Ed. note: Welcome to the latest installment of “Notes from the Breadline,” a column by a laid-off lawyer in New York. Prior columns are collected here. You can reach Roxana St. Thomas by email (at [email protected]), follow her on Twitter, or find her on Facebook.
After my 30 Rock-induced crying jag, sleep settles over me for a few precious hours. But in the middle of the night, I wake up suddenly, feeling deeply disoriented. It takes me a moment to realize that I am at T.J.’s, in his roommate’s bed, and when I do I am convinced that it is early December. I sit up, tangled in a cobweb of confusion and fighting the vaguely panicky sense that I have to do my Christmas shopping. After looking out the window, I spend a few baffled seconds wondering what happened to the blanket of snow I expected to see covering the ground.
As the fog of sleep clears, I piece together the evening and realize why I am so confused. The last time I stayed at T.J.’s was before Christmas, the weekend of a huge snowstorm. I remember waking up to find everything buried under cottony snow, the streets silent and empty. T.J. and I bundled up and, charmed by the novelty of playing mountaineer, trekked to the deli on our skis. When I close my eyes, it is December again, and I am immersed in the feeling of suspended reality, the simple pleasure of finding a familiar landscape transformed, and the childish delight of a snowy day. That was probably the last time I felt so carefree, I think sadly. That was before I lost my job.
I lie in bed, trying to hold on to the memory. Eventually, I doze off, dreaming that it is December, and that I will wake up to another snow day and the momentary relief from responsibility granted by awesome meteorological events. I will have no choice but to make snowballs and throw them at T.J., stopping only to eat dessert. Then I will go to work and bill lots of hours, and the managing partner will call me into his office to tell me to stop working so hard. “Roxana,” he says in my half-dream, “when do you have time to sleep? Listen: things are a little lean right now, but we think a ginormous bonus is in order.”
Unfortunately, reality intrudes on my dream. Perhaps even more unfortunately, reality seems to be adapted from of an episode of the old TV show “Land of the Lost,” in which the daughter, Holly, encounters her future self while trying to save her family from fearsome lizard people. But, while Holly’s future self comforts her, giving her enough courage to face the task ahead, future Roxana is decidedly cranky and unsupportive. She calls December Roxana (who is frolicking in the snow) inside, and then serves her a steaming bowl of acrid soup, which (I determine later) is an uninspired dream metaphor for disappointment. “Get used to it, Rox,” she says. “There’s more where that came from. And, by the way: you might want to scrap the snowman-building and focus on learning to make your own clothes.” The dream dissipates. I wanted to sleep until things got better, I think irritably. Why does future Roxie have to be such a downer?
More after the jump.
When I wake up again, T.J. is making breakfast. I head into the kitchen. “Roxie Rox!” he says brightly, handing me a cup of coffee. “You look like shit!”
“Thanks,” I mumble. “I don’t feel so good. I think I had a dream about Land of the Lost.”
“Was it about the episode where they rescue a dinosaur from the tar pit?” he asks earnestly. No, I tell him, though it seems oddly relevant. “Do you think I’m the dinosaur in the tar pit?” I ask.
“Well,” he says, “you do seem to be stuck. I think you need to clear your head, which is why we’re going to yoga as soon as you finish eating. If you step on it, we can make the 9:00 class.” He smiles triumphantly and thrusts a schedule at me. It is from a yoga studio I’ve been to, although I haven’t taken the class that T.J. has his eye on. Cliff, however, went to it once, and swore that the instructor read aloud from “Our Bodies, Ourselves” between rounds of earnest chanting.
“I’m not in the mood,” I tell T.J. “I’m going back to sleep.”
“Roxana!” he says sternly, registering exasperation. “You like yoga. It’ll make you feel better.”
“I can’t do yoga,” I say flatly. “I’m stuck in the tar pit.”
“Get dressed,” he answers. “We’re leaving in eight minutes.”
Voluntarily or not, I am soon standing on a mat in the yoga studio. The room is warm and smells of incense, and I fight the urge to curl up and cover my face. I believe the pose I have in mind is known as “Depressed Attorney.” And if it’s not, I think, it should be. We begin to move through postures, and my mind wanders to the résumés I need to send out, the phone calls I should make, the job I don’t have. I grow frustrated with my inability to focus, and am struck by the dissonant stress of trying to relax.
“Find your tadasana,” Maggie, the instructor, tells us before each series of poses, and I scan my mental hard drive for the meaning of the word. I’m sure I used to know it, but alas: it has apparently been displaced by song lyrics, or Land of the Lost episodes. As if on cue, she explains, in her silky yoga voice, that tadasana is “mountain pose,” and that it should “bring us to a place of stillness and confidence,” a well of “happiness and strength.” Find your tadasana, she says over and over. Locate your tadasana. Return to your tadasana. Where is my tadasana? I wonder. I consider asking Maggie how one finds one’s tadasana when all the familiar landmarks that once pointed to it are nowhere in evidence. She seems like a nurturing person; perhaps she has a secret yogic method for Mapquesting it.
The thought gnaws at me for the rest of class. I am drifting, and I can’t even find my fucking tadasana. When Maggie turns down the lights and directs us to get into “corpse pose,” I am relieved. Finally: something I’m good at.
Maggie takes out a book and opens it to a marked page, and I crane my neck to see whether it is, in fact, “Our Bodies, Ourselves.” She catches me acting un-corpselike, and tells me, in a whisper, to close my eyes. Then she reads to us in a singsong voice that makes me feel like I am back in nursery school, waiting for the wake-up fairy to release us from a nap.
“It’s springtime,” Maggie begins softly, “and spring is a time of blossoming and growth.” I cringe inwardly at her earnestness. “Growth can be painful at times, but we have to remember that it leads to flowering, and is a necessary part of the fruitfulness that helps life go on,” she continues. Despite their sugary coating, something about her words rings true. I am sure that there is a lesson in all of this, although I have no idea what it is at the moment. I want to believe that I have managed to plant something on my way to this strange place; I want to believe in the possibility that I dropped the seeds of a better life on the hard ground this winter. “When things are difficult, always return to your tadasana,” Maggie adds. “And remember that sometimes, when you’re standing at the base of a mountain, you may not be able to tell what you’re looking at.” Maybe that’s my problem, I think: I’m at the bottom of my tadasana, which happens to look remarkably similar to a sheer cliff.
When we leave, T.J. is bouncy and energetic. “That was great!” he says cheerfully. “What’d you learn, Rox?”
“I can’t find my tadasana,” I say, feeling tiny. I also feel like I might cry again, although I am not sure why. I have the distinct sense that, whether or not I understand it right now, my life is just … different. The enormity of negotiating it without a roadmap seems overwhelming.
A few days later, I call Dr. Logan. Dr. Logan is a psychiatrist I saw a couple of times several years ago, when I was tormented by a month-long bout of insomnia. She is blonde and wholesome, and I remember her cringing whenever I said the word “fuck.” But, I decide, I can’t keep subjecting my friends to what is turning into a prolonged blue spell, and she may have some insights to offer. We make an appointment for later in the week.
Dr. Logan seems pleased to see me, and I wonder if she, too, is finding billables hard to come by. I tell her about being laid off, about my break-up with Cliff, about the seeming endlessness of my job search and how hard it is to stay hopeful.
“Wow,” she says. “That’s really discouraging.” She tells me that she’s read about lawyer layoffs and that the situation seems pretty dire. C’mon, I think. You can do better.
I try again. “I feel like there’s something else I should be doing,” I tell her, “or something I should be learning from this. I mean, realistically …” My words trail off, and she looks at me expectantly.
“Realistically,” I say slowly, “my career in a law firm is probably over. I’m not young enough to walk into a random practice group as an associate, and I’m not senior enough to be anything else.” I remember Susan, my colleague on the doc review project, saying virtually the same thing to me, and although I have had this thought many times, the words linger with a certain finality once I have said them.
“Roxana,” Dr. Logan says gently, “I haven’t seen you in a long time, but if I recall correctly, you didn’t like the Big Law Firm. You thought it was just a place to get experience, a stepping stone to something you’d rather be doing.”
She is right, but, sitting in her office in jeans and flip-flops, after months of unemployment and encroaching despair, the ideas I once had about my career seem ludicrous. “I would take a job doing just about anything at this point,” I tell her, “but I don’t think I have the luxury of making the choices I thought I had.” I always imagined that I would leave the Big Law Firm on my own terms, when I was ready to move on. Now, I tell Dr. Logan, I can’t help but wonder whether I miscalculated, and whether the chances I always thought — or hoped — would come along have slipped away. Some of those chances were reasonable expectations, and some were ill-defined dreams; still others were probably pure fantasy. My mind churns. I may have hated a number of things about the Big Law Firm, and I certainly didn’t want to work there forever, but I can’t help feeling like I have failed.
“Why do you think that, Roxana?” Dr. Logan asks patiently. “I remember you saying that you hated the stress of billing your hours, and that you were only really happy doing trials, or writing.”
“I don’t know,” I say. “I guess I had a vague idea of success, and it didn’t really look like this. But I’m not really sure what it is supposed to look like.” I have never asked Dr. Logan personal questions, but I decide to forge ahead. “Have you ever worked really hard to get to a certain point in your career, only to find that it didn’t make you happy?” I ask her.
She pauses thoughtfully. I expect an elliptical answer (leading back to “and how does that make you feel?”), but she is surprisingly direct. “I always thought I wanted to be in academia,” she tells me, “but the more time I spent in that setting, the more I realized that I hated writing grants and dealing with academic bureaucracy. It didn’t feel like I was doing what I set out to do, which was taking care of people and helping them sort through their emotions. You have to think about what’s at the core of your interest in the law, and then think about how you can find a way to do that, even if it means giving up some of the security of the path you were on before.” She smiles at me. “For what it’s worth, Roxana, I think that being out of the Big Law Firm may be a good twist of fate for you. You might have to take a pay cut to do something different, but I don’t think that world was making you happy. It’s okay to be sad because your old expectations are gone, but you may find new ones that fit you better.”
We talk for a while longer, and Dr. Logan tells me to keep her posted. When I get home, my thoughts are swirling. I consider going to yoga, but I don’t think I can stand still for long enough to find my tadasana. Instead, I head out for a run.
I am too distracted to think about where I am going, so I run mindlessly — past the young, tattooed man who sits outside a local shop every day wearing a top hat; past the homeless guy who lines up crushed cans on the street and whacks them, like golf balls, with an old driver; past neighborhoods where European immigrants once lived, working harder than I will ever be able to imagine. I run to the East River, and turn off at the track just north of Houston Street. I usually hate running around a track, but after a while I am barely aware of my surroundings. The feeling of turning endless circles, of running without going anywhere, feels oddly familiar, if not exactly comfortable. This is what my daily life is like, I think, passing the bleachers again. Without a downhill rock, I have no sense that I am making progress.
I am not sure how long I have been running when I realize that it is getting dark. When I check my watch, I am stunned to find that I left home two and a half hours ago. I shouldn’t have been able to do this, I think: I’m still recovering from an injury I suffered last year, and I’ve been smoking more than I’d like to admit. My knee hurts, and I haven’t eaten since this morning. It’s like the miracle of Chanunkah! I slow down, wondering at how I managed to run this far.
Suddenly, on my next lap around the track, I remember visiting a client in jail several years ago. Sitting across from him, talking through a pane of Plexiglass, I watched him decompensate before my eyes. “I don’t think I can do this,” he sobbed, his shoulders heaving. “What if my wife doesn’t wait for me? What if my daughter doesn’t remember me?” He was a crook, but he was also a stay-home father who had an incredible bond with his wife and child. Tears streamed down his face, and I remember thinking that I had never seen someone look so bereft.
“Listen to me,” I said to him. “You’re going to get through this. You’ll find a strength you never knew you had, and I promise you’ll be able to draw on it to carry you through.” I told him that he would always be a good husband and father, that no one could take that from him, and that I was sure he was strong enough to sustain himself through what seemed, at the time, like a nightmare. I talked to him for a long time, not sure whether he was actually hearing anything I said. But, two years later, I got a letter from him, carefully handwritten on lined paper. “Roxana, thank you,” it read. “You have no idea how many times I remembered what you told me that day in the visiting room. You were right: I was so much stronger than I even knew, but I’m not sure I would have realized it because I was so overwhelmed by everything I lost. I didn’t see what I still had. Thank you for believing in me. It reminded me to remember how much fight I had left in me.” I kept the letter in my desk drawer for a long time, to remind me why I wanted to keep fighting.
The memory stops me in my tracks. I look up at the sky, and it dawns on me: I have everything I need. I may not have a job, but I have the strength to keep running. I have friends who make me laugh — and who dry my tears. I have a home, even if it is occupied by two evil cats. I have survived worse, and I have enough fight left in me to get through this.
I am suddenly exhausted, but I feel good for the first time in weeks. I find my tadasana and limp home.
Roxana St. Thomas is a laid-off lawyer living in New York. You can reach her by email (at [email protected]), follow her on Twitter, or find her on Facebook.
Earlier: Prior installments of Notes from the Breadline