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Happy is a Relative State

Images courtesy of West Virginia University Press and the author

Renée K. Nicholson | Fierce and Delicate: Essays on Dance and Illness | May 2021
1,977 words (7 minutes)


Imagine, once you had performed splits in midair. Now, sitting in a doctor’s office chair, you’re shown an X-ray that confirms you no longer have any cartilage in your right knee. For years, you’ve hobbled around with the aid of a cane, but now even that’s not an option. You have two choices. You either have a total knee replacement or you figure out how to get around with a walker or wheelchair.

You are thirty-six years old.

One of the few times I’ve cried in public was that day in my rheumatologist’s office. I guess it wasn’t so public, but it wasn’t alone. I hate that I broke down like that, but finally I couldn’t keep my composure. My rheumatologist is a kind man, with a no-nonsense way about talking about RA. The choices were limited, and I had to accept that. I already had, of course. By this time, putting weight on my leg was more pain than I could hide, and relying on a cane was not enough. I could barely walk, but I did, perhaps by sheer willpower, to get from one place to another.

Instead of telling me not to cry, my rheumatologist let the sobs flow, until there was a break, and then he brought me into his business office and called the orthopedic surgeon he thought was the best in town. He took such a personal interest in making sure I was going to do this thing I didn’t want to do. I think he knew I’d already decided to have the knee replacement surgery, but both my rheumatologist and the orthopedist gave me the option of calling back with a decision. I slept on it, but I didn’t toss or turn a bit. I knew I had to get the surgery, so first thing in the morning, I called and asked for the next available appointment. Once I made the decision, I was determined to get it done as soon as possible. No waiting around or mulling it over. Once again, I moved on quickly.

Though I was able to get in for surgery within a couple of weeks, I still needed a way to get around in the meantime, and so I found myself in a medical supply store, shopping for a walker. I wanted something basic, because I was hoping that I wouldn’t need it all that much—just pre- and post-op. Strangely, this view betrayed optimism I hadn’t dared to feel in a long time.

There were two elderly ladies in the store with me. Onechecked out a high-end walker with wheels and hand brakes like a bike. The salesperson had tried talking me into a similar model, but I wanted the cheaper one, without wheels, without bells and whistles. Basic worked for me. It seemed weird to think of walkers as having bells and whistles, but they do. The other elderly lady in the store bought a walker organizer—a fabric caddy with various pockets—that fits over the bar across the front of the walker so you can keep things like keys and cell phones handy. The lady suggested I also get a walker organizer. She showed me the fancy ones made of zebra-, cheetah-, and leopard-print fabrics.

I decided right there I would just use a backpack or my pockets. It was too much for me to consider a cheetah-print walker organizer. It certainly didn’t seem fashion forward, and I’d only just accepted the need for the walker. I was not
ready to give in to accessorizing, making the apparatus into a statement, not even when the salesperson asked if I might also like the see the giraffe print.

Before my surgery, my mother came to stay with me to help with the day-to-day stuff around my house. She cooked, cleaned, and drove me to appointments. My father also came for regular visits, both to be with my mom, who he missed at home, and me, as I prepared for surgery. During one of these visits, Dad went to see the orthopedist with me. He always carried a small notebook and a maroon Montblanc pen, and he took notes on what I needed to do and what I could expect, all of the details that only partially sunk in as I sat in the white examination room trying to be brave, or at least to not look nervous. When my father asked the doctor what I would not ask—what were the chances of success?—the orthopedist told
him he would do his best, but certain things were for God to decide. He did say he thought I would be free of pain, but there had been a lot of damage. He explained that many patients could do much more after surgery than before, and in spite of all the hope that had quietly slipped away over the years, I felt like maybe things would get better. Maybe I had to feel this way so that I didn’t feel like a thirty-six year-old getting a surgery usually meant for a senior citizen. And so I could believe it was, in fact, the best choice.

Imagine, once you had performed splits in midair. Now, sitting in a doctor’s office chair, you’re shown an X-ray that confirms you no longer have any cartilage in your right knee.

At this point, perhaps you’re thinking, yes, the happy ending is coming. This might make you sigh with relief, or become disenchanted with the story, feeling the happy ending wasn’t earned. There’s some judgment at the prospect of happiness, just as this entire story opens me up for scrutiny. Even though the surgery would help with the pain I had in my right knee, even though it partially restored what had been destroyed, it did not, of course, cure my RA. I never thought it would, and you shouldn’t think that either. I still have swelling, fatigue, fever, aches, joint damage. I can also get around in a fairly normal way now.

Happy is a relative state.

The night after my surgery I got very little sleep because I had intense pain. The night nurse had already threatened to catheterize me if I didn’t urinate, and so I willed myself to pee, only to be left atop a full bedpan. So things didn’t start off great that evening, and once the meds wore off, I felt like my thigh muscle was being slowly shredded with a cheese grater. My dad stood vigil by my bedside, getting only sporadic sleep in an easy chair. Luckily, I didn’t have to share a room with another patient. My father tried desperately to get the nurse to give me something for the pain, and perhaps she did, but I honestly can’t remember. I remember him holding my hand so maybe I wouldn’t feel so alone, and I remember squeezing because it hurt that bad.

Dancers build muscle memory from the day-in, day-out study of technique. Over the years, my thigh muscle had learned a new muscle memory, trying to pull my kneecap
up from my deteriorating joint. My orthopedic surgeon told me that even under full anesthesia my thigh muscle would not relax at first—the only time he’d ever seen this. The muscle still tried to manipulate the kneecap to avoid painful grinding in the joint. The body’s ability to adapt to protect itself is quite remarkable in this way. Though my orthopedist finally did get it to relax, my muscles retained a dancer’s memory. What could have been a minor curiosity signified to me a small connection to my former self.

After the first night, things did get better, but it was slow going. My leg was strapped into a machine that helped stimulate the new joint by continually keeping it in motion, as if pedaling or walking. I could lie down as this happened or sit propped on pillows, and many times I’d get calls from friends, which were welcome distractions, as the machine churned my leg. I learned exercises I would have to perform daily and made arrangements for physical therapy. When I was released from the hospital, I was given strong pain pills, but within a few days, I stopped taking them because I wasn’t hurting so much, not compared to how much I’d hurt before the surgery, and I worried about becoming dependent on them. Pain, by then, was one thing I knew how to contend with.

Pain, by then, was one thing I knew how to contend with.

In the weeks immediately following my surgery, I still needed the walker. My wound needed to heal, and I had to learn to walk again. I’d limped for so long, accommodating a joint that continued to fall apart, that my legs literally needed retraining on how to correctly put one foot in front of the other.

Dance had taught me how to train. So even though it took three physical therapists and some unconventional approaches, like a Pilates reformer and manipulation of the joint under anesthesia by my orthopedic surgeon, I finally made progress. First, though, a remarkable thing happened. As the wound from the surgery healed, I stopped hurting for the first time in what felt like forever. I felt nothing, and it was bliss. My father said he watched my facial features loosen and soften, too. He said I looked younger because I no longer carried the pain on my face. I didn’t know it was so evident. Perhaps I’d never hidden my anguish at all, that it was there, on display, the whole time.

I’ve never regained full mobility with my prosthetic knee, but I’m able to do things now I thought I might never do again. Take the good with bad, the saying goes, or is it the other way around? The ending isn’t simply happy or sad. It isn’t really an ending.

This past June I had the opportunity to renew my handicap placard for my car. But as the date for this renewal came and slipped by, I’ve yet to have my doctor sign the papers I’d need to file at the DMV. I can walk from any space in the lot to where I need to go. I can walk without the aid of a cane. I can walk at a normal pace and move with relative ease.

Once a week I slip the needle of a prefilled syringe into the fleshier parts of me, dispensing medicinal liquid that helps to balance my whacked-out immune system. During the week, I spend several hours in a studio, in the presence of dancers as their teacher. Twice a day, anti-inflammatories. All this give and take, but I’ve found an uneasy peace. I’ve given you a version of my story, the best I have to give. I crafted it with words I chose and plucked so carefully, shaped through revision. I’ve given you this tale and you will decide what to make of it, what to make of me. I have no control over that. You may judge or feel or discount. Perhaps a concoction of all three. I accept that, once written, my story is no longer wholly mine. Still, I give it to you.

Today I am sick, and tomorrow I will be sick, as I will be every day until I die. I may not like it, but that’s how it is. The rest of my life will always be entwined with rheumatoid arthritis. But it’s my choice to also be something more, to not feel sick, to still find those shadows of a dancer, which is to say tiny flecks of magic, within me. Like anyone who is hopelessly in love, I will always be the keeper of a flame.


Excerpted from Renée K. Nicholson’s Fierce and Delicate: Essays on Dance and Illness, published by West Virginia University Press.

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

(Photo by Morteza Nikoubazl/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

This week, we’re sharing stories from Nathan Thrall, H. Claire Brown, Alexander Chee, Jean Garnett, and Erica Lenti.

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1. A Day in the Life of Abed Salama

Nathan Thrall | New York Review of Books | March 19, 2021 | 20,500 words

“One man’s quest to find his son lays bare the reality of Palestinian life under Israeli rule.”

2. How Corporations Buy—and Sell—Food Made with Prison Labor

H. Claire Brown | The Counter | May 18, 2021 | 3,810

“The notion of work as punishment has enabled prison administrators to compel incarcerated people to work on farms and in dairies for low or no pay and without basic labor protections, sometimes in service of secretive billionaires they’ll never meet.”

3. What My Korean Father Taught Me About Defending Myself in America

Alexander Chee | GQ | May 14, 2021 | 3,680 words

“And he said something I would never forget. ‘The best fighter in tae kwon do never fights,’ he said. ‘He always finds another way.”

4. There I Almost Am

Jean Garnett | The Yale Review | May 19, 2021 | 4,933 words

“I can be a very generous sister—maternal, even—as long as I am winning.” Jean Garnett writes about envy and being a twin.

5. My Quest to Make My Dog Internet Famous

Erica Lenti | The Walrus | May 17, 2021 | 2,138 words

“When I spoke with several people behind some of Canada’s most influential dogs, agents and managers for pet influencers, and even researchers on canine-influencer culture, I began to understand. Whether they’re couch potatoes partnering with your favourite snack-food company or high-falutin divas posing beside expensive cars and decked out in the latest couture, pet celebrities have one thing in common: they are symbols of inspiration. Even if Belle was a dog, she needed to portray a life that could be. To be famous, she’d have to convince others she was already living the carefree millennial dream.”

Sentenced to Life At 16

Adolfo Davis (Photo by Akilah Townsend)

This is an excerpt from The Atavist‘s issue no. 114, “The Invisible Kid,” by writer Maddy Crowell. The year Adolfo Davis was arrested, he became one of 2,500 adolescents serving mandatory life sentences across the United States.

Maddy Crowell | The Atavist | April 2021 | 5 minutes (1,507 words)

The Atavist is Longreads‘ sister publication. For 10 years, it has been a digital pioneer in long-form narrative journalism, publishing one deeply reported, elegantly designed story each month. Support The Atavist by becoming a magazine member.

Sometime after he had given up hope and then recovered it, Adolfo Davis began writing letters from his prison cell. Around 1999, he bought paper and pens from the commissary and wrote one letter after another, three times a week. He wrote on his bed, a squeaky metal frame with a lumpy loaf of a mattress, under the ugly glare of a fluorescent light bulb. There was nothing much to look at in his cell, just gray walls and a burnt-orange door made of steel, with tiny holes drilled through it. Muffled sounds from the hallway helped him figure out what time of day it was, when it was mealtime, which guards were working.

“My name is Adolfo Davis, and I’m trying to get home and regain my freedom,” he would write. “I didn’t shoot nobody. Please, help me get a second chance at life.” He sent a letter to nearly every law firm in Chicago, and after that, to every firm he could find in the state of Illinois. Most of the time, the letters went unanswered. Occasionally, he received a curt apology: “Sorry, we are at capacity.” Or simply: “We can’t, but good luck.”

Adolfo was in his early twenties when he started writing the letters. He had a boyish smile, a light mustache, and a disarming charisma that could fold into stillness when he felt like being alone. In 1993, at the age of 16, he’d been convicted as an accomplice to a double murder that took place when he was 14. He claimed that he was there when the killings happened, but that he didn’t pull the trigger. For that he was serving a mandatory life sentence, without the possibility of parole.

Prisons in Illinois were teeming with cases like his—Black men who’d been locked up as teenagers. Few would ever be freed. Over the years, Adolfo watched friends become optimistic and then have their hopes dashed by the courts, by politicians, by their own lawyers. He once saw someone make it to the front door of the prison after a ruling was issued in his favor, only to be sent back to his cell when a state’s attorney made a last-minute phone call to a judge.

Sometimes Adolfo felt like he was trapped at the bottom of an hourglass, the sand piling up around him: Every falling grain meant another day of his life lost. Except that he wasn’t sure exactly what he was missing. He’d been free in the world for only 14 years—about as long as it takes some woolly bear caterpillars to become moths. What he remembered best was the small slice of Chicago’s South Side where he grew up. He remembered selling drugs on street corners, and coming home to find no food in the house. He remembered being evicted 11 times in 12 years, and sleeping in apartments crammed with other kids, aunties and uncles, friends. He remembered doing wheelies on his bike, showing off to the other kids in his neighborhood. He remembered getting up early on Sundays to get a Super Transfer—a bus ticket good for an entire day—and riding downtown, where skyscrapers towered above him. He and his friends would spend the day shining shoes or breakdancing for money.

The letters continued into Adolfo’s thirties. At some point, he began to wonder if he’d be writing them for the rest of his life. He would if he had to, because despite the terms of his sentence, the only thing that sustained him was the thought that he might eventually be released. So he kept writing; the months bled together, and the years did, too.

One day in 2009, Adolfo got a letter from the officials at Illinois’s Stateville prison, where he was incarcerated, notifying him that a lawyer would visit him the next day. Her name was Patricia Soung, and she was from the Children and Family Justice Center, a legal clinic run by Northwestern University, in Evanston, just outside Chicago. Adolfo had no idea what her visit was about, but he felt a sudden buoyancy.

When he met Soung, he could tell right away that she was, as he later put it, “an alpha”—professional and direct. Yet she seemed to care about him as a person, too. She and her team were working on juvenile-justice cases in Illinois, she explained, and they’d come across his. She wanted to take it on pro bono. Was he interested?

In more than a decade of writing letters, Adolfo had never sent one to Soung or the Children and Family Justice Center. This offer of possible salvation came entirely out of the blue.


At the time when Adolfo met Soung, the United States was the only country in the world that sentenced children convicted of certain crimes to life in prison. In Illinois, as in many other states, adolescents as young as 14 could be transferred to an adult court, allowing prosecutors to circumvent a juvenile-court system that was considered more rehabilitative than punitive. If a child was convicted of a double murder in adult court, the mandatory sentence was life imprisonment without the possibility of parole—judges were barred from taking into account the circumstances surrounding the crime to lower the sentence. The year Adolfo was arrested, 2,500 other adolescents across the country were serving mandatory life sentences.

In more than a decade of writing letters, Adolfo had never sent one to Soung or the Children and Family Justice Center. This offer of possible salvation came entirely out of the blue.

Individuals convicted of certain crimes before they were 18 could also be sentenced to death, until a 2005 Supreme Court decision, Roper v. Simmons, abolished that option on the grounds that it violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. The decision was based in part on the idea that adolescents had an “underdeveloped sense of responsibility” and were “more vulnerable or susceptible to negative influences and outside pressures, including peer pressure.”

A coalition of activists and lawyers decided to use Roper to try to bring an end to mandatory life sentences for minors. The group was led in large part by Bryan Stevenson, an Alabama lawyer who saw an opportunity in the ruling: If the Supreme Court agreed that adolescents’ brains were fundamentally different from adults’, he reasoned, then why should a child ever be sentenced as an adult? Stevenson began searching the country for test cases—people serving life sentences who’d been locked up as kids. He had nearly 2,000 to choose from.

Stevenson zeroed in on 35 cases, spread over 20 states. They mostly involved the youngest adolescents condemned to die in prison. Stevenson filed an appeal in each of the cases, and two of them eventually reached the Supreme Court. In the first, Miller v. Alabama, a man named Evan Miller was 14 when he beat his neighbor and then set fire to his trailer, killing him, after a night of drinking and drug use. In the second, Jackson v. Hobbs, Kuntrell Jackson, also 14, robbed an Arkansas video store with two older teenagers, one of whom killed the store’s clerk.

In 2012, the Supreme Court delivered a monumental five to four decision in favor of Miller. It ruled that it was unlawful to hand a child a mandatory life sentence that failed to take “into account the family and home environment … no matter how brutal or dysfunctional.” As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg put it during oral arguments, “You’re dealing with a 14-year-old being sentenced to life in prison, so he will die in prison without any hope. I mean, essentially, you’re making a 14-year-old a throwaway person.”

The ruling was groundbreaking in that it compelled judges to consider a child’s background in determining sentencing. But it also left open the question of whether the decision could apply to older cases, ones that had already been litigated. Soung’s team at Northwestern wanted to use Adolfo’s case to set a precedent, cementing that the Miller ruling could be applied retroactively. In 2014, they brought his case before the Illinois Supreme Court, and to Adolfo’s amazement the judges ruled in his favor: Based on Miller, he could appeal his life sentence. The decision didn’t set him free, but it cleared a path for that to happen.

Suddenly, Adolfo’s story garnered national attention. He found himself on the front page of The New York Times—a photo of him in an oversize brown prison uniform appeared above a story about his case. “A Murderer at 14, Then a Lifer, Now a Man Pondering a Future,” the headline read. Journalists from the Chicago Sun-Times, the Chicago Tribune, and WBEZ contacted him, asking him to share his story. “‘I’m just praying for a second chance,’” one headline declared, quoting Adolfo.

By then he was 38. He’d spent nearly a quarter-century—most of his life—behind bars. With every letter he sent and every prayer he whispered, he’d been waiting for this moment. The possibility of release softened the harsh edges of prison, made them tolerable. At the same time, he was wary of what might happen when his case went back to court. The system had always been against him. Why should anything change now?


Read the full story at The Atavist

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

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This week, we’re sharing stories from Peter Beinart, Ko Bragg, Mathew Charles, Russell Worth Parker and Rachel Lance, and Egill Bjarnason.

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1. Teshuvah

Peter Beinart | Jewish Currents | May 11, 2021 | 6,500 words

“For Jews to tell Palestinians that peace requires them to forget the Nakba is grotesque. In our bones, Jews know that when you tell a people to forget its past you are not proposing peace. You are proposing extinction.”

2. Reporter’s Notebook: The Power of Proximity

Ko Bragg | Scalawag Magazine | May 12, 2021 | 3,894

“A behind-the-scenes look at a year-long investigation into Mississippi’s laws that automatically put some kids as young as 13 into adult prisons and jails.”

3. Narcos and necromancy: Turf wars and black magic in Colombia

Mathew Charles | The Telegraph | March 5, 2021 | 3,528 words

“The drug gangs that are waging war in the Latin American country rely on a surprising ritual to protect them from harm: a witch’s incantation.”

4. A Marine special operator’s fragmented legacy: Blast, impact, trauma, and everything that comes after

Russell Worth Parker, Rachel Lance | Task & Purpose | May 7, 2021 | 4,272 words

“Traumatic brain injury is an ‘invisible wound’ I’ve suffered 17 times.”

5. That Time Hitler’s Girlfriend Visited Iceland and the British Invaded

Egill Bjarnason | Hakai Magazine | May 11, 2021 | 4,500 words

“The location of this small island nation, along with its people and economy, played an unexpected and crucial role in the outcome of the Second World War.”

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

Women mourn the death of a family member, who died from COVID-19, in Sopore, District Baramulla, Jammu and Kashmir, India on 04 May 2021. (Photo by Nasir Kachroo/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

This week, we’re sharing stories from Arundhati Roy, Josh Levin, Susan Matthews, and Molly Olmstead, Alison Criscitiello, Grayson Haver Currin, and Alan Siegel.

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1. ‘We are Witnessing a Crime Against Humanity’: Arundhati Roy on India’s Covid Catastrophe

Arundhati Roy | The Guardian | April 28, 2021 | 5,369 words

“The system has not collapsed. The ‘system’ barely existed. The government – this one, as well as the Congress government that preceded it – deliberately dismantled what little medical infrastructure there was.”

2. Mr. Bailey’s Class

Josh Levin, Susan Matthews, and Molly Olmstead | Slate | April 29, 2021 | 6,763

“Before he was Philip Roth’s biographer, Blake Bailey taught the eighth grade. His students say he made them feel special. They worshipped him. They trusted him. He used it all against them.”

3. Contraindications

Alison Criscitiello | Alpinist Magazine | September 22, 2017 | 6,890 words

“I covered the rock beneath me in tears and beat it with my fists. The word No echoed off the cold and shadowed face of Rachu Tangmu. In less than a minute, I unleashed the emotions that I knew I would lock down for weeks, until I got us home. I closed my eyes and wiped my face. Calm and even, I did CPR for an hour despite the obvious signs that she had passed away. It is what you do, so I did it.”

4. Emily Ford Hiked 1,200 Miles in the Dead of Winter

Grayson Haver Currin | Outside | May 4, 2021 | 2,276 words

Ford hiked, instead, for many of the same reasons that “lanky white dudes” or anyone else might take to the woods: to pay attention to herself, to have space to think through the life she had led for 28 years and where she wanted it to go.

5. Two Assholes Lost in the Woods: An Oral History of ‘Pine Barrens’

Alan Siegel | The Ringer | May 5, 2021 | 5,600 words

“Twenty years after it aired, David Chase and Co. look back on the one of the wildest, boldest, funniest episodes of ‘The Sopranos’ ever made.”

‘The Fledglings Are Out!’

Images courtesy of Milkweed Editions

Dara McAnulty | Diary of a Young Naturalist | May 2021 | 1,979 words (7 minutes)


This diary chronicles the turning of my world, from spring to winter, at home, in the wild, in my head. It travels from the west of Northern Ireland in County Fermanagh to the east in County Down. It records the uprooting of a home, a change of county and landscape, and at times the de-rooting of my senses and my mind. I’m Dara, a boy, an acorn. Mum used to call me lon dubh (which is Irish for blackbird) when I was baby, and sometimes she still does. I have the heart of a naturalist, the head of a would-be scientist, and bones of someone who is already wearied by the apathy and destruction wielded against the natural world. The outpourings on these pages express my connection to wildlife, try to explain the way I see the world, and describe how we weather the storms as a family.


Tuesday, 5 June
The garden has blossomed in the warmth of these late spring days. So much light and sunshine, compensating for the heaving tiredness and exasperation that comes, for me, at the end of the school year. Friendship has always eluded me – what is it anyway? A collection of actions and words between two people or more, people who grow and change anyway. It’s a good thing, apparently. That’s what some people say. I don’t have any experience, though. I mean, I play board games with a group at my school. We play, we deconstruct the game. We don’t ‘talk’. What is there to say? Sometimes, I feel that if I start, I might not shut up. That has happened, lots of times. It doesn’t end well. Kids in my class, they walk around town together, they might play football together or whatever other sport takes their fancy. They don’t talk, though. They smirk and snigger at anyone who is different. Unfortunately, for me, I’m different. Different from everyone in my class. Different from most people in my school. But at breaktime today I watched the pied wagtails fly in and out of the nest. How could I feel lonely when there are such things? Wildlife is my refuge. When I’m sitting and watching, grown-ups usually ask if I’m okay. Like it’s not okay just to sit and process the world, to figure things out and watch other species go about their day. Wildlife never disappoints like people can. Nature has a purity to me, unaffected. I watch the wagtail fly out and in again, then step a little closer. Peering in, I see that last week’s eggs are now chicks. Tiny bright-yellow beaks, mouths opening and closing silently. This is the magic. This bird, which dances and hops at everyone’s feet in the playground, unnoticed by most. Its liveliness and clockwork tail, ticking constantly, never touching the ground. It appears again, and the squawking starts in earnest. I giggle inside, in case someone sees. I have to hold so much in, phase so much out. It’s exhausting.

At home, I mooch around the garden and notice the first herb robert flowers, pink wild bloom amongst the verdant. I note it down on my list of firsts in the garden and feel good. I hear Dad come back from work, and with him an injured bat. She’s the first of the year and we tend to it – females only have one pup a year, such precious cargo. We feed it mealworms and put water in a milk-bottle lid. The bat’s mouth is so small I use one of Bláthnaid’s paintbrushes to put droplets on its tongue, hoping it will be something like lapping dewdrops from a leaf or puddle. Dehydration is the main killer of an injured bat, so it’s important to get it to drink. But as they’re getting better they’ll chew up a mealworm like a piece of spaghetti.

They’re such innocuous and timid creatures, not worthy of the silly hype that surrounds the movies and Hallowe’en. They’re insect-controllers: a single pipistrelle eats 3,000 midges a night. Can you imagine the swarms really ruining your camping holiday if we didn’t have healthy numbers of bat populations? It’s unimaginable.

The bat sleeps in my room. They always do because it’s quiet away from the hustle and bustle of the rest of the McAnulty family. I always sleep so soundly when I have a bat staying in my room. I hear it scratching about in the night and am never afraid, I am comforted.

Friday, 8 June
I trudge to school with a leaden heart: the bat didn’t make it through the night, and we didn’t lose just one bat, we’ve lost every generation that could have followed. Her injuries, caused by a cat, were too much and she died, Dad thinks, from infection. I feel so heartbroken. I’ve finished all my exams but that isn’t enough to lighten my spirits.

After school, Lorcan and I arrive home to squeals of delight from Mum and Bláthnaid. ‘The fledglings are out! The fledglings are out!’ Mum roars with all the childish delight that many of the kids I know have lost before they’re eight or nine. The excitement is intoxicating, and it spreads into me and I feel a little airy. We watch through the window as a just-emerged coal tit, blue tit and sparrow rest on the branches of the pine trees, open-mouthed, noisy and boisterous and splendiferous.

Watching the discordant gang, I realise that I won’t see them when they’re fully grown. Not if we move house. I’ve been in complete denial about moving house. Tomorrow, though, we’re going house-hunting in County Down, in Castlewellan – a small town six miles from our new school in Newcastle (which Mum and Dad say is too expensive for us to live in). I’m not sure if I feel really annoyed about the whole thing, or whether that tickle I sometimes get thinking about it is a sign of the excitement there might be in starting over again. The opportunity to reinvent myself.

Mum notices my mood shifting. I give her my best broad grin and a hug. It’s not easy for any of us, but she and Dad will do most of the work – and the worrying.
Every day, ever since I can remember, Mum has sat me down, sat us all down, and explained every situation we’ve ever had to deal with. Whether it was going to the park, to the cinema, to someone’s house, to a café. Every time, all manner of things were delicately instructed. Social cues, meanings of gestures, some handy answers if we didn’t know what to say. Pictures, social stories, diagrams, cartoons. Many people accuse me of ‘not looking autistic’. I have no idea what that means. I know lots of ‘autistics’ and we all look different. We’re not some recognisable breed. We are human beings. If we’re not out of the ordinary, it’s because we’re fighting to mask our real selves. We’re holding back and holding in. It’s a lot of effort. What’s a lot more effort, though, is the work Mum did and does still, so light-heartedly. She tells us it’s because she knows. She knows the confusion. That’s why she and Dad will be doing the worrying about moving, and why Mum will be doing all the planning and mind- mapping, and will somehow know how everything fits together. I’m lucky, very lucky.

Many people accuse me of ‘not looking autistic’. I have no idea what that means. I know lots of ‘autistics’ and we all look different. We’re not some recognisable breed. We are human beings.

Saturday, 9 June
The day is glorious. It’s summer weather, I have a new Undertones T-shirt (the ‘My Perfect Cousin’ one) and I feel good wearing it. I don’t know why I love T-shirts with some part of me brandished on them. Maybe it’s because it will either scare people away or start a conversation without me having to do anything. Well, either way, that hasn’t happened yet!

We arrive at the first house for viewing and Mum hates it, I can tell. I don’t like it either. Everything about it is squashed, though we can see the Mourne Mountains from upstairs. The second house is much better but needs a lot of work – the views are extraordinary. Neither of them lights a fire in anyone’s belly, though, so that’s it for today, thankfully. And because it’s still morning we’re going to explore the Castlewellan Forest Park, a government-owned forest with native woods, conifer plantation and red kites. It even has a lake and a mountain path. Lorcan and Bláthnaid have already been but it’s a first for me. It’s so beautiful. I feel a swell of anticipation – if we move here we could live beside a forest. We could be near trees! We might not be crammed in by suburbia anymore. I could ride my bike without worrying about cars.

You see, this is a big deal for us kids. We can’t access nature the way my parents’ generation could. Our exposure to wildlife and wild places has been robbed by modernity and ‘progress’. Our pathways for exploration have been severed by development and roads and pollution. Seriously, you take your life into your own hands if you choose to cycle anywhere in Enniskillen. The roads are congested, busy and unfriendly, especially if, like me, you want to stop and stare. We always have to travel to forest parks or nature reserves for our dose, returning to the starkness of concrete and manicured lawns. To think we could live beside a forest!

The thought keeps echoing and I feel euphoric, almost delirious. We all feel it in the glow of the sun with swallows, house martins and swifts above us, dancing everywhere. So many. I’ve never seen so many all at once. Not all three together. It’s heady and intense. We’re all springing, bouncing off one another with sideway glances and controlled smiles. Hoping and holding it all in.

We find a peace maze in the park, created after the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. It has 6,000 yew trees and was planted by 5,000 school children and others from the nearby community. We rage through it until we come to a rope bridge. I stop and get out my binoculars: red kites, three of them, wheeling and soaring, ascending, dropping right over our heads. It’s staggering. We gawp at the sky and you can feel our family agreement travelling through us, silently: this might be a good place to live.

Exhausted after the long drive and the day’s events, we head back to Granny’s house in Warrenpoint, where we’re staying tonight. My Granny Elsie has amazing views from her back garden. We can see Carlingford Lough and the Mournes and the Cooley Mountains. Every day looks different there, with subtle changes of colour or the way the clouds sit then disperse on the mountains. Today, the sparrows are chattering and the sun is still high. We decide we need another walk along the beach before we get dinner.

We do a beach clean as we go, but not too much today, which gives us plenty of time for exploring. Lorcan has the best find of the day: a cuttlefish bone smoothed by the sea, silk-soft. The bones, which are not really bones at all but a shell, are usually from the females who die a few weeks after breeding, and the dead cephalopods’ skeletons are later washed up on the beach. Lorcan’s find has the kind of piddock holes that we normally see in soft rocks and clays, and there still seems to be life inside them so we carry it back to the sea before it dries out. We find another, bone-dry, which we bring back to Granny Elsie’s.

Later that night, in the darkness, sharing a room with Lorcan, we talk about the move in hushed tones and excitement, until we both sink like stones into sleep.

Excerpted from Diary of a Young Naturalist. Published by Milkweed Editions.


Dara McAnulty is the author Diary of a Young Naturalist, forthcoming in Spring 2021. He is the recipient of the Wainwright Prize for nature writing. Dara lives with his mum, dad, brother Lorcan, sister Bláthnaid and rescue greyhound Rosie in County Down, Northern Ireland. Dara’s love for nature, his activism and his honesty about autism, has earned him a huge social media following from across the world and many accolades: in 2017 he was awarded BBC Springwatch ‘Unsprung Hero’ Award and Birdwatch magazine ‘Local Hero’; in 2018 he was awarded ‘Animal Hero’ of the year by the Daily Mirror and became ambassador for RSPCA and the iWill campaign; in 2019 he became a Young Ambassador for the Jane Goodall Institute and became the youngest ever recipient of the RSPB Medal for conservation.

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

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This week, we’re sharing stories from Nicole Lewis, Omayra Issa and Ify Chiwetelu, Patricia McCormick, Tobias Buck, and ‘Cúagilákv.

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1. How We Survived Covid-19 in Prison

Nicole Lewis | The Marshall Project | April 22, 2021 | 3,610 words

“At the start of the pandemic, we asked four incarcerated people to chronicle daily life with the coronavirus.” Bruce Bryant, Jennifer Graves, James Ellis, and Christopher Walker “reveal what they witnessed and how they coped with the chaos, fear, isolation and deaths.”

2. Black on the Prairies

Omayra Issa, Ify Chiwetelu | CBC News | April 25, 2021

A multimedia, interactive exploration of Black life in on the prairies of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta.

3. The Girl in the Kent State Photo

Patricia McCormick | The Washington Post Magazine | April 19, 2021 | 4,535 words

“I believe that one of our most important roles as teachers is to provide authentic opportunities for young people to heal.”

4. Herman and the Serpent

Tobias Buck | North & South | April 13, 2021 | 4,100 words

“How a retired diplomat in Wellington brought a notorious murderer to justice.”

5. Thriving Together: Salmon, Berries, and People

‘Cúagilákv | Hakai Magazine | April 27, 2021 | 2,000 words

“Western science is a curious little sister on this coast, mapping ideas and observations in spaces where Indigenous science has been foundational to kinship-building and ecological balance for millennia.”

The Fracking Lottery

George Hagemeyer in front of his new living-room wall mural. Credit: Tristan Spinski

Colin Jerolmack | Up to Heaven and Down to Hell: Fracking, Freedom, and Community in an American Town | April 2021 | 2,303 words (8 minutes)

Excerpted from Chapter 3: The Fracking Lottery

Like state-run lotteries (and unlike most of real life), the fracking lottery was also rather random from a sociological perspective, in that lessors’ socioeconomic status had little bearing on their chances of coming out a winner.7 In fact, some of the biggest winners were land-poor folks like George Hagemeyer, whose inherited properties were millstones before fracking. Not long before I met George, he was barely getting by on his custodian’s pension. Duct tape traversed his linoleum kitchen floor. The cabinets sagged. A faded wallpaper mural of a fall landscape that had enjoyed pride of place on his living room wall for forty years was peeling. A tarp had been hastily draped over the leaking roof of a ramshackle trailer parked in his front yard that George used as a shed. He drove a jalopy.

Not that George was one to complain. “If you wanna look at the bad things all the time, that’s all you’re ever gonna see. You hafta look at the good side, too.” The good side was that, out of seven siblings, he was the one who had been gifted his dad’s land. He planned to die here, but he worried about what would happen to the property afterward. The natural order of things, according to George, is for a father to entrust his son to be the land’s next steward. But George didn’t have a son, and neither his adopted daughter nor his teenage granddaughter showed interest in living on the estate. His brother, who used to live next door, on a sliver of the family farm, had already sold out.

George’s fortunes did not change overnight. Like the Shaners, he leased in the mid-2000s, before anyone in the region had even heard the word fracking. The going rate at the time was only $5 per acre, roughly the amount that wildcatters had been paying for decades for the right—which they almost never exercised—to probe for trapped pockets of underground methane. Given the region’s historic experience with vertical gas wells, which were low impact, few in number, and almost never put into production, a visit from the landman didn’t set off alarm bells for George. (Some lessors complained that gas companies intentionally glossed over how horizontal drilling would be different—i.e., far more disruptive for lessors and far more lucrative for the industry.) George ran the lease, which offered $12 per acre for the first year and $4.50 per acre for the remaining four years (for a total payout of $2,360), by his lawyer. He was told it was a good deal. George smirked. “How many times do you think I’m ever gonna hire that lawyer to do anything for me again? It’s between zero and none.”

Sociologist Stephanie Malin and colleagues argue that leasing disempowered lessors like George, “precisely because negotiations occurred privately between industry representatives and individual landowners.”8 Most lessors, including people with counsel, lacked full information on what they could bargain for. The structure of private land leasing played into the industry’s hands. In most instances, gas company representatives were able to convince landowners to lease through one-on-one negotiations—situations in which the industry held all the cards. It never occurred to George that he could have collectively bargained with his neighbors, as the Crawleys did; as a result, he arguably got fleeced.

When I asked George if he felt cheated, though, he responded, “I can’t holler.” He noted that he “made a nice chunk of money” for the pipeline under his field. More than the gleaming Ford Explorer SUV and the $8,000 Scag riding mower, what mattered most to him about the windfall was being able to start a college fund for his granddaughter Maddie. Her portrait—knees tucked close to her chest, her blond hair framing a shy teenager smile—was the only tabletop adornment in his living room. Tearfully glancing at her photo, George managed to blurt out, “I love that girl to pieces,” before momentarily going silent to collect himself. “She deserves everything.”

George hoped to be able to give his granddaughter everything in the near future. I stood with him on a scorching July afternoon in 2013 as he supervised the workers preparing to bring his moneymakers—that is, the six gas wells in his backyard—online (i.e., connected to the pipeline). Despite the heat, the roughnecks were required to wear thick fire-retardant suits. “Ugh,” George commented, “I’d rather go pick shit with the chickens than wear one of those damned things!” As was his wont, George chatted up the nearest hard hat, who happened to be a field analyst who told us he recently migrated here from the oilfields in Wyoming. “We’re hopin’ for some pretty good wells here,” the man remarked nonchalantly. “You are?” George asked excitedly, rubbing his hands together as if caressing an imaginary stack of royalty checks. “I am too!” he exclaimed, before becoming overwhelmed by belly laughs. The worker readily indulged George’s fantasy. Based on the wellheads’ high-pressure-gauge readings, he had “a feeling they’re gonna be some pretty good ones.”

Once the man walked away, George began chuckling as he imagined life as a “shaleionaire.” He told me he would be the lousiest rich person alive, because he would give it all away. In addition to planning to pick up the tab for his granddaughter’s college tuition and buy her a car for graduation, he wanted, he said, “to be able to take care of my brothers and sisters that were born and raised here.” On second thought, George conceded that he didn’t plan to give all the royalty money away. “I wanna protect my home as much as possible.” Materially, that meant remodeling his careworn kitchen and installing a new roof—ideally, a metal one. Legally, that meant rewriting his will so that part of his new-found fortune stayed with the property, meaning that his daughter would forfeit any claim to her inheritance if she attempted to sell or transfer ownership of the estate. George also entertained more fanciful visions, like constructing a pond in his field “big enough to put two islands in,” with “an arch bridge going from one to the other with a flowering cherry [tree] in the middle of each one,” and like buying out his neighbor and bulldozing the house, so he didn’t have to look at it.

When the money, such as it was, began rolling in, George had some fun. He purchased a kayak and a large passenger van to transport it, so that he didn’t have to bother attaching a trailer to his SUV. On one visit, I found his table littered with ads torn out of magazines for resorts in the Poconos, casinos in Atlantic City, and even a fourteen-day cruise in Alaska. He had taken to purchasing decorative plates painted with American flags and animals like deer and eagles—which he displayed on counters, sills, and almost any other flat surface he could find throughout the house—and to collecting limited-edition Monopoly board games (the crown jewel, which he said he picked up on a day trip to Corning, New York, with his granddaughter, was gold-foil-stamped and constructed of mahogany). And he sported a fancy new watch that he had seen on TV and had to have. ‘They said the list price was $1,500, but I got it for a little more than $500.’*

It took some time to get his kitchen remodeled, in part because George acted like a self-described “pain in the ass.” Seeming to relish a rare opportunity to play the part of a bigwig, George gleefully recounted how he fired two contractors for not following his detailed specifications (he said one bought the wrong sink; another “hung the cabinets too darn high!”). The kitchen was finally completed in the fall of 2016, and it was such a total transformation that it could have been featured on Extreme Home Makeover: all stainless-steel appliances, including (finally) a dishwasher; wraparound stained solid-wood cabinets; marble countertops; an embossed ceiling that imitated the tin ceilings of old; and, of course, a new tiled floor to replace the duct-taped linoleum. The bathroom, whose origin as an outhouse attached to the kitchen meant that it was perennially dank, was also gut renovated. Its newly installed cedar paneling (including on the tub), wall-to-wall carpet, and insulated walls emanated both figurative and literal warmth. The showpiece, which George couldn’t wait to present to me, was a walnut bay window installed in the laundry room, off the back of the kitchen. Previously, he had no view of his backyard from the kitchen. Its three panes now framed an archetypal rustic scene: the lush green expanse of his lawn extending toward distant tree stands, with the misty mountains looming in the background. (He shrugged off the occasional odor of industrial chemicals like benzene that wafted in from the well pad through his window, noting that the problem was easily solved by jamming rags between the window and the sill.) ‘They were gonna do that window with pine,’ George said with disgust. He went on, ‘Now, pine would’ve only set me back $800, and this cost ten times that. But you ain’t doing my window with pine! Over my dead body!’

Though the living room was relatively unchanged, George did make one significant alteration as an ode to his mother: he replaced her faded, flaking wallpaper mural. The new mural, also a fall scene that took up the entire wall, consisted of dozens of painted vinyl squares glued together. George had actually purchased it four years earlier with his pipeline bonus money, but it sat rolled up behind his loveseat for want of the additional funds required for a professional installation. Knowing that I used to rib him about the unfinished job, George proudly sat for a portrait session with the mural as a backdrop when I visited him in the fall of 2017 with a photographer. Although the declining productivity of his wells, along with the bottoming-out of natural-gas prices, reduced George’s monthly royalties from five figures to four figures in less than a year, he fulfilled his dream of surprising his granddaughter with a new Ford Escape for her high school graduation, in 2017. He joyfully recounted the story of driving Maddie to the dealership under the pretense that his own car needed repairs, and then parking by the white SUV and announcing, “It’s yours!” George sold his two-year-old passenger van to finance the $28,000 cash purchase, which was a reminder that his newfound wealth was finite. Yet the fact that George had grown accustomed to paying in full up front for big-ticket items was an indicator of how privileged fracking had made him. One way he expressed his gratitude was by donating $500 worth of food and new clothes to a shelter on Thanksgiving; he said he made his granddaughters tag along, ‘to show them how to be charitable.’

Thanks to land leasing, George had finally broken free of a lifetime of relative deprivation. Though he was hardly alone in turning to the fracking lottery in an effort to escape hardship, George certainly made out better than most. Of course, those who didn’t own any mineral estate couldn’t participate in the fracking lottery. What’s more, in some places—especially Billtown—tenants faced rising rents, and in 2012 residents of the Riverdale Mobile Home Park were forced out after a company bought the land in order to construct a water withdrawal site. In the rural places of Lycoming County where most drilling occurred, though, almost everyone owned rather than rented (in Gamble Town- ship, where George lived, only 10 percent of the population were rent- ers).9 And, unlike in parts of the Midwest, almost all the landowners here held the mineral rights. Everyone who leased got something, but it’s a minority, it seems, who wound up with life-changing money.10

The fact that few lessors hit the jackpot, while most of them experienced some degradation in their quality of life, has led some analysts to conclude that petroleum companies exploited the vulnerability of marginalized small-scale farmers and homeowners. Like the disproportionately impoverished group of people who buy lottery tickets, the thinking goes, many lessors felt they had little choice but to sign, because leasing was their only potential escape from economic insecurity. Some scholars call scenarios like this “environmental blackmail,” because, they argue, residents must choose between their health and their livelihood.11 In addition, fracking introduced new inequalities among neighbors: members of the Shaner clan earned enough royalties to endow college funds and hire maids; the Crawleys, just down the hill, received just a $7,000 one-time bonus, which came at the expense of their fresh-water supply (now laced with methane from a neighbor’s gas well). The Department of Environmental Protection shut in the faulty well, foreclosing the possibility of it generating royalties for the Crawleys.

As for his own misfortune, Tom Crawley resignedly concluded that “accidents happen” and optimistically pointed to the Shaners, implying that he could just as easily have been in their shoes. His neighbor Doyle Bodle, whose water was also impacted by drilling, reiterated that most lessors “are not having any problems,” and that even people not impacted by drilling can wind up with bad water, suggesting that geology itself shouldered much of the blame. “Losers” like Tom and Doyle saw themselves primarily as victims of bad luck—in particular, of an unfortunate location—rather than of bad actors or systemic inequity. And the fact that topography and luck largely determined the winners appealed to residents’ egalitarian sensibilities. Anyone could win, regardless of occupation, education, or wealth. In this way, private mineral ownership, a peculiarly American idea, made fracking compatible with the American Dream-even as it created new socioeconomic disparities, exposed landowners to significant environmental risks, and oftentimes left lessors holding the bag.


* Throughout this book, double quotation marks signify that the utterance was audio-recorded and transcribed verbatim. Single quotation marks represent my reconstruction of dialogue based on handwritten notes. I make this distinction to signal that utterances inside single quotation marks may be less reliable than those inside double quotation marks, as it seems almost impossible to capture speech verbatim with notes, even if they are written contemporaneously.

7. While it is plausible that wealthier and more educated residents were advantaged in negotiating lease and royalty payments, the biggest predictor of whether or not one hired a lawyer was not socioeconomic status but the size of one’s property (small landowners surmised that lawyer fees would eat up most of their leasing bonus). Dylan Bugden and Richard Stedman’s survey of lessors in northeastern Pennsylvania lends additional support to my claim that socioeconomic status did not play a significant role in determining outcomes in the fracking lottery. They find that “outcomes tend to vary by firm-specific rather than sociostructural factors.” See Dylan Bugden and Richard Stedman, “Rural Landowners, Energy Leasing, and Patterns of Risk and Inequality in the Shale Gas Industry,” Rural Sociology 84, no. 3 (2019): 459–88

8. Stephanie A. Malin et al., “The Right to Resist or a Case of Injustice? Meta-Power in the Oil and Gas FieldsSocial Forces 97, no. 4 (2019): 1811–38.

9. “Gamble Township, Pennsylvania Housing Data,”, accessed July 15, 2020.

10. Public data only allow estimates of the total amount of money of leasing bonuses and royalties paid out to lessors by oil and gas companies, not how much each lessor received (see, e.g., Timothy Fitzgerald and Randal R. Rucker, “US Private Oil and Natural Gas Royalties: Estimates and Policy Relevance,” OPEC Energy Review, 40, no. 1 (2016): 3–25). Anecdotally, few if any journalistic reports of shale communities turn up more than a few local instances of shaleionaires. See, e.g., Tom Wilber, Under the Surface: Fracking, Fortunes, and the Fate of the Marcellus Shale (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2012); Andrew Maykuth, “Shale Gas Was Going to Make Them Rich. Then the Checks Arrived,” Philadelphia Inquirer, December 21, 2017.

11. Stephanie Malin, “There’s No Real Choice but to Sign: Neoliberalization and Normalization of Hydraulic Fracturing on Pennsylvania Farmland,” Journal of Environmental Studies and Science 4 (2014): 17–27.


Excerpted from Up to Heaven and Down to Hell: Fracking, Freedom, and Community in an American Town. Published by Princeton University Press.

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

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This week, we’re sharing stories from Breai Mason-Campbell, Simon J. Levien, Paola Capó-García, Emma Gilchrist, and Liam Boylan-Pett.

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1. Seeing in the Dark

Breai Mason-Campbell | Pipe Wrench | April 13, 2021 | 5,129 words

“I have to wear all of these dolls, you see, so that Whiteness does not have to wear any.”

2. The Crimson Klan

Simon J. Levien | The Harvard Crimson | March 25, 2021 | 4616 words

Exploring the history of the Ku Klux Klan’s presence at Harvard University.

3. Making Sense Of It All: High School Poetry in the Age of Zoom

Paola Capó-García | Teachers & Writers Magazine | April 5, 2021 | 2,260 words

“I believe that one of our most important roles as teachers is to provide authentic opportunities for young people to heal.”

4. Genetic Mapping

Emma Gilchrist | Maisonneuve | April 12, 2021 | 6,900 words

“Here’s what I know for sure: I have three fathers who love me. One is my true dad—the man who raised me and has always told me ‘the more people who love you the better.’ One has the softest heart and shares my experience of being adopted. And one feels like a soulmate even though we’ve never met.”

5. Ready

Liam Boylan-Pett | Lope | March 29, 2021 | 2,900 words

“On the start of a cross-country race.”

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

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This week, we’re sharing stories from Eli Murray, Rebecca Woolington, and Corey G. Johnson, Ava Kofman, Olly Nze, Dina Gachman, and Larissa Pham.

Sign up to receive this list free every Friday in your inbox.

1. Poisoned

Eli Murray, Rebecca Woolington, Corey G. Johnson | Tampa Bay Times | March 24, 2021 | 6,560 words

“Hundreds of workers at a Tampa lead smelter have been exposed to dangerous levels of the neurotoxin. The consequences have been profound.”

2. The Broken Front Line

Ava Kofman | ProPublica | April 7, 2021 | 5,890 words

“The wave of coronavirus cases that swept across the country late last year put even the most battle-hardened EMTs under unprecedented psychological strain.”

3. Haphephobia

Olly Nze | The Audacity | March 24, 2021 | 2,427 words

“The day I told her I was gay, the hugs changed. They became longer and tighter, like she was trying to hug the sin out of me.”

4. Feel Right at Home

Dina Gachman | Texas Highways | April 7, 2021 | 3,029 words

“Now I live near Brushy Creek instead of the Seine or the Pacific, and I’m not the first to make that sharp midlife turn from the city to the suburbs. ”

5. Crush

Larissa Pham | The Believer | April 1, 2021 | 4,100 words

“Can we fall in love completely without completely losing ourselves?”