Living, writing and not apologizing in 2015
I became aware of my own mortality as a 7-year-old about to go to a Britney Spears concert. As I waited for my mom to finish getting ready before driving us to downtown Cleveland, I went into our laundry room to put my shoes on. I tied my shoelaces into big, loopy, bunny ears and thought about seeing Brit shake and shimmy in a blouse knotted above her belly button, her braided pigtails swinging as she whipped her head back and forth. For months, I had been counting down the days until I would see her—the real Britney Spears—perform all of the songs I sung to myself in my room, especially my all-time favorite, “Baby One More Time.”
But after she does my favorites, what else will she sing? I thought.
I then remember feeling like someone punched me in the stomach. After she sings all those songs, the concert will be over. The flowered wallpaper in my laundry room blurred. I felt dizzy. “The concert will be OVER,” I thought as I sat down on the floor, putting my head in my hands. “I’ll never get to see Britney Spears again. This could be the only time in my LIFE I see Britney Spears.”
“Are you ready to go?” My mom yelled from the kitchen.
“No,” I choked.
She opened the laundry room door and found me sitting on the ground, tears streaking my cheeks.
“I’m … I’m s-s-sad,” I sputtered. “The concert’s going to be over. I’ve been so excited for so long and it’s just going to be — to be — OVER.”
(My mom has no memory of any of this happening. But, I do remember her telling me that I shouldn’t be upset when the concert hadn’t even happened yet, and that there would be other things in life for me to look forward to).
“Stop crying,” I remember her saying. “We’re going to have fun.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, trying to take a deep breath. “I’m sorry.”
That was the first of what I’ve come to call a “pre-Britney moment,” which is an instance when I get so nervous and prematurely sad before a much-anticipated event that I have to focus on “just getting through” instead of “being present.”
One of my most notable pre-Britney moments came in 2014 when I was living in New York City. I was working as a researcher for an incredible investigative journalism non-profit. I loved the work, but I wanted to report my own stories instead of adding facts into articles that already existed. The journalists I assisted were writing the types of stories I had always dreamed about, ones that exposed corruption, ones that showed the impact of government policy on real people, ones that could change the way people saw the world and one another.
Many of these reporters traveled across the globe. Most of them lived outside of NYC. And, even if they were personally based in the Big Apple, most of the stories took place elsewhere.
I began to worry that, by staying in New York (I place I admittedly never loved living), I would miss out on my chance to report the types of stories I researched. Yes, I was young and those reporters were far more experienced, but they were actually out there exploring and asking questions and getting answers. I wanted to be doing that, too.
My entire life felt like a pre-Britney moment. But unlike the hours before the concert, when I was worried about one event being over, I was worried about my entire career. I feared I might have to “just get through” something I was supposed to be enjoying. Sure, it was a premature worry for someone just starting out, but it was a fear all the same, one that told me that if I wanted to be out in the world reporting, then I should do something about it.
I felt deep within me that I needed to move to be able to do the work I wanted. (That’s not to say that there aren’t reporting opportunities for young journalists in NYC. There are many!) But, I know for a fact there are many other cities in this country (and all over the world) where one can do important and meaningful work.
I made up my mind to go to one of these cities and, in early 2015, was hired for a reporting job in Boston. But before moving, just like before the concert, I became anxious. I worried about how, for the first time in my life, I would be in charge of my future with no dates or deadlines to force me to move. I worried whether I’d be able to write impactful stories in a city I knew nothing about. I worried it wouldn’t feel like home.
And, just like in my first pre-Britney moment, I began apologizing to everyone around me. I told people who loved New York that I was sorry I had never loved it, too. I told my friends I was sorry for leaving. I told my family I was sorry for moving farther away from them.
When I eventually stepped into my new apartment on my first day in Boston, the wind blew the door shut, causing it to slam with a loud thud.
“I’m sorry,” I said to no one.
It was then, as I found myself talking to an empty house, that I realized I had been apologizing to myself all along. I was unsure whether I had made the right decision to move. I was alone in a new city where I knew very few people, about to start a job that officially called me a “writer.” I was scared.
I dragged my suitcases into my new room and came to realize that, for better or for worse, the choice had been made. I needed to stop being sorry for living my life. I sat on my new hardwood floor and wrote this in my journal:
I tried my best to keep my resolution. I tried my best to write honestly and openly, to listen to others, and to be brave. I tried my best to let my words take up space on the computer screens and in the minds of others, if only for a minute. I tried my best not to think about the fact that things I looked forward to would end. I tried my best to grow.
In 2015, I wrote more stories than I ever have before. I was often scared and unsure. But with my words, ideas, and my body, I took up space. I showed myself I could go after what I wanted. I made a difference. I found a home.
Planning for 2016 could be a pre-Britney moment. I could get anxious that another year of my life will pass. That things I’m looking forward to will end.
But, the truth is, I have no idea what’s to come next year. I only know that, I don’t want to spend the year living in the “what ifs” instead of the “what nows.” If my pre-Britney moments and this past year have taught me anything, it’s that we might always wish for “one more time.” But we’re lucky to even get the “one time” at all. With that, here are some of those stories that I’m proud to have written at one time or another this past year:
Spotlight came out this fall, and told the real-life story of how Boston Globe reporters uncovered the widespread nature of clergy sexual abuse. Even though the series came out more than a decade ago, survivors are still trying to make their voices heard. I attended the 700th vigil they had to protest the abuse that happened to them during their childhoods.
When Ladies’ Home Journal folded, there was no outrage about how millions of older women lost the community so many young women find online. I wrote about how we often take the stories of older women in our lives for granted.
As the nation debated the Washington team’s logo, I looked into high schools in Massachusetts who still use Native American mascots. (I wrote similar stories in the “Why doesn’t Massachusetts” vein, and questioned why the state doesn’t have a revenge porn law or any punishment for swatting crimes).
Suicide is the leading cause of death for girls ages 15 to 19 worldwide, according to a 2014 report released by the World Health Organization. I interviewed some brave teenagers who are trying to change that.
Who would’ve thought that a story about a random Entourage poster in an Indian restaurant would take off the way it did? Because of this story, I got to make a two-second appearance on “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me.”
My friends Kelsey and Hannah started a cool Medium series called “My Teen Diary.” They asked me to write for them, so I dug into my old journals and wrote about how I once thought moving would make me a more confident person. I then got the chance to record this story for a start-up called Dogear. You can listen to me read it here.
I broke this story about a Harvard kid who had his internship with Facebook revoked after he exposed a privacy flaw in the messenger app. It ended up being one of Boston.com’s top stories of the year, and was picked up by numerous national outlets.
Nationally, an average of one in 10 students will visit their college’s counseling center before graduation. I wrote about the challenges counseling centers face in trying to help students (they are many). I also wrote a related piece about the fading stigma of mental illness on college campuses.
Speaking of mental health, I wrote a follow-up to the piece I first wrote about having depression. This one was almost scarier to write because it felt like admitting that I wasn’t “better.” But that’s not how depression works.
I’ll admit it: I moved to Pats country convinced Tom Brady cheated. I went to a Deflategate course (yes, it exists) at the University of New Hampshire to learn the truth about those pesky balls.
“What the hell is going on in Missouri,” people asked me (a Mizzou alum) this fall, as if racism was something that only happened in the “show-me” state. I was thrilled to watch the movement that started at Mizzou spread across the nation, and to march alongside students at Boston College and Brandeis as they demanded change. I also interviewed bold students who know this movement isn’t going anywhere.
Once I started writing about higher education, I promised myself that I wouldn’t just write about the colleges everyone had heard of. I kept that promise, and published this story about a program that helps single mothers earn their college degrees.
Here’s to 2016.