When I was 16 I met a girl named Dana Hibma. We were both study-abroad students in Austria. There weren’t many people in town who could speak English, and we probably spent way too much time watching Euro MTV, but we also did some serious talking. One night, Dana told me she wasn’t afraid of dying, because she didn’t have any regrets about the life she’d lived so far.

We wrote letters for a couple years after that, and then, in reply to a letter I’d sent her, I got the worst note I will probably ever receive, ever: Dana had been killed in a car accident. I can’t remember who wrote to me. I’d glad they took the time to do so. (Pink envelope. Foldover card with flowers on the front.)

Anyway, two things this week have recalled Dana to me.

Wednesday: On my way into one of my local grocery stores, I spotted something unusual: a full family (father, wife with a kid in the stroller, two more kids), standing out in front with a cardboard sign: “Out of work with 3 kids. We’ll take anything: Food, water, money.” I nearly stopped walking; I was that surprised. See, I live in an affluent town, and it’s only recently that I’ve seen folks begging in our tony little downtown village. (Our police blotter is a hilarity to read.) I didn’t stop entirely, though; I wasn’t about to give this family money when I could buy them food.

Idyllic, hunh? No problems here, really!
Idyllic, hunh? No problems here, really! (Photo: Scripps College Admissions)

But when I came out with my own groceries and a family-sized hero sandwich ten minutes later, they’d gone. I looked for them for a while, up and down the little strip mall, and when I got back up to the same lady who’d checked me out, she confirmed the unpleasant feeling I was experiencing: customers had “complained,” so the store management had sent the family away.

I was disgusted, and now that I’m thinking about it, probably part of the reason I’m so bent out of shape is that this is the same store management, who, when I asked who I could talk to about setting up a fundraiser on behalf of the Nepal earthquake, with the agency I volunteer for as beneficiary, had held up both his hands at me, as if I were attacking him, and said, “We don’t have anything to do with that. You have to call headquarters.”

Two missed opportunities on the store management’s behalf in my book, now: One, a chance to stand out with upper management by offering to act on my behalf. Two, a chance to do the decent thing and maybe help out the family with food, or at least not make them feel like stray dogs. IRONY ALERT: This store actually TAKES DONATIONS where you can buy a bag of groceries on behalf of a family.

Actually, there were three missed opportunities: I’d be a loyal customer for life if I knew this was a store that looked after its community.

One missed opportunity on my behalf. I did actually think to myself that I bet my town would be the type with shoppers who would complain to store management about folks panhandling in front of the doors, and I did think briefly that maybe I could take the family to the quick-serve Chinese joint just next door, buy them a hot meal, but I didn’t act on that first instinct. (By the way, my cold hero cost just as much as a full meal for the entire family at the Chinese joint.)

Are you keeping track? Because I kind of am, and then something happened Friday that was an almost-miss on my part. Stay with me, because this gets a little confusing. (And, before you ask, I’ve spoken to the person involved, and s/he has agreed to let me share this story.)

I was reviewing the open queue for submissions to our literary magazine. (Writers submit their work, $6 per submission for nonfiction entries between 1,500 and 6,000 words.) I was into a submission, enjoying it, when I started to lose the narrative thread, and wondered where I was in the essay, page-count wise.

I blinked at the page count: Folks, I was reading an essay that was 46 pages long, nearly 3 times as long as a submission of 6,000 words should be. I took a glance at the cover letter. The writer confessed to knowing what our word limit is, but then added that she was open to editorial guidance.

Oh, guys, I was utterly gobsmacked. And then, I was angry. What arrogance! What cheek! What utter bullshit! I fired off a can-you-believe-it note to my co-editors, hoping for what I now know was approval at my pissiness, and then I sent off a standard form decline note to the writer.

The submissions engine we use asks, “Are you sure you want to do this?” I only hesitated a little bit before hitting “yes.”

But I didn’t sleep well that night. The writing in the essay I’d been vetting had been good enough to string me along for nine full pages before I got suspicious, and usually with good writing, I’ll at least send out a few editorial notes with a rejection, telling the writer how I believe they can improve their essay. Sometimes, in place of a rejection letter, I’ll send a note asking if the writer is willing to work on a revision with me.

Something about this essay had piqued, and I hadn’t even given the writer a chance. I was kicking myself, which is crazy, because really, it wasn’t my fault s/he had chosen to send along a 16,000-word essay when s/he knew damn well I only accept up to 6,000. And s/he’d paid for the opportunity, so I was pissed at the undue burden of guilt and the money s/he’d wasted.

Still. The next morning, after a brief confab with my co-editors, I opened up my email and wrote to the writer. Briefly, I explained where s/he’d gone awry, and that s/he’d received a form decline as opposed to editorial guidance because of it. I hoped to get through that I was really mostly pissed off because s/he’d squandered both the chance for the essay to see the light of day and for me to publish something I actually really liked for the first 3,500 words or so, until I started to wonder where the damn thing was going.

And then I invited a reply.

I didn’t know what s/he’d think or say. We editors all have stories of vitriol and ingratitude from well-meaning missives.

But I was lucky. The writer wrote back. The reply was enlightening. We’re talking on the phone this week about the essay, with hopes.

I suppose I’d file this under second chances, really, rather than missed opportunities, for both myself and the writer. I probably should have never pressed the button to decline, thereby closing the door further, without actually giving myself  a chance to think about what I was doing.

The essayist had thought about submitting for a long time, knowing that the essay was too long, but s/he took a huge chance and did it anyway, which some would see as carving out an opportunity, but in my letter, I called the submission a “missed opportunity, for a not very good reason.” In the end, the quality of the work saved the piece from possible obsolescence, and for this, I am deeply grateful.*

I don’t think we’re meant to infer everything about life from my friend Dana’s philosophy of life, my community’s failure to look after its own, or my correspondence with this essayist. I suppose, if I were to infer anything, it might be that we all should do the best that we can do, and hope, in the end, that we won’t regret anything we’ve done or not done when we close our eyes for the last time.

*Do not take this as permission to ever send me anything over 6,000 words. Seriously.


  1. So many missed opportunities in each day. It can be overwhelming. And yet, if we snatch even just one from the brink of oblivion, it can change everything.

    Thanks for the reminder and for sharing those stories.

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