Jenny Bhatt | Longreads | November 2018 | 20 minutes (4,950 words)
I. Separation Rites (Phase 1)
“All my life I have lived and behaved very much like [the] sandpiper — just running down the edges of different countries and continents, ‘looking for something’, having spent most of my life timorously seeking for subsistence along the coastlines of the world.”
— Elizabeth Bishop; Words in Air
In early 2012, I was at a dinner with my work team in Silicon Valley. It was an unusually warm late-winter evening in shimmering downtown San Francisco as we settled around our large center table in a popular and packed Italian restaurant. We’d had a long few days at an off-site conference working through some complex issues related to a newly announced business transformation program. Amidst the clinking of dinnerware and happy chatter all around us, the much-needed glasses of wine helped ease us into lighter non-work banter. Someone — it might even have been me — started a conversation asking everyone what they would do work-wise if they had the absolute freedom of choice. That is, if money, time, talent, and skill were no object, what would they rather be doing instead?
Slowly, shyly, each one of these people, with whom I worked daily, opened up about their deeper joys: gourmet cooking; ice-cream making; theatrical singing/performing; organic farming; fashion blogging, etc. The animated faces, wistful voices, resigned smiles, and gentle shrugs — their entire range of honest emotions will stay with me forever. It was one of those sudden time-stood-still moments and, within it, we had stumbled unexpectedly onto a crucial personal connection: the universal human desire for deeper meaning and purpose in our lives.
That evening also helped me make up my wavering mind. Before the end of the month, I would hand in my notice. On the day I left, I wanted to turn around, like Jerry Maguire in that famous office-leaving scene, and say to those same team members: “Who’s coming with me?” (I did no such thing because my reasons for leaving the new job after only three months also involved a few more complicated variables beyond a need to start over.)
So, after nearly two decades of working across corporations in Europe and the US, I began my middlescence as a 40-year-old free agent. It helped that I had already sold my home in anticipation of purchasing one closer to the new job, and did not have any financial debt for the first time in nearly two decades. Also, I had some savings, a small cushion meant to get me through what I had thought and hoped would be a brief transition period into the next phase. And my relationship status was: single.
What I wanted was to write full-time. Or, rather, I wanted writing to be my main mode of being in and engaging with the world. But I hadn’t simply awakened one morning and decided this. Up until that point, I had been writing part-time for some-30 years, snatching what time I could during weekends and vacation. I had accumulated a modest publication history: a national award for a short story at age 10; a short story and a poem in a children’s print magazine at age 14; two short stories and five literary essays in an online magazine by age 29; an essay in a print anthology at age 30. From my mid-20s to my mid-30s, I had also worked on my craft through several writing courses and workshops at a couple of well-known Midwestern universities and one semester at a low-residency MFA before assorted factors led to my dropping out.
The life of a first-generation naturalized immigrant, though, is typically held hostage to their citizenship status. I was 38 when I finally received my citizenship after multiple hurdles along the way. Until then, as much as I fantasized about a literary career, I needed to earn a steady living. And I could not afford to be anything less than a model employee — hardworking, ready to take on any position or project, and near-indispensable — to stay safe from the periodic house-cleaning layoffs so loved by corporate America, which could put my immigration status in jeopardy.
Not a single one of those writing milestones, then, had occurred along a straight, smooth trajectory. For each one accomplished, there were several others missed. Most were hard-won while progressing up unsteady career ladders within the engineering, marketing, and management consulting fields. Many were interrupted while wending my way through three continents, six countries, five US states, six companies, twenty homes, and two long-term relationships. All along, there have been heavy personal tolls for persisting as a slave to two masters: the paying career and what I called my “writing hobby.” And there have been the usual lifelong roadblocks that other women from similar backgrounds will recognize: a socio-cultural conditioning rooted in a patriarchal upbringing in India; the ongoing discrimination faced as a woman of color working in white-male-dominated industries; the drawn-out process of securing citizenship of a country where I felt most at home; the never-faltering aim of wanting to be financially and emotionally independent with “a room of my own.”
I had accepted all of the above as necessary rites for frequently crossing borders both physical and metaphorical. Navigating my paths across as a minority, I had become an expert at code-switching and coping with the daily micro-inequities. In America, I had learned to perch smartly on the hyphen of my Indian-American identity, ready to hop to one side or the other, depending on who I was with or what I was doing.
Till, as a single and childless 40-year-old woman of color, I found myself slipping unwarned down a steep slope toward the verge of disappearance. In workplace, family, and friend gatherings, I was deferring more frequently to the younger, or the coupled, or the oldest. My lone voice carried the least weight at any given time. Beyond a loss of vote and visibility, it felt like an erosion of my self.
This midlife pivot was about more than making time to write. It was also my biggest mustering of courage to reclaim and re-assert my place in the world.