Detour Stories, Part V (Day #55)

Posted in: Thinking Big

More often than not, our detours don’t feel like places or paths so much as the space in between places and paths.  Neither there nor here. Neither then nor now.  Experiences and journeys that feel tangential.  And yet, once we get to where we’re going, we often discover that the tangent didn’t take us off track, it just led us to a different one.

An easier one?

Not always.

But the right one.

For now.

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Denial Works (At Least, Until It Doesn’t …)

by Kate Ladd Pearson

What does it mean to be disabled?  I received the diagnosis of multiple sclerosis (MS) nearly twenty years ago and I’m still learning.

In the early years (and many of the latter ones too) I was too scared to admit to anyone I had an incurable illness.  Denial worked well for me — like the Law of Attraction in reverse — out of sight, out of mind, and out of my conscious reality.

But MS must have remained in my subconscious reality because its strange and mysterious symptoms continued to arrive at sporadic and inconvenient times.  Like when I woke up thinking I was hungover one morning and was completely blind in one eye by noon.  Or the time I was pregnant and lost vision in both eyes for several weeks.  Or the day my dog died and I saw the world in duplicate through crossed eyes for the next month.

Don’t even ask about my ever present clumsiness, bruises from tripping and falling over nothing, slurring my words when perfectly sober or forgetting even the simplest words and names.  It helps to have a sense of humor, and I often blamed these deficiencies on being blonde.

In fact, covering up my symptoms became a source of pride.  I even went back to school to become a naturopathic doctor so I could advise others about how they too could cure their “incurable” illnesses with the “right” attitude and lifestyle choices.

But then I became a lawyer.

Everything I had preached about “balance” and “stress management” went right out the window, and the endless hours writing legal briefs for corporations I cared little about (for an employer who cared less about me) made me finally admit that MS is a serious dis-ease.  Many times while sitting my office the intense itching/burning in the nerves of my hands and arms made me wish I were a wolf caught in a trap so that I would at least have the option of gnawing my wounded limbs off to be free.

But sadly the only “trap” I was caught in was the snare of working for BigLaw with its lure of financial reward through endless billable hours.  So my body solved the problem for me by protesting ever more loudly, and my mind finally had to admit the label “disability” really means something.

It is a humbling experience.

I reluctantly asked for (and begrudgingly received) the accommodation of a reduced hours work schedule.

Four months later I was laid off.

Ironically, the firm I was laid off from is named “Payne & Fears” — no joke.  (David Letterman once featured the firm name in one of his skits; you can still see the video on the P&F website).

One of the things that has kept me relatively sane since the layoff is my new mantra:  “I have now left all PAIN and FEAR behind.”  It’s not always true, of course, but I find the affirmation comforting.

I am in transition.  I am (to some extent) grieving the loss of a career.  I am managing a disability.  I do not know where this path is leading me or how long it will take to get there.

In the meantime, I really just want to have more fun.  If you happen to know any good blonde lawyer jokes, I would love to hear them …

(Kate is in transition, but she’s not letting that slow her down.  Her new blog, Think Like a (Blonde) Lawyer, is off to a fantastic start.  It’s equal parts funny, insightful and inspiring.  I can’t wait to see where her current detour will lead.)

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…When You’re Busy Making Plans

by Naomi Odes Aytur

When I moved to Los Angeles in 2001,  I had been acting and writing in New York for seven years. My resume was modest but I was proud of its contents. Highlights include: a one woman show that I wrote, produced, and performed around the city; the lead role in an award winning short film that appeared in over thirty festivals around the country;  and of course, my one money-making gig (although short-lived and useless in forwarding my career): extra work on SNL.  Although I feared the cut-throat competition of Los Angeles and having to drive to auditions after mastering the walking/subway life in NYC, I felt ready for the change. However, I was a New Yorker at heart. I figured this would be only a short detour, in environment only. Two years. Maximum.

Upon arrival, I hit the ground running. I got a commercial agent (albeit a crappy one) within two weeks. I had never been able to get any agent in the 7 years I was in New York. Within a year, I had found writing partners and co-wrote, produced and performed a comedy show.  I started to write songs and perform them at open mike nights. I even got a couple of gigs.  Auditions were spotty and I had a fair number of long dry spells. All the while, just as I had in New York, I worked day jobs in the corporate world. I tolerated these jobs, at best. I mostly complained all day that I was wasting my life. I thought for sure my brain could be used for better purposes, like writing a sitcom, for example. (Ask me if I wrote a sitcom. Nope.)

Then in 2004, my father was diagnosed with primary progressive Multiple Sclerosis. The following year we learned my (then) fiance’s mother’s cancer had returned after a twenty year remission, and worse-it had metastisized. She wasn’t expected to live more than two to three years.  Both families were on the East Coast.  We were on the West. What were we doing here?  Living: our dreams and otherwise. Suddenly we were handed a plate full of reality.

We didn’t immediately pick up and leave, that didn’t make sense from many angles. However, I couldn’t really justify the amount of acting and writing I was doing as a legitimate reason to stay in L.A. I decided to become a teacher. Aside from all honorable reasons to become a teacher, I thought of the practical benefits for me: 1) I would actually be using my brain for something useful, 2) I could teach anywhere, if we needed to move and 3) teaching was a good way to use my creative skills as well as have time to be creative on my own during off hours. I could still write, even perform in the evenings and weekends! Ok, maybe not right away, but once I got the hang of it…

Yeah, I was waaaay off.

After many thousands of dollars in an accelerated Masters program, I was thrown into a progressive elementary classroom full of difficult kids and even more difficult parents. I had no resources, no curriculum, and obviously…no experience. I nearly drowned. Every single day. There was no time for anything, not even for sleeping. Even on the weekends. Vacations became one giant vegetative state. I could do nothing else.

As the health of our family members slowly spiraled downward we began to rethink our plan yet again. Perhaps we shouldn’t be here right now. A new plan was made. A job (mine) was quit.  A house was contracted for purchase in New York. A zygote was implanted…

Suddenly, the fact that we were expecting our first child put the brakes on our move again. It didn’t make sense for my husband to quit his job when we needed the health insurance. We didn’t think uprooting our lives with an infant was a good idea either. As for family, we could still visit a lot, and both my father and my mother-in-law seemed stable for the time being so a move didn’t feel so urgent. Solidifying our feelings, the house we had contracted ended up having a major issue which was cause for disolving said contract.

So here we stayed. We’re still in Los Angeles almost three years later. Now, with a toddler and a second child on the way. It has been a rough road and I’m not sure it was the right one based on the events of the last year.  My mother-in-law’s health took a dive last spring and we spent the entire year going back and forth to care for her and give her precious moments with her only grandchild. She died two months ago.

I no longer call myself a teacher. I no longer call myself an actress. I don’t like the term “Stay-at-home-mom,” but essentially that is what I am, and for the most part, I have little time for anything else. While I do love caring for my son, I am flirting with the idea of calling myself ‘writer’ again. My writing is not as frequent as I’d like it to be but when I do it, I feel the most like myself. At the core of me, I know this is what I should be doing.

Looking back at the events of the last decade, I suppose I could look at it as one large detour with many twists and turns along the way, or a multitude of detours. Either way, I’m not back on the main road yet, wherever that may be, but I must be getting closer. I must be.

(Naomi is a prime example of why I love this bloggy wilderness.  You think you’re in the middle of nowhere, and then you run into a Naomi.  Someone with whom your life has already intersected.  Naomi and my sister went to grade school together.  Now Naomi is my bloggy buddy and my real world neighbor (or close enough, anyway.  she doesn’t live next door, but she’s nearby, and I like her better than my real neighbors).  After reading Naomi’s blog, I Am Still Awake, I have no trouble calling her a writer.  She’s a good one.)

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Baby Before Bar

By Aidan Donnelley Rowley

(* Aidan posted “Baby Before Bar” back in February, when her Sister C was sitting for the NY Bar Exam.  Aidan’s Sister C happens to be one of my dearest friends (and just FYI, Baby Bulldog is already betrothed to Lil Mil).  I’ve posted a little postscript from Sister C below Aidan’s post (sorry, if there were a decent synonym for “post” in blogland, I’d use it, but so far I haven’t found one).)

Today Sister C sits for the first day of the New York Bar Exam. And I am nauseous. Not nauseous because I am worried she won’t pass. I think she will. Nauseous because I remember that exam all too well. Nauseous because those were two of the most torturous days of my youngish life.

And she hasn’t passed yet, but I am already so proud. I am proud because C has been studying hard, pulling late nights, and she has a young baby. Baby Bulldog is just six months old and C has been logging endless hours learning the bland intricacies of New York law (blech) when she could have been tickling tiny toes. I am proud because I know this hasn’t been easy.

So, yes. She got pregnant in law school. And gave birth a few months after graduation. Many would say that she should have graduated and taken the bar exam with her peers this past July. Many would say that she should have gotten the career rolling before popping out a delectably cute son. Many would say she did things out of order. That it should have been Bar before Baby and not the reverse.

But I disagree.

And not just because she is my sister and I love her to tiny pieces. I disagree on more objective, principled grounds. I think this society of ours is far too obsessed with its schedule of shoulds. Who says it is always better to firm up a career before starting a family? Who says we shouldn’t sometimes do things at the same time? Who says it is always better to wait?

Many people would say that Sister C should have waited. But you know what? She had the courage not to. When Dad was diagnosed with terminal cancer two weeks before Sister C’s wedding, things changed. Our Donnelley world shifted. I think, I know, Sister C realized like I did that life has cruel limits, that days are unpredictably numbered. I think, I know, she realized that family is it. And so, she went for it. She battled morning sickness while studying at school. She donned a polyester cap and gown in her final trimester. She spent several weeks at a law firm before welcoming her little guy.

And today. Today, she will kiss her little boy goodbye and go sit at a desk somewhere in this fine city and fill in tiny bubbles and take a big step toward a big future that is blindingly bright, but unknown. And when the long day is over, she will go home. To her man. To her baby. To her family.

And then tomorrow, she will do it again. And then it will be over, mercifully over, and I will take her out. And we will celebrate. We will go to the right kind of bar and sip a tall glass of wine. We will talk about babies. About family. About futures. We will talk about life. How, like the bar exam, it is multiple choice. But how in life, there is more than one right answer.

We will clink glasses and smile.

Two lawyers. One past. One future.

Two sisters. Always.

Two moms. Forever.

And I will say then what I write now. That I am deeply proud of her. For being exquisitely brave. For doing things in her own way. In her own order. For blazing her own trail. For having a baby, an impossibly sweet baby, before taking that exam.
For not waiting.

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Postscript from Sister C:

Having had Baby Bulldog, I am genuinely torn as to whether he is the detour or my as-yet-undefined career will be the detour. I imagine it will shift back and forth. For now, he is the most real thing in my life; if I want to feel in touch with who I am and most grounded, spending time with him and taking care of him is what I do. When I am not with him I feel unsettled, but I think that is in part because I don’t really know what the other part of my life will be just yet. When I actually have a moment to contemplate the uncertainty, I feel somewhat crushed by the pressure of figuring it all out. I hope, and sometimes know, it will be something big, but it’s hazy – so it’s withBaby Bulldog that I feel the safest and the most me, and for now at least, my professional pursuits will be the detour off this path that is most defined and clear and unambiguously important.

(I have raved about Aidan’s blog, Ivy League Insecurities, (and Aidan herself) more than once already.  Her blog made me want to blog (again with the noun/verb conundrum!)  Suffice it to say, I heart ADR and ILI and am anxiously awaiting her novel, LIFE AFTER YES, which comes out May 18th.   And to Sister C:  I know that whatever you do will be big and important.  In the meantime, would you consider blogging?  I could use a daily dose of C.)

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A Life-Altering Detour

by Katherine Wolf

On October 16, 2007, James Thompson, our precious and big-eyed baby boy, was born.  He was completely unexpected and like so many young women do, I worried over what this would mean for my career and my future.  As a fabulous and fearless woman with so much to offer the world, I wondered if this baby would throw my plans for a loop.  I wish I could tell you this was my detour story.  Instead my detour is that I brushed death 6 months and 5 days after he was born.  The greatest detour anyone can take in life, I imagine, is a near-death experience.  James was part of God’s perfect plan to come before my detour.   James was a sub-conscious reason to fight for my life.

I had a collection of blood vessels in my brain (called an AVM) that ruptured and caused a massive hemorrhagic stroke.  I was on Life Support for 40 days, in a rehab hospital for over a year and I had a feeding tube in my stomach for 13 months.  I am slowly relearning to walk and transitioning from a wheelchair to a four-pronged cane. I have no coordination in my right arm or hand, so I cannot write well or hold anything in it.  My face is totally paralyzed on one side and I have an eye that is not parallel to the other.  This creates severe double vision.  I will have another surgery next week where they will try to fix this.

My detour has been extensive, arduous, and very demanding. I’ve already had several major surgeries and I will have many more.  Re-learning to walk is so hard when you are almost 5’10 and 28 years old.  I would love to tell you how good it is to be on this journey or how inspired I am by my detour.  I can’t though.  It is absolutely horrible.  Having a small child makes it even more heart-breaking.

I wish I could do so many things that I can’t do.  Irony is a strange beast.  They say “the grass is always greener” and they aren’t kidding!  I would love to scrub the floor, eat a vegetable without drinking a glass of water, go on a jog or change a dirty diaper.  I can’t possibly do any of those things now.  I think my detour is about learning that ultimately, I am not in control.  I am a self-professed control freak and I like things done well and in the efficient and competent manner that I always do them in.  Now, I’m at the mercy of everyone around me to do everything from cook for me to care for my son.  I just have to watch.  Sometimes it feels like I am an observer for my own life.

Embracing a Detour in life is about sharing it with those around you and learning and growing while you are in it.  When your life takes a detour, let other people go with you on the new journey.  Carpool while you try to cope.  I have chosen to share my story and have received tremendous support because of that.  I have allowed others to bear my burdens with me.  Abby shared earlier this week that transparency is healing.  I agree.  It has made me better.  This ordeal is still sad and hard though.  No amount of catharsis or perspective-finding will change that.  I am discovering joy even in the sadness and CHOOSING contentment when it is very, very hard.   For that, and countless other blessings, I am grateful to God.

(Katherine has been chronicling her recovery on her blog.  I suspect that many of you found me through Katherine, or through her mom’s new blog, In The Meantime… If this is the first time you’ve heard Katherine’s story, you definitely need to read this and this.  Oh, and if you want to start at the very beginning, this post went up the morning after Katherine’s 16 hour brain surgery on April 21, 2008.  Katherine:  I love you, dear friend, and feel honored that I’ve had the privilege of riding with you on this detour.  I’ve learned more from you than you can imagine.)
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