The saying is so true: like mother, like daughter. We have the same mannerisms, quirks, interests. The same hands, features, and tone of voice. We both even got fired from our first job.
Growing up, I always loved hearing the story of how my mother was fired. It was hilarious to us all, even to my mother. In fact, at the actual time of her firing I believe she thought it was comical. When she was a teenager she got a job working at a restaurant. The restaurant was known for its pies and my mom’s main job was to put the whipped cream on the pies. Knowing how her own taste buds preferred a significant amount of whipped cream, she figured all the customers would appreciate that same ratio, so she would generously pour on the garnish to each pie. Her boss pulled her aside and asked her not to use so much whipped cream, and I guess she just couldn’t seem to lower her standards for the poor, expectant customers...so she was fired. Ladies and gentlemen, my mother.
I would love to be able to tell my own story of how I was fired to my future children with as much laughter and ease. But looking back even now, several years later, I can’t seem to find anything about the story funny. On the contrary, it was the first time I walked through the wilderness. A very dark, lonely wilderness that lasted almost a year.
Just like my mother, it was my first job. Well, technically my second if you count teaching dance as my first, which I started doing when I was fourteen. (For some reason I see teaching as something similar to brushing my teeth, though: it’s not a job, it’s just done.) This, however, was my first real job. The first time I was hired...I was fired. I have to rewind, though.
My senior year of high school I decided I just wanted to be “normal,” which, to my 17-year-old naive self, meant ditch the pointe, jazz, and tap shoes, put the glasses on, pick up some text books, and go to school. My family was horrified at my decision and felt I was betraying not only my family’s legend of performing but myself. But I had a ten-year plan. I would major in psychology, go to graduate school, and start my own private practice. (This plan eventually was edited during my college years, changing my final destination to working as a school psychologist.) However the plan was put into question my second year in college by a woman named Krystyna, who would later become both one of my favorite mentors and ultimately the person God sent to turn me back on the path that my family and friends always thought to be my destiny: performing.
You see, in between my psych classes and honors theses and research labs, and my boyfriend and sorority meetings and dance team practices (my direct approaches to being “involved in school” and to making sure my previous high school’s Friday night schedule didn’t consist of rehearsing for the next full-length ballet); I somehow managed to always arrange my schedule so that I could take a few ballet classes at the university during the week. It was there that I met Jerel and his wife Krystyna, former Joffrey Ballet dancers and now professors of dance at the university. And it was there that my master plan became instead two conflicting interests: one that would follow the scholarly outline I had made for myself in high school, and the other that would follow the unquestionable longings of my heart since birth.
Looking back, I see how one thing led to the next. My first semester, I was strictly there just taking ballet class a couple times a week as a “hobby.” The second semester, I volunteered my time to be in one of the University Dance Company’s pieces, even though I wasn’t a dance major. By the time I was a senior, I was at the psych building getting in my lab hours and meeting with my honors thesis professor but making sure I was putting my pointe shoes on almost everyday because, as stated before, my sophomore year in college God sent an angel by the name of Krystyna to stop me in my tracks, look me in the eye, and say, “What are you doing here? You should be in New York.”
Finally, while in the middle of researching graduate schools, I got a call that, well, made the call for me...the kind of call that everyone dreams of getting but knows they won’t because we are told from an early age that this is the hardest business there is. The kind of ridiculous call you might see in a movie. You know the kind: A little girl from Kansas comes home to her apartment to play a phone message (back when there were landlines) from a world-renown choreographer, who is calling to say that she is starting a new contemporary ballet company in New York and wants this said Kansan who didn’t audition or contact this person or even necessarily entertain the idea of moving to the city to actively pursue the hardest career there is, to get on a plane, all expenses paid, including airfare and a place to live in NY as well as travel going back to Kansas for Thanksgiving and Christmas and the first venue of shows being at the Joyce followed by a European tour to Italy and Paris, France, and to please call back and let her know if this sounds like something she would be interested in.
“AS IF that would happen,” we all say, rolling our eyes.
Well, it did. So obviously, I shoved my 200-page honors thesis and college diploma in an airtight storage container, packed my bags, gave Kansas a nod of thanks, and headed back to the city I lived in as a child. The city of my roots.
Fast forward a couple months, and I am back in my apartment in Kansas home for Christmas and now getting ready to leave again for New York for rehearsals for the show at the Joyce. The night before my early morning flight I (because this is before internet on cell phones) go to my university’s library (some things never change) to check my email once more before leaving. And this is where I experienced day one of the wilderness.
Via email the choreographer fires me. Let me say that again. Via email the choreographer fires me. Let me specify. Via email the choreographer fires me twelve hours before I am to get on a flight to show up for rehearsal for the piece in which I have learned the lead.
My head is spinning. I’m sitting in the library. Stunned. It’s a joke. Clearly. It’s a joke. It’s not a joke. It’s not a joke? It’s not a joke. What??? It’s not a joke???? This is real life??? What??? This is real life!!!! This is real life. I get on the phone and call my boyfriend who is out of town visiting his family. Whispering, because I am sitting at the stupid library finding out that I have been fired, I tell him.
“Stop joking, Deanna,” he says. “Stop. Deanna, I know, you’re a great actress. Stop. That’s not really funny.” Suddenly I regret all those times I would joke around with him, really just trying to make sure there was still an actress in me. For the first time now it hits me and I’m crying now. Now I’m sitting at the library on a stupid computer looking at the email written by my former boss and crying to my boyfriend on the phone.
For the next few days, it is horror for me. I have to figure out who to tell first. I call my sister. “I can’t tell Mom. I can’t. I can’t.” I’m petrified. My sister reassures me that it will be okay. That Mom will understand. I remind Cameo that Mom got a dozen of her friends to buy tickets not just to the Joyce Theater but also AIRPLANE tickets and HOTEL accommodations to see DEANNA perform in a show she was now NOT IN!!! Cameo is silent for a split second and then proceeds to assure me that she will understand.
I finally work up the courage to call my mom. I am sobbing. I have no idea how she even deciphered what I was saying. I explain that I am so stunned. That it was out of the blue. That I can’t believe it. That I am a failure. That I failed. I failed her. I failed myself. I failed my family. I failed the group of people who wanted to show their support for me by coming to my debut. I failed everyone. I failed Krysyna and Jerel. I failed the profession. I failed at life. I vividly remember words my mother told me weeks later: “Deanna, this will make you a very compassionate person.” I also vividly remember thinking, “That doesn’t sound appealing enough to go through a thing like this for.”
I should mention, perhaps, that oddly enough, I actually HATED that job, anyway. The choreographer was quite crazy and frustrating, the work not as fulfilling as what I would have liked, I was absolutely miserable listening to the horrible choices of “music” if that’s what you want to call it, and the only thing that was positive about it was working with a fantastically talented and wonderful woman who took me under her wing that I call my Mother Theresa. But all of this didn’t matter, as I let my own feelings of inadequacy rule my mind.
Looking back, hindsight 20/20, I see that I shouldn’t have ever felt like a failure. As she stated in the email, I clearly was let go due to financial issues. I was the only one that she was flying back and forth, and she was paying for my living expenses, as well. It was an expense that her newly-founded company just couldn’t handle anymore. She had to downsize, and it started with the only person that didn’t actually live in the city naturally. However, in the moment, I could not see that part of the puzzle. I could read it in her email. And I could acknowledge it in my speech. But the feeling of failure, loss, and overwhelming hurt did not seem to go away. For months.
And for the first time in my life, I felt really depressed. I had trouble getting out of bed. I cried everyday. All day. Because my entire outlook on life changed from that one instant. I was no longer the person that never failed. My 4.0 GPA meant nothing. My perfectionist personality was sent in a whirlwind of panic and fear and disappointment. The overly driven student in me that always had to set the curve in all her courses was now sitting in a corner, tears streaming down her face, wearing a big red letter F on her chest. I had grown up feeling like I had to be the best dancer in the class, the nicest girl in the school, the easiest person to get along with. I had been the girl who had to win every game of Scrabble because once I had a winning streak going, I didn’t want to disappoint my family. Everything that I ever stood for--hard work, determination, focus, drive, conscientiousness--was now being spit in my face as I scored my lowest grade ever: F for fired. And no matter how many times I tried to tell myself that it wasn’t my fault, that I didn’t do anything wrong, and that it wasn’t because I was lacking in anything; I just couldn’t get out of my rut.
I also dealt with some feelings of anger. After reading over my contract with the choreographer and seeing that it stated she would give the artist two weeks notice of any withdrawal of contract, I asked her for two weeks pay. Her reply was simply, “in this business no one follows contract. And it would cost you more money to hire a lawyer than it would the two weeks pay.” Already feeling like a failure, I didn’t press the issue. Needless to say, this was before I became a union delegate.
Now, before I tell you how this story ends... (I’m still alive, so obviously it’s not truly the end of my story, but I’ll give you the next portion of where it took me so we don’t leave on such a bad note)...first I’d like to say what the wilderness taught me.
Going through the wilderness for the first time showed me that I cannot rely on myself. I cannot rely on hard work. Or being perfect. Or success. Or determination. I can’t rely on my credentials to make me feel worthy. I can’t rely on a title to feel validation. I can’t pat myself on the back for getting ahead. Or making the cut. Or getting the lead. Or climbing the ladder. People let us down. We let ourselves down. Plans fall through. We have nothing to hold onto. There is no railing on earth. Success is a facade. Good grades are nothing but a lesson of, “now what?” And a job that everyone thinks they dream of could turn out to be a nightmare of employment. Or you could just lose the job regardless.
I had to learn this the hard way because up until this point I only relied on myself. I thought that if I worked hard and was the best at what I did, I would be okay. All will be okay. And that’s just not the case. When my world was turned upside down and I saw for the first time that working hard, being dedicated and even being really good at what you do can fail, I realized I had nothing to fall back on. And that whole “get a college degree so you have something to fall back on” didn’t apply to me because it wasn’t the lack of a JOB that devastated me. It was the F for Fail. And even my college transcript of all A’s couldn’t catch that fall.
Which is how I met God: flat on my face. I didn’t grow up going to church. And I was raised by a mother who wanted me to make my own decisions, so we didn’t talk about things like faith. I guess she wanted me to experience it and not be taught. Experience it, I did, in the form of all that I had built my life to be came crumbling down. And when nothing was left standing, especially myself, I found my faith.
In my year of being in the wilderness, my year of depression and crying and “failing” and feeling as if I had nothing, I learned that I had the only thing that will ever catch me when I fall: a God that is always there. And while I can’t tell my future children that the story of their mommy getting fired is HILARIOUS, I can tell them that it has a silver lining. The best silver lining ever. A GOLD lining. Because the story of their mommy being fired is the story of how she lost faith in everything, but then gained it in everything.
The “rest” of the story (for now) is as follows.
For months I sat in bed crying. I hated myself. I hated my life. I was ashamed. I was so embarrassed. I wrote in my journal for the first time regularly. I wrote about how I have no faith. About how I need God to take away the pain. About how I was so angry that I had finally admitted that I was sort of living like the Matt Damon/janitor character in “Good Will Hunting” and had finally admitted to myself and everyone what I really wanted to do with my life and then it was thrown in my face. I wrote about how I was afraid God didn’t want me to dance. He wanted me to work at a library or something. (Which would actually pay more, by the way.) And then I eventually started writing about how I was getting to know God. That I was beginning to believe that He was there. I kept praying for Him to make me into the person that I should be. And I started to really hand everything over to Him. (I mean, what else am I going to do, right?)
I eventually made my way out of my bed. My first step toward civilization was what my resort still is to this day: get back to the barre. I contacted Jerel, who offered to let me take ballet class at the university whenever I wanted. It was such a wonderful gift, but it was also humbling for me, as I had to explain to everyone that knew of me as “the dancer that got the job in NY” that I was now “the dancer that got let go and is now residing in a college town while no longer a college student in KS.”
Not long after, Jerel told me that the artistic director of the Kansas City Ballet was going to be setting a piece on the dancers at the university and I should work with him.
“I’m not a dance major. I’m not even a student here anymore,” I say.
“You should work with him,” says Jerel.
And so I did. He used me as the lead in the piece at the university. And then I became the first person he had ever hired from Kansas City to be in his company. (Because things in my life always happen in full circle, I actually got the call from him asking to join his company when I was at that same library that I got “fired.”) I had the most amazing career there, one I will always cherish and be so thankful for. For years I danced roles I always wanted to dance. I had works created on me that will always be some of my favorite pieces of work in my lifetime.
I should also note that that infamous choreographer saw me perform a few years after firing me and offered me a contract to tour with her company to Europe. Despite the fact that she was now recognized as a Broadway choreographer, as well, I politely declined, saying that I had just signed a summer contract with a regional theater and wouldn’t want to break a contract.
It really is true that when one door closes another door opens. A better door. I pray that, as doors continue to close and open, I remember that even if the door leading to the Kansas City Ballet studios hadn’t opened, I still would have been better off because I found God in the hallway. And my mother was right: I am, in fact, more compassionate.