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Unpacking The Suitcase

In Episode 12 of the Wallflowers in Bloom podcast, our guest opened up to me and my co-host about some of her recent work experiences and perceptions. As the seconds ticked forward on the recording, I worried she was revealing too much. It concerned me she could be putting too much out there. Later in the evening, I began editing the audio. Listening to the playback, I conceded to something. Our guest’s revelations had hit a nerve, bringing to the surface occurrences I had long denied affected me while employed at the same Los Angeles-based investment banking firm.

It’s time, I said to myself, a year ago in August. Wedged against an off-white wall, I stood up from my desk and grabbed my security badge. Leaning forward, I clicked Control+Alt+Delete to lock my computer monitor.

For anyone sauntering by, there was always an unrestricted view of what we were doing.

“I’m gonna take a break,” I said to my colleague sitting an arm’s length to the right of me.

“Enjoy,” she chirped back. Petite, young and perky, she swiveled back to face her screen, smoothing back her long dark hair.

Walking out of the room, I looked right at the other employees in my department, past the san serif font of "Presentation and Graphics" painted left of center on the floor-to-ceiling glass wall. For anyone sauntering by, there was always an unrestricted view of what we were doing. Which included working, strategizing, or attempting to discreetly shovel food in our mouths as we worked on time-sensitive projects. The “fishbowl”, as we had dubbed the nondescript workspace, was devoid of artwork and comprised three clusters of dark brown desks perfectly matched with a dark brown stained carpet. Paired with its lustreless lighting, the windowless room was primed and ready for quick conversion to a basement telemarketing call center.

Walking west down the hall lined with artwork from employees’ small children, I glimpsed my direct supervisors snuggled in the last compact office. Built like an ex-rugby player, our tall middle-aged senior manager had his feet up on the desk of his subordinate, the overhead lights beaming down on his freshly shaved scalp. Four days into his five-day visit from the firm’s London office, his look contrasted with the dark-haired, stocky junior manager.

I made a sharp right at the end of the hall to the wood-paneled elevator bay. My stomach lurched as I traveled alone down four floors to the lobby of the high-rise building. But not from the drop of the elevator.

…I pulled out the phone number scribbled in red ink on a mini yellow Post-It note.

The heat from the mid-August temperatures blasted me as I stepped out from the iciness of the building’s interior into the rear courtyard. Plenty of seats surrounded the silver metal tables, but I turned right towards the multilevel parking lot. With over 200 employees in the firm’s Los Angeles office, I was never sure who shared the same security badge as me.

Remembering the foot traffic coming from the parking garage, I pushed open a nearby heavy iron gate to leave the lair of the building’s rear. A view of the shopping mall across the way loomed ahead as I headed towards the busy street. Reaching into a front pocket, I pulled out the phone number scribbled in red ink on a mini yellow Post-It note.

“Hello.” The bright voice of the marketing director greeted me from where she was in the firm’s San Francisco location. I imagined her wide animated smile as her cheeriness poured into my ear, drowning out the traffic noise around me.

“Hi, it’s Erick. I stepped outside for more privacy.” My heart quickened as the moisture from my palm softened the Post-It note.

“Is everything okay? Earlier you sounded like you really needed to talk.”

“Everything’s good,” I assured her. Then I took a breath. “Because most of my projects come through you, I want you to be the first to know that I’m going to put in my resignation.”

“Erick, no! You can’t leave us.” The familiar sweetness of her tone drenched her words. “We value your contributions as a graphic designer. And with you now taking on our video projects, you’re one of our most valued team members. It’s not because of us, is it?”

“No,” I laughed. I then explained to her my plans for moving to Stockholm, Sweden to become a freelance designer and digital nomad.

“Well, Erick. We’re going to miss you. Truly. If you’re open to it, I'd really like to keep you on as a contractor. If that’s okay with you.”

“Of course! That would be great.” We then continued our conversation, with her offering me suggestions on how to approach my supervisors in L.A.

“And Erick, make sure you call me as soon as you’ve told them. Okay? I am so thrilled and excited for you. Wow, Sweden! Who knew?”

The rest of the afternoon was a blur. But I do remember following the marketing manager’s suggestions for submitting my formal resignation. I can also never forget that from that day, until my last one three weeks later in early September, she wouldn't respond to any of my phone calls or emails. Even though I continued to work on her projects. I felt let down, her actions returning me to something Cicely Tyson shared in a December 2018 episode of Oprah’s Master Class podcast. It was about a longtime employee Ms. Tyson worked with before becoming a working actress.

“I remember,” Ms. Tyson said. “Sitting to the left of Mrs. Johnson, who had been there forever, right? And I remember this party. And I remember them presenting her with this watch. And I sat there, looking at them. I said, ‘after 30 years, a watch’. I was looking at this woman, who put so much time into this organization. I said, ‘I’m never ever gonna be any place where they’re going to give me, after that length of time a watch.’”

Like Mrs. Johnson, I had been at the firm for over 20 years. However, I didn’t get a watch at the surprise luncheon thrown for me a week before my departure. I didn’t want it, okay with quietly leaving on my last day. Not because I didn’t feel I deserved it. After years of upgrading my skills through learning new software and taking on more technical projects, I simply didn’t want to smile into the faces of some I realized had always minimized my efforts. I wanted to honor my acceptance of those I knew were not professional allies.

I worked until the last hour on my last day, completing projects and answering emails. I interspersed this through thanking those who wished me well. I was anxious, but I wasn’t sad. I was grateful for the years I’d spent at the company. I gained a lot over the years, thankful to have been able to redirect my creativity through graphic design. I had recently earned a graphic design degree from Santa Monica College. However, prior to this, I had gained a lot of invaluable knowledge from colleagues who shared their professional expertise and insights.

It’s been just over a year since I left the firm. What a difference a few days makes. I did not understand how my life was going to unfold, but I was grateful I permitted myself to follow my heart. The first three months of working for myself were challenging. Namely, because I wanted to leap-frog over how I was feeling. I could express my gratitude for what I had learned at the firm. It was more difficult to admit to the hurts that had built up. Additionally, I was happy to be starting a new professional and personal venture. But it took some time to admit to myself that I was nervous.

Saliva coated her pink gums, creating a plastic sheen…

I'm learning that work is a relationship too. As a result, I’ve started to unpack my feelings around my former employer, a place I’d been at over half my life. I’m admitting to myself those parts that were healthy and those that were unhealthy. I’m unpacking the suitcase. I’m removing self-perceptions that blinded me from seeing that I sought validation and support from work associates to heal what wasn’t there in my childhood. Like my dating life, I’m now affirming that it’s possible for me to have a healthy work-life.

An hour before leaving the firm for the last time, I ran into marketing’s creative design director in the elevator bay. “We’re going to miss having you here,” she said. Saliva coated her pink gums, creating a plastic sheen as her mouth stretched into a tight grin. “We will reach out to you for contract work.” Noting the dullness in her eyes, I smiled back at her as I conjured up an image of a recently vacated house. Then I said to myself, “Open up the windows. Air it out and let it go.” Walking back to my desk, I gathered up my remaining belongings.

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