This month marks the one year anniversary of my mother completing her breast cancer treatment (stage 1). This anniversary is even more meaningful because we get to celebrate it along with Breast Cancer Awareness month and Diwali, which marks light’s triumph over dark and evil. I couldn’t be more proud of her for how she has endured and conquered this illness over the last year. She has always been the strongest woman I have known, while there is still a long journey ahead, I know she will continue to do great.
As I reflected on what this milestone means for my mother and my family, I’m reminded that her life is never going to be the same, no matter how much we try to move forward. The visible surgical scars have faded, but she will be on a medication and monitoring protocol for the rest of her life. And, the reality is that there will always be the shadows of her experience following her–the feeling of betrayal by her own breast, the physical changes resulting from her treatment, and of course, the uncertainity and fear of what her future holds and the risk of recurrence. For the many ways she was fortunate in her early diagnosis, prognosis and treatment; breast cancer at an stage holds some stark, life-changing realities that no person can ignore.
Rather than discuss fundraising or general awareness — all of which are incredibly important and I would still encourage — I’m writing this note today to talk about personal awareness and advocacy.
My mom felt a lump in her left breast on a Saturday afternoon in late June. Within 7 days, she had a mammogram, and 6 days after that she had a biopsy. All told, not even a month after finding her lump did she have a diagnosis, and shortly after that, a treatment plan. All of this started with her self-check and a lot of quick action, and I can’t stress this enough.
While the instructions of a self-check for a “marble-like lump” may seem obvious, there are many other ways our body may tell us something is wrong. In addition to a lump that persists throughout your period, some important watch outs can also include:
An uneven [ie not a typical marble shape] mass or lump, which may feel as small as a pea
A change in the size, shape, or contour of the breast
A blood-stained or clear fluid discharge from the nipple
A change in the look or feel of the skin on the breast or nipple (dimpled, puckered, scaly, or inflamed)
Redness of the skin on the breast or nipple
A marble-like hardened area under the skin
Because our bodies and our breasts will continuously change as we age, it’s critical to start out by getting to know what is “normal” now and track how your body evolves, so you can then look out for the abnormal. Understanding your family history and other contraindications is also important – many don’t realize that it needn’t be a first-degree connection to breast cancer to prompt a genetic screen, and it is a powerful tool that can help you understand your own risk. Lastly, mammograms aren’t pleasant, but are necessary, since not all breast cancers have surface-level indications. Depending on your lifestyle, family and personal health history, and exposure to risk factors, I would encourage you to pose specific questions to your doctor on what the right time for you is, rather than relying on general recommendations.
You Are Your Best Advocate
I’m not suggesting trying to get a medical degree from WhatsApp University or falling down a WebMD rabbit hole, but the reality is that you are the best person to advocate for yourself when you need medical help, and educating yourself is incredibly powerful — it’s been reported that 36 percent of US adults have low health literacy, and that can easily translate into ignored signals and risks. If you’ve gotten to a point where you know what “normal” is for you and you feel something weird, please don’t hesitate to pursue and push the matter for your benefit.
Women in the United States have long lagged behind their counterparts in other high-income countries in terms of access to health care and health status. In fact, U.S. women report the least positive experiences – from the greatest burden of chronic illness, highest rates of skipping needed health care because of cost, difficulty affording treatment [yes there’s a pink tax in our health care too], and low satisfaction with their care. And the idea of satisfaction is incredibly underrated. My mother had different chronic ailments ranging in severity and was often very frustrated by the lack of attention and responsiveness that she had from her Primary Care Physician (PCP) at the time. From the moment of her diagnosis in July, however, finding the right practitioners and specialists was just as urgent a priority as starting treatment itself. It served as a reminder that we can, in essence, interview our health care professionals to ensure that they understand our unique physical, mental, and emotional health needs. We can also “cut” those that aren’t cutting it.
It may take a few lemons on the way, but I’ve learned that setting up the right medical support system for oneself well before a medical emergency is incredibly important to making sure that you get the support that you need when you need it. Take advantage of recommendations and referrals, and if you can help it, don’t settle for anything less than the best for yourself.
A few months back, I read a study that found that Indian and Pakistani women in the United States are diagnosed with breast cancer, including more aggressive forms of the disease, at a younger age (study). In digging further, I was struck by the general lack of data about how breast cancer affects South Asian and Asian women. Prior cancer research that has been done has shown that fewer Indian and Pakistani women participate in scientific studies and, and that several socio-cultural factors may delay their seeking health care.
Research has shown poor mammogram screening rates in Indian and Pakistani women, and this is largely linked to a lack of family support, lack of transportation, modesty, fear, beliefs that cancer is divine punishment for past deeds, having lived in the United States for less than 10 years, low English proficiency [see HERE for translated resources], and a lack of faith in the health system & western/allopathic practices.
While I hope that none of the above roadblocks apply directly to you, I wouldn’t be surprised if it did remind you of someone in your life, especially older relatives. In our case, for how diligent my own mother was in her self-check, she was less so in maintaining her regular mammogram schedule. And, now we know what can happen.
The point here is two-fold. First: There is an opportunity for better research and analysis of how breast cancer affects the South Asian community, which could very well inform solutions and our understanding of cancer in minority communities [read: Less than 3 percent of bone marrow donors are South Asian] in the long run. Thus, our active participation in the clinical process through our own health management will feed the data pool to eventually serve demographically bespoke solutions. And, secondly, there is likely a woman in your community who for on reason or another is not taking critical preventative measures. The more we can destigmatize the illness and treatment, and speak the truth to this issue; then, the more lives could be saved.
I hope that you’ll receive this letter with the loving intention in which it was written. Every lesson discussed above, I’ve employed for myself, because for lack of a better way of putting it – this shit hit home. While the data maintains that every woman is at risk (12.5 percent on average) of developing some form of breast cancer in her lifetime, I believe that these are small things that we can do to honor those before us as well as protect ourselves.
With nothing but love for you and your girls, Nandini
Mental health is quite the subject these days, its troubles affect everyone; it knows no gender, orientation, race — it strikes upon one’s inner journey. But specifically, what have not been put in the same sentence are men, mental health and vulnerability. Too often it is seen that men are not allowed to show their emotions. But the aftermath shows that this repression of emotions bleeds into relationships, substance abuse, domestic violence, and more. It is seen time and time again in films, books, art — it’s all too familiar.
And it is beyond the point of “let’s talk about it.”
Time for action.
Mental health hits close to home for me. As a filmmaker, I will always share my journey with others. – Jacquile Singh Kambo
Men, mental health and vulnerability often aren’t talked about enough. “Embrace” is a short film that seeks to change that. It is a short animated film about Arty, a well-dressed man who has no face, gets ready for his date until he meets a younger version of himself. Arty and this younger version of himself delve into a surreal world where he learns to embrace himself. It’s him versus himself.
The façade self; the feeling of wanting to be somebody — are all things people are dealing with especially in adult life. From the dating world to the social media world — it feels like different masks are worn only to make us feel faceless, feel numb or a nobody. Too many masks could make people feel like a lost identity amidst everything that is going on in this crazy world. Out of touch, and out of life — with others and with themselves. The masks are metaphorical, the story is internally about men and mental health. Arty learns to ’embrace’ himself and to overcome his internal struggles.
Not often is it discussed that men should have a safe environment to be vulnerable, amongst others or even other men. Perhaps this is because men are wired to put on a façade when things go wrong, when things get difficult, or when true emotions are not expressed. If these are not dealt with, it can lead to other relationships, including romantic relationships. Further it becomes a cycle: suppression could lead to aggression, substance abuse or self-sabotaging behaviors and could create a toxic environment. Many of these arise from childhood trauma. Quite often childhood is repressed or ignored, and one may take their troubles along with them into adulthood. Perhaps revisiting the roots of the past can help one become successful in a better tomorrow. “Embrace” is an example of how important it is for men to embrace their past.
“Embrace” was meant to be a live-action film — until animation was considered. Seven years of re-writing, re-working, and digging down deep with the characters for the story to better fit the message at its core. Animation is an underrated avenue for a universal story that became the key pillar for “Embrace”. What many do not know about animation is that you can create a serious subject matter in a light-hearted way that is universally acceptable. Men and mental health are heavy subjects for some, but animation allows the exploration to become innovative, creative and fun. Animation allows the experimentation of entering surreal worlds.
For example, in “Embrace” Arty enters a surreal world where he has to go up against a younger version of himself — to unmask the root cause of his internal struggles and give himself the “big hug” he needs. This heart-throbbing metaphor is captured in animation that a live-action film couldn’t have captured. The freedom of animation helps tackle tough subject matters about self-love, and how we must embrace the soul, the child, the person within.
The Story Behind The Story
There are many inspirations behind “Embrace”. Film noir, the silent film era, surrealism and the works of Christopher Nolan and David Lynch — the film is able to articulate something far more special. This is more than just a mental health piece for educational purposes. This is a classical narrative from beginning to end; a story of important themes and beloved characters that needed to be shared with the world.
It is not often the words mental health and men and vulnerability are discussed under the same umbrella — especially with growing hypermasculinity, and the likes of social media where facades are put up and the vulnerable parts of ourselves aren’t as expressed. It is here where the film encourages men to look within themselves, and allows them to be vulnerable to themselves. Perhaps this is an important step to better themselves on the journey to have successes (whatever success means to them), and to enlighten and lift those around them. The first step should always begin with “you.”
It’s tough to find places where men have access in ways of improving their mental health without feeling like a patient or a victim in the institutionalized realm. It’s tough to find places where men can talk to other men about their struggles among peer groups, educational groups, and more.
The “Let’s Talk” phase and awareness is long overdue; it is indeed time for action. Perhaps creating seminars or group-related events and activities to help create vulnerable environments. Art or art therapy can be a great way of producing something stemming from the inner journey. Or maybe it is time to look at “sick days” as “mental health days” as well. Perhaps more can be done to simply just talk about it. It’s time to give ‘doing’ a chance to start in our close-knit communities.
Maybe if one learns to ’embrace’ themselves, only then, perhaps one can fully understand others and their pain — and have the vision of empathy for others. “Embrace” took seven years to write and a year of animation for a four-and-a-half-minute short film. The film is about self-love, embracing one’s self before one can see empathy for others. It is produced by Raman K Fenty and Jayesh Kodwani and his team, directed and written by Jacquile Singh Kambo, co- written by Sidartha Murjani and stars Jenna Berman. “Embrace” has received numerous international accolades including Best Audience choice at the Emerging Lens Cultural Film Festival of Halifax, Nova Scotia, as well as acceptances in hometown Vancouver, Canada; Goa, India and Chicago, United States.
If you are struggling with your mental health, please call your regional crisis hotline. These are a few non-crisis mental health resources for men’s mental health.
May is an important month for mothers around the world as we get to celebrate motherhood for Mother’s Day and support mental health for Mental Health Awareness Month. It is also a month in which a week is dedicated to honour maternal mental health before, after and during pregnancy. To honour this beautiful month, I would like to explore motherhood as I have experienced it as an South Asian, immigrant mom — the magic, the struggles, the mental health challenges, the community expectations — and share how I have reached the most comfortable, confident version of myself as a mother.
12 years ago, on a very hot, humid August morning, after going through a few years of unexplained infertility and then finally getting pregnant, I was rushed for an emergency C-section and my tiny, but very feisty, daughter was handed to me. As I held her in a severely drugged-up state, very much disappointed in my body’s failure to deliver naturally, I felt a rush of the most beautiful, gut-wrenching, fierce, protective love I had ever experienced. In the hours following her birth, I also experienced major confusion and anxiety every time she cried endlessly; I didn’t know how to soothe her.
I grew up listening to my mom, grandmothers and aunts talk about the beauty and miracle of motherhood, but no one ever talked about the extreme sleep deprivation, the mental and emotional breakdowns and the sheer physical exhaustion. I had seen most moms in my very traditional, Pakistani family, sacrificing their own needs for the comfort of their children. In fact often, I would be confused at how proud my grandmothers were for sacrificing their health and mental peace to raise their families.
After moving to Canada I repeatedly witnessed the same thought and behavior patterns in other South Asian maternal figures. I’ve come to the conclusion that this is a cultural thing, especially among the older generation! They love to talk about the beauty and magic of motherhood and glorify the rough parts of this journey with a kind of toxic positivity. South Asian women, I find, generally don’t like to discuss the struggles, the vulnerability and the mental load of motherhood. Yes, motherhood is magical, beautiful and one of the biggest blessings but also it might probably be the most difficult thing you will ever do! In retrospect I do feel, had I heard healthy discussions about the mental and emotional challenges of motherhood, along with its privilege and beauty, I would have been much more prepared for this magical, roller coaster journey!
The mental health challenges, the invisible load of motherhood, the continuous mom guilt, the overwhelm, the self doubts, I experienced all of these during the happiest time of my life. And I felt extremely guilty for having these feelings! Was I not supposed to have that ethereal new mama glow and calmly enjoy this new phase with ease and joy? My overwhelm and anxiety as I protectively held my five-pound, feisty baby girl just felt wrong! It made me doubt myself as a mother.
As an immigrant mother, one of the hardest things I have had to do is to break away from, and unlearn, so many culturally-acquired behavior patterns and expectations. It is so important to acknowledge the fact that mamas need to be vigilant about and take care of their emotional and mental health in order to be fully intentional and engaged in raising their children and taking care of their families. Thankfully, the thought patterns are evolving and finally the South Asian community has started having discussions about mothers’ mental health issues and acknowledge that motherhood, though absolutely precious, is exhausting, rough and can sometimes leave one questioning their sanity.
After the initial years of motherhood, I started researching and reading on mental health and South Asian behaviour patterns. My observation and research has led me to a point in time where I can proudly say that I am the most comfortable I have ever been in raising my children. I have come to the realization that this will be the most fulfilling, but also the most daunting and exhausting thing that I will ever do. I have also come to a very solid conclusion, the better my headspace and mental health is, the better I will be at being the best version of myself for my children. I really want my children to see me making my mental health a priority so that they learn that their mental health is also as sacred as their physical health.
Once I realized how pivotal my own mental health was for my family’s wellbeing, I became more mindful about prioritizing my mental health. These 10 mantras have really helped make a difference in my mental health:
It is not normal to feel excessively overwhelmed and anxious all the time just because you are a mom. Reaching out for help is not a sign of weakness. Talking to your doctor about your sense of overwhelm is a great place to start. Accepting medical intervention (meds) and therapy are an important part of my parenting journey; they do not make you a weak or bad mother in any way. Rather it makes you a braver, better parent!
Motherhood is not always glorious and rosy as most of us have been made to believe. Like any other relationship, it will also have its ebb and flow. It will sometimes be chaotic, messy and hard and that is ok!
They say, it takes a village to raise a child and that is so true! In case of immigrant families, a lot of times their village is far across the oceans so what do you do. You mindfully try seeking out a village of like-minded families/people that share similar values and beliefs as your own. And then you help each other out. In other words, when offered, graciously accept help from that elderly neighbour, a family friend or a distant relative. They probably have gone through this busy season themselves and realize how exhausting and isolating it sometimes can be.
In today’s world, many of our decisions are driven by our favourite influencers, mom bloggers and social media personalities. Majority of them curate content that just spells perfection and beauty! From a beautifully arranged, tidy house, to an impeccably put together, happy mama serving fresh, organic meals in her tastefully-decorated, minimalistic kitchen; we know very well that social media can be unrealistic and shows only the beautiful parts of the journey. Yet most of us feel this immense pressure to be perfect and be the providers of the absolute best for our children. Honestly, in my experience, motherhood became so much easier, smoother and calmer once I let go of my exhausting efforts to be the perfect mother! Once I accepted that there is no such thing as a perfect mother — only a mama who loves her children like crazy — I felt at peace and became way less anxious.
Most South Asian cultures measure the worth of a woman by her marital status and later by the success of her children. In the first few years of being a mom, I enrolled my tiny humans in as many different activities as I could in dreams of future success in education and careers. I was always running around planning things for them to do. The result was an extremely burnt-out mama with overwhelmed kids in tow. It has been quite a journey to learn that children will be at their happiest with simple routines and happy experiences. You DO NOT need to lug your family to fancy, expensive activities in order to prove your worth as a good parent! Children will remember simple, happy experiences where they can connect and spend time with their loved ones. A simple picnic in the park on a beautiful day, feeding the ducks at the local pond, visiting the farmers’ market, going to the beach on a hot day, camping trips with other families, these are some things my kids consistently recall happily from their tiny human days.
Connecting with other moms going through a similar situation will make your journey less isolating, less intimidating and so much calmer. Culture tells mothers to be resilient and unwavering, and not share their vulnerability with others. That can be very isolating! After a rough night with a teething baby and a clingy toddler, nothing feels better than having a quick cup of chai over a phone call with another sleep-deprived, tired mama!
Mamas, you are being so generous and giving to everyone around you. Be kind to yourself too! Indulge in self care and take out time to do little things that bring you peace and joy. It could be a lunch date with a friend, getting nails done, doing a yoga class, taking a walk by yourself, listening to a podcast or going out for a movie. Remember your children are observing you all the time and will learn emotional regulation and self care by watching you do it.
Mom guilt is real and can be devastating for one’s mental health. Know that you are only human and the only way to learn about motherhood is by actually going through it. You will make mistakes and it is okay! Give yourself extra love and grace on those hard days. As long as our children see us apologizing, being respectful and loving and trying to be a better parent, it’s all good.
Taking care of one’s physical health will always help in achieving better mental health. Eating well, staying hydrated, learning some breathing techniques, moving one’s body, all these help so much when the days seem long and never-ending.
Motherhood, specially in the initial years will be physically exhausting. If you are like me, maybe you have also thrown your babies at your spouse as soon as he walks into the house and escaped to the washroom for a mommy time out! It is probably the busiest season of life for both you and your spouse and might leave both of you angry with and snapping at each other. Try to find little pockets of time when you and your partner can reconnect, away from the beautiful chaos of the tiny people you have created together. Something as simple as having a takeout meal together after kids’ bedtime can feel heavenly and therapeutic and recharge both of you for the day ahead.
So moms, I urge you to let go of overthinking, enjoy the present moment, go with the flow and savour the messy as well as the beautiful, uplifting parts of your journey. Cherish and protect your own mental health, reach out for help and support if the journey gets too isolating and overwhelming. For your children, will grow up seeing the beauty and wonder around them through the eyes of the most important person in their lives — their mom.
July 7, 2023September 10, 2023 11min readBy Ushma Shah
BGM literary editor Nimarta Narang is honored to work with author Ushma Shah in this utterly creative and novel, pun not intended, story about a young woman who has just moved to the United States with her husband, and her trusted diary. Ushma is a short story writer and an aspiring novelist. She has her short stories published in a few anthologies and online literary magazines like Kitaab and The Chakkar. She was born in Mumbai and raised in Mumbai and Cochin. She has an MBA and works in the corporate world. Work and life have given her the opportunity to live in multiple cities in India. She currently resides in Seattle and goes by the handle @penthythoughts on Instagram.
She is the kind of person who doesn’t like to go into stores without a purpose. But she sometimes does. And that’s how she becomes a hoarder. She also prefers only tried and tested places. The kind where she doesn’t have to go out empty-handed. The urge to not disappoint people is strong. So she ends up buying useless things. Like a snow globe with a turnkey. Or 12. She loves the tiny magical people and animals in it. Rotating. Glowing. Musical. But I am deviating from the point. Who am I, you ask? I am her. A piece of her. She takes me everywhere. Writes down her thoughts in me. Writes how her day was. That’s why I know her so well. Why am I telling you all this? Because she hasn’t written for a week now. Longest she has gone in half a decade. I don’t understand it. She won’t tell me anything anymore and I am just so curious. No, curious is the wrong word. The intensity is just not right. I am impatient. Restless. Maybe even hurt, too? I see what she does. How she looks. But that’s just not enough. Not for me. Her confidante for five years and suddenly it’s all poof.
Human addiction is a true addiction. I was superior for those glorious thoughts that nobody knew about her. She doesn’t look happy. She opens and shuts me, picks me up and then back down. In her new Michael Kors bag she bought recently at a premium outlet mall. She always wanted to see a new country. 32-years-old and she had never visited any country other than the one she was born in — India. She should be happy she is finally here. She couldn’t stop chirping about it when they got their visas approved. She and her husband. She has been here for three months now. Initially, she was happy. But then the euphoria died down and anxiety kicked in. The last thing she wrote was: “I haven’t had a bath for a week now.” Her husband is too busy with work to notice. The new project takes up most of his time. Plus navigating life in a new country is a project in itself. I hear him not understanding why an appointment is required for a self-guided tour of the apartments. And that they have appointments only till 5 p.m. which means they have to go house hunting during his office hours. Downtown Bellevue mostly has apartments for rent that are managed by corporations rather than individuals. But at least he is okay with the cold, having survived Delhi weather all throughout his life. It also doesn’t help that she is not used to the cold, having lived in Mumbai all her life. It only needed to turn 22 degrees Celsius in Mumbai when she used to set off; removing her sweaters and jackets from the untouched-for-a-year cupboard. So house hunting is a major bummer, painstaking process even for her. In a place where it always drizzles but doesn’t bring the smell of wet mud. Everything around her is concrete. Asphalt. Sterile.
One day on their way back, they visited the Meydenbauer Beach Park along Lake Washington. I saw a hint of a smile. The first one in a week. The pine trees are a solace. They stand strong, holding their ground at maybe a 100 feet. She cranes her neck back and tries to catch a look at the tip. Making her feel dizzy. She feels like she is falling back. Tilting her five feet frame. She removes her feet from the shoes. She looks at the rounded stones. Big stones. The size of an ottoman big enough to comfortably sit on but hard enough to not sit for long.
But by the end of the visit, she looked worse. That night she wrote and I was thankful for the visit. The first sentence read: I feel claustrophobic. She has lived in Mumbai all her life and never knew that subconsciously the sea made such a big impact on her psyche. The sea, unending in its view. Its waves crashing and rebelling against the rocks gave her a sense of space even though she lived in a one-room kitchen apartment. The warmth. She missed the warmth, although sometimes too stifling. The sweat, and the saltwater smell. There was much to be thankful for here in Bellevue, even though there were no crashing waves and it was 45 degrees Fahrenheit today. The sand, too cold. But there was peace, there was calm. But what about the sounds that she craved, the feeling that stimulated her senses? That accompanied her every morning: the ‘tring tring’ of the cycles, the ‘tip tip’ of the water overflowing from the tank after it was filled. The daily TV news her Ma watched. The smell of her morning chai with grated ginger. The ting ting of her small bell during pooja. These are the things that she does not write but I know her. I know how to read between the lines.
But somewhere I have failed her. I must have. If she did not find comfort in writing. For how could she have gone on without it for a week? How could she? She is as used to me as I am to her. Or at least I thought that.
But now is not the time to feel irritated. She has started writing again. I was overjoyed; I thought everything would be back to normal now. How naive was I? A few lines in, and I am worried. I am also worried that my annoyance will seep through the pages and into her hands. She writes: I miss my place where the duration of the days and nights are almost the same throughout the year. A place where I don’t have to see a 4:30 pm sunset. Or a sunrise after 7:30 am. Nobody prepared me for less than 10 hours of daytime. I feel like I took the sun for granted. When I first came here in October, the sun set at around 7 p.m. Every day, the sun set a little early from then on. 6:50, 6:43, 6:22, 6 p.m., 5:54 p.m. And then on November 6 came the thing I was least prepared for. The Daylight Savings. I would gain an hour, they said! What I gained was a sense of doom. Because the clocks were set back by an hour, the sun set before 5 p.m. every day from then on.
The seasons are what make me. Why then, am I afraid of the seasons? No matter what the weather, the weather is constant. It is constantly too hot, or too cold or just not warm enough or just not cool enough. Every day in itself brings a new season.
“Oh, there is a heavy rain forecast for the whole day today.”
“Do you know it’s going to snow today?”
“Amazing weather! Isn’t it a perfect day to travel?”
Seasons are a universal language, everyone understands it. It transcends manmade boundaries. Just as I am feeling the cold under the layers of clothes I wear. A breeze rippling through the surface of the lake water makes me shiver. If the seasons are what make me, why do I feel cold and sad. Maybe because I long for a different weather. Having grown up in a tropical city, my body is not used to the cold. But is that all? The great reason for the hollow? It can’t be. And I am restless because I can’t figure it out. If not this, then what else? What else could it possibly be?
When she writes this I figure it out. I am always able to figure her out. Her mind does not want to go there. Because after all, this is the life she chose. Of course, how could I have been so blind?
Around two weeks ago I observed her. Observed and observed for a few hours. A few days. Even then I knew something was amiss. She was writing but her heart wasn’t in it. It was dwindling. She doodled and dawdled. A sentence here. A sentence there. Then I was discarded on the coffee table in front of her. My observations, you ask? She scrolls through LinkedIn, going through a series of posts about the looming recession. She searches and applies obsessively to 50 job openings every day. And day after day, her laptop or phone chimes in with a rejection email. She refreshes. Refreshes. Refreshes. Every 10 minutes. Whatever she is doing. No matter if she is in the kitchen or the washroom or the living room. She is glued to her phone checking for a new email. A new job opening. She set her filters to relevant job openings… And then goes on to the painstaking process of filling her details out on different company portals. When she reached the USA, she was hopeful. Of finding a new job. Was very optimistic. She had worked with global companies in India after all. Surely that had to account for something. But with each passing day, the light within her dimmed just a little. Bit by bit. I hate to admit it but I didn’t come to this conclusion when I observed her. It struck me when I stopped and she wrote again. Sometimes I need a macro perspective after micro is too much. She is so inside her head and not on paper that she cannot understand. But I also don’t think it is as easy to pinpoint. It’s a combination of things in her life, culminating in a single point of paralysis. Even now, who knows? It’s just my opinion of a subject I don’t understand completely. She is talented enough to fool everyone around her. Her friends and family also do not know this about her. They think she is enjoying her break from work. They think she is immensely enjoying the exploration of a new country without a worry in the world. She hates admitting that she is miserable. She wants them to feel that she has got it all together. That her life is perfect. When they go through her social media profile, they find her happy pictures. Ecstatic even.
A couple of months ago when she was leaving for the USA, her office colleagues had warned her: “One of my sisters lives in the States. She is miserable there. Wants to come back but her husband doesn’t.”
“He has a high-paying tech job and all so he is okay. But he is on an H1-B visa without an I-140.”
“So? What does that mean?”
“Which means the spouse can’t work. So she can’t work.”
“I am surprised you didn’t know this.”
“I haven’t started my research yet on the visa types and job search. But I intend to.”
“It is very important to understand your options. It is not always as picture-perfect as it seems. My sister is busy doing all the household chores. And she is not happy. Her social life was here. She has no friends there. Only his work friends they mingle with.”
“I know about my visa type though. I can still work there.”
“Oh, honey,” she gives a sympathetic smile, “but everyone wants to convert into an H1-B once they go there. So there could be a brief period where you might have to be unemployed.”
“But that doesn’t matter. Because we intend to come back in a few years. We just want to experience a different work environment and culture and to have that thrill of living in a new country. But only for a few years.”
“Honey, they all say that. As I said, consider your options once you are there before you decide anything. Okay?”
“I will, thanks. I am sure my husband would also check about these things. It is a major decision after all.”
“Oh, I am sure he would.”
She was very emotional on the last day of her job. She had worked there straight out of B-school. She had met some people who would become close friends and some who were toxic. But on the last day, she knew she would miss them all. She didn’t think that saying goodbye would be this difficult. Her name on the desk and chair in bright white letters with a black background came alive with memories. Memories of birthdays celebrated, lunches ordered, huddles and meetings, apprehension of deadlines, the adrenaline rush of getting it done just in time, the accolades. It felt empty by itself if not for the people she surrounded herself with. Her friends.
Her colleagues. They motivated her and pushed her to give her best. Her manager was always an inspiration. Solving problems and giving solutions in a way she herself didn’t think was possible. She learned a lot from each of them. But she was excited to begin a new chapter. But the isolation in a new country was what she hadn’t counted on.
Her husband noticed when she hadn’t had a bath for a couple of days. He thought it could be laziness. When he asked her about it, she said she would. Her reply was curt, and tone grumpy, so he left it at that. After a week of the whole no-bath scenario, her husband thought it was time to have a talk. This wasn’t one of those phases she would overcome on her own. A little push. A little nudge would maybe do her some good. When he saw her refreshing her Gmail inbox for the umpteenth time that day, he said,
“You know, we came to this country to experience a new place, a new city.”
“Hmm.” Eyes glued to the screen.
“Don’t you think it’s time to do that?”
He places his hand in front of her phone.
“What are you so worried about?”
She looked at him for a moment before answering. “That I won’t find another job. Every day on LinkedIn, there is a new company that’s laying off or announcing a hiring freeze and I am worried that my career break will just go on longer.”
“But weren’t you always saying that you needed some time off to pursue your passion of writing?”
“All that’s good to talk about. But I need to focus on my career too.”
“I understand that, but the recession is not your fault. You are doing everything you can.”
“I need to do more.”
“You need to get the bigger picture. Zoom out. You have a glorious opportunity to work on your writings. You have notebooks filled with stories. Don’t you think it is time you polished the pieces and submitted them somewhere?”
“What I need to do is get a job.”
“You will get it but the time that you have right now, in between jobs, is hard to come by. Think about it. You can try to do what you always talked about doing. Or was all that just big talk?” I could see, she took the bait.
She considered. “Hmm,” was all she said.
“I also found something for you.”
He had searched for a public library nearby. A magnificent three-storied red brick building standing beside a park. Just a mile away from their home. She could get herself a membership there. I thought this was an amazing idea. She had always wanted a house near a library. I could tell that this piqued her interest even if she feigned indifference to her husband. She wanted to see it first. I could see it in her eyes. And here I thought that the husband was too busy to notice her worries. I guess he was letting her be. Well, I couldn’t have guessed it. I can’t read his thoughts.
The next morning, she woke up to her alarm at 7:30 a.m. and had a shower. She was ready by 8:30 a.m., in time for the library to be open by 9 a.m. She was armed with her warmest winter jacket and a beanie. Wandered around the streets on her way to the Bellevue library. Taking in the strollers with their prams and pets. Warm coffees in their hands. In 10 minutes, she was standing in front of the library and was not disappointed. Covered with floor-to-ceiling glass panes, she could peer inside as she walked to the front door. She was also pleasantly surprised at a life-sized bronze statue of Mahatma Gandhi just outside the library; in the midst of now barren trees. There was ample seating space inside. Aisles and aisles of books: classics, romance, historical fiction, new interesting fiction and non-fiction sections, choice reads, monthly picks, and a dedicated holds section for reserved books.
Her husband was right. Isn’t this what she always wanted to explore? Read and write. Write and read. Surround herself with books and pages. She had found her place. She touched her fingers in reverence to the cracked paperbacks, reminding her of the piles of books she left behind at her place in India. She borrowed a few novels and set off with them and me in her backpack. Couldn’t resist a warm cup of coffee from a cafe she spotted. Picked a window-facing table overlooking a park. She read as she finished her coffee. A good girl’s guide to murder was a page-turner. It was the first time in months that she had ventured out on her own. She felt at ease. At peace. Her breath, a little lighter. A little deeper. She saw two dogs playing outside. Free and wild. She picked up her phone and googled bookstores and art galleries around. She found that a couple of independent bookstores nearby also host monthly book clubs and writing clubs. She signed up for them and started off in the direction of the art gallery.
I was happy. She was bouncing back. One step at a time.