Things People Say

“Be sure to read the rules about alcohol consumption on the back.”

The sophomore working the sales booth hands me my first high school dance ticket.

“Oh yeah, you know me,” I quip back, assuming we’re in on the same joke about what an exceptionally well-behaved teenager I am.

“I know your brother.”

I turn away quickly, before the tears I can feel forming in the pit of my stomach, reach my eyeballs, and come pouring out.

I make it to the parking lot, and the shelter of my mom’s minivan, just in time.

“What happened to you?” My mom wants to know, as soon as I close the door.

“Just something somebody said.”

I reluctantly share the story. Immediately, she joins me. Fear, sadness, anger, shame.

It was the first of many experiences stirring a similar emotional reaction. It was my first recognition of my vulnerability to other people’s perceptions and opinions. It was my first realization that my private family crisis was a topic of public conversation. For the first time, home felt like a claustrophobic, unforgiving, small town.

At the local grocery store, women in our community dodge my mom. They duck into aisles and avoid eye contact. Maybe they want to give her privacy, or they don’t know what to say. Maybe they don’t want to look into her desperate, tired eyes without comfort, or a solution, to provide. Maybe they judge her. Or shun her. Whatever the intention, or motivation, the feeling is the same. It feels like judgement and isolation. Like failure as a mother. Like a vacuum of support when she needs it the most.

Friends and acquaintances, even our extended family, have ideas about where we all went wrong. We mostly come to know about them, second or third hand. Rumors and gossip swirl around us. Every time I leave my house ,I fear an unexpected encounter with someone I know. A surprise attack of exposure before I can get my armor on, my story straight, my smile right.

It is a painful period that leaves me increasingly guarded, and self-aware.

I learn to keep everything close to my chest. To spin a pretty good story about my normal, suburban life. When my best friend reads my college application essay about my high school home-life, she can’t believe her eyes. In my house, I feel frightened and restless. At school, I appear confident and collected. On my hardest days, I am funny and sarcastic. In moments of self-doubt and sadness, I showcase my easy-going personality and carefree laugh.

I keep a strong commitment to stay on my best behavior. My family needs me to be the perfect kid, everyone expects.

I make sure people only have good things to say, about me.

Many years later, I still hear tid-bits about myself and my peers in the hot spots of my home town. The entire world is connected by Facebook, but all of us who grew up here are linked by coffee driven conversations between our moms.

My reputation, and its reflection on my parents, is relevant to my decision-making, even now.

Thoughts of my fifteen-year-old self crept into every moment I considered quitting my job.

The night I pull the trigger on my resignation, I bump into a friend at a yoga class. A woman from my high school graduating class. She hugs me and asks how work is going. “Is it still overwhelming?”

I pause to create space, to stuff down the truth.

I dig into my teenage toolkit. I say something vague and non-committal, then do my best to change the subject, right away.

“Phew, that was a close one.”

Later, alone in my apartment, I relive the conversation with the integrity I should have brought to it the first time. The courage to answer honestly, without expectation of how she will respond. To set aside old hurt. To stand in my decision. To know it’s right.

The first person I tell is a friend who works the front desk at my yoga studio. She is sweet and open. I remember she told me she left a lucrative career in fashion to enhance her quality of life. I blurt out my news while frantically signing in for a noon class, standing in a khaki suit, wrinkled from my court appearance, earlier that morning.

She lights up with surprise and excitement. “I’m so happy for you.”

“Yes, I can do this.”

At first, I limit the scope of the announcement to the four walls of Zuda yoga. In every exchange, I am met with an abundance of affirmation. Soon, people initiate the conversation with me. “Hey, I heard that…” “Is it true you’re…?”

I marvel at their sincerity, support and positivity.

Fueled by the energy of my yoga community, I take it to the streets. My anxiety peaks while nervously reviewing the menu at a trendy midtown lunch spot, seated at an intimate two-person table, face-to-face with my family law mentor.

“This is worse than telling my dad.”

We’ve shared a few good-vibes text messages, but I remain skeptical, braced for the storm. Over the last six months, this man has dedicated countless hours to teaching me how to be a lawyer, run a law firm, interview clients and enhance my professional network. Hours he could have spent billing clients, or hanging out with his wife. He put his full faith in my ability, handed me the keys to a kingdom, and asked simply that I do my best to not screw it up.

“So.” He breaks the silence. “What’s going on with you?”

I breathe in an “oh shit” and bravely begin to explain myself.

With wisdom, compassion, and his trademark humor, he offers his unconditional support. He does little to question my maturity, or sanity. He does just enough to assure me that our relationship will endure, and the kingdom will survive.

When lunch is over, I’m ready to tell everyone I know.

My co-workers, my clients, my former classmates. People who never pictured me as a lawyer, and others who only know me as one.

One, bold, moment, at a time, I reveal my truth.

Where I expect skepticism and judgement, I experience validation and love. Where I fear rejection and dismissal, I feel embraced, and lifted up. Where I struggle to be witnessed, I feel seen and heard.

The emotional residue is so potent, my fifteen year old self feels it. She learns that people can’t offer support if you don’t tell them why, or how, you need it. She sees that people only know your story, if you choose to tell it. She discovers that when you engage in an act of personal bravery, you give people the opportunity to accept you, just the way you are.

It becomes clear that if you know what to listen for, there are beautiful expressions of love, in things people say.

Do the Right Thing

In my last quarter of college, I signed up for a four hour political film seminar on Monday nights. By the second meeting, I was deep in regret about my senior year enrollment strategy. Every week, I’d slink into the back row of a dark, windowless classroom in Kinsey hall, a building that didn’t even exist by the time I got to law school, three years later.

At the midway point, my professor screened Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing.” A year and a half earlier, I’d made my way through every Spike Lee joint, ever released. My mid-college discovery of “Critical Media Studies” led to a brief fascination with progressive film-making, and a related interest in becoming Spike’s young-white-lady contemporary. I studied his art on the weekends like my lifetime success depended on my mastery of the genre.

Mostly beyond my aspiring documentarian phase, I assumed my weekly position, flipped open my laptop, and set out to mindlessly pass the next two hours.

Between perusing articles on the New York Times home page and wondering why I didn’t eat more for dinner, my mind pulled me into a familiar anxiety.

“What the hell am I going to do with the rest of my life?”

I went to college, to study political science, to get to law school, to be an attorney. Back then, it was simple: I would effortlessly ace each of my college classes and make brilliant connections with influential professors and accomplished attorney alums. I would land the perfect internship, be a shining star of my academic department and the crown jewel of my national champion mock trial team. My post-college destiny would unfold as easily and obviously as everything else had for me, at every stage in my life.

But from the back row of the last class I needed to graduate, the future remained unclear.

I fell off the pre-law wagon during zero week of my first quarter. I was auditing information sessions for the fanciest ¬†clubs and organizations on campus. Even on his best behavior, the President of Mock trial was transparently a douchebag. Although it would be years before I had the language to name it, the “energy” in the room that night was tense and competitive. I looked around a space filled with buttoned-down white kids, saw a reflection of the high school community I just escaped from, and wanted to run as fast and as far as I could to get away from it.

A year later I became a mentor for a 10 year old girl named Cindy. I took more education classes and did less of my political science reading. I dove head first into UCLA UniCamp Mentorship and discovered a community of young people that changed my life. I bathed in service, and teamwork, and social justice. Every Teach for America Rep on campus stalked my every move. I felt the joy of co-creating with selfless, dynamic leaders.

Every day I woke up more and more inspired to change the world.

And one morning, on a Malibu beach, a year before I graduated, I forgot I ever wanted to be an attorney. For good.

The more I knew what I loved, the harder it was to decide what “to do.” I was haunted by perceived expectations and limited by an idea I had about myself, my family, my teachers, my friends. I battled an identity of “over-achiever” and a set of characteristics and professional ambitions I believed to be associated with it.

In my life, I’d never done just anything.

I had to do the right thing.

And eventually, I did.

I graduated from a prestigious professional school. I earned a fancy degree. I had a work wardrobe sponsored by J.Crew and a job description that elicited wide eyes and approving nods, gestures I interpreted as approval, affirmation and “I’m impressed.” My dad bragged to his colleagues and my mom proudly posted pictures to Facebook from the night I was sworn in.

It was everything I envisioned before college, and everything I resisted by the end of it.

Initially, I framed my departure from the legal profession as wrong, and risky and rebellious. People like me don’t give up power and prestige and earning potential. People like me ascend to greatness, climb the corporate ladder and relentlessly pursue their next remarkable achievement. People like me are lawyers, for their entire careers.

Leaving my job felt nauseating and terrifying. In my last two weeks as an attorney, I woke up every other night with an accelerated heartbeat and racing mind. 29 years of avoiding the uncertain and the unconventional, left me without experience, or a frame of reference, for this tremendous leap of faith.

But two weeks into my new life, I sleep through every night. I wake up motivated, excited and open. I feel loving and connected. I climb all four flights of stairs to my apartment with renewed lightness. My whole body feels different. I smile and laugh and dance. I sing at the top of my lungs, in my car, on the way to work. In moments of financial anxiety, or ego-driven discomfort, I breathe in gratitude for the miracle of my life:

The support of my mom and every, single one of my friends. The blessing of my professional mentors, and the encouragement of my community. The freedom to be who I am, and to live my fullest life.

The courage to transcend the idea of doing right.

To re-discover how it feels to be happy.