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The Great Reinvention: People craved change and the pandemic was the motivator


How many people do you know who made big changes in their lives during the pandemic? According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 4.3 million people voluntarily resigned from their jobs in December of 2021 alone. On top of that, how did virtual work change our expectations about flexible schedules? What did being away from a certain work culture teach us about our own values and who we want to be at work? Over the next few days, we're going to explore these questions.


MARTIN: Today, the Great Reinvention. We're going to hear from two people who were craving change. And the pandemic pushed them to make it.

CATI BENNETT: My name is Cati Bennett (ph).

CARLA STICKLER: My name is Carla Stickler.

MARTIN: Before the pandemic, Cati was a stay-at-home mom.

BENNETT: I had an infant. And she was born in April 2019. So she was - just before the pandemic, she was just about to celebrate her first birthday.


BENNETT: And I had a 3-year-old.

MARTIN: Oh, you were in it.

BENNETT: (Laughter).

MARTIN: And Carla? Well, Carla was a witch.


IDINA MENZEL: (As Elphaba) Fiyero.

MARTIN: To be more specific, she was Elphaba, the bad witch in the hit Broadway musical "Wicked."

STICKLER: My favorite song to sing is "No Good Deed." And I always like to tell people it's because you're literally throwing, like, a belting tantrum onstage. And, like, how often do you get to do that as a performer? It's pretty awesome.

MARTIN: We couldn't get our hands on Carla's version of the song. But this will give you a sense of what she's talking about.


MENZEL: (As Elphaba, singing) No good deed goes unpunished. All helpful urges should be circumvented.

MARTIN: It was 2010. Carla was in the cast ensemble every night. But she was also the full-time understudy for the role of Elphaba.

So on those performances, or maybe the first time, what was that feeling like?

STICKLER: The first time? You know, I kind of blacked out a little bit.


STICKLER: No, but seriously, I do remember the first time at the curtain call at the end, Glinda and Elphaba kind of run out together. And the girl who was playing Glinda at the time, she goes, girl, are you ready? This is incredible. You deserve every moment of this. Go out. Enjoy it.

MARTIN: Carla loved being on Broadway. It was her dream since she was a kid. But it started to wear on her.

STICKLER: You know, you dance eight shows a week in four-inch heels. And you wear a wig that's, you know, massive on your head. So your body kind of takes its toll. And I was just really tired. And I was just - I was like, this is not the way I think I want to live the rest of my life.


MARTIN: Cati Bennett had a similar epiphany. Before she had kids, she worked in university administration. And right before the pandemic, she was feeling like it was time to get back into the workforce.

BENNETT: I had applied for some jobs, (laughter) actually, just in late March 2020.

MARTIN: Yeah. So did you hear back?

BENNETT: No, no. They just went out into the ether.

MARTIN: So there she is, stuck in her house. Her husband isn't there to help with the kids. He's an ICU nurse, so he was working all the time.

BENNETT: So these things that I had relied on for some form of sanity being a stay-at-home mom were gone. So no story time at the library, no playdates, no babysitters. So our world got very small, very quickly.


BENNETT: I think I felt trapped.

MARTIN: Here's this stay-at-home mom near Los Angeles, desperate to restart her career when no one's hiring, and a former Broadway performer desperate to build a more stable life. But to get what they wanted, they couldn't just tweak their expectations. The moment demanded complete reinvention.

STICKLER: I like to say it's - you know, in acting, we use our bodies to tell a story. In programming, we use code, right?

MARTIN: In 2018, a friend convinced Carla Stickler to go to a computer coding bootcamp. She dug it. But in her mind, she was Carla, the Broadway star. It didn't sound quite right to be Carla, the software engineer. So she hung on, kept doing a few shows here and there.

STICKLER: There's this kind of narrative in the arts where if you stop doing your art, you're just, like, a failed artist. And so I didn't want to be viewed as this big failure, as this person who couldn't hack it.

MARTIN: But when the pandemic hit in the spring of 2020, it was time to jump.

STICKLER: March 13 was supposed to be our first preview of this new musical that I'd been working on. And we canceled the audience. We could only have family and friends there. And then, the next morning, we all went home.


STICKLER: And I was like, OK. I think I know what I need to do. I think I need to start applying for jobs in tech. I have this new skill I've learned. This is the time to do it.


MARTIN: And Cati Bennett, how did she reinvent herself?

BENNETT: I thought, chaplain work is for extroverts or people who really like to pray or, you know, like a pastor-type person.

MARTIN: The stay-at-home mom, who thought she'd return to work in higher education, became a hospital chaplain.

BENNETT: I was terrified in the beginning, you know? We didn't have vaccines then.

MARTIN: Right.

BENNETT: Some people get it and don't notice. And some people catch COVID and they die.

MARTIN: Right.

BENNETT: And there was just no way of knowing which way you fell on that spectrum.

MARTIN: Plus, you were going to be walking into more death, honestly...


MARTIN: ...To more people who were...


MARTIN: ...On the edge of their lives.

BENNETT: Yeah. And that was less scary for me than people asking me to pray, (laughter) honestly.

MARTIN: Say more about that.


BENNETT: I was just so worried that I would - I don't know - screw it up, that I would disappoint them, I guess. But I mitigated that fear by making myself this little, like, prayer cheat sheet. I called it my security blanket. I just kept it in my pocket. And it was, like, a couple different kinds of prayers, depending on if somebody was dying or if somebody, you know, just wanted to go home or, you know, something like that.

MARTIN: Yeah. Cati finished up her training in the summer of 2020. And grief was everywhere.

BENNETT: I remember I left my office one day. And I walked down to the lobby of the hospital. And I got introduced to a nurse there who was quitting. It was her last day. And she was happy. But on her last day, she had been asked to deliver another body to the morgue, one of the morgue trucks. And we had run out of body bags. And so she was instructed to place more than one body in a bag. And I - in that moment - I don't know. It's like, it's tragic, but it's inside this giant heap of tragedy.

MARTIN: Right.

BENNETT: I don't know. To not be present to my own sadness and confusion about what was going on, that would mean that I couldn't see what was happening for her when she had to stack two bodies in a body bag before she went and ate cake and said goodbye to her friends in the nurse breakroom.


MARTIN: Have there been unexpected joys in this work?

BENNETT: You know, it's kind of a different kind of joy. But there is just deep meaning in sitting with someone who is dying and being unafraid to see what's going on with them. While it's hard, it feels sometimes like the only work worth doing.


MARTIN: Cati Bennett found a higher purpose because of the pandemic. Carla Stickler, the software engineer, found solid ground.

STICKLER: It was exactly what I needed. It gave me the opportunity to feel safe and secure in a time when the world was a mess. It allowed us to move to Chicago, buy a house, be back with our family. It allowed us to travel more. Like, we're going to Paris in a week. And we're going to both work remotely. It's kind of allowed us to have this life that I didn't really realize existed.

MARTIN: Are you still singing?

STICKLER: I do karaoke a little bit.

MARTIN: Carla, you must be, like, people's nightmare at the karaoke bar, though. Like, every - karaoke, everybody gets to be a star and belt out their favorite tune. And then you actually are a star. And you get up there and, like, nail it.




STICKLER: It's really funny. My husband likes to make me sing "Let It Go," like, from "Frozen."

MARTIN: Oh, my God.

STICKLER: So he'll, like, put it in. And they'll call my name. And I'm like, why do you do this to me? And he's like, because everyone needs to know.


STICKLER: (Singing) It's time to see what I can do, to test the limits and break through.

Being an actor teaches us to be brave. Being an understudy, I think, teaches us to be brave. And so I just tried to kind of take what I knew about doing things that scare the pants off me and apply it to everything. And this whole journey has been terrifying, if I'm being honest. I was just kind of taking a leap of faith and hoping that it would work out. And I'm beyond grateful that I was able to kind of muster up that courage.


STICKLER: (Singing) Let it go. Let it go, can't hold it back anymore. Let it go. Let it go. Turn away and slam the door.

MARTIN: Carla Stickler of Chicago, Ill., and Cati Bennett of Portland, Ore.


MARTIN: We appreciate you tuning in to your local member station. You can also find us on social media. You can visit the MORNING EDITION Facebook page. Or, of course, we're on Twitter. You can find Leila Fadel at @LeilaFadel. A Martinez is @AMartinezLA. Steve Inskeep is @NPRinskeep. And you can find me, Rachel Martin, at @rachelnpr.

(SOUNDBITE OF IDINA MENZEL SONG, "LET IT GO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.