She finishes, pulls the needle out of my arm, and rubs cotton over it. “If it had rabies, it died anyway. You should have just left it.” She throws the syringe in the garbage and opens the curtains, dismissing me.
I trudge back down my road; passing men for once are too distracted by their own survival to whistle at my pale legs exposed. I trek up six flights, unzip my rain jacket, take off my shoes, peel off my soaked clothes to step in the shower. Not that there’s any point—I cup my hands under the faucet and sure enough, what little water pressure remains from the mess of construction outside spits out freezing cold. I stand under the slow drip of my shower and sigh. Tomorrow I will wake up and resume the same Sisyphean task of wringing myself out to dry just to step outside and undo it. I am so tired of the wet.
Chennai hasn’t seen water like this in nearly a century. My neighborhood, though some streets are flooded to the point where roads are impassable, is among the lower end of those more mildly affected. Others attempt to drive their motorbikes through dirty water up to their hip; Facebook posts are circulating of office workers stranded on the third floor of their buildings with no way to get down. Nursing homes in outskirts neighborhoods wheel the elderly out under tarps to get them to higher ground. The death toll has risen to almost 200. The government television stations have ordered schools to be closed for eighteen of the last nineteen school days. In the day I returned, Thanksgiving, the girls gathered like zombies in rag-tag uniforms in the courtyard for a schoolwide meeting held by Vice Principal. “Do not touch the light switches. Do not turn on the fans. Do not touch the walls. Live wires have been located in the water surrounding the school, and doing these things will put you at great risk for electrocution. If you do not have rubber soles on your shoes, please come here to call your parents to pick you up for fear that you will be electrocuted if you step incorrectly.” Happy Thanksgiving, I thought to myself. Hunger Games style.
“Thanksgiving is a day you give thanks?” my student asks me as I show them the outline for the THANKFUL poems with my own name.
“B is for BOOKS because I love reading about other people’s lives. A is for ART because without it the world would be a lot less beautiful. I is for INDIA because it is a wonderful country. L is for LAUGHTER because I love the sound of people laughing. E is for ENNIS because it reminds me of where I grew up. Y is for YELLOW because it is a happy color.” She’s from New Jersey, but her family moved to Chennai when she was about five, so she especially always has questions about America.
“Yes,” I tell her, going from table to table to see if my seventh graders have gotten the gist. Most get it, minus one girl, Rizwana, who writes down a list of twenty-seven banks without explanation. (“Are you thankful for these?” I ask her. “Yes, banks,” she says emphatically. “Okay, let’s try to think of words that start with the letters of your name. R is for…?” #banksgiving)
“But why shouldn’t we thank people every day?”
“This is just a special holiday in the U.S.” I say. “We do thank people every day, or we should. If we don’t thank them with our words, we should try to thank them with our talents and actions.”
She nods. “Like whatever we would normally do, if we’re super thankful, we should do it a thousand times better than we normally do.”
I lose track of this thought as I read Ayesha’s “E is for Ennis because it reminds me of where I grew up.”–copying things to be thankful for because it’s easier than actually thinking of one.
“Yes,” I say, half-listening, “A thousand times.”
My school feels foreign, postapocalyptic: the fallen trees and powerlines, the damp cavern-ness of the flooded prayer hall, my students atrophied from the exhaustion of nothing to do, my teachers frenzied under the pressure of having to crunch curriculum schedules before the national board exams. My Fifty States lesson plan is completely off-schedule, but now, with the government-based exams postponed indefinitely, my English activity classes (obviously not curriculum) are at the bottom of the totem pole in importance. That day of school was now almost a week ago, so today and for the four weeks prior, there is a gaping and frustrating distance between myself and anything that feels worthwhile. When schools finally reopen, the teachers will be taking my class time to cover necessary material, and it’ll probably be January until I even get to resume teaching. The dramas I’d assigned will be long forgotten. The thankful poems, homework, stories will long since be lost in the depths of bookbags. The damp has made the India map I had so painstakingly painted peel in sagging letters from the wall. Tabula rasa, washed away by the floods.
When I came to Chennai, I didn’t expect this. (Who can expect this?) I pictured myself—no, planned myself— laughing and directing dramas, playing games with the kids and writing poems, singing songs, splashing the walls with color. And I did that, for a while. Just for a lot shorter of a period than I intended—mice and men, gang aft agley, that sort of thing.
It feels weird to talk about all of these woes in the midst of thankfulness. I am thankful, leaps and bounds—I am in good health, with great friends here and back home, fantastic coworkers, students. I am safe for the most part, in a flat where I have more electricity than most of Chennai, sometimes get Internet and cell signal, and have a stockpile of Diet Cokes for the #monsoon. But of all the things I am most thankful for, I think I’m most grateful for my frustrations.
The frustration exists within the dissonance between what we plan and what happens, expectation and reality. That disappointment that exists when our actualities don’t quite measure up with what we dreamed. If something happens that doesn’t fit with our plan, we’ve conveniently constructed a society founded on a distance to avoid this letdown, carefully crafted around distance, around the “nexts.” There’s a lot of selectivity that we have a right to utilize in our lives, but worryingly a growing dependency on the selectivity of nexts, of ticking no and swiping left on responsibilities or commitments to avoid what happens when it doesn’t turn out like we expect it.
Granted, I’m academically obsessed with this idea of distance and idealization. ((As a nerd break, my whole undergrad thesis was on the how throughout epochs of literature and culture male protagonists establish distance between themselves and their love interest in order to imagine Lacanian-mirror versions of their relationship, their lover, and themselves that don’t exist—aka, how creepy poet dudes who “love women from afar” are just loving the fictionalized idea of a person to stroke their own ego, and not an actual person, and how we’ve basically been self-sabotaging all our relationships from the 1200s to Shakespeare to the Jazz Age to even today in modern relationships. Reassuring, right?))
But it doesn’t stop with literature, or with imagining alternate scenarios of romantic relationships—it’s become so engrained into our society that we can just choose to ignore our own realities that even though I may be hyper-conscious of the distance, that doesn’t mean I’m immune to it. Often, to be completely honest, this romanticization and idealization of “nexts” has guided a vast many of my decisions— the notion that I can just do it all the next time, let my feet hit the ground at the next stop. It’s okay, I can just worry about this in the next country I live in, the next school I go to, the next class I teach. In the States, in university, if something happened that Didn’t Quite Live Up to Bailey’s Expectations, I’d literally just turn to my friends and sigh loudly, “JESUS, TAKE THE WHEEL,” and then proceed with whatever I wanted to do anyway and pretend like it didn’t happen. (We all have coping mechanisms. Mine was/is mostly denial.)
Doing this—especially in India where it’s probably better to not get committed to controlling any aspect of your life because SURPRISE it will almost guaranteed not happen—makes it easier to half-plan a lesson. To shrug when my research assistantship here gets postponed due to rain. To form relationships only to a degree where I am comfortable with leaving them. It’s so much more bearable that way, to tab the overwhelming things with neat mental sticky notes of “To Deal With Later,” to keep people as ideas, confine them to faces in desks, or, as Aziz Ansari’s series Master of None brilliantly touches on, bubbles on phones. We can ignore people’s one word responses if it doesn’t fit our script, hide the Republicans on our newsfeed if their ideas bother us; in India, we can choose to hang out with only ex-pats, refuse to learn the language, eat only pasta, spend our nights in our homes Skyping all the Americans. To view everything with a distance and detachment, so that if we decide the reality of our now doesn’t match up with our idea of how it should be, we have given ourselves room to invent the comfortable version of “now” and “next” that doesn’t exist. We have given ourselves permission, under the guise of fluidity, only be present half-heartedly, in leftovers, only giving our talents and time and selves to the extent that we have allowed in our plans. Have I thanked people with my actions? Have I given them everything that I can? My student’s comment makes me think about the quote from The Kite Runner. “For you, a thousand times over.” Have I done that? Have I given a thousand times over?
Days of rains give you time to think about these things. As much as we flip to the nexts, still always we are beings deeply rooted in intrinsic forevers—we want to know the point of what we are doing (or at least I do). Am I really teaching anything? Are these nine months helping anyone? Is it worth it to get so deeply invested in a person I might never see again? Will I really be contributing to any sort of meaningful cultural exchange by teaching about Halloween, or just kind of dressing up as a cat? Is it even worth it to try? Nexts are kind of cheap escape plans to avoid the holes in our plans, the vampires of self-doubt that creep into our mind. I am thankful for these doubts because they are forcing me to face them head on, fully here, instead of JESUS TAKE THE WHEEL them.
Because when I came to Chennai, I also didn’t expect to fall head over heels in love with this place and its people. To become so invested in when a child tells me she isn’t treated the same as her brother is just because she’s a girl. To get so excited over a room full of sixth graders singing “Home on the Range.” To be upset about having classes taken off my hands. I didn’t expect to live a block from my friend from college and get pulled front and center in his sister’s wedding dance. To spend nights with my roommates building blanket forts (*mahals) and playing rap songs on ukuleles and reciting the Apostle’s Creed at the dinner table just to see if we still remember it from Confirmation and getting in screaming fights about belly dancing choreography and to love every single second of it. To share my flat with virtual strangers passing through. To find a new home and new friends and new definitions of family a thousand miles from mine. And I am so, so, so thankful for all of these things that for one of the first times in my soulless ginger life it almost brings me to tears to think about leaving a place, to think about the nexts. These are parts of my forever that I don’t want to give up.
But I don’t think I have to give them up. I think lives and memories are written without floodgates; we just erect them ourselves. We are supposed to be spilling over into each other’s forevers until we forget about the nexts. Risking ourselves in our entirety. Pouring ourselves from teaglass to teaglass without wondering if we’re going to miss. Staying present in radical love without wondering what the reason is. Wringing out every ounce of ourselves and our talents just to do it all over again the next day.
It is the hardest and bravest thing to keep giving sometimes. Sometimes it will rain, and pour, and flood, and threaten to drown us. Sometimes we will feel stuck and helpless and so tired of never seeing anything change. The biggest part of giving is the distance of risk—the disconnect between giving and receiving. The way I see it, there are two options of what we bridge that distance with—either the vulnerability that what we give won’t be received, or the incorrigible hope that it will be received and used beyond our imaginations. That the cat I rescued (and later possibly gave me rabies) was actually saved. That these people I spend every day talking to, investing in, will stay with me at the end of these nine months. That if I painted the mural again it would remain. That if I tell my girls again that they can be anything in the world that eventually they will believe it. There is a terrible, unnecessary risk in these things; there is a terrible, unnecessary risk in doing anything at all.
But we have to do them, to believe in forevers. To cling to the mad hope that people are always, always worth it, over and over again like a mantra; to pray that somewhere something we do will in a way, no matter how gentle, change the world.
I wish to give myself to the everyday miracles–in teacups, a thousand times over, full to the brim without wasting a drop.