Spoil Island in Santa Rosa Sound, Florida – January 8, 2012
The Navarre Beach Marine Science Station was dark when I walked in. It took a moment for my eyes to adjust to the light, for me to see the painted sea creatures on the walls and the faces of the high-school students staring up at me wondering what I was going to say. I wondered too and then someone asked me what I did before this, if I had a job or a career.
“Well,” I said, “I was a lawyer.”
I’ve perfected the delivery of that sentence for three years now, perfected it with friends, strangers on the street, people I meet in airplanes, anyone. The words drop out of my mouth and I kind of laugh as I say them like they’re the punchline to an untold joke. If people ask me where I went to school, I smile and shyly say Yale Law School. Then I add “in Connecticut” to take a bit of the sheen off the name. Next I smile to cover up how awkward I feel because it all sounds kind of sad and pathetic in my head–three years at Yale Law School and I’m wandering around the Gulf of Mexico in a kayak. After that I usually laugh and make it into a joke.
“I’m trying to become the least accomplished Yale Law graduate ever,” I say. “Because law is boring.”
Then I smile and still feel pathetic underneath it.
“Or at least that is what I used to think,” I said today.
The words spilled out before I could catch them. They weren’t the rutted out trope, the pattern, the story I’d grown used to. They were fresh, popping into the air where I let them hang for a second, wondering if I had actually said them.
“Was that me?” I thought.
Then I half-panicked because I was staring at a group of great high-school students and I had no idea what I was about to say. I only knew that my old story felt broken, it felt like a lie and I couldn’t lie to them like I’d been lying to myself.
The law isn’t boring. I was boring. I never gave law a chance.
I went to law school because I looked at graduates’ salaries, figured out how to ace the entrance exam, and got accepted to Yale. I went for the money and the plan might have worked if I hadn’t stepped on the Appalachian Trail before I showed up for my first class. Walking a couple thousand miles and living out of a backpack changes the way you think about money and happiness. I sat in my class and felt lost and confused. I didn’t know why I was there anymore so I just stuck with my plan, clung to that path I’d laid out, somehow thinking that maybe, just maybe, if I could cash a check big enough every two weeks I could buy happiness.
I ended up at a big corporate firm drafting two-hundred page credit agreements for banks. I cashed paychecks. I bought a giant TV and video games. I put on 50 pounds eating expensive food and drinking in bars. I hated every moment of it.
The day after I dropped Giulia off at the airport, she started a new job protecting marine mammals. Now she organizes papers on her desk into stacks labeled “beluga,” “killer,” and “right.” Every time I see a dolphin I think about her.
“You got a good lawyer,” I say to them. “Do you pay in seashells?”
Another friend of mine is a federal public defender. She wakes up every morning and is the only person standing next to someone facing years behind prison walls, someone who has the entire force of our government arrayed against them and doesn’t even have enough money to hire an attorney.
I just drafted credit agreements and called it the same thing.
You tell yourself a story long enough, and it sticks. It starts to be true. I said law didn’t fit me because that’s easier than saying I was just in it for the money, it’s easier than saying I felt confused and didn’t know how approach life, it’s easier to point away than at your own chest.
I stumbled for a moment, staring at those kids, figuring out what to say, refusing to fall back in that rut-of-a-story. I took a breath and told them I was wrong, that law wasn’t the problem, that life isn’t about money, isn’t about paychecks and vacation houses or six-figure incomes and bonuses. Life is about friends and community, about dreams and passion, about doing what you love.
Life is about never letting a made-up story stand between you and happiness.
The Navarre Beach Marine Science Station is a fantastic place that exists because the community’s passion turned an empty building into a teaching center that has educated thousands of students about the Gulf of Mexico marine environment. When I was there, I got to meet a class of high-school students studying marine biology and oceanography so they can teach elementary school kids about the ocean at workshops and programs designed to get kids excited about the amazing ecosystem in the Gulf of Mexico and how we can all work to protect it. The station is a great example of a community coming together to figure out a way protect these places we love. Check out their webpage and get inspired to make an impact in your community: http://www.navarresciencestation.org/index.html