Last night, I went out alone. Before throwing away $8.25 on a stupid movie I won’t bother writing about here, I sat downtown and ate a chicken taco while flipping through a sample copy of Inquiring Mind. I came across a blurb about a new book by someone I worked for briefly in the mid ’90s. The first sentence of the review describes this man as “one of those rare individuals who not only talks wisdom but also walks it, dispenses it and turns it into compassionate action.”
A dozen years ago, this man “of compassionate action” gave me not words of wisdom but a stern warning after I’d given notice at my job after a little under a year. I’ve never forgotten them. But I understand now they’ve served me in some other way. And I want to forgive him and move on.
This was my first “real” job after college; I had spent my senior year walking up and down Broadway, whispering to the building across from Lincoln Center that housed the foundation that stood for everything I was passionate about and wanted to be part of.
When I graduated, I moved back home to Amherst, got a waitressing job, fell in love with reading novels, spent a lot of time talking to my cat, William, and wondered what I would do for the rest of my life.
Long story short, one morning in August, 1995, the phone rang. Before I knew it, I was wearing a suit and riding the 2/3 express train uptown from my aunt & uncle’s Tribeca loft. I was calling my father saying, “Is that a good salary?” And the Green Beret who had been a breakfast regular at my server job was helping me load up my worldly possessions into a U-Haul to move into a stuffy bedroom on West 78th Street.
I’ve written here and there about this aspect of my journey, about the process of letting go of what I thought I should be and becoming myself. To tell you the truth, I’m not all that interested in the details anymore. But damn, there are a handful of tenacious moments that have hung on for dear life. Time to look this one in the eyes and huck it back in the river.
After ten or so months on the job, having moved from Manhattan to Brooklyn, become miserably obsessed with a narcissistic musician, and spending night after night crying over Emily Dickinson poems, I mustered the courage to give my notice. I had recently learned about the famous and infamous Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference – where it is said that more marriages are made and broken than at any other writers’ conference – and decided that that’s where my future awaited me. (And indeed, it was: Greg and I met there.)
I quit badly. I gave WAY too much notice. I shocked my boss, a really wonderful woman, moments before a board meeting. (Rest assured, in the years since, I have become a much more skilled quitter.) But the part I’m here to tell you about happened a few weeks later, when the boss of my boss, the big boss (but not the biggest boss of us all) arranged a short meeting to say goodbye to me. He was leaving for several weeks and we would not cross paths again.
I sat down in his corner office, feeling small and exposed. “You should be very careful about this kind of thing in the future,” he said.
I don’t remember any other words that passed between us, because his warning made me want to shit in my pants. It was, from the perspective of my 22-year-old, searching self, she who was intent on Trusting the Universe and pursuing a life of poetry and travel and meaning, despite plenty of fears and doubts. A young woman who needed not a warning, but a person in a position of power to say, “We will miss you. Thanks for your hard work this year,” or “You’re at the beginning of a long, interesting, winding path – good luck.”
Really, who knows what I wanted or needed to hear. At UVM, I have sat and listened and talked with many, many college seniors who are wracked with anxiety about the future, about careers and grad school and money and relationships, about how to pay back loans, how to make a difference, how to hush parental and societal pressures so as to hear their own voices. If I know one thing about that summer day in 1996, it’s that his choice of words was poor. And that’s giving him the benefit of the doubt.
The upshot of what I’m saying is this: We so often don’t know the effect our words have. We don’t always realize the power we may hold, consciously or not. And, as with sexual or any kind of harassment, impact trumps intention. Who knows if this “important” person who warned me all those years ago about leaving jobs, who made me feel that I had just jeopardized my entire future by moving on, meant to scare or shame or intimidate me. Maybe, maybe not. But the impact of his words is what I carried for so many years.
And there I was last night, reading this review of his book, this blurb about his successful and important career, his wisdom and compassion. I wished I could tell him to be very careful about this kind of thing, to be mindful of the impact of his words and his actions, his power and his ego. But all I could do is remove the hook and throw the fish back in the water, watch it swim away.
And to say say thank you, Charlie, for a moment you probably don’t even remember, one that reminds me now of the mentor and guide I want to be. I forgive you.