for what it's worth

I woke up the day after my birthday and knew.
For months I’ve been wondering what I need to do next, or what to be when I grow up or what happens now. But that morning, with the smile lines and gray hairs showing through, looking every bit of another year older, I knew. 

So before putting on real clothes I began searching for graduate programs.
Which is a little bit silly because I already have a graduate degree.
But I figured everyone now has a Masters, I might as well have 2.

I applied to one school before my kids even got out of bed. I was looking at signing up for the GRE and trying to pick a program. I texted, emailed, called and made appointments with an advisor.

But it wasn’t really what I was looking for.

The next day, I did a little more research and stumbled upon a program that was more me.
Unfortunately it will take a whole lot longer to complete and people would get to call me doctor if I got in. I applied to my second school in as many days. One I have gotten into before but thought that never in a million years would I actually go to. I tried not to think about how much I was dropping in application fees, I sent more emails and asked more questions and seriously wondered if I had lost my mind.

A few told me that I had, but the ones closest to me where not surprised. They were actually relieved that I was looking into the longer rather than shorter paths.

Getting in wasn’t something I worried about. I have a solid resume and get at least a dozen emails a day asking me to apply to some kind of graduate program or another. I figured anyone would be happy to take my money. Until suddenly the director of my dream program emails me back and lets me know that I would be a perfect candidate, but that she should warn me that it is very competitive. That only 45% or so of applicants get in.
In other words, I better bring my A game.

I send my transcripts. I start filling out my application and asking people to be my references and now I am starting to sweat.

“What if I don’t get in?”

And this is no normal application. It requires several writing samples (which by sample they mean several pages each) with original ideas and the ideas of others. And to be sure to site my sources. I am being graded on grammar and citations.
Grammar! This can not end well for me.

Again, I hear the refrain of “What if I don’t get in?”  play through my head.

I download and read a half dozen books that aren’t my usual summer reading. I start watching keynotes and Ted Talks from experts on topics that I am going to write about.  I spend most of my drive to the beach answering the writing sample questions. I type for hours as my husband drives. Pages and pages of reflection while my son asks over and over “when are we going to get there?”

And when I finish I feel really good. Like I usually do when I get my thoughts out.
I feel like I nailed it and they will be stupid not to let me in and I do not crack open my computer the entire rest of the trip.  I can edit when I get home.

So this is a good time to tell you that I do not edit. I usually give something a quick skim and capitalize a few letters. Maybe even drop a few “to be” verbs if I am feeling extra ambitions and hit publish or send.  I love to write. But that is where I stop. Apparently there is a whole lot of work that goes into editing.  Like weeks worth of work and it is a lot more than just cleaning up some bad grammar and correcting the words that I misspelled.  It is all the extra work that takes something good and makes it better. This is the kind of boring effort that I usually don't put into anything. Not just my writing.

Most of my samples were too long. I was working on word/character limits and I needed to make them fit into the neat 1000 word text boxes that I was provided.  They needed a clear thesis and not just some rant where I actually figure out what I am saying 723 words in. I wrote. And rewrote. I emailed it out to English teachers and I made their suggested corrections. I read more. I scoured blogs and watched keynote addresses.  I had friends help me. I sought out people smarter than me. I deleted. I moved things around.  I even watched a boring youtube video on how to correctly do APA citations. And I struggled. Less with the writing and more with myself. The more I looked at my words the less good I felt about them. The more I started to hear,  “What if I don’t get in?” in my head as I trimmed and cited and rearranged.  The more I put in to this, the more I had to lose.

Yesterday afternoon I finally clicked on submit. 
A little text box popped up asking me if I was sure I was finished. That I would not be able to make any changes.
And I hesitantly clicked OK.

I leaned back into the couch and waited for the huge wave of relief and accomplishment to hit me. The cheesy mom voice telling me that I had given it my best and that should feel good about it. No matter what some review committee decides. 

That feeling never came.
Instead I fought some crazy urge to cry. 
Of laying it all out there. Truly my best efforts and having to wait four months for someone to tell me if it is good enough.
If I am good enough.

I sat there on the couch for a long time. Frozen. Watching really bad TV. Trying to convince myself that this isn’t what it is all about. 

In or Out. 
Yes or No.

My validation is not going to ever come in the form of an acceptance letter.
My worth is not going change if I am rejected.
Even if my best is not good enough that I still am.

And part of me thinks I should just type those last 3 lines over and over until they really sink in.

Three years ago I submitted a piece of writing to be published. The topic was on worth. 
That essay is far too private to ever go here. It is honest and raw and I think some of my best work. At first, the publisher loved it. Raved and said was perfect for the collection.  
In the end it was left out.  Rejected.  And I felt like I had been too.
I haven’t submitted a single thing since then to anyone.

I tell my kids all the time to try their best. That I don’t care if they score or win or make perfect grades. That I care more about their effort and not giving up.  And suddenly I wonder if I have been making that sound too easy. Giving our best at anything or to anyone is incredibly vulnerable.  It takes away all excuses and all layers of protection.  It takes away every single bit of control.  

This morning, I am back on my couch. The books and laptops have been put away and I am left with things like trust. Humility. And a handful of verses on where worth really comes from.  There is still a long time to wait.  My application may be finished, but apparently I still have a lot of things to learn.


mandi said...

I decided a several months ago that I wanted to get into a PhD psychology program, preferably at UT since it's main focus aligns with my strongest philosophical interest. I met with someone on the admissions board and a lecturer in the department on her recommendations of what I need to do to be considered, even remotely, for acceptance. I have a lot of work to do. Because my BA is in philosophy I have more work than most applicants to develop an even basic foundation to be successful in this program. The rewards are immense, but so is the work to even get started on the start. I've been hesitant to begin. I still haven't. There's always excuses. Your comment, though, resonated with me. "The more I put in to this, the more I had to lose". I think that's why I'm afraid. I am afraid.

I admire your boldness and strength, particularly in your transparency with this vulnerability. It's touching and encouraging. At least for me it is. I'm going to start today. I don't have to be afraid anymore. You always were, and still are, an amazing teacher. Thank you for this.

-Mandi Ford (an old chemistry student from KHS)

Ann Kroeker said...

The theme at The High Calling this past has been on Risk and Reward. This would be a powerful part of the collection.

Your reflective piece will hit home with anyone who has worked hard, giving her best, taken a risk, and felt themselves existing in a thin, fragile vulnerability. "Giving our best...takes away all excuses and all layers of protection. It takes away every single bit of control." Yes.

I don't like living in that fragile place. It leaves me...fragile.

And yet, if we don't give our best and default to status quo, what kind of life is that? Safe, yes, but is that the life we are meant to live?

Bravo. And I feel your pain.

Bon courage, as the French say. Literally, "Good courage."

Ann Kroeker said...

Oh, and check out my bad grammar: "anyone...her best...themselves."

michelle said...

Thanks so much for the encouragement!