[Therese’s note: Rachael Kay Albers is ridiculously awesome and an absolute inspiration. Today she’ll share with you the story of her long & winding road to discovering and living the work she was built to do. Read all the way to the bottom or I can promise you that YOU WILL BE MISSING OUT BIG TIME! Take it away, Rachael!]
Originally from Chicago, in 2009, I ditched law school to follow my (he)art and today I run a web design and writing boutique to fund my (he)artwork as an arts facilitator with youth in Mexico and Africa. This is how (and why) I did it, in 10 steps.
1. I quit.
There I was, rounding the bend of my final semester of theater school—I had headshots, an agent, and a growing resumé—but as Diana from A Chorus Line crooned (one of the first musicals I memorized in my Broadway baby days, at the age of eight) “I felt nothing.”
A little back story: I was the kid who wrote plays on the playground, turned her closet into a green room, sobbed in the front row of RENT while her classmates shrieked about the Backstreet Boys. My whole life, I felt I was born to be a stahhh.
Then, I felt nothing.
My uncle, our family’s lone actor/director, once told me: “Don’t become an actor unless you wouldn’t be happy doing anything else.” I had heeded that wisdom until it no longer felt like an affirmation. As I looked at the life ahead of me of minimum wage day jobs, endless auditions, and a slow receding tide of theater patrons, my uncle’s words began to echo like an omen.
So, I quit.
2. I made decisions.
Well, okay, I finished college. Forgot about the ceremony. Got the degree in the mail. Stopped returning my agent’s calls. Moved on.
I was officially an ex-artist.
And I felt completely out of control.
Having never known what it was like not to have a damn clue what I wanted to do with my life, I thought I’d trick the system, bypass the whole “work at a coffeeshop/find myself” thang and dive right into something different instead.
I bought an LSAT prep book and started searching for law schools. Lawyers improvise—I told myself—lawyers perform. Pretty sure I had played a lawyer in a scene study once, I imagined lots of impassioned fist banging and lengthy monologues, er—closing arguments. (Or was that Law & Order?) Moreover, a legal career gave me an opportunity to help others and make a difference—I can’t do that with theater, I reasoned.
Less than a year later, I accepted a scholarship to law school and didn’t look back…
3. I assumed the consequences.
…until I got there.
Turns out, a cursory summer reading of the Harvard Law memoir One L and a screening of The Paper Chase do not a law student make. Looking back, it’s as if I blacked out from August to December of my first semester as The (Student) Attorney Formerly Known As Rachael: my last vivid memories from that time are about the bagel I ate at orientation. Everything following that fateful bagel forms a blurry montage of highlighter fingers, Bluebook rules, and sprint/sobbing to my legal writing seminar clutching improperly stapled briefs to my chest. (As TSAFKAR would say, “That’s a tort waiting to happen.”)
Now, don’t get me wrong: to this day, I still see law school as the best (academic) education I ever received. Learning the legal language our country speaks was exhilarating—when it wasn’t making me dry heave in the bathroom outside my Contracts class. The problem was, I had chosen to pursue a JD for all the wrong reasons: too impatient to find a career that fit my strengths, goals, and values, I defaulted to lawyerdom because of what I thought it offered me, not what I knew I wanted. The rigors of my 1(Hel)L year were especially traumatic because they forced me to confront how little I really knew about myself…
4. I cried a lot.
…hence, the crying, which gave way to rage, terror, and paralyzing self-doubt, culminating in my first ever full blown panic attack. Hyperventilating in the back of an ambulance, my heart beating out of my chest, I started to wonder if law school might actually kill me.
5. I learned to love my decisions.
Something had to give.
I resolved to accept the choice I made instead of resenting it. I joined the National Lawyers Guild, signed up to be a legal volunteer with day laborers in Pilsen, and started applying for human rights internships: all ways to purposefully funnel my new knowledge into activities and organizations that reflected my values and connected me with like-minded people.
At the end of my 1L year, I landed an indigenous women’s rights grant in Chiapas, Mexico. Lawyerdom started growing on me.
6. But I kept searching.
When I arrived in Chiapas that summer, my legal partnership fell through—I was stranded in a strange place with no idea what to do next.
It was the best thing that could have happened to me.
Well, second best, considering what happened next. In my search to replace my partner organization, I found FOMMA, an indigenous women’s theater collective using the arts to help educate and empower Tzotzil and Tzeltal women in the Chiapanecan highlands. Theater for social change? Now, that’s a thought.
There I was, back to the world of rehearsals, readings, and opening nights—only this time, the process was infused with a sense of meaning I had never experienced before. The women of FOMMA used theater to help others and make a difference, the very thing I had formerly declared impossible in my justifications for leaving the arts behind. I returned to Chicago at the end of the summer humming “Something’s Coming”: something was coming, I didn’t know what it was, but it was going to be great.
7. Then I quit again.
Fast forward a few months. I had just finished leading a workshop at my law school on theater and human rights and I was hyperventilating in the back of an ambulance. Again. I couldn’t go to class without panic descending. The rage, the terror, the self-doubt had all returned. My body was begging me to make a change.
I bought a one-way ticket to Chiapas and began to breathe again. Granted, I still had no damn clue what I wanted to do with my life but I was finally clear on what I didn’t want. Sometimes that’s good enough.
8. And I surrendered.
In Chiapas once more, I gave up on finding The Answer and immersed myself in The Questions my heart was ready to ask. Who do I want to be? How can I align my strengths and values to serve others and realize myself? What is my (he)artwork? I did away with all the shoulds of my former life and gave myself permission to pursue the if onlys.
9. This time, I listened.
Living in a country and culture not my own made it easier for me to accept feeling completely out of control this time around—it was part of the package. And an amazing advantage, at that. This surrender forced me to absorb every single thing going on around me: observing, not judging; listening, not declaring; waiting, not forcing.
I continued volunteering with the women of FOMMA. I read the books on my non-required reading list. I sang Mexican love ballads in corner cafés. I got lost on purpose.
Then I befriended a young teacher named Paola, who taught English at a newly-formed high school in the Tzotzil community of Chalchihuitán. Ready for anything, I offered myself as a native practice partner for her students.
10. And my (he)artwork happened.
When the students discovered my theater background, they begged for a workshop. I was in.
Our workshop turned into a semester-long project, which blossomed into a permanent extracurricular theater program designed to use movement, improvisation, and storytelling to explore social issues like alcoholism, literacy, domestic violence, worker’s rights—each and every topic chosen by the students, much as they have chosen me. Miraculously, our work together intertwines the very things I wanted to eschew, blending art, theater, and human rights. Neither actor nor attorney, I have found a way to do a bit of both, achieving my heart’s desire of helping others and making a difference.
A Chorus Line be damned, I felt something. A whole lot of something. I felt my heart beating.
The moment I stopped demanding The Answer, life resolved The Question. My (he)artwork had been waiting for me in the mountains of Mexico all along, ready to reveal itself when I was ready to see it. But here’s the catch: I would never have found it had I not learned to embrace my “mistakes” along the way as sign posts, not roadblocks.
And that’s what I want to share with all of you who are striving to be “unlost”: the road you seek may very well be diverged in what, at first glance, looks like a dead end. There will be tears. Cry them. There will be naysayers. Ignore them. And there will be signs. Follow them. All of them. Because somewhere in that terrifying darkness, your (he)artwork is searching for you.
“Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.” -Rainer Maria Rilke
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DIDN’T I TELL YOU SHE WAS AMAZING?! (Slow clap turned into an uproarious celebration of awesome sauce.)
And before you leave this page, you BEST check out her “Awesome Sauce Infographic,” which gives away the secret recipe for Awesome Sauce and describes what it takes to be an Awesomepreneur who works with heart (don’t forget to sign up to get Awesome Sauce in your inbox, too!).
Do it– do it now!
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