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.
This is the year where I wanted to stand up, but found myself weighed down by a global crisis. I wanted to protest, but was terrified by the potential of exposure to the virus. I couldn’t cry until I did, and when I stopped, I tried not to be buried by a sense of grief over what we all have lost, some more than others. I became angry at our selfishness, frustrated by the lack of national leadership, and often found myself paralyzed by a an unfathomable sense of futility.
But I did what I could. I gave money. I shared resources. I read. I learned. I mailed 300 postcards to voters, and volunteered on Election Day. I listened to John Lewis at the 2009 National Preservation Conference in Nashville proclaim that “we all live in the same house,” and his last words, stating that “ordinary people with extraordinary vision can redeem the soul of America by getting in what I call good trouble, necessary trouble.” At the closing of the year, on Preservation Leadership Forum, I wrote that our challenge as historians and preservationists is to accept as much change as we can handle, and then be willing to accept a little more.
But honestly, there have been moments where I have felt like a failure. We are all capable of great things, but in this past year I felt less than my best self. I know I’m supposed to cut myself some slack, to acknowledge the importance of selfcare, and that less was more. But as I consider the good, I also want to recognize that there were times, both personally and professionally, where I could have been better, more nimble—in spite of my own reservations.
Acknowledging all that, my silver lining—as an optimist, I always need one—comes in the form of gratitude.
Gratitude for my family, where connection came in the form of virtual poetry summer camp for my nieces in New Jersey, or seeing my nephew call out for garbage trucks in San Francisco via Facetime and Zoom.
Gratitude for my friends, who participated in movie or video game nights, taught me how to play D&D, or willingly showed up to my online Shakespeare reading parties.
Gratitude for my newish (and old) team at work, who remind me every day that leadership and support come from unexpected places. Specifically, Colleen who made us move every morning without fail—though ending the year with a 50 burpee challenge was an experience I never want to have again.
Gratitude for the romance genre—and its authors—who when I wanted to bury myself in imperfect love stories, provided me with solace. And in the last months of the year, Lady Darby who, in addition to Maisie Dobbs, exemplified women who found strength in spite of their own traumatic experiences.
I also have gratitude for my fellow public historians who taught me about the Ethic of Care for Black Life (this Twitter thread by Aleia Brown), shared book recommendations when I needed conversation, and Contingent Magazine whose stellar. transparent, work, included a reflection from me on How I Do History.
Published in March, and written before the lockdown, I reflected, “If there has been one constant in my career, it is to be ready for new things and to be willing to adapt and learn, because change is always looming on the horizon.”
That statement alone sums up the biggest lesson of 2020. That I must live every day with intention to support, promote, and acknowledge those whose voices are not normally heard. To do my work to the best of my ability so we can have that better world we are all striving for. That I need to ignore the noise and focus.
At my first (and virtual) American Association of State and Local History annual meeting, Christy Coleman, executive director of the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation asked: “When asked the question ‘What kind of ancestor will you be?’ Will you be someone who made the world better because you were in it? Or did you just take up space?”
My answer: “I want to be the kind of ancestor who fought for equity in our time, not just as a historian, but also as a human being. I want to be an ancestor working for a better world, instead of giving in, as easy as it seems to be, to fear.”
In 2021 I will reach forward with intention, and work to banish the fear in exchange for spreading light wherever, and however, I can.
A Poem for the New Year
I step into the new year — and seek out some change.
My feet falter at the start—hope for a dreamer.
Moving forward I lean in—to grasp what I need.
Catch myself before I fall—and begin again.
I wrote this as part of a creative recovery course I took the last few weeks of the year. One of the assignments was to examine and try out new forms of poetry. This piece is in a Japanese style called Imayo.
What Sustained Me in 2020
While this feels like my typical best of list, this is really about what carried me through this challenging year.
Normally I would outline some of my favorite theatre, and while January and February gave me two magnificent in-person performances (SIX on Broadway, and The Amen Corner at the Shakespeare Theatre Company), these productions took a different form in subsequent months.
From March-December, I spent a lot of time attending events that highlighted the importance of the stage to understanding our world. Like many I participated in the streaming performances from the American Shakespeare Company in Virginia, the National Theatre of London, and events from the Kennedy Center and more (remember in the Spring when I watched/read six versions of Much Ado About Nothing?), but there were three in particular that reminded me why this form of storytelling is so vital.
The Shakespeare Hour: For one hour once a week, the Shakespeare Theatre Company (STC) brought together a panel of experts to talk about the specific impacts of Shakespeare on society. As we struggled to make sense of the pandemic, or the fights for social justice, STC charged forward to have tough discussions. While some were fun, or about specific plays, other sessions emphasized the role of classical theater and Shakespeare as being part of systems of racism (and included perspectives from Black and Indigenous communities), or the impact of the plague on theaters in Shakespeare’s time. When we faced a charged election, STC brought in experts to talk about Democracy and Empire in Shakespeare’s plays and the lessons contained within. Every week when I struggled, this hourly event helped get me through the rest of the week to come.
Finish the Fight: In August the New York Times and Whitney White produced a digital theatre piece that looked at the voices in the fight for women’s suffrage. What made this evocative was not only the way in which it told the full story of what the franchise granted (and what it did not, and for whom) but how it used the virtual experience to reach a wider audience.
Romantics Anonymous at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre: Originally supposed to be part of my 2020 STC season, Romantics Anonymous was cancelled before in person performances ever started. Later in the year, the producers Wise Children found a way to safely live stream the show with no audience, and like magic, it reminded me how live theatre makes us feel. While we weren’t in the same space, the uncertainty of the technology, the way in which the music and actors engaged with the cameras, and the very real acknowledgement that this was not how it normally should be, made it all the more thrilling.
Over the last year I thought a lot about the role we as the audience play in virtual events (more on that in a different post), but I want to also highlight the role of Creative Mornings, the global speaker series, which gave me a boost every month. As they became more comfortable with the platform, the ways in which each city focused in on the community connection, really made you feel inspired and less alone.
I also found solace in two short-run podcast series: Home Cooking, a podcast from Samin Nosrat and Hrishikesh Hirway, and Priya Parker’s series for the New York Times called Together, Apart. Both produced specifically for the moment we are in and leaned in to shifting how we think about cooking and how we work with one another.
In terms of television? I watched way too many holiday movies for my own good, but I can point to the greatness that is Star Trek: Discovery Season 3, the delightful escapism and beauty of Bridgerton, and how I loved Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist and am so glad we get a season 2. I was riveted by Song Exploder on Netflix and am looking forward to the conclusion of His Dark Materials. I also cannot impress enough how everyone should watch Padma Lakshmi’s Taste the Nation (particularly the episode on the Gullah-Geechee. The show is on Hulu.)
We got a lot of specials this year, which were hit or miss, but I appreciated them for what they each tried to do (particularly the West Wing Special). I am also really grateful that this year we got Hamilton (Disney+) and What the Constitution Means to Me (Amazon Prime) on streaming so I can always re-watch them when I need inspiration.
And then there is my reading list for the year. As I mentioned earlier, In 2020 I read 155 books—more than I have ever read since I started tracking. As part of a creative writing assignment, I performed a book census, and this is what I found:
Of those 155 books
- 55/66 authors identified as female. This is 90% of the book total.
- 33% of my reading (about 57 books) were romance. This list is likely higher, but for a time I wasn’t tracking so closely.
- I read 19 different mystery/fantasy series this year.
- Of my 65 authors only 21 were people of color, with an additional 2 that I believe identify as LGBTQ
- 5 Non-fiction works
- I read 5 Shakespeare works I had never read before, thanks to a failed attempt at the Shakespeare Reading Challenge
- I listened to 15 audio books (All of the Maisie Dobbs series) and 2 Star Wars radio dramas
My top ten books (in no particular order): Empire of Gold (S.A. Chakraborty), A Sky Beyond the Storm (Sabaa Tahir), The Vanishing Half (Brit Bennett), Just Mercy (Bryan Stevenson), Pachinko (Min Jin Lee), This is How You Lose the Time War (Amal El-Mohtar, Max Gladstone), The Amen Corner (James Baldwin), The Nickel Boys (Colson Whitehead), Red, White and Royal Blue (Casey McQuiston), and The Hand on the Wall (Maureen Johnson).
In addition to books, I also did a lot of article reading this year. Here are a few that I still think about, not only for the subject matter but also for the writing.
- You Want a Confederate Monument? My Body is a Confederate Monument
- Fuck the Bread, the Bread is Over
- The Pandemic is a Portal
- First Baptist Church in Colonial Williamsburg
- The Social Life of Forests
If you go through the list at the end of this piece, you’ll notice that the bulk of my public writing was for work, and I was only really able to break out of my rut in the last quarter of the year. In addition to what you see below I directed and edited nearly every single piece on Preservation Leadership Forum and SavingPlaces.org, which was a change and certainly a challenge.
That being said, one of the additional things I did for inspiration was to take a series of virtual writing classes. I will admit that many of them were essentially courses on time management and finding a routine, but with everything around me feeling chaotic they brought me some measure of control.
In the same vein, in January, I told myself I wanted to get back to fiction writing. So, every month my friend Julia and I set up writing prompts. I am grateful to have had her support (and to have someone to send my pieces to, instead of them sitting in a void). While rough in every sense of the word, this practice reminded me that I do have a story to tell, I just need to find the discipline to reach out and grasp it. While not yet ready for public consumption, I wrote about a woman who could no longer touch another human being without repercussions, a noir story about a mystery set off by my nieces, and a series of messages from a father to his son after the father’s passing.
…this is what comes next
- Genetics (& A Pep Talk)
- What the Constitution Means to Me
- Fly Me to the Moon: Lessons from the Crowd
- Brucemore’s Lost Living Landscape
- How These 7 Past ’11 Most’ Listings Are Faring Today
- Two Modern Masterpieces: Farnsworth House and The Glass House, Side by Side
- Understanding Jane Jacobs: Q&A with Roberta Brandes Gratz
- “We All Live in the Same House”
- Genjiro Yeto, Constant Holley, and the Cos Cob Art Colony’s Influence on the American Art Scene
- Fact or Fiction: Netflix’s “Self Made” and the Real Story of Madam C.J. Walker
- Moon Shot: How the National Air and Space Museum Brought the Moon Landing to Earth
- Check Out This Online Encyclopedia of U.S. Architecture
Preservation Leadership Forum
- Looking Back on 2020: Where Do We Go From Here?
- Tadaima! Lessons From a Community Virtual Pilgrimage
- Saving Cook County Hospital: A Q&A with Lisa DiChiera of Landmarks Illinois
- A Q&A on Preserving African American Places: Growing Preservation’s Potential as A Path for Equity
- Reading List: Prepping for Town Halls at PastForward Online 2020
- Reading List: Working with Your Community
- What’s New with PastForward Online 2020
- Preservation Profiles and Value of Podcasting During a Pandemic
- Outside the Box: A Reading List For Change
- The Road to the Great American Outdoors Act: Now Law (with Pam Bowman)
- Forty Years of Supporting Main Streets, a Q&A with Main Street America’s Patrice Frey
- “Doing Women’s History in Public”: A Q&A with Heather Huyck
- Dismantle Preservation: Getting Serious about Building a New Model for the Field
- A Preservation Pause: Irene Hirano Inouye, Virginia McAlester, and Inspiration for the Future of Preservation