A Letter about Shame, Joy, Creativity, Hope, and What I've Been Up To Over the Past Couple Years
Honest thoughts about a life swerve.
I've been thinking about you. Not in a creepy way, nor an urgent "must call them stat" way, but in a warm, curious way. It's been three years since I stopped blogging, and I miss learning out loud with you. I miss making friends on the internet and the surprising ways we support each other.
For the past three years, I've been sending an annual birthday email to a small group of friends scattered around the world, with an honest, hopeful update on my life and work and what matters to me. I created this newsletter in the spirit of those emails. I intend to write a few times per year, sharing, and connecting, with you.
What I'm Up To Now
My life has changed a lot in the last two years. I spent my 20s and 30s working in museums and nonprofits, writing about participatory culture, and building a home with my husband Sibley. I was focused and intentional, charging hard to create the life and work I wanted. Then, in the fall of 2020, my mom got sick. Cancer sick. Stage 4 sick. For the first time, I was yanked onto a path I hadn’t chosen, and that yank changed my life. I made the hard decision to transition out of an organization I’d founded (OF/BY/FOR ALL), quitting a CEO job I’d once believed would be the pinnacle of my career. It felt scary, but also necessary. I wanted to help my mom get better, and, if I’m really honest, I also knew my intense relationship with work was not healthy. I was exhausted, scared, and almost 40. I needed to change my path.
Two years later, I’m a slower, happier 41. My mom is doing better, and I’ve changed my relationship to work. For years, I only felt good about myself if I was doing what I considered to be "high impact" work. I would end the day frustrated with myself if I hadn’t achieved “enough.” Over the past two years, I've been unlearning my fixation on perceived impact and achievement. I'm proud of my professional accomplishments and contributions, but I'm not proud of the ways I treated other people transactionally, let work stress cloud my home life, and just generally was always obsessed with my job. I see other leaders who are able to lead from a place of balance and care for self and others, but I've always felt most effective as a leader and, weirdly, most joyful, when driving with total focus and intensity. Some people ask me now if I'll ever go back to leading an organization. For me, the answer is: only if I can learn a healthier way to lead. And right now, that's not the learning I'm prioritizing.
So what am I prioritizing? I'm exploring ways to do deep, challenging work that don’t involve aggressive deadlines or managing others. Specifically, I wrote a novel. I’m working on a second one now. I'm co-teaching an asynchronous online course in the Minnesota College of Art & Design's new graduate program in Creative Leadership. I'm also cooking for friends, going on adventures with my kid, and playing lots of beach volleyball. These activities allow me to immerse myself deeply--in creating stories and curriculum, building relationships and skills--with very few meetings, emails, or fast-turnaround expectations from others.
While novel-writing is now paying the bills (more on that in a bit), this leap was only possible because of my amazing husband, Sibley. We've been together twenty years, and we are both creative, entrepreneurial people. Early on, we pledged that we would strive to always live fully and well on one income, so we could support each other in pursuits that didn't (and might never) make money. That approach enabled me to write books. It enabled him to stay home with our baby, and then to make a big career shift from technology to housing and homelessness. And now, after ten years of being the primary wage-earner, it's enabled me to step back and slow down.
But enabled doesn’t mean easy. Despite Sibley’s encouragement, I felt a lot of guilt and shame for the first year after I left my job. I'd cook a great meal and feel proud for a moment, and then this voice in my head would say, "How is this helping the world? How is it even special? Anyone can cook dinner, you know." Shame, again. Shame that I'd opted out, especially during a tough time in the world, shame that I'd ducked my head so I could make milkshakes for my mom and play on the sand and make up stories. Even writing this to you, I still feel a tinge of it. It helps when Sibley tells me I'm kinder and more present and contributing more to our family. It helps that the novel I wrote is going to be published and become a real thing in the world (though that activates my old addiction to achievement). But mostly, it helps that over time, I am banking hundreds of days that are my happiest on record.
I am learning that joy doesn't only come from big achievements or community projects. This might sound obvious, but for decades, I didn’t believe it. I used to be faintly embarrassed by people who talked that way. But now, I’m living it, and I feel it in my bones. It’s not that I don’t believe doing big, hard projects is worthwhile or fun. I just feel it isn’t for me right now. I still love coaching and supporting others who are doing it. If you are leading change or building big, I am cheering for you from the sidelines. And experiencing joy on a small, human scale: one meal at a time, one page at a time, one day with my mom at a time.
Wait, What's With the Novel??
Of course, as a recovering type-AAA, I couldn’t spend all my time cooking and taking walks with my mom. So I tried something new: I wrote a novel. It's a murder mystery, called Mother-Daughter Murder Night, and it will be published by William Morrow in late 2023. It's about an estranged family of three strong, funny women who rebuild loving relationships with each other as they solve the mystery of a dead man floating in the Monterey Bay. I'll be sure to let you know when it's available, and I can't wait to share more with you about it.
But for now, let me tell you why I wrote it. Mother-Daughter Murder Night is a love letter to my mother, and to independent women everywhere. I started writing it in late 2020, when our family was grappling with some of the darkest days of my mom's cancer. We were drowning in stress and fear, and we needed something to talk about that wasn't illness and tumors and hospital appointments. My mom and I have both always loved reading mysteries, so I started to imagine a mystery with a detective like my mom at the center--a smart older woman forced into bed against her will. I'd write while she slept, and then I'd share each chapter when she woke. We spent hours in chemo clinics brainstorming about suspects and murder weapons, inventing a world that muted the ugly business of cancer. It gave me something to pour energy into once I stopped working, and it gave us both something meaningful to focus on, something bigger than the terror of the moment.
I didn't know while I was writing it whether this book would ever be more than a personal project, a source of intimate connection between me and my mom. I didn’t know if I’d even finish it. But, as the story came together, I started to wonder. I loved writing it, I loved learning how to improve it, and I noticed the joy it brought wasn’t just about me and my mom. So I finished a draft. Edited it. Reached out to friends online to provide ideas and feedback. I queried and signed with a terrific agent, who pushed me to make the book even better. And then she sold it to William Morrow... and a new adventure begins.
When the book sold, it shifted my mindset from “I’m pecking a keyboard in the wilderness” to “could this be my next chapter?”
I’m not calling it my job (yet), but I love writing fiction. I love creating instead of meeting or managing. I can work as intensely as ever, but I can also shut my computer after an hour or three and no one expects more of me. The work is hard, but there are no stakes. It's a made-up story! Who cares?
Sometimes, the sheer un-usefulness of writing a novel brings shame rushing into my head. Why am I doing this? What does it matter? But then I remind myself this is a time when I am trying to unlearn my fixation on achievement and perceived impact. This is a time I am trying to connect with my mom in a deep way. This is a time I am rebuilding friendships and baking challah. This is a time to graciously and humbly learn from things that do not "matter." And I have found, at least for now, that that matters quite a lot to me.
What matters to you these days?
I'd be delighted to hear what you're up to and where your heart is. I am rooting for you, wherever you are, whatever you're up to.
And if this spoke to you, I hope you’ll subscribe below. I’ve made wonderful friends on the internet, and I am so curious about the people I’ll meet in this new phase of life.
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This is beautiful, thank you for sharing. I aspire to write stories of inter-generational women being amazing together and murder mysteries are my favorite type of story. Seeing that you wrote something like this is very very inspiring. Also hearing about someone else who has left the impact-focused world is heartening. I worked in nonprofits for years and had to leave because of the high emotional toll and toxicity that seems to be at every organization I've ever encountered. People frequently ask me, so when are you going to be an ED and I'm always like, NEVER, absolutely never. I don't know that there is a healthy way for me to ever do that. I am now consulting with nonprofits so I can keep myself safer emotionally, but part of me also is regularly wracked with guilt. Guilt that I can't "handle" regular work, guilt that I'm not doing enough, guilt that I'm not making a big enough impact, and the list goes on (seemingly forever). Hearing that other people struggle with this guilt is helpful. Thank you again for your honesty and openness.
Thanks so much for sharing Nina. I totally relate to the addiction to achievement. For me, this came with a side order of a feeling of failure because I never reached the level of achievement I aspired to (to be more like you tbh!). I've moved mostly out of the museum world now, but am still figuring out how to not completely define myself by my work, and feeling like anything less than brilliant is failure. Recently I lost a colleague to suicide and my Dad to cancer mere weeks after diagnosis, both a reminder that life is short and the people who really know and love you aren't the ones keeping a tally of your outward achievements.