“Mary’s gaze fell on Henrietta’s feet, and she gasped: Henrietta’s toenails were covered in chipped bright red polish. ‘When I saw those toenails,” Mary told me later, “I nearly fainted. I thought, Oh jeez, she’s a real person. I started imagining her sitting in her bathroom painting those toenails, and it hit me for the first time that those cells we’d been working with all this time and sending all over the world, they came from a live woman. I’d never thought of it that way.’”
As part of the summer reading before my high school biology class, we were asked to read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. The book offers a fascinating take on the ethical issues surrounding the first immortalized human cell line, discussing the injustices at the intersection of class, gender, and race within the American research and medical system. What most resonates with me from the story – even years later – is the excerpt above. When Mary Kubicek, a lab assistant, is performing the autopsy on Henrietta Lacks’ body, she notices Lacks’ bright red painted toenails. For months up until that point, Kubicek had been focused on the scientific aspect of the HeLa cells and how significant they were for advancing medical breakthroughs. In that exact moment, she grasps the personhood and humanity of the woman whose body lies in front of her.
“Are you going to talk about anything else?” My brother rolled his eyes as I talked about a technical area of patent infringement that no one in my audience cared to learn about. This was just a few weeks ago, and we were at a small dinner party with some family friends. I had finished up my time with a firm this summer, and I was excited for the chance to talk about it. But my brother’s comment reminded me just how much I’d been talking about my work. I had an amazing summer outside of the firm, too: I went on some relaxing getaways, I spent a lot of meaningful time with my family, and I finally read the books that had been on my reading list for months now. Yet, throughout dinner, I had mainly only talked about my firm experience. It was a reminder to me that law school — and the legal profession — should not and does not encompass my entire identity.
During my first semester of law school in Fall 2019, I found myself burnt out fairly quickly. I was spending too many hours reading, not necessarily because I had a lot to read, but more so because I felt that this was what I had to do. I felt like I was supposed to be outlining after every class, even if I didn’t really know what outlining even was. Despite being on top of my schoolwork, I felt guilty when I wasn’t doing law school-related work, only because I felt that there was no time or room to think about anything else.
As everyone keeping up with the media lately will be aware, the current situation in India is dire. At the beginning of the pandemic, India was doing relatively well, with rising cases under control and recovery rates relatively stable. India was scheduled to send millions of doses of vaccines to countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. In fact, approximately ⅓ of the population in the world’s poorest countries was relying on India to deliver their vaccines.1 Now, India itself is in calamity, with over 300,000 cases being reported daily – and many experts believe this number is a significant undercount. There is a shortage of oxygen, ventilators, and hospital space, to the extent where parking lots are now being used as mass cremation sites.2 Reading this news and seeing these photos is, of course, troublesome to everyone. Watching all of this unfold as an Indian-American immigrant, though, has been especially taxing.
The following is a reflection based on my experience observing a Zoom hearing in housing court. Attending this hearing was part of an assignment for my clinic, the COVID-19 Relief Housing Clinic. The case I observed is not that of a client of our firm, but simply that of a litigant who virtually appeared in Zoom court that morning.
When I watch courtroom scenes on television and in movies, I am captivated by the persuasive oration, surprise evidence, and yes, the juicy drama. Superficially, attending a status hearing in Housing Court via Zoom was not so different from watching a televised courtroom experience. After all, I opened up my laptop and sat down at my desk to watch the scenes unfold through my screen. But the experience was nothing like watching a media portrayal of a courtroom drama. Because this wasn’t Netflix, and the spectacle wasn’t written with the sole function of my entertainment. That morning, I left feeling the opposite of entertained. It’s a lot less fun when the characters aren’t just reciting their scripts on a stage. It’s hard to find enjoyment in the unfolding of real problems of real people, especially when you can sense that there may not be a happy ending.
In my eyes, the protagonist of today’s narrative was the defendant tenant (let’s call her J), setting forth her case for numerous civil damages against her landlord, C. Particularly, she was experiencing various issues with heat, both in a bedroom and with her oven. This made me remember my own apartment last winter, when the heat was stuck at 64 degrees for less than a day. I was angry, less so because the cold was intolerable, and more so because I feel I have an entrenched right to this utility at all times.
J was situated in her apartment, wearing what looked like a bathrobe. She had attended the hearing after getting three hours of sleep after her overnight shift at work. She looked stressed and overwhelmed. It was like the frustration I feel when I have to stay up late for RA duty, but still have an 8 am class the next day.
In September 1995, 30,000 activists and 17,000 participants streamed into Beijing for the opening of the Fourth World Conference on Women. For the next two weeks, representatives of 189 countries discussed and developed historic commitments on gender equality and women’s empowerment around the globe. The final product of the conference was the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. It was a blueprint for advancing women’s rights and it set forth thorough commitments under twelve key areas of concern, including women’s health, education, violence against women, and women in the economy.
Unfortunately, over 25 years later, no nation has achieved gender equality in all dimensions of life, as originally envisioned by the Beijing Declaration. Nearly one third of all women suffer from physical or sexual violence in their lifetimes. Without adequate healthcare, nearly 800 women die giving childbirth every day. Over 80 million women globally have no legal protection against discrimination in the workplace. Not a single country is on track to achieve gender equality by the year 2030. But it seems we hear statistics like these all the time. Why, then, does gender equality remain an unattainable target?
“Nothing is so strong as gentleness, nothing so gentle as real strength.” – Saint Francis de Sales
In the law, and especially in litigation, it can seem like being gentle has no place. The adversarial system is set up like a zero-sum game, and it can feel like softness is in direct contrast with winning in the courtroom. However, in a profession where we lawyers are painted as aggressive and combative, perhaps gentleness is a silent strength, particularly in our relationships with our clients.
I’m in the COVID-19 Housing Relief Clinic this semester, and we spent this first week in trainings. During these training sessions, we conducted role-play situations, both interviewing and counseling “clients.” In our training, the “clients” were just our supervising professors and the situations were merely hypothetical. Yet, these simulations reflected the very types of cases and clients that, as student attorneys at the BC Legal Services Lab, we might see this semester. For example, some of these scenarios included a wife trying to keep custody of her son in a divorce case with her potentially abusive husband or a landlord using unjust practices to force evictions.
At first, I wondered how useful this training would be. After all, how much is there to learn about just talking to clients? Turns out the answer, is a lot.
Yesterday was nothing short of horrifying, but unfortunately, I can’t say that I’m surprised. This act of domestic terrorism was not unexpected. It was the result of one of the most divisive American presidencies of all time; it was but a likely consequence after months of repeated baseless allegations of election fraud.
That is why I am sick of the “this is not our America” rhetoric. Because this is exactly our America right now, and we best believe it. The “this isn’t our America” rhetoric lets us think that what happened yesterday was unpredictable. It allows us to neglect that the riots stemmed from a system historically built upon and contemporarily sustained by white supremacy. If we begin to believe what happened yesterday was an anomaly, it lets us shirk away from accepting that the root of the problem is deeper than the current presidency: it is an entire system that is in dire need of reform.
I like to think I’m a generally positive person: I take time each day to note what I’m grateful for, I laugh a lot (maybe too much), and I try to maintain an upbeat demeanor. When the pandemic hit, I wanted to make sure I kept my positivity, so I took the free Yale University Science of Wellbeing course. I also started listening to podcasts like Ten Percent Happier and The Science of Happiness. Yet, as the year comes to a close and I reflect on 2020, I can’t help but think that, frankly, a lot about this year simply sucked.
Throughout the pandemic, there seemed to be a message of “good vibes only” created on social media and online, with many people touting the pandemic as ‘a blessing in disguise.’ Now, I will be the first to point out the benefits of gratitude and positivity; I know they work wonders for both emotional and physical health because they personally have for me. At the same time, I do yearn for my life to go back to “normal.” While I was able to discover silver linings throughout the year, the reality is that I didn’t want this pandemic in the first place, and I don’t want to feel guilty about feeling this way.
A few weeks ago, I shared my story of realizing how burnt out I really was. Since then, I’ve made a few changes in my life. I’d be lying if I said I was 100% better 100% of the time; I still have some great days and other not-so-great moments. However, I can truthfully say that I have tried to be more intentional in my thoughts and actions over the past several weeks, and I do feel a difference overall.
In my last post, I admitted that I didn’t really know how to take a break. In fact, I couldn’t remember the last time I had taken a day off. After much reflection, I’ve realized that this inability to wind down is not something I want to wear as a badge of honor. I have friends who are cardiac surgeons, Medieval Literature PhD students, and budding entrepreneurs- they all are in rigorous professions having to balance numerous responsibilities. If they can consistently take days off, then I can surely manage the same. My life is not going to fall apart if I unplug for a bit. I’ve made Sundays my day off, where I try to spend most of the day doing things I enjoy without feeling guilty about the pile of work on my desk. In doing so, I’ve realized that not only do I feel good on Sundays, but the days when I am working are more productive, too. Before, I used to measure my productivity by the number of hours my laptop screen was on, disregarding that during much of that time, I wasn’t actually getting work done. Now, I give myself permission to take days off and take breaks throughout the day. That way, when my screen is on, I’m doing a better job of being productive during that timeframe. Sometimes when my phone is freaking out, all I need to do is turn it off for a bit and then back on. I guess the same goes for me.
“Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you.”
― Anne Lamott
We live in a world where we glorify the hustle. You worked for 10 hours? Well, I worked for 12. You slept 5 hours? Oh, but I only got 4. Business school and law school are feeding grounds for this kind of toxic environment, and I fed into it. I’ve always prided myself in being able to handle chaos and a busy schedule. I’m a yes-person; I pile things on my plate with complete disregard for whether I actually have the bandwidth to take them on. For as long as I can remember, I’ve subconsciously led myself to believe that this trait of mine is heroic. “Other people can’t handle this level of stress, but I can. Chug along and don’t look back. Taking breaks is for the weak, and that, I am not.” And for years, this lifestyle felt great. That is, of course, until suddenly, it did not.