On Gratitude

Oh, I have been such a brat.

Over the past year, I’ve frequently lamented – both to myself and to similarly-aged friends – the fact that 25 doesn’t look anything like I thought it would. That part’s true; it really doesn’t. I am not on the road to financial security. I am not approaching the on-ramp to that road. I can’t even see the sign for that road. I am not settled in a city I love, or jetsetting all over the world. I am not donning cute shoes every day and heading to a job at a major publication with a famous name.

The other thing I’ve said, more than once, is that 20-year-old me would be so disappointed by what 25 actually turned out to look like. My journalism degree is from a private university in New York City. Many of my classmates are in national newsrooms, and I have watched their career successes play out on Facebook with envy. I’ve been disappointed in myself, embarrassed by where I am, or where I’m not. But, as I mentioned, 20-year-old me was a total brat, and, it turns out, so am I. Here’s why.

Every year I enter the Society of Professional Journalists’ contest, both because I like to win things and because my entry fees support an organization I like and respect. This year, I’ll be entering one story in the Magazine Feature category, and today I tried to narrow down my submission choices. When I started going through my work from 2015, I realized it was a great opportunity to finally put it all in one place. That place is my new Recent Work page, which you are definitely invited to check out. And as I was flipping magazine pages and creating hyperlinks, a realization hit me like a ton of bricks.

I had an amazing year. I mean really, truly spectacular.

That is not meant as a boast. Yes, there is a lot of writing in those pages that I am seriously proud of, but that’s not what made it great. It was the things I got to see, and the places I got to go. It was the stories, and more importantly, the people, that have filled the last year with an immense amount of wonder.

In January, I strolled the grounds of a Zen Buddhist monastery with Seijaku Roshi, having a fascinating conversation about personhood. Ultimately, none of it went in the story, but I was offered a deeper understanding of the world around me, and my place in it.

That same month, I sat in the living room of Brenda Antinore, a steel-edged saint of a woman who is singlehandedly saving lives by just treating people like people, and on the couches of six World War II veterans who made me tea and made me laugh, recited poetry, and remembered things they did not want to remember, because I asked them to.

I also met Janet Colbert. When, after more than two decades as an oncology nurse, Janet got terminal cancer of her own, she became an outspoken supporter of the “Aid in Dying for the Terminally Ill Act.” Our interview was more than an hour long, and she was so open, and direct, and damn funny. In September, when I got an email that said Janet had died, I thought about that. A woman who knew she had terrifyingly few hours left gave one of them to me. She did it so I could help her explain why she wanted the right to decide what her death would look like. The selflessness of that is staggering, because all the while she knew that bill would not pass in time to help her. But she wasn’t doing it for herself.

Over the summer, I visited Camden’s first legal distillery. I sipped whiskey from the barrel at 11 am and took my time getting back to the office. I visited the Palace of Depression, where every inch of ceiling, wall, and floor feels like its own story. I flew in a six-seat plane from New Jersey to Boston, where we picked up 3-year-old Ethan and his mother. Ethan was born deaf, but a brain stem implant – and the free “Angel Flights” between the hospital and his home in Allentown – had just enabled him to speak his first words. On the way home, I got to sit in the copilot’s seat, and watch the lights of a tiny runway come rushing up out of the dark. I climbed into a giant hole in the ground behind a Lowes and watched a world class paleontologist uncover fossils that just might turn out to be one of the most important discoveries of my generation or the next. I sat next to an NFL star in a tent while he hunted turkeys at dawn. I visited a women’s prison and listened while inmates recorded bedtime stories for their children. The world’s foremost authority on tracking showed me how to tell a raccoon’s print from a squirrel’s.

It was awesome. All of it.

Those experiences all turned into stories, mostly accompanied by beautiful photography by David Michael Howarth, whom I am continually honored to work with. But in every one of those stories, there were things I didn’t – or couldn’t – put into words. Like the way Peggy Lloyd, a joyful, 102-year-old firecracker of a lady, all but ran up the narrow stairs in her beach house, pulling me by the hand. I couldn’t write the way I felt when I saw the beautifully appointed bedrooms in that big house, packed with the memories of a life well-lived, but empty of people to share them with.

I couldn’t write the way Mary Previte, the child of missionaries who was imprisoned in, and then liberated from, a Japanese concentration camp in WWII China, poured oolong from her proper tea set with such easy grace, despite the fact that her right arm ends at the elbow.

There was no way to write the feeling in the pit of my stomach when the voice of Buzz Aldrin’s young assistant took on that tone of impatience we are all guilty of using with the older people in our lives, when we forget that intellect does not rust along with joints. Nor could I express the leaping of my heart when Buzz became, for just a fleeting moment, an ageless commander who certainly was not going to take that little twerp’s shit.

All those things I couldn’t write, I get to keep.

How could I have thought, for a single second, that what I do is not fulfilling? That the work I’ve done is somehow less important because it wasn’t read by hundreds of thousands of people? Maybe I’ll eventually find myself in a big newsroom, with an updated wardrobe and a savings account. Maybe that would be great. But today, right now, I am overwhelmed by gratitude for exactly where I am.

I am so lucky. I mean almost heinously lucky. I get to do the very thing I dreamed of doing as a little girl. So 20-year-old me can go to hell, because 10-year-old me is so damn proud. I have the coolest job, and – in the immortal words of a personal hero – it sure beats working for a living.