The first time I went back to my alma mater to do some research in the Health Sciences Library, my heart pounded against my chest, my mouth dried out, and my legs felt like overdone pasta. I was nervous – terrified. Ridiculous, I told myself. Why on earth should a 40-something, qualified veterinarian be nervous about looking up a few articles in the veterinary school library? Why duck her head apologetically around the students – students, for God’s sake, nearly young enough to be my kids!
But, here’s the thing. I spent the entirety of 1992-96 waiting for it to happen. I kept waiting for someone, a secretary, or maybe the dean himself to tap me on the shoulder and say, “I’m sorry, but there’s been a mistake. You don’t belong here.” You see, in my heart, I knew that I didn’t belong. I was a decent student, but not the sort of platinum over-achiever that gets admitted into a highly competitive professional school. My required-sciences GPA was just above the minimum. Obviously, there had been some mistake. It didn’t help that during the first year or so of veterinary school, I was dealing with a rejection at a personal level that made me believe that I really didn’t belong anywhere, but the upshot was that I entered my chosen profession convinced that I was an imposter.
The odd thing about my current parallel career is that it is forcing me to accept my place in the veterinary field. For magazine articles, I’ve been forced to interview some of the top experts in their fields. In my new job, many of my veterinary colleagues are highly qualified, specialty-boarded, and well-recognized veterinarians. Yet, I’m forced with the measly three letters following my name, to interact with them as equals. And I should.
I’m learning to hold on to something that is rightfully mine, and something that is mine to keep. Today’s blog post, however, is about the opposite. I may have been influenced by the Ira Glass parody sex tape, but today we present, in three acts, stories about people letting go of, or holding on too long to something that no longer belongs to them, or perhaps never did.
Act I – Letting Go Gracefully
It’s every high-achiever’s worst nightmare. You get a phone call (or a letter, or an e-mail) informing you that you have been nominated for one of the highest honors in your art or profession. You have just long enough to let the euphoria set it when you receive another notice: Oops! Sorry, it was a mistake. We didn’t mean you. Sorry about that.
The short-list for the National Book Awards had an unprecedented two entries listed in the Young Adult section this year. Why? Someone goofed. By mistake, Lauren Myracle was entered for her book Shine. The intended entry had been Franny Billingsley’s Chime. Personally, I’m trying to see how that could have happened – are the National Book Awards nominations typically composed by someone talking on a bad cell phone? But, regardless, for a while, even after it had been publicly announced that there was a screw-up, both books were on the list. The theory here was apparently that since Shine is an excellent book in its own right, they would just have two books short-listed for the category in order to make amends for the error. That’s kind of like the hostess getting caught dividing the soup into an extra bowl to make room for an uninvited guest; it just looks bad no matter what.
But, then the story gets worse. After all of this, Myracle received another call from Harold Augenbraum, the executive director of the National Book Foundation saying that “the position was being changed and that people wanted Shine off the list.” Myracle describes her ordeal in the interview with Vanity Fair from which the above quote is taken.
The final scene in this act is the scene of true grace. “I felt gutted. I felt embarrassed, and ashamed that I had the gall to believe that this book was worthy. So over the weekend came the question of, Do I withdraw, or do I let them strip it from me? I first thought: They made the mistake; they can clean it up. Then I realized that I had a chance to either be classy or be seen as someone gripping with white knuckles to something they didn’t want me to have. And I was going to be taken off the list regardless.” Classy indeed: Myracle withdrew her name from consideration, instead asking the National Book Foundation to make a donation to the Matthew Shepard Foundation.
Act II – When the gyre unwinds
The end is rarely pretty. And it seems that endings happen more frequently in the middle of life than we are conditioned to expect. The cliché of the mid-life crisis really doesn’t do justice to the pain of waking up one morning – or, more commonly, over a series of mornings – to the realization that the life you thought you lived, the life you expected to keep living is no longer the right life for you. It no longer belongs to you.
It must be something about the 40s, but it seems that my circle of acquaintance has been filled in recent years with career and marriage upheaval. People living lives that seemed to be right only to find that the plan suddenly no longer fit, was broken, or was suddenly destroyed.
Most of the people I know have handled the pain of job loss, home loss, or divorce with extraordinary grace – keeping the bonds of family even through pain and uncertainty. They have been adults, and have faced the situations with adult grace – letting go of that which can no longer be salvaged, holding their sense of self and self-worth, and starting again with dignity.
Then, there’s the other side of the coin. I’ve watched a (fortunately small) minority of one or two unravel under the pain and anger, spewing public venom, ignoring obligations, and generally burying themselves so deeply in their desire to cling to something that no longer exists that they risk losing that which is rightfully theirs.
Everything ends. Everything that we have and are has a finite lifespan. Jobs, relationships, people – one day, it stops. The pain of that ending, the pain of waking up and realizing that something you thought was a part of your life is no longer yours (or, maybe never was) is an amputation. But, we aren’t given control over the endings. We are only given control over what we take away.
We can either face loss with the grace of Lauren Myracle or we can go for the nuclear option of our next act.
Act III – “And what rough beast”
In Zanesville, OH today, law-enforcement are attempting to round up wild animals that escaped from a private farm. Not a few animals, and not just zebras and such. We’re talking lions, (not sure about tigers), and bears – oh my!
Most disturbingly, the owner of the aforementioned preserve was found dead on his property, with all of the enclosures opened. The circumstances are still sketchy; as of this writing, there is some suggestion by law enforcement that the man may have released the animals and then killed himself.
Regardless, this is an example of the extreme of holding on or letting go of that which does not belong. Large predators do not belong in private ownership. They barely belong in institutionalized captivity. News reports suggest that the man in question had legal and personal problems. If so, the picture is beginning to emerge of someone holding onto things that should not have been his, and letting go in the absence of grace.
Ultimately, I guess this post is about both letting go and holding on. It is about finding what is ours, what belongs most deeply within us, and it is about knowing how to hold that part of ourselves so that we can let go of the things which no longer fit, the things that cannot stay, the things that, perhaps, were never ours to begin with.