Rani Jayakumar

Copyright 2020 by Rani Jayakumar

Village street in India.

Every few years, my family travels to India, particularly Chennai, where my parents grew up. It brings us a chance to reconnect with our heritage and help the children understand their own history and culture. On this particular trip, we spent just long enough to make note of the differences and similarities in ordinary life.

Vigilance feels the norm right now - there is a sense of constant vigilance. As a mom, this is something we know a lot about. After all, we're the ones who hear the kids cry in the middle of the night. We are chatting with someone at the park but with one eye on the monkey bars. We have a whole bunch of work but check in to see how the sick kid is doing. We know vigilance.

Still, it's exhausting. While I'm here in Chennai, the level of vigilance is both empowering and draining. Every morning, we listen for the whistle of the trash man. When he whistles, we must have packed up the trash already, and take it to him downstairs before he moves on. When the milk arrives, it must be stored in the fridge or boiled, or it will curdle in this weather. The water motor once turned on to fill the tank, must be turned off before it spills. Food, including most fruit, cannot be left out or ants will gather, or it will spoil. The floor must be swept and mopped every single day or the dust will take over. Clothes must be washed and hung on the line early, while the sun is strong, and we must be vigilant over the sky to bring everything in if rain begins. Everything has switches and knobs to be turned off, including the fans, tv, hot water, air conditioning, and gas stove. I must feed my children their malaria pills and slather them with insect repellent or they will be eaten alive by mosquitoes. Neighbors may drop in, and someone must be around to open the door and offer them coffee and invite them to sit.
There's so much to be vigilant about here. It's tiring, and I do long for the ease of my California days - fruit on the counters, everything plugged in all the time, trash day once a week, reliable and cold refrigeration, running hot water, clothes dryer, a mosquito-free home, quiet. But I know vigilance is a quality I have now developed, that I'm capable of, that makes me stronger. Like a primitive cave woman, I have honed some instincts that allow me to heighten my awareness of all that goes on around me. I can see more, and therefore respond to it wisely. Like the pregnant woman seeing the pregnant women all around her, I notice things now. I'll return, and maybe the instinct will wear off, but for a day or two, I'll listen for that whistle, I'll sweep, I'll watch my water use even more. This is the vigilance I will use, and which I will want to keep for the sake of common sense, and the planet.

It is also nice to take a break to be by myself because it's a moment to drop that vigilance. To let shoulders relax and let the world go on without you. To say, "the success of this does not depend on me," and "i don't have to be responsible right now." What a glorious relief to just let go of that weight and responsibility, the oppression of that vigilance.

And then we return - we watch the kids play and step in before the first harmful words are said. We watch dinner simmer. We answer the texts, we ensure that kids and partner and house and meals and finances and everything else are well and running smoothly, and we are vigilant of ourselves, too. Our inner compasses, our looks, how in shape we are. We are sensitive to all this. It all comes back.

So I'm trying now to remember that it's a choice to be vigilant. That I can be in relaxed awareness without an anxious scanning gaze. That I can choose to be vigilant, and I can choose not to. Life requires some vigilance, and sometimes more than others, some places more than others, for some people more than others. I want to learn to walk the line - to be vigilant when needed, to relax when not, and to let the in-between times go, without worry, without thinking too far ahead. I'm not sure yet how. But this is what I want: To notice what's happening now, ready if needed, but using even my vigilant moments as rest.

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