Tuesday, June 23, 2009

On Layers

Layers can reveal complexity, like peeling away the layers of an onion. Layers can be protective, such as piling on clothes in sub-zero Boston weather. Layers can also be oppressive, like flakes of honey-drenched baklava, adding suffocating, cloying density.

I’m a second-generation American woman of Indian heritage. I am a woman, I am American, I am Indian, I am a Southerner, and I am an Anglophile. I am twice post-colonial. I do not consider any of these elements as being in contradiction with each other. Though the navigation can be complex, these “layers” have provided me with multiple lenses to view the world and tremendous opportunities to engage with it. Yet, there are other layers. I write of the things that are expected of us from family, friends, and society as we get older.

They say it’s the little things that you push you over the edge. I have traveled from Tangiers, Morocco to Algeciras, Spain at 2 a.m. on a cargo ship, was abandoned at the Dar es Salaam airport and had to find my way into town on a dead Sunday early morning, navigated sprawling Mexico City in local taxis knowing little Spanish, and nearly missed a ferry off GorĂ©e Island, which would have stranded me in Dakar. I’m only a semi-reluctant adventuress; it takes a lot more than a few wrong turns to rattle me.

Earlier this month, I went to go see Monet’s “Reflections of Clouds on the Water-Lily Pond” at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. I barely made the exit from the highway. The 14th Street detour took me around in a circle. I ran several red lights, made a series of wrong turns, pulled to the side of 16th street with cars honking at me, and blocked the middle of the intersection of Peachtree and Tenth. A half-hour after I took the exit, I drove into the Promenade parking garage and burst into tears.

I think this ordeal finally brought out all of my uncertainties over the future. In just a short while, I will be out of a job, will not have an apartment, and my next geographical destination is as yet, undetermined. In the long term, I am expected to have a job that takes me into positions of leadership and influence, to be financially self sufficient, and to be married and have children (I have my doubts on both of these last counts). Though it is not expected, I also want to support my parents financially and morally in their old age.

When did life become so hard? When did hard work and solid qualifications not always pay off? I went to two pretty good schools and am wrapping up a job with a decent academic institution. Where is the clearing? Am I just being whiny? Or am I just losing hope and fast? If so, why? After all, I’m not an HIV-positive mother in Uganda barely able to make ends meet or a GM worker who has recently lost a job.

In a conversation with poetblue, she indicated that in college, there were far fewer expectations. We were expected to show up in class (if even that), impress key professors, and get good grades. However, as we move into the post-graduate and working world, there are many more actors and factors monitoring our progress and holding us accountable to our success. Suddenly, in a cultural universal, our parents who had left us in a collegial cocoon, want to see us “settled” in all senses of the word.

As Kate Bush writes mockingly in her song “Suspended in Gaffa”:
That girl in the mirror
Between you and me
She don't stand a chance of getting anywhere at all.

The mirror often laughs at me, chanting, trying to make me believe that some vital element lacks.

But wait just a second. I’ve been through more than this. The friend who introduced this concept of “layers” to me, herself lost her mother to cancer a few years ago. I know not a small number of friends and acquaintances who have lost parents. Life has thrown me a few curve balls too. When I moved to India as an adolescent, my pursuit of perfection precipitated a self-esteem dive. I became anorexic, lost just about half of my body weight, reached the point of serotonin-induced complacency, and nearly became a statistic. That took a few years and a great deal of resilience and persistence to get over. I haven’t developed a reputation for being as tough as nails without reason.

As Stevie Nicks has often noted of her cocaine addiction, there was no sudden epiphany. It just gradually occurred to me that I wanted to continue living. Moving back to the U.S. was no piece of cake either. Once an expat, always an expat. I found strength (and continue to do so) in my writing. I used to think that I cheated the Universe, and that it’s been trying to catch up to me since. I’ve stopped believing that, and I’ve started thinking maybe I was brought back from the brink for a reason, or many reasons.

Sometimes, I’m tempted to believe that I’d have more peace of mind and a greater sense of security if I took on fewer layers. There’s definitely a tradeoff. A fluid identity comes with a certain rootlessness, but I wouldn’t trade in my chameleon-like self for anything else. My refusal to identify myself as one thing and my choices has given me what I sought in the first place: independence and agency. As we face greater responsibility in multiple spheres, I’m not sure if there’s a benchmark for being “settled” or having fewer expectations. Maybe as my mom says in the cadence of the Eagles song, “Take it easy. Life is so. . . long.” To which I respond impatiently, “No, it’s not! That’s why I don’t have enough time to do everything I need to do.” Right, time-out.

On the issue of parents, they can only be a guide. Our friends can be supportive mirrors. Mentors can see the light in us and light our way. And society... to hell with society. Maybe not quite, but it was trying to live up to its conventions which led me into darkness before. There’s only one person whose expectations I need to live up to: mine. That girl in the mirror is my worst enemy and my closest ally. I’ll never be perfect, but I now know that’s ok. The adventure has just started. There are many more paths yet to travel. I recently told a friend that I can’t do everything; that I have to cut something.

“I think you should cut flossing,” he replied. Indeed. That’s about the only thing I plan to concede.

1 comment:

Cara said...

Beautiful Kavi!