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.
On a personal level I am also thankful that this past year I accepted my limitations. Instead of berating myself about what I could not finish, I took my time, choosing personal writing and creative projects I wanted to do, instead of feeling like I had to churn things out at a rate that only I was evaluating. The result was a series of pieces that I feel reflects my best work—see Home is an Ever-Fixed Mark and Blindness Overcome.
Professionally, in August, I marked my fifteen-year anniversary not only at my job, but as a public historian. And in writing out my reflection of that time I realized it is not just about the work, rather,
“…I am proud of myself. I know that like many I am always worried that I am falling short—especially at a time when it is so easy to feel overwhelmed—so I think I owe it to myself to type that out as a reminder. At the end of the day, it is not the longevity at a single organization that is the accomplishment, but rather the recognition that I bring value to every conversation, every project, every interaction, and that I do that with compassion, integrity, and a clarity of vision all my own.”
Of the many things I managed as a public historian, I am so thankful to have been voted in and entrusted to be on the board of the National Council on Public History. I am also so appreciative of Reconsidering Celebrations at Sites of Enslavement a series by my colleague Elon Cook Lee that I edited and project managed. Her trust—and patience with my innumerable questions and edits—led to a clear and honest look at the history of the National Trust’s historic sites plus the intense ethical interpretive work she is leading at those places.
And finally, I am proud of The Dinner Party. This was an unexpected opportunity, a story I wrote for the American Historical Association’s Perspectives in History magazine, my first—and I hope not my last—in print publication. The assignment was to write a piece reflecting the role fiction and history play together. The result was a story about choices, and what is left out as a result.
With that in mind a small consideration for 2022, and turning forty.
I’m not one to usually obsess over an age. Forty doesn’t feel any different than 29 or 30—and while it is still about eight months away, it does pose an opportunity for further reflection. A moment where I can acknowledge all I have done, rather then what I have left unfinished, and to use the milestone to make a promise to myself.
Among one of the best things I read this year was a piece in the Atlantic about Bobby McIlvaine, a young man who died twenty years ago on September 11. In the article the author, Jennifer Senior, paints a vivid picture of McIlvaine and what happened to his family and loved ones in the twenty years since his death—it is a long read but worth it. Like many, McIlvaine kept journals in which he worked out his hopes, dreams, and innermost thoughts, and just weeks before his death he wrote:
“There are people that need me. And that in itself is life. There are people I do not know yet that need me. That is life.”
That is life. I was in college when September 11 happened. And regardless of the consequences (and whether I agree with certain decisions) it changed my perception of the world. Something similar can be said about the last two years. Where, with uncertainty, we can look at the rubble that surrounds us, throw up our hands and say: It is too much, it is too hard, I don’t know how to move forward.
Or you can read McIlvaine’s words and acknowledge all you have to give.
So, in the year to come—my fortieth year on this Earth—that is the choice I am making.
A Decade Of Dreams: A Poem
Move the needle, raise the bar. Meet the challenges you will face. 
Embrace the half full glass, push towards growth, find the will to fo-cus. 
Productivity, experiment, joy, all the possibilities to embrace. 
Push beyond, take control, and make a way to define success. 
Kindness over hate. Humanity over ignorance. Hope over fear. 
See the beauty all around, take care, hold onto compassion and dignity. 
Be Wary. Be Kind. Be Selfless. Love (don’t fear) the change that is near. 
Rekindle joy, be defiant, make a difference, observe all the activity. 
What Sustained Me in 2021
A number of things that brought me an immense amount of joy in 2021, and so I give you my annual list of lists! For a year that started with an insurrection and an inauguration, followed by 365 days of social and political vitriol and stressors—art, literature, and creative outlets really served as my first line of defense.
Note: The images in the gallery above are all from a trip I took for my friends wedding in Asheville, North Carolina (well the wedding was in the mountains near Asheville). The three horizontal images are views from where we stayed, followed by an image of a cider tasting, and finally the view from the Biltmore Mansion.
I saw a total of eight shows this year in all sorts of configurations. From Patrick Page’s (virtual) one man show All the Devils are in Here, about Shakespeare’s villains, to an open-air on the National Mall production of Come from Away, a show (based on real events) about people who were stranded in Newfoundland, Canada on September 11. A collective theatrical experience with thousands of people, it almost felt normal, but was a reminder that we are at another inflection point in our history.
There were also some of the quieter productions. I attended a socially distanced production of Blindness and had a one-on-one conversation with Britt A. Ellis as part of 4615 Theatre’s season where Ellis worked with me to write and make poetry together. It’s For You led to some further fun art experimentation where I tried to build music and visualizations to the words we wrote.
…and then there was Remember This: The Lesson of Jan Karski a true-story of a member of the Polish resistance who brought news of the Holocaust to world leaders during the war. This one-man show featuring David Strathairn was remarkable, and the follow up conversation with the creators and Wolf Blitzer whose parents were survivors, was incredibly powerful.
While I enjoyed Hadestown, Once Upon a One More Time, and Rent it was the audience energy generated by people who were so grateful to be watching live theatre, together and in person, that created a space of collective joy. It was, at times, so intense that I nearly cried from the moment we set foot at the Kennedy Center, Harman Center for the Arts (STC), and Signature Theatre.
As with 2020 I spent a lot of time watching the totally mundane, yet comforting Hallmark Channel. Yet, there were a few non-tropey and delightful standouts: On PBS we got a new version of All Creatures Great and Small, and Miss Scarlett and the Duke (a plus because of for my love of lady detectives), and closed out the year ecstatic over finally seeing the Wheel of Time and Station Eleven come to the small screen. While Station Eleven is not yet finished, it is so far a spectacular version of what is one of my favorite books of all time.
In terms of the Wheel of Time, one of the best parts was talking to a group of friends from all different parts of my life—some who I had not talked to in over twenty years. While the show isn’t perfect (it’s a difficult series to adapt) I am so appreciative of the care that the creators and show runners are taking to try and do it justice. Watching Moiraine being exiled from Tar Valon was one of the single most powerful pieces of acting I have seen this year. Both Sophie Okonedo and Rosamund Pike acted the hell out of that scene in a way that gave me chills. It is also worth mentioning Zoë Robins and Madeleine Madden who are equally brilliant as Nynaeve and Egwene.
I also—down to the wire—finished Amazon Prime’s adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. The whole series is masterfully constructed and while tough for me to watch emotionally, was gorgeously rendered and acted.
It’s strange. When writing this review I realized I hadn’t actually seen a lot of movies this year. Early on I was able to catch a preview of My Name is Pauli Murray—I did a Q&A with the filmmakers for work—along with three versions of Romeo and Juliet (R#J, the Great Performances version from the UK National Theatre, and the the Public Theatre’s Romeo Y Julieta, which isn’t really a movie, but I’m counting it here). I braved the theatre for In the Heights (lovely) and perfect for the summer, and the Eternals (fun) which were both entertaining, but none of these films felt like something I would rewatch as much as I liked them. Though, I will say the Pauli Murray doc is great, especially because of the exposure it gives to this remarkable human.
In terms of music I liked the new Ed Sheeran album, Equals but didn’t have anything that hit it out of the park for me this year (though I really like the Wheel of Time theme). That being said, I attended a backyard Renaissance Faire this fall and they were playing this amazing playlist which I thought I would share because it is a DELIGHT.
Finally, here is my 2021 book census.
This year I read 123 books for a total of 41,054 pages. Here are a few different statistics, some pulled from StoryGraph and others through a manual count.
- Of these 26 (21%) were audio books. Suggestions include the The Queen’s Thief Series, the Veronica Speedwell Series, and Murderbot for great listening experiences.
- 43 books are in the romance genre (so about 35%). Helen Hoang was a new addition to my author list this year as was Evie Dunmore’s League of Extraordinary Women series.
- 15 non-romance series (a total of 45 books)
- And in an unscientific count out of my 65 total authors about 25 are self-identified people of color, accounting for about 34 books. The vast majority of my authors were female identifying, I tried to verify this using Google but am not 100% sure on the exact number.
- I read 14 non fiction books and four poetry books (not all the poetry books were considered non fiction for some reason in the categorization on StoryGraph).
- My top genre’s (with some overlap) were historical, romance, and mystery. When I dug deeper into the historical, I realized that many of the romances are categorized that way because of when they are set. 11 books had themes related to LGBTQIA+ and about 25 were in the sci-fi and fantasy genre.
My Top Ten Books of the Year (In no particular order)
This collection of books is varied. From See No Stranger which has taken me through how to react when the world feels like it is falling apart, to books like The Queen of Attolia, A War of Swallowed Stars, The House in the Cerulean Sea, and All Systems Red which illustrate what truly amazing writing looks like. Hearing Pauli Murray’s life story in Murray’s own words, revelations in public history by Clint Smith, Tiya Miles, and Amanda Gorman, and Amy Tan’s memoir were five moving and heart wrenching books that pushed me to think about my work in new ways. Honorable mentions: Piranesi by Susanna Clark and Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse.
- See No Stranger, By Valarie Kaur
- Song in a Weary Throat, By Pauli Murray
- How the Word is Passed, By Clint Smith
- All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, A Black Family Keepsake, By Tiya Miles
- The House in the Cerulean Sea, By T.J. Klune
- A War of Swallowed Stars, By Sangu Mandanna
- Call Us What We Carry, By Amanda Gorman
- The Queen of Attolia, By Megan Whalen Turner
- All Systems Red, By Martha Wells
- Where the Past Begins, By Amy Tan
…this is what comes next + Instagram (short min-essays and poems)
- Home is an Ever-Fixed Mark
- Three Lessons on Historical Storytelling from Punchdrunk
- Blindness Overcome
- Living with Intention in 2021
- Instagram: All my life I have aid I am not a beach person…
- Instagram: Of course I have a story of where I was on 9/11…
- Instagram: Love comes in many forms…
- Instagram: The Hope of Shallot
SavingPlaces.org + Preservation Leadership Forum
- Possible Futures at the Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building
- Sustaining a Future for Preservation Trades at the Odd Fellows Building
- How the Word Is Passed: A Conversation with Clint Smith
- Sky, Sea, Salt Air, and the D’Amico Institute of Art
- Absolute Equality: A New Mural Reimagines Public Spaces and the Story of Juneteenth
- Catch Up on the Status of 9 Past ‘11 Most’ Listings
- A Song of Hope: The Making of the Documentary “My Name is Pauli Murray”
- Where Sculpture, Landscape, and Creativity Meet: The Dorothy Riester Home and Studio
- Loss, Redemption, Renewal: The Moynihan Train Hall
- Creating Meaningful Change: A Look Back at 2021
- Resource List: Locating Latinx History in the United States
- Resource List: Five Ways to Learn about Asian and Pacific Islander American History
- Resource List: Learning About LGBTQ Spaces Through Mapping and Context Statements
- Moynihan Train Hall: A Conversation with Colin Koop of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill
(I edited about 138 stories for SavingPlaces.org and Forum this year, these two were my favorites)