Six months in New York City: A reflection

Tomorrow, Im leaving New York City for an indefinite amount of time. A lot has happened since I moved here six months ago. Here‘s a glimpse into a piece of my journey.

Who would have thought I’d arrive to New York City struggling to hold onto my faith and leave with it clasped anew between my hands? Places like these are where people come to forget about God, drown themselves in self, and abandon any idea of a loving, sacrificial, holy Creator. But coming here has renewed my faith.

Six months ago, I came here shaking (quite literally) in my boots, terrified of what my future may or may not have held. I was coming to the city where dreams come true, and I was not at all confident I could handle it. Being here made my dreams — those at the time and those forgotten from years past — feel possible, tangible, things I could reach. Now was my time. Don’t screw up; don‘t screw up, I told myself over and over, stressing myself out and making screwing up inevitable.

But as time went on, the fear and nervousness fell away, making room for me to be my genuine self, not the worry-wart who’d taken over my body. This was especially noticeable in my interactions with my co-workers at tbsp. I typically start a job quiet and get louder as time goes on, but this was different. I was a Christian twenty-something from rural nowhere come to New York City, working food service in Chelsea of all places. If loud, pushy liberal down-staters aren’t enough, throw in one of the most polarizing moral debates of our time. And then me, who hates arguing and, at that point, was having a hard time calling herself a Christian.

I don’t know how many months it was until the truth got out: Meredith’s a Christian, and she’s not doing homework before work — she’s reading her Bible.

They noticed I didn’t swear, but that action plus the cross in the logo on my hat didn’t connect for a conclusion of “Christian”. In fact, no one ever suggested Christian as a possibility. Catholic, yes. Mormon, yes. Christian, no. So I had to say the word and note, “There’s a big difference,” prepared to explain what the difference was.

By the time those situations came about, though, God had already done some major work on my heart — through conversations with my housemates, straight-up Bible preaching at church two and sometimes three times a week, and regular Bible reading (not to mention the people at church and bits of encouragement along the way from Christians I randomly met in the library, with a running group, and at a soccer tournament).

With every moment and word of truth and encouragement, God pulled me back, whispering, “See? I am real and present and active. You can trust me.”

And though I see-sawed from letting go slightly and holding on tightly — and, indeed, still struggle to trust God with my future — today, as I prepare to leave the city where dreams come true and return to Indiana for my first using-the-degree job, I am not the fear-filled, shaky, skittish girl I was six months ago. I am excited about my future and whatever it does or does not hold. I know that God is in control and that He will do a better job with my life than I ever could do on my own.

Good Reads: Investigating cults, drug mules, and Martin Luther King

This is the fifth in a new series of weekly posts recommending well-written narrative nonfiction/longform articles.

The Man Who Saves You from Yourself: Going undercover with a cult infiltrator by Nathaniel Rich, Harper’s

David Sullivan, a private investigator in LA who specialized in cults, passed away last October, shortly before this article was published. The piece tells the story of his investigative work, beginning with his initial fascination with cults and the following realization:

The spiritual groups, he soon realized, shared a simple tactic: they demanded that their followers suspend critical thought. “They’d say, ‘You have to break out of your Western mentality. You’re too judgmental. You have to abandon your whole psychological-intellectual framework. Your obsessive materialism is blocking you from seeing the truth.'”

A quick-moving piece broken up by somewhat disturbing scenes of a cult leader brainwashing a young women.

[NOTE: This piece is NOT appropriate for all ages.]

The Sinaloa Cartel’s 90-year-old Drug Mule by Sam Dolnick, New York Times Magazine

At first glance, you would never guess it: this elderly, seemingly innocent grandpa of a man primarily interested in horticulture, ferried some of the Sinaloa drug cartel’s largest shipments of cocaine. Looks are deceiving.

How the FBI Tried to Block Martin Luther King’s Commencement Speech by Martin Dobrow, The Atlantic

More historical than artistic, this piece tells the unheard story of the government’s attempts to keep MLK from sharing his “controversial” ideas in a college commencement speech. Spoiler alert: The FBI lost.

What do you suggest?

Good Reads: Missing hikers, recovering communities, and war dogs

This is the fourth in a new series of weekly posts recommending well-written narrative nonfiction/longform articles.

Did North Korea Kidnap an American Hiker? by Chris Vogel, Outside

In 2004, David Sneddon, 24, was capping off a summer studying in China by hiking western China near the Tiger Leaping Gorge. The Mandarin-speaking American was excited to return to the States and finish his college studies, according to emails he’d sent his family, but he never got to his brother’s place in Seoul. Ten years later, he still hasn’t been found, and most evidence points to a kidnapping by North Korea.

Sandy’s Ghost Towns Asbury Park Press Special Report

A collection of stories profiling various New Jersey towns that Hurricane Sandy hit hard in 2012. Each piece gives a taste of local flavor (like Giesela Smith’s crumb cake) and shares the stories and perspectives of residents, what they’ve been through and what they anticipate for the summer.

The Dogs of War by Michael Paterniti, National Geographic

Unsung heroes who are flung in danger’s way unknowingly, war dogs are adopted and trained by the U.S. military for three purposes: patrol, detecting, or tracking. In this piece, Paterniti follows Marine Corporal Jose Armenta and his dog Zenit, as they searched ground in Afghanistan for IEDs, improvised explosive devices, in 2011. The bond between man and dog.

What have you been reading?

NYC Week Sixteen: Internship over, or positive self-talk

11:51 pm. MONDAY, MAY 19th.

I’ve been in writing mode all day. I haven’t written much, but my mind has been super focused and soaking up everything. My thoughts are toward the future, as in next week, when I come back from my college commencement and return to my bedroom in Queens, my food service job in Chelsea, and absolutely nothing solid in the writing realm. I’m applying to writing jobs, but there’s no guarantee of one working out in the near future, so the question is, what am I going to do?

School’s over. It’s been over since January. If I’m serious about this writing thing (which I have been, without a shadow of a doubt, since middle school, probably earlier), I need to get a move on. I need to write, whether someone tells/asks me to or not, and I need to write well, whether I’m in love with the assignment or not.

And I need to put myself out there.

It’s encouraging, the confidence people have in me when I don’t have it, myself. These past several months, I’ve been something of a turtle, tucked into my shell, too afraid to try because of the possibility of failure, but those I’ve worked under have continually encouraged me: My boss in University Marketing — when I was preparing to leave Taylor, come to New York for this internship, and then do who-knows-what-else — my boss told me there would probably be an opening for a writer, come spring, summer, or fall. “I don’t know exactly what the job description would be, but . . .” Practically a job offer. And the editor I worked under at City Limits, today when I met him over lunch for a recap with feedback, put out the possibility of collaborating on future investigative projects.

Today is the beginning of a revolution. At least, it feels like it. Toward the end of last week, I started writing right before bed, a habit I kept all through high school that played a major role in my development as a writer. I decided that’s a habit I’m bringing back, to make sure I write daily, whether it’s worthless garbage that isn’t worth reading and might as well go straight in the trash, or whether it’s super poetic prose that brings tears to your eyes.

Yesterday, I bought a friend’s self-published e-book and started reading it — to support him and familiarize myself with his work. Three chapters in, I decided I’m going to review it here. I also offered to help him with editing in upcoming projects. Fiction was my first love, the entry drug to writing, and I miss working on it, so I’m going to get back into it — on the editorial side, as well as writing my own again. (Man, I feel like a writer again.)

Today, after talking with my editor from City Limits, finding out I was the first intern he ever had work, for the most part, independently on an investigative project, and discussing various ways of getting into the narrative nonfiction niche professionally, I went to Barnes and Noble on Fifth Avenue with the purpose of buying a copy of Writer’s Market 2014. Price disparities between the web site and the store brought me to the decision to get it online instead. (I feel like a traitor, but then I remember I saved fifteen bucks — more than an hour’s worth of wages.) Then, looking through the other writing books, I picked up a copy of Telling True Stories: A Nonfiction Writer’s Guide from the Neiman Foundation at Harvard University. It’s a compilation of professional writers’ contributions on the topic of narrative nonfiction (can you hear the “Hallelujah Chorus?”), covering everything from the ideology (extraordinary ordinary) to methodology (reporting, writing, etc.). Needless to say, I bought it. And immediately began reading. And in no ways regret spending that money.

Then I came home, and though I didn’t write anything substantial until now (unless you count the summaries for my Good Reads post), I was in writing mode the rest of the day. I had a lot to do: cleaning two bathrooms and the kitchen, laundry, two blog posts (this and Good Reads), buying my second Amtrak ticket for my trip, purchasing necessities at CVS, working out (new record: 1.4 in 10:22!). I got it all done, stayed on task, was hardly distracted. And here I am at 12:27, still wired and wanting something else to work on, even though I need to be up in six and a half hours.

Life. I’m getting excited about it again. I don’t have anything specific to look forward to after graduation. It’s kind of wide open while simultaneously closed, because of money matters, but I’m encouraged. Because it doesn’t matter where I am or what I have. I can do good work if I decide to. Today, I decide to.

MondayLunch with City Limits editor + all of the above.

Tuesday: Work.

Wednesday: Took the Amtrak to Albany and went home.

Thursday: Drove almost twelve hours from upstate New York to Upland, Indiana, with my 17-year-old sister in the passenger seat. Reunited with friends and wingmates.

Friday: Visited my former boss in University Marketing (who reiterated what she’d said in January about the job opening). Graduation rehearsal, more reunions. Senior banquet and chapel service.

Saturday: Commencement.

Good Reads: Little league, a horseman, and death row

This is the third in a new series of weekly posts recommending well-written narrative nonfiction/longform articles.

This week’s picks:

The Undefeated Champions of Defeat City by Kathy Dobie, GQ

Artfully written, this piece introduces North Camden, New Jersey, a city known for drugs and violence, and Bryan Morton, a North Camden native who decided to combat decay by starting a baseball little league for the kids of North Camden. A community-building effort driven by kids, parents, and a few bats and balls. Jam-packed with imagery, this piece reads like fiction, bringing you up close and personal with the major players. Strong narrative, priceless story.

Memories of a Master: The Determined Life of Dickie Small by John Scheinman, The Blood-Horse

A glorified obituary, semi-biography, this piece is about the late Dickie Small, a horse trainer from a long line of horse trainers who saw tremendous success on the racetrack. Fueled by interviews with Dickie (pre-passing) and his assistants and colleagues, this piece is a project to read. Those who aren’t horse fans may not make it to the end, but I encourage you to read the whole thing. And watch the videos and read the biographical sections (Early Years, Vietnam, and Making of a Master), as well. The life of this man was remarkable — determined, for sure.

From death row to freedom: One Tennessee man’s journey by Brian Haas, The Tennesseean

Paul House has MS. It’s tied him to a wheelchair, stuck him in adult diapers, and somewhat addled his brain. If he’d been treated in time, all of this could have been avoided, but when House’s MS began ravaging his body, House was sitting on death row in a Tennessee prison on wrongful charges. He was rescued from electrocution, but today, he still pays the price for his 20-plus years waiting for the chair he didn’t deserve.

What do you think of this week’s picks? Any other suggestions?

NYC Week Fifteen: How New York City Beat Arson

Read last week’s post here or view all other New York City posts.

This week, after a long, drawn-out research process that often had me missing the forest for the trees, I finally finished my internship piece to my editor’s satisfaction and he published it on City Limits’ web site.

It is by no means the best thing I’ve ever written, but I wrote it. I did the work (with direction), mapped out the piece, and wrote the 2,000-ish words.

It begins:

On June 14, 1974, an apartment building at 180 Central Avenue in Bushwick, Brooklyn, went up in flames and took the lives of Carmen Molina and two children who, with the rest of their family—the children’s father and another daughter—were preparing to move out of the building.

The Molinas lived on the building’s third and top floor. The fire escape was gated and locked. The father, Miguel, jumped from the third floor to get help, but on impact, broke multiple bones.

Sonia, 9, the middle daughter, was spending the night in her grandmother’s home not far away. At dawn, she and her grandmother woke to pounding on the door. It was Sonia’s aunt, come with news of the fire.

Read more.

Bringing you up-to-date:

Sunday: Mother’s Day. I talked to my mom for almost three hours.

Monday: Finished revising my piece for my internship. Worked out.

Tuesday: Work. Worked out.

Wednesday: Internship over, so I stayed home and worked my creative muscles.


Thursday: Work. Worked out.

Friday: Work. Wrote and read before bed.

Saturday: Read longform articles in preparation for Monday’s post in my new series of blog posts. Choir practice. Ran and then took a walk, because the indoors are confining and, guess what? It was beautiful outside!

Next week, I’m traveling to Indiana for my college commencement, so most of my week won’t be spent in the City. But no worries — I’ll still post for Week Sixteen, the final weekly NYC post. After that, my Good Reads posts will continue and, hopefully, I’ll have some freelance work to link to.

Thanks for reading! Feel free to share related thoughts below.

Good Reads: The underdog, the addict, and the rescuer

This is the second in a new series of weekly posts recommending well-written narrative nonfiction/longform articles.

This week’s picks:

Ra’Shede’s Road by John Rosengren, SB Nation

Ra’Shede Hageman, senior defensive tackle at the University of Minnesota, has the potential to secure a bright future. But he also has a past and a temper to overcome. Though this piece was published November 13, 2013, I found and read it for the first time this past week. It’s one of those with lines that make you pause and think. Powerful story.

Addict. Informant. Mother. by Susan Dominus, New York Times Magazine

Ann — her middle name — is a heroin addict. She has two kids, her husband is in jail, and the police are trying to motivate her to stay clean by paying her off as an informant. How in the world Susan Dominus got the fine details of this story, I have no idea, but she did a spectacular job. Brings you up close to the addict, shows the complexity of the situation, the seeming hopelessness, while providing the possibility of a better future. Maybe.

Raiding Brothels and Taking Names by Laurie Lico Albanese,

The story of a Cambodian man who’s taking on the country’s sex trafficking and child labor problems, and using his own story of success to inspire the girls he rescues. The author is also working on a book about Cambodia’s children and human rights activists.

Know a magazine or web site that publishes great narrative nonfiction? Comment and tell me about it.