February 2017: my first winter in New York; the furthest I have ever lived from the equator. Getting out of bed is my finest accomplishment every day that I manage it. The stagnant air bleeds through the doorframe to the backyard and hovers in my room, staring at me in utter distaste. Later, I will recall these months as the first in my memory of having been forgotten by God.
The to-do lists cannot communicate with each other. I have a five-year plan that nags me every day, but none of it overlaps with the daily task list. Fretting about my supposed long-term goals of completing my book proposal and my novel takes up so much mental energy that basic jobs—paying bills even if I do have the money, filing taxes, changing the sheets, giving the university some document or other—become herculean tasks. I pull at single strands of my hair constantly, unrelentingly, an old habit that fills the ever-expanding moments I spend not doing the things on the to-do lists. The days are remarkably dark; I never knew that I would spend days not seeing the sun. In the dark, it becomes impossible to focus on what is important, and I fret, seized by a nameless fear, a nothing-tightness, that hugs my chest at all times. This nameless fear becomes the subject of much amicable conversation in my New York world, so different from the hectic world of underfunded nonprofits for low-income housing development that I left behind in Bombay. My Bombay life offered little time for self-analysis, and even less indication that I was important, and therefore little time for anxiousness about whether how we spent our time justified our importance; but here, this nameless fear becomes not only a constant internal presence but also, as a perennial subject of conversation, a kind of social currency. The feeling is so omnipresent it would be odd, almost inconsiderate, not to have it, like showing up at a white elephant party with no gift.
The conversations follow a familiar pattern: first, commiseration; second, a list of potential solutions for the nothing-tightness. Over and over it is hinted to me—in the healthy juices and exercise recommendations I’m offered, in the disapproving looks at my dollar pizza slices and late weeknight drinks, in the repeated insistence of how good meditation would be for me—that I’m not taking good enough care of myself. Better is not a word I have mulled over much before, being too preoccupied to really think of a future, but it is an important template now, a placeholder for whatever it is about my life that calls for change. In one of the graduate classes I came to New York to take, we are asked in an editing exercise to write a few sentences about how we have spent our recent days, and someone writes, I read Joan Didion and vowed to be better—and the sentence, just one in a list of beautiful statements about fever dreams and making amends and mushroom soup, floats around in my mind long after all the others I hear have gone. It echoes through the following months, as I mull over what being better looks like, unable to move dirty dishes from my desk to my sink.