4: The List

4: The List

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Power of Positive

The List

He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has.

~Epictetus

I sat across from my company’s director of human resources and watched his lips move as he spoke with a practiced nonchalance. “Today will be your last day with us,” he said. Then he wished me well and handed me a cardboard box in which to pack up my belongings.

After twenty-two years of employment with this company, I imagined a much different parting of the ways. A recognition dinner attended by my peers would have been a more appropriate send-off, perhaps. At the very least, surely I deserved a modest cake and coffee reception in the staff lunchroom decorated with a few of those smiley-face balloons. Yet there I was, shoving a cardboard box into the back seat of my car, about to leave the place where I had spent almost half my life. I pulled out of the parking lot and glanced into the rear view mirror at the imposing brick building for one last time. My eyes looked back at me in the mirror’s reflection. What now? I asked myself. What now?

I must admit that I was not generally the type of person who found it easy to take lemons and make lemonade. Yet, I had learned through my husband Bill’s previous bouts with unemployment that a better opportunity quite frequently is waiting around the bend. Like the time Bill lost his job the same day we returned from our honeymoon. We were both terrified. Yet, that experience brought new employment in the South and the opportunity to experience the pleasures of southern living. After that position ended, his next job brought us back home to the North for a wonderful reunion with our friends and family. When that company went belly-up, he was hired by another organization in our area that offered him a salary large enough for us to purchase our first home. Surely some blessing would come about as a result of my unemployment.

As I sat with the newspaper want ads a few days later, however, I started to have my doubts. It seemed that in the current economy, positions for my type of work were paying exactly half of my previous salary, and benefits, if there even were any, weren’t as generous either. Those facts, combined with the expense of a longer commute, made it seem that returning to work was hardly worth the effort.

Week after week I scanned each and every ad for employment carefully, never finding anything that seemed to fit my wants or my needs. One Sunday morning, frustrated, I flipped through the newspaper aimlessly. I scanned the headlines that revealed stories of natural disaster, murder, kidnapping. Sinking deeper into depression, I reached for an attempt at levity: the comics. Yet, in my current emotional state even Garfield had lost his appeal. I flipped the pages again, and there on the last page, something caught my eye: a full-color advertisement for our local college’s open house to be held later that month. I ran my hand across the advertisement. How many times had I vowed to return to college to complete my degree, yet had never found the time? Well, lack of time was no longer a valid excuse. I ripped out the ad, folded it carefully, and then placed it in a kitchen drawer along with some supermarket coupons.

It took a full week before I had the courage to look at that paper again. When I did, a barrage of doubts assaulted me. How could I afford tuition? Completing my degree would require two years, at least. Was I willing to make that type of time commitment? Did I even have what it took, intellectually, to return to college after a twenty-year-plus hiatus? And then the big question: Was I just too old to embark on what seemed like such a massive undertaking?

I took my concerns to my husband. “You’re worried about everything you imagine you don’t have. Why don’t you focus on what you know you do have?”

That night, I sat down and took a complete inventory of myself. With pen and paper in hand, I wrote down all of my assets: brains, health, drive, and desire headed the list. After fifteen minutes, I was still writing. Okay, so I had what it took, scholastically speaking, but could I afford the cost? Tuition, books, and all the other essentials were pricey, especially now that I wasn’t working. Well, we had saved some money for house renovations. Maybe those repairs could wait. Then there were a few collectibles that could be sold. I did some quick calculations. The bottom line figure was barely enough to cover the first semester. I sharpened my pencil. If we cut back on dining out, rented movies instead of seeing them in a theater, steered clear of shopping malls — in other words went on a complete austerity program — we could generate some of the extra funds. The rest would have to be covered by student loans. I brought my ideas to my husband.

“No one could argue with this presentation,” he said after reviewing my penciled proposal. “Go for it.”

So I did. To say the following two years were easy would be a big, fat lie. There were many long afternoons spent in the library and many even longer nights spent in front of my computer. I can recall one particularly grueling wrestling match with a jammed printer as I tried to unearth a page of a report due later that afternoon, and one semester of near insanity when I decided to tackle twelve advanced credits in an abbreviated eight-week summer session. Throughout it all, I hung onto my handwritten list of assets like a lifeline. Several times, reviewing that list and switching my thinking from “have nots” to “haves” hauled me back to the shore of possibility. And, a little over two years after carrying a cardboard box of office paraphernalia home, I carried something else much better: my college diploma and the promise of a brand new career.

As I stepped down from the college’s stage after commencement that drizzly June afternoon, my husband stood waiting to congratulate me. He kissed me, then squeezed my hand in his. “You’re a college graduate now,” he said. “I always knew you could do it.”

I thought back to my penciled list, edges now worn. “So did I,” I said with a wink. “So did I.”

~Monica A. Andermann

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