Over the course of a writing retreat this past November I was listening to a MasterClass with the author Amy Tan. While sections of the course were directed to writers that were just getting started, I paid close attention to the lesson focused on writer’s block.
While 2021 was so much better than 2020—and 2022 even better so far—I still found myself choosing to spend what spare time I had sitting on the couch watching television instead. I know we are not supposed to be hard on ourselves, to be thinking about missed opportunities from this ongoing pandemic— after all, we can’t all be Brandon Sanderson—but I can’t help but consider how much of my real blocks are about more than just the state of the world.
During this lesson Tan talks about writing rituals, about methods to block out distractions, and then she looks straight at the camera and says: “Ask yourself: Why did you decide to become a writer in the first place?”
Her purpose, of course, was to encourage us to move past the imposter syndrome that leads into a cycle of NOT writing. To remind you about what the initial impetus was for first putting pen to paper.
Over the last ten years I have shared—on or around January 1st—a vision for my future. These have never been ordinary resolutions. Instead I wrote mantras, hopes, and wishes for what I want my life to stand for, what I want it to mean. More often than not I talked about taking risks and leaps, harnessing optimism, searching for kindness, and in some of our tougher years, encouraged myself to dig deep for a well of defiance.
Earlier this week, as I continued to think about how to approach this piece, I saw a suggestion (by an old high school friend) to not look to resolutions, but rather to make a list of things you were proud of in 2021. So here’s my list:
We all know it wasn’t an easy year, but unlike 2020 it had moments of brightness made possible by the COVID-19 vaccine. I know taking a vaccine is an odd thing to list as an accomplishment, but when belief in our ability as humans to take care of each other feels like a challenge, taking the three shots in 2021 felt like something I could do not only for myself, but for others. More selfishly, taking the vaccine allowed me to hug family, and friends, and to fly across the country to meet my new nephew just days after he was born.
I say my, as if I was the only one staying there, but these are mostly my recollections tripping over one another in order to be shared.
My first memory is of us girls, ages 4-7-10 running up the carpeted stairs and staring in wonder at the double sink in the master bathroom. When we arrived, it was a new house with my older sister getting a room for the first time, while Trisha and I embraced the bunk bed (though we all really cuddled together at the bottom bunk saying our prayers while holding each other’s ears for comfort). But bit-by-bit we transformed the house as we transformed ourselves.
As historians we are told to interrogate our sources, trained to see connections, and build a historical argument based on primary, secondary, archeological, and physical documentation. As distant observers of past events, we look for detail and nuance—and for new ways to glean what lives within the silences.
In a lot of ways, this is not far from being an audience member at a Punchdrunk theatrical experience.
Nearly a decade ago as part of a piece on breaking the fourth wall, I described a play called Sleep No More—a co-production between Emursive and Punchdrunk. In this retelling of Shakespeare’s Macbeth the companies adapted three warehouses in New York City to create a massive theatrical experience. As the story unwound the audience meandered through five floors of sets in a fictional McKittrick hotel, stumbling upon scenes and story elements that included more than just the actors performing before us.
Since that production, I have been fascinated with the storytelling methodology of immersive theater, and in June of 2021, as part of Punchdrunk’s online educational offerings, I took a course on Introduction to Design. I hoped that the course would give me some insight into how immersive theatre layers on different elements of sound, visual spectacle, movement, and narrative cues to build a story that demands the active use of observation by their audience.
On August 14, I am marking not only 15 years at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, but also 15 years as a public historian. In the intervening years, a lot has changed—teams, expectations, job roles, and the organization itself—and I find myself reflecting on how those changes have changed me.
Consider the words at the start of this piece: Thankful. Grateful. Two words that I have been hearing a lot about, at a time when the intersecting and overlapping nature of work has shifted due to a virus that fundamentally altered how we see our lives. For many, this past year revealed that organizations and companies do not owe their employees anything. Whatever loyalty and commitment we have, it may not be reciprocated—an attitude I commiserate with—particularly in light of the series of layoffs within the museum and history field due to the pandemic.
Five years ago, I wrote about how important it was for me to be working in a field that I love—that if most of my life was spent at an office, I would rather work with passion, than with indifference.
This is, in part, a story about my own fight to see.
My own blindness.
Just under eighteen years ago, as a junior in college, I struggled to keep my eyes open in class. It is a vivid memory, with the realization that something wasn’t right during a small seminar on Early America with Dr. James Horn. We were in Blair Hall at the College of William and Mary—one of my favorite places in the world—where I often sat perpendicular to the glorious golden sunlight streaming past the projector screen into my eyeline. At the time I thought it was due to a lack of sleep, but after few weeks of going to bed early, and covering my eyes in windowless rooms, I realized I had actually developed an intense sensitivity to light.
Doctor after doctor thought I had a corneal ulcer, or an aggressive form of a common eye virus, but one weekend, as a friend and I drove from Virginia to State College, Pennsylvania, that ulcer turned into a very visible, very painful, white ring around my cornea.
Have you ever tried to watch Lara Croft: Tomb Raider in a movie theatre while having stabbing eye pain? I have. And by the end of the weekend, I felt as if I was staring into a white fog. I felt unmoored and terrified. An experience I never want to replicate again.
Over the course of ten months, from March to December 2020, I walked almost 152 miles listening to podcasts, audio dramas, and 15 books about a female detective named Maisie Dobbs. This series, about a former nurse turned psychologist and investigator who solves crime, is set against the backdrop of post-War (and eventually the start of World War II) England. Through her cases, we learn about repercussions from World War I, the 1918 flu epidemic, social unrest, anti-refugee sentiment, and as Dobbs becomes more involved with British Secret Service, the growing threat of the Nazi regime.
As I walked at sunrise, sunset, lunchtime breaks, and post work wind-downs I couldn’t help feel, as time slowly slipped by, the looming disaster to come. I knew it wasn’t only of the fictional (yet historical) world created by Jacqueline Winspear, but also the constant hum of chaos that was 2020.
There are no real positive things to say about this past year. In a lot of ways our fault lines and the cracks in our civic society have been laid bare for all to see. There was so much death and pain, that I often struggled to find a silver lining.
When I started this piece many months ago I intended to write about the ways in which technology and multi-disciplinary storytelling has changed the way we engage with our senses. The plan was to look at two, equally compelling, modes of storytelling about a single event in history, and tease apart the ways in which each were constructed to build meaning and connection.
For the past eight months we have talked a lot about self-care, a state of being where we look inward to center ourselves, to focus on our own mental health in order to make it to the next day, and the next, and the next. We read romance novels, and binge re-watched all of New Girl. We learned to bake bread, and more recently began the easy process of mocking holiday movies on Cable TV. We gave ourselves leeway to not be productive, to deal with our emotions, our fear, and the uncertainty.
And amidst all that self-care we’ve realized—well most of us at least—that we need to be more aware of what is happening beyond ourselves. That in a lot of ways what America is, and what we will become, depends on that single choice. To care more.
We have all been changed by this year, and we cannot go forward without acknowledging that a single election, for good or ill, will not fix what is broken. While we wait with baited breadth for the results that will begin to roll in on November 3, the real challenge, no matter the result, comes after: the next day, and the next, and the next.
Twenty-Twenty has been a year of forgotten dreams and lost intentions. A year of stasis, and moments of deep grief in wells of unexpected sadness.
This weekend we lost an incredible leader. While I won’t hold her up as a paragon of perfection, Ruth Bader Ginsberg stood at the vanguard of fights to provide women in this country more agency and autonomy then they had ever had before. However, it is so hard to talk about the importance of her work, without acknowledging how her life was, for many, a tenuous thread holding a web of wavering hopes together.
If there is one thing I’ve tried to cling to in this hellscape of year, it is that glass-half-full perception that I define my life by. And as frustrated as I have become with the world, and my personal circumstances, I am searching, constantly, for beacons to offset the fear.