Black Balloons Revisited

“Next meeting, we’ll do your three-month reassessment,” my boss said.

“Mm, okay,” I replied, a tinge of familiar dread coming up my spine. Later, I emailed them and asked for a copy of the assessment to be sent to me beforehand. The one time they had done that, I remembered, had not involved any crying on my part, making it basically the Christmas of assessments. There, I thought, I’m doing my part. I’m asking for what I need.

There was no attachment to the email they sent it in reply. Two paragraphs, not the format I had grown used to with a list of the company’s values and how I had measured up. Very little criticism at all, when compared to what I was used to: a strangely bloodless list of flaws, and a score that meant I was labeled mediocre at best. Instead, it offered just the unexpected clarity of It has become clear that your work is not a good fit. We’ll meet at 4 to go over winding down your employment here.

3:59 and I was walking down the hall. I took a breath – counted 4 – held my breath – counted 7 – exhaled as slowly as I could – counted 8. I pictured a triangle expanding into a square, a pentagon, a hexagon, a heptagon, an octagon as I inhaled; then collapsing into itself as I let the breath out again.

I won’t say any more than I have to. I won’t cry. And I didn’t, not then.

Eight months prior to this moment, I had written a poem about it, a rare moment of forward-thinking. I made a not-quite promise to myself about how I would react:

 

next time i fail,

maybe i’ll try celebrating it instead

and see how that goes down . . . .

. . . maybe i’ll start with reminding myself

that it serves as a sign

i was brave enough to try something

i was not guaranteed to get right.

 

I knew all along I would not be able to celebrate my next failure. When I drew to the close of the poem, I pictured a failure somehow splendid, like a would-be senator who gets the smallest percentage of votes, a 5ker who trains hard but doesn’t improve their time, a first draft that needs a heck of editing. With that failure in mind, I thought at least I could manage to not be ashamed. I forgot that you can sometimes not try very hard and still fail.

Do I deserve to feel brave when I stayed at a job I knew wasn’t right for me, as I folded in on myself from an octagon to a heptagon, a hexagon, a pentagon? When I was only halted there by the decision of one who was acting in their own interest? The lesson I wrote for myself does not apply, though maybe one day I’ll live the fable to which the moral belongs.

Here’s another moment of forward-thinking: I’ll grow, and eventually I’ll learn something from this. In the meantime, I’ll say it out loud, despite the sting: I have failed, and failed to fail; yet I am still breathing.


14. Black Balloons

4 – 7 – 8 Breathing

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