I read the email, then read it again. “Get up, Monica. Get up,” I tell myself. “You have a thesis to finish.” It didn’t take long, less than a minute. I got up. I went and glued a few more pieces of my model, carefully fitting each and wiping the excess adhesive from the joints. I handled the basswood with care and intensity. I would not cry. I set it aside for the glue to dry.
People had been asking me for weeks if I’d had any news. I sat for a while with my cursor blinking in the empty white status box. It all came down to a simple statement, so in the end, that’s what I typed. “Monica was turned down by the University of Illinois.” A bald, impersonal fact. But it’s not impersonal, or so the sinking feeling in my stomach told me as I stared at the email header in my Inbox, refusing to open and read it yet again. It wouldn’t change.
I felt sure when applying that Illinois was my safe bet, a bet nonetheless, but with reasonably good odds. It’s a large public institution with the largest program and the most faculty of everywhere I applied. It doesn’t have the daunting reputation of the Ivy League schools. There were many faculty who I estimated would be interested in the research I proposed, not just one or two, as at other schools.
As the rock of Illinois sunk into the depths of my abdomen, it pulled down all the others with it. Even as I try to fish it out with logic and reason – I can’t take this as a personal affront; there are too many variables beyond my control to quantify: the other applicants, each professor’s workload and interests, diminishing availability of aid, etc.; this isn’t a prediction of the other universities’ decisions – it sits there in the dark. Only time will wear down stone. It may look solid, so heavy sitting there, immutable. It's not.
Meanwhile, the world goes on. This architectural model still needs building. This thesis still needs finishing. These degrees still need completing. It’s best to focus on what is in front of me and let the rest sort it out as it may. It’s out of my hands anyway. Isn’t that how people deal with death? “Just keep putting one foot in front of the other.”
Where reason won’t do, perhaps a bit of chivvying will help, a little ornery, a little stubborn. How egocentric to equate this with death. How silly, how trivial. It’s merely a rejection, and a politely worded one at that. I’ve handled many such before and I’ll handle many such again. I’ll survive. Yet I still grieve over the contents of that short email.
I could turn to optimism. Something better may be just around the corner. After all, every time I’ve ever left a job, a better one has been waiting. My life has always been on a upward trajectory, or so I tell myself.
I can remind myself of the dharma, suffering, samsara, attachment, desire. I grieve for this loss now because I wanted it so badly, and doubly so because I expected to get it. It’s better not to want and not to expect, or, not to be attached to the outcomes of those desires and expectations. It’s better to be free, to let go of suffering. That’s all I have to do; let go of this stone and watch it fall away.
My friends are there for me. I appreciate that. “University of IlliDUMB!!! There are bigger and better things for you,” one comments. It would be easy to lean on them. We could go out and get drunk together and I could sob into my seven-dollar martini. I’ve earned it, haven’t I? Look at all this hardship and disappointment I’ve been through! I could even blame Illinois, make them the bad guy. Yeah, they’re just a bunch of idiots. But then, why did I apply there in the first place? It would be easy, but not better, were it so simple. The truth is, I don’t think I’ve earned anything – not the right to be angry, not the seven-dollar martini, and certainly not admission to the University of Illinois Department of Urban and Regional Planning PhD program.
Yet, there’s still comfort to be found, earned or not. Like Linus reaching for his blanket, I reach for my computer, pulling up the London Symphony Orchestra playing the Star Wars Trilogy by John Williams. I open a blank document and I begin to type, pouring out into invisible one’s and zero’s little bits of stone, wearing away at the weight in my middle. After a bit, I’ll go down and get a hot chocolate. It comes from a vending machine, but I still like it. I’ll take a deep breath, sit down at my work table, and start gluing this model together again.
The one thing about this stone is it’s my stone, not the University of Illinois. They didn’t put it there and they can’t take it away. Nor can reason, chiding, optimism, dharma, friends, alcohol, anger, blame, or even John Williams.
I may not be able to let go of it just yet, but I can let go insisting it go away.