A Fortune for the Future

                                                                                                                     August 2022

Hello Friend, 

I know that you’ve been with me every hour, every minute, and every moment of the last ten years, but I hope when you re-read these words at the turn of your half-century on this Earth, that they make you smile.

You probably remember how, two weeks before our fortieth birthday, I cracked open a fortune cookie to find the words “You will soon be inspired to make a life-changing decision” on a tiny slip of paper.

A rectangular slip of paper commonly found in a fortune cookie with a phrase and a series of numbers.

“Life-changing” feels like a loaded phrase with many meanings. Perhaps, I needed to let the universe guide me towards spontaneity and adventure. Maybe, I should accept the path I was already on with a measure of certainty that success would certainly follow. It could also be encouragement to take a sharp left turn into the unknown.

However, you know me. I have said over, and over, again that change is not something I take lightly. 

I do not jump. I plan. 

I do not step off the path, I take the sure and steady curve to get where I need to go. 

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There is No Crying in Baseball

About two weeks ago, in the middle of a random Tuesday, I found myself crying. It wasn’t unprovoked, rather, it was in direct response to an unexpected situation that my brain, and my body were not prepared to process.

So, for about ten minutes, I lost it.

During the following hours (now weeks), I thought a lot about those tears, considering how I have been dealing with emotions over the last two and half years. Obviously, the stress and worry of the global pandemic, social uncertainty, and its ramifications have hit all of us in very, very, different ways. While I won’t claim to not have not been a crier before, I will say that it was an emotion not so close to the surface.

Then out of the blue I remembered Tom Hanks in A League of Their Own yelling “There’s no crying in baseball,” at the top of his lungs. While the character is flailing about because the women on his team are upset and he is unable to to deal with it, the sentiment still struck a chord. (Obviously, we know that people cry over sports all the time, but stay with me).

I realized, while the event precipitating the crying was upsetting, I was angrier at myself for losing it over something I was actively trying to be less emotional about. Just as Jimmy Dugan (Hanks’ character) was convinced crying was something you do.not.do. when playing a sport, I fought against a situation where crying also felt taboo.

And then my career coach, Kate (illustrating how well they know me) said—you need to write out your feelings. Which brings us here, to this piece, which ended up being less about me and my mental health, and more about crying, emotional language, and storytelling.

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Why I Write: Beyond Writer’s Block and Toward Meaningful Storytelling

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. 

A quotation propped against one of the bookshelves at my writer’s retreat.
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2022. Hello Forty.

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:

Glittering poles with flowers and greeneries and shoes as witnesses to lives lost.
“Come, Take a Moment” is an installation by Devon Shimoyama meant to encourage visitors to the Arts and Industries Building’s exhibition called The FUTURES to pause and reflect on the “tumult and tragedy brought on by racial violence and the COVID-19 pandemic.”

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.

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Home is an Ever-Fixed Mark

In August I said goodbye to my childhood home. 

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.

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Three Lessons on Historical Storytelling from Punchdrunk

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 Morea 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.

Sleep No More Act II, Scene II Macbeth. From an edition with an inscription that states “To Mary from Sidney. 17th June 1924.” | Credit Priya Chhaya

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.

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Fifteen.

Five years ago I wrote about a fairly naïve, 23 year old who started her first post-grad school job thankful to be working professionally as a historian. I was grateful for colleagues, mentors, and an organization that enabled me to grow with time.

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.

When your parents move out of their house of 30+ years you find the weirdest things at the perfect time. I started my new job seven days before my birthday. What a lovely welcome.

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.

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Blindness Overcome

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.

If You Can See, Look

Blindness at the Donmar Warehouse 57 | Credit: Helen Maybanks
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Living with Intention in 2021

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.

View of woods in Virginia.
A view from a hidden wood near my home. For so many nature brought a level of peace in the madness.

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.

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Fly Me to the Moon: Lessons from the Crowd

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. 

The first of the two experiences was Earthrise, a musical, presented at the Kennedy Center from July 18-August 4, 2019. The second was the National Air and Space Museum’s Apollo 11: Go For the Moon, July 19-21, 2019, which used projection mapping to create a one of a kind experience on the National Mall

In both cases, the audience was central to the experience. The crowds, the people we stood and sat next to, built tension and enhanced the production in unexpected ways. 

But we are now in mid-November, almost a year and half past, and the world is a very different place. 

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