Salama sat at her desk mindlessly staring at her laptop during her Zoom class on global warming, half present, half daydreaming. She was somewhere in between noticing the professor’s lips moving and actually hearing what he was teaching. Her surroundings seemed foreign. What was she even doing here in a tiny room on the sixteenth floor with huge windows that never quite opened? Rubbing her hand around her arm to ease the goosebumps, she was reminded of how the place lacked any warmth. She wondered how she’d gotten to this place where she saw a lot of things but had access to nothing or how she had to hug her goosebumps away. She was having a mini existential crisis of sorts, pondering why she’d craved this reality, aspired to it even.
She’d been having many of these mini-episodes lately; her therapist had described them in many words but 'mini' wasn’t one of them. But again, Salama, being a daughter of Africa, had been in denial about the magnitude of the impact these episodes had on her well-being. Neoh, her therapist, had said they were a result of trauma which might have been caused by the horrendous videos she had seen online before her arrival to the West. After the George Floyd killing, Salama had decided to do some “research” on race-related crimes on Black people and since then it had never been the same. She’d found it harder to breathe whenever she was overwhelmed. Whenever her mind was running circles of worry, stress, or as she’d dismissively put it, a mini-episode, her heart would pound against her chest, sometimes loud enough to make her ears ring. Then it happened: she started by placing her hand on her chest to make sure it wasn’t just in her head, then she felt as though someone was pressing down on her trachea — she needed to breathe but she couldn’t. She found herself scrounging for air as though it were a competition and there wasn’t enough to sustain herself.
That is what it had felt like three months ago. Today, however, she recalled the mindful breathing mantra that her therapist had taught her to keep herself “grounded.” Salama closed her eyes, palms on her laps, took a deep breath in and exhaled. On her third exhale she opened her eyes to a new environment.
Her Zoom class had been swapped with a pile of Valentine’s presents on a table in her homeroom back in high school. During this bright, clear Friday, she began organizing where each of the gifts had to be delivered, taking care not to wrinkle the delicate tags. She had just finished her presidential duties and was opening her locker to grab her books for her last class of the week. She couldn’t wait to catch up on sleep when she was met with the scent of a rose and the relaxing scent of an oud candle. Eyelids shut, she inhaled the intoxicating scent. When she opened her eyes, she was at a restaurant having dinner. She took stock of her surroundings. She was seated across from her mentor Tumaini and Tumaini’s sister Tuli and husband Baraka had also joined them. The group was sharing a ribs platter.
Despite Salama being her poised, happy, put-together self at the table, it had been an excruciating week. She couldn’t remember huge swaths of time and she had gotten rejected from her dream university. It felt like the end of her world. Tumaini’s Valentine’s surprise had been just the thing she needed to get her out of her sulky mood. As she’d opened her locker earlier she’d been met with a box of chocolates, candles and the intoxicating scent of Baccarat Rouge 540. It was the most thoughtful surprise, evoking a memory of the last birthday present from her father before his passing. Tumaini had remembered the small details Salama had shared with her on their first meeting. Tears fell from her eyes. They were not painful tears, but something else. They felt like an emotional choke being released from deep inside. Wiping her tears, she was about to go to class when she saw the note with information about her ride and the plans for the day. The pricy ride had picked her up from school, taken her to get dressed and had finally met with Tumaini filled with gratitude for such a thoughtful gesture.
Moments after dinner started, Salama sensed herself sinking away into her thoughts, engaging less with the conversation. Noticing this, Tumaini changed the conversation to a more neutral subject — the scary flu going on in Wuhan. She shared how, on her recent business trip from Paris, she’d noticed that the rates of transmission were increasing. It was getting seriously scary, and fast. Startling everyone at the table by breaking her silence, Salama said a quick healing prayer about the flu: “May God help them find a cure and get healed.” “Amen,” they replied in union. Looking back, it was more of a sincere but rather alienated prayer. She’d undoubtedly wanted a cure to be found, however at that moment in time she hadn’t cared at all. Sure, she felt sad that people were losing their lives, however, it was not a pressing problem to her. She was pressed about university admissions and what the rejections meant for her future — if she even had a future.
Taking a deep breath to calm her nerves, letting go of her anxiety once again upon exhaling, she found herself in her big windowed apartment. Her laptop screen showcased Zoom slides titled “GLOBAL WARMING.” Her professor was now citing examples of how Vancouver had experienced a range of climate effects from a heatwave of 49.6 degrees during the summer to the insurmountable floods in the fall and most recently, continuous snowfall lasting a full week that had her windows shut and heater turned up to 30.
Salama wanted to take a deep breath to try to ground herself, but she was afraid it would cause another time jump. She sat, not wondering how she got here, but rather how she had viewed global concerns as impersonal, too far-fetched from her reality. All the while they were lingering in the air she breathed: from climate change to racial injustice and equal access to basic human rights. These concerns were no longer detached from her; she embodied them daily, as an African woman who had moved to Canada to study in a male-dominated field for the sole purpose of being financially secure and motivating other young women back home. It was the dream, right? To study abroad, travel the world, see places, have money, find a well-respected job and of course, gain recognition for all your achievements.
It was a dream — the dream — but whose dream was it? It was most certainly not hers, as she had recently come to realize what seemed too far away from her resonated with her, and what she thought was unique to her was everyone's but hers. The climate change-induced heatwave she had experienced in her cramped apartment (with the huge windows which proved useless when her skin burned at the 40-degree weather) or when she got stares from strangers who had lined up outside the global conglomerate where she interned during the summer as she walked in flashing her badge. She wondered too often, did they stare at her because she could just waltz in without any consideration of the line-up, or did they stare at this kinky-haired Black woman who had the audacity to walk into places she supposedly had no business being at?
Now she embodied these global issues because she had experienced them, she wore them like a cloth she couldn’t take off. If she somehow managed to take them off, the air she breathed was full of them — there was no more running away or denying the reality that they existed. She had changed majors from engineering to business to arts to creative writing and now to this: taking a bunch of courses that didn’t necessarily correspond to any degree but fed her soul. She couldn’t understand where this was going, but it felt right. She was fighting to make the impersonal, far-fetched global problems personal for her generation and other generations to come. She was establishing an emotional connection throughout cultures and generations using storytelling, hoping to avoid making the same mistake over and over and over again. One breath at a time, she was embodying the realization of the problems facing the world and conquering them together head-on. She had been grounding herself in order to grow —that is why she was here, in this very moment.