21st Century Woman

Imposter Syndrome

Helping Hand

Image via Giphy


Today, imposter syndrome left me feeling paralyzed.

A woman friend I like and admire had made an introduction for me.

And after I thanked her, I sat at my desk feeling totally paralyzed by the implications:

Someone else had put their good name on the line for me.

What if it was revealed that I was imperfect?

What if I reflected badly on them?

Should I ask them to withdraw their support?

I realize—now more than ever—the extra energy it takes to get ahead as a woman. All I could do was imagine was that their trust in me was a misstep that would bring my friend spiraling back down.


I’ve been very fortunate to be buoyed many times in my career by other women.

Women who helped me get my foot in the door for a job, offered practical advice about a professional decision, or sometimes just perspective.

It is no small thing when women unlock the secrets of success for one another.

Once, during an annual review, my boss asked me where I sat on a scale of one to four, and I suggested a three. She looked at me silently for a moment and pointedly told me to write four.

The four would net me my first serious raise.

Another openly shared her salary with me, helping me negotiate for her position after she left. It’s a practice I’ve followed for the women behind me ever since.

The greatest gift we women can give to each other is to celebrate and champion our successes, and make them remarkable.


It takes a certain kind of woman to turn away from her fellow women, but I’ve seen plenty of those too. Women who crawl on the backs of other women to get ahead. Women who sabotage and scheme. Women who strive to get into the boy’s club and then shut the door firmly behind them.

You are not welcome here.



A few weeks ago we hired a young contractor to join our team. At 25, she’s bright and talented. She does thoughtful work, but when she completes her day, she exits the office to rejoin her life. She doesn’t read my emails late into the night, she goes to concerts with her friends. It’s an enviable position, and a good reminder to reset my own priorities.

She came to me this morning to tell me she’s leaving her contractor role for a new permanent position. I’m happy for her, she’ll be an asset to the team she joins.

She thanks me for my mentorship, for my edits. She thinks it’s made her a stronger writer. She tells me that she hopes someday in the future she can work for me again.

I tell her that I will always be there to open a door for her where I can. I will always put in a good word.

And so it goes.


I worked all day to calm that inner voice. I re-read my resume. I power posed in front of the mirror. I listened to Justin Bieber on repeat. I flexed my new independent audio producer cred. I wrote something and had it accepted to a favorite publication.

And then I sat down to write a letter to a young woman, to remind her—when she needs it—that she is talented. and capable, and more than enough.

More than Enough

Image via Giphy

21st Century Woman, Intention



A few days after my sixteenth birthday, I traveled down to see my older brother, Jesse, with my mom and grandmother. Stepping into his adult apartment felt like entering another dimension. Neither my little brother nor I had been allowed to spend much time there.

After years of knowing our brother’s teenage room so intimately—playing with his TI-computer, marveling at his massive Lego city, smelling his Colours cologne, and breathing in the garlic scent of his Pizza Hut apron—this place seemed otherworldly.

My mom and my grandmother shuffled awkwardly around the space. My brother scurried around the room nervously making small talk. It seemed they were all stalling, waiting for something to begin.

I’m not stingy with love, but I love my older brother best. With an 11-year age gap between us, there is no reason that we should be so close, and yet here we are. When I was very young, he became a surrogate parent, rocking me to sleep. In childhood, I had full advantage of his big imagination. As a teenager, he was the protective, insightful, older brother. Today, he is my friend.

With Jesse around, a simple swing set became the most expedient way to catapult oneself over a dangerous lava pit below. A dormant beehive became a scientific expedition. The tall, scary hill covered in snow suddenly became the most excellent sledding adventure.

When you are a kid and you have an older brother with a ‘75 Mustang, you will most certainly experience the joy of a reckless 55 miles an hour (!) drive down a rural back road.

In my childhood, I found my brother intensely curious and fearless. He still is.

We are so close that I was much older before I could fully comprehend that he was my half-brother or what that even meant. He was just Jesse, my Bub.

Sometime around age nine, we stopped seeing as much of my brother. When he did come home, his visits were short, and his hugs were awkward and stilted.

My little brother and I were wrecked by his absence. When he did visit, we wrapped ourselves around him—literally. We would crawl into his lap, hug him needlessly, endlessly. Even though we could see tension between him and my parents, we were undeterred in our mission for his full attention.

One day, after a particularly sharp comment from my mom, my brother snapped at us to get off of him. It was the first time we had ever heard an unfriendly word from him. We slunk away, astonished and hurt.

What followed were a series of years where it felt like Jesse wasn’t welcome at home anymore. My little brother and I were heartbroken and confused.

We often asked mom why Jesse didn’t come to visit anymore and she would tell us he had his own life to lead, that college was a lot of work. We must have asked so frequently that one day she snapped at us, “It’s because you hang on to him too much. He hates that.”

The next time my brother visited, we kept our distance, afraid that the love bursting from our little bodies would push him further away.

Sometime in my early adolescence, we went to visit Jesse in the town where he lived (Christiansburg, maybe?). He was happy to see us, but nervous too. He told us that today we were going to meet his roommate.

As we assembled at Macado’s (!), a tall, lanky guy walks up to join us.

“This is my friend, Keith,” Jesse said glowingly, proudly.


Keith has an outsized presence in my memories. My brother loved him and so I loved him too. He had glasses, which was really all it took for me fall for him (see: Kellie Martin). Jesse’s roommate came to our birthday parties and was always there when we went to see our brother.

And then, one day, Jesse told us we wouldn’t be seeing Keith anymore. Like a child of divorce, we pleaded for answers. Had we done something wrong? How can we bring him back? I remember crying real tears at the loss.

Time passed and we met more a few more of Jesse’s friends, but by then I had learned not to give my heart away so easily.

As I passed into full teenager, we entered another period where we didn’t see as much of my brother.

My mom and I spent a fair amount of time on the road together, driving to Girl Scout events, and once in the quiet car on the way back home, she asked me an unusual question.

“Why do you think we don’t see as much of your brother anymore?”

“I don’t know. I figure he’s busy. And you and dad are not very nice to him.”

“What would you say if I told you that your brother was different? What if I told you he was…gay?”

“Is that why he doesn’t come to visit anymore?”

“I didn’t say that. I’m just asking how you would feel about him if that were true.”

I remember pausing to think. This seemed important. There seemed to be a right answer. I could tell this was hard for my mom.

“I would still love him just the same. He’s my brother.” I shrugged.

I wish I remember what my mom said after that. I only recall her trying to hide tears. Was she trying to tell me my brother was gay? Or was she testing out the concept of “gay” using someone I unconditionally loved? It didn’t matter—for me the answer was the same.

It’s a few days after my 16th birthday and we’re standing in my brother’s apartment.

After some awkwardness, my brother tells me to come sit at a spot in the center of the room. My grandma, my mom, and my brother surround me like an intervention.

I start to feel nervous, so my brother knowingly reaches out and puts my hands in his to steady us both. He clears his throat, and then:

Sis, there is something I want to tell you.

I’m gay.

Do you understand what that means?

I nod.

Mom and dad asked that I wait until your sixteenth birthday to tell you, to make sure you were old enough to understand.

I want you to know that I’ve been careful. I’m HIV negative.

His voice cracked.

I hope you know this doesn’t change anything between us. I’m still your brother. I love you very much, and I will always be here for you. Okay?

There is a long pause.

Is that all?

Yes. That’s all.

Okay, well…I knew that already. And I love you too. Always. Now, let’s go eat.


I didn’t know then, but it was a big deal. My brother had a long, hard road of coming out to my parents. There was a period of time where he wasn’t welcome, where he had been distanced…nearly disowned.

Through those years, we all turned inward. My brother, struggling to come to terms with an identity he had been told was wrong, dangerous. My mother, trying to understand what it means for her relationship with her son. My dad, fighting long held beliefs about right and wrong. My little brother and I, just longing for our Bub.

In a different time and place, we would have shared these feelings with each other. Leaned on the family unit for support and understanding.

But I didn’t grow up in that time or that place.

It would be another decade before anyone in our family dared to stop referring to his boyfriends as “roommates.” Some of my extended family has still refused to acknowledge this fact about my brother. We’re still working on getting my dad not to refer to my brother’s interests as “that gay stuff.”

I would keep the promise to my parents and wait another year and a half for my older brother to come out…again…this time, to my little brother.

After it was over, the adults breathed a sigh of relief and my little brother walked over to me standing in the kitchen.

“So that’s it?” he asked.


“Huh. I mean, he’s still my brother. I still love him.”


It was a weird secret to have kept, mostly because it seemed so benign to us. The telltale signs had been there all along for anyone who cared to look. My brother’s inner battle had manifested itself in the form of complicated mixtapes: Bette Midler and Dolly Parton, next to Amy Grant and Steven Curtis Chapman, with the occasional Madonna, for good measure.

I know that Pride month it not meant for me. It is for the millions of men and women who are brave enough to be their truest selves in the face of a small-minded world.

And yet, here I am. I feel immense pride to be my brother’s sister.


21st Century Woman

A Brief History of Before

It’s 7:30 AM and I have an 8:00 AM class across campus. I trudge to the bus stop, rubbing my eyes. Last night had been long—I’d counseled a homesick student late into the evening.

As I’m standing at the stop, I look past all the other tired bodies and notice one of my residents, also waiting. He has on giant over-the-ear headphones and is lightly nodding his head to some unknown beat. I try to recall his name, but nothing comes to me.

Please don’t talk to me. I can’t be your RA right now. Please.

As if I’d said it out loud, he turned his head slightly to look at me. We share a glance of recognition, shared sympathy even, and then we both look away.

I’m grateful.

“You know, you should really talk to my friend David Allen. He’s a writer, like you.”

“David Allen? He has two names?”

“No, that’s just what everyone calls him.”

A few nights later, I find myself in his residence hall. I nervously walk to his room, the door is open.

“Hi, I’m Ashley.”

“Yeah, I know. You were my RA.”

“Oh, sure. Right.” (I don’t recognize him)

“Chris said we should meet—that we have a lot in common.”

“Oh yeah, he mentioned that.”

“Okay, well, um, let’s keep in touch. Maybe send me some of your writing?”

“Yeah, okay, cool.”

We’ve been talking a lot over AIM. He read my plays. I read his poetry. But I have a boyfriend and so we’re just friends.

Even so, he invites me to his residence hall on Valentine’s Day. He makes the sweeping romantic gestures my boyfriend had not proffered—tries to be the salve to my tear-stained day. There is cookie dough spelled out in my name, lovingly baked in the communal kitchen. There is Donnie Darko. There is a bean bag pillow.

I know he means it to be romantic, but I’m already in a roller coaster of a college romance. I have nothing left to offer him. I fall asleep in the middle of his beautifully planned date.

And then suddenly he has a girlfriend, and she doesn’t like how often we talk. He disappears from my AIM list and we awkwardly ignore each other at the dining hall.

The loss is immediate.

The next year, he has been selected to be an RA in the building next door.

During orientation, I play a pregnant student in need of advice as he uncomfortably shifts in his wooden standard issue seat, struggling to find the right words.

I’m aware of the kindly way he listens, knowing the right moments to insert advice or offer support. I dig in, stretch my dramatic muscle, and yet he persists so evenly I’m forced to concede to his response.

After that, we see each other one more time. He comes to visit me in my new apartment. I leave the door open so there can be no suspicion. We commit nervously to small talk, and then he’s gone.

There will be another year of awkward glances in the parking lot before I graduate without ever having said goodbye.

Another year passes. I’m in my second year of grad school in South Carolina. I hate it there. I’m struggling with my thesis. My college boyfriend and I break up. My student dies suddenly. I feel the deepest and most intense loneliness.

It’s Christmas break, and it will be days before my roommates return. I discover that my hometown feels foreign to me—I am an island, after all—so I’ve returned to grad school early.

It’s late and the silence of our apartment is deafening.

I scroll through my AIM list, but not many people are online. Then suddenly, I see a name I haven’t seen in awhile. It’s him.

His away message says, “I wish it would snow.”

My hands go to the keys and pause.

I type, “Me too.”

I hit enter.

We spend hours on the phone. We blow through phone plans. We watch movies together hundreds of miles away. There are mixed CDs and giggly wake up calls.

His assurances bring me confidence. I’m not lonely anymore. His voice is always in my head.

And then there comes a visit. The sudden suspension of distance has made things very real. Our timing is all wrong.

We push off in separate directions, again.

Somehow we end up in the same city, without planning to, without meaning to.

We are shy at first, conscious of all that came before.

Yet, there is no going back, there is only the thing that must be done.

Soon, we no longer remember “before.”

Looking back, there was no reason for us to find each other again, but the universe continued to insist on our collision, so we collided and collided until there was nothing else to do but open our eyes and see it for ourselves.

My best friend

21st Century Woman, Sunday Sessions

Sunday Routines: How Ashley Lusk, sometimes writer, spends her Sundays

BRIGHT AND EARLY We’re early birds so I’m usually up around seven on the weekends. David is almost always up before me, immersed in his “digital meditation,” which is usually a video game, or time spent scrolling through Twitter on his phone. Meanwhile, I stumble into the kitchen and start the electric kettle.

COFFEE SNOB I’m thoughtful about coffee, and prefer to use a French press at home. I’ve spent this year rotating between different local bean purveyors. Right now I’m into Blanchard’s Columbia El Obreje, a roaster in nearby Richmond, Virginia.

READ AND RELAX Our Sunday routine is seasonal. We’re in late winter right now, so we’ll probably stay close to home. He may go to Starbucks for an hour or so to read the digital edition of the New York Times or catch up on more Twitter. I’ll stay home wrapped in blankets reading the Washington Post and scrolling through recipe blogs. My favorites are Joy the Baker, Smitten Kitchen, and Naturally Ella.

A SEASONAL MENU Brunch is probably our favorite meal of the week. Lately we’ll drive over to Ted’s Bulletin, which shows old movies and has a fun 40s diner vibe. They recently dropped several of my favorite brunch items, so we may have to reevaluate our “regular” status. If it was summer, we’d be first in line at the wood-fired oven pizza stand at the Dupont Circle Farmer’s Market begging them for a tomato, basil and mozzarella piadini. After picking up our produce for the week, we might stop by Kramer’s Books and browse.

WELL-PACKED BAGS Next we’ll walk a few blocks over to The Wydown and I’ll pick up a cappuccino. We’ll then go next door to the Trader Joe’s and fight our way through the crowds to do our grocery shopping for the week. I love watching the TJ’s staff pack the bags. My dad was a grocer, so I appreciate when it’s done without crushing the soft or delicate items.

CAT NAP We’ll head home, unpack the groceries, and then take a half hour nap. Sometimes it’s my best sleep all week. By mid-afternoon, we’ll head to the gym for an hour or so. David will hop on a bike or an elliptical. I’ll do some light free weights and then take a turn on the elliptical. Sometimes we’ll skip the gym and I’ll bake something instead.

WRITING TIME David’s incredibly disciplined—towards early evening, he’ll get his clothes and his work bag ready for the week. For me there is mostly the panic of realizing I should have worked all day instead of relaxing. If I’m especially avoiding a project, I might sit down and write a blog post for my site, or maybe a letter to a friend.

QUIET EVENING AT HOME I used to watch a lot of TV, but I’m trying to pull back on that a bit. On Sunday nights, we’ll probably have a simple dinner and listen to 60 Minutes or a favorite podcast while we prepare it. We mostly keep the TV off for the rest of the evening, unless there is a new PBS series or Game of Thrones. The more likely scenario is that we’re both in bed by 10.

21st Century Woman

The List

2016 List

I ended 2015 feeling…off.

A few months ago, someone had asked me a simple question about my hobbies. I thought for a moment and struggled for an answer. I didn’t have hobbies anymore. I had work. I had television. I had sleep. It felt like my whole world had been condensed to this inane cycle of daily events.

I walked away feeling flummoxed. Okay, I have work, I have a job I like a lot, but what did I have outside of that? Sometimes I did yoga. Okay…but not with regularity. Ah, I read! A lot actually! But then I didn’t really spend much time meditating on what I what I learned or what it meant.

No, I realized I no longer had something that made my soul grow.

I considered a long list of things that I sort of did, maybe randomly, on an afternoon, or once out of a whole year. I sought out coffee shops, I occasionally cooked, I enjoyed exploring new restaurants, I had been traveling to new places, I often went to movies alone. But each of these things felt like they were on the fringes of my daily life—they were not endeavors that I dedicated myself to with any regularity.

I found myself envying friends with such clear dedication. Those who woke up every morning to write in a journal. Or run races. Or embrace new knitting projects. I didn’t have a single regular activity in my life, and it left me feeling a little empty.

Last week, without a motivation or a reason, I opened a Google doc and began typing. At first, it was a list of books that I hoped to pick up from the library that week. Then, I added a recipe I wanted to try the following day. And then the name of a wine I had enjoyed.

Slowly, the list has begun to fill out: a new restaurant we visited, a coffee that spoke to me, a television show I marathoned and had thoughts about.

Something about the list feels good. There are no bullets—I’m not trying to push through anything—but the list notes the substance of my days. It reminds me to revisit things that brought me joy, to leave behind the things that caused me worry.

And really, that’s the very best I can hope for in 2016.

21st Century Woman, Intention

The (Gun Control) Problem

This is one of the things I’m afraid of.  The agonies, the mad midnight moments, must, in the course of nature, die away.  But what will follow?  Just this apathy, this dead flatness?  Will there come a time when I no longer ask why the world is like a mean street, because I shall take the squalor as normal?  Does grief finally subside into boredom tinged by faint nausea? – C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed

I’ve heard it said that Hemingway (and many other writers, for that matter), sat down, without fail, to write every single day. Most weeks, it feels like a lot to just sit down on Sunday and offer something to this blog.

Last weekend, I simply couldn’t. I had watched something horrific unfold, and it shook me to my depths. I walked through that day, that week, in a haze. On Sunday, I thought that I should write something, but I sat in front of my computer and just felt sadness and fear and rage.

I woke up every day that week, trying to understand how I should feel next and what I should do. Some part of me thought I should quiet my reaction—time has taught me to see reactionaries as ignorant, uncouth, ridiculous. Other moments, I chastised myself for not being reactionary enough. Where was the petition I could sign? The think-piece I could hold up as some articulate declaration for change? No matter how many I read, I was not soothed, they did not correctly confirm my rage.

And so I was left to sit with myself.

I turned off the TV.

I closed my Twitter feed.

I seethed.

Then I mourned.

Then I realized this tiny piece of me would not be quieted. Ever.

I don’t have the answer to what happens next. There are motivated people and organizations who have been chipping away at this problem for a long time. For now, I’m just trying to find my own way to chip away at the problem too.

21st Century Woman, Intention

This is 31.

I don’t know what I imagined 31, or 41, or 51 would look like. When you’re young—really young—you just imagine that you will always be exactly as you are then. Or at least I did. And maybe that’s why I’m not surprised by 31. I really had no expectations about what it would, or could, be.

Probably around 23, I began to understand what aging meant. That my metabolism would slow to a crawl. That sleep would become more crucial. That one day I would inevitably take on the characteristics of the other women in my family. This is the same moment when you start to realize they didn’t always look like they do now—and that soon I wouldn’t either. Little wrinkles have begun to emerge.

31, in many ways, is miraculous. To feel accomplished and productive. To have carved out a place for myself. To have built a home on my own time and with my own rules.

I’m better at spotting inauthenticity. I’m wary of people and projects that wear me down without filling me up. I’m cautious, but not jaded. I still want to do the most good.

I don’t know what 31 was supposed to look like, but from where I sit, 31 feels just fine.

Bae Day


21st Century Woman


Do you ever have those days where you just feel completely raw? Where a slight or a wrong look leave you feeling sensitive and exposed? That was today. Hell, that was this week. 

So, I did what any good person would do and I retreated. I downloaded the Medium and This. apps and spent some quality time reading. I cleaned out whole sections of my Feedly account. I scanned Twitter as myself, not as one of my clients. I finished off this book, and made my way further into this and this.

In the midst of my great hibernation, I came across some very good things.

I like literary magazines, especially when they’re digital. Say hello to The OffingSpeaking of literary magazines, my beloved Esquire has been home to some of our generation’s most prolific writers. That’s why I’m absolutely giddy to see that they’ve re-released their classics all.in.one.place.

It was painfully recognizable to hear Lena Dunham describe the pressures she felt to just get the proposal. Despite feeling pretty certain I would never play into soul-crushing traditions, I still found myself sucked into the wedding industrial complex. I’m licking my wounds by reading about Wonder Woman and utopian feminism. Also, laughing because this dude only ate food marketed to women for two weeks, and guess what? He was still hungry. Like, all of the time.

This NYT article about urban aging is a fucking gut punch. It’s time to get to know my neighbors.

My 31st birthday is next week and I generally prefer experiences over tactile gifts. Still, everyone enjoys shredding a little wrapping paper now and then. Hint, hint.

I’m giving myself some time to mentally prepare for next week, by listening to this guided meditation on repeat: “Those bitches can’t get under your skin. Breathe in strength, breathe out bullshit.”


21st Century Woman

That Time I Re-watched Felicity


Image Courtesy of Tumblr

For a little while, I’ve felt a bit out of the grasp of those sneaky marketers. I haven’t been part of the MTV generation for awhile. I’m not quite AARP-status.

I knew something was changing, however, what with the Honda mini-van commercials using Weezer to remind me I was quickly approaching a new demographic.

But then they had to go and do it, friends. Nick-at-Night, once home to shows my parents loved, now plays reruns of TGIF shows—shows of my youth. Even Hulu now features Seinfeld, Ally McBeal and Clarissa Explains It All.

It’s painful, this knowledge. As painful as seeing those tiny crows-feet appear out of nowhere.

I’ve long had a rule that it’s not a good idea to revisit things you’ve loved as a child—they almost never hold up to whatever pedestal you put them on once upon a time (see: Neverending Story).

Still, the nostalgia crept in—hard.

Before I knew it, I found myself watching the pilot episode of Clarissa, then Ally. I stopped both before I reached the end. It just wasn’t right.

Then I clicked “play” on the first episode of Felicity.

Friends, in so many ways Felicity is a product of a by-gone era. It’s a reflection of those terrible years when grunge and prep had battled it out, and something much more bland and baggy took its place.

I was in middle school and high school during its broadcast, a hopeless romantic thriving on some unknown element of teenage hormones. I was ardently #TeamNoel—his only competition being Dawson. I fell deep and hard for nerds, and romantic nerds at that, and he came to represent so much of the “nice guy” I wanted in a boyfriend.

I didn’t have my own television, so I watched the show in our living room with my mom, making my teenage longings for the boy on the TV squishy and uncomfortable. I dreamed of college, of attending a school like NYU, of studying literature and having sophisticated, complicated friends.

Watching Felicity as an adult has been interesting. It’s directed and co-created by J.J. Abrams, who would later gain fame as the co-creator of Lost (among many other things). The show’s portrayal of relationships and friendships is sweet, but rife with unnecessary drama. It’s depiction of college is largely unrealistic—including the massive dorm rooms with full-size beds—though they get a lot of credit for having hard conversations about money, credit cards and loans. At least three of the characters have jobs to help pay for college. It lacks any real diversity beyond a token black character, from a feminist lens, the show hardly passes the Bechdel test.

My issue with Felicity is the central relationships between Ben, Noel and Felicity. As David points out, Noel exists to whine, his neediness is unbearable. Ben’s insecurities and blatant stupidity make him uninteresting; he doesn’t fall into these problems so much as dive in, head first.

And Felicity? Well, I have to admit I find her rather vanilla.

Yet, in the end there is something I still find comforting in their stories. When I was 13, the idea of college was as foreign as a place called Northern Virginia. I was a girl growing up in a world that felt all wrong for my aspirations, and Felicity was a window to the future, a future where I could be as quietly ambitious as its main character.

As I finish out the first season, I’m grateful for this little window back in time. To remember what it felt like to be a young girl, hopelessly optimistic about the future, untethered by heartbreak, expectant that with hard work and enough luck, my world could look like theirs one day. And to be an adult who would learn that all of those things were true.

I never saw the last season of Felicity, and I don’t plan to watch it now, either. I remember at some point the story fell flat and I lost interest, replacing it with whatever new show was on the CW that week. I never learned if she went for Ben or Noel; teenage me would have surely hoped for the latter. But adult me? Adult me hopes that maybe, instead, she found that being with herself was exactly enough.