…almost, since I posted here. Somehow life and the pandemic and the podcast (PowerPivot) and everything conspired and the grass has grown long and the fields have lain fallow. Ironically, what brings me back here is at least in part the new Facebook format, which is somehow physically painful for me to look at. And partly quarantine from the pandemic. And partly a kind of fallow moment in my own life, full of ideas but becalmed, waiting, or not even that but just being. It’s like I stripped all the nutrients out of my own soil, trying to survive, and finally there was nothing left except time and rain and decomposing bugs and seeds blown in from another field.
And as the soil begins to come to life, I find that I am neither enjoying nor contributing on social media as I used to.
I have been trying to reach some sort of compromise-escape from the lure of social media for quite a while now, even tagging some Facebook posts with #deFB. I started a Feedly account and then forgot about it, but I am back to it now. I want to deliberately read things I mean to more often than I read whatever is thrust into my hands.
Which means I’m reaching back to pre-social-media web habits: feed readers, longform writing and reading, separating the reading from the administrative tasks. I’m delighted to discover that Feedly will even collect newsletters from people who want to send them to me, if I wish. I wonder what I will .want. in my Feedly, and what belongs elsewhere? If you are writing for me to read, that’s one thing. If you’re writing for me to buy, that’s something else. And how will that impact what I write, and for whom?
My body has not felt the deep, grounded pleasure of centeredness in quite a while now. Surely, the pandemic is part of it. Survival does not lend itself to that in its most acute form. But I am finding my way. I am digesting the cast-off wings of long forgotten bugs, and reveling in the movement of worms and birds and voles and wind and sunlight.
The internet is not evil. It has brought us together, opened our minds, brought us joy. In the end it is a conduit for humans, and humans can bring us together, open our minds, bring us joy…and even bring us back to ourselves.
I invite you to make Feedly.com or your own feed reader the (or a) default page on your browser.
I invite you to sit down with blogs and coffee, like we did fifteen years ago.
I invite you to create your own curated feed, instead of dodging algorithms. What do you want to read? What do you wish to know? What gives you pleasure?
This is a thread I posted on Twitter, but Twitter gets confusing and things get lost, so I copied it over here, too. I’ve been thinking about consent for a long time, and these are .some. of the thoughts. There are a lot more where these came from.
As always, people vary, make sure you check in with the people in front of you before you apply any of this with them.
Consent is not just for sex. How many times have you ended up in a conversation or situation you simply weren’t in the right place for because the person didn’t read you right? So even though I’m writing mostly in the sexuality and relationship context, consider where else these might apply.
Consent has become a very big deal, which is a good thing. I’m old enough to remember when it wasn’t, when you were just supposed to roll with it, when saying “no” meant you were possibly going to be ostracized, when wanting someone to check was considered weak.
We are not over that judgment as a society, but we are working on that. Certainly in queer, kink, and other similar spaces things are changing faster, as is often the case–margins inward is not an uncommon model for social change.
Explicit, enthusiastic consent has become the gold standard. Most educators boil this down to “say a clear yes or its equivalent, with expression and body language that says you mean it.” Alternatively, “If it’s not a hell yes, it’s a no.” Any exceptions need to be thoroughly prenegotiated and are still revocable.
Consent answers some version of four questions: What do you/I want? How will I know you/I want it? Am I willing to give it to you/are you willing to give it to me? How will we know if we want the same thing? (And not just for sex.)
Consent usually comes up in the context of “how do you know if you’re hearing no?”. I prefer to frame it in terms of “yes” because there are so many layers and degrees of yes.
But really it’s about saying yes when you mean yes and no when you mean no, and the (kind, gracious) negotiation in the middle. Because in fact, consent is the territory of liminality, of navigating the grey areas.
A hard spoken no and a verbal enthusiastic yes just set the outer edges of the conversation. There are two frameworks out there that deal with setting the container:
This helped me: Practice your yes and your no, and I mean this literally. If yes and no are hard for you, get a group of friends together and practice asking and answering questions that feel a little loaded.
You want to build the neuronal pathways that allow you to say yes please and no thank you easily, and you will freeze less if you’ve done it a bunch.
I used to freeze when someone asked to do something I didn’t want to do. Now I can smile, make eye contact, and say, “no thank you” easily. (Not that a smile is always in order, but when it is.) I also used to say “maybe” when I meant yes.
I had to practice being clear. There’s no shame in that, but it IS worth doing. I am still learning to invite invitations.
Sometimes a thing is a dealbreaker. If I come to realize that I’m polyamorous and the person I’m in a relationship is not, then there may be a moment of “unless we can do this, I cannot remain in this kind of relationship with you.” Know your limits and honor them.
This does not extend to “If you don’t [do x thing] right now I’m leaving you.” That’s coercion, and is not ok.
I’ve noticed as I age that some things become less negotiable and some things become more so. Know yourself; be clear about what you can’t bend on and be clear and verbal about it.
(That’s asking a lot; there are a lot of other ways of knowing and communicating and it’s not fair that some are privileged over others. Recognizing that can take some of the ableism and bias out of the conversation.)
Then there’s everything in the middle. “In the middle” includes yes-but-not-right-now, not-that-but-this-similar-thing, I’m-not-actually-sure, I-might-change-my-mind-and-I-need-that-to-be-ok, and let’s-explore-and-find-out.
This is the hard part. It can be delicious and sexy, and it’s where a lot of growth happens, and it’s risky as fuck.
To some extent, every yes is a conditional yes. A yes to “May I kiss you?” (for my money, one of the hottest questions in the English language) doesn’t answer how: fast, hard, slow, peck on the cheek, on the lips, on the back of your hand, on the palm?
The next part of the negotiation often happens in motion: where do I lean? When do I stop? What cues am I watching for? Do I reach for your hand or lean toward your face? Do you pull back or lean in? Do you smile? Part or lick your lips? Blink? In short: are you into this *right now*?
Because if you’re not, I’m not interested anymore. But if I’m just misinterpreting your cues, that could lead to a much different ending than we wanted, even if we pretty much want the same thing.
Consider things like neurodiversity, disability, trauma responses, and intercultural communication challenges. There are a pile of things that change what enthusiasm looks like, access to and use of verbal and body language, etc.
Those are issues in any negotiation context, but especially in something so intimate as personal desire.
So now let’s get to the interesting part: All of these models makes some assumptions and privilege some particular ways of knowing and communication.
(That conversation could easily be its own thread because it goes far beyond consent and similar into things like academics and institutional power.)
These things can be navigated but it helps a lot if they are worked out in advance and if the people involved are fluent in more than one language of consent.
So what might that look like? How do .you. give and get consent, and how do you share that information with people who need it?
You can say it, if you can say it. You can have a document, an actual written thing, that says, “when I do x, it means y.” You can share it with people who need to know.
You can let them know that when you get to particular emotional states you shift communication styles.
You can teach them about your culture, or cues, or disability and learn about theirs. All of that requires both emotional labor and energy. But all of those allow the conversation to be more explicit, more clear, more useful.
Here’s the trickiest part: sometimes, whether you have the capacity to be explicit or not, it’s delightful not to. Ambiguity can be hot. But to get there you have to have a much deeper level of trust. And trust is not just about trust-not-to-fuck-up, it’s also trust-that-we-can-repair.
Trust is layers and layers of time and space and process, and relies on both people having some steadiness in themselves, and oh god this is a whole other thread, isn’t it? (setting that aside for later…)
Honestly, the best way to get good solid consent is to know each other for a while. If I know what enthusiasm looks like, if I know when you freeze up, if I know when you struggle or stumble, if I know what the energy of your body feels like when you relax and then relax again, if I know that look in your eyes, then our communication is just .better. and our consent situation is going to be way more solid–
…as long as I don’t assume I know better than you what you need or want in any given moment. Don’t make assumptions.
Finally, remember why you’re in it. The thing that makes you want to be in the conversation (grace, connection, pleasure, delight, joy) is the reason to get it right, and the reward. 40/40
Despite the fact that the “dominant learning/communication styles” concept has been largely debunked, I find it useful as a way of understanding interactions with the world.
So let’s consider visual, verbal/aural, and kinesthetic/tactile as ways of communicating.
If I want to do something and I ask, and you say yes, that’s the form of communication that’s privileged in not only the models above but also our legal system. Of course, I have to .say. something that we both understand the same way. Even words are tricky. (Take “have sex” for example. What exactly does that mean?)
If I want to do something and I let you see me move toward doing it, but I stop before I complete the action and wait with a quizzical look, that’s also requesting consent. But you have to know what it means–know what I’m implying, know what the look I’m giving you means, and know how to respond in the negative or the affirmative.
Kinesthetic/tactile is the hardest one to wrangle without some kind of other communication, because beginning contact without consent is a consent violation.
And here we are with the first problem: where does the action begin? If the person you’re with struggles with words, especially in spaces of high emotion, how do you talk about it? If you can’t .talk. then what do you do?
I’m finally reaching college levels of productivity again.
In my junior year of college I was doing really well, by many standards. Yes, I had depression and anxiety, yes I was probably underslept. But I was singing, I was working, I was skiing, I was going to class. My classes were good, my social routines were good, I was eating well, I had a single (finally!) so I could sleep well.
You should have seen my lagniappe. At Carleton, a Lagniappe was a planner that arrived as an unexpected surprise (ok, after the first year it was totally expected) in every student’s mailbox, with all the important college dates written in. Mine was black with ink, plans, commitments, due dates, everything. And I discovered that I worked really well going from task to task to task, and then having things and moments where I just laid on the Bald Spot (our quad, it got a lot of foot traffic) and let it all sink in.
Then…things happened. It doesn’t matter so much the details as just knowing that they did, they were hard, they were traumatic and disruptive, and my life began to come apart.
It stayed traumatically dismembered for a very long time, going from crisis to crisis like it was swinging across a long (very long) set of monkey bars, where the only thing that kept me from falling was ironically also the proximity of one disaster to the next.
I came out of it briefly for a year when I lived in Minneapolis, then dived back under.
It’s hard to realize that there was that much trauma over those 15 or 20 years. It’s hard, because even now that’s not how I see myself.
To be honest, the alternative isn’t much better: I have a bad tendency to see myself mostly as a failed adult. But when I’m honest, I did a pretty good job of at least surviving as wave after wave crashed over me and I tried not to drown, either in my own depression or in the circumstances that surrounded and eventually nearly consumed me.
But my calendar was not covered in appointments.
I became protective of each moment, of every day, of the gaps and the spaces that let me rest enough to do what needed to be done.
Everything needed massive padding around it.
Some tasks could only be done in an otherwise empty day.
Fast forward again, and the most important thing I did was recognize that there was no prize for being tortured. There really isn’t. That’s not to say that the depression didn’t need other treatment. Years of trauma-informed therapy with an experienced therapist, work with a naturopath, homeopathy, acupuncture, and personal growth work. Also touch. But even as the depression ebbed, something tugged at me. There’s no prize for struggle, no valor in desperation. Somehow I had been trying to do things the hard way for a very long time. I think that’s a value I absorbed from my father, who tends to make things hard so he learns/grows/gets stronger/whatever. But it doesn’t have to be that way. A few challenges keep you from getting bored but mostly that level of struggle is damaging or even unhealthy. Current neurological research shows that brains get altered–damaged–by continuous pain, and that emotional and physical pain are virtually indistinguishable in the brain. You can even take painkillers to soften the crushing ache of a broken heart.
So if there’s no prize for pain, I should move where people accept me.
If there’s no prize for pain, I should do work that delights me.
…and charge a sustainable rate.
If there’s no prize for pain, I should give myself enough sleep, the right food, and the necessary care.
If there’s no prize for pain, I should do what I need to do to make money without shame.
If there’s no prize for pain
then there’s no penalty for turning away from pain.
If I can learn something, great.
If I can grow, great.
But there’s no need to make it extra hard.
I’ve been in California, in permanent housing, for 2 years this week.
I have a beloved whom I love very much.
I have a roof over my head.
I have use of a car.
The sun comes up, and outside my window a tree bursts into leafy abundance.
I travel a lot, but I always come home.
And this week–THIS WEEK–as I approach my 44th birthday and the world comes to life around me, I am finally able to slip administrative tasks between the appointments on my calendar. I’m finally able to contemplate doing something every day. I’m finally approaching healing.
I can’t say what got me here, or how long it will last (forever, maybe). It could be the health hypnosis session we did in class two weeks ago. It could be the slow and steady work toward health I’ve been doing otherwise. It could be having a partner who loves me for long enough. It could be the sun, it could be the keto eating, it could be getting my blood sugar managed it could be a lot of things.
So here we are. Last week I suspended my Patreon creator account. I felt like what I was offering was too scattered, too diffuse, not really meeting anyone’s needs–and it showed. I don’t have enough subscribers to make it a good business move at all.
But now I have this thing, where I have to decide where to put my essays. In some ways, blogs feel archaic. In other ways…well, I’m considering a paid subscription to Medium, which is effectively an aggregator and sorter of what used to be blog posts. So clearly I read blog-type essays, apparently other people do too. It is possible that I will move to Medium. But for now, well, here we are. 🙂
about saris. And I’ve been to India more often, and I’m buying more saris on the internet. In fact, saris (as a revolutionary garment but also as a beautiful thing, which is identity-revolutionary for me) are becoming a kind of a hobby.
So expect to see more about that.
I’m also thinking that there might be a patreon coming. A new one. Mostly about saris and all the complexity of them. But also, therefore, about bodies and image and weight and who decides what’s ok. And why can’t we wear fancy things everyday? Why do people judge that? And who gets to be fancy, and why are some kinds of fancy supposedly better than others? And what happens to your posture when you wear a sari, or a crown, and what about if the jewelry is made to hold your clothes in place?
I decided to wear the 6 yard length of white muslin I got myself as the most basic of basic saris.
It happens that white is the color of mourning in India, a color typically only worn (by women) as widows or the recently bereaved (or on Holi so you can then have the cool tiedyed look). (Men wear white a lot; it’s kind of like black in the western world). (Nonbinary, trans, and genderqueer folks in India is a cultural complexity that has not really been sorted in the clothing department.)
I didn’t think about it until I was pulling it around me, forming the pleats. The color of mourning. Huh. Well, yeah. Today feels like a not-very-celebratory day. It feels like a buckle-your-boots-and-get-down-to it day; a day for figuring out how I can do some good in the world, for writing the story of the world and country we all need to read so we can imagine it so we can create it, because what we have is sure as fuck not that…
but it could be. We can create it.
And that’s the most important part. We can do it. We are humans with power and will and brains in our heads and feet in our shoes (thank you Dr. Seuss) and we can do it.
We have been living with a Trojan Horse. It looked vaguely like a country which lived the values and ideals which it purported to uphold. But inside it was not only full of enemy soldiers with guns and tiki torches, but carpenter ants, eating away even the frame of the shell itself.
Those carpenter ants were a mixed blessing. On the one hand, they destroyed what we* thought we had. On the other hand, they revealed the enemy hiding within and the fragility of the whole mess.
We can holler until the cows come home about how we aren’t now and have never been what we professed. It’s true.
But this is also a greater moment of opportunity than any time in our history. We can see it, all of us can see it and hear it and feel it. This carpenter-ant-and-tiki-torch horror is on the Jumbotron and on the loudspeaker with the extra bass beat and anyone who doesn’t know about it now has deliberately and willfully turned away. That deliberate rejection of knowledge is unconscionable, it bespeaks a failure of personal and collective and community morals, and we can absolutely judge people by that choice. Everything is exposed, and it’s about damn time.
Do I wish we had uncovered this putrid mass of filth and destruction earlier?
People have been saying what it was for a long time.
People have been writing and speaking and painting and drawing what it was for a long time.
People have been PAYING WITH THEIR LIVES for the excesses and ignorance of the rest of the people for a long.damn.time.
The problem was, it wasn’t just any people.
It was the very people this culture has been discounting and destroying and turning away from the gates for a long.damn.time. So this culture went on discounting and destroying, and discounting and destroying, and their voices of warning and righteousness and judgement and remedies got discounted and destroyed and turned away from along with their bodies and their hearts and their children and their needs.
It was your indigenous neighbors and your Black neighbors and your Latinx neighbors and your disabled neighbors and your immigrant neighbors (the ones who were poor and not white), all going along doing nothing but existing…and your trans neighbors and your queer-as-in-revolution, lesbian-when-wearing-mens-clothes-was-illegal, gay-bar-just-got-raided-now-I-need-surgery neighbors. They knew. They have known. They continue to know.
It’s not that hard to describe the people who were discounted and destroyed.
But it’s easier to describe the people who were safe, who had an expectation of being safe and heard:
They were white, usually with some money.
The color of mourning.
Anyway, my point is, the information was there, right out there, anyone could get to it. Frederick Douglass, James Baldwin, Alice Walker, Audre Lorde all called it out–and those are just the ones I can think of without interrupting my writing to go look.
So let’s not “we should have known, I wish we had known.” Friends. We could have known collectively what the voices were shouting. There was some deliberate turning away there. That was a moral and values decision woven into our culture from our education system on upward. There was a whole lotta “that can’t be” and “there must be more to the situation”. There was a giant pile of benefit of the doubt that should not have benefited the people that it did, which was the white upper- and upper-middle-class power holders.
That’s not blame. That’s just facts. It happened like that. The rot was there, people said it, the people who could have done something about it failed to listen to the voices that were right.there, failed because of the very rot and danger that those voices were calling out. The carpenter ants and the soldiers protected themselves from being known.
Now it’s crumbled. There’s no protection there anymore. Now that crumbling structure is hitting some people on the head, and maybe that’s the casualty of that #secondcivilwar we’re being accused of planning.
Because it both is and isn’t a joke. We are in a fight for our lives, and for the values we wanted to believe everyone around us held all along, even though a lot of them didn’t.
We can do this. We can build something that is solid and true and real, and not a false idol to false gods or a false monument to a pretend reality. We can actually be the people we want to be, as a whole, with many parts, e pluribus unum. Both/and, separate and together.
We can. But the most powerful of the small groups, the white folks? You need to get in the game.
There’s an old white lady somewhere who threatened to video record a woman who was threatening to call the police on a couple of black kids selling candy bars. Be like her.
There’s a bunch of people who got together to raise money to replace the belongings of a homeless guy who had his stuff dumped in a lake by a jogger. Be like them.
There’s a neighborhood where white folks speak Spanish first to say hello to folks, even if they’re not fluent, because so many people speak Spanish there. Be like them.
The most powerful change we can make right now is not legislative, it’s cultural. History teaches us that there is a simultaneous transformation of culture and law required if progress is to take. That is not to say that we should give up on laws. But laws don’t change hearts. People change hearts. Living changes hearts. Eventually the change gets so deep that laws to the contrary are literally inconceivable.
The first step is living into it.
We forget this, because we are steeped in a cultural-religious history that believes that coercion and aversion are the only ways to change behavior. Hell, purgatory, penance–these are designed by people who believe in lots of sticks and no carrots. But behavioral science tells us otherwise. Fear-based-compliance fosters resentment and usually leads to recidivism.
True change comes from lived experience of the alternative, comes from compassion, comes from connection. “The greatest of these is love,” (1 Cor 13) isn’t just some throwaway line. It’s about the heart of transformation.
“Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away.”
What changes us is our lived, felt, daily, embedded experience.
So if you want to change the country, go live it. Be the hero you always thought you’d be in the face of supervillains and Nazis. Fight the bad guys. Don’t be afraid to know who they are. Don’t make excuses. And if you find yourself monologuing, ask yourself which side you’re really on.
Take heart; all is not lost, for we are the people of America, as surely as any, all of us together. We have only to live that way with deliberate force and determination; we have only to take action for what is right with fierceness and courage; we have only to do what we have already said we will do, over and over, in every day.
Do not lose hope. Do not lose courage. Do not lose your ideals.
You have built [them] in the air. That is where they belong.
Now put foundations under them. (Thoreau).
*many of us have known for a long time that we did not, in fact, have what everyone else thought we had. But collectively we needed to learn, as a complete body we did not know. W/we, the greater collective We and the smaller we-s that comprise it are complicated in relationship to each other.
But this is that awkward moment when my blog is about pleasure, ostensibly,
and the world is in this handbasket.
and now what?
And yet, as so many of my thoughtful friends are saying, we need to speak
and we need to name what’s happening: about goodness and right living and integrity and kindness…and the rules that make it easier to be good.
Now when I say good, I mean being the people we believe we can be and making the world the one we want to live in. I do not mean that we all sit quietly with our hands folded.
Right now, that is the opposite of good.
But some people, who are in charge of some of the rules,
believe in a very different kind of good.
When I was in high school I had a choice of two summer camps.
One had more rules.
One had fewer.
I am generally a person who likes to sleep early and eat well and not do drugs or get drunk. The easiest way to be that person is to live in a place that holds those things as normative. The rules make it easy to be good by not putting the pressure on your internal system. The decision can be blamed on the system. The system decided this, I’m just following the rules. But of course I decided to be part of the system.
I chose the camp with more rules because it took the pressure off me. It was a good choice.
I am trying to figure some things out now: which systems am I choosing to be part of, and how much do they leave the decisions to individuals, how much do they have rules that are shaped by the members? This is the challenge of consensus and democracy: we choose the decisions together. Democracy in particular is difficult because we aren’t all in agreement. We can disagree and still be part of the system. But if you’re part of the system you are going to participate in the results of the decisions until those decisions are changed. Unless you and your friends can stand up against it.
Force the system to move faster.
As adults, we have more choices. That’s how our culture is set up. But we make more compromises. That’s how our culture trains us.
I was just granted final fellowship in the UUA; I got the letter this week. This is a kind of tenuring, an admission to the more secure level of ministry. It has been a long process for me. Ten years, instead of the usual three. And it was this week.
This week, as the UUA is turning itself inside out, examining its own systemic bias, at least part of it. But the more we unpack, the more we find: race, gender, class, ability tumble head over heels as they whole thing reorganizes. This is an earthquake, needed, but intense.
Intensives are coming to the fore.
Our own struggles with biased leadership are being spoken.
I hope we will never be the same.
Many of us have already tagged out and are trying to decide what kind of return makes sense. Others of us have been on the edges. I’m choosing to participate but I’m choosing to be a different kind of participant. Both/and, that’s my signature location.
How do I do that well?
Part of my call is ministry to those who will not ever cross our UU thresholds. I don’t blame them. I also think we still have something to offer. That’s what community ministry is about. You have to believe in the offerings of the church more than in the systems.
And yet, I yearn to see our power centers welcome truly diverse and intersectionally-aware and -active voices.
Of course I minister from the margins–that’s where this faith locates me. It’s also a gift I offer. And if I insist on being centered, there’s a risk, there’s damage, there’s pressure to be something else.
If I weren’t an intensive, I don’t think I’d still be here.
But I am.
I have a stack of things that I didn’t feel I could speak up about until I got final fellowship, and it took a lot longer than I expected. But I’m here now. And the stack needs to wait. Because right now what’s happening is that we need more radically inclusive, deliberately intersectional, POC leadership. More UUA staff and more senior clergy in all kinds of service, and more senior lay staff in all kinds of service.
This sounds like internal UUA business. Why am I talking about that while the current US administration is making hash of the laws that support our values?
Because in all these cases, it’s the rules that make it easier to be good.
But they do not MAKE us be good.
Morality, ethics, community that holds us accountable: these are what get us to be good.
If we want a more just and equitable world, then we must act like it, regardless of the rules.
I’m at the kitchen table, surrounded by the detritus of a day beginning: my tea, thick with milk and sugar, my dadi’s combs and her shoes. She’s taking a bath the old way, bucket of hot water and a “mug” — a pint sized plastic pitcher to pour the water over her body in the wet room that is home to both toilet and the mostly-unused cold water shower, as well as the hot water tap.
This is my India.
It’s really the only India I’ve known deeply. Last time I was here, 17 years ago, I spent endless days in this exact apartment, the same one where my father grew up—one bedroom, a luxurious two bathrooms, a kitchen and a living room, in a building that was probably new 20 years before my grandparents moved in. The walls are sturdy, thick concrete. You can’t hear the bedroom from the living room, even if you’re shouting. The building is short, no lifts, so my 97 year old grandmother has been confined to just this tiny world when she’s in Mumbai for years now, since stairs became too difficult to navigate. When my uncle comes he will carry her down the stairs and take her to his large and modern apartment in Pune, several hours away. There’s more space, but less warmth there; she prefers the place where she has lived for 70 years.
My days here are mostly constrained by language: I don’t speak Hindi, the language of my family and one of the official languages of India, or Marathi, the local language. India has 13 major languages, but of them only English and Hindi are on everything. South Indians are so angry at having been slighted, Tamil left out, that they would rather speak English than learn Hindi. North-south rivalries abound everywhere, but here they take on the flavor of thousands of years of mythology-reinforced prejudice. In the north, paintings of demons in the temples look like people from the south: shorter, rounder, darker, with curly hair. In some parts of the south they celebrate the figure known as the demon king elsewhere. This is nothing if not a country of contradictions, paradoxes, and the inevitable, “you adjust.”
But the funny thing is that you .do. adjust. What seems onerous in any other context feels at most like a mild irritation. And if you pay attention when you get here, you find that we—they—have been solving these problems for years. Water only comes to each part of the city for a few hours a day. Solution: everyone with a building has a cistern. Everyone without a building has a big bucket or two. In the mornings I wake to the sound of water on water, the tap in the courtyard going full force into a five gallon bucket as the man who lives in the hut there—his house made of corrugated roofing balanced where the courtyard walls meet, and enclosed with tarps and more roofing—stocks up on water and bathes, old school multitasking out of necessity—he is not the only one who comes to the tap for water and the hours are short.
Meanwhile, we have the luxury of waking slowly, my father, my dadi, and I. Her overnight caregiver gets up first from her pallet on the floor by dadi’s bed, and begins the laundry and making lime water and the tea I will drink when I’m ready.
Hiring servants is a social obligation here; there are three who come through the day. Anita, who does asleep overnight caregiving for dadi, Chara, who comes around 11 and cooks all the food for the day, and Geeta, who comes in the evening and sweeps, mops, does some dishes and cleans the bathrooms. There’s no SSI here, no welfare, no dole. If you don’t hire people, they will have to beg on the streets. So everyone who possibly can—middle class and up—hires someone, or several someones. The best people are paid well, relatively speaking, and are loyal and trustworthy. As has ever been the case, if you’re going to trust someone in your house, that’s very important. However, the relationship is clearly stratified. Old rules still apply; servants rarely sit with their employers. Some still adhere to the tradition that servants sit below the level of the people they work for. And yet, there’s a lot of respect and sometimes affection. Paradox. Contradiction. Adjust.
As a foreigner here, I adjust as hard as I can. It’s my job. I’m a guest. I travel with the Prime Directive high on my list. My father has a different perspective, being Indian at heart, even if his passport now says differently. He sees things he wants to change and changes them. But even he is circumspect in his choices. There are things you can’t change, jenga pieces you can’t pull out without toppling the whole tower. It’s a delicate balance between awareness of equality, justice, and human rights, and a culture that is thousands of years in the making. Indians pivot fast when they have the incentive, but there has to be a good reason—and for everyone. It’s hard to change the culture when the benefit is primarily for the non-power-holders.
Humans are humans everywhere. Supply and demand doesn’t change because you crossed a border. And here, humans are still cheaper than machines. Labor is easy to get, and the comforts that balance out the “adjustments” are often provided by other humans. For every stressor here, there’s a luxury to balance it out, as long as you have some money. But the luxuries are available across a much broader range of classes. On the other hand, especially with the tech revolution, there is a huge gap between the increasingly wealthy and the abjectly poor. Both are true. Constructions workers live in temporary tents on the construction site while fifteen stories above their heads, million-dollar apartments survey the neighborhood from the sky.
after I published this, I got a sweet and thorough response on Facebook. I said I would add it to my post, but then couldn’t find it on FB. The gist was that there are other perspectives and other ways of understanding India; that my perspective is necessarily limited by my particular experience and location, and that the commenter, who has lived in northern India but is from a southern state, has a rich and nuanced sense of things that have looked much more binary from my perspective. I will keep looking for the thread.