Life is a Page-Turner: Learning from Memoirs

I recently finished singer-songwriter Jewel Kilcher’s memoir, Never Broken, which was a fascinating, instructive, and even challenging, as Kilcher is filled with as much sage self-help advice as she is mind-blowing stories about her life growing up in Alaska. Just before that was the alternately entertaining and moving Troublemaker by actress Leah Remini, discussing her journey through Hollywood but also in and out of Scientology.

Both books gave me an opportunity I don’t often have — to sit and hear a no-holds-barred account of somebody’s life. Vulnerability is hard to come by in life because we put up so many obstacles to it, but it’s refreshing when we do experience it. And although my own life has been very different from both women, both stories reminded me that we’re all human, the same shadows and light flickering through all our lives.

While I anticipated I would relate to Jewel more, us both being introspective writers, her life trajectory was so different from my own, that I struggled to connect with her work. Ironically, I found Remini’s a bit more relatable, even though I’d be surprised if a mousy introvert like me was ever friends with someone so outspoken and forthright as her. But in a way I could relate to her overarching concept of being a troublemaker; I’ve always followed the rules, but there’s also a part of me that has a strong need to march to the beat of my own drum and question everything I hear to decide what I think about it. Plus her journey of trying to navigate her disillusionment with a faith that had once consumed her life, as well as her efforts to rewire her ways of thinking after leaving mirrored some of my own experiences, albeit on a grander level. Just another reminder that people I wouldn’t have ever expected can have experiences that resonate with me, and I should never write people off as someone who I could never relate to.

All in all, I enjoy memoirs and autobiographies because I love hearing people’s stories — how they fell in love, found their career, overcame pain, walked through grief. I find I often get tunnel vision wherever I am in life — all I can see is my current situation and it’s easy to lose perspective that my life is so much more. Especially when you’re young, you can forget that things will not always be the way they are right now and new opportunities and people will come into your life. Memoirs remind me to step back and see life in its entirety.

There are dark times, but also joyful ones, so I should never let go of the hope that difficult times can turn around in the future.

The reverse is also true: there are joyful times, but also dark ones, so I should savor the happy moments instead of taking them for granted, or worse yet, as is my tendency as a person who struggles with anxiety and depression, fritter them away by worrying about when I’ll be unhappy again.

People will leave your life, so enjoy them while they are here.

It’s okay to let go of people who do not love and support you.

You will find people one day who do care.

Honesty can help people, even if you don’t see it.

Keep pressing on with your work, with using your gifts, with loving people, even if nobody seems to care and it’s getting you nowhere.

It’s a long climb to build a successful career, so don’t give up. (Also easy to forget with all the stories of instant fame.)


These are just some of my takeaways from those two reads. But it’s helpful in this new year to be reminded that life has many more empty pages to fill, and the content is unknown, so there’s always hope.

Other Posts:

The Scenic Route: Taking the Pressure off of Decision-Making

Can We “Choose Happy”?

Forgotten Buildings, Forgotten People

Get what you deserve


Can We “Choose Happy”?


This box has been laying around our living room (the way things tend to around here) for the past couple days, and I never really paid attention to it, just passing it by as the empty box to someone else in my family’s bizarre Christmas gift. But just now it registered to me what the message on the front says: Choose happy. And I got pissed off.

Now, as a disclaimer, I should say I’ve been in a funk the past couple weeks, and it’s only gotten worse recently, especially tonight. So quite frankly I was just looking for something to get me even more riled up against humanity. But since I see phrases like this so often, I think it’s worth commenting on, because it really does hit on a misguided belief that permeates our culture, which is that you can fix psychological struggles simply by choosing to be better.


Exeter Cathedral, England

Maybe for some people that’s true. God bless them. I envy them. But there are also a lot of people out there, myself included, who find themselves unable to magically fix the bleak outlook, the impermeable loneliness, the grey fog that settles on the mind, the unshakable discouragement that at times overtakes us, spreading to heart, soul, and body and settling in like storm clouds blocking out any inch of sunlight before a celestial downpour.

Depression is suffocating, oppressive, indefinable, inexplicable. It’s been with me over a decade, since I was about eleven, so I’m not even sure what it’s like to live without it. During the times when the clouds lift, it feels surreal, even scary. I wonder if this is what life can really be like for most of the world. I worry about when the darkness will return, because I know it will.

Depression makes me wonder if I can achieve the career I want. If I can ever find a significant other who will weather the tough times with me. If I should have children since they will probably suffer the same way I do. It makes me wonder if I can heal, be happy, live a full life. Sometimes it’s all I can do to just survive.


cloudy skies in Exeter Cathedral, England

I can never fully describe what depression feels like to people. Most of the time, I don’t even bother, because unless they’ve been there, most people don’t get it. Sometimes they look at me with pity and offer to pray for me, but it just feels like they’re talking down to me. Sometimes they feel uncomfortable and change the subject or end the conversation. Sometimes they impatiently suggest I just get a hobby or find more friends. Occasionally — thank goodness for these people — they listen and nod and say, “I’m sorry. You don’t deserve this. Let me help you through this. Let me remind you why you belong here. Let me remind you you are loved.”

For all my trying, I can’t seem to choose happiness. Depression keeps coming back. I’ve lost friends because of it. I’ve had to turn down career and academic opportunities. I’ve lost time spent lying in bed, trying to ride out the storm and recover. Money spent on therapy and pills. Because of depression, I’ve spent good portions of social events crying in bathrooms instead of connecting with friends. I have had my religious faith, once the bedrock of my life and upbringing, shaken to its core unalterably (cue huge ongoing identity crisis.) I took time off of school and eventually had to transfer because of it. Most of all, I’ve missed out on just plain being happy, enjoying life and some of the amazing opportunities its brought my way because of this. So believe me, I would love to choose happiness. But for some of us, that just isn’t possible.


Exeter, England

What we can choose, however, is how we react to these dark times in our lives. For some, depression is persistent. For others it may be for only a season of their life. Either way, there are healthy and unhealthy ways to cope. It’s easy to feel powerless when such a powerful force overtakes your mind and changes your life, sometimes in a matter of days. So I want you to know that you do have a choice, you do have power over this darkness. Maybe you can’t choose to just flip a switch and feel happy again, the same way a person who just got out of surgery after a major car accident can’t just get up and walk out of the hospital, go home, and resume their normal life. But that doesn’t mean you can’t recover, or at least improve your life.


Exeter, England

When we are overwhelmed by depression or other psychological hurt or mental illness, we can choose the way we respond. I have not always responded well. I still don’t. I tell myself how stupid and worthless I am, how nobody wants me, perpetuating the lies my mind has gotten sick from. I shut people out who mean well and nurse bitterness over how other people treat me without bothering to tell them. I continue in relationships and habits that are unhealthy to my self-worth. I pity myself and paint other people the victim.

For about a year, my internal pain was so unbearable, I even took to injuring myself externally. Some people turn to drugs and/or alcohol to numb the pain. I’ve seen the appeal of doing this, so much so that I made a pact with myself when I was 19 never to drink because of it. Other people use thrill-seeking or unhealthy dependence on relationships or validation from others or workaholism, even bullying, using, and abusing others…There’s all manner of unhealthy ways to respond to hurt. It’s easy to turn to them because we aren’t typically taught what healthy responses there are, and society and the media often perpetuate unhealthy ones.


still Exeter, England

But we can also choose to seek help, to make changes that promote healing. We can choose to work on ourselves and face our demons. We praise people who suffer physical injuries for their persistence and perseverance in slowly, slowly building their strength and ability back up, day by day, exercise by exercise. Going to doctors and physical therapy and pushing themselves forward. Let’s also praise the people who take up the difficult task of looking inward, examining themselves, asking for help, putting time into therapy and self-care, standing up to the bullies inside and out, cutting off toxic relationships, learning to stand up for themselves, and learning to love themselves.

Opening up, being vulnerable, talking about things that we say you should keep hidden, admitting you’re struggling, seeking help. These are all difficult tasks that we’ve been trained over the course of our lives not to do. If you have done any of the above, be proud. It’s easy to feel embarrassed, especially if the person you open up to just doesn’t get it or there are repercussions in your career or relationships. But it’s the start not just of changing yourself, but also of changing society and the way we deal with these previously taboo emotions and issues.


Exeter, England

The road to improving yourself is long and confusing and there’s lots of backtracking and feeling like you’re going nowhere. Just this week I’ve been thinking to myself, “Shit. Am I really in this same place again? Have I really not resolved these issues yet? Do I really keep making these same mistakes in relationships? Wasn’t I in this same place a month ago?” I’ve been in therapy over three years now, with three different therapists, some mediocre, one great. Sometimes it’s exciting and I feel like I’m changing everything, others But it really is a long-term project, a journey. This is my fourth cycle of doing therapy and I keep breaking new ground, turning corners, realizing new ways to look at things. Of course, I also keep uncovering new things to work on, which can get discouraging, but I’m not one to give up on a fight.


Exeter Cathedral, England

You may not be able to choose happy. And let’s not pressure other people into being happy if they’re not. But you can choose to fight, to be healthy. To reevaluate your life and yourself and your ways of thinking instead of just going with the flow or accepting what people have always told you.

If you can’t seem to choose happy, you’re not weak. I feel weak and powerless sometimes because of this struggle, but it has forced me to to work and examine myself and try to help other people in a way that I doubt I would have had I not struggled. No matter how powerless you feel, with relapses in your own mental state or going back to bad coping mechanisms, you are not any less of a strong person. You are just human. A human who is struggling under enormous pressure.

For all of you fighting to choose a better life every day, know you are strong and press on, in spite of any judgment, relapse, or stigma you may face.


As an ending note…Someone posted this photo of me on social media once. I don’t think anybody realized I was at one of the lowest points in my life here — 20 years old and heartbroken, lonely, exhausted, on medication that I didn’t know was destroying me. I was suicidal the night this picture was taken, drifting in and out of the bathroom during a social gathering I couldn’t leave. I made a choice after that to, 1) take care of myself by leaving a toxic environment (the school I was in), 2) start distancing myself from people who didn’t support me, 3) take a break from school until I was healthier, 4) go to therapy again, 5) use writing to process my experiences and give ownership to my emotions, and 6) to be an advocate for mental health awareness by sharing my own struggles. I don’t regret any of those choices.

Compassion in a colder climate

 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. (2 Corinthians 1:3-4, NIV)

I guess this isn’t a typical Christmas verse (and if you’re not into Jesus things, don’t worry, this isn’t a particularly religious post), but it was the only one the spoke to me today. I’ve always made relationships and caring for people a big priority in my life. But frankly this year has left me a bit shattered in that arena. It’s been a long time coming, actually, but recent months of disappointment and frustration across the board in various relationships have been the straws that have broken this camel’s back.


Deerfield, Massachusetts

I feel a bit jaded and disillusioned, even cold-hearted at times these days — the typical defense mechanisms when you’re trying to cope with hurt. I’ve spent so long trying to make relationships work that I just want to stop trying. Give up and let them slip away if people really don’t care enough to contact me or open up when we talk or check up on me if they know things are tough. I’m tired of writing people who don’t respond, of playing text or phone or email tag. Of wondering what she’s up to these days since she never responds to messages or whether I should ask him to meet up again since he always seems too busy. I know I sound curmudgeony, but for years I’ve felt like I’ve carried more than my fair share of weight in relationships (all the unrequited love didn’t help either), and I’m just sick of it. After you reach out so many times, you feel stupid, you wonder if the person even likes you, and you feel unappreciated. It’s degrading.


Deerfield, Massachusetts

Maybe I should, maybe I shouldn’t. I don’t know. But the quote I started with reminds me it’s good to keep in mind that Christmas is at its heart about giving and self-sacrifice. God sacrificing himself for us, us giving to others to echo that same incredible, unconditional, overly-generous love.

When I think back on the past year, the times I treasure most have been the times I’ve been honest and vulnerable, which has allowed me to connect with a people in a way that stops me in my tracks when I think about it. Those interactions gave me meaning and purpose. They were the times relationships felt worth the fight, the ups and downs and heartache These were the times when I felt that my life — with its times of incommunicable hurt — had purpose. And once was even the time my heart opened in a way I never dreamed possible.


Deerfield, Massachusetts

I won’t forget those moments for a long while yet, and I hope this year has many more of them. What is the purpose, after all, of suffering from the same wounds silently, standing side by side but feeling completely alone. I know everyone approaches relationships in a different way; some collect them to maintain connections to use as they need them, some delve deep into just a few and seem bland and cold to the rest of the world. It’s tough when you’re heading into a relationship  (platonic or romantic or familial) with a different goal in mind than the other person (which is, quite frankly, most of the time.) That’s when you get hurt.


Old Sturbridge Village, Massachusetts

But continue to use the blessings and talents you have been given to make others smile. Remember friends and family. Utter the words that are stuck in your throat. Comfort others who hurt. Kind of like paying it forward, pass the kindness that has been shown to you over the years to others. Someone was once there for you on your bad day, so try to be there for another person. You don’t have to do it perfectly or have the right words to say, just taking the time to spend time with a person or to send them a text asking how they are or saying you’re thinking of them — that can speak volumes to someone who’s struggling.


Fruitlands Museum, Massachusetts

Remember what encouraged you when you needed help — a shoulder to lean on, a patient ear, quiet, company, talking, hearing someone else’s story, being allowed to just talk, being affirmed and encouraged, just being listed to — remember what helped and give that to someone else this year. Be a little more open, a little more available, a little more willing to sit and listen even though your phone is vibrating, a little more conscious of checking in, a little more vocal about how you appreciate others.


Fruitlands Museum, Massachusetts

And if you’ve been burned before — I’m truly sorry. I hope healing comes your way and I hope you come across people who comfort you, love you, and restore your hope. And maybe you and I both can resist the temptation to close our hearts and continue to hope and to put ourselves out there.

Merry Christmas.


Looking up at Brookside Gardens, Maryland

Song of the day

Cold showers


Tintagel, England (photo by Rebecca Gale)

Tonight I had the unpleasant experience of getting in the shower, patiently waiting for it to warm up before I stepped into its deluge completely, but then over the course of my shampoo and condition session, the water grew increasingly frigid. I don’t know if someone was running the washing machine or taking a shower unbeknownst to me or if the universe just hates me today, but I was not particularly thrilled by this unexpected surprise, especially being the cold-blooded being that I am.

As I shivered my way through the rest of my hair care routine (it takes a lot of conditioner to upkeep these luscious locks), my mind wandered to the more metaphorical times I’ve been left in the cold, in particular in relationships.

Today, I was walking past several places where this summer I felt particularly hurt or betrayed by a man, and it brought the frustration that has been simmering periodically below the surface of my psyche to a boiling point. Yet, I can’t shake the hope that maybe he’ll change his mind and see my worth…Well, not just see it, but value it.


Tintagel, England (photo by Rebecca Gale)

I thought about how unfair it is that I still pity and worry about the well-being of this man and others who haven’t treated me particularly attentively over the years. I even pray for their well-being sometimes. I pride myself on being a caring, empathetic person; it’s part of my identity and I would hate to cut that part out of myself, but sometimes I do feel like I’m the butt of a joke, left shivering in a cold shower while someone basks in the warmth of a nice steamy one.

I pour out into others’ lives, take initiative to get to know them and pursue and keep up a relationship with them, but when I step back to see if they will return the favor, it’s radio silence. I do dumb (albeit adorable) shit like studying in the library every day because it was the best place I could be sure to run into the guy I liked freshman year, but who returns the favor (except for a couple creeps.)

It gets discouraging after a while when you feel like you’re the one doing most of the heavy lifting in relationships. It makes you wonder whether you’re just bothering people, whether anyone wants you. I know people are probably just busy and preoccupied with their own issues, but I can’t help thinking that if they cared and I was a priority, that shit would be something they would want to share with me, or at least wouldn’t be enough to keep them from checking in.


Tintagel, England (Photo by Rebecca Gale)

I don’t know why I’m writing this, except that I’m sure someone out there knows exactly what I mean. And who knows, maybe it will inspire someone to send a simple text to an old friend and ask what’s up. It’s as easy as that. Letting people know you care. Asking how they are. Being honest about how you’re doing. It’s almost stupid how much we could help by just doing little shit like that.

I’m sick of being out alone in the cold sometimes. But I guess I’ll go dive into some blankets and try and warm myself up.


Tintagel, England (photo by Rebecca Gale)


Dealing with the stress of decision-making

The past couple weeks (and honestly months) have been full of stress for me as I’ve been trying to figure out what to do next with my life and how to start my career. After graduating in May, I bought myself some time from having to find a job by doing a summer fellowship, though the entire summer, the thought of what to do next (and after that and after that) was relentlessly weighing on my mind. Finding a job in the museum field with just a BA proved difficult, so I decided to get more experience (and buy myself more job search time) by doing a fall internship. Now that I’ve finished that, the weight of figuring out my future is resting heavily on my shoulders again. Sometimes it feels like an elephant is sitting on my chest with all the stress I put on myself to figure my life out.


Sturbridge, Massachusetts

I’m not great at decision-making. I hate even choosing what to eat. So making choices that can seemingly determine the course of the rest of your life entail a lot of stress for me. Add to that the complications of relationships, finances, second-guessing whether your career field is a good fit, deadlines for applications, decisions about grad school, etc. and it’s enough to make you want to cry or just give up and stick your head in the sand, binge-watching Lea Remini’s docu-series about Scientology to reassure yourself that other people’s lives are more screwed up than your own.


Cavendish Beach, Prince Edward Island

As I’ve been working on approaching career and life choices without stressing myself out completely, I’ve been figuring out some ways to make the process a little easier. It’s important to take time out to rest during the process, and to make sure that you’re not letting other people’s opinions take over your choice. Here are a few other thoughts:

Schedule a “freak out” time. I oftentimes find myself letting anxiety take over my thoughts constantly, turning over decisions constantly in the back of my mind. Or I would spend hours on job listings, stressing myself out with the long list of positions that didn’t work for me. This can make the decision hold more weight than it should and just makes your miserable. Try scheduling an hour or two a day to focus on weighing choices, making pro and con lists, applying to jobs etc. When your mind drifts to your decision the rest of the day, tell yourself you have to wait until later.


Cavendish Beach, Prince Edward Island

Get in touch with your priorities. It’s easy to be swayed and overwhelmed by others’ input and expectations when making choices. While it’s worthwhile to listen to the advice people have to give, ultimately the decision is yours and it’s your life. Try making a list of what are the external pressures your feel from others and what are your feelings about what you want, what your priorities are, what experience you want to have, etc. It’s easy to get caught up in ideas of what someone your age is supposed to be doing, but you are the one who has to live in that place or work that job or date that person, so you need to make the choice that’s best for you.


Cavendish Beach, Prince Edward Island

Think long-term, but not too long-term. It’s good to have some sense of what direction you want to be headed in to guide you in terms of what skills you should try and gain in a job now, but don’t get overwhelmed trying to plan too far ahead. Sometimes, especially when you’re young, it’s helpful to just give yourself permission to think in terms of a simple, “What do I want to experience next?” It can be easier to break life into semesters, with a general goal of “I want to graduate in May 20-whenever with a BA in History.” I find myself trying to trace how my future would pan out if I took this path or that path, but ultimately I stress myself out for something that isn’t practical. We can’t predict the future, so sometimes you have to look at what opportunities are available right now and trust that things will work out in the future.


Exeter, England

Remember there’s no right or wrong path. Again, you don’t know what the future will hold, good or bad. A certain school or job or relationship can seem like your only ticket to the life you want or the only thing that can make you happy, but I’ve found that dream opportunities often can be very different in reality. Not to mention, you could take a job that you never thought you would and end up finding your passion. You could go to a school that was far from your first choice and form lifelong relationships. You could not end up with one guy but then months later meet the love of your life. We don’t know what life holds and sometimes we have to accept that some doors close and others open. There’s not a fixed path and we’re not doomed if we don’t do certain things in life, though it can easy to become convinced as much with the pressure other people put on us and the emphasis on Ivy Leagues, big-name companies, and meeting milestones.


Cavendish Beach, Prince Edward Island

Whatever paths you’re looking down, have faith that life is full of surprises. It’s easy to get discouraged about not getting jobs or not having relationships work out, feeling like that was our best chance. But so many people I talk to found their career by accident, practically falling into it, or met their partner when they swore they would never find love. So much pressure is put on figuring things out when you’re young, and it’s easy to look at all of the teenagers and 20-somethings in the worlds of sports and entertainment and feel stupid and accomplished for not having found your life passion or made a name for yourself, but those cases are the exception, not the norm.

Many great people whose accomplishments we celebrate didn’t peak until their thirties or even later. It takes time to build up a skill set, refine your craft, and gain experience and a network of people who recognize your abilities. Be patient with yourself, don’t stop pushing yourself, and don’t devalue the experience and skills you already have built. Seeing all the jobs, etc. you’re unqualified for or sitting in an interview where it becomes glaringly obvious that you’re not the right candidate can make you question whether you have any worthwhile skills, but you do. Know your worth and have faith in the future, but also remember to enjoy the present.


Exeter, England


Let it go, let it go. (Well, maybe not just yet…)

It’s hard to let go.

No matter how often the “logic” part of my brain tells me that it wouldn’t work because of the distance and because he hasn’t texted since the date, but the romantic side of me, which runs the show, honestly, keeps thinking about how sweet and witty and intelligent and patient and interesting he was, how great our chemistry was, how comfortable I felt around him, which leaves me screaming at the universe at the unfairness of a relationship with such potential being cut short so soon. It seems so unfair to finally have the chance to have someone return my interest, after wearing the crown of the queen of unrequited love for so long, and then have the chance be ripped from my hands.


Deerfield, Massachusetts…This post will feature tree photos because he loves trees, as any decent human being should.

I feel stupid for going on the date when I knew I was leaving the next day, but the opportunity presented itself to easily, so perfectly, unlike most of the time when I am interested in a guy, and I had been noticing his personality and character for weeks and wanting to get the chance to know more, it seemed wrong to pass up the opportunity. Not to mention…it was a real date with a perfectly nice, non-sketchy guy who I didn’t have to meet online. But I keep second-guessing whether I was emotionally manipulative to invite him to go out, whether I was stupid because I know I can never just have a one-off interaction with a guy I’m interested in.


Deerfield, Massachusetts

I don’t know how to navigate these relationships. I feel so lost sometimes and so frustrated that I can’t just tell people how I feel outright and cut the crap…There are so many games to play, things to consider, hypotheticals to worry about. It’s overwhelming because all the feelings are in the present and the future is so cloudy. I can probably meet another guy eventually, but when you’ve never met a person quite like this one or never felt the way you do about this person, it’s hard to let go and believe there is hope for another person to come along one day, a person who things work with. I want to be someone who fights for my relationships and puts effort into them, but I almost equally, after many bad experiences, don’t want to be dragged along, duped, or taken advantage of. Nor do I want to do that to others.


Sturbridge, Massachusetts

Relationships are tough. People have their opinions, you have your heart, which can be surprisingly powerful in its attachment to others but surprisingly reticent to share its inclinations. People have their baggage that you don’t know about that may keep them closed off to a relationship…then you find out after it’s too late. It’s hard to know how hard to fight for a relationship before you’re just being unfair to yourself by wasting your time and emotional energy. It’s hard to come to the acceptance that you need to let go and move on. It’s hard to move on. It takes forever and the process is full of “forward one step, back two” and questioning your decision when you see something that reminds you of him or you remember that one time when your arms brushed for the first time…


Cut down in the prime of its youth…Beaver damage, Sturbridge, Massachusetts

I spent over a month moving on from the last guy who things didn’t work out with. Sometimes I still get starry eyes and wonder if one day he’ll change his mind, or I see something and want to text him something I saw that reminded me of him. But then I remember that he probably always gets away with the crap he pulls in relationships because people just forgive him and play nice again because of his charm.


Fruitlands, Harvard, Massachusetts

This new man…I don’t know if I’m ready to start getting over him yet. Part of me is still holding out hope. I learned from the last guy that sometimes you have to give yourself time to entertain the impossible possibilities before you realize how deluded you’re being or what a jerk he is or how apathetic he is about the relationship before you are able to be emotionally ready to move on.


Fruitlands, Harvard, Massachusetts

So I’ll continue to hold out hope for the moment, scouring New England job boards and wondering if it would be too desperate to text him again or if I should wait to see if he’ll finally initiate something. Ripping my heart out at this point and drenching myself with the cold, hard truth that it probably won’t work out is just too crushing. I need time.

He was lovely, the date was lovely, I was happy (until my anxiety took over) and I want to just believe the best of it all and believe he is wonderful for a while. Maybe I’m being dumb, but that’s just where I am right now. (And you’re not alone if you’re in the same boat.)


Old Sturbridge Village, Massachusetts

Here’s to hope, however hopeless the situation might be.

The Scenic Route: Taking the Pressure off of Decision-Making


Sturbridge, Massachusetts

I always like to tell people that a road trip with me isn’t complete until I’ve taken a wrong road or missed a turn or screwed up something. I’ve been driving around up here in New England every time I have time because I love the scenery and I find driving so relaxing (sorry, environment.) Pretty much every time I miss a turn and end up lost. I always start out frustrated, seeing the ETA on my GPS change, but I could never stay mad for long because I would pass a group of wild turkeys crossing the road or see the sun setting over a pond nestled in a grove of pine trees. It made me realize that it was more of a scenic detour than making a mistake.


Sturbridge, Massachusetts

It’s interesting how we are so prone to frame things as right or wrong, labeling events that didn’t go the way we hoped or turn out positively as mistakes or failures. Oftentimes those times can be pivotal moments of growth for us, which makes me question whether they really can be called mistakes since they ended up playing a crucial part in our development.


The Mount, Lenox, Massachusetts

This past couple months, having another relationship I hoped would develop into something more not work out and simultaneously having the internship I took not live up to my expectations really brought this point home. A lot of times I felt like I had failed because I had yet again misjudged a person and built up my expectations prematurely. I consequently feel anxious when I make choices about my future and pessimistic about new opportunities for relationships that present themselves, doubting anyone could really be interested in me and wondering if I’m over-idealizing a person again and ignoring red flags like the last time.


The Mount, Lenox, Massachusetts

As I find myself in another time of transition with a lot of decisions facing me, I feel overwhelmed by the pressure to make the “right” choices. But the thing is, sometimes you just have to make a choice, there isn’t necessarily a right or wrong option; each avenue you could potentially take is just a different path. As cheesy as the metaphor sounds, it’s like hiking trails – sure you have to take into consideration how long one is or how steep, but for the most part each one is beautiful and relaxing, you just get a different view.


The Mount, Lenox, Massachusetts

Considering grad schools and job options, I feel overwhelmed by the pressure I put on myself to find the “right fit.” Having had to transfer in undergrad, partly because the school I thought was a perfect fit ended up just not working for me, I feel especially anxious about my ability to choose a good program. But as I make pro and con lists for different options, I realize that there are, quite simply, pros and cons to anything. There is rarely ever a perfect fit. It all works out and adds to your story.

Even difficult things have beauty and worth threaded throughout. In my relationship that didn’t work out, I experienced a ton of emotional pain, but that precipitated me to re-enter counseling, which I have experienced tremendous comfort and personal growth through (including many of the ideas in this post!) And subsequently, when I did have another opportunity to start to develop a different relationship, it made me value that new opportunity even more.


Old Sturbridge Village, Massachusetts

The failed relationship also empowered me in a strange sense as I had to at one point realize the other person wasn’t invested in the relationship, decide I deserved better, and take action to withdraw from that person and make an effort not to let worrying about our relationship consume my thoughts. This was extremely hard to do, but I did it. I stopped communicating with him for probably six weeks to see if he would initiate conversation and ask after me. It never came, which hurt, but gave me perspective on what I need in a relationship and, most importantly, made me feel empowered about my decision to respect and stand up for myself.


Old Sturbridge Village, Massachusetts

As for my internship, as many tough days as I had, there is the satisfaction of knowing I pressed on through those tough days and I pushed myself yet again out of my comfort zone in the type of work I was doing. I learned completely new things and I did a lot of talking to people even though I find constant conversation exhausting. I persevered. And I got to experience a different place, visit lovely museums, enjoy driving through the curtain of New England foliage over the Massachusetts turnpike, and meet a few lovely people…one particularly lovely person in particular…There were so many things I felt frustrated about that I eventually realized had small blessings hidden in them.


Naumkeag, the Berkshires, Massachusetts

I guess what I’m saying is, that if you’re like me and, because of things that have happened in your past, you question your judgment for the future to the extent that you can’t make decisions – it’s okay. Even situations that are difficult are redeemable. And for some of us more sensitive people, we just need an extra-long time to adjust, so something that seems awful may just need some patience and perseverance.


The Berkshires, Massachusetts

You don’t have to make the right choice, you just have to do the best you can to consider your options and choose what seems like a good fit. Maybe it’s the fastest route to your destination, maybe it’s the scenic route. Either way has satisfactions and frustrations.


Explore New England (Well, Mainly Massachusetts)

For the past couple months, I’ve had the opportunity to relocate temporarily from my home state of Maryland to the lovely state of Massachusetts while completing an internship at Old Sturbridge Village. As a museum lover, I was determined from Day One to spend as much time off as I could visiting the area’s wealth of fascinating museums. While there are still several left on my list that I didn’t make it to, I’ve enjoyed going to quite a number of them.

Slater’s Mill Historic Site, Pawtucket, Rhode Island


This small museum is located just outside of Providence, RI and just over the Massachusetts border. It’s a three-building site that gives an overview of the evolution of industry, particularly textile processing, in early America.


18th century home – A spinning wheel used for flax (linen) is in the background on the right, and a weasel, used to wind skeins of string, is the windmill-looking machine on the table. The song “Pop Goes the Weasel” was inspired by this!

Our guided tour started in a 1700s-era house, showing how textiles were originally produced in cottage industry-type setting within a home, usually for the family, though sometimes a person might hire other people and produce larger amounts of cloth to sell. This work was done using human power and simple machines like spinning wheels.


The two other buildings were water-powered mills, where huge wheels pushed by the energy of flowing water turned machinery and belts used to spin thread onto spools, do woodworking, clean cotton, etc.


These held large bobbins of thread that were mechanically wound. Young girls had the job of sticking their hands into the machine to remove filled bobbins. Our guide turned on the machine and demonstrated for about 30 seconds…her had stung and was visibly red. It’s hard to imagine doing that all day as an elementary school-age child.

It’s both amazing to think about innovation over the years and how drastically life and work has changed over the past two centuries because of these inventions, and humbling to consider how hard it must have been to work in such loud, impersonal, fast-paced, dangerous conditions. (It’s also a bit humbling to realize that our country benefitted so much from plans for a machine that were literally stolen from England.)


Bobbins in boats on top of a loom. Some looms were so large, there were ships on wheels that were water-powered to go through the warp threads.

There was also a collection of later machinery, displaying the further development of technology for creating cloth.


Later machines, probably for making knit fabrics.


Mark Twain House, Hartford, CT


The Mark Twain House is a must-see if you’re ever passing through Connecticut. Just outside of downtown Hartford, this sumptuous Victorian that Twain built for his family not only has delicious interior design, but also a fascinating story of an eccentric writer and his family and household staff.


I love writers’ homes because they have such interesting tours that focus more on the family and their life. Twain and one of his daughters appear to have had trouble concentrating, probably suffering from what we would diagnose today as ADHD. He had to change where he would spend time writing at least twice because he couldn’t be in a place with too many distractions. His daughter, educated at home by Twain’s wife, who had attended college, went to a formal academy in high school but was kicked out for behavior issues, probably because she was distractable too and unused to regimented schooling.

The carriage house

The house also has an accompanying museum with two fantastic, very readable exhibits as well as a cafe. The neighborhood nearby is also worth exploring if you love Victorian architecture!

Concord, Massachusetts

Concord holds a special place in my heart because it was the home of two authors I dearly love, whose homes I visited in eighth grade and fell in love with this charming town. It really is what I imagine real-life Stars Hollow being like.


Downtown Concord, Mass.


Downtown Concord

The downtown is very sweet and historic and also have a cemetery for those who are interested in historic gravestones. It just oozes New England charm. There is a National Park dedicated to the Revolutionary War battlefield, which I still have not made my way too, and a town museum as well as a few house museums, namely belonging to local authors Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and – dearest to my heart – Louisa May & Amos Bronson Alcott.


Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House, where she wrote her most famous book, Little Women.

I visited Orchard House twice in middle school, inspiring me to do a research project on her family’s connection to the Massachusetts abolition movement for National History Day. I wrote a bit more about my visit in another post, but this remains one of my favorite museums to this day, though I’m sure it’s shabby to many museum snobs. I love the personality of the family that comes through even in the furnishings, which have a very lived-in appearance.


Amos Bronson Alcott’s (Louisa’s father) Concord School of Philosophy. Alcott was a man of ideas and conviction, but unfortunately not usually successful in making them last in application. His ideas on educating children have more recently become popularly accepted, but got him into trouble in his own lifetime.

The family let their artistic younger daughter, May, draw and paint on the walls and the house is furnished to reflect the Alcotts in their better middle class status after Little Women had started selling, but it still has the well-loved furniture and cramped quarters you might find in your own home, which I find endearingly relatable compared to the hoards of mansions that tend to get preserved. The Alcotts are also fascinating people, eccentric and lovably human, both outcasts of their own time and representatives of some of the growing movements in mid-19th-century New England: abolition, Transcendentalism, women’s rights, philosophical discussion and lecture circuits, etc.


A re-creation of Henry David Thoreau’s cabin he built for his experiment living alone in nature for a time, as recorded in his book Walden.

I also couldn’t pass up a re-visit to Walden Pond, now a state park. I went hoping for some kind of epiphany about what to do with my life but left wishing I had brought my bathing suit to enjoy the clear water. I guess life works itself out as you go along more than it hands out sudden clarity about where to go next. Sometimes you have to embrace the uncertainty. All the same, Walden is a beautiful place with such a peaceful atmosphere. I highly recommend a visit.


Sunset over Walden Pond.

 Museum of Russian Icons, Clinton, Massachusetts 


This place confirmed my assertion that there really is a museum for everything. When I saw the brochure for the Museum of Russian Icons, I was intrigued. I knew relatively little about the Russian Orthodox Church or about the art of icons, so it was interesting to learn about an art form that is an intersection of visual expression and religious devotion.


Clinton, Massachusetts

The icons – pictures of saints and Biblical figures – are painted in particular steps, each of which have symbolic religious significance. As the icons are painted, the artist is supposed to pray and meditate during the process. I found the concept quite powerful…I think the artistic process is great for taking time to consider life and examine one’s inner self. I probably sat for an hour watching a video of an adorable elderly Russian man demonstrating how icons are created. I’m not much good at visual art myself, but it’s fascinating to watch people who are practice their craft. The neighborhood around the museum also had some gorgeous Victorian houses, which always gets me jazzed.


Clinton, Massachusetts


Clinton, Massachusetts

Fruitlands Museum, Harvard, Massachusetts


I believe I can touch the sky…Fruitlands Museum, Harvard Mass.

Fruitlands definitely wins the prize for best location out of all the places I visited. The museum is spread out among several buildings in a campus layout, but it’s all nestled on a hill that looks out on some gorgeous hills, filled with foliage. I didn’t get a picture that did justice to the view.


The museum is mainly dedicated to the Utopian experiment that Louisa May Alcott’s father, writer and educator Amos Bronson Alcott, started with fellow Transcendentalist Charles Lane. Louisa May Alcott later wrote a short story about the disastrous experience. Her father and Lane were trying to live out Transcendentalist ideals, living off the land and farming without using animal labor, which, as you might imagine, is quite difficult to do. Add to that that Lane believed that ideally people should be single and celibate when Alcott had his wife and daughters living on the farm…Dramaaaaa.


Fruitlands Farmhouse, built 1843

In addition to the original farmhouse where the Alcotts and Lane lived, the museum campus has an art gallery featuring folk portraits and Hudson River School paintings, a Native American museum, and a building from a nearby Shaker community.


Shaker Museum, Fruitlands Museum, Harvard, Mass.

I spent the most time at the Shaker Museum, which was a small office building that had been part of the Shaker community in Harvard, Massachusetts, not far from the Fruitlands utopian experiment (in fact, Charles Lane went and tried to live with the Shakers for a short time after Fruitlands dissolved.)


Shaker Museum

It was interesting to learn about how Shakerism offered a safe haven for women who had been widowed to have a place to live and be provided for. It’s humbling to think about how women in past centuries would have been in a pretty difficult situation if their husband or other family members they were dependent on passed away. It’s also interesting to learn about how entrepreneuring the Shakers were, crafting furniture and creating the concept of packaged seeds.

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I also enjoyed the gorgeous hiking paths through the fall foliage. There were great interpretive signs about the historical and natural landscape. It’s interesting to think about the remains of homes, daily lives, and natural phenomena that we walk on top of every day without thinking. One picture in the slideshow above is of a part of the trail that overlapped with a former wagon road. The signage pointed out that the ruts are still visible. I wonder how many lives in transition traveled that same path.


The Mount, Lenox, MA 


The Stables, The Mount, Lenox, MA

When the stables of an estate are larger than your family’s house, you know you’ve happened upon a Gilded Age mansion. Edith Wharton was a prolific novelist who critiqued the constrained, exclusive society of the extremely wealthy Americans in early nineteenth century New York City. Many of these wealthy people built houses in the Berkshires, the part of the Appalachians in western Massachusetts and Wharton followed suit. She actually had a large part in designing the Mount because of her strong opinions in home design. In fact, her first published book was an advice book on interior design.


Wharton’s life is fascinating; she divorced her husband at a time when it was still socially unacceptable, so she left the Mount and moved to Paris after being shunned from society. But she wrote a novel a year for forty years and won a Pulitzer Prize. She had other love affairs, though none of them worked out particularly well (I feel you, girl), but she did write some steamy poetry about them.


The scullery where maids would have washed dishes. Sucky job but nice view.

The house museum is particularly interesting in that it has tried to experiment with new ways to use the space of a historic home. For example, rooms are, for the most part, not roped off and, in addition to getting a guided tour, you can walk through the house at your own pace. Some rooms are restored to their original appearance or something similar (designers were invited to decorate some of the rooms at their own expense to reduce the cost of restoring the home) while others are small gallery spaces. I loved the little reading nook they had too. Some effort is also made to interpret the spaces the servants used.


Wharton’s work and receiving room, which has been restored to its original appearance. (she wrote her novels in bed next door every morning so she wouldn’t have to wear her corset…Same.)


Well, I have a million more pictures, and a few other smaller places I visited, but this is already a monster of a post. But I’ll leave with some parting musings….

I feel bad sometimes that I haven’t done much international travel, but then I think about how many amazing places there are in my own country, or even my own country, that I’ve never been to, and I realize that maybe there’s something to be said for traveling locally.

I think it’s important to be connected to the places around you and to appreciate the stories they have to offer of the people who have called that location home in years past. Local history can so often go overlooked or even be looked down on by academics, but I think it gives us a sense of identity and groundedness in the landscape we inhabit, allowing us to appreciate and thus care for, preserve, and conserve both the built and the natural environment.


The Berkshires

On a more personal note, I have to say that while I sometimes felt a little pathetic trudging up to the ticket offices to ask for admission for one adult (“No, an adult, not a student”) while several couples celebrating anniversaries or honeymoons or girl friends spending a day out gossiping while cursorily looking at art perused the gift shop around me. Let’s just say that while I fully intended to visit as many museums as possible while I was up here, I didn’t expect to be doing it alone. But I am continually reminded that life has a stubborn way of making sure that things do not go the way you expect.


Naumkeag Mansion, the Berkshires, Massachusetts

In spite of the occasional awkwardness and self-consciousness (and occasional anxiety) of traveling alone, I am a firm believer that it’s important to take time to get back in touch with your own thoughts and feelings, and I sometimes wonder if many museums can properly be absorbed and appreciated if you’re with other people. While parts of the past couple months of my life have had some moments of pain and frustration over the loneliness I felt and the disappointment – sometimes even anger – I was experiencing surrounding some of my relationships, I also found some extremely beautiful moments being alone in nature or alone looking at a building where an author who made a large impact on my life lived.


I’ve spent a lot of time in recent years frustrated with how people have treated me or relationships have panned out, but I think those hurts are a good reminder that it’s important to spend time with yourself, staying in touch with your own desires, dreams, and emotions. It’s good to dignify yourself by giving yourself the opportunity to experience things you want to, regardless of whether or not other people accompany you. It’s important to have friends and connections, but it’s also good to know yourself and not lose your individuality trying to be what you think other people want, which I felt like I was starting to do when I began this journey a couple months ago.



Slater Mill 

Mark Twain House

Museum of Russian Icons

Fruitlands Museum

The Mount


Enjoying New England in fall 🙂

Party Like It’s 1838: Old Sturbridge Village Internship (Pt. 1)

It’s been quite an interesting two months serving as an intern here at Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts. I’ve learned a lot as a historian and grown a lot as a human. A lot of people I’ve met have wondered what brought me up here from my home state of Maryland…It’s a valid question with a complicated answer.


I guess it goes back to when I was in middle school and I first fell in love with museums, in particular with living history museums where people in costume pretend to inhabit historic buildings, usually set up in a town or village setting, recreating life in the past. Old Sturbridge Village was one museum I distinctly remember visiting, and while I didn’t fall in love with it the way I did Colonial Williamsburg, I remember respecting it a lot (and loving the sheep.)


Fast forward several years to college…History majors from the first school I attended interned at OSV and I began to become interested myself in working in the museum field. I turned into some kind of internship maniac who would scour the Internet for museum internships to apply for. One that I found was OSV but it wasn’t until this past summer that I applied. I accepted at Historic Deerfield for the summer but asked if I could defer working here at OSV to the fall. The more jobs I didn’t hear back from, the better of an idea doing another internship sounded like.


Old Sturbridge Village is comprised of over thirty historic buildings that have been moved to the site to create a hypothetical rural New England Village. It doesn’t recreate any specific town exactly; it’s more of a sampler of some of the trade shops and homes and public buildings you might have found in a small town in the early 1800s. The village is set in a pretty overlooked time period of American history: the 1830s. Some visitors to the museum think we are colonists, pilgrims, or pioneers, but colonists and pilgrims would have been historical figures by our time period and pioneers would be living in places West of Massachusetts, like Ohio.


Probably the most notable thing about the 1830s is that the Industrial Revolution was picking up steam (no pun intended), though that can be harder for visitors to see in our quaint little village. Something I would say our village lacks, in my humble opinion, are buildings like textile mills that would have been becoming prominent in this time period as the industrial revolution came into play and was beginning to radically change American life. In fact, a young woman like me might have gone and worked in a mill to be able to earn her own money and be exposed to fashionable new ways of dressing, eating, and cooking. And after simulating what it might be like to work on a farm as a woman in the 1830s for 8.5 hours a day during this internship, I can start to understand the appeal of going and working in a mill.


My primary place of work during this internship has been the Freeman Farmhouse. The Freemans were middle class farmers so their house was a decent size, though the original property was just the front part when they bought it. Pliny Freeman, a housewright in addition to being a farmer, purchased the house at half its market value to pay off some of his debt by selling his old farm, and added on the back single-story wing, which has the kitchen, dairy room, and woodshed. You can also see the root cellar, underneath the boards in the center of the photo, and on the other side of the home is a large garden that would have been used to grow a lot of the household food.

Here’s a few (unfortunately bad quality) snapshots of the interior of the farmhouse. Most of my time is spent in the room pictured at the bottom – the kitchen. Female interns have to work in a house while male staff typically work on the farm, in a trade shop, or operating our four small mills. A lot of the museum’s interpretation of homelife focuses on what historians call “foodways” aka how food is grown, harvested, prepared, served, and eaten. While women definitely spent a lot of time cooking, this wasn’t all they did, though we can certainly give people that impression.


All the same, it was a lot of work and I respect the women who did it immensely. I find it tiresome and confusing, which makes me wonder if there what you would do in the 1830s if you hated cooking or were terrible at it. I guess we all have things today that we hate doing, but all the same, I’m more thankful than ever for pre-made food and happy to go home at night and pop a TV dinner in the microwave.


View out the front door. The picket fence was a fashionable new addition to the house in the late 1830s. It doesn’t make a lot of sense in terms of there being a practical use for it, which is always a good sign that something is being done as a status symbol.

Stay tuned for more thoughts on 1830s life to come!

Forgotten Buildings, Forgotten People

I wrote a bit in a previous post about my brief spontaneous stop-off in Havre de Grace, Maryland while I was on a road trip up to my latest internship. I had always wanted to go to Havre de Grace because, well, what a kick-butt name for a town! It just makes you want to stop and see what’s there. Also, after interning at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum one summer, I developed a special place in my heart for towns on the Bay and their unique culture.


Havre de Grace turned out to be worth stopping at; sumptuous Victorian homes line the neighborhood streets. A mural celebrating the town’s maritime heritage coats the inside of a bridge underpass entering town (I’m a sucker for murals.) The main street borders the water and also features one big line of fun, eclectic, mostly nineteenth and early twentieth-century architecture, which I will drool over any day of the week.


I parked my car and walked down a block and a half of the Main Street, snapping photos of interesting buildings, strolled down a pier to look at the water, and then headed back to my car. I’m normally a speedwalker, but when my camera is in tow, I take forever to make it a few yards. Plus it was hot and I wanted to get back on the road.


As I was making my way back to my car, I made eye contact with an older African American gentleman seated outside a storefront on one of those cool walkers with the fold-down seats that I always wish I have when I’m on museum tours. The man had been there when I arrived, talking to a lady who had since left. He asked me how I was and, being the soul that I am, I felt I had to stop and talked with him a bit.



He asked me if I was a photography student and I said no, that I just studied history and liked old buildings. So he asked me if I had taken a photo of the building next to him. No, I hadn’t, actually. I had taken one of the store with the turret at the end of the street, but the building he was indicating was simple, even shabby, and hadn’t caught my eye.


The fancy building I did take a photo of.

He told me I should take a photo of it and explained that it was where he lived. He explained the floor plan to me and told me about how he liked living there and it was paid for for him. Then he talked about an event the town has from time to time where bands play live jazz music and shops set up tables to sell things in the streets. I’m not necessarily gifted at connecting with people, and I’m especially bad at initiating conversation, so I enjoy when someone crosses those walls we put up and talks to you even though they don’t know you. It’s humbling and it makes me feel more connected to the world.


The bigger picture….I believe the building on the very right that’s cut off was the one the man lived in.

After I said my good-byes and got back in my car, I was struck by the realization that historic preservation isn’t just about the beautiful exteriors, it’s about the stories that have been lived out inside a place. We tend to gravitate to the beautiful, the magnificent, even the bizarre, but sometimes the humble, the plain, and even the ramshackle buildings are the ones whose walls hold the key to stories that need to live on. The building the man had pointed out to be has no doubt seen dozens, if not more, of lives lived out, probably more relatable to most people than the lavish lifestyles of the Vanderbilts & company of the world whose unobtainable mansions tend to be the ones we save. Those lives may not be famous, but they represent a snapshot of a subset of people.


I remember once my public history professor, an avid building-lover and historic preservation advocate, told us about two buildings in downtown Baltimore that were in danger of being destroyed. One of them was a sparkling example of Art Deco architecture that my professor has been fighting to preserve as an incredible example of that era’s aesthetics. The other was a plain storefront that had been recycled many times and, if I recall correctly, was sitting vacant at the time, but that had been the site of one of the first civil rights-era sit-ins in Baltimore. It was a striking lesson in how maybe the “ugly” building was the one that should be saved even if the pretty one at first glance seemed like the one “worth saving.”


I realized my own bias when it comes to telling visual stories through photography and through history. I like pretty things. I like interesting things. I like things that I can relate to and that fit with my preferred style and taste. But those aren’t always the things that need to be photographed or the stories that need to be uncovered and told. Sometimes we have to put our own biases aside and paint the whole picture. Sometimes we need to listen more than we talk. Sometimes we need to talk to the random person on the street about what they want to be preserved or what story they want to read in a museum.


I’m sometimes struck after I spend lots of time with other museum professionals how insular we can accidentally become; we develop ideas of what we think the public ought to know and form opinions on what is worthy of being exhibited in a museum space. Some of us even scoff at things we think aren’t worthy of that space. Generally – and I am guilty of this too – as much as we at heart want to educate the public, we also develop a disdain for them as well and can come to view ourselves as the purveyors of taste and the experts struggling to get through to the unwashed masses.


I don’t mean to be unkind as I know it’s easy to get burnt out in the museum field and many workers are doing the best they can to tell new stories and reach the public. And I speak as much to myself as to anyone else. But occasionally – not often enough, probably – I’m reminded that it’s the public we’re meant to serve and tell the story of, and sometimes even with, not dictate information to. If we get too lost in our own interests and tastes, we can sometimes lose sight of some of the stories of average people and average places that need to be given consideration as well.