I’ve logged more experience than most with simplicity and the complexity you discover inside simplicity, minimalism and asocial behavior, endurance and landscape.
Here is the truth: I think some deep wisdom inside me (a) sensed the stress, (b) was terrified for me, and (c) gave me something new and hard to focus on in order to prevent me from lapsing into a despair coma — and also to keep me from having a jelly jar of wine in my hand.
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The following letters, though never written, are based on real events. Any resemblance to the author’s life and the people she has known is purely intentional.
April 12, 1970
Dear Young Artist:
Thank you for your attempt to draw a tree. We appreciate your efforts, especially the way you sat patiently on the sidewalk, gazing at that tree for an hour before setting pen to paper, and the many quick strokes of charcoal you executed with enthusiasm. But your smudges look nothing like a tree. In fact, they look like nothing at all, and the pleasure and pride you take in the work are not enough to redeem it. We are pleased to offer you remedial training in the arts, but we cannot accept your “drawing” for display.
With regret and best wishes,
The Art Class
Andasol Avenue Elementary School
February 12, 1973
Dear Ninth-Grade Girl:
We regret to inform you that no suitable match has been found to accompany you to the school dance. The volume of requests we receive makes individual feedback impossible, but please know that you were given careful consideration. Do feel free to attend on your own, perhaps with another rejectee, and stand awkwardly in a corner with a glass of warm punch in your sweaty hand. Watching others have a good time is excellent preparation for the roles you will play in the future.
The Boys’ Council of Patrick Henry Junior High
October 13, 1973
Thank you for your application to be the girlfriend of one of our star basketball players. As you can imagine, we have received hundreds of similar requests and so cannot possibly respond personally to every one. This letter is to inform you that you have not been chosen for one of the coveted positions, but we do invite you to continue hanging around the lockers as if you belong there. This selfless act will help the team members learn the art of ignoring lovesick girls.
The Granada Hills Highlanders
P.S.: Though your brother is one of the star players, we could not take this familial relationship into account. Sorry to say no! Please do try out for one of the rebound-girlfriend positions in the future.
November 15, 1975
Dear Prospective Dancer:
Thank you for trying out to be a Highland Dancer. Although we know you looked forward to wearing the cute kilt and argyle kneesocks, the crisp white dress shirt and the tasseled shoes, we regret to inform you that you did not make the cut into the second round of auditions. Some girls simply are not coordinated enough to be a member of this elite troupe. It’s not your fault; you just haven’t quite “grown into” your body yet. We wish you the best of luck in finding your niche elsewhere.
The Highland Dance Team
Granada Hills High School
January 15, 1977
Dear Future Thespian:
Thank you for choosing drama as your major at Cal State Northridge. Although we are not the most prestigious acting school in the greater Los Angeles area, we do take pride in having a rigorous curriculum that requires all students to be fluent in diction, singing, movement arts, and a certain indefinable “something,” a je ne sais quoi that gives a young woman presence on the stage.
Unfortunately you do not have what it takes to be a star and will always be relegated to the “second girl” or the waitress with one or two lines that you’ll belt out with imperfect timing. We understand that in high school you got to play Emily in Our Town, watching the townsfolk from your perch in the afterlife, and that you once had a leading role in The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, but you delivered your lines too earnestly and were too eager to please.
We appreciate that you love turning into someone else for the space of an hour or so, and that you feel exhilarated once you hit your mark. But your lisping voice and rather clumsy gestures force us to look elsewhere for a leading lady.
You might have more luck in a behind-the-scenes role — perhaps writing? It’s come to our attention that you once wrote a one-act play called Backstage, which consisted of two stagehands waiting for the stage manager to arrive; the manager never arrives, and even the play itself is an illusion! Cute.
With best wishes,
The Drama Department
Cal State Northridge
December 10, 1978
Dear College Dropout:
Thank you for the short time you spent with us. We understand that you have decided to terminate your stay, a decision that seems completely reasonable, given the circumstances. After all, who knew that the semester you decided to enroll at UC Berkeley would be so tumultuous. That unsavory business with Jim Jones and his Bay Area followers left us all reeling. And then Harvey Milk was shot, a blast that reverberated across the bay. It truly did feel as if the world were falling apart — we know that. We understand why you took refuge in the music of the Grateful Dead, dancing until you felt yourself leave your body, caught up in their brand of enlightenment. But you do realize that’s a delusion, right?
And given that you were a drama major, struggling on a campus well-known for histrionics and unrest — well, it’s only understandable that you’d need some time to “find yourself.” You’re really too young to be in such a big city on your own. When you had your exit interview with the dean of students, you were completely inarticulate about your reasons for leaving, perhaps because you still have no idea what they are. You know there is a boy you might love in Santa Cruz. You fed him peanuts at a Dead show. You imagine playing house with him, living there in the shadows of tall trees.
But of course you couldn’t say that to the dean, as he swiveled in his chair, looking so official in his gray suit. He clasped his hands on the oak desk and waited for you to explain yourself. His office looked out on the quad, where you’d heard the Talking Heads play just a week earlier, and beyond that the dorm where the gentleman you know only as “Pink Cloud” provided you with LSD, which you took in order to experience more fully the secrets the Dead whispered in your ear. You told the dean none of this, but simply shrugged your shoulders and began to cry, at which point he cleared his throat and wished you luck.
We regret to inform you that it will be quite a while before you grow up, and it will take some cataclysmic events in your life before you really begin to find the role that suits you. In any case, we wish you the best in all your future educational endeavors.
UC Berkeley Registrar
October 26, 1979
Dear Potential Mom:
Thank you for providing a host home for each of us during the few weeks we stayed in residence. It was lovely but, in the end, didn’t quite work out. Though we tried to be unobtrusive in our exit, the narrowness of your fallopian tubes made some damage unavoidable. Sorry about that. You know you were too young to have children anyway, right? And you know it wasn’t your fault, not really. (Though you could have been a tad more careful in your carnal acts. But no matter. Water under the bridge.)
We enjoyed our brief stay in your body and wish you the best of luck in conceiving children in the future.
Ira and Isabelle
November 3, 1979
We regret to inform you that, due to reproductive abnormalities, you will not be able to conceive children. Barren is not a word we use these days, but you may use it if you so choose. Your two miscarriages were merely symptoms of these abnormalities, which we surmise were acquired in utero. It’s not your fault, but you may choose to take this misfortune as a sign of God’s displeasure and torture yourself with guilt and self-loathing for many years to come.
All the best,
Student Health Center
Humboldt State University
June 2, 1982
Dear Little Raven:
Thank you for your three-year audition to serve as the white girlfriend and savior to a Native American man twelve years your senior. Your persistence has been admirable, but we regret to inform you that we can no longer use your services.
Yes, we appreciate the fact that you smoked tobacco in a cherrywood pipe and wore a turquoise eagle around your neck. You listened to drums and chanting for hours on end and read Black Elk Speaks and got yourself an “Indian name.” These efforts have all been noted. But the role of “pseudo–Native American white girl” is not one we can recommend you for.
We appreciate the many times you took this man to the hospital or let him borrow your car, your money, your time. But we’re sure that if you take a good hard look at your performance, you’ll see that you were using this relationship as punishment for your past sins. That kind of arrangement is never good for anyone. So we bid you farewell and wish you the best of luck as you seek spiritual salvation elsewhere.
May 23, 1986
Thank you for your four years of service with Orr Hot Springs Resort, and in particular your role as live-in girlfriend to one of our more depressed shareholders. We also appreciate your services as godmother to our resident toddler and confidante to his parents (a relationship that did, ahem, transgress some boundaries, but you shaped up when this was pointed out).
So it is with great sadness that we must inform you that your services are no longer required. This dismissal in no way reflects upon your job performance. (Well, you could have cleaned the lodge a little better and been a little more thorough when it was your turn to scrub the bathhouse.) It’s simply time for you to move on.
Please pack your meager belongings into the car you bought for two hundred dollars. Please do not dramatically extend the farewells, wandering the property to “say goodbye” to inanimate objects, to the gardens, to Tub Room #2, where you spent so many mornings immersed in yourself. Please do not throw the I Ching to determine your next steps or read the tarot or take Ecstasy. Simply get into your car and chug up the mountain road at first light. You will feel a sensation of tearing — like a ligament ripped from the bone — but don’t worry. This is normal. You will head north. You will be fine. You will find the role that suits you.
Orr Hot Springs Resort
April 14, 1994
Dear Potential Wife:
Thank you for your application to be my spouse. While I see much to admire here, I regret to inform you that you do not meet my needs at this time.
I do want to commend you for your efforts over the past five years. You did your best, but your anxiety made it difficult to proceed. Even so, we did love our coffee in the morning, our home-cooked meals in the evening, and our travels through the Middle East. (Let’s just forget the argument we had while walking the walls of the Old City in Jerusalem. Water under the bridge.) You laughed at my jokes; thanks for that. And of course it was fun being fledgling writers together, before reality intervened.
Try to remember that we loved the only way we could: not perfectly, nor entirely well, but genuinely. I adored your lisp and the little mole above your lip. I touched your scars, and you touched mine. We tried. But at some point in a relationship you shouldn’t have to try so hard, right?
It may just be bad timing. Best wishes in your future matrimonial endeavors. I’m sure your talents will be put to good use elsewhere. I hope we can remain friends.
Your Grad-School Boyfriend
June 30, 1999
Thank you for your query about assuming the role of our stepmother. Although we found your résumé impressive, we regret to inform you that we have decided not to fill the position this year. You did ask for feedback on your application, so we have the following to suggest:
1. You do not yet understand the delicate emotional dynamic that rules a divorced father’s relationship with his children. The children will always, always, come first, trumping any needs you may have. You will understand this in a few years, but for now you still require some training.
2. Though you have sacrificed your time and energy to support this family, it’s become clear that your desire to be a stepmother stems from some deep-seated wound in yourself, a wound you are trying to heal. We have enough to deal with — an absent mother, a frazzled father. We don’t need your traumas in the mix.
3. Seeing the movie Stepmom is not an actual tutorial on stepparenting.
4. On Mother’s Day you should not have expected flowers, gifts, or even a thank-you. You are not our mother.
5. You are still a little delusional about the potential here for a long-term relationship. Our father is not ready to commit so soon after a messy divorce. (This should have been obvious to you when he refused to hold your hand, saying that it made him feel claustrophobic.)
We hope this feedback is helpful, and we wish you the best in your future parenting endeavors.
Your Boyfriend’s Daughters
January 3, 2007
Dear New Dog Owner:
Congratulations on adopting your first dog! She will surely provide hours of love and enjoyment and be a wonderful addition to your family.
Here are a few tips:
1. A dog is not a child, even if you do call yourself “Mom.” Yes, other people will now know you as “Abbe’s mom,” and you’ll take a great deal of foolish pride in this. But, remember, a dog is not a child.
2. Though a dog is not a child, you will need to plan your life around this creature: food, water, companionship, play dates, illnesses. Yes, there will be illnesses. You will need to make crucial decisions while in tears at the vet’s office. You may need to empty your savings account to insure that your dog is no longer in pain.
3. You will at some point say to yourself: I don’t need to date; I have my dog. Be very careful about repeating this statement in public.
4. You will grow fond of this dog and overlook her shortcomings, her flaws. (Really, they are so few.) Why can’t you do this with a man?
5. A pet’s love, contrary to popular belief, is not unconditional. There are many conditions: expensive food, regular walks, toys, your undivided attention.
6. A dog such as Abbe makes a terrific all-natural antidepressant. At some level, of course, you already know this; otherwise you wouldn’t have spent so much time on Petfinder.com rather than Match.com. When you are with her, you will feel as if something were being repaired in your body, like a ligament rejoining the bone.
7. At times you’ll feel rejected by Abbe. Don’t worry, this is normal. Though she is very friendly, Abbe needs her space sometimes. (As do we all!)
8. You will train to be a therapy-dog team, providing companionship and affection to people in hospitals and nursing homes. Though Abbe will be better at it than you are, you’ll enjoy sitting by her side as she is petted by strangers young and old. You’ll stay quiet and simply observe, playing a background role, finding satisfaction in this. You’ll understand that such therapy is as much for you as it is for them.
Once again, congratulations on taking on this huge responsibility. It’s an indication of maturity, of finding your niche and settling into your life as it is.
Furbaby Pet Rescue of Whatcom County
I was deeply moved by Brenda Miller’s essay (of sorts) “We Regret to Inform You” [November 2013]. Never have I seen such vulnerability and candor by a writer when dealing with the pain of loss and rejection. It is a personal history of persistence in the face of criticism and feelings of inadequacy. To admit to having been fired or dismissed and then to write, with courageous self-reflection, about why — ouch! I couldn’t read it without remembering all the times in my own life when I’ve felt inadequate. I am touched by her tenderness, her courage, and especially her resilience.