Be Grateful, You Are Enough

When I watched the events unfold in Charlottesville on Saturday, first, I rolled my eyes. I felt no element of surprise because, well, I’m Black and a woman, so I’m well acquainted with discrimination (I left a job because of it!). But, for some reason, a tiny sliver of me wanted to understand what the hell drives people to that level of hatred, in which they feel that their progress is threatened by the progress of others. I normally attribute it to “sin,” which is really anything that drives us to feel more important than new really are, but I’d never really taken the time to really think about it in almost 32 years, so I figured I’d take the moment to reflect.

A couple of weeks ago, I was at a park for a family fun day with my in-laws. My BIL had set up cornhole in case the family wanted play, and he left the beanbags next to the wooden hole box things. A few little white boys whose family was also picnicking came by, picked up the beanbags, and started playing. They were no older than 5, so I figured their mother would tell them to put the beanbags down because they didn’t belong to them. Instead she laughed and said, “Did you ask to play with that?” The kids didn’t answer her, and she didn’t bother to ask again. My BIL smiled politely and told her it was fine for them to continue playing.

But it wasn’t fine. The beanbags weren’t theirs and they didn’t ask to play with them. There was no acknowledgement that they were infringing on someone else’s property and that they were not supposed to do that. Instead, they were allowed to do it by both their mother and my BIL, who understandably didn’t want to be a jerk to some little kids over something as trivial as beanbags. On the surface, it wasn’t a big deal, but it annoyed me so badly that I had to walk away and get myself another beer.

That moment showed me how clear the path is from playing with beanbags without asking as a 5-year-old, to marching in the streets to declare your unhappiness with your race’s seeming digression later in life.

It starts with entitlement. And when that entitlement comes into question, it automatically leads to feelings of inadequacy. When you’re used to getting your way and you suddenly can’t, of course you’d wonder what’s wrong with you. As we saw this weekend (and over the course of U.S. history), when entitlement and inadequacy collide, the result is a massive cloud of shit.

I know what it’s like to feel like I’m not enough. I constantly battle thoughts that I’m not a good enough writer and that’s why I haven’t published more; I wasn’t good enough at investment analysis and that’s why my bosses shat on my performance; I’m not a good enough family member and that’s why my loved ones don’t bother trying to understand me. I can understand how badly it feels when one feels like they’re not enough.

But I’ve never felt low enough to need to take to the streets to inform the world of how badly I feel about myself. That is a low that I pray I never reach (and, thanks to racial double standards, I would not be successfully able to do).

I assumed everyone gets told at some point that they have to find those feelings of adequacy within themselves, that they can’t look to external validation, including the words and actions of others, to make them feel like they are enough. And then I realized that no, not everyone gets told this. They get laughingly asked, “Did you ask if you could play with that?” with zero consequences.

If the world is going to change, we have to start with our kids. Tell them that they are enough no matter what happens, and that someone else’s success does not equal their failure. Tell them that they don’t deserve a damn thing but that which they work for. Tell them to be grateful for every breath they take.

In his NY Times column, David Brooks called for “modesty” as a way to tamp down white people’s anxiety. But modesty isn’t the right word; gratitude is. There is no room for inadequacy when gratitude is firmly in residence. Instead of expecting to receive what others have, be thankful for what you have, even if it’s nominally less than that of others.

Frankly, I feel that this is an impossible ask. The irony that America celebrates an autumn holiday called “Thanksgiving” is not lost on me. It highlights that our sense of gratitude has always been warped, that from our founding we thanked God for providing us food while subjugating the people who grew it.

I pray that a glimmer of hope will remain lit, that those of us who want peace won’t give up altogether. I’ll do what I can, by telling my kids to be grateful and by reaching out to my neighbor, giving no room for hate.

Relax, Relate, Release!

Relaxation.

Relaxing.

Relax.

These words do not come easily for me to say and are even more difficult for me to do. But I’ve actually managed to achieve them in the past two weeks, and I am proud of myself!

I never really gave myself time to recover from my traumatic work experience in New York. I took all of two days off just to clean up my apartment before I dove into writing my memoir (in which I re-lived my traumatic childhood). After a year, I was wiped out. Even my therapist said that I should take some time to relax.

The idea of relaxing has made me nervous since I was a little kid. When my mom told me to take time to relax, I inevitably wound up being bored, mostly because I associated relaxing with sleeping, which my mother did excessively because of depression. In my adult life, I sought to make my reality the exact opposite of what I grew up seeing, and part of that meant being really busy. In my early 20s, I worked two jobs, which amounted to regular 13-hour days. Despite said two jobs, I never had enough money to go on vacation. (I’d also not grown up taking family vacations since we couldn’t afford to, so it was par for the course.) My husband and I take a vacation together at least once a year, so that’s helped me learn to unwind, but only for that time. I didn’t feel that I deserved a break. Until I went through one trauma after another.

Now, with no employer-based full-time job and a self-mandated break from serious writing, I have allowed myself to sleep in, to read (follow me on Goodreads to see what), to treat myself to lunch at the museum café, to write fiction and drink a beer by the pool in the middle of the afternoon.

My mind feels smooth and clear, not lumpy and restless. My body doesn’t feel as tense. I feel better able to focus and more capable of figuring out what I want out of life. In a nutshell, I feel more confident.

I don’t believe in regrets, but if I did, I would regret not taking the time to recharge earlier in my career. Maybe that would have helped me make less fraught decisions. Now, I can use the energy that I’ve restored to charge into my next challenge, whatever that may be.

He Said, She Said, I Said: Point of View

Last week, I attempted an exercise I have not tried in years: I wrote a short story in the third person point of view.

Woopideedoo, you might be thinking while rolling your eyes and threatening to your browser. But hear me out.

When I started writing, when I was 12, all I could write was in the first person POV. Meaning, all of my stories were told from the perspective of the main character, who used “I” to refer to themselves. I read a lot of YA novels back then, and in the late 90s, almost all of the YA books (or at least the ones I read) were in the first person. I got the constant “I” experience: seeing the world the way someone else sees it.

As I started reading more adult literature in high school and college, I gravitated more toward those “I” stories, which were primarily stories about twentysomething women who lived in New York and worked in fashion and/or publishing (also known as “chicklit”). But when I read more literary fiction – the kind that’s considered good “art” as far as literature goes – I saw that it was primarily in the third person, probably because it’s mostly written by men who may or may not lack introspective insight. (Just sayin’.)

To me, the third person is the view that God takes of our lives. You see everything going on from the perspective of someone outside of the main characters. The narrator might home in on one particular character so you follow them around closely without being in the other characters’ heads, but the narrator still isn’t that person. There’s no “I,” only “he,” “she,” “they.”

During this time that I’m taking between writers’ conferences and moving, I decided to take up fiction again because I love fiction waaaaay more than memoir and essays. There’s just something about pretending to be someone else, going somewhere else in my mind. In the class I’m taking, we get two workshopping sessions for our writing. So I had to hurry up and write some fiction because I haven’t in forever. I decided to challenge myself: what if I wrote something that was semi-autobiographical, but told it in the third person, as that sort of God-like narrator who can see everything and everyone?

Reader, it turned out disastrous. The characters aren’t visibly clear to me, their dialogue feels forced, and the plot feels even more forced. (I have my workshop tonight, and I’m bracing myself for all of the comments I’m going to get.) In a word, I’m not happy with the way it turned out, and I could only keep asking myself, why I can’t seem to write outside of “I”?

I’m an observant person. I always have been. My eyes are big on purpose, I say: the better to see the whole bleeding world. When I tell my husband about something I saw on the Metro, I tell him what I saw, the way I saw it. Stepping outside of myself when telling a story is extremely difficult because I don’t know another way of seeing the world. I’ve never seen anything from God’s perspective, only my own, out of my very small, very judgmental lens.

The real reason why I wanted to try writing in the third person is because I write memoir and essays now: everything I write is about me, not “I.” When I write from the perspective of “I,” I don’t want readers to get confused. “I” isn’t always me; in fiction, it never is. See? Confusing already.

So, I decided that, since I’m having fun with this fiction class, I’m going back to write stories in first person. I’m setting aside this pseudo-fear of people getting my story and my stories confused. And this isn’t to say that I’m not going to challenge myself in the future; I totally will. I just want to have a good time, making things up, and the only way to do that is to tell “I” tell us what went down. Stay tuned for new fiction writing!

 

 

Baby Steps

With my one-year resignniversary behind me, and after clearing my life of needless material possessions, I’ve been asking myself what’s next. Now that my summer writing workshops are over and I’ve finished the first draft of my memoir, I’ve had the strangest yearning: To go back into the corporate world.

I love writing. I will always love writing. I need to write in order to feel like a stable human being. But I realize that’s only one part of me. I am an odd duck who needs to organize things, solve problems, analyze data, and make decisions to move a project forward in addition to making up imaginary situations and people (in fiction, that is. In memoir, I’ve told my very true life story).

For the past year, I have not exercised that part of myself. It feels like a limb with a cast just off: limp, pale, and weak. But it’s still useable! I’ve yet to meet someone who chopped off their arm after it healed from a break!

I still have some scars from the trauma I experienced at my old job, so I haven’t actually updated my resume or started applying for jobs. I’m allowing myself to take the tiniest of baby steps. In true What About Bob fashion, so far, (1) I’ve looked at job descriptions online, just to see what’s out there, and (2) I attended my first networking event in DC last week.

Note on (1): There are so few jobs in DC. I mean, not actual open positions (there are a bagillion), but types of jobs. I’m sure I knew that when I lived here before, I just didn’t realize the magnitude of it until now. All DC jobs are government, consulting (including lobbying), research, or nonprofit. So, I instantly grew frustrated that my career options are limited here as compared to NYC, but I suppose I shouldn’t be upset about it because it’s just so damn obvious.

Note on (2): Networking in DC is different from networking in New York because the people are very different. DC people seem to work in the industries I listed in the previous paragraph, and, therefore, there’s less to talk about because everyone knows what everyone does. When I passed out my business cards, one person said, “Oh, you’re a writer,” but didn’t really ask what I write. Another person asked what I do otherwise, and I said, “I just write for right now.” Although my career is very different, people didn’t seem all that interested in it, which is fine because I didn’t want them prying, but I also found odd, because wouldn’t you want to talk to someone who does something different? Shrugs.

So continues my journey to figure out what’s next for me. Yes, it will include writing. But what else?

Writing Binge, Clothing Purge

Yesterday, I donated half of my wardrobe and one-third of my books to charity.

When I got home from the VQR Writers’ Conference on Saturday, I felt the need to cleanse myself of material possessions that were holding me back. So I spent Sunday going through all of my clothes, including the winter ones that were packed away in those big plastic bins. I was going to do the Marie Kondo thing of asking myself of each piece, “Does this spark joy?” But then I realized that “Does this even fit?” was the much more salient question.

I started exercising (mostly with weights) about 2.5 years ago, and I changed my diet to be a bit more clean(ish); as a result, my body has changed a lot. My shoulders are broader now, so little my cap-sleeved t-shirts looked ridiculous. My biceps are visibly larger, and they threated to break the seams of some of my dress sleeves. My butt has gotten firmer and higher, making some of my dresses inappropriately short.

I didn’t realize any of this because I hadn’t actually worn any of those clothes in the past year. Since I quit my job, I’ve solidly taken on the uniform of a writer: in winter, jeans and sweater, and in summer, shorts and t-shirt. Sure, I’ll throw in a casual dress here and there, but not really. Since I’ve been delving into some uncomfortable emotional places, I’ve wanted to be physically comfortable, meaning even in my wardrobe.

But, I did ask myself of some of my clothes, “Does this spark joy?” And for a whole host of my button-down shirts, slacks, and skirts, the answer was a resounding, “NO.” I am not opposed to business attire (I, in fact, look forward to wearing it again one day), but most of my work clothes reminded me of just that – work. My striped Banana Republic buttondowns reminded me of every Monday morning Investment Team meeting in which I felt that I did not belong. My shift dresses purchased on Gilt.com reminded me of my performance reviews in which one of my bosses flagrantly lied about my performance. I know they’re just clothes, but it was what they represented: denigration, humiliation, embarrassment, depression, sorrow, regret. All but joy.

There was no way I could hold onto these pieces and feel liberated from that crazy situation. One year later, I feel a psychic freedom I wish I’d had 365 days ago.

 

The last time I went through one of these purge phases was when I returned to the US from a semester abroad in England, about 11 years ago. I’d just experienced a HUGE life change – I’d spent half a year away from my family going to countries where none of my family members had ever been. It was obvious that my life was going to be different from then on, and I needed to make room for that difference. So, I went through all of my clothes and books, and donated everything I wanted to get rid of.

I most clearly remember packing up my shelves of chicklit. I had decided to write literary fiction, so needed to be careful of what kinds of books I took in: only those I wanted to emulate in some way. Yes, this made me a little bit of a book snob (I have not read any Sue Monk Kidd or even Harry Potter as a result of this rule), but it made my art better.

What is the big life change I just had that made me want to dump all of my old stuff?

A year spent doing the thing I have been most passionate about since I was 12 years old.

Spending the year writing my own story has been monumental. The amount of self-assessment I’ve done, the amount of empathizing with people who still hate me has been sorta nuts. And it has prepared me for the next phase in my life. I’m not sure what that phase is, and, of course, I plan to continue writing in some capacity, but it is clear that something in me has shifted and I sought to mark the change by making room in my life for new things.

That’s my “I’m paying attention to Bret Anthony Johnston” face.

All that being said, I should say how great the VQR Writers’ Conference was. It was very different from VONA, mostly in that there were white people at VQR (seven people of color among 30 attendees, which I suppose is a decent ratio for these sorts of things?).

Although the cafeteria food was inedible, the mosquitos were relentless, and a couple of workshop participants voluntarily read wildly racist material, I had a lot of fun. I met some amazing writers who I hope to keep in touch with, and my workshop instructor, Anne Helen Petersen, was incredible. Instead of doing lectures on craft, she led us through some generative exercises, so I now have a boatload of ideas for new essays, two of which I started at the conference with her guidance (meaning, she actually sort of outlined essays on the white board as we spitballed questions – it was INCREDIBLE). I’ve never had an instructor spend so much time on the participants’ writing, especially on generating new material. So while I couldn’t help think about the ghosts of the slaves who obviously inhabit UVA’s campus (you should thank them whenever something automatic works, like the paper towel dispenser), I felt honored that I was chosen to attend the workshop.

VQR readers

VQR Open Mic readers

I told myself that after a year of writing my memoir, I would take a break. I would drink tea and go to museums and write fiction, perhaps all at the same time. The point of that was to finally actually recover, since I’d gone from one emotion turmoil (crazyass job) to another (crazyass memoir). But VQR has restored my excitement about revising my book, and we’re planning to move into our condo soon, so my break might wind up not happening, and I’m actually okay with that. I guess it’s the next phase moving in. I’ve made room for it, so I should just open the door.

 

 

Announcing the Next Step in our Independence…

In honor of Independence Day, I would like to announce that my spouse and I have finally (after this and this) moved to the next stage of adulthood: homeownership!

Us with our rockstar real estate agent Harrison Beacher

We closed on a condo in DC last week, and I think we’re thrilled about it. The process went so quickly, we hardly had time to think, much less be really excited. But now that the dust has settled a little, we’re pretty stoked. We’re moving into a new phase in life, and that is super scary. We both think a kid will likely be the next big change for us, but we’re not in a hurry to get to that, so we’re just going to savor our new home.

I’ll have a longer post about this when we finally move next month (after the reality has set in a bit more). Until then, I’m headed to the Virginia Quarterly Review writers conference next week, and will have a report on that soon after.

Happy 4th of July, friends!

VONA/Voices: The Best Thing That’s Ever Happened to Me

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VONA faculty members lay down wisdom in a panel discussion about writing.

Last week was one of the best of my life, I think.

I spent the week at the University of Pennsylvania in writing workshops at VONA, where I mingled and sat at the feet (figuratively) of some literary greats, including Junot Diaz. My instructor was Reyna Grande, a Mexican writer whose memoir The Distance Between Us detailed her own journey crossing the border and how it affected her family.

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My instructor, Reyna Grande, reading material from her new, not-yet-published memoir. #sneakpeek

My piece—the first 20ish pages of my memoir—was workshopped on Monday, the first day of the week, which was nerve-wracking. I also happened to go last, after two of my colleagues’ great work was discussed, which compounded my heart palpitations even more. The feedback I got was brutal, but good: the child narrative voice I use in the early chapters limits what the reader can see if there is no accompanying adult reflection; also, my book’s overall theme didn’t ring through the early pages. Reyna’s personality was a little hard to read, and that made the workshop more difficult because I couldn’t put a confident “but she doesn’t actually hate my work” on it until the end of the week, after we’d opened up to each other a bit more.

I had a one-on-one meeting with Reyna, and that was invaluable. I mean, her lectures contained MFA-level material and the other workshops were great, but the one-on-one meeting allowed me to talk out some of the kinks in my story. I told her the basics of my story (my dad was a minister who was married four times and abandoned me and my older brother in favor of my sisters, with whom he had an inappropriately close relationship), and we discussed a short piece I wrote for her class, a letter to one of my sisters who made me feel like I didn’t belong in a most vulnerable situation. And that was the key—belonging. I knew that was a theme of my book, but I didn’t know how important it was until I spoke with Reyna about it. Therefore, having that 20-minute conversation with her changed the course of my book, and made me think that, maybe, I’ve got more than one memoir in me.

Reyna also had us write about our first time doing something, first about the physical experience, then about the subtext/what really happened underneath that physical experience. I wrote about my first (and only) time on a water slide. My mom took me on it when I was about 4, and it didn’t go so well. It was my first near-drowning incident. I wasn’t happy with the way I’d written the assignment, though, so I didn’t share it in class, but thought about it more once I got home, back to DC. Only yesterday, during a long walk to relieve some muscle stiffness, did I realize that the story wasn’t about my mom letting me go and me nearly drowning. It was about her putting me in harm’s way and not apologizing. It was about my needing to forgive my mother for everything that happened with my father. I had never thought about that EVER in almost 32 years, with all my focus going to forgiving my father and sisters. But forgiving my mother is equally important, and I was finally able to do that in my heart yesterday.

People say that VONA is life-changing, but I sort of thought they were full of sh*t, or at least way more touchy-feely than I will ever be. But VONA did more for me when I got home than it did the week I was there, and that is incredible.

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Renowned poet Patricia Smith and students shaking us up with a heart-wrenching poem about children’s concept of death. #blacklivesmatter

Happy Father’s Day, Jesus!

For today’s post, I will lead you to an essay I wrote and published on Medium. Please click to read! Father’s Day has always been a tough nugget for me, and, truth be told, the one holiday that’s passed since my father passed away in late 2015 was a little easier. We’ll see how I do this year.

But, on Sunday, I head to Philadelphia for the Voices of Our Nation summer writing workshop, about which I am THRILLED. If you don’t see a blog post from me next week, it’s because I’m overwhelmed and delighted by the goings-on of the workshop. Have a great week, and Happy Father’s Day, dads!

How I Survived My College Reunion

Sometime last year, after reading sensationalized, click-bait style essays on Thought Catalog and XOJane, I drafted my own, which I titled, “Going to Georgetown ruined my relationship with my family.” Which isn’t true.

This past weekend was my 10-year college reunion. Since I now live in DC, I took the bus or a Lyft to the tent parties held on campus to see people I hadn’t seen in that many years, or more. I was anxious to the point of abdominal bloating, which is really not helpful when you want to show off all the time you’ve spent holding minute-long planks over the past couple of years.

And those who know me even an iota know that I did not enjoy my time at Georgetown while I was there (the first or the second time). Undergrad was, by far, the hardest four years of my life, due to a bunch of factors, but mostly academic rigor that I wasn’t used to and socioeconomic weirdness.

The moment I stepped onto campus in August 2003, I knew that I was different from damn near everyone else there. I was poor. I was raised by my mom with little contact from my dad by the time I went to college. I would have to work while I was in school. I would not travel for spring break. I shopped at the Gap, not BCBG, and I only bought things on clearance because I couldn’t afford even sale prices. On top of that, I was Black.

The combination of everything I listed in the previous paragraph made me feel like the elephant in every single room I entered (though not physically: white girls still complimented me on how skinny I was, something that had been happening to me since eighth grade, and something that Black girls virtually never did or do). I was uncomfortable to a magnitude I didn’t know was possible for four years straight.

BUT.

I would do it all over again. Every single anxiety-ridden, self-questioning moment.

Why?

Because I was finally outside of my comfort zone, in a place where I had figure out who I was and where I wanted to belong because no one was there to tell me.

I was put off by the preppy lifestyle because I didn’t have the money to sustain it and it felt inauthentic, even in those who lived it every day of their lives. It seemed that most of them were hiding something; nothing crazy, most likely just dissatisfaction or unhappiness of some kind, neither of which I wanted. They were also not attracted to me, likely because we had so little in common.

I didn’t really fit in with many of the Black students in my class, either, though I’d been struggling with that since elementary school. In college, I was too conservative and not militant enough and had put my ‘hood roots safely behind me in my personal history book. Rather than aiming to be as “black” as possible, I decided to do and believe what felt right to me, and that definitely caused some friction.

I found that I fit in with the people I’d always fit in with: the misfits. The theater kids, the international students who were venturing to America for the first time, the Christians who drank and partied and loved Jesus with all their hearts, the girls who had never had boyfriends, the boys who were trying to figure out if they liked girls or not, the literary bunch, the Library kids.

But the kids I wasn’t friends with influenced me powerfully. From them, I learned about Earl Grey tea, the Parisian department store Printemps, art history, and how to become an investor. Obviously, these new things were the ones that stood out most when I went home to North Carolina. Asking for a cup of Twinings Earl Grey in a house that only has Lipton can be awkward, as with any growing pain.

Georgetown helped expand my world, literally when it afforded me the opportunity to study abroad in the UK, and figuratively. It made me aware that I am a global citizen, not just one of my city, state, and country. When I thought I was being quartered, I was really just being stretched so I could reach beyond boundaries of differences with empathy. I am who I am, and I am a better version of who I am, because of Georgetown, and for that, I am eternally grateful.

I was anxious that I would be seen as a Wall Street failure who got an MBA, but left the industry and had time to write a book since she’s kept by her corporate lawyer husband. But more than one of my classmates told me that I was “impressive” for having written a book. They said that they were proud that I was in their class, representing them well. I was blown away by their positivity and encouragement. I know I’m not supposed to need validation, but, hey, I’m a Millennial and I need a bone thrown sometimes. It made me feel good to know that I had done something that even I wasn’t sure I could do, and that my classmates respected me for it. I just hope not to let them, or more importantly, myself, down as my editing and publishing journey resumes.

 

There’s no place like home.

But, for the next two weeks, I’m on break. I’m letting my memoir breathe, as we writers say; that is, I’m allowing myself some mental distance from my manuscript so I’ll be able to edit it with a more objective eye. I’ll still be writing, but I’m going to catch up on reading and journaling, and try to do as much of nothing as I can. We’ll see about that.

Writing Wins (!)

This was a rare whirlwind of wins for me this week, and I just wanted to celebrate!

Memoir: I started editing my book!

If you might recall, several weeks ago, I met with a few literary agents who expressed interest in my memoir. One of them wanted me to send the first 20 pages of my manuscript and a synopsis. Well, this week I busted out a 600-word synopsis (for which I am now seeking feedback) and started macro-editing the first 20 pages. I used the book The Artful Edit by Susan Bell to get me started, and it has been so helpful, mostly in getting me to ensure that every sentence I include in my book is there on purpose.

Publishing: I was published in The Billfold!

I am in my second class with the delightful Michele Filgate, who I took for Creative Nonfiction online at Sackett Street and now freelancing at Catapult. When I submitted an essay to my class about my quest for financial security is in conflict with my life as a writer, Michele suggested that I pitch it to The Billfold. I did, thinking I wouldn’t even get a response, but I did, and my essay ran this past Friday! It’s gotten 66 recommends (!!!) and so many positive comments, I am really overwhelmed by how well-received it’s been! I mean, I guess the way I feel about people reading my work is a blogpost or essay in itself, but it is just crazy – I am so touched at the number of people who have said I’ve touched them!

Conference: I was accepted to the VQR Writers’ Conference!

Since my friend Lauren told me about summer writing workshops, I wanted to get my feet as wet as I could. Praise the Lord, I was accepted to VONA, which I was toppled over by, and then I was accepted to VQR on top of that, so I’m just outdone. Of course I’m looking forward to the instruction and networking, I’m honored that I was chosen to take part in these programs. I know they both get a lot of applicants, so it means the world to me that they thought I was worthy to be among them.

Talk about a winning week! I feel super boosted as a writer, and it has come at the right time: I’m approaching the 1-year mark of having resigned from my job in NYC, so I’m glad I’ve had some successes to make me question myself and my decision ever so slightly less. 🙂