Sunday, March 21, 2010

Living without a Net

I'm going to go off my usual topics of writing and humor to talk about something a little different. I hope you will bear with me, and if you do, I hope you'll find it worth your while.

Today I would like to talk to you about life-altering decisions. Many of us go through life without ever truly making one. We let others choose the schools we go to, let fate decide our professions, marry people when it seems like we should, live where we've always lived or where our jobs or schools or other obligations send us, and so on. Many of us take, as Robert Frost might have put it, the well-trodden path, never once considering the road less traveled.

For the first 30-some years of my life, I was one of those people. It wasn't that I did things that everyone was doing, but I was mostly letting fate do with me as it wanted and without question. I didn't have a choice when it came to the schools I went to. My parents chose my university, too, but I was allowed to choose my majors. I wanted to study film, but the university I went didn't offer a degree in that. The closest to it was an MA in communications, so I decided to take English Literature and Theater Studies. By the time I completed my BAs, I had learned that the communications department was mostly theoretical, which I didn't want, so I earned a teacher's certificate instead. It was the easy way, the expected way, the well-trodden path. What else could you do with a BA in English? But then I tried teaching for a while, and I discovered something rather surprising: the well-trodden path was clearly meant for me. Teaching might have been what was expected of me, but it was scary. I couldn't control a classroom, and trying to made me feel like I was about to have a nervous breakdown. So I stopped, stepped back and said, "Okay, that's not working. What else would I like to do?" I took some courses in fine art and graphic art, and got a job in a newspaper. From there I worked my way up to political cartoonist, and I continued on to various jobs in various magazines and newspaper. To some it might seem like I was taking the road less traveled, but I wasn't. I'd already shown talent in art, and my family had already been in the newspaper business for four generations. It couldn't have been less of a leap into the unknown.

No, the first time I decided to live without a net didn't come until my husband and I reached an impasse when it came to our autistic son's eduction. We were living in Jerusalem, and we had tried every option we found there, even trying to put together a new school with other parents of autistic kids in the Jerusalem area. Everything fell through. We were told that there was only one school for autistic kids, and that our son could only go there. He would be placed in a building with children ranging from age 6 to 18, most of them with severe autism and much worse off than he was. We knew that meant he was likely to get less attention than the kids whose needs were greater. We felt trapped.

There is an expression in Israel: they call it an "Eretz Ein Brerah," "A Land of No Choice." But did we really have no choice? We did if we stayed in Jerusalem--the city where we met, and married, and owned an apartment, the city we loved--but did we need to stay in Jerusalem? We asked ourselves what our primary goal was, and it wasn't to stay in Jerusalem. It was to give our son the best education he could get. So I got on the Internet and asked other mothers of autistic kids where that was. They told us New Jersey, so we packed up our things, quit our jobs, and rented out our apartment. We decided to live without a net.

Other people might look at our decision and think it very brave or very stupid or both. They could be right. But sometimes you have to decide whether you're willing to give in to what fate seems to be telling you is the only path or forge a new one, whether you're willing to take, as Robert Frost said, the road less traveled. Sometimes you have to decide what it is you truly want, and to get it you have to be willing to live without a net.

I've been thinking about this lately, because once again I've come to a point where fate seems to be telling me I have no choice. We've been living in this same town for almost ten years, and my daughter is ready for high school. We want to send her to a good Jewish school. There's one nearby. But the principal of the school misunderstood something my daughter said, and although my daughter has explained herself, apologized, and has told the principal how much she wants to go to that school, the school has decided she cannot go there. My daughter was crushed, but it seemed there was another option. There's another school, which isn't as close by, but it seems nicer and better in every way. The only way my daughter can do there is if at least two kids from our town goes there to justify the transportation costs. My daughter hoped that her best friend might go to the other school with her, but the school that rejected my daughter has persuaded her best friends parents to send her there. So now not only can't the school willing to accept my daughter provide the necessary transportation, my daughter will be separated from her best friend next year.

It hurts to see your child trapped and know there isn't anything you can do about it. This isn't fair. My daughter deserves to go to go to the same school as her best friend. It isn't fair that the first school won't accept her because of a misunderstanding and a refusal on their part to accept an apology (something that, in my opinion, contradicts Jewish ethics and reflects poorly on the school). It's also unfair that my daughter's ability to attend the second school is dependent on her friend going there, when that isn't something within our control. So what do we do?

Do we take the road the world seems to have chosen for us, or do we once again leave everything behind and forge a new path? Do we once again choose to live without a net? Sure, if we live in this town we're stuck, but do we need to live in this town? We're very pleased with what our town has arranged for our autistic son's education. We don't want to lose that, and that's what might happen if we leave. But what if we keep one apartment here and get an additional one next to that better school? It would be a huge additional expense, and right now my husband is getting very little work, and I've yet to earn anything on the books I've written. But that's the wonderful thing about living without a net: everything becomes an option. The possibilities are endless.

Look at J.K. Rowling. Before she found a publisher for Harry Potter, she was a divorced woman with no real job, a young daughter to take care of, and a dream to become a published author. She didn't ask how she would support herself and her daughter while she wrote. She just wrote. She decided what she wanted, and if she had to live without a net for a while to get it, she would. And she did. And by living without a net, she made that dream come true.

We should all be a little more like J.K. Rowling. We should ask ourselves what we want, what's holding us back, and if we're willing to let it go. Living without a net can be scary, but sometimes living with a net isn't living at all.

All the best,