Ripped from the responsibility-lacking university life I forgot to cherish, I was shipped home under circumstances I wish to have controlled. A sick mother, an unaware sister, another too small to tell, and a father lost in oblivion, self-like altruism, and soothingly passive care, I found myself returning to caring for others.
I moved to Toronto out of longing. For self-love. For teaching. For learning. How to treat me as the loved one I have always been. The city, wide-armed , shone me in with a gentle shove, curved me inwards, shook my fender. Safety in small, excitement in the unknown, I plunged – dreaming, wishing, shaking for self-imposed, self-cherished growth. An imposed relationship to the person I will forever be stuck with, constructing means to redefine what it means to be alone, sifting through mental notes, prescribed-templates, judgment calls.
She knew not what was to come. I may have, should they have told me….
She died on September 22, 2019. I came home on June 15th. My gut decided I was to move July 17th. Rushed to Toronto to pack. It was August 15th. 10 days passed. Rushed home to her. She died on September 22nd. Never had I ever lost the faith it took to believe in a full life of sharing until I called her after the interview that would land me the corporate position I was meant to start September 16th and hold for the next two years.
Shoved into the corporate world out of necessity, I wrapped myself in the childhood dream that remains, working in an office. The clickity-clack of heels, free coffee, “how was your weekend”s, pictures of dogs and the occasional babies, and frail smiles… the kinds where lips follow crinkled eyes. Dream infused, dream floated through. A mindless job to lose yourself in daily…. A passive role.
Commute. Walk in. Talk small. Sit down. Plug away until the time to spend $20 on half a meal comes. Engage in a meeting. Plug away some more. How about some over time to avoid heading home. Commute. Commute. If only the mind would do the same. Stop, travel, be in transit for a moment, rather than run itself constantly.
The emotional, devastated, sprinting from desk to elevator, grabbing smokes, phone, glasses, and headphones, customer support associate.
Daily. I ran.
From desk to elevator.
To gasp for breath, uncontrollable tears streaming behind tinted glass.
Elevator through glass doors
Glass to air
Wind and water to mouth gaped wide, fingers interlacing the railing, gut pressing against their union. A knee would fall to the textured, concrete, hexagon-sea floor, flailing, the rest would follow, deep deep deep, words-unfounded pained labor.
She died on a Sunday, in my grief whirlwind of confusion, I emailed work, they sent flowers and cookies. I wanted grape leaves.
When I went into work that September 25th before taking the 26 and 27th off for the funeral and what followed, the woman whose post on a family friend’s building parent board had alerted me to the position touched my shoulder and extended what would become the all too familiar phrase, “I’m sorry for your loss.”
I don’t blame the humans, even in my proximity to it all, I struggle to find words for friends, members of the dead-parent-club. “That fucking sucks,” is the best I’ve ever gotten, from a woman on a back deck somewhere in brooklyn, indeed it sucks, and the sucking is persistent, evolving, stagnant, revolving levels, and constant recalls.
Pouring myself into my reason to stay out of the house, working more hours out of ability and consumption, twisted to termed “dedication” and “work ethic” promoted me from part-time to full-time by the end of the year. It was at that point that the high school-like office dynamics took off. They were not part of the tv-constructed childhood dream of the clickity-clack of heels and keyboards, the permanent chilled space enclosed by windows that don’t open, the comfort found in banal routine.
The two humans that used to say “we’re getting tea, wanna come with,” all the other banal things parallel co-workers do, and, “heading to Whole Foods, you coming,” suddenly stopped. They would simply stand, walk, come back with something in hand and lend me a fake titled head smile.
The “interpersonal skills” and “team player” aptitude listed on my resume glazed over as I realized the fake and removed social world that is corporate. As people in the office would see me return from grief attacks, they all seemed to wonder “did she cry or is she high?” Not like anyone bothered to ask and that is understandable considering the discomfort that oozes out of death and grief in the American, may I extend, western culture(s).
It is one of those traumas we all hold to, “happens to others, not to me, not my family.” Until it does. Distraught, grasping, slipping, sinking into your latest reality.
Working from home started off confusing and slowly concretized into distance enough, breathability, space to embalm self and forget “team members”. I missed the snacks and the bi-weekly lunches, co-workers to take the train home with, never did I miss the dynamics of my little office desk-made hallway.
Some couple of months into the pandemic, the entire core team shifted, broke into two separate departments, and hired welcomed newcomers. Finally, a manager that related to me, and a co-worker I could share jokes and truth with, all virtual, all sincere. Work dynamics on the rise. Another couple months later, the offshore team joined us, corporate culture and its significance merged with theirs to soothe, inspire, and find joy in the virtual space called work.
The realization that it was my time to go, founded a choice to focus on writing, an in-progress consulting career, and ultimately the completion of my 2-year corporate apprenticeship. What I do with it now, is up to my own perseverance, transferable teachings, and how I may find them applicable to fields I have yet to uncover.
As my role and responsibility began to shift from customer service to training and development for the offshore team in question, the notion and value of transferable skills trickled into my mind. My relationship with the people from which I reside halfway around the world would soon become the highlight of my work life. The ways in which they more than collaborate…. They share their lives, their creative sides, friendships, and all. I’ve envied their — what I struggle to term — “corporate” culture and weaved my way into it to escape the superficial and placid excused by professionalism and decorum, one that I live in.
The reality that is the thickening opaque glass imposed between each employee in all American corporations and beyond attunes excitement and halts connection. Would thinning and stripping the glass lead to improved communication by invited honesty ultimately leading to more sustainable business growth?
As we gaze to the future that is social equity in business, I question the validity of the process. Wonder if it is to maintain the impersonal nature of the world as we know it. I ponder the value received from corporations hosting DEI (Diversity, Equity, Inclusion) sessions every quarter…. 2 hours. 100 employees. 7 questions. 1 Conversation Leader. How many lessons learned?
There is undeniable merit in the discussion, conversation, the sharing and transmission of thoughts, ideas, ethics, yet the short and infrequent …. of the current system may stifle them. Envision a world in which all employees are not only encouraged to share their ideas and “raise their concerns,” but we all see it as an intrinsic part of how business operates, as much as tipping in the service industry.
It is not taught that any job is essentially like getting paid to learn. Even in selecting templates to send out to eager customers looking to understand how “our” program operates, there is learning. Even in walking around, conversing with various department heads and employees lower on the totem pole, there is learning. Even in listening, watching, how they interact, in meetings, in hallways, who has tequila in their office, the choices HR makes when it comes to planning events, there is learning.
My corporate journey taught me what corporate entails and what I wish to make of it. Inspiration in change possibilities, migration, upgrades…. Understanding the fated union of what needs to be worked on and how to do so operates as some key to the short, infrequent, DEI session problem example. The system cannot be dismantled, it is similar to forests with interconnected roots, networks. Expansive. Should we aim to halt its growth? Re-branch, clip here and there? Function out of loose ended and overlooked spaces within it? I ask, I wish to be a part of it.
Change may occur incrementally. Piece by piece. A trim, a dent, a tunnel, and a vision.
All photos: Jané Seixas
About the Author
Iman M’Fah-Traoré is a French New Yorker. Originally born in Paris, she moved to New York in her young years and majored in Politics and Governance at Ryerson University, Toronto. She is now attending the New School in NYC for Global Studies. The Ivorian and Brazilian writer works with The Womanity Project, a non-profit that challenges gender equity with innovative workshops. Currently, she is working towards assembling her first poetry book. Her writing specializes in LGBTQ+, grief and trauma, and race and ethnicity poetry and essays.