5 Lessons from 5 Years of Freelancing

Every month, I pay my bills with dollars earned through my computer keyboard. Five years after leaping into the unknown — quitting my full-time job to move to Colorado — an experiment in freelancing has turned into a modestly successful writing and editing business.

Over the last few years, I’ve written marketing content for a variety of organizations: edtech, nonprofits, grant-making foundations, higher ed institutions, health tech, fitness, sustainability startups. I’ve reported on local policies and infrastructure (something I never imagined I’d be so fascinated by). I’ve introduced myself to complete strangers and seen those relationships lead to interesting projects. There’s work I’ve loved, work I’ve hated, and a lot in between.

Somewhere along the way, freelancing got not easy, but easier.

Clients returned for more of my services. Or recommended me to colleagues. Or tried to hire me full-time (no, but thanks for the compliment). And from my little basement apartment, I’ve kept writing and editing away.

To celebrate my five-year anniversary of freelancing, I decided to share five of the many lessons I’ve learned so far.

If you’re a fellow freelancer or thinking about diving in, I hope you find these lessons helpful. Freelancing is not easy and it’s not for everyone, but it can be done. It just requires self-discipline, some long-term thinking, and patience as you do your part. (A little luck can’t hurt either.)

Lesson 1: Work comes through relationships.

This year, most of my work has come through clients from previous years:

  • An agency I did random editing for recommended me to a startup that didn’t have the budget to work with them.
  • A nonprofit I edited for a few times over a year ago recommended me to another nonprofit for writing work.
  • An editor I worked with at a local publication approached me for an assignment at her new job.
  • An edtech company specifically asked to work with me because a company I worked with last year recommended me.

I’d heard from other freelancers that most of their work came through referrals, but this might be the first year that’s true for me. In the meantime, I’m still seeking to work with entirely brand-new-to-me clients because I like to do different things, work in different industries, and meet new people.

So if you’re just starting out or you’re a few years into freelancing and struggling to get work: Pour into existing relationships and introduce yourself to strangers.

If asking a total stranger out to coffee sounds awkward, think of it as meeting someone who’s interested in the same things as you: good content, engrossing storytelling, creative copy. You’re there to talk shop … and raise your hand for any freelance opportunities they might have.

For your existing client relationships, show up with your best and tell them about the other services you offer or types of projects you’re interested in. Don’t overthink this. A quick “by the way” in your next email can do the job. You may not get another project from them right away, but if they’re happy with your work and enjoy working with you, chances are they’ll want to work with you again.

Lesson 2: Run your business based on your goals.

It seems like freelancing internet is obsessed with making six figures. I, personally, am not interested.

I mean, if someone wants to hand me $100k (in a legitimate, totally not illegal way), I would accept it. But money for me is a tool that enables me to pay the bills and live my life. At a certain point, I’d skip the money so I can spend more time reading or writing for myself or embroidering or gardening or hiking or … literally anything other than working.

My goals for freelancing are not to make a fortune, but to maintain my freedom. I like owning my time. I like having the independence to turn down projects that I have ethical or moral problems with — or that are just plain boring. I like having time to pursue my own ideas, research what I’m interested in, and (slowwwwwly) work on my book proposal and eventual book.

I know how much I need to cover my expenses, put money away for retirement, save, give, and have some fun cushion. As a single, healthy, non-spendy, almost 30-something woman with no dependents, that number is fairly low.

What about you, fellow freelancer? What are your personal goals or reasons for freelancing? Money is a reality but it’s not everything. Is there something you want to accomplish creatively or professionally that the freedom of freelancing can help you achieve? Don’t get caught up in six figures talk if that’s not your goal.

Lesson 3: Put your personal projects first.

I’ve found whenever I’m getting annoyed or frustrated or bored with freelancing, working on my own projects is a fail-proof cure. Sure, my client work may still get on my nerves (this isn’t always the case, I promise!), but at least I’m feeling fulfilled in another area.

My first year freelancing, I started a blog about CrossFit in the Denver metro. The project, Denver Box Life, kept me interviewing and writing stories when I wasn’t landing any pitches and was making subsistence-level freelance income. I did a story each month, ran an Instagram and Facebook page for the blog, and drove all around Denver doing interviews. It was fun, introduced me to the area, and gave me more story samples when I pitched publications.

This year, I’ve been starting my work days with research for my book idea. I have a shelf in the living room where my research stack lives. Every morning, I sit in my purple suede bucket chair, grab the book I’m currently reading, and spend anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour absorbing as much information as possible (plus, taking notes and marking pages with endless stickies). It’s my favorite part of the day. Before I even glance at my email, I’ve accomplished something.

How do you do this if you’re not breaking even with your freelance income?

The answer depends on your responsibilities and needs. And whether or not you have savings to fall back on.

Be responsible about this. If you don’t have savings or if you have a family to provide for, you have to close that dollar-sized gap ASAP. Maybe you do this through freelancing, maybe you pick up a catering job like I did my first winter. Do what you have to do, but as soon as you can, prioritize your personal projects.

Why? Because freelancing, especially in the beginning, can be demoralizing — and working on your own thing can provide a sense of achievement or forward momentum when you’re not landing pitches or PLACE FREELANCE DREAM HERE. If you’re going to maintain creative sanity, you need to prioritize your own projects.

This also means you need to have your own projects.

If your freelancing goal is entirely dependent on other people commissioning you for projects, commission yourself for a project. I’m serious. The idea is to keep the object (that is, your creativity) in motion so that:

a) you maintain your creative sanity and

b) when you do land that pitch or FREELANCE DREAM OF CHOICE, you’re not so rusty and out of practice that the dream becomes a nightmare. =)

Lesson 4: Limit social media access during your working hours.

This one is really obvious, but: use a tool like BlockSite to keep you off social media during your primary working hours.

At the beginning of this year, I established a new rule that, with the exception of LinkedIn, I wasn’t allowed on any social media until after 4 p.m. on workdays. It’s wild how much more productive — not to mention, focused — I’ve been this year because of that one simple rule.

I used to get most of my work done between 2 and 6 p.m. because I spent so much time scrolling or checking notifications in the morning and midday. Now, when I follow the rule (which I do most days), I finish most of my work before 4, take a break to look at all the platforms, and then finish up the last bit of work. I’m less distracted and I waste less time re-training my attention on the task at hand.

Lesson 5: Be generous with breaks, especially if you’re stuck on a project.

Lunch breaks. Walking breaks. Nap breaks. Mid-afternoon dance breaks. All of these — and more — are absolutely acceptable. And they’ll support your productivity.

I’m a case study for all of the above. Most days, I take a lunch break of at least 30 minutes, usually longer. I listen to a podcast while making and eating my lunch, and when I’m done eating, continue listening. Sometimes I pick up a craft project or a deck of cards to keep my hands busy. Sometimes I just listen. Then I return to my desk.

Walking breaks I haven’t done in a while, but became the norm mid-pandemic and I’ll likely reinstitute them as the days grow shorter again so, you know, I don’t forget the sun.

Naps are pretty self-explanatory. Don’t overdo it with these, but if your body is tired, give it rest.

Mid-afternoon dance breaks — or their less time-consuming cousin, pushup breaks — are a way for me to release some excess energy when I really need to get things done but am too antsy to focus. They are also a great way to celebrate new assignments or getting edits back that are more complimentary than scathing.

That’s five lessons.

I’ll be honest: There are still days (weeks, months) when I wonder why I’m doing what I’m doing. Freelancing is hard. I miss the collaborative environment of the office. I miss coworker relationships and marketing department hijinks.

But with my limited time and energy, I can see freelancing helping me toward my long-term goals. And these lessons have helped me gradually build a still-evolving business that can support me as I pursue those achievable dreams.

Do you have freelancing lessons to share? I’d love to hear them!

12 Things I’m Taking from 2021

For the second year in a row, I’m looking back on a calendar year with a lens of gratitude. 2021 had its fair share of challenges, but there are many things I’m thankful for. Here’s what I’m holding onto for the new year.

1. My second handmade sweater

About this time 12 months ago, I shared that I was knitting my first sweater, a striped, chunky, ugly thing I’d decided I’d probably never wear in public. Well, I finished that project in early 2021 and this past August, donated it to Arc Thrift Stores (who knows who’s wearing it now!), but that horrendous piece was not the end of my sweater knitting journey. This fall, I started another with my favorite purple yarn and a pattern I’d saved.

Despite yarn and dye lot misadventures, I finished it in about five weeks, and I now have the thickest, warmest, and hopefully not the itchiest wool-acrylic blend sweater that is really only appropriate for days like today when it’s 15 degrees outside.

This project lit a spark in me to learn new skills, specifically in knitting. I learned a new way to cast on (my cast-on method was part of why my first sweater turned out poorly), how to pick up underarm stitches in a way that makes armpit holes less likely, and … I think there was another skill but I can’t remember it at the moment. Since finishing the sweater, I’ve been practicing new stitch textures for a stashbuster blanket and I joined an Advent knitalong (that I’m way behind on) to practice colorwork knitting. More cozy knits to come!

2. Beets and beet greens

It’s always good to add more vegetables to your diet, and earlier this year, I found out beets can help alleviate menstrual symptoms, so I grabbed some yellow beets from the grocery store and tried them out. They are now one of my absolute favorites. I like them boiled or sautéed. They taste like a sweet carrot, except I don’t like carrots cooked. In the last month, I decided to see if the greens are good for anything and turns out — they are. The sources I’ve found online recommend cooking them, so I’ve sautéed them and scrambled a couple eggs with them. Way better than eggs and spinach.

3. New nerdy friends

Thanks to random Facebook groups and a church ladies ice cream social, I made two unexpected friends this year. One, Sarah, is a fellow freelancer who’s focusing on science journalism and audio stories. She recently had a story on America’s Test Kitchen’s “Proof” podcast about lobsters and marijuana and sentience. My other new friend, Teresa, is in the last stretch of pursuing her PhD in epidemiology. She bikes everywhere, hikes like it’s her job, eats whole carrots straight from the bag, and gives her friends superlatives: my most delightful friend, my most musical friend, etc. Sarah and I are now accountability buddies for pitching story ideas, and Teresa smoked me on an early morning Labor Day hike that left me sore for a week.

4. B.S.

Stands for: Bible study.

Most weeks through the fall, Teresa would text me and a couple other women about “BS” at her place on Thursday evening. For the first time in my adult life, at age 29, I’m in a Bible study with peers and I am lov.ing.it. We started off with the book of Jonah (capstoned with VeggieTales Jonah, which we do not recommend) and now we’re in the book of Acts. Every week that we meet, I come away with new insights and varying levels of brain explosions about what we’ve learned and the connections we made. For example: Acts 2, Pentecost. Never before did I know that Pentecost was a Jewish festival. That’s why the apostles were all gathered together in a place where a bunch of other Jews from different places were and could see and hear them speaking in tongues. We took a BS break for the holidays but I can’t wait for our restart in January. This has been the highlight of the last three months.

5. The Mary Tyler Moore Show

When my roommate took to the road this past April, I took to Hulu and started watching The Mary Tyler Moore Show, a sitcom from the 70s that follows Mary Richards, a single 30-something woman who works at a local TV news station and has, in my opinion, the absolute best TV apartment. Along with relating to the main character (I’m not 30 yet but I’ve been 35 at heart since I was about 15), I enjoy the humor of the show. The puns and banter and witty comebacks, the situational comedy, all puts to shame modern shows like New Girl or even Friends and Seinfeld. My favorite character is Rhoda, who disappears a few seasons in because her character apparently got married (classic), at which point the show spends more time at Mary’s workplace WJM-TV. One of the details that cracks me up: every season, Mary’s hairstyle changes. It starts off long in the first season, and every season after that it gets consistently shorter and fluffier. You can practically see the 80s on the horizon.

6. Reading massive biographies

I mentioned this in my books post, but this year, I read the first volume of a three-volume biography of Eleanor Roosevelt. Along with learning a lot about ER, I also learned a lot about the times of her life. One observation: We’ve been having the same political arguments for 100 years. So much of today’s political turmoil and debates are a carbon copy of what was happening in the 1920s. You’d expect the racism, but also the arguments about universal healthcare and social security, housing and homelessness, the kneejerk labeling of things as “Marxist” or “socialist” or “communist” rather than actually engaging with the ideas. Biographies are interesting because they’re about people, you get to see how an individual interacted with the events and ideas of their time. These bigger picture insights are an interesting, and I’d say useful, bonus.

7. Solo summer vacations

This past July, I took my first weeklong summer vacation as a full-time freelancer. I went to western Colorado, stayed in Montrose a few days, visited Black Canyon of the Gunnison — a veritable jawdropper at every turn — and spent another few days in Paonia. It was a lot of alone time, but it was time I needed to rest and refresh and enjoy the outdoors. If you have any recommendations of where I should go this year, particularly of places within a day’s drive of Denver, let me know! (I highly recommend Black Canyon of the Gunnison. It’s amazing.)

8. Lateral and single-leg movements in workouts

Curtsy lunges, single-leg Romanian deadlifts, Bulgarian split squats. These movements have all become regular parts of my typical workouts, thanks to my knee injury of 2020 and my past hip/sacroiliac joint issues. In addition to strengthening every muscle from my feet to my hips, these movements have drastically improved my balance and stability when hiking, running, and walking. Bulgarian split squats are my absolute favorite, even though I tend to take them a little too far (case in point, I’m still sore from the 70 total reps I did on Monday of this week with 20-pound dumbbells in my hands).

9. Not one but TWO kettlebells

I didn’t rejoin the gym until mid-October, so most of 2021, my workouts were limited by what scant equipment I have at home. At some point, I think in the spring, I found a 35-pound kettlebell with free shipping — a huge save since shipping generally costs at least as much as the equipment weighs. Then, for my birthday, my former roommate got me another kettlebell of the same weight. I may end up selling one of them, but for now, it’s nice to have an extra in case a friend wants to join me for a workout.

FYI: A properly executed kettlebell swing is another good exercise for hip stability. Plus, it improves your posture.

10. Hot lunches

Shortly after rejoining the gym in October and ramping up my physical activity from maybe two workouts a week to maybe three or four workouts with lifting each week, my body started asking me for more food. I’d eat my typical turkey sandwich with a side of broccoli at lunch, but my body wanted more. Specifically: hot food. About five weeks ago, I decided I’d listen. I probably needed to eat more anyway. So I asked friends for meal suggestions and started planning to replace my daily turkey sandwich with a more substantive meal. I also looked up how much protein an active person my size should eat each day. Turns out, I was only about two-thirds of the way there. No wonder my cravings were so strong. Sundays are now my lunch prep day. I’ve had some successes (toasted burritos, or burrito-dillas as I like to call them) and some fails (one sheet pan meal with wayyyyy too many peppers), but overall it’s been a worthwhile experiment. And my body is satisfied.

11. Craigslist furniture hunting

My former roommate decided to embrace digital nomad life this summer, which meant two things: I needed to find a new roommate and I needed to refurnish the living room. So far, both have turned out well. The living room was my project for the last six months and it’s almost where I want it. My inner child who dreamed of being an interior designer got to play within the constraints of a small apartment and a small budget as I scoured Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace for furniture. Now I never want to leave my living room. With the exception of a ladder shelf from Home Depot and a shag rug I got at a discount, everything was secondhand for $45 or less. This is the way to shop.

12. Folded Moravian stars

This December, homesickness collided with my desire to learn more skills, and the results were these folded Moravian stars.

My family ties to eastern Pennsylvania and the Moravian tradition in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, mean I saw stars like these throughout my childhood. My mom had a kit to make them with pastel colored strips of paper, but they always seemed impossible to me. Not so anymore.

The key is to use a material that will hold a crease, so paper or wire-edged ribbon. The last step, where you make the three-dimensional points, is the hardest but a pair of tweezers comes in handy to pull those last pieces through. I strung a piece of thread through each star to hang them on my Christmas tree. (You can learn how to make your own here.)

As we stare down a new year, I find gratitude practices like this helpful. It’s so easy to think of everything that was hard about a year — and 2021 is no exception — but there are also good things, however small, that are worth celebrating. What good things are you holding onto from 2021?

What I Read in 2021

In the past, I’ve used the turn of the year as an opportunity to share my favorite books read in the past year, but I only read 18 books in 2021 — just 17 short of your 35-book GoodReads Challenge goal! the GoodReads robot taunts me. There are still 1 days left! You can do it!

Rather than highlighting a handful, I’m sharing every book that held my attention long enough to finish it this year, broken into categories that I find reveal a little bit about where my head’s been.

The categories are, in order: Research, Christian Nonfiction, Fiction, Other Nonfiction.

Research

Definition: Books I read for personal research.

Unwell Women: Misdiagnosis and Myth in a Manmade World by Elinor Cleghorn

How has Western medicine failed women? How have longstanding (though now perhaps more concealed) ideas about women being “malformed men” or weaker or more emotional impacted how women’s health has been treated, mistreated, or ignored? Cleghorn’s history of medical sexism addresses these questions. If you haven’t been angry about hysteria or asylums or lobotomies or women only getting decent medical care when they’re pregnant (and even then it’s questionable), well, gear up.

The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women by Naomi Wolf

Originally published in 1990, The Beauty Myth is a feminist classic that examines beauty standards of the 80s through the lens of backlash. Wolf’s thesis: Now that women had more equal economic and political rights with men thanks to the women’s liberation movement, the patriarchy reacted by weaponizing beauty and creating an impossible ideal for women to embody in order to be considered “true” women. “The contemporary ravages of the beauty backlash are destroying women physically and depleting us psychologically,” Wolf writes.

I found parts of Wolf’s argument compelling, but other parts leaned too far into what I can only describe as political conspiracy theories. For Wolf, it seems, patriarchy is all about political power, whereas I would say that the ongoing conflict between men and women at large — in politics and elsewhere — is more cosmic. My Christian perspective points me back to Genesis 3, where strife between men and women, indeed a gendered power struggle, is a clear outcome of the Fall and part of sin’s curse.

Christian Nonfiction

I read more Christian nonfiction this year than I ever have before in a calendar year. Part of this was feeling disconnected and dry for a good part of the year, less able to feed myself from Scripture than I normally can. These books provided some wisdom and comfort in a tough season.

When Everything’s On Fire: Faith Forged from the Ashes by Brian Zahnd

This year, a poet and artist I’ve followed online for probably a decade publicly denounced Christianity. This was someone I’d learned a lot from and related to as a Christian creative who enjoys digging into the Bible but also struggles with doubt from time to time. His departure from the faith affected me way more than I expected. At the same time, I’ve seen friends from college lambast Christianity (specifically American evangelicalism) and say truly awful things about Christians. Even though I know where they stand, every time I see another post I wince and at times I’m brought to tears.

The “why” of all this is complicated. My faith has been through a ringer of its own, but somehow, it’s held together. I can point to specific moments where I’ve felt God’s presence and direction and closeness. I see the beauty of the story laid out in the Bible — the ultimate promise of God coming to dwell with his people — and I believe it. I also see a lot of so-called Christians living in opposition to the Prince of Peace, rallying themselves around narrow political ideals, giving loyalty to violence, living out of a story that’s so far from what the Bible actually describes, and as a result, driving others away from the truth of the gospel. If that’s what Christians are like, I want nothing to do with them. Same, honestly.

So with all of this as a backdrop, I picked up Zahnd’s book. When Everything’s on Fire focuses more on deconstruction and doubt than on church hurt, and as usual, I don’t agree with everything Zahnd writes, but the book provides helpful perspectives for wrestling through doubt — especially when you’re exiting a strain of fundamentalist Christianity that tends to demonize doubt and defend a literalist interpretation of the Bible at all costs.

Despite some of our differing views or ways of explaining our views, I found this book to be a beautiful comfort and probably the best-written book in this category. Zahnd has a literary mind that comes through immediately on the first page, and he also did this writer proud with a nice twist toward the end of what it means for everything to be on fire.

Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers by Dane Ortlund

How does God actually think of me? Is he just angry all the time?

A lot of Christians (and as a result, the people around them) view God as an angry, bearded Zeus-like character who we’re just lucky isn’t striking everyone dead all the time. But is that what God is actually like? In his book, Ortlund introduces us to the “gentle and lowly” heart of Jesus. Drawing from scripture and the reflections of Puritans, he shows us how kindness and humility are central to who God is.

This book is dense in the best way. I integrated it into my morning devotions, reading a chapter of the book after my Bible reading for the day. Just one chapter at a time. Again, there were places I’d disagree or word things differently (for example, when Ortlund goes off on grace being a Roman Catholic teaching, as if that on its own is a reason to discard the idea), but overall this book was a lovely reminder of God’s heart for his children.

With: Reimagining the Way You Relate to God by Skye Jethani

Ever since Jethani spoke in chapel my freshman year of college, this book has been on my list. With is all about changing the paradigm of how we relate to God. Most people, Jethani says, relate to God through these prepositions: above, under, for, from. But God doesn’t want us to live for, from, above, or under him — he wants us to live, or walk, with him. Thanks to that freshman year chapel message, I was already familiar with the concepts of this book, but I appreciated how Jethani fleshed out his ideas. It’s so easy to fall into one of the other prepositional postures, when God’s desire truly is to be with us.

The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited by Scot McKnight

When Jesus preached “the gospel”, what exactly did he preach? This is a question I’d asked internally for a long time. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John — the New Testament books collectively referred to as “the gospels” — are some of the hardest biblical books for me to understand. And the quick gospel definition I was taught as a kid didn’t make it any easier.

This book puts into words much of what I’ve learned over the last several years as I’ve dug into scripture on my own in an attempt to answer that question.

The answer: the gospel includes, but is so much more than, a plan of salvation. It’s a declaration of Jesus as king, here and now and forever. I highly recommend this book if you’re no longer satisfied by the reductive “ticket to heaven” gospel. There’s so much more.

The Deeply Formed Life: Five Transformational Values to Root Us in the Way of Jesus by Rich Villodas

Is your Christian faith just a set of theological ideas, or does it influence the way you live your everyday life?

Villodas challenges his readers to match their inner and outer lives to their vocal confession. This book couples well with Jon Tyson’s Beautiful Resistance, which I read last year. Both are concerned with the spiritual formation of Christians, or in other words, who we’re becoming.

The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God by Timothy Keller with Kathy Keller

Marriage in scripture is set forth as a picture of how Christ relates to his church. His commitment to her is profound; he gives himself for her; he places her wellbeing before his own. But human marriage more often than not fails to adequately reflect Christ’s “gentle and lowly” posture toward his bride. I read this toward the beginning of the year, so I don’t remember it too well, but I remember appreciating how the Kellers’ fleshed out the, well, meaning of marriage. I hold a more egalitarian ideal than I’ve seen Tim Keller describe in other contexts, but I was pleased to see that my ideals really aren’t that different from what’s set forth in this book.

The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth by Beth Allison Barr

Where to start with this one? Barr is a medieval historian and baptist pastor’s wife whose historical research led her to reconsider the hyper-complementarian views of her former church where not only were women not allowed to teach men, but they weren’t allowed to teach 14-year-old boys. In this book, Barr traces the historical origins of so-called biblical womanhood — that narrow ideal of a “meek and quiet” woman who doesn’t speak in church or hold authority over men — to show that it’s not actually biblical, but a cultural ideal that’s been projected onto scripture and used to harm women.

I was expecting this book to be longer, say, 300 pages, and more in-depth, so I was disappointed when it arrived and was only 218 pages (not including the endnotes). Barr’s case felt underdeveloped and, unfortunately, I don’t think it would convince anyone who doesn’t already agree with her. Most people who hold to these ideas get them from a literal reading of select verses from Paul’s New Testament letters, and Barr shows that there’s longstanding debate among biblical scholars about how to properly understand those texts (they’re highly contested). A generous reader who doesn’t agree with Barr may leave with more questions and things to dig into; an ungenerous reader who doesn’t agree with her will just write her off, as has been happening since her book came out earlier this year.

If I’d been editing Barr, I would have encouraged her to save her personal story for a chapter near the end (similar to how Cleghorn works in her personal health/misdiagnosis story in Unwell Women), so it wouldn’t be such an easy way for her detractors to write her off. However, unlike related books like Half the Church by Carolyn Custis James, The Making of Biblical Womanhood is well-structured and flows cohesively. I’ll be reading this one again.

The Color of Compromise: The Truth About the American Church’s Complicity with Racism by Jemar Tisby

This had been on my list for a while when I bought it last summer. The book is a good introduction to the history of the American church’s complicity with racism — introduction being the key word. It’s brief and covers broad swaths of history in just a couple hundred pages, so if you’re serious about learning more of this vein of history, The Color of Compromise provides a good foundational layer for you to build on. I would pair this with Ronald Takaki’s A Different Mirror, one of my top reads from last year.

Fiction

The Shell Collector by Anthony Doerr

A short story collection from the author of All the Light We Cannot See, The Shell Collector provided a much-needed dose of lyrical language. I found this book in a Little Free Library and read it over the month of November. Doerr is a fantastic writer.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

I read this after watching a documentary about Atwood. I have no interest in watching the TV series because the concept is disturbing, but I appreciate Atwood’s motivations in writing it. Every awful thing that happens to women in the society Atwood created has happened in our real world somewhere at some point in history, much of it not too long ago. This isn’t really an enjoyable read, but it’s masterfully written.

The History of Love by Nicole Krauss

This book has been living with me for at least six years now, maybe longer, so I thought it was time for a reread. You follow a few different perspectives, each written in their own unique voice, some stream-of-consciousness, and everything comes together eventually. I love this approach to storytelling (also seen in Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer).

Other Nonfiction

Eleanor Roosevelt, Volume 1: 1884-1933 by Blanche Wiesen Cook

This tome is a treasure. 587 pages, and it’s only the first of a three-volume set. I found the first two volumes at Tattered Cover in Denver last year and purchased the third online. I spent most of the spring and early summer reading this one. ER’s early life is not what I expected. Her father was an alcoholic whose habit destroyed his life. Her mother disregarded her and died when ER was 8. ER’s childhood was fraught by instability with the one bright spot being her education in London.

But when she returned to New York, college was not an option. She entered society and married FDR (from a different branch of the Roosevelt family), and then had to compete with FDR’s mother for his attention and loyalty.

I started reading Volume 2 in July but got distracted by other books and things, so it’s on my list to finish in 2022.

Knitting Yarns: Writers on Knitting, edited by Ann Hood

This collection of essays about knitting was a super cozy read and the partial inspiration for my second handmade sweater. It also inspired me to write more about crafts, because I love crafts and we need more to read that doesn’t carry the whole weight of the world.

Dorothy L. Sayers: Her Life and Soul by Barbara Reynolds

I got curious about Dorothy L. Sayers after my pastor quoted her a few times on Sunday mornings, so I found this biography and promptly started reading. I relate to her on a number of levels and would like to find a more deeply researched biography that doesn’t just quote her novels as if they’re directly referencing her life. Something that was unexpected: Sayers had a son out of wedlock who may have never known she was more than his “aunt”.

The Solace of Open Spaces by Gretel Ehrlich

A text from a college class that I kept because I enjoyed it so much, The Solace of Open Spaces is about the author’s life on the range in Wyoming. Beautiful language. Another reread.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

One of the first books I read this year, this true story was a ride. It’s the rare nonfiction book that reads like a novel while communicating a wealth of information. Featuring: scandals of science, reporting escapades, and everyday, down-to-earth characters that feel like they could live next door.

And there you go: every book I read from cover to cover in 2021. My rule for reading is don’t waste time on books you don’t like. Life is too short to read bad books — and there are too many good books out there to waste time on what you don’t enjoy.

2021 Freelance Year in Review

What to expect from this blog: No numbers. I keep my finances private, but I’ll say that this year I made a modest amount that kept me comfortably provided for. Below, I’ll talk more about the actual work, challenges I faced, and some highlight accomplishments that have me optimistic about my freelancing future.

Along the way, you’ll notice check marks (√) and “x”s. √ denotes a positive outcome with a service that I provide. “x” denotes a negative outcome with a service I no longer provide. If you’re curious about my full slate of services, you can learn more about them here.

Highlights of 2021

  • Landed my first print semi-feature (assigned at 1,800 words) with 5280.
  • Ventured back into marketing copywriting, after a few years of almost exclusively writing and editing corporate blogs and inbound content.
  • Stumbled upon an industry niche I enjoy: edtech (that’s education technology).
  • Walked away from an industry niche I didn’t enjoy: health tech (specifically, sterilization systems).
  • Worked with more local organizations here in Denver.
  • Experimented with social media marketing and decided it’s not for me.
  • Took my first week-long vacation as a full-time freelancer.

The Narrative

This year in freelancing started off hard. After seeing no negative impacts on my client list from the pandemic in 2020, I lost two major clients in Q1 of 2021 — both due to pandemic-induced changes. 

These two clients made up the bulk of my freelance income the previous two years. One was a retainer agreement, which meant a consistent dollar amount hit my account each month; the other provided consistent hourly work each week. Both clients were on my “replace” list at the beginning of 2020, but they beat me to the punch, which meant I had to forge new relationships and land other work on a tight timeline. Due to this, I worked with many more companies in one calendar year than I have in the past (16 in 2021 vs. 10 in 2020), and Q1 was particularly writing heavy.

I tested out web writing (√) and social media marketing (x) with a new client. I did a bit of content writing (√) for a local philanthropic foundation and some inconsequential web shorts for a women’s business publication. I also landed, reported, and wrote my first print piece of more than 800 words, a profile of CrossFit CEO Eric Roza for 5280 Magazine. I spent March reporting and writing that piece, which published in July, as well as another profile for Regis University Magazine.

In April, I kicked off a six-month copywriting (√) gig with GoGuardian’s family of edtech companies, my first time wading back into marketing copywriting since I left my full-time job in 2017. This gig was a good reminder of: a) why I freelance and b) that I enjoy marketing copywriting, especially branded messaging.

Over the summer, I took a Writer’s Co-Op freelancing business course to help me think through my services and business goals. I also took my first-ever weeklong vacation as a freelancer and wrote a report (√) for The Denver Foundation that highlighted the organization’s involvement in a local bond initiative focused on addressing homelessness. This was one of my favorite projects of 2021, and I hope to write more reports like it in the future.

In the fall, I wrote several pieces for 5280 Magazine, both digital and print (two will be published in the new year — watch for my name in 5280 Health and 5280’s February 2022 issue). I also contributed a couple profiles to The Physiologist Magazine and landed a temporary copywriting gig with the Denver Film Festival. I helped with web copy leading up to the festival, including a COVID protocols webpage, and I wrote daily recap emails during the festival. 

Mid-November and December, things slowed down a bit. I picked up a couple ongoing editing gigs that I hope will lead to more work and took some time this month to do some preliminary research for a book idea I’ve been incubating. I’m wrapping up this year with a lot of reading and creative non-writing activities that will hopefully leave me recharged for a new year of possibilities.

2021 Projects I’m Proud Of

Goals for 2022

  • More: 
    • Copywriting projects that push the boundaries of creativity
    • Developmental and copyediting projects that put me in writing coach mode
  • Develop strong ongoing relationships with clients for more consistent work.
  • Write reports on policy, survey research, creative solutions, etc., for mission-driven organizations.
  • Lean into industry niches of edtech, education-adjacent, and arts organizations.
  • Finish book proposal with sample chapters by May 1.
  • Land a few book-related essay and reporting assignments.

Top Reads of 2020

We’re a month into 2021. I have a new reading goal set (the same as last year, because I didn’t meet it) and my stacks of books to read are starting to look dangerous thanks to the abundance of Little Free Libraries in my neighborhood. It takes some serious self-discipline to walk past one and not look inside—self-discipline I usually don’t have.

Somehow, despite the fact that Denver Public Library was completely shutdown for several months of last year (thank you, Rona), more than half of my top reads from 2020 were borrowed from DPL, not LFLs. But I continue to be pleasantly surprised by what turns up in those little boxes by the sidewalk.

So in the spirit of the New Year, 31 days late, here are my top reads from 2020 in no particular order. (And if you’re looking for reading recommendations specifically for Black History Month, I’ve got you covered.)

An Ordinary Man by Paul Rusesabagina with Tom Zoellner

If you’ve watched Hotel Rwanda, you have some familiarity with this man’s story. Rusesabagina is the hotel manager the movie is based on, and An Ordinary Man is his memoir about surviving the Rwandan genocide in the 90s and saving the lives of others by taking advantage of his position as a manager of a foreign-run hotel.

Every time I read about the genocide, I start to wonder who I would be in such a situation. Would I turn against my neighbors and friends? Or would I hold to the principles I profess, that all human life is sacred and the only acceptable way to treat an enemy is to love them?

I tweeted a few excerpts from the book when I was reading it in the fall, and through a series of interactions with random Rwandans who started engaging with the tweet, I found out that Rusesabagina had recently been kidnapped by the Rwandan government (he hasn’t lived in the country for years due to beefs with the political administration; President Kagame has been in power since the end of the genocide). He’s now facing a so-called terrorism trial.

The Day the Revolution Began by N.T. Wright

I don’t remember when I was first exposed to N.T. Wright, a New Testament scholar and Anglican bishop, but over the last year, I started listening to the “Ask N.T. Wright Anything” podcast on a fairly regular basis. He puts into words a lot of the thoughts and ideas I’ve come to on my own through studying Scripture in more depth over the last several years. On one episode of his podcast, he mentioned this particular title so I ordered it through the public library system (was shocked by how many N.T. Wright titles they actually have) and spent probably three months reading it from cover to cover.

It’s wild to me that this title is a “popular” theology book, meaning it’s written for the masses, not scholars, because it’s so deep, dense, and challenging. I had to make sure my brain was awake and energized in order to engage with it fully, and there were still plenty of things that went straight over my head.

The Day the Revolution Began is all about understanding the crucifixion the way the early Christians did. What actually happened when Jesus died? What work was “finished,” as he said on the cross? How did Paul and the other apostles understand the death of Jesus? (The context of the resurrection is a given.)

Something I particularly appreciated about this book is how Wright tackles the Platonization of Christianity, which is to say: The generally held concepts of Heaven and Hell that most of us assume to be biblical don’t really come from the Bible; they come from Plato. (If you’ve ever wondered why Jesus didn’t talk about heaven and hell that much, this is probably why.) The Day the Revolution Began puts the New Testament, particularly the crucifixion, in its Jewish context, drawing out deeper meanings from Jesus’s work on the cross. I’m planning on re-reading this book in a year or so.

The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan

In case anyone’s wondering whether or not I avoid controversial books, apparently I don’t. But to be honest, I don’t understand why The Feminine Mystique was ever controversial. The whole book is based on this notion that women have more to offer than their ability to be wives and mothers, and that if they’re restricted to only caring for the needs of other people without room to express their unique identities and use their specific gifts, they’ll be miserable. To me, that’s a duh.

When I signed this book out, I was bracing myself for something shocking and controversial, but instead (with the exception of a few things regarding mental health and homosexuality that place the book firmly in its era) I found myself nodding along and taking copious notes. I’ve read some critiques of the book—that it only speaks about the experience of mid- to upperclass white women and so on—but I think the book’s central idea still holds true. And I think more women (particularly of the Christian variety) would be well-served to read it.

Beautiful Resistance by Jon Tyson

I wrote a whole review of this book for Christianity Today, so I’m not going to rehash it here, but this book provides an important check for believers regarding the outworking of our faith. It’s specifically written to Christians in the U.S. in a polarized era.

A Different Mirror: A Multicultural History of America by Ronald Takaki

This was the best unexpected Little Free Library find of 2020. I think I picked it up in June, when protests in response to the murder of George Floyd were taking place across the country and the globe, and it was exactly what my brain needed at a time when I was looking for more information about the legacy of the United States. I did a lot of learning from 2013-2016 on these topics, but most of that was through reading reported articles, not books or histories.

A Different Mirror is exactly what its subtitle describes: a multicultural history of America. Starting in the colonial era, it follows the experiences of African-American, Native Americans, Mexican-Americans, Irish-Americans, Asian-Americans, and Jewish Americans—people groups we don’t typically learn about from their perspective. I marked this book up like crazy and decided to keep it as a reference. I highly recommend finding a copy and reading it for yourself. It would make a great text for high school students or anyone looking for a survey of American history that isn’t centered on the experiences of white folks.

Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nifisi

I read this book in March so I don’t remember too much specifically about it other than that it was deep and eye-opening, and it engaged me with a Middle Eastern culture I’m not familiar with at all. Nafisi was an English literature professor in Tehran, Iran, over a period of time when the country was seeing drastic change, going from a more liberal (some would say, Westernized) society to a much more conservative one, where women were policed on their attire and lost freedoms they’d formerly held. Reading Lolita in Tehran follows Nafisi as she leads a private class of young women in her home while their country exerts more control on their lives outside. Each section focuses on a different literary work that they read and uses that work to prod at and try to understand their own experiences.

Mighty Justice: My Life in Civil Rights by Dovey Johnson Roundtree and Katie McCabe

Dovey Johnson Roundtree was an attorney before Martin Luther King Jr. ever made a splash in terms of the fight for civil rights. She passed away in 2018 at 104 years old, before this book released. Mighty Justice tells her life story, from her growing up to when she served as one of the first African-American women in the military during WWII, to her career in law. She played a crucial role during the civil rights era, working on a lot of cases involving segregation in transportation (think: when trains passed the Mason-Dixon Line and suddenly black people couldn’t sit where they’d been sitting the whole trip). This was a Denver Public Library book so it’s now on my list to buy, because I need some Dovey Johnson Roundtree in my personal women’s history library.

Winterlust: Finding Beauty in the Fiercest Season by Bernd Brunner

Not so much literature and story as a tribute to the coldest, darkest time of the year, this was one of the first books I read last year, perhaps the snowiest winter since I moved to Colorado. It touches on all different aspects of winter and how it’s survived and enjoyed in different places. Winterlust was a random book I picked up in the library, and it was a delicious read for someone who loves the sparkle of snow, would rather be cold than warm, and likes layering up in scarves and hats and mittens.

12 Things I’m Taking from 2020

Normally, at the end of the year, I take the time to reflect and set new goals/intentions for the new year. I did that, but what I wrote was pretty depressing and I think we could all use more light in our lives — so instead of that post, I offer you this: a list of things I started doing in earnest this year while the world was upside-down.

Think of it as a gratitude list and recommendations for your own life. There’s beauty and joy in the everyday and mundane. And the good things deserve more attention.

12 Things I’m Taking from 2020

1. Homemade masks with built-in jokes.

We’re all going to be wearing masks while we’re out and about for the foreseeable future. Toward the beginning of the pandemic, I made a few of my own, including this one which I think is hilarious.

I had a pile of fabric on hand for embroidery projects and the social distancing / space joke occurred to me almost right away (notice the celestial bodies in the background). Some people get it; other people don’t and I’m convinced just judge me, but the times I’ve gotten cashiers to laugh or smile from beneath their own masks have been worthwhile. Even if no one else notices, I’m smirking most of the time I wear this one.

2. A quick way of making homemade scalloped potatoes for one person.

Over the last couple months, I’ve had some inspiration to try different things in the kitchen. I roasted a chicken in November and then used the carcass to make broth for a couple soups. I also, for the first time in my life, made homemade scalloped potatoes. I love scalloped potatoes, along with just about everything involving potatoes, milk, and cheese, but they always seemed too labor-intensive to make for one person. Wrong. After making them the traditional way (in the oven), I started making them a faster way on the stove. Here’s my made-up recipe if you want to try:

  • Peel potato(es) and slice into thin ovals.
  • Put in a pot with water and boil until soft.
  • Drain water. Add milk to cover the bottom of the pot. Turn on low heat.
  • Mix flour with water in a measuring cup (2:1) and add to pot with garlic powder, onion powder, salt and pepper. Add shredded cheese and parmesan (if desired).
  • Stir together, aiming to blend the sauce and cover the potatoes without breaking them apart. (Add more milk if needed.)
  • Once the sauce has thickened and smells/tastes right, remove from heat and serve.

I usually do this recipe with one large potato. It’s enough for two servings (I just had some this week).

3. Snowshoeing.

One time last winter, before coronavirus was on the radar, my roommate and I went snowshoeing together on a Saturday morning. It was cold and beautiful. I wore borrowed snowshoes and easily could have stayed out there until sunset.

Almost a year later, I crunched some numbers, rounded up my Christmas money, and ordered my own snowshoes so I can go again as much as I want (staying away from avalanche territory, of course). Bad news: My pair is backordered and probably won’t be restocked until the end of January. But they’ll arrive with plenty of winter left to get in some freezing cold, snow-sparkled walks in the woods.

Also, in case you didn’t know, I like winter. A lot.

4. Embroidery.

If one thing from this year should get the award for Most Valuable Player, it’s embroidery. I decided at the beginning of 2020 that I wanted to make it my new hobby (I’ve actually wanted to embroider since I was a little kid), so in January, I went to Michael’s and JoAnn Fabrics and stocked up on embroidery floss, hoops, and fabric. I also signed out a couple books from the library for a refresher course on the craft, as well as inspiration. All clocked in (not counting my mask), I’ve completed ten projects of varying difficulty. My biggest project to date is about halfway done.

5. Studying books of the Bible in their full context.

One of my Christmas gifts last year was Women of the Word by Jen Wilkin, which is about how to study the Bible (and is as useful to men as it is to women). One of Wilkin’s key pieces of advice for studying scripture is to read whatever book you’re studying — say, Mark, Exodus, or the letter to the Galatians — in its entirety multiple times before going through it slower. The idea is if the book is a narrative, you’ll get a sense of its narrative arc/structure; if the book is a letter, you’ll see the progression of thought …. Regardless of genre, you’ll get a grasp of the book as a whole, and that will help you understand and interpret it better.

I’ve read single books of the Bible in one go before (in 2014 or 2015, I spent a Saturday afternoon reading all of Romans) and it’s true that they a) hold together and b) read differently — and, indeed, make more sense — when read as one complete piece rather than as random mashups of chapters and verses. At this point, I’m pretty much convinced the only way you can accurately interpret a New Testament letter is to read it all together. (This also has to do with the fact that I’m a writer and wouldn’t want someone to read one paragraph of my own work on its own, apart from the greater work, and then start making claims about what I think.)

Right now, I’m studying the gospel of Matthew with this approach. I read through the whole gospel three times before starting to go through more slowly — and I might do myself a favor and read through all of it again before picking up where I left off a few weeks ago during Advent. I’m also going to apply this approach on smaller scale to the teachings of Jesus, so when I get to the Sermon on the Mount in a few weeks, I’ll read all of it together several times before studying and dissecting the smaller sections.

6. My book idea (!!!).

If we’re friends, I’ve probably already told you about this. If we’re not, it’s too early to share. Let’s just say: I have a nonfiction book idea that’s big and kind of complicated and involves something that’s really important to me and that I think more women should embrace. Right now, I’m doing broad reading on different topic areas that relate to it, with the plan of drafting a book proposal midway through 2021. I have a lot of reading to do.

7. Browsing Little Free Libraries.

My neighborhood has a Little Free Library on every other block, it seems. The first few months of the pandemic, while Denver Public Library was completely shut down, I turned to these for reading material (despite the fact that I haven’t read more than half of the books on my own shelf). A couple unexpected faves: A Different Mirror by Ronald Takaki, The Invisible Garden by Dorothy Sucher, Tender at the Bone by Ruth Reichl, and An Ordinary Man by Paul Rusesabagina.

8. This Is Us.

A couple years ago, a previous roommate introduced me to this show. I’m not a big TV show person because I prefer entertainment with deep characters, meaningful story arcs, and resolution — but This Is Us seemed to have at least two of those three characteristics. When I found out that the show is on Hulu, I decided to get the lowest level of subscription so I could start watching it. I’m currently in the middle of season two.

One downside of this show: I’m already super analytical about people and relationships, and This Is Us just might make me more analytical. I need to keep an eye on that.

9. New friends.

Last winter, and last year, really, was one of the loneliest seasons of my life. I haven’t written much about it because some of the things it brought up, honestly, scare me, but since then, I’ve seen God provide in tangible ways — namely, through new friendships I couldn’t have picked better myself. I made a friend the weekend before Denver shut down, and that friend is now one of a few consistent people in my life whom I hardly knew before the pandemic. When the pandemic hit, I was just coming out of the darkness of an isolated season, and somehow, I ended up having more meaningful time with friends (virtually, over phone calls, outdoors) during stay-at-home orders and since, than I did in the probably eight or nine months before the pandemic arrived.

10. Walks around my neighborhood.

My normal pre-pandemic weekday routine consisted of working from home in the morning, then driving to the library and working from there in the afternoon, then driving to the gym and working out, coming home for dinner, staying up another couple of hours, and going to bed. As much as I miss the gym and the library and being able to work somewhere other than my apartment, the inability to go to those places and the physical need to get out and about on my feet sent me on walks (and until I hurt my knee, runs) around my neighborhood.

I stumbled upon tiny fairy gardens that I haven’t been able to find again; funny houses with shrubs on the front walk that are so overgrown, they just chopped a doorway through the middle. Random, rundown shacks far back from the street that look ready to be demolished — on the same block as overgrown monstrosities with more room than my 11-child family of origin ever had.

Houses and front lawns with personality spark my imagination. I’m not necessarily interested in talking to the people inside, but I want to imagine them and what they’re up to, why they purchased gargoyles for their front porch and decided to dress them up as elves for Christmas.

11. My first (unfinished) knitted sweater.

This fall, the slow, slow process of embroidering made knitting a sweater seem more doable, so October 30, I sat down and knit some swatches of yarn I’ve had since I lived in Indiana. I found a pattern for knitting a topdown sweater online and got to work.

I’m still working on it, or rather, avoiding working on it because I’m convinced I’ll run out of yarn and I’m not sure I’ll be able to find the same colors/weight/material. I’m maybe halfway done with the torso (maybe a little less), but I still have the sleeves to do. It’s three colors, striped, and pretty hideous — but if I ever finish it (which I should), it’ll be really soft and cozy and the pride of my knitting needles. And then I’ll be able to knit a sweater that I actually like.

12. Video calls with my family.

Pre-pandemic, my whole family rarely spent time together outside of holidays and college graduations, which only a few of us could make, and weddings. But when everyone was under stay-at-home orders or pandemic restrictions of some sort, someone smart (not me, but I don’t remember who) suggested we do a video call and for a few months, every Monday evening, the siblings would get on another call.

I’ve talked to my siblings more in this one year than I think I had in the previous three (maybe more). With that has come more tension at certain points, but it’s also been really good. Being one of eleven kids is hard. It’s impossible to stay in touch with everyone one-on-one, which is my preferred mode, so having a more frequent touchpoint (to put it in weird marketing terms) has been good.

The calls have become more infrequent now, especially during the holiday season, but now we know that’s an option for everyone. And, I mean, what else do you have to do on a Monday night?

So there you go. 2020 wasn’t a waste. Parts have definitely felt like a dumpster fire, but there are things to salvage from the ashes. What will you take with you into 2021?

Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things. Philippians 4:8

A lesson from history and the story of Ida B. Wells

In school, we typically learn about the Civil War and emancipation, but Reconstruction—and the period following Reconstruction, when Jim Crow laws passed throughout the South—are typically overlooked. We don’t think about black Americans again until the Civil Rights Era, nearly a century after the Civil War.

The true story of Ida B. Wells takes place over that middle period.

Last night, I listened to this podcast episode about the “Life and Work of Ida B. Wells”. I found quite a few things fascinating, which I talk about below. If you have a spare 30 minutes, the podcast is worth your time. If not, here are a few takeaways and thoughts of my own:

To start, who was Ida B. Wells?

IdaIda B. Wells was born enslaved but grew up free during Reconstruction. She became a reporter and is known for her tireless work reporting on lynchings of African-Americans during a time when the idealism of Reconstruction fell under the shadow of Jim Crow laws and militant white supremacy.

One of the fascinating things drawn out in this podcast is how she was reporting at the same time that women across the U.S. (especially white women) were campaigning for the right to vote.

There was this cultural notion at the time, called the Cult of True Womanhood, that women were more devout and virtuous than men—and some suffragists were using this idea to support their campaign. Basically, they said politics needed the greater virtue of women to decrease corruption. (Meanwhile, some who were opposed to women’s suffrage used the same idea to say women were too virtuous to be exposed to the corruption and moral degradation of the voting polls; in Colorado, for example, voting was often done at saloonsnot an acceptable setting for women of good character.)

Because of this particular place in time, Wells’ reporting on lynching wasn’t well-received by white women who might have otherwise been fairly progressive.

Why wasn’t Wells’ reporting well-received by white women?

The typical excuse given by lynch mobs as to why they were torturing and making public displays of black men was that the black men had raped white women—but as Wells reported out these incidents, she repeatedly discovered that the black men (and white women) in question had been having consensual relations.

Wells reported these findings frankly, but because of the Cult of True Womanhood, which viewed women as inherently chaste and pure, white suffragists couldn’t embrace her work—and certainly didn’t want to draw attention to it. White women having consensual sex outside of the bonds of marriage would have been damaging to the fight for women’s suffrage.

Also likely at play: Many white suffragists made the point that since black men could now vote, it was in the interest of white people to extend the vote to white women and thus outweigh or negate the votes of black men. But if white women were in romantic relationships with black men, this point wouldn’t stand: It contradicted the idea that white people were united against black people.

These insights are relevant to our present moment. Here’s what I’ll say:

There are always multiple forces at work, but we can’t always see them.

Taking an in-depth look at history, seeing how various movements overlapped and helped/hindered each other, should help us look at our present moment and start identifying what forces might be at work in us.

For example: I grew up in rural upstate New York, which is much more conservative than downstate NY, especially NYC. In response to coronavirus restrictions, I’ve been seeing a lot of complaints about the government limiting liberty that hearken back to words of the Founding Fathers and safety as no legitimate reason for government interference.

It’s not just this current moment that is influencing those sentiments.

Upstate, especially in Central New York (CNY) which is where I grew up, there’s a general low-key resentment toward the New York State government because people feel like downstate concerns—particularly those of NYC—dominate the workings of the government, to the exclusion or the detriment of Upstate’s concerns. The pandemic has only amplified those resentments.

On top of that, much of Upstate New York is economically depressed. A few tourist hotspots (shoutout to Cooperstown) alleviate some of that depression on a seasonal basis, but they’re not enough to actually change the fact that a lot of people are living at or below poverty level with very limited opportunities for economic advancement. (At the same time, the opioid epidemic has taken hold in a lot of locales.)

I think it’s fair to say that the economic depression influences people’s views of the New York State government (which may or may not be responsible for some of that hardship). Both the economic state of things—plus the near certainty that continued shutdown will exacerbate those problems—and the low-lying resentment of the state government are influencing upstaters’ reactions to current pandemic restrictions.

Now, this is not to say that the conclusions people are coming to are completely off-base. I’m not living there right now, and I don’t know enough to have a fully developed opinion. But I think it’s helpful to evaluate what forces might be at work in driving us to our current perspectives/opinions. If we can identify and think through those things, we should be able to come to better informed, more nuanced and thoughtful conclusions, rather than just following our emotions through the most convenient logic.

History is a valuable teacher, but only if we study closely enough.

I know for myself, I’ve never really understood the Civil Rights Era, because I don’t understand when/how/why Jim Crow came to be. We as a nation don’t understand our current state of race relations for the exact same reason.

The murders of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor should be disturbing to us, but if we look at history (not to mention the last several years), we’ll understand they are not random events. Those murders are part of a lineage of violence against black Americans that stretches back centuries—and came nowhere near ending with the emancipation of slaves.

This is why we need to delve into the stories of people like Ida B. Wells, Dovey Johnson Roundtree, and other pre-MLK figures who were on the front lines recording injustice, calling it by name, and seeking to right the wrongs of a nation that claims to offer “liberty and justice for all!”

Not Abandoned

I will not leave you comfortless, Jesus says in John 14:18, in his last words to his disciples before his crucifixion. I will come to you

Another translation says orphaned, instead of comfortless. I think you could also read it as abandoned.

Over the last seven months, I’ve wrestled hard with isolation and loneliness. There’s a narrative of abandonment that runs through my head anytime a friend seems to forget me or leaves me behind, and last year, that happened twice, leaving me feeling hollow and expendable. I sunk deeper into darkness than I ever remember going, arguing with myself the whole way down. Help me was my one consistent prayer. My shame-filled eyes wouldn’t dare look up.

I reached a breaking point toward the beginning of this month. Sick of the gloom I was living in, I started developing a hatred for my own sinful patterns that put me there. 

It’s a hard truth to swallow that we are often the source of our own pain. Not that others never hurt us or are absolved of all responsibility. But our own evil hearts—my own evil heart—try to salve the wounds inflicted by others with ointments that can only cause infection. 

My loneliness, my isolation, my sense of abandonment, is painful and in some sense real. But how do I respond to that pain? Do I run to distractions, to temporary pleasures that only leave me feeling more alone? Or do I seek connection? Bring myself to people I can trust, communicate my needs honestly, and seek to be a giver, not just a taker, in relationships?

The idea—in fact, the promise—that Jesus himself will not leave me comfortless, orphaned, or abandoned enables me to rest. Take a breath, ask God to help my unbelief, and lean in to the terrifying possibility of new friendship, new depths of relationship, that though painful at times could lead to fuller healing of myself and a sharpening of God’s image in me.

What could this promise mean for us now, in the time of coronavirus?

First of all, welcome to that work-from-home life. I’ve been working from home since I started freelancing in 2017 (with a break last year during my internship). Working from home is hard and it can be lonely. The fact that this home life isn’t just for work, but for play and everything else in between, just makes it harder. 

What we’re living through is unprecedented and it remains to be seen exactly what it will be. We are living through history and it’s not glamorous. 

Coronavirus is raising a lot of worthwhile questions about: 

  • who we should value as a society (healthcare workers, teachers, grocery store staff)
  • what is crucial for survival (toilet paper, obviously)
  • what the heck corporate responsibility is (foreign idea for Americans)

and on the spiritual side, the age-old question of how a good God could allow horrible suffering.

I won’t attempt to answer that question here, but in the face of pain and confusion, I offer John 14:18:

I will not leave you comfortless [orphaned, abandoned]: I will come to you.

These are the words of Jesus before he goes to the cross, before the God of the universe embraces our suffering in his undeserved death. 

God is good and suffering is real, but God does not hold us or our pain at arm’s length. He’s not distant. He enters in, takes the weight of both our sin and our suffering upon himself. He’s come to us. And perhaps now he is closer than before.

2020: A Year of Intention

I didn’t set any goals last year. After previous years of massive, unrealistic lists, I stepped into 2019 with no goals other than to apply myself to what opportunities came my way.

The first eight months of 2019 found me juggling 25+ hours a week as an intern at 5280 Magazine, while maintaining my freelance business. Most days, I’d get up early and work on my laptop in bed before making breakfast and taking the bus downtown to 5280’s office, where I worked at least five hours each weekday. Then, I’d take the bus home and work some more, sometimes taking a break to go to the gym. More often than not, my eyes were still glued to my laptop at 10 p.m. 

What freelance work I couldn’t complete during the week I tackled on Saturdays, planting myself at the library while my friends skied or hiked or did who knows what else that the average person does on a day off.

I said yes to a lot of things, no to a few, and got much more than a healthy dose of blue light.

20190815_195543 (1)

During the month of March, I spent my limited spare time working on an application for a fellowship. I didn’t land the fellowship (or even interview for it), but I enjoyed working on the application and that process stirred a desire to pursue more independent projects. The question now is what idea to pursue.

When my internship ended on August 30, I was dazed and somewhat in shock. My experience at 5280 was overwhelmingly positive (and I wrote a lot, more than 30 articles over eight months). Though I was ready for a less jam-packed schedule, I wasn’t quite ready to return to the isolation of full-time freelancing.

That’s the hardest part of freelancing: Being alone. Almost all the time.

I’m an introvert and do well with a lot of time alone, but there is such a thing as too much. Since returning to my own desk on a full-time basis, I’ve tried to offset this by arranging in-person, daytime meetings—sometimes personal, sometimes professional—throughout the week. It’s helped, but I still miss that office culture. I’ve always loved working and part of the reason is because I love working with other people (which gets me thinking, maybe I should pursue a few collaborative projects this year).

20190815_195543 (1)

I returned to full-time freelancing with a few assignments for 5280 lined up and enough other work to keep me busy and, you know, clothed, housed, and fed. Now, as I look at a new year, I’m trying to decide what my new goals should be. 

Here’s what I have so far:

Writing Projects

Children’s books: I started realizing this summer that my imagination lights up around little furry animals and fairy tales the way other people’s imaginations light up for conspiracy theories. Maybe not the best parallel, but I’ve decided that this year, I’m going to lean into that imaginative, fun-loving side. I don’t need to be so serious all the time and neither does my writing.

Pitching & Rejections

I would like to land 1–3 feature pitches this year (5280.com doesn’t count because I’ve worked with them so much, but 5280‘s print magazine does, as does any other publication I haven’t worked with). I’m also trying to decide whether or not 50 rejections is a realistic goal based on the kind of stories that I want to be pitching, or if I should drop it down to 30 total rejections.

Freelance Business

  • I’m not at the point yet where I’m comfortable sharing my income goals (I live on pretty meager means because I’m cheap and never actually use my overpriced health insurance), but I would like to swap some of my less engaging ongoing work for more interesting, better paid work. If you’re in the market for a freelance editor or copywriter, let’s talk.
  • Connect with two new people each month, whether potential clients, media relations folks, or fellow freelancers or creatives.
  • Utilize the batching technique for ongoing content work in order to improve efficiency and make more time for creative projects. With this method, I would receive my assignments from content writing clients and schedule a few successive work sessions to complete the bulk of those assignments. This way, I’m not bouncing between projects and clients and having to reorganize my brain as often as I do now.

Reading

Thanks to GoodReads, this was the one area where I did set a specific goal in 2019. This year, I’m increasing my goal from 30 to 35 books (these are my favorite books from 2019) and aiming to read more classic literature, more women’s biographies (of course), and more diverse authors in general. Suggestions welcome.

Miscellaneous

  • Practice gratitude daily (a minimum of three points per day).
  • Add coffee and lunch/dinner date funds to my budget. This is necessary with how many meetings and get-togethers I’m planning to keep myself socially healthy.

20190815_195543 (1)

I have other goals in the physical, spiritual, and mental health categories, but I’m not sharing them here because my whole life doesn’t need to be online. Overall, I’m seeking balance and a fresh excitement for the work I have the privilege and time to do. Freelancing is hard, but I had a colleague recently remind me that I am succeeding: I’m making a living off of just editing and writing. That’s a big deal. And something to be thankful for.

2020 is going to be a year of intention. After setting no goals for 2019 and returning to full-time freelancing without any set goals, I’ve felt the need for specific targets and checkboxes to help guide my daily efforts. I want to live this year—both in and out of my apartment, er, office—on purpose. Let’s find out what happens when I do.

20190815_195543 (1)

Top Reads of 2019

As the year (and decade) draws to a close, I’m looking back with satisfaction at the books I’ve checked off my list or stumbled upon at the library or thrift store. I’m an incredibly picky reader, especially when it comes to fiction, and I’m selfish with my time. If a book isn’t interesting in the first chapter, I almost always scrap it. And if the writing style is annoying or plain weak, I leave the tome behind—unless the subject matter is interesting enough to make up for it.

This year, I predominantly read nonfiction, and the list below reflects that. These six books are my top reads from the year—and my top recommendations for your 2020 reading list.

Becoming by Michelle Obama

Becoming'The first book I read in 2019, Becoming was a Christmas gift from my grandmother. I didn’t grow up in an Obama-supporting household, so it was interesting to read about Michelle from her own perspective, as opposed to the interpretations of her by talking heads on the radio that I heard all through high school. The book is long but incredibly well-written so it flows quickly. Michelle writes about her childhood growing up in Chicago, her pursuit of higher education (she has two Ivy League degrees), her struggle to find a career that fit her values, and of course, her relationship with Barack and the experience of becoming First Lady.

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain

QuietQuiet has been on my list for several years, and I finally got my hands on a copy (thank you, Denver Public Library). Deeply researched and well structured, the book has the grounding of an academic treatise with the writing of a storyteller. Cain dives into introversion from a variety of angles, including high sensitivity that can be witnessed in infants who grow up to become introverts, the difficulty introverts may face in certain religious settings, and what it’s like to be an introvert in an intimate relationship with an extrovert. A lot of what she writes are things I’ve learned about myself over the years, so it was interesting to see research back up my own self-understanding.

A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II by Sonia Purnell

No ImportanceThis may be my favorite book from all year. A Woman of No Importance follows the journey of Virginia Hall, an American woman who served as a spy for Britain during the Nazi occupation of France in World War II. Hall partnered with nuns and prostitutes (among others) to undermine Nazi rule before the Allies ever landed in France, and when a double agent discovered her, she escaped on foot and her wooden leg over the mountains and out of France. Later, she returned on a new mission to recruit French resistance members, coordinate supply drops with Britain, and sabotage the Nazis.

Sonia Purnell is a masterful storyteller. She takes countless historical details and weaves a story that drives forward without ever slowing down.

Grace Will Lead Us Home: The Charleston Church Massacre and the Hard, Inspiring Journey to Forgiveness by Jennifer Berry Hawes

GraceThis book should be required reading for pastors everywhere. An intimate, sensitive recounting of the 2015 massacre at Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church, where a white supremacist murdered African-American Christians at a Bible study, and its ensuing aftermath, Grace Will Lead Us Home introduces readers to the victims and their surviving loved ones. The book serves as a case study of a church failing to properly care for its people in the wake of a horrific tragedy that gained national attention. The narrative drives contemplation of the hard work of forgiveness, not sugarcoating the survivors’ thoughts or experiences.

Things We Didn’t Talk About When I Was a Girl: A Memoir by Jeannie Vanasco

TalkThings We Didn’t Talk About… is not a fun or entertaining read. Fourteen years after she was sexually assaulted by a close friend, Jeannie Vanasco reached out to the assailant to try to understand what happened that night from his perspective. Her memoir shares the resulting conversations, while also delving into questions like why supposedly good people do terrible things, what forgiveness means and entails, and if it’s possible to move on from horrific acts—whether you’re the victim or the perpetrator. I read this book in just a few days but was (and continue to be) challenged by the questions and thoughts Vanasco raises on its pages.

On Forgiveness and Revenge: Lessons from an Iranian Prison by Ramin Jahanbegloo

ForgivenessIt looks like the theme of this year’s reading was forgiveness, a value that is necessary to practice if you want to live in this world free of bitterness and resentment. This little book is less about Jahanbegloo’s prison stay in Iran, and more about the thoughts and reflections his experience produced. He draws from the works of philosophers the world over to present a case for the value and necessity of forgiveness, explaining how forgiveness does not ignore or excuse wrongs, but refuses to let wrongs have the final say.

One of many quotes I wrote down:

“Forgiveness…is a commitment to memory and truth. It is a project of reconciliation through moral repair. It is the promise of a new beginning without forgetfulness. Finally, forgiveness is the recognition of our ‘shared fallibility.'”

I’m aiming to read more classic literature and women’s biographies in 2020. Have a suggestion? Leave a comment.