On Saturday night in Berkeley, after trying (without reservations) to eat at Chez Panisse (the upstairs, less expensive café part), Betsy and I walked along the block for a while before deciding on Café Gratitude, a raw food vegan restaurant that practices sacred commerce.
Our young server, Natalie, with her bangs and long black braid, bright eyes blackly lined, and pink glossed lips, gave us a tour of the menu and recited a bit of Gratitude’s history. Before she left us to ponder food choices, she asked us the question of the day: “What are you letting go?” Natalie opened her hands, palms up.
Betsy replied with her own question: “Do you want us to answer you… ?”
I interjected, “—or just think about it?”
Natalie seemed to take a step away. “Whatever you want,” she said and continued to smile. “I’ll be back.” As she walked off, I noticed she wore cool black boots with her black clothes.
All the servers wore black. The tables and chairs were hewn wood, and the place was generally unfancy, yet still had a deliberate look to it. We liked it somehow.
I liked the question, too, and it seemed to me suddenly one I had been waiting for someone to ask me. Natalie was gone. I turned to Betsy. “So… I think I might have an answer already. It’s something I’ve been working out, in some of our conversations.” Betsy and I had been hanging out together, with lots of time on walks or in the car, for two days.
I replied, “One word. Prestige.”
This – honestly, vainly – is an aspect of my job at MIT that I have been anticipating missing, and it’s irreplaceable. I’ve been pre-mourning the loss of this idea: Am I not more important, the more important the institution I work for? That’s the logic. It’s surface, though, isn’t it?
There are other parts of my job I’ll miss, of course, especially the handful of colleague/friends I’ve made there and the almost daily access I have to them. Sure, I’ll keep in touch with them, but I won’t be with them, won’t work with them.
I’ll miss the campus. I’ll miss my desk.
But this aspect of the job – the prestige factor – well, that has been gnawing at me more than I wish it would. I don’t want to be that person, the one who measures herself against status. After all, I’m the person fond of saying, “Students are students wherever you go,” and it’s true. At the next college I teach at (and I’m optimistic that I’ll be teaching in September, and not empty-handed when it comes to employment), there will be young people, and they will present themselves with an assortment of skills, experiences, personalities, and urgencies, and I’ll offer them, I hope, an opportunity to learn: from each other, and from me. And I’ll like them. Wherever I’ve been so far, I’ve liked the students there, different though the populations at Wheelock, Simmons, and Mount Ida Colleges and MIT might be.
With all that I believe and enjoy about teaching, I’ve got to relinquish this concern with perceived status. And I’m starting to.
Why the picture of the helium balloon? This act of letting go – of articulating, of releasing – reminds me of a school-wide activity we performed when I was in first grade. On a day in May, all the children went out into the asphalt playground of the Center School in Leicester, Massachusetts, where I grew up. We each were given a balloon, filled with helium and attached to a string tether. In our hands, we already held little manila tags, on which we had written (in the classroom) a message, along with our own name and school address. We took our tags, each punched with a hole, and tied them to our balloon’s string. Then we stood, on the hard playground in the sunshine under a blue clear sky, and we quietly waited en masse. A teacher, or maybe the principal, whistled the signal we had been cautioned to wait for. And then, all together, we opened wide our little hands that clutched the strings and let the balloons go, go, go. They rose in an uneven cloud; they separated; they scattered in the sky and almost disappeared. We stood there with our heads tipped back, trying to follow the trails of the balloons, until our teachers shepherded us back inside. We got settled at our desks, and we daydreamed or chattered about our hope that our balloon would be found somewhere downdrift by a stranger, someone who would see a deflated balloon on the ground, be curious enough to poke it with a toe or lean over to pick it up, and find the tag that asked the finder to write a note to the child who released the balloon and let her know where it was found.
I wonder if letting go and generating hope are inextricably twined.
And I wonder, too, what are you letting go? You can let me know, or you can just think about it. Whatever you want.
Thanks to Incurable Hippie on Flickr for use of the balloon image.
3 thoughts on “– What are you letting go?”
I love this post. But I don’t think I’m letting anything go at the moment. I’m still holding on. Maybe I’ll let you know when I’m ready to release that balloon.
I think we are living in an Era of Letting Go. Everybody must let go of something — well, this is the human condition at all times, I realize that — but now we all will, sooner or later, need to let go of something we’ve been accustomed to. As will whole nations or cultures. The economy is causing a great deal of letting go. The climate situation will cause letting go, if it isn’t doing so already. Drought in California will cause letting go. Shifting power relations in the world will cause letting go.
Holding on is getting us in trouble — either our own holding on, or that of others. Those who won’t or can’t let go, who insist that their accustomed way of life is an unbreakable entitlement, an imperative, a Right Doctrine, a Universal Truth . . . are standing in the way of something that, in the end, will bring change anyway, regardless of their willing it not to occur. The question is not whether letting go will happen and not whether basic change will occur; the question is whether it will happen the hardest way because we are too inflexible to let it happen any other way.
I may have let go of writing novels. I can’t tell yet. One day I’ll let go of my definition as Professor Pei, career writing teacher, mentor and so forth. One day, I dare say, I will move out of this house. I’ve already let go of being young, and one day I’ll let go of being whatever I’m called now and be unequivocally, without qualifications, old — should I live that long. There are many things to let go of or that I have let go of, not all of which I will mention here.
“Prestige.” The first thing I thought when I read that word was, “prestigious,” and how it relates to “prestidigitation.” Magic. As in, flashy, showy, but maybe not real.
A long time ago, in an old style manual, I read that one shouldn’t use the word “prestigious” to describe something actually good (like a fine school with a good reputation) because of its connotations of things that are flashy and not-necessarily-what-it-seems.
Given that strand of meaning, and thought, it seems like a really, really good thing to give up. And how interesting to consider how giving it up might make room for the opposite–something very, very real. (Not that your job isn’t that, too; not at all—just thinking of the words and conceptions that surround them.)