While a life is made of many moments, it is often defined by one. We asked a few people to share the pivotal times that changed them forever.
Written by Lindsey Lowe
Photography by Beau Gustafson
Robert Frost told most of us in 10th grade literature class that “Two paths diverged in a wood, and I— / I took the one less traveled by, / and that has made all the difference.” We highlighted those lines in our textbooks, put them up on posters on our walls, and encouraged our own feet to tread over the paths stacked with leaves, for those were the ones that had not been seen. But we learn as we go that sometimes it’s not as simple as Mr. Frost indicates; sometimes, six paths diverge in a wood. Sometimes, they all look right, and sometimes, none of them seem to be ours. And yet, it’s never been an option to stand still. So we embark down our roads, and we make our decisions, and we find that Frost was right: It makes all the difference.
We wanted to hear about the moments it happened, the moments that forever changed the lives of some of Birmingham’s own. We asked people of different backgrounds and different directions. We asked a pastor and a musician and a U.S. Representative. We asked about their moments, the ones that were grand and poetic, and the ones that were quiet and small. We asked about the epiphanies and the “Aha!”s, the times when they were sure, and the ones when they weren’t. For some, the remembering came easy; for others, it took some shifting and sorting. We asked them, and we found that while we’re all different, with different moments that lead to different decisions that lead to different lives, it’s also a little bit the same—the same uncertainties, the same hope, the same gumption. Here, you’ll find the stories of seven men and women, recounting the moments when their paths diverged, the moments when they made the decisions—the moments that made all the difference.
“The nurse stared at me over the tops of her dark-rimmed glasses, idly tapping a pencil against her chin.
‘When was the last time you were happy, Dr. Stewart?’ she asked. Happy? The answer popped into my head instantly, without effort: Five years. Five years exactly. Long before this gig. Before med school, even.
‘Five years,’ I told her. ‘It was five years ago.’ The picture persisted in my mind. She gasped, just a little. I don’t believe she expected so prompt a response to her mostly rhetorical question. Certainly not one so direct or so specific.
‘I was back in college,’ I said, reminiscing. ‘Sitting in the art studio, working on a drawing. No interruptions. Not a care in the world. That’s the last time I was happy.’ The memory shines as clear today as it did then. Studio 4, Basic Drawing Class, Final Exam Project: ‘Execute a design, a single illustration of a recognizable form, composed of multiple smaller images, in the style of Arcimboldo.’
‘Yeah, that would be it. The last time I was really happy.’
‘I didn’t know you were an artist,’ she said.
‘I’m not,’ I said. ‘I’m an intern.’
I might never have considered it, had she not come right out and asked.”
In this excerpt from his book, Past Medical History, Don Stewart describes the moment in 1985 when he decided to discontinue medical studies—a year into an internship at the Mayo Clinic—to pursue life as an artist. He owns a studio, DS Art, in Homewood, and is a graphic artist, writer, and creative consultant.
All Matthew Mayfield ever wanted to be was a rock star; well, that or a surfer, but Birmingham isn’t known for her waves, so he chose the former. As a kid, he carried his guitar around Birmingham, playing birthday parties and talent shows, falling more and more in love with music and stages and the way it feels to do what you’re made to do. He spent several years playing the Southeast, “paying my dues,” and then, in 2005, his then-band, Moses Mayfield, signed a record deal with Epic Records. “We thought,” Mayfield says, “that we’d won the lottery.” Then he laughs. In May of 2007, their first album, The Inside, came out. It seemed like all the dues had been paid and all the dreams were real and then—as Mayfield puts it—“the wheels fell off.” Management at Epic Records shifted, and Moses Mayfield was dropped and eventually broke up. And Mayfield figured maybe making music wasn’t what he was supposed to do after all.
“I asked myself, ‘Am I gonna keep doing this?’” he says. “But it was all I’d ever wanted to do. It had been my passion since I was 9 years old. So I went into a basement in a tiny studio [Kensington Road Studios] in Homewood and just made a record with me and a guitar, just for me. I didn’t have any intentions of it being anything for anyone else. Grey’s Anatomy found it on MySpace and asked to use it for the 100th episode of their show. That was the moment I decided I was going to keep doing this—that was the kick I needed. There’s a lot of disappointment and a lot of ‘no’ in this business and an occasional ‘yes.’ I got a ‘yes,’ and it was a pretty inspirational one.”
Mayfield says that he’s learned that you never stop paying your dues in this business—he still plays in clubs and travels to his shows in a beat-up van—but he still loves it, he says. Since that first solo record, he’s put out seven extended play (EP) collections and two full-length albums (the most recent EP, Irons in the Fire, was released in the spring of this year.) I asked what might have happened if he hadn’t gone into that basement, if Grey’s Anatomy had never called, if he’d decided it wasn’t worth it after all. “I honestly don’t know,” he says, “because the best piece of advice I ever got [from a fellow musician] was, ‘If you have a Plan B, go do that, because you’ll never succeed in this industry.’ And he’s right, you know. I think if you start thinking about your options, you’ll lose sight of your passion.”
While he sees all sorts of cities on the road, he always comes home to Birmingham—he now resides in English Village—though some might argue Nashville or Los Angeles are better fits for a musician. He said that sometimes he does consider moving, but that he probably won’t; Birmingham, after all, is where he fell in love with all it in the first place. “[Birmingham] has always been an underdog, and I love underdogs,” he says. “Besides, when you play a show in Nashville, the crowd seems really hard to impress. Here, people really value that you put a lot of time into your craft, a little more than a city with a show going on every night. Here, the people are hungry.”
Whatever it was that couldn’t be put out when it all fell apart—the stuff in him that kept pushing him toward music, even when he knew he’d have to build a new career from the ground up—is still burning today. He’s not sure what will happen this year or next year or in a decade, but he knows now he will never walk away. “I think about quitting about twice a day,” he says, his smile a little bit mischievous. “But I’m never going to not do this. I’m a big believer that if you’re passionate about something, it will find you. It found me.”
“I was in a place completely run by my emotions, dictated by chemicals. Alcohol and drugs clouded my perceptions of reality and left me in a hopeless state. My sister was about to have a baby, and I knew that she would never trust me to watch that child. I wasn’t dependable—my moods were erratic—and I had no peace. As much as I wanted to do the right things and be there for the people in my life, ultimately, I just wasn’t capable. The drugs and alcohol stole my ability to choose and made me into someone that I knew I was not. In November of 2005, [at the age of 31] I was in a hospital room after two previously failed rehab attempts, and it was there that I realized I was ready to surrender. I was broken and desperately needed something else, something lasting. In that moment, in that hospital room, something told me to get on my knees. That’s what I did, and a sense of peace washed over me. For the first time, I felt like there was so much more meant for my life. I had a vision of me speaking before a large group of people. After that, my life changed its course completely. I started following suggestions and quit making decisions entirely on my own. I entered a 90-day rehabilitation program and went on to live in a halfway house for six months. These decisions, which had before seemed impossible to me, now seemed like the ideal solution. Today, eight years later, my life is completely different in every possible way. God has made me into someone brand-new; in fact, many people I come in contact with today have no idea of my past or what I have been through. I believe that’s because God has restored me so that there is really little trace of that broken girl.”
Melissa Waugh celebrated eight years of sobriety in November of 2013; she is now involved in support programs and shares her story with those who suffer from substance addiction, especially women (often speaking in front of large groups of people). She and her husband, TJ, are expecting a baby and live in Hoover.
A pediatric radiologist at Children’s of Alabama (and an associate professor at UAB), Dr. Greg Odrezin had a career that many dream about. He enjoyed many aspects of the job: He got to work with children, teach young residents the ropes of radiology, and participate in medical conferences that challenged him intellectually. Two decades in, however, he began to feel a nudge to try something different. And one Sunday morning in 1995, he made the decision to follow that nudge. “That Sunday morning, I picked up a copy of the Birmingham News,” Odrezin says. “One of the feature stories was called ‘No Man’s Land.’ I read that article, and it triggered my already impulsive nature to say, ‘Maybe I can do this.’” The “this” was building a brand-new career—Odrezin wanted to be an elementary school teacher. The article he read told the story of a man who had been successful in the female-dominated field and noted a need for more men to enter the industry. Odrezin, who already knew he loved kids and teaching—and wanted to try something different—thought he might be a good fit. “It dawned on me in that particular moment that this might be something I wanted to do,” he says. “It got the gears moving that maybe it would be neat to start teaching the kids instead of treating the kids.”
Odrezin received his master’s in education from UAB the next year, and in 1997, he took a job teaching third grade in Hoover. “The first few years were very difficult,” he says. “I had moments where I thought, ‘I can’t believe I did this. I could do [radiology] with my eyes closed, and now, all of a sudden, this is hard.’ But the more I did it, and the better I got at it, it became evident that it was the right decision.” In 1999, he began teaching sixth grade math at Cherokee Bend School, which was his niche. And just like that, Odrezin discovered his second career; he taught elementary school for 16 years before retiring in 2013.
Greg Odrezin lives in Mountain Brook with his wife, Jamie, and is enjoying retirement, which allows him to pursue his interest in music while still teaching math part time at Highlands School.
In January of 2000, Pastor Chris Hodges, a Louisiana native, had a sense that change was coming. He had been in ministry for 17 years—he was, at that time, an associate pastor at Bethany World Prayer Center in Baton Rouge—and during an extended time of prayer, he began to consider either taking over another church or beginning one of his own, he says. In the months that followed, he became even more certain that’s what he was to do, and he began to prepare, creating a list of possible cities for church planting—a list that Birmingham was not on—and continuing to pray for direction. In May of 2000, the direction came. During a visit to Birmingham to watch the SEC Baseball Tournament, Hodges not only added Birmingham to the list, but also marked all of the other cities off.
“We’d come up [to Birmingham] every May to watch college baseball every year,” he says. “That year, I brought my whole family with me. The first ballgame started at 9 a.m., so I’d driven up to the Barnes and Noble at the Summit to get a cup of coffee. I stepped out on the outdoor patio, and I saw Birmingham. You could see all of 280, from where I was at the Summit down to the Cahaba Valley. As I looked out, I really felt the voice of God. It was so strong that it seemed audible—the clarity of his voice was remarkable. He said, ‘You’re going to pastor some of the people in that traffic jam one day.’ In the bible, it talks about the word burden; it means that you just carry something for others. That morning, I felt that kind of burden drop on me for this city.
“I’d never been all the way up and down the highway, so I just drove up and down 280 for about two hours. That was the day I fell in love with this city. I always tell this story, how I suddenly had this supernatural love for this city. And I still do. I don’t even like to go on vacation; I like it here,” he says with a laugh.
Chris Hodges and his wife, Tammy, made the decision in October of 2000 to relocate their family, which includes five children, to Birmingham. In February of 2001, they, along with a core team of 34 people, launched Church of the Highlands. Today, more than 22,000 people attend Church of the Highlands each weekend. The main campus, located on Grants Mill Road, broadcasts to nine others, with another soon to be opened, as well as in many correctional facilities across the state of Alabama.
As a kid, David Schlueter stopped to stare in the windows of a stained glass shop that was on his way home from school. He thought it a little bit magical, and while he took some classes during down time in his corporate jobs, he didn’t think there was any sort of sustainable career in it. He moved to Birmingham as a result of a job offer, and in 2009, he got laid off from that job. “There were no jobs,” he says. “There were just none.” But Schlueter had one idea, one that would give him a job and let him be an artist all at the same time.
One night, Schlueter sat on the couch and proposed the idea to his daughter, Kennedy. “Kennedy has Down Syndrome,” Schlueter says, “so a conversation with her is sometimes a little bit rhetorical. But I asked her what she thought. We had a little conversation, and she basically said I should go for it. So I did. I opened up a [stained glass] studio in my garage, and then I realized people didn’t like doing business in my garage. So I opened a real studio.”
He says being able to spend his time as an artist is better than he could have even imagined when he was working in corporate jobs. “I have not had to dry clean anything or been on an airplane in a long time,” he says, laughing. “I don’t make what I used to, but sitting on the couch with my daughter that night, I decided to take that leap of faith.” He says that in addition to being able to do something he loves—and make a living doing it—the extra time he has is priceless. “I call my own shots, and I call my own hours. It allows me more time with my daughter, who reminds me almost every day, ‘Daddy you’re a really cool artist.’ She’s my one-woman cheering section. All the money in the world isn’t worth what I gain by being with her.” While some might say that becoming an artist isn’t a practical move, Schlueter begs to differ. “It was a logical decision,” he says. “I love this. I get to play every day. It doesn’t mean that it’s not hard, or I don’t get dirty, but I get to make art. Most people who tell you, you’ll never do this or you’ll do that, they’re assigning you their expectations. But it’s like digging ditches. Artists: The world needs us.”
David Schlueter lives in Helena, Ala., with his daughter, Kennedy, and is the owner of Buck Creek Stained Glass (buckcreekglass.com).
In 1974, U.S. Representative Patricia Todd’s passion for equality for women was ignited, and she entered the public service realm, serving as the first executive director of Birmingham AIDS Outreach and working with the Alabama Humanities Foundation and the National Organization for Women. More than 30 years later, in 2006, she came to a crossroads: The District 54 seat in the Alabama House came open, and Todd, an openly gay woman, saw it as an opportunity to affect change in Alabama. She wasn’t sure, however, if it was something she wanted to undertake, or how Alabama would react to a member of the LGBT community running for office.
“I remember I was sitting on my deck, and I was praying about it,” she says. “I knew that that decision would change my life forever, because obviously everyone was going to know [I was] gay. I had this moment of complete moment of peace and felt this touch on my shoulder saying, ‘Yes, this is what you need to do.’ Even when my election was challenged, I was extremely at peace about it, and I knew that the right thing would happen. And it did.”
Todd was elected—Alabama’s first openly gay lawmaker—and won the re-election in 2010 with no opposition. She said that while it has been challenging, she believes that real change can happen and that she’s in a place to promote it. “When you’re the first in anything, there’s a lot of pressure and that can be overwhelming,” she says. “But for me, this was about the issues and public policy; it was not about Patricia Todd. It was about me asking, ‘Can I change the conversation?’”
Pressure or not, Todd says she wouldn’t change her decision, and that the peace she felt when she decided to run has never left. She has no plans to change her position in the political realm; there, little by little, day by day, she’s exposing many people to someone who’s not like them, and they’re all learning about each other and, she hopes, crafting a better world for the people of Alabama, both those in the LGBT community and those who are not. “I think the House is where I can make the most difference. I can have reasonable conversations with people and hopefully open their eyes and hearts to who we [the LGBT community] are. Many of the people I serve with have never known an openly gay person, so it’s an opportunity for me to demonstrate we’re just as capable and passionate. And it’s about getting to know them, too.”