Word on the Street

Personal essays from a young journalist in the Sunshine State.

Seeing 404 error pages as a way to build a relationship with readers

Creative 404 error page that illustrates how you might feel when you stumble across one. (Not quite sure what’s up with the creature, but he’s so ugly he’s cute.)

 

Lately, I’ve been watching a lot of TED talks. I love the breadth of topics they cover, and how they add depth to what may otherwise seem like a surface-level experience.

I recently watched one about the experience of stumbling upon 404 error pages that alert people to broken links.

Renny Gleeson, whose background is in advertising, shows several examples of 404 pages in his talk. There are lots of other good examples, including these. The New York Times also has a creative one that links to a list of the Most Popular/Recommend stories.

But too often, 404 pages are dull; they draw people away from a site and rarely turn frustration into satisfaction.

Gleeson makes the point that “[A 404 page] is the feeling of a broken relationship” and says that “every error is really a chance to build a better relationship.” I love that last line and thought about it in light of our recent corrections audit.

It also reminded me of something that my colleague Craig Silverman wrote in his piece on why the public lacks trust in the media: “By publicizing and acknowledging our mistakes and failures, we show vulnerability. We show our human face. We make ourselves worthy of connection — and trust.”

And we build a better relationship with our audience.

Advertisements

Creating, resurfacing memories in my writing/reading room

I love this picture. My friend took it recently after I showed him and some of my other friends my new home office. (I prefer to call it my “writing/reading room.”)

“We should get a picture of you reading!” one friend suggested.

“OK, let’s find a good book!” I said, perhaps getting a little too excited.

My friends started looking through the books on my Billy bookcases from Ikea. (Incidentally, I’m reading a book — “Unpacking My Library: Writers and Their Books” — which says that as of 2011, Ikea had manufactured about 28 million of these bookcases. I take this as a reassuring sign that bibliophiles are not a dying breed.)

One of my friends gravitated toward a book with a colorful binding — an old copy of “The Canterbury Tales.” My dad, who always used to read to me when I was younger, bought me that book several years ago after I took a Chaucer class in college. He knew my copy was tattered, so he wanted to find me one that had character and was in good shape.

After several visits to independent bookstores, he ended up buying me a copy that was published in 1935. I remember the smile on his face when I opened it up and admired the drawings that go along with each tale, and the handwritten notes in the margins. I love books with notes — they make me feel connected to the people who have turned the same pages before me, and sometimes introduce me to new interpretations.

As my friend got ready to take the photo of me reading, I sat up straight, held the book in front of me and embraced my inner nerd.

Snap.

The photo is both fun and dorky (some might say adorkable), and it reminds me of things I hold dear: friends, books and, most of all, my dad.

Why journalists misspell names & what they’re doing to help prevent the error

My parents loved the show “Family Ties” and named me after one of the main characters, Mallory Keaton.

Hoping to make my name sound more feminine, they spelled it with two A’s instead of the more common spelling (one A, one O.) Ever since, people have referred to me as “Mallory,” “Mallery,” “Malory” “Malary,” and yes, sometimes even “Melanie.” A couple of times, I’ve been referred to as “Mallard.” (Damn you, auto-correct!)

Having my name misspelled irks me so much that I decided to write about the issue last year. After seeing a lot of recent corrections for misspelled names, I decided to write about it again. This time, I interviewed several journalists to find out what names their news sites commonly misspell, and to find out what they’re doing to help prevent misspellings. Here’s what I learned.

Brene Brown: Vulnerability is ‘the birthplace of joy, of creativity, of belonging, of love’

I just finished watching a TED talk that made me think more deeply about what it means to be happy. Sociologist Brene Brown — who speaks humbly and has a great sense of humor — spent years researching the source of people’s happiness. She learned that to be happy, we need to cultivate compassion and courage, allow ourselves to be vulnerable, and embrace our imperfections. We need to allow ourselves to be seen. (More on this later.)

Brown’s 20-minute talk — which focuses on vulnerability — makes me want to read her book, “The Gifts of Imperfection.” If her writing is as good as her TED talk, then I’m sure the book will have some valuable takeaways.

I transcribed some of my favorite parts from Brown’s talk for those of you who want a quick recap. I especially like the parts about courage and banana nut muffins.

“Connection is why we’re here. It’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives.”

“Shame is really easily understood as the fear of disconnection. Is there something about me, that if other people know it or see it, that I won’t be worthy of connection? … It’s universal, we all have it.”

“In order for connection to happen, we have to allow ourselves to be seen.”

“People who have a strong sense of love and belonging believe they’re worthy of love and belonging. That’s it; they believe they’re worthy. And to me, the hard part of the one thing that keeps us out of connection is our fear that we’re not worthy of connection.”

Based on her research, Brown found that people who believe they’re worthy of connection had one thing in common: a sense of courage. She says the original definition of courage was “to tell the story of who you are with your whole heart.” (Love this!) … “These folks had, very simply, the courage to be imperfect. They had the compassion to be kind to themselves first and then to others because, as it turns out, we can’t practice compassion with other people if we can’t treat ourselves kindly. The last was they had connection — and this was the hard part — as a result of authenticity. They were willing to let of go of who they thought they should be, in order to be who they were. … You have to absolutely do that for connection.”

People who believed they were worthy of connection also fully embraced vulnerability. “They believed that what made them vulnerable made them beautiful. … They talked about the willingness to say ‘I love you’ first, the willingness to do something where there are no guarantees, the willingness to breathe through waiting for the doctor to call after your mammogram, the willingness to invest in a relationship that may or may not work out. They thought this was fundamental.”

“Vulnerability is the core of shame and fear and our struggle for worthiness, but it appears that it’s also the birthplace of joy, of creativity, of belonging, of love.”
“One of the ways we deal with it is we numb vulnerability. And I think there’s evidence — and it’s not the only reason this evidence exists, but I think it’s a huge cause. We are the most in-debt, obese, addicted and medicated adult cohort in U.S. history. The problem is, and I learned this from the research, is that you cannot selectively numb emotion. You can’t say — ‘here’s the bad stuff, here’s vulnerability, here’s grief, here’s shame, here’s fear, there’s disappointment– I don’t want to feel these. I’m gonna have a couple of beers and a banana nut muffin.’ … You can’t numb those hard feelings without numbing the other affects or emotions. When we numb those, we numb joy. We numb gratitude. We numb happiness. And then we are miserable and we are looking for purpose and meaning, and then we feel vulnerable so then we have a couple of beers and a banana nut muffin, and it becomes this dangerous cycle. One of the things that I think that we need to think about is why and how we numb.”

Children are “hard-wired for struggle when they get here. … When you hold those perfect little babies in your hand, our job is not to say: ‘Look at them, look at her, she’s perfect. My job is just to keep her perfect and make sure she makes the tennis team by 5th grade and Yale by seventh grade.’ That’s not our job. Our job is to look and say, ‘You know what, you’re imperfect and you’re hard-wired for struggle, but you are worthy of love and belonging.”

We have to “let ourselves be seen, deeply seen, vulnerably seen. To love with our whole hearts even though there’s no guarantee, and that’s really hard. … To practice gratitude and joy in those moments of kind of terror, when we’re wondering, ‘Can I love you this much, can I believe in this as passionately, can I be as fierce about this?’ Just to be able to stop and instead of catastrophizing what might happen, to say, ‘I’m just so grateful because to feel this vulnerable means I’m alive?'”

“When we work from a place, I believe, that says ‘I’m enough,’ then we stop screaming and start listening. We’re kinder and gentler to the people around us, and we’re kinder and gentler to ourselves.”

Steinem: Women are ‘made to feel that our bodies are ornaments, not instruments’

Recently, The New York Times called Gloria Steinem “a woman like no other” and posed an interesting question: “Where is the next Gloria Steinem, and why — decades after the media spotlight first focused on her — has no one emerged to take her place?”

Journalist Susan Faludi had this response: “We’ve not seen another Gloria Steinem because there is only one Gloria, and someone with her combination of conviction, wit, smarts and grace under fire doesn’t come along every day.”

I’d argue that it’s because there are far more women now advocating for women’s rights. Rather than there being only one or two or three dominant voices, there are many. I was reminded of this when I heard young women from Barnard College share views on women’s rights and gender equality as part of a TV interview on The Oprah Winfrey Network.

Oprah and Steinem aired the interview at Barnard and gave students an opportunity to ask questions about a variety of topics — modern-day feminism, women in politics and what it means to be “a successful woman” in today’s world.

I looked up the segment online and came across a Webisode that centered on body image. As I watched it, I was especially struck by Steinem’s remark at the end. As women, she said, “we’re made to feel that our bodies are ornaments, not instruments.”

I’m happy there are many women — and some men — highlighting the issues women face and advocating for women’s rights. As cliche as it sounds, there really is power in numbers. The New Yorker’s Emily Nissbaum put it well:

“We often have a cultural fantasy about individuals,” she said in the Times story. “Collaboration is just as frequently the source of great things, and it’s less rarely recognized. Change doesn’t always happen because of one person, but that’s what makes for great biographies.”

A finalist in the 2012 Mirror Awards contest

On Monday, Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Public Communications announced the finalists for this year’s Mirror Awards — a competition that recognizes reporters who cover the media industry.

Other finalists include The New Yorker’s Ken Auletta; American Journalism Review Editor and Vice President Rim Rieder; Change the Ratio’s Rachel Sklar; and journalists writing for The New York Times, The Washington Post and more. I’m humbled to be in such great company.

I’m one of only two finalists to be nominated in two categories:

Single best article, digital media:

Best commentary, digital media

I’m happy these stories were recognized; I nominated them because I put a lot of thought and time into them, and because they seemed to resonate with readers based on the responses they got.

All finalists are invited to attend a June 13 luncheon at the Plaza Hotel in New York City, where winners will be announced. I’m planning to go to the event, which Anderson Cooper is hosting. I’m looking forward to meeting the other finalists — many of whom I’ve interviewed by phone but have never talked with in person. And of course I’m excited about having an excuse to visit one of my favorite cities.

Thanks to everyone for all the congratulatory remarks on Twitter and Facebook!

Responses to personal essay serve as a good reminder, motivator

I feel humbled. Since publishing my latest personal essay last week, I’ve received dozens of emails, Facebook messages and comments about it.

I’ve heard from people who have had their own struggles with eating, people who have had issues with depression and anxiety, and people who have friends or loved with eating disorders. I’ve also heard from friends who wanted to offer support.

I’ve been surprised by how many readers said they cried when they read my dad’s letter, which I highlighted in the essay. Perhaps this is because people who may not have been able to relate to the eating issues I described could at least relate to knowing what it’s like to have (or, depending on their situation, long for) a good father.

The responses have reminded me that we all struggle — often behind closed doors. And they’ve made me feel more motivated than ever to write a memoir.

I’ve been continuously confused about where to start my memoir. I’ve always disliked writing leads; it’s the toughest part of the writing process for me. I want my lead to be perfect before I move on. And if it’s not, I feel stuck. One of my mentors recently reminded me, though, that you don’t always need to know where your story begins. Sometimes you just need to start writing.

My goal for this month is to write three key scenes and then decide which one I might want to start my memoir with. If I can write a series of scenes, rather than continuing to write a series of personal essays, I think I’ll be off to a good start. It could be a scene from when I was hospitalized, from a mother-daughter moment, or from the present day. Or maybe it’s a scene illustrating a part of my life that I have yet to write publicly about — how I reacted when my dad first started dating after my mom died, for instance, and what it’s like to now have a step-mom.

My office, complete with bookcases and a little desk. Now I just need to find a chair for it!

As I delve deeper into my memoir project, I want to challenge myself to explore areas of my life that I haven’t written about, and also do a little reporting. My plan is to do more research on eating disorders and grief, and also interview loved ones to see if their memories match mine. As part of my research, I recently requested a copy of my medical records from Children’s Hospital in Boston to old get more specifics about my medical history and make sure my memories of it are accurate.

I now have a desk (an 1850’s farm table that I just bought at a local antique store) in my office at home. I think having my own little writing corner will help me focus, and remind me to take the time to write. I’ll keep you posted on my progress.

Why I’ve struggled with eating for so long & how I’m learning to let go

It’s odd being in a healthy relationship with a man you love and an abusive relationship with a disorder you loathe. You’re always trying to hide the abusive one from the healthy one, and you can’t help but be consumed by both.

Relationships of all kinds test our ability to be vulnerable. There’s the risk that if things don’t work out, we could find ourselves alone. Again. But there’s also the hope that we can become better if we’re brave enough to let love in.

After my mother died of breast cancer when I was 11, I was afraid of letting new people into my life because I didn’t want to deal with the possibility of losing them. But there was one relationship I could enter into without the fear of loss – my relationship with food.

Food has always been there for me, even when I wish it weren’t.

One of my favorite photos of me and my Mom, taken in Disney World in 1988. I was 3.

We’ve likely all found ourselves in a love-hate relationship with food at one point or another. But for some of us, the hate is stronger. My relationship with food has led me down a winding path that’s dotted with signs tempting me to go where I shouldn’t. It’s hard to avoid temptation when you feel like the only thing that can calm you is a box of chocolate chip cookies, a bag of tortilla chips, or all the foods that remind you of someone you’ve lost.

For 17 years, I’ve fed my hungry heart with food, not love. I’ve relied on food and rejected it, hid and hoarded it, loved and loathed it. I was in and out of Children’s Hospital Boston four times between the ages of 12 and 13, and then lived at a residential treatment facility called Germaine Lawrence for a year-and-a-half.

I remember my grandmother looking at me with tears in her eyes when I was first hospitalized. “You’re letting yourself waste away; you need food, Mallary. You’re so smart. Why can’t you just figure it out?” Being smart, though, doesn’t mean you’re always going to make smart choices.

For about two years after getting out of residential treatment, I did better. I listened to my body and ate when I was hungry and stopped when I was full. It seems so simple – to just listen to your body – but over the years it became increasingly difficult and I started to slip back into old habits. By freshman year in college, I had changed my eating routine. I wasn’t restricting all the time like I did when I was younger; I was binging one day and restricting the next.

Several women struggle with this same type of distorted eating. Because it doesn’t fall under the category of “anorexia” or “bulimia,” it’s more often categorized as “eating disorder not otherwise specified,” or EDNOS. (How’s that for a vague categorization?) Symptoms include night eating syndrome, chewing and spitting out food, purging, binging, repeated patterns of binging and restricting, and even picky eating.

The International Journal of Eating Disorders says EDNOS – which is the most common eating disorder in the U.S. – is “often a way station between an eating disorder and recovery or, less commonly, from recovery to a full-blown eating disorder.” A 2009 study in the American Journal of Psychiatry found that more people die from EDNOS than from bulimia or anorexia.

This doesn’t surprise me. I’ve always believed that it’s easier to identify the symptoms of (and subsequently treat) bulimia and anorexia. When you’re bulimic, people start to notice when you repeatedly go to the bathroom after meals. When you’re anorexic, people see that you’re losing weight and get concerned. In my case, my weight has stayed the same, making it easier to mask my disordered eating habits.

I drew this picture when I was 12 and at one of my lowest points. I remember my therapist at the time saw it and said, "Have you ever heard the expression 'Fake it 'til you make it'? Seems like that's what you're doing here with all these smiley faces." I've always been good at pretending that everything's OK. (Click on the image for a larger view.)

I’ve mastered the art of hiding. Not wanting people to know about my struggles, I’ve kept so much inside. For years, I’ve wanted nothing more than to end my relationship with food, but that’s the hard part – you never really can. When you’re trying to recover from an eating disorder, you can’t swear off food like an alcoholic can swear off the bottle.

We need food to survive. But we also need the kind of nourishment that comes from people who care for and love us. In an ideal world, we would derive nourishment from the love we give ourselves. Once we begin to love ourselves, we realize that we don’t deserve to keep letting our eating disorder hurt us. Why would we want to hurt something we love?

Food never loves us back. When we stop trying to fill ourselves with something tangible, like donuts or French fries, we discover that there are other ways to feel full, to feel whole. For the first time in years, I’ve started to feel whole again – without food. And lately I’ve felt more compelled to confront my eating disorder and make healthier choices, in large part because I haven’t been able to hide from it like I used to.

I’ve written about my struggles with eating, but I haven’t gone into detail about how hard it still is for me. With the exception of a few months here and there, I’ve lived alone since graduating from college five years ago. I was always able to eat what I wanted, when I wanted.

If I wanted to binge on a carton of Edy’s mint chocolate chip ice cream, there was no one there to tell me I shouldn’t. If I didn’t eat dinner because I was fasting to make up for the previous day’s binge, I never had to worry about explaining myself. And I didn’t have to worry about what I looked like and what I did after binges. My stomach would be bloated, my cheeks painted with tears and runny mascara. When I was really disgusted with myself, I’d remove most of the food from my refrigerator and kitchen cabinets and throw it away. Then I’d pour liquid dish detergent on it so I wouldn’t be tempted to eat out of the trash.

These are some of the secrets I’ve kept.

I’ve kept them from my father and grandmother, who live 1,300 miles away. I’ve kept them from my friends. I’ve kept them from my boyfriend Troy … until recently. Troy had read my personal essays about eating and knew I underwent treatment for anorexia. He didn’t realize, though, that there are still days when I feel like I’ve lost all control.

Shortly before moving in with each other last October, Troy and I talked about how much we were looking forward to eating dinner with each other every night. We figured eating together on a more regular basis would motivate us to eat healthier.

But that hasn’t exactly been the case. For as much as I try to eat healthy at work, there have been many times when I’ve raided the vending machine or driven to the local Starbucks to buy food to binge on. By the end of an afternoon binge, I don’t feel like I can fit one more morsel of food in my body, let alone a full dinner.

This picture always makes me smile. Troy and I are standing in front of our new townhouse, which we moved into in January. Prior to that, we had been living in my little 113-year-old apartment.

Since moving in with Troy, I’ve realized there are only so many times you can use the excuse, “I’m not hungry,” “I had a really late lunch,” or “I’m not feeling well” before loved ones and friends start to worry. And after a while, there’s only so much you want to keep hiding.

You know that for a relationship to grow, you have to be open, honest and willing to expose your wounds. Fear inevitably kicks in. You worry that your partner will think you’re crazy, that he’ll start to focus on everything you eat, that he’ll leave you.

Troy could have left a long time ago, but instead he’s decided he wants to try to help me. We frequently talk about how, even though it’s difficult to change my eating habits, I can’t keep finding excuses. Instead of saying, “I’ll eat better – starting tomorrow,” I have to tell myself I can start now.

Troy has given me lots of suggestions on how to improve my eating habits, but I’ve had trouble following through. He’s suggested that I ask some of my colleagues if they’ll have lunch with me. I tell him that it’s hard to leave work in the middle of the day. “Well, just ask if they’ll have a sandwich with you at work, then,” he says.

I haven’t asked my colleagues because eating with others sometimes makes me nervous. I eat at my desk so I don’t have to worry about emails and work piling up. I’ve often cancelled lunch plans because I feel sickened by a binge from the day before, or because I’m trying to restrict and don’t want to “ruin it” on lunch. I’ve had to find excuses, (usually, “I’m on deadline”), hoping friends and colleagues won’t think I’m intentionally blowing them off.

Troy’s also suggested that I text him when I get the urge to binge. I haven’t, partly because of the disconnect I feel when I’m tempted to binge. I tend to get in “the zone” on binging days, and avoid all the resources I could be relying on for help. Once I start to get stressed, I bolt from my feelings and bury them deeper until I end up feeling nothing.

Food numbs the pain, but it never fills emotional voids, which is why I find myself eating. And eating. And eating. By the end of a binge, I’m left feeling physically full and emotionally empty. And I end up dreading the next day because I know I’ll wake up feeling bloated and won’t want to eat. I know I don’t have to restrict the entire next day, and that I shouldn’t, but the twisted food rules I’ve created for myself over the years are so ingrained in me that I feel as though I can’t break free from them.

Breaking free requires finding something that we can turn to instead of food – something that will make us realize we don’t need to rely on food whenever we feel frustrated, overwhelmed or lonely. It requires us to ask ourselves: What do we really want?

One of my favorite authors, Geenen Roth, once wrote: “We don’t want to eat hot fudge sundaes as much as we want our lives to be hot fudge sundaes. We want to come home to ourselves. We want to know wonder and mystery and possibility, and if instead we’ve given up on ourselves, if we’ve vacated our longings, if we’ve left possibility behind, we will feel an emptiness we can’t name. We will feel as if something is missing because something is missing – the connection to the source of all sweetness, all love, all power, all peace, all joy, all stillness. Since we had it once – we were born with and as it – it can’t help but haunt us.”

This is one of my favorite Mary Engelbreit drawings. It reminds me that just because I had one bad eating day doesn't mean I have to let it ruin the next day.

Troy has helped me find that peace and joy again. He respects me and tells me every day that I’m beautiful. He makes me realize that I’m worth more than my eating disorder. A lot of people have told me recently, “You look so happy!” And I am. I have great friends, a new home with Troy, and a job that I love. My issues with food are what sadden me. It’s funny how you can feel so happy about some aspects of your life and simultaneously sad about others.

I’m trying to be strong and encourage myself to strive for progress, not perfection. Slowly, I’m making small improvements. The other day after a binge, I told myself I wasn’t going to let it throw me off course. The next day I ate breakfast, lunch and dinner. I want to prove to myself that if I continue to let my disordered eating control me, I’ll continue to feel out of control. If I tell myself each morning that I’m going to begin the day anew, then maybe I can start to regain the control I’ve lost.

We all need to be gentle with ourselves and understand that recovery takes time and patience. More and more, I’ve found that thinking ahead to our future can be a good motivator.

I want to be healthy enough to have kids someday. But if I’m not giving my body the nourishment it needs, I won’t be able to. I never want to be in a position where I’m negatively influencing my children. I don’t want them to see me restricting or binging. I would feel horrible if they caught me studying my arms or stomach in the mirror and started to scrutinize their own bodies. (I’ll never forget the day my mom looked in the mirror and said, “I’m so fat.” I was only 8 or 9 at the time, but I tried to convince her she wasn’t. She was beautiful.) I want my own kids to be happy and healthy, and to genuinely enjoy eating — just like I used to.

The idea of someday becoming a parent reminds me not just of my mom, but of my dad. He’s always been so supportive and has never failed to tell me how much he loves me. While living with Troy has forced me to let go of the secrecy surrounding my eating habits, it’s caused my dad to let go in a different way. I noticed that after I moved in with Troy, my dad started calling less — not because he didn’t want to talk to me but because he was afraid he was interfering. I told him not to be silly.

At Christmastime, he took a day off from work to go sightseeing in Boston. We do this every year and call it our “Father Daughter Day.” This year on Father Daughter Day, Dad handed me a note that made me cry. He said he was already thinking ahead to December 2012 and the possibility that I’ll be with Troy — and not home in Massachusetts — on Christmas Day. Here’s part of his note, which he titled “Letting Go”:

Every time I “let go” I think of it as “let grow”; it makes it easier for me. Being the sentimentalist that I am, I reminisced about the times that I have let go of you in your life.

I remember so well, the 1st time that I let go of your hands when you were learning to walk, knowing that you would fall, but you didn’t. I remember bringing you on your bike to [the neighbor’s] driveway for the 1st time without training wheels. Mom and I were so excited, and scared. I gave you a little push, knowing that within 10 feet you would fall, and Mom would come rushing to your aid to wipe away your tears. You never fell. Instead, you made it all the way down the street. It was Mom and I who had tears in our eyes.

I hated letting you go to Germane Lawrence, but I knew that I had to.

I remember the 1st time you drove out of the driveway in the Tempo, alone for your 1st time. I was concerned, but I knew that I had to let you go.

I remember letting go of you on your 1st day at Providence College, as you walked toward the dining hall, while Gramz and I stood there teary-eyed watching you walk away.

When you graduated from Providence College, I wanted so much to keep you close by, but I knew letting go of you so that you could go to Florida was what I needed to do.

Now, you are entering the next stage of your life. You have a wonderful man who loves you. You belong with him, so that you two can start a new chapter in your lives. If I had a choice, every day would be Father-Daughter Day, but that would be selfish of me. I love you too much to ever be selfish toward you. …

Mallary, every time that I have let you go, I have watched you grow. You may look up to me for inspiration, but I look up to you for my inspiration.

Me and Dad, Christmas 2011.

I do look up to my dad for inspiration, and even though we only see each other once or twice a year, I still look to him for support. He has always been there for me, always had faith that I would make it. At times, Dad’s given me tough love. When I was first hospitalized, he told me: “Mom fought so hard to survive. Now, you’re just letting me die.”

Being in the hospital like Mom was throughout the last few years of her life made me feel closer to her. I know that sounds twisted, but it’s true. Now, I can’t think of anything that would make feel closer to her than becoming a mom myself. I don’t see this happening for another couple of years, but I nevertheless need to start making changes now.

When she was sick, Mom used to compare herself to the Little Engine That Could. She and Dad would try to convince me that she’d make it and that everything would be OK.

“I think I can, I think I can, I think I can,” she’d say.

Mom didn’t have a choice as to whether or not she’d survive; cancer was in control. I’m fortunate enough to have the freedom of choice and the chance to change. I’m sick of my abusive relationship with food, and I want to make healthier decisions. Mom would want me to, too.

I know I can, I know I can, I know I can.

Note to readers: I’d love to hear your thoughts on this essay. What part did you like best? What do you want to know more about? What parts do you think need work? I’ve always found feedback on essays like this to be invaluable, especially since I don’t have anyone look at them ahead of time.

Take a minute to watch ‘The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore’

If you haven’t already seen it, take about 15 minutes and watch “The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore.” It’s a great animated short film that just won the Oscar. (Look how excited the directors were when they won.)

I had heard about the film about two months ago, but didn’t make time to watch it until recently. I love how it ties reading and writing together, and how it shows that books can help us escape. I was also struck by the question that Mr. Morris Lessmore asks in the book he’s writing: “If life is enjoyed, does it have to make sense?” Oftentimes, life doesn’t make sense, so we learn to embrace its complexities.

You can watch the video below. There’s also an animated storybook app that goes along with it. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the video.

Remembering Mom as I get genetic test results back

The results for the genetic testing I underwent last month came back, and they’re negative.

I was relieved when I found out that I don’t carry the BRCA gene mutation. If I had the mutation, I would have had up to an 87 percent chance of developing breast cancer in my lifetime, and would have been at risk of getting ovarian cancer. Because I don’t have it, my chances of getting breast cancer are now just 21 percent. (The average woman has a 10 percent chance of getting it.)

I’m still considered “high risk,” so my doctor suggested that I get clinical breast exams every six months. Once I turn 30, he said, I should start getting a mammogram every six months and an MRI every six months. Until then, I should alternate between a mammogram and an MRI every year so that I don’t expose myself to so much radiation at a young age.

I’m torn about whether I should get screened so often. If my insurance company will pay for the bulk of the screenings, then I’ll be more likely to get them. I know how important they are, and I now realize that I have to start doing self-breast exams so I can detect any lumps or changes that may be cause for concern. I often avoid doing breast self exams for fear of what I’ll find, and I had been putting off genetic testing for years. I decided to get tested, though, after my boyfriend and my best friend both convinced me to do it. I’m glad I did. Now I don’t have to worry about the unknown and I can instead be proactive about what I can control — my ability to get screenings.

I’m trying not to worry about what could happen in the future. Yes, I am at an increased risk of getting breast cancer, but there’s a 79 percent chance I won’t get it. There’s good reason to have hope, and I know my mom would want me to.

Fifteen years ago today, Mom passed away from breast cancer, which had spread to her bone marrow, her liver and her brain. She was only 40. It’s hard to imagine that it’s already been 15 years. Some days it feels as though she was just here. Other days, it feels like an eternity. I know she’s always with me, though, and I’m reminded of her every day. Of all the lessons Mom taught me, perhaps the most important one was to not let fear stifle you.

My mom found a lump in her breast but waited months before seeing a doctor because she was scared. I don’t want to ever do that. I want to live the life my mom didn’t get to live, and I’m trying to take the right steps to increase the likelihood that I’ll live a healthy, long life. (It’s tough at times, though.)

Fear can make you not want to go to the doctor, or it can make you feel as though you’re a coward who needs to struggle alone. Mom ultimately turned her fear into courage, though — the courage to finally confront her disease and fight it out until the end. She passed this courage on to me, and it’s one of the greatest gifts she could have given me. For that, I’ll be forever grateful.