Friday, January 6, 2023

2020 in (the) books

Hitting "publish" on a few older posts that have been sitting, mostly complete, in my drafts. Originally wrote this at the end of 2020.

Ever since I finished graduate school in May 2019, I've been on a reading bender. I turned in my final paper and was thrilled to have evening and weekend hours back. In between looking for jobs, I read by the pool in Cambridge, savoring the long summer days with no homework. After we moved, I read on the couch in Cleveland, savoring the quiet that came from living in a city where I knew almost no one instead of in the action-packed fish bowl of graduate school.

And then I moved across the world from my friends and family. Among the expats in Monrovia, it's practically a requirement for your residency permit that you go to the beach on Sunday. When you have friends, you go with your friends. But for the first few weeks I was there, I did not have friends, so I went with my Kindle. I'd get a couple beers and cycle through a few books between dips in the ocean.

Then Covid hit and I went into lockdown in a church apartment. Turns out that being across the ocean from everyone you know during a global pandemic will do wonders for your reading time. For three months I was alone almost all the time. I read in bed on slow weekend mornings. I read on the back porch with a Club beer and a selection of different flavors of Pringles (which I would refer to as a charcuterie board) as the sun set.

I emerged from quarantine and made friends and, to my absolute joy, discovered that one of their main leisure activities was going to the beach or pool, playing a few rounds of Quirkle or Rummikub, and then settling in with books and beers. So I maintained my reading pace and finished the year having read 36 books - well above my original goal of 20 and even my updated goal of 30 books.


Falling back in love with reading has been nothing short of magic. Finishing grad school had a lot to do with it. But I had that "school's out forever!" experience when I finished undergrad, too, and I didn't tear through books at the rate I did in 2020 - between college and grad school, I read just about 12 books a year.

I am not totally sure why my reading "base pace" has increased so much. Other than just having more time, there have been a few other game-changers. For my 30th birthday, I bought myself a Kindle Paperwhite and find it very enjoyable to use. Even better, I used Overdrive to hook it up to the library. The library system was good in Cambridge, but fantastic in Cleveland- I can get most Kindle books in a matter of days rather than weeks. My favorite game is to check out a bunch of ebooks, load them onto my Kindle, and turn it on airplane mode so they don't get deleted off my Kindle but someone else can still take them out from the library. 

Social media has been a big factor too. Goodreads has become by far my favorite social media platform- I've added so much to my list based on what my friends and Roxane Gay are reading. I joined a reading group on Facebook, run by a small scale influencer I follow on Instagram. I feel like I see more books on my Instagram feed than I did a few years ago. All together, I feel like I'm more conscious of both buzzy new releases and older books I've been meaning to catch up on, which has increased my motivation to keep reading. 

I read a lot of great books in 2020, but a few stand out as favorites.

The Glass Hotel. Station Eleven is one of my all-time favorites so I was excited for this. I think I just love St. John Mandel's storytelling. The plot in this is sort of random, but she can sure spin a yarn. 

Trick Mirror. I loved this one. Interesting insights on barre, weddings, social media and more. I found myself referencing this in conversations for months afterwards. I did feel like Tolentino didn't always totally conclude an argument before moving onto the next one, but maybe I'm too dumb.

The Dutch House. I heard a podcaster say "whenever I pick up an Ann Patchett book, I know I'm in good hands as a reader" and that's exactly how I felt about this. This is one of those wonderful books that doesn't have a lot of "plot" but still feels so rich. The phrase that came to mind when I finished this was "rich world-building" which is usually something you'd say about an epic fantasy novel- but here it's the world of two siblings that feels fully fleshed out and inhabited.

Little Fires Everywhere. As a newly-minted resident of the Land, I adored the Cleveland references but think I would have loved this one regardless. Nuanced and interesting story about motherhood and the allure of other people's lives and families.

Heating and Cooling. 52 micro-memoirs that literally had me crying on one page and laughing on the next. Now that I'm back in the US, I bought a hard copy of this and plan to re-read it once a year.

Stories of Your Life. I read this because I loved the movie Arrival, and the story it's based on was just as amazing. I liked some stories more than others, but am blown away by Chiang's ability to create a totally different world inside of each one.

Homegoing. This was the perfect combination of literary and page-turning- I curled up in bed every night excited for it. I loved how the chapters stood on their own - almost like short stories - but with threads and themes woven through the generations. (Fun fact, I usually glance at the jacket/synopsis when I add something to my TBR pile, but never re-read it when I actually pick up the book... so I was blown away in the second chapter when I realized the characters were related... which is literally the whole premise of the novel.)

She Would Be King. I loved this for the dive into the founding of Liberia and for some great writing. I read this early in my time in Liberia and got a kick out of the fact that I recognized some of the geographic and cultural references.

Saturday, August 7, 2021

I want to remember: Liberia

I want to remember how music from the church filtered into my days when I lived on 9th street. It was too loud and too frequent, but I definitely ended up singing along to some bangers and it came to feel like home.

I want to remember my lockdown routines. Eating dinner on the back porch and watching Friday Night Lights, then coming in to wash dishes while listening to music from the aughts. Drinking a beer, eating Pringles, and reading a book at 6 o'clock on weekends. Dropping what I was doing to do barre3 classes when they started on Instagram live.

I want to remember the flow state that I sometimes got into when coding in Stata or programming surveys in SurveyCTO. I went from feeling like an imposter to a "technical influencer" to a genuine resource for other staff in my office on survey and data questions.

I want to remember how nervous I was at the start about whether I would be able to pull off the survey, and how nonstop I worked when we were preparing to launch.

I want to remember seeing storms roll in across the ocean.

I want to remember becoming a connoisseur of sunsets and how I could tell when it was going to be a great one.

I want to remember watching the water and how it changed from hour to hour and from day to day. I feel so lucky that I got to see the ocean every day (with literally just a small handful of exceptions) for a year and a half. 

I want to remember coming back from hot, stressful workdays in October and November - when we were trying to launch the survey and weren't allowed to use fans in the office - and jumping in the pool and just washing the entire day off. 

I want to remember family dinners and the joy of sitting down together around the table after helping (or "helping") to cook.

I want to remember beering the margs.

I want to remember coming over the last hill in Robertsport and seeing the ocean and how even though it happened about once a month, it made me giddy with happiness every time.

I want to remember arriving at the beach on Sunday and how even though we went once a week, it made me giddy with happiness every time.

I want to remember the joy of coming back from a weekend at the beach or a trip to the beach in a neighboring country and... still being at the beach.

I want to remember the relief I felt when preliminary results started coming in and making clear that I hadn't messed up the survey.

I want to remember the jokes. I don't know if I've ever had as many laughs per minute as I've had here. 

I want to remember stopping for Korean on the way back from Robertsport: sunburned, dirty, slap-happy, and ravenous for pork and bibimbap.

I want to remember bobbing in the ocean and making jokes.

I want to remember the Sunday routine: stopping at Kaldi's for coffee and croissants. Driving out to the beach. Swimming, chatting, reading a book, drinking a beer, playing Rummikub, eating lunch. Home for a face mask and a call to my parents.

I want to remember the Mohammeds, our Guinean drivers who brought us on so many adventures and tolerated us (and our music) so kindly. Who knew our names and didn't need to be told where we were going, just who we were picking up (and even that they could usually guess). 

I want to remember the ten-second calls to Mohammed to arrange a car and his three-second call when the driver arrived: "Yeah he's there" or "Yeah ousside." I normally hate talking on the phone. But I think about going home and calling an Uber and getting sent someone I've never seen before and will never see again and I get a little sad.

I want to remember the public taxi rides, where everyone greeted each other good morning, debated teh political news of the day, and was instantly on the side of the driver against anyone else on the road who may have wronged us.

I want to remember grilled staffed fish, oregano grilled wraps, potato greens, and sushi pizza.

I want to remember driving at 90 down those country lanes.

I want to remember the music of Liberian English. The "eh-HEH." The "ehyouknow." The "thank you ya." The "Ah!" The o's at the end of sentences.

I want to remember my colleagues- the jokes we shared, the kindness they showed me (especially when I was alone during lockdown), and what we were able to accomplish together.

I want to remember the feeling of community. Of spontaneously popping downstairs to eat dinner or watch a few episodes of something. Of playing Ligretto or Ticket to Ride and drinking wine and processing our workdays. Of running into friends or the Mohammeds when out and about.

I want to remember stopping for a coconut at every chance I had and how it made daily life feel like a tropical vacation.

I want to remember monitoring the survey in the field and racking up a fantastic step count, getting to experience parts of Monrovia that I would not have otherwise, winding through crowded markets trying not to knock produce off anyone's head, the field staff worrying about me getting lost or sunburnt. 

I want to remember keke rides to drop off lappa at Michelle's tailoring shop or to buy produce on Benson Street.

I want to remember the rolling hills on the drive to Nimba and the joy of seeing mountains again.

I want to remember the lush green - the palm trees and banana trees and so much more foliage that I don't know the names for.

I want to remember stepping out on the balcony or walking home from work or popping up for air during a swim and breathing in the salty ocean air.

I want to remember the sights and sounds of daily life in Liberia. The motorbike drivers with their snazzy jackets and the extra long umbrellas during rainy season. The guys selling fuel and gas out of mason jars by the side of the road. Folks playing checkers under a tree or drinking beers in a bar. Haircuts and manicures happening in open-air shops. Drivers washing their motorbikes and kekes on the weekend. The guys with megaphones walking down the street: "Orange data, Lonestar data. Orange minutes, Lonestar minutes. Rechaaaaarge your phone." The guys with a handful of chickens hanging by their feet.

I want to remember the joy of getting to do something I'd long dreamed of.

I want to remember how happy I was here. My life in Liberia had three key ingredients: a sense of community, challenging and meaningful work, and the novelty of living abroad among the unexpected. How lucky I am to have found that.

Photos are favorites from the last few months. All are mine except for the sixth and last, which were taken by my friend Erik Jorgensen, and whoever self-timered that big group shot.

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

At 30

For a while, there was one moment in my life that I pinpointed as the happiest. I was a senior in high school, driving home from a party with a couple of my best friends. We were listening to Comptine d'un autre été from the Amélie soundtrack, and as we drove, I could see the moon through the sunroof, disappearing and reappearing from the trees above. I felt enshrouded in friendship and deeply content.

Shortly after I graduated from college, I was driving back from Baltimore to DC on a sunny day, feeling content, when I flashed back to that earlier drive, that formerly happiest moment. "Wow," I thought. "I had no idea then how much better it would get."

I had had many happiest moments between those two, but I wasn't thinking of any in particular. I wasn't at a particular pinnacle - I was still flopping around and applying to jobs. The party the night before and the brunch that morning had been fun, but not life-changing - so why was I so happy?

On one level, it was just the basic pleasure of adulthood (a Bloody Mary, yelling above the music as I was introduced to new people). But underneath that was the even greater pleasure of autonomy. The realization, as I drove, that I was steering the ship that had brought me to this moment.


The story of my 20s has been the story of learning how to choose.

In my senior year of college, while I was writing my thesis and trying not to think about what I would do after graduation, my procrastination method of choice was to read Mormon mommy blogs, which were in their heyday at the time. (Because everything on the Internet exists forever, it was this article that led me to my favorites.)

The bloggers' lives seemed... easy. Not just because they didn't need to write a thesis or find a job, but because their belief system made clear which path they should value and pursue - marriage and motherhood. They didn't really have to choose. There was a clear metric by which they could succeed. I didn't actually want to get married or have kids right out of college, and I knew intellectually that a life with fewer choices was not something to envy - but I was jealous of what seemed like a simpler path.

I hated choosing. In my senior year of high school, I agonized over where to go to college - to the point that I stood at the post office on the day of the deadline with two envelopes in hand. There was a ton of tears and suffering for everyone around me. (I remember sobbing to my college counselor: "this is going to affect who I marry!") My life up till then had been all possibility and few real choices. It was the first time I could see the paths branching ahead of me and realized going down one meant losing all the possibilities of the others.

In my early 20s, as I worked at my first real job and jetted between DC and North Africa and found my first real hobbies and worried about what I should do for grad school, there was a trail of bread crumbs. A sermon from Reverend Hardies at All Souls Unitarian about choice - the first time I'd heard a religious leader speak about "choice" without meaning "abortion." A poster I bought with the Harry Potter quote "It is our choices that define us far more than our abilities." A spirituality retreat at my alma mater where a nun spoke about developing our "choicefulness."

In 2015, I decorated a card every day and I applied to PhD programs. The cards came to include a number of pep talks and mantras as I worked through that overwhelming process. One of my favorites read "learn to let the future excite and not terrify you," which felt like a tall order at the time. How could I choose one out of so many possible paths?

And then I got rejected from most of the programs I applied to. It felt like my most spectacular failure to date. But while disappointing, it was also a turning point. I had tried something and it hadn't worked - but life had gone on and now I had an opportunity to try something new. The future started to excite me a little more and terrify me a little less.


Since then, I choose to defer grad school and instead headed to southern Turkey to work on democracy programs in Syria, while my boyfriend started law school in Cambridge. I chose to pursue a Masters in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School and to spend a summer interning in agricultural development in Bangladesh. I chose to get excited about living in Cleveland but to go on an adventure in Liberia first.

And along the way, I have become more choiceful. I have developed a much greater ability to check with my gut on what I want to do. I have learned that if something is not the right fit, I can backtrack and pivot - decisions are rarely final. And I have realized that none of the paths branching in front of me is necessarily better or worse than the others - each offers its own adventure. (I mean, I'm sure one of the million paths leads to a Nobel Prize and another leads to destitution, but you know what I mean.)

It has helped that as you get older, the paths naturally get winnowed down. And decisions still stress me out, probably more than most people. (Just ask any of the ten people with whom I consulted about whether to evacuate Liberia during the pandemic.) But alongside the stress, there is the thrill of charting my own course. And so far, life keeps getting better and better. It keeps rolling right on.

I think back on all the experiences I've had over the last ten years - things I couldn't have imagined at 20 - and I get excited about all the future happenings I can't imagine today, all the different twists and turns my path may take, all the different experiences my life can expand to include. 

Steering this ship feels scary at times. But - much more than Bloody Marys or international travel - it is also far more fulfilling than I had imagined.