A Semi-Open Letter to [the Boss Who Let Me Go]

I’m calling this “semi-open” because I won’t use your name. A lot of people who know me know who you are anyway, and I suspect that many who read this can easily fill some other name in those brackets — someone who wronged them, who rattled them, who forced them to start over and discover a new version of themselves. I hope that for them, like for me, that new version proved to be far better off.

Two years ago, after many exhausting months of our work styles and priorities failing to coexist in harmony, you terminated my job contract. In an instant, with the sight of a single checkmark on a PDF, my life changed. After six years, I was no longer going to be the person who worked that job in that office, made that commute and parked in that spot, collaborated with that team of amazing friends.

There was no way around it: you and I did not see the world through the same sort of lens, and you were in a position to make that issue go away. In addition to being stung by your decision, I felt powerless to counter it, which hurt even more.

There were many broken pieces of our attempted partnership that, in hindsight, I wish I had addressed differently — many things I’ve realized only since leaving that would have helped me tremendously to know while I was there:

My voice deserves to be heard. It has as much potential as any other at the table, regardless of its volume or its speaker’s title or gender. And when I’m feeling overlooked or disrespected, that’s not a reason to retreat into silence but an urgent reason to speak up louder than ever.

I am the most important advocate of my work. I wish I hadn’t let you shake my confidence in my work or my approaches to it. I should have promoted my own successes instead of hoping you would notice them or looking for the flaws you might see. I shouldn’t have let my passion for my work occur mostly behind a closed door.

I can prevent frustrations from festering. I wish I had pushed more for us to address the frustrations I felt about my job — the uneven workload, the extra hours, the stress level — as they first became issues, rather than letting them build. I kept hoping you would see them as I did, that they would then be solved as if by magic. Our conversations about them were never active enough and soon became empty words.

A job should not define the entirety of a life. I never could have believed at the time that the concerns of the workday could be left behind when signing off for the day. I was so controlled by deadlines and processes, so afraid of letting other people down, that those anxieties followed me home at night and consumed my attention. I know now that no pursuit of success should ever come above my health or happiness.

While I was first reeling from your decision, all of those things were harder than ever to believe. My brain didn’t have the capacity to process them. I doubted myself, thinking maybe I wasn’t good enough for that job or for any other, that I was doomed to fail.

After a short period of wallowing, though, I was no longer willing to give you that power over me. My anger became a source of motivation more than pain. It propelled me into my next chapter, one so much better than I could have imagined. After initially breaking me down, your decision ultimately set me free.

A friend of mine — seeing the potential for that motivation before I could — told me I should dedicate the book I’m writing to you, because none of it would have been possible without you. At the time, I laughed at the irony and felt slightly nauseated at the thought. But, in a way, she’s right. I did need to be released from that suffocating situation in order to feel inspired again (how fitting that one definition of inspire is to inhale), to have the energy to work toward this enormous goal and the confidence to make it happen.

There’s a great analogy in Buddhist teachings that compares anger to a burning ember: I may pick it up with the intention of throwing it at someone, but I’m the one who gets burned by it.

Holding onto my anger toward you did burn me for a long time, and I grew tired of it. I’ve let go of that ember now and am walking farther and farther away from it. But I still remember the heat of it. And I need you to know how utterly fantastic it feels to be free from its weight.

Photo by Pixabay, downloaded from Pexels

Enough.

It’s been a while since my last post — which was somewhat intentional. It wasn’t that time slipped by quickly or that I forgot about blogging; in fact, it was rather the opposite: I’ve thought a lot about what I might post next. But nothing seemed good enough — not important enough, not informed enough — to follow the weight and personal significance of that first post.

And then I realized that that self-dialogue was, in itself, the post I needed to write.

I realized how much of my inner monologue (which, heaven help me, is always on) centers around that word, “enough” — or, rather, what I perceive as a lack of enough, a mark I haven’t met: I haven’t written enough lately, this writing isn’t good enough, I didn’t get enough done today, I haven’t lost enough weight yet, we haven’t gotten enough done on our home renovations, I haven’t saved up enough money…

Enough, enough, enough.

I’m hearing these sentiments from a lot of friends and family lately, too, especially those trying to balance parenting, homeschooling, and working from home during the coronavirus pandemic. They feel they aren’t able to devote enough time, attention, or effort to any one of those elements, let alone the combination.

But who defines what’s “enough”? How are we each defining it for ourselves? By comparing our situations to our perceptions of other people’s lives? By notions we had in the past about what our present would look like? I tend more toward the latter — whether that’s what teenage Val thought thirtysomething Val would be like or what when-I-woke-up-this-morning Val envisioned for her day.

I don’t think it’s fair for us to hold ourselves too inflexibly to any sort of past or outside concept of what we’re supposed to have achieved. It’s great to have goals, of course, but so much unfolds in any given day that we never could have anticipated. Whether it’s a small interruption (or ten) or a major, life-altering moment, the unexpected has a tendency to waltz in and command our attention.

And some days it’s not about too much else happening but about the need for very little to happen — days we decide it is enough to have gotten out of bed, maybe taken a shower (maybe not!), maybe put on pants (maybe not!), and been present in whatever form the day takes. Even if that’s just watching TV or reading or goofing around with loved ones. For me, those can be such helpful ways to recharge that I’m then all the more productive the next day. Refocused, realigned, renewed.

Professional writers often advise that, when you find yourself stuck, you simply need to start writing — something, anything — without worrying about how it sounds or where it will end up (ie, whether or not it’s good enough), because you never know what might come out of it. I’ve seen that advice prove true many times in my own writing. Sometimes I only keep a sentence or a key word or a vague idea; sometimes I suddenly find the solution for something I’d been stuck on for months or discover an entirely new idea that I love. Sometimes, of course, I end up with nothing worth keeping. But, even in those instances, maybe having made the effort is enough.

And maybe this unique time we’re in right now is an opportunity to shift our way of thinking. It’s certainly forced us to slow down in many ways, and it’s brought out so much kindness and generosity and creativity that might not have come about otherwise. Personally, I’m trying to apply that kindness, generosity, and creative energy toward myself as well. I want to use this time to reassess my measure of what’s enough. Some days, “enough” is just about doing what I can and continuing to move forward, knowing there are challenges and wonders that await around corners yet to be seen.

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A couple years ago, when I was going through a tough time, my counselor recommended I get myself a MantraBand® bracelet that would keep my focus on a positive affirmation. Looking through the many options, we both knew right away that “I am enough” was what I needed to hear. I’ve come a long way since that time, so I no longer feel compelled to wear it, but I keep it displayed prominently above my dresser as a continued reminder.

On Grief and Gratitude

The first thing you need to know about Leah is that she wasn’t “just” a dog. She was the first dog I had in my adult life, in my first house, navigating her care around my first full-time job. I brought her home when she was just a few months old, small enough to rest up against my shoulder like a baby or curl perfectly into the triangle of my criss-cross-legged lap. In so many ways, we grew up together.

We challenged each other and supported each other through a whole lot of ups and downs. We navigated sleepless nights — in the beginning and again near the end, months of housebreaking issues, and various training approaches. I nursed her back to health after multiple illnesses and surgeries, including an ACL repair that meant no running or jumping for two months. I put my mattress on the floor so she could still sleep next to me and guided her outside, step by tedious step, using a towel as a harness.

She returned the care I gave her tenfold. When I was stressed out or crying, she would lay her head in my lap or bring me a toy, reminding me to take a breath and laugh it off. When I slipped on ice while walking her once, she immediately came close to my side and bent down, a confused but ready protector. She was a friend to all of my friends, an adored grandpup, a charmer to our neighbors (even a couple who said they otherwise didn’t like dogs), and a calming, neutral-party mediator between my ex-husband and me, as we navigated coparenting her after we split.

Through the divorce, three moves, two job changes, and a master’s degree, she was on the journey alongside me. Amidst all the changes, she was a constant.

For the last few years, it was just the two of us in our little apartment. I talked to her all the time. I still do.

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And now she’s gone.

She passed away in July, after a brief and rapid decline into kidney and liver failure. She was 8 years old. Those 8 years felt like a lifetime and a fleeting moment, all at once. It still feels so strange to talk about her in the past tense.

Without her, I have now entered a new phase that feels foreign and tricky to navigate. A chapter in which I was quite comfortable was closed before I was ready, and a new one now stretches out before me. This is one of the most palpable experiences I’ve had of life operating outside of my control. I see myself now as a character standing upon that new chapter’s blank pages, trying to figure out what comes next.

This change has been heartbreaking and scary — and also, when I allow it to be, filled with new possibilities. I’ve barely known an adult life that didn’t include making plans around dog care, and I don’t quite know what to do with it yet. I’m trying to gain an appreciation for the more flexible schedule and the lessened responsibility, but most days I would rather go back to the 2 am wakeups and the snowy walks and the vet bills if it could mean having her back.

One thing that’s guiding me through this is the refreshed perspective I’ve had toward life since entering a previous new phase about a year ago. Last fall, I left the job I’d been in for 6 years and entered a new field, gaining a revitalized outlook and energy in the process. I got serious about my health — not just physically but mentally and emotionally too. Happiness and gratitude became priorities. I’ve found that, by simply paying better attention and shifting my focus, there is so much to be grateful for in every day. I work hard to acknowledge it, rather than mindlessly let it slip past or, worse, let the negatives take over my attention.

As I’ve talked with many loved ones and with my counselor about losing Leah, I find myself returning again and again to gratitude, falling into those kinds of statements without even trying — gratitude for the time we had together, for all that she taught me, and even for the ending we were given. I’m finding that gratitude is what sustains us during the times when it’s particularly hard to feel grateful.

I’m grateful that I can say Leah’s decline was brief. Just a month before she passed, she’d had a great annual check-up and had more energy than she’d had in months. Her dad took her to the beach and took stunning photos of her with a happily tired, wide-mouthed smile. I will cherish those all the more so now, because I want to think of her that way — loving life and savoring a beautiful day. She loved lying out in the sun.

I’m grateful that, shortly after Leah first went to the vet that Saturday morning, I had a girls’ day out and sleepover with my niece, Cora, that kept my focus on something positive while waiting for an update. (The vet needed to keep Leah there for the weekend on an IV.) Cora and I had had these plans set for weeks, and I didn’t want to cancel. When I got the call Sunday morning that Leah was not improving and I should get there soon, I’m grateful that Cora displayed maturity far beyond her 5 years in understanding the change in plans and getting herself dressed and packed while I made a flurry of phone calls. I’m grateful I have some positive memories associated with that weekend thanks to her.

I’m grateful that we had a heads-up that the end was coming and were able to be with Leah for her final breaths, as difficult as that was. I’m grateful the decision we had to make that day was clear, as she was no longer herself and was not going to bounce back. There was no agonizing uncertainty or wait; she had gone a long way down a dark road very quickly, and we helped her along the rest of it. I’m grateful that my ex, his new wife, and I were all there together to remind Leah of how much she is loved and to support each other through this overwhelming loss, as we’ve continued to do.

I’m grateful that I stumbled upon the perfect “urn” at the At Home store after debating for weeks what to do with Leah’s ashes. Nothing had felt right. And then this little tin with a bird on it was waiting for me at the end of an aisle, the only one of its kind. I picked it up and carried it around the store with me, and instinctively I found myself holding it close, almost cradling it, rubbing the bird’s back mindlessly with my thumb. I felt comforted, reassured. Not only do I think of birds as a symbol of peace, but Leah loved to chase after them and bark at them, hopping around as she looked up at them in the trees. It felt like a sign, at a time when I had long been ready to receive one.

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I’m grateful for all the lessons and challenges Leah brought to my life, for how much she helped me to grow, for her snuggles and playtime routines and the way her eyes would light up as we rounded the last corner of our walks and ran to our door. I’m grateful for all the little pieces of each day that will always make me think of her.

As daily life carries on amidst this jarring change, I still often endure waves of grief, but I return again and again to gratitude. It’s going to take continued practice and mindful effort, and I know there will still be days I fail at it. But I’m grateful I had already laid that foundation and can try to call upon it now, when I need it more than ever before.

Losing Leah has been such a profound loss precisely because of how fortunate I was to have her as an integral part of my day-to-day life. The key is to try to keep my focus on that second part and let that swell of gratitude continue to carry me forward.