11: Eating Lentils

11: Eating Lentils

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Joy of Less

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Eating Lentils

Nobody can go back and start a new beginning, but anyone can start today and make a new ending.

~Maria Robinson

I practiced law in the 1980s. That was the era of L.A. Law and business suits with “power shoulders.” My department at the law firm was major and complex litigation, and business was booming.

I did a lot of traveling — flying into Denver for a week of hearings, days of depositions in New Jersey, document production in Philadelphia, and months of trial in Los Angeles. We flew first class and stayed in luxury hotels. After growing up in a rural, blue-collar family, the first to earn a college — let alone professional — degree, it felt like I’d really “made it.”

I realized I could buy an expensive purse or briefcase if I saw one I wanted. So I did. I never quite got over my childhood frugality, but I did treat myself to good haircuts. And I shopped a lot on my lunch hours, buying high-end clothing at department stores.

I’d worked hard for my career, graduating at the top of my class, but I hated it. I’d enjoyed the study of law, but I didn’t enjoy practicing it. The adversarial, competitive aspects of litigation wore me down. The stresses of decision-making on multi-million-dollar lawsuits kept me awake at night.

As I rode public transit to work, I retreated into reading a book, trying to forget where I was headed. I became a clock watcher, longing to leave the office and be on my way home. Friday nights were wonderful. Saturday nights were sad, because I knew my weekend was already half over.

I felt trapped by velvet handcuffs. How could I walk away from something I’d worked so hard for — which people told me I was good at? How could I give up such a high salary — one my father could never have dreamed of? How could I tell my husband the sacrifices we’d both made were no longer enough motivation to make me stay?

My cat Sammy seemed to sense my misery. We’d inherited the red-point Siamese from my husband’s aunt when she passed, and I’d been there for him during his protracted grief. Now, he was there for me when I came home at night, settling his warm bulk into my lap with a comforting, rhythmic purr.

My low point came when Sammy started to lose weight and his coat became rough looking. The vet said he had feline leukemia. In those days, there was no vaccine, and the disease was terminal. Adding to my grief, we were in trial in Los Angeles, and I flew out every Sunday night and didn’t return till the following Friday night. I felt like I was abandoning my faithful little friend in his darkest hour.

After we lost Sammy, my desire to leave the firm became overwhelming. Arriving in Denver late one night, with a massive head cold, all I wanted to do was crawl into bed. My boss was holding a strategy meeting in the next room, along with a junior partner and our local counsel. When he asked if I wanted to join them, I pled my need to sleep off the worst of my cold.

It was already eleven on the East Coast, but out here, only nine. I fell asleep to the rumble of voices through the wall. That was when I became sharply aware that my boss should logically have been my role model — the success I was aspiring to. But I knew I didn’t want to be the person who had to chair a meeting late at night, with people looking to me for answers. That’s when I definitely knew I was living somebody else’s dream, not my own.

From that moment on, my actions were governed by my plan to escape. We paid off our mortgage early and drove our older, paid-off cars. I crunched numbers constantly, trying to figure out how to survive without my income. Nothing else I was qualified to do — or could bear to think of doing — paid nearly as much money as practicing law. My only other training was as a writer — a notoriously ill-paid and unpredictable profession.

After six years, I made partner. Among the perks was a travel junket every year to a legal conference any place I chose. I never took it. Maybe subconsciously, I didn’t want to have people saying I’d taken advantage, only to quit shortly afterward. Neither did I take the free, luxury leased car. I wanted to own my own transportation, and not have to worry about being forced to turn my lease in and suddenly having to buy a car in order to make my getaway. When my fellow junior partners took out big mortgages for sprawling five-bedroom showplaces in upscale neighborhoods, we just stayed in our old farmhouse with its worn siding. Consciously, we tried to travel light — and debt-free.

As a young mom, I took the longest-available maternity leaves, and sobbed for weeks before I had to return to work. I missed my children and knew they were missing me, too. But no matter how many ways I crunched the numbers, they still didn’t work. Things would have to go. We’d have to cut our eating out, and the traveling we loved so much. No more browsing for beautiful purses and clothing. Even so — with vet bills, swimming lessons for the kids, math tutoring, etc. — it would be tight.

But when my girls were six years old, and my son eight, I finally quit. It had been nearly twenty years. My husband knew my desperation, and one day, just said, “Do it. You can’t keep going through life this way.”

I was a ball of anxiety, but the day I quit that job, I felt a lifting inside me. I started smiling a lot. A few other young partners confessed they wished they could do what I was doing. One of them cornered me to ask, “How are you doing it?”

“Living in an old house. Eating rice and beans. Driving old cars,” I said.

I told him the story of the old man who lived on lentil soup. Another man felt sorry for him, and gave him this advice: “If you bow down to the king, you won’t have to eat lentils anymore.” The old man smiled and shook his head. “If you would learn to eat lentils, you wouldn’t need to bow down to the king.”

My friend smiled sadly and shook his head. “I like my BMW.”

I smiled back. “Luckily, we like lentils.”

~Katie Drew

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