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It’s the End of the World as We Know It.
Words by Gulnaz Saiyed
*Editor's Note: This piece has been previously published on the author's Medium blog.
I graduated from college in 2008 — four years before the world was meant to end. I started off as a senior with an acceptance into Tulane’s MA in English program that would let me receive my degree in one additional year, one step toward my PhD in English Literature with a focus on postcolonial Muslim women writers. I left that school year having dropped the program, my life packed up to become an 8th grade English/Language Arts teacher in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley with Teach for America.*
After making that decision, I stopped with the party game of asking my friends “What would you do now if you knew the world would end tomorrow?” (That answer was simple: I’d pray, eat with my family, be in the woods.) And I began asking, “What would you do if you knew the world would end in four years?”
When we plan for one day left, we focus on comforting ourselves — what would make us happy. These answers are always insightful yet predictable — you’d drink and eat too much; spend time with loved ones; see something you’ve always meant to see. But when we plan for four years, the focus grows to a world that’s changeable, improvable. It’s selfish, yes, the change that comes is usually fashioned in our own image, embedded in our own values, reflective of the world-that-should-be-according-to-me. But four years gives you a bigger scope with more space for we.
These days, I don’t feel like I have four years until my world ends — I fear I’ll be watching it end throughout the next four years.
Should I bother to renew my passport or try to become an Indian citizen? Will I be allowed to adopt my daughters? Will this PhD be adequate to help me fight the power? Is my family’s healthcare at risk? Why am I not at Standing Rock, in Flint, relaxing on a small beach village in South America?
How do glaciers plan for possible Titanics in the face of Climate Change? Can they expect to bring on the cataclysm that sinks the ship or only hope for some malfunction that allows them to flood it?
I know that I am grateful that Indian/Persian marriages are celebrated with gifts of cold, hard gold bangles and coins.
I didn’t have a TV in my apartment that school year; I thought I was above mass media entertainment. I discovered online streaming for the first time, however. I binged on the first four seasons of Lost, finding it to be the perfect distraction from my senior honors thesis. I realized, quite quickly, that were I stranded on an island, I’d have zero skills to help anyone survive. I couldn’t set a broken bone, grow an edible plant, use a weapon, build a shelter.
I still can’t do any of those things.
I’ve heard a thing that Muslims say — I cannot confirm if it’s a hadith — it’s something like: you should work for your current life as if you will live forever, but you should work for your afterlife as if you will die tomorrow. We have no #yolo.
I knew, as a 21-year-old, that not one of my possible four remaining years needed to be spent working toward a degree in English.
I decided, four years ago, as a 26-year-old, to spend at least five years working on a doctorate in an education field.
They don’t teach how to set a bone, grow an edible plant, use a weapon, or build a shelter. But I can make a pretty solid lesson plan, also can tell you that no lesson plans are solid once you start class.
My family’s zombie apocalypse plan (also for contagions, nuclear attacks, and if the internet dies): Get to my mom in Kentucky. Mom can figure out how to set a broken bone, grow a plan, use a weapon, build a shelter. For this, meet Neema and the girls at home. Travel south via I-65, stopping at the Indiana National Guard — which we’ve seen from the highway — for supplies. Mom and whoever makes it to Kentucky will wait one week before literally heading for the hills. Appalachia won’t welcome us, but neither did this country.
We keep reading that we need to resist now that He-Whose-Name-I-Don’t-Want-to-Type will be PRESIDENT OF THE COUNTRY I LIVE IN. What if we don’t want to resist? We want to drink hot chocolate and watch Home Alone with our families, and afterwards discuss how we might plan to avert increasingly more complex hypothetical home invasions?
We want to live not for this life or the next, but for the immediate moment.
My family’s Planet of the Apes-like-scenario plan: Join our non-human primate brethren.
I recently overheard a child say, “Merry Christmas, you filthy animal.”** I miss being a classroom teacher. The students stayed the same age, but I got older. Working for my long-term future required living in the moment while facing my own mortality. And I got to read Jurassic Park like four times every day for our Gender in Sci-Fi unit.
What if our non-human primate brethren will not have us? Will our sistren take us?
I have a family, a mortgage, years of work and love’s labor invested into a degree that needs a few more years. These feel locked in — not oppressively so; I’m committed to see these things through. If I for-sure for-sure only had four years left, I’d drop that — we’d go Wild Thornberrys, travel the world making nature documentaries for YouTube. Had He-Whose-Name-I-Can’t-Type been elected eight years ago, I might have done this. But we cannot.
Me and him in 2006 vs Us in 2016 (I know that’s not how this works…)
Realistically, looking forward four years, I’d like to say our lives will not have much changed. I’ll commit to doing more of what I’d say before when asked if the world ended tomorrow: praying, eating with my family, us taking in the woods, together. Perhaps, as we grow older, we grow more selfish; but concurrently, our sense of self grows to include more than just ourselves. Apocalypse notwithstanding, I’d us all to have healthcare to mend broken bones, food to nourish our bodies and souls, enough safety to continue fighting with just our intellect, and warm places to set our heads to rest at night.
My choice to teach English at a middle school as opposed to continue studying English in graduate school stemmed from the belief that if I only had a few years left, they should be spent working with kids and not with words. With and for the people, insomuch as I understood what that looked like back then.
Perhaps my world has already ended. I’m convinced that words are our way through this purgatory; I may not know if I will crash or flood, but I can write that I am melting, that we are melting. The people must speak and I’m not with or for them, I am of them.
How can we plan for these coming four years? How many ways can we say we’re melting?
*My feelings about TFA now that I know more about learning/education/White Supremacy are for another time.
** Yes, I know the Home Alone line is “Keep the change, you filthy animal,” but it seems that both me and this kid have conflated the film with the holiday.