Scholar, writer, editor

Category: Medium (Page 1 of 3)

Who has an Entitlement to In-Person Family

This piece was originally published on Medium on 25 May 2020.

Can you really be family if you need to spend time apart? I know that, at least from the reactions from the general public in the UK, and the exact points of indignation regarding the Cummings fiasco* in terms of rule breaking versus public endangerment and government-allowed mass death, the sticking point seems to be the idea of “the rule.” The idea of “not being allowed’’ to see family that has become ill or being able to mourn those who have passed, while he “got to” seems to be more of an issue than the fact that so many have needlessly become ill or died as a point of government neglect. In essence, the biggest impediment to feeling “normal” here seems to be being told to not see family, in a society that seems to have put a particular emphasis on physically seeing family, even if it is the best course of action to keep everyone – especially at risk family members safe. There is an entitlement to seeing who you want when you want at play here, something I think that is very much reflective of how insular some sections of society can be, not only here, with no true scale of what life is like for so many people in the world as a matter of normalcy.

I remember when I knew that we were different growing up. It wasn’t because some other child said something about the way I looked or asked if I was really an American (though those things, of course, both happened more than once). It was when every year around major holidays and school breaks, kids would come back from school, and they would talk about not just vacations, but vacations with aunts and uncles, seeing their cousins, and spending time with grandparents – and how much that access to face-to-face time with extended family was taken for granted. Learning to counter questions like “is your grandma dead” because that was the only rational some people could settle on for why we weren’t off to the grandparents’ house at Christmas or Easter was an early lesson. But like many other students whose parents might have chosen to live in the US from somewhere else, seeing grandparents and cousins and aunts and uncles every year simply was not a given. But that never meant we weren’t close to them.

Every birthday, every holiday, meant calls from relatives around the globe – they would be very quick, especially before Reliance and other global services were a thing – but nevertheless, it is how I met and developed relationships with aunts and uncles and cousins, with my grandparents and their generation of siblings. I met my grandfather once in my life, but I nevertheless felt incredibly close to him. That in-person meeting was reinforced by conversations, the interest he took in me from afar. When I was able to see my grandmother in person again a couple winters ago, well, it had been 23 years apart. And yet, the familial closeness remains. My family is far from unique; we’re simply global, like many other families who find themselves in that position by either choice or circumstances. We span continents; we have learned that there is no distance that cannot be bridged. We know that sometimes when you leave, you end up being gone far longer than you meant to; it doesn’t change the fact that the family bonds are still there. And also, as much as wants might play into anything – wanting to go home, wanting to see and hug the people who mean most to you – well, want has nothing to do with what is right for all.

My biggest fear is that, in pursuing a degree in another country and getting married there too, I’ll have left my home for longer than I intended simply because it is not so simple to just fly back and forth between the US and the UK right now. Forgetting the logistics of it – the ethics of it are far too much to bear. There has been no question since January, as our wedding RSVPs started arriving, that our wants and our plans would be completely secondary to the global situation. Our lives and our families are global. It was no longer a balancing act of easiest places for the most people to fly into taking into account various levels of xenophobia versus approval to enter the country. It was a deadly calculus; do we wait and risk old age and circumstance meaning that some of our most dear cannot be part of the celebration, or do we risk holding a global super-spreader event that would likely cost our loved ones their health, if not their lives. Framed that way, there was not even a question, or even multiple courses of actions. Personal wants, whatever we think our ‘freedoms’ might be or what we feel entitled to as a ‘normal’ course of action, need to be put aside when such wants and entitlements put other people at risk, no matter how odd the times or how disruptive they might feel. To do anything to try to rush past this fact, for the sake of personal wants, is nothing short of selfish, nothing short of lacking awareness of what kind of hells so many others have gone through and what they have sacrificed.

Unprecedented is a word that gets thrown around a lot right now. And it is not really accurate – its not accurate at all actually. It simply is the easy way of sidestepping the phrase “things like this aren’t meant to happen to people like ‘us.’” Despite SARS, MERS, H1N1, and Ebola all happening in recent memory, despite refugee crisis upon crisis, natural disasters, worsening impacts from climate change, and so many other ills, on top of the ‘normal’ postcolonial phenomenon of people risking everything and moving across countries with no idea of when they might see their families again in search of a better chance, some people have no concept of separation, of the difference between a ‘want’ and an entitlement. It gets wrapped up in what multiple experts in recent weeks have referred to as a ‘childish’ conceptualization of freedom, to be sure, but also, in a very odd cultural construction where rule following is about the image of following the rules, while also internalizing a feeling that this is done out of one’s good graces, but really, they don’t have to do what they are doing.

Entitlements are all about exceptions – all the reasons why draconian rules should not apply to an individual. It’s not about what someone is allowed to do but rather, the ways in which they have the the ‘right’ or ‘freedom’ to be above the rules, because of who they are inherently. When something that seems like an intrinsic part of life is suddenly limited, of course it is difficult to bear. But in those moments there is a choice: we can either dig our heels in and challenge the forces that we see as impeding our ‘rights’, or we can embrace the opportunity to consider what other peoples’ lives might be like. The bitter truth is that in this modern world, more people have to leave their loved ones behind – live, love, die and mourn without being ever able to be near them – than get to hold both their futures and their pasts. This is a chance to reflect on the fact that what is normal for some, is not really, the ‘normal’ for all. This is not to say that isolation is easy, or that the new world of pandemics that probably could have been prepared for is something that doesn’t require significant adjustment. It is to say, however, that the obsession with rule following versus a personal understanding of a duty to communities in difficult time is something, quite frankly, that a lot of people need to grapple a little harder with before bemoaning the length of current lockdowns in envy of those who are openly breaking them.

Isolation is hard; I merely struggle with the situation I have known my entire life, worrying if I have accidentally left another branch of my family in a way that I will not be with them for many more years than planned. But I’m a third-culture kid who grew up in a global family before internet-tech made these relationships easier to bear: I have the tools to survive that. It is downright painful for so many friends and acquaintances who are in epicenters, who are without other humans in their households, who are without their friends and found-families and have been without them for months. And I watch as these friends and acquaintances screech their anguish into various voids, and then in the same breath reiterate their same commitment to bearing the loneliness for the good of their societies. I have the tools to handle prolonged isolation from family, like every immigrant does, like every child of immigrants does. And this is not specific to immigrants; this is a skill that can be developed with acceptance that the world you live in is different from the way you might think it should have been. Entitlement, however, is insisting that you don’t have to learn to use the skill, because you’re not like those people who do have to, who have to build different networks, and get by with different, made and found families – and then without them too – every day. Entitlement is focusing on the rules, and who broke them, and who gets to do so with impunity, who gets to lie about it, and how unfair that is, without looking at the bigger picture. One day I’ll hug my family again. One day I’ll go home, and friends will no longer be completely alone in their spaces and we’ll feel a little better about breathing fresh air together. But until then, there will be phone calls and video chats, texts and snail mail, and I will also keep thinking about the next country I might just be calling myself an immigrant in, and continuing the pattern of distant closeness without the entitlement to being family-in-person, but being a family nonetheless.

* the breaking lockdown multiple times fiasco, not any of the other ones — I know, it is hard to keep track

Baking a Cake at the End of the World

This piece was originally published on Medium on 8 May 2019.

Wait for the implosion, the collapse, the explosion. The bang or the whimper. The hypocrisy fueled confrontation. The too-strong memory resurfaced. The world slows, and in that quiet bubble before the crash try to breath, try to collect yourself.

Collect your ingredients:

Butter. Eggs. Sugar. Flour.

The world ends every day, just a little bit. I am not talking about nightfall; for no comprehensible reason, the universe sometimes cracks in the most mundane ways. It becomes hard to breathe while trying to send email. It becomes hard to get through the next task on the list, or remember why the list matters anyways. It’s not grief, this overwhelming feeling – or if it is there is an uncertainty in terms of what exactly is being grieved over. It’s not anger or despondency, but somewhere in between, with some exhaustion mixed in, too. The pace of the world becomes relentless and it needs to stop. It doesn’t stop, though, ever. It simply falls to pieces and it becomes impossible to put the pieces back together again fast enough. And so, in imprecise, imploding chaos, the world ends, and is always ending. The oxygen is sucked out of rooms, gravity compounds upon itself — it becomes too hard to breathe or move. The only sensible thing to do as things fall apart is to put something together, to reach for the ingredients that will never fail to become more than what they were if handled the right way.

Baking Powder. Vanilla Extract.

Baking is meant to be about precision, but life is so far from that. Perhaps that is why when things fall apart it becomes necessary to turn to the comforts of the hearth — the sweet, the orderly, the controllable. Both chemistry and alchemy, it offers a relief from the too much that has become contemporary life.

Chocolate. Sea Salt.

We take the sweet with the salt, always, whether through salt itself, or tears, or blood. I was taught by friends, and before, by people who knew better that the right way to make latkes was hand shredded, with a few drops of blood entering the mixture. Blood is memory, and so blood is a seasoning. We cook, we eat, and we remember the pain of living along with the warmth and joy of eating with family, having the opportunity to remember at all. Cake is not so different in this way. Sweet things mark bright days, big events. But there is no sweetness or happiness without the moments we compare these things to.

Orange Liqueur. A Pinch of Chili Powder.

So what goes into a cake, that lets us savor the sweetness and the complexity? What goes into our lives that make us aware of when we’re happy or when we’re not – when it is time to take refuge in comforting processes and the memories and rhythms they might evoke? Mom used to add Cointreau to the truffles mixture, right before the mandarin oranges went into the pot, citrus and a hint of something else hitting my seven year old nose before we’d dip a finger into the grainy chocolate waiting to be cooled and then rolled. That something else gets made stronger with the heat that recalls breakfasts that only my family makes. A dash of chili – not for spice but warmth and color. Alcohol and spice, like memory, like the end of the world, make eyes water, call up a touch more saltwater for the batter. Cake, like life, becomes complex.

Bake. Remove from the Oven. Let Cool on a Baking Rack.

Is the cake the cake, or the recipe? Can it be what it is meant to be without the transformative heat of the oven? What does it take to bring us from unformed batter to a more formed self, and how do we know when it is enough. Precision, science, magic – it is all the same to the batter bubbling and expanding, transmogrifying into a new form, one that will make it more appealing. It’s part of the process (right?). It takes force to change us, and it is scary and painful, harsh heat that melts us and forms us into something different. And after the change, there is the same need for rest, the need to become accustomed to a new form. Don’t touch the cake lest it collapses, attempting to reclaim what it used to be. It can’t go back to what it was. We can’t go back to what we were. So we cool down where no one can touch us and try to face the new reality, where we have become something new made of all the parts of what we were before, mixed and blended til the old pieces can no longer be separated. We Become.

For the frosting:

Butter. Cocoa Powder. Vanilla Extract. Powdered Sugar.

The end of the world is not what it seems, not just an end but a beginning. The beginning of everything that might come after if you can just get through this moment. We’ve tasted the salt, the bitter, cleansing burn of the liquor; there must be some sweetness to balance it. Transformation leaves its marks. After falling apart we can put ourselves back together as we choose. The world will still be there in some fashion (won’t it?).

Orange Zest. Chili Powder. Milk as required.

Frost the Cake When Sufficiently Cooled. Let Stand.

Complex sweetness might wait beyond the end of the world, when we can face it as something different than what we were before we fell apart and the world fell apart around us. Hope is sweet; the jammy, berry kiss of early summer sun, and the whisper of wind through the trees after the world is washed clean by an autumn thunderstorm. It’s the one thing that remains with us, even when we dare not think of it. It brings the parts together into a whole, and lets us put something back into the broken world. It’s the beginning of the end of the world, and the beginning after the end of the world. It is the promise that something can always be made, always be built back up, the promise we can always find ourselves again even when all we can do is try to put the ingredients in the bowl and hope it will turn out okay.

Remember this Recipe the Next Time The World Ends.

It’s not about the cake (was it ever really about the cake?). It’s not about the actual execution of the recipe, of making something (except for when it is). It is about remembering the process, the recipe, the way one might put something back together from the mess left behind when things start to fall apart again.

Human Nature: New and Old in the New Year

This piece was originally published on Medium on 22 March 2019.

It was the first day of spring on the Gregorian calendar, and, this year, also Parsi New Year – Navroze – though wintery winds still held the trees in their grip and the sky remained grey, threatening not just rain, but the kind of storm that hovers over the region and only dissipates slowly. But nevertheless, it was the first day of the new season, and therefore of the new year, when we are meant to turn away from what has been, and towards all the potential that might yet be. While I was growing up, my mom worked really hard to make Navroze special. We were far from relatives, far from a larger sense of our community, and she did her best to instill in us that the day was special, even if other people around us weren’t celebrating it. As we got older, and our lives changed, there wasn’t the same emphasis put on it, but the joy of celebrating the new year with the return of the promise of spring remained. It remains for me even when I am not home – messages from family all over the world have become a reminder of how much stays the same even though the years cycle on. We are a global family; it is not the location that matters, but what we can share in spite of our locations.

Perhaps that is why the idea of leaving home for a degree on the other side of the ocean with no intention of coming home in between wasn’t that difficult of an idea for me when I originally planned on moving to England for three to four years. Far better to take advantage of being on the other side, closer to adventures and opportunities that are impractical or prohibitively expensive when on the Atlantic’s west coast, than to become a transatlantic commuter. It was only a handful of years and in an intense program, they were sure to go by quickly. But one thing led to another and in the face of many things I certainly hadn’t been looking for when I left, I found myself needing to go home – not just homesick but an overwhelming urge to be where I thought I knew myself best – in the middle of my second year. Without thinking of anything other than ticket prices and term start and end dates, I found myself back in the only home I can truly remember the day before the Parsi New Year.

The new year is a time for beginnings, for good wishes, blessings, and goodwill. It is a time to reconnect with a sense of purpose, and a sense of one’s faith. It can be a time to recommit to one’s beliefs, or simply, to reconnect with family on both large and small scales. We shed the winter’s cold, though grateful for the rest it brings in its turn, and we look to the light of the sun for the promise of new life, and the promise that life will simply continue to cycle. Of course it is not simple, ever. The cycle is ever-changing. Usually the change is so gradual that we cannot really mark it happening; suddenly what was new is instead normal. But normal changes too; this new year I find myself utterly confused by the idea of how we think of home, because somewhere in the months of craving to go back home, I made a home elsewhere, too.

While my sense of family and where I might have belonged in it was global, my own sense of myself has always been very localized. I know the trees and wood of Connecticut, the smell of the loam on a cold day. I know the sound of the wind, and how one day, suddenly, it will become just warm enough that what seems like firm ground will transmute itself into marsh, and the wind will be overrun with the chatter of birds, the swoop of red-tail hawks’ wings. I know the sounds of deer snacking on mom’s roses in the early morning, and where to look for foxes’ tail at the edge of the woods at dusk. I know sunrise over the lake during a summer swim with friends, and how storms crash upon the beach. I was formed by these things as much as the libraries and schools and other buildings my life was formed within. I know the height of the stairs and all the creaky floorboards, which light switches are where even in a pitch dark room, and how to navigate without ever using them. I know how rarely strangers will try the creepy gravel driveway into the woods, where we perch, almost secretly, at the top of the hill. I know where all the books are, and the best places to hide multiple flashlights as to not be thwarted the first, or fourth, time one is discovered reading under the covers after having been sent to bed. This is my home; this is where I became myself. But even as the wind circles the house and the tap of the keyboard echoes in the same room I worked on homework and undergraduate capstone projects, papers and graduate school applications, I know that this is not all that I know, all that I am, anymore.

I wanted to come home because I thought I was losing myself in a new place, a new environment, in a way I had never wanted to. Years ago when I was considering different choices, someone I trusted looked at a list of programs and told me to look overseas – that the programs I wanted at first were brutally difficult not because of the work but because of the communities, that I would do well in them but I might not like who I was anymore at the end of them. And yet, despite thinking that I had managed to not put myself in the position of losing myself, I felt chipped away at, redefined by labels and contexts that were alien to my understanding of myself, but also alien to my understandings of how communities should work. I built a space for myself that could become a fortress of sorts, a center core where I could protect my sense of self, and let down the guarded position that was becoming permanent – only possibly because it was, is, a fortress, and I can treat the front door like a drawbridge, and only let in those who wouldn’t chip away at the cracks any further. I know the sound of the songbirds all through the year, and the smell of the fens after rain. I know the river, and that the best flowers appear before spring arrives. I know the damp air that almost freezes in the wind as it races across the flat expanse, and how it never quite gets cold in the right way. I know my space, inside and out, and the rhythms of life I share with those I care about within it. What I didn’t expect, though, was that in so short a time I could learn those things like second nature – second only to the nature of the first place I ever called home.

We cannot move backwards; the sun only moves in one direction through the years. This is not to say though, that we cannot go home; however, there is a day we all leave home and cannot quite return in the same way, though we may not realize it until long after it happens. I have somehow planted myself on both sides of the Atlantic; unbalanced by time zones and climate and sifting through old and new habits for different spaces that are both now home, I should perhaps be grateful that I am not truly a tree, no matter how deeply I think I’ve sent my roots into the earth. Even as I was packing I was using both the phrases “going home” and “coming home” while making plans. Both were true, both are true – old self and new self both looking to go home to roost, without realizing they were about to collide. I am home, and yet I am homesick. Perhaps this is the truth of life, that in some way we are always looking to return to some sense of comfort when face with our own growth. Like bulbs pushing through the earth, it is unsettling, uncomfortable, sometimes violent, to stretch past one’s current form and reach for the potential of what might yet be. But we can still walk through our pasts to find bits of ourselves that were lost, and make them again a part of our presents, our futures. Somewhere in the past few years, I forgot so many things about myself: that I’m a writer and essayist, that I have been competent at many things, that I am strong enough, or perhaps, just enough of a person to walk the paths I choose for myself, every day. Two days in my home, surrounded by memories and different kinds of roots – favorite books, favorite blankets, written evidence of what I’ve already managed to do – I found a small part of what had been chipped away. And I can put the pieces back together; I can gild the breaks and make them stronger, so I don’t forget about them the next time I might fracture. Though, as I write this, the same rain is pinging off the same gutter that lulled me to sleep for years and the end of Navroze is approaching, the truth is that in the place I am now homesick for, New Years’ Day has passed, and we are firmly on our way into a new future. Perhaps, this Navroze, the thing most changed is me – no more than previous new years – but this year I learn to sit with the discomfort of being aware of growing.

« Older posts