Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The road not taken (with apologies to Robert Frost)

I had occasion yesterday to be in the company of a number of lawyers. Some were people with whom I used to work, back in the days when I was an associate at a large law firm. Others were friends who are still practicing law. The event was (at risk of sounding melodramatic) thrilling: a good friend, someone who I first worked with way back in the (gulp) late 1980s, was sworn in as U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, the top federal prosecutor for this part of the state.

As I looked around the room, I felt out of place. I had dressed up, and although it felt funny to be wearing a dress, I certainly didn't look out of place. But it felt very odd to be in a courthouse again. It felt very odd to be in a roomful of lawyers again. And it felt very odd to see people who once loomed so large in my daily life now fumbling because they couldn't remember my name.

I had wanted to be a lawyer all through college, and although I didn't particularly love law school, I knew that being in law school was an experience that wasn't anything at like practicing law was. I liked my summer jobs -- some at law firms, some at government agencies -- just fine, and I could do them well. After graduation, I deferred the decision about what to do next by taking a one-year clerkship with a federal judge. At the time, my co-clerk and I would frequently talk about how great being a law clerk was, and what a shame it only lasted a year. And then that year was nearly over, and I had to decide what to do next.

What I really wanted to do was be a federal prosecutor. But it's hard to get those jobs; they're very competitive, especially in a large northeastern city like Philadelphia, and there was no way they'd hire someone who didn't have at least a few years' experience in the legal world. So I accepted the offer I had from the large law firm where I'd worked summers. It was a logical choice: the salary offered me a chance to pay down my student loans while getting some training and experience.

Things didn't work out exactly like that. In the end, two years of big firm practice (read: stress, accounting for every quarter-hour of my time, long hours, little job satisfaction) was enough for me, and I switched to a small law firm with a similar type of legal practice but vastly improved hours and a reduced paycheck. Along the way I got married and then before I knew it, I ended up at home with my kids and stumbling into a second career in the knitting world.

I'll admit it: for just a second yesterday, I felt kind of wistful. I looked around at the suits, at the judges sitting on their dais, at the enthusiastic face of my friend being sworn in to, as he puts it, "fight the good fight." For that second I wondered what if. What if I'd continued to be a lawyer.... what if I'd become a criminal prosecutor instead of a civil litigator ... what if I'd ended up as a judge someday... what if I'd ended up committed to fighting the good fight...

The ceremony was over pretty quickly and we mingled for a bit at a reception. I caught up with some of my ex-colleagues and my lawyer friends, and then we were on our way. On the way home, I had to stop at Loop to pick something up (hey --I really did "have to" stop there; quit snickering!) and I had a chance to check out some of the new yarns, and be around fiber people once more.

I remembered how it felt being one of a dozen people working on a big case for a big company, spending years slogging away on paperwork, getting a trial date set, and then the case settling. I thought about the stress of practicing law when the stakes are high (whether due to the dollar amount involved or the fact that someone's life or liberty was at stake) and the way it used to churn up my guts. I remembered how out-of-place I always felt around gaggles of lawyers; how I wasn't really interested in the things they were (sports; the Wall St. Journal; legal cases; sports) and how hard it could be to make small talk with them, to find a connection.

And then I thought about the smell of lanolin, about the little thrill I get when I pick up a beautiful skein of yarn. I remembered the pride I feel when dyeing yarn and the colors mesh perfectly. I thought about how wonderful it feels when one of my customers takes a skein of yarn I've dyed or a pattern I've written and turns into a beautiful scarf or shawl or pair of socks. I thought about the luxury of being captain of my own ship, of making my own decisions about where I want this little business of mine to go. I thought about the pride I feel when I see my name on the page of an article in Vogue Knitting or the spine of a book. I think about the creativity, how it energizes me, how I feel like I'll never get to try all the things I want to try, knit with all the yarns I want to knit with, turn all the ideas in my head into real garments that are made and worn by real people. I think of the way I feel when I'm at TNNA or a fiber festival or even in a yarn shop: that feeling of belonging, of being around my people. And not least of all, I thought about the luxury of meeting my kids at the bus stop each day, of never having to worry about who'll look after them if they're too sick to go to school, about each story book I read to them and each batch of cookies we baked and each nasty-ass diaper I changed. I wouldn't trade any of it in for a navy-blue suit and matching briefcase. Not one day of it. Every speck of wistfulness was gone.

Maybe my former colleagues don't recognize me when I'm wearing a hand-knit scarf instead of a pantsuit. So what if their eyes glaze over as soon as they hear that I'm no longer practicing law, or if they look around the room for someone "more interesting" to talk to when I say I write knitting patterns for a living and we don't travel very much. Maybe they even say behind my back, as I have been told they do, "what a waste that Carol doesn't practice law anymore."

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Yes, that has made all the difference in the world.


Anonymous said...

That is a beautiful post, Carol. As one who straddles the corporate and mom worlds, I salute you. And as one who loves your yarns and admires anyone who can design a knitted garment, I thank you.

Finally, there is absolutely no substitute for being there with our children. No argument on the other side, no question. My kids are now in high school, but I still leave my corporate job in time to be home when they get home from school. I have given up much in the way of money and job "success", but like you, I feel that it has been worth every penny.

Knittah said...

Carol - A beautiful post. Nothing is more confirming than to know you chose the right road! I really understand feeling out of place, though. There is almost no one who knew me from Before who understands my life now. I didn't get to choose at the fork in the road, but I'm trying to make the best of it and am still looking for that confirmation.

Anonymous said...

So well said, as always my friend. You have made a difference in all of your friends' lives, and had you taken the other road, I would never have met you- and I know it's selfish, but for that I will be eternally grateful. (now go make me a lace pattern to test!!)

AmyP said...

Thank you for reminding me why I've made the choices I have. Some days I forget. Some days I wonder. But in my heart I know, this was the right thing to do.

I'm glad you got to take a moment to reflect on your own choices and the "rightness" of it all for you and your family. Now go knit something! =)

MsAmpuTeeHee said...

You know, sometimes you choose a fork in the road, and sometimes the road makes an unexpected turn...and isn't it just so crazy-interesting to look in the rear-view every once in awhile?!
I adore you :-)

jlr said...

Thanks for reminding us that what's important is family, peace of mind and spending the little time we have doing what we want, not what society says we should. We all need that reminder.

anne marie in philly said...

I second puff!

besides, isn't playing with yarn more fun than a habeus corpus any day of the week?

"baby I was afraid before, but I'm not afraid any more" - belinda carlisle, heaven is a place on earth

YOU ROCK! smooches!

Anonymous said...

I don't think you need to apologize to Robert Frost at all. In fact, I'm pretty sure that your story is precisely the kind that he was thinking of when he imagined those iconic words.

Well done, Carol. Well done, indeed.

Jersey Shore Deb said...

Wow, that was a fantastic post. I wish I had taken the path you had...and maybe I still will. Bravo.

Angela said...

This really helpful for me to read right now as I'm about to lose my job. Thank you so much for sharing this with us. :)

Anonymous said...

If it wouldn't sound too creepy/stalker like, I'd tell you that I think I've just fallen in love with you -- from this one post.

I too went to law school (though I loved it). I too practiced at a huge firm, though I never had the fun of a clerkship. I too went from big firm to small. I too wound up home with my kids, knitting. And I too am now writing patterns.

I've only seen my name in print once (in a Cast On article before the new editor realized that someone who hadn't passed ALL of their Master Knitter classes wasn't allowed to write articles for the first level), but I do have several patterns up on Ravelry.

I'm a bit behind you in the making a living with needles and yarn, but I'm ever hopeful.

But every line resonates!
Thank you so very much.

Anonymous said...

Well said, Carol, and well done. You've done two really successful things - giving three human beings a solid, secure grounding in life, and finding your vocation. Thanks for this post.
- Beth

Karen said...

I have so much to say about this post but I am so touched and moved by it that I just can't. Mostly because I am experiencing a metamorphosis myself right now and this was far more personally inspiring to me than you could ever have imagined it would be. Thank you.

rosesmama said...

One of my closest friends started her law career as counsel at the House of Ruth, a shelter for battered women (not a high paying position for lawyers). After her second child, she realized that daycare would take too big a chunk of her salary, so she decided to stay home. When her kids all started school, she began to volunteer at the local ecumenical financial help center, where she is now employed fulltime as manager, just in time to pay for the kids' college. You are in good company in your choices. My guess is that there are quite a few lawyers-turned-something-else, and the same qualities that made them persevere through law school make them successful at their new careers.

Some of us, me included, are more process people, whether with the knitting or the work. I'd be happy to stay home, but I'd probably never start a business. A garden maybe, but not a business :)

barb b said...

perfect post.

Anonymous said...

a beautiful post Carol! thank you, you've confirmed what we love to do, that's it's a good choice :) knittinnow

Julie said...

As others have said, that was a very moving post, Carol. Having made a career transition myself (from interior designer, which often felt more like being a marriage counselor when couples could not agree on color schemes or furniture placement, to writer/ knitwear designer) I can relate to so much of what you have to say on this subject. Nicely done!