Every January I take a moment to consider the year we left behind with the hopes of taking any lessons and thoughts forward into a clear-eyed vision for how I want to live.

But 2019 was a year of contradiction.

Just hanging out on the Millennium Falcon next to Darth Vader. No big deal. | Credit: Priya Chhaya

On one hand, I built a track focusing on Celebrating Women’s History at my annual conference, something that included a session that ended up on CSPAN, not to mention a keynote at the glorious Red Rocks Amphitheater in Colorado (see below).  I bought a home. I capped off an almost twenty-three year love of a little space opera by attending Star Wars Celebration in Chicago. I spent time with my amazing, wonderful, caring family with nieces and a nephew that I watch grow with awe.

But it was also a difficult year. Not just because of the state of affairs beyond our control (you know, the world), but also because I was forced to address the balance between realities and my glass-half-full perspective on my daily life. I had to confront my own understanding of what makes me happy and to push myself in a way that was, and continues to be, hard.

There is a line in a book I read this year by Tara Westover. Educated is about gaining knowledge, but also of recognizing your own worth and using that recognition to fight for what you want from your own life.  At one point Westover states, “Not knowing for certain, but refusing to give way to those who claim certainty, was a privilege I had never allowed myself. My life was narrated for me by others. Their voices were forceful, emphatic, absolute. It had never occurred to me that my voice might be as strong as theirs.”

I am not timid. I have lived a privileged life that is filled with security, laughter, and love. I am someone who leads, and also someone who follows. I am not weak.

Springtime in DC. #SavetheTidalBasin | Credit: Priya Chhaya

Rather, this is about becoming more, about not accepting the status quo. It is, as Westover states later in the book, a matter of “First find[ing] out what you are capable of, then decid[ing] who you are.”

In my post for 2019, I talked a lot about taking control, of beginning as a I mean to go on, and by and large I used that energy to make it through the more challenging parts of the year. In 2018 I talked about believing, and 2017 about being brave, and in each case these resolutions, came from a place within myself that wants to be more and do more. 

So, never one to keep things simple, in 2020 I will find my voice.

to shatter the stillness
the languid, lazy, lackadaisical
to shatter the easy
the fearful, frighting, fathomless
to shatter the silence
the unknowable, unsuspecting, uncontrollable
to shatter
and speak

Digging for dinosaur bones. In New Jersey. | Credit: Priya Chhaya

Best of 2019

Below are my usual attempts to capture the best things I’ve watched, read, or experienced over the last year.  If 2019 gave me anything, it is the remarkable array of plays, movies and books as inspiration.  As always these are not necessarily things that came out in 2019, but rather pieces of culture that moved me and brought me joy in unexpected ways.

Movies: It should come as no surprise that the film I am still thinking about about months later was The Last Black Man in San Francisco, which even today, continues to make me think on multiple levels. My other favorites of the year were Booksmart and The Farewell. Both were emotional stories of family, growing up, and love.

Of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t write a brief note about The Rise of Skywalker.  I will admit that I am still struggling to pinpoint my overall opinion for this movie. While I enjoyed it, it was still a conclusion to a trilogy (that brought incredible new characters to the GFFA), while still lacking some essential elements to make it great.

Books: I read 115 books this year. An enormous collection of stories that ran the gamut from straight up romance to “young adult” fantasy.  I blew through the Maureen Johnson’s Shades of London series, and love, love, pitching people  Sangu Mandanna’s A Spark of White Fire and a House of Rage and Sorrow.  This is also the year that I fell in love with the writing of Taylor Jenkins Reid. If you haven’t read (or listened to) Daisy Jones & the Six, it is a really great example of how you can use the tools of a historian to tell a moving, and emotional story. Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t point to the remarkable conclusion of N.K. Jemison’s Broken Earth series.

A note on romance. I spent a lot of time this year reading the escapism of happily ever after. In between the dystopian fantasies and the real life day to day insanity I found myself needing comfort. I blew through Julia Quinn’s Bridgerton series at the start of the year, but I think the discovery I am most grateful for is the work of Jasmine Guillory whose books center women in their own love stories in a wonderful way. While you don’t have to go in order, The Wedding Date is a good place to start.

In February we heard from Jasmine Guillory at East City Books.  Here she is being interviewed by author Nicole Chung.| Credit: Priya Chhaya

In the non fiction universe there are three books I can recommend:  The first is Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe. If you ever want a perspective on the Irish Troubles, this is the book.  Secondly, Educated by Tara Westover which I mention above, and finally Becoming by Michelle Obama. I read this at the start of 2019 and what she says near the end of her book is something I hold onto with both hands:

“What I won’t allow myself to do, though, is to become cynical. In my most worried moments, I take a breath and remind myself of the dignity and decency I’ve seen in people throughout my life, the many obstacles that have already been overcome. I hope others will do the same. We all play a role in this democracy. We all vote. I continue, too, to keep myself connected to a force that’s larger and more potent than any one election, or leader, or news story—and that’s optimism. For me, this is a form of faith, an antidote to fear.” Becoming, – Michelle Obama

TV:  In 2019 I finally watched The Leftovers, due in large part, to a piece of music that was used throughout the series. What a weird, wonderful show. We saw the evolution and tragedy that is another season of Veronica Mars, and I got to see two of my very favorite mystery books come to the small screen with Dublin Murders. I am also really glad that His Dark Materials has finally gotten the adaptation it deserves (though Lin Manuel Miranda took me a little while to get used to).

But of course, like many, my heart was stolen by The Child, or as we like to call him: Baby Yoda (the Mandalorian was good too). Because, we need to take joy wherever and in whatever form it takes.

Theatre: I could probably write a treatise on the amazing theatre I saw this year. From saying goodbye to Michael Kahn‘s artistic vision with the Oresteia, laughing along with the magnificent Nell Gwyn at the Folger Shakespeare Theatre, and finally experiencing the masterpieces of Come from Away and Dear Evan Hansen.  Nearly everything I saw made me feel whole.


There are, of course a few shows I need to say a little bit more about.

Vanity Fair (Shakespeare Theatre Company): I’m not sure why this show affected me the way it did. I saw the reading a few years ago and was excited when it was brought on for the regular season last year. Maybe it is Kate Hamill’s perspective on the role if theatre or her clear feminist focus in reshaping classics, but I am so glad I had an opportunity to see her work again. (And to interview her!)

Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity: Most of my thoughts on this production are articulated in this piece, however I wanted to emphasize how important cultural heritage is to identity and humanity. Yes, saving human life is paramount, but to destroy a nation’s culture is to reveal a lack of empathy that is unforgivable.

I am hoping to write pieces on the last three shows Earthrise, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, and What the Constitution Means to Me early in 2020 but I will say that each of these productions, in their own way, provide a consideration in my long, unorganized, conversation about how we talk about history and storytelling.

Music: If I can point you to one new artist this year it is Amythyst Kiah.  A performer at my keynote in Redrocks, you just have to listen to be moved.

Exhibitions: I went to my good share of exhibitions this year. They ranged from multi-media displays at the DC Artechouse, and exhibitions at the National Archives, the Library of Congress, and the National Portrait Gallery on the anniversary of Women’s suffrage. But perhaps (and there will be a piece on this in the next few weeks) the one event/exhibition on history that blew me away was the projection on the Washington Monument of the anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.

View of the Apollo 11 presentation on the National Mall in the Summer of 2019. | Credit: Priya Chhaya

Writing in 2019

…This Is What Comes Next


History@Work, Saving Places, Preservation Leadership Forum


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.