What Matters to Emi Nietfeld

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Debbie Millman has an ongoing project at PRINT titled “What Matters.” This is an effort to understand the interior life of artists, designers, and creative thinkers. This facet of the project is a request of each invited respondent to answer ten identical questions and submit a nonprofessional photograph.

Emi Nietfeld is the author of Acceptance, a memoir of her journey through foster care and homelessness, interrogating the true meanings of resilience, ambition, and success.

What is the thing you like doing most in the world?

I love cutening my apartment. Growing up, my mom’s hoarding meant we lived in squalor with nowhere to sit down or even hot water. As a teenager, I spent time in an institution, in foster care, and homeless. There was a lot of furniture bolted to the floor, plastic mattresses, and shatter-proof windows. “Home” always felt like somewhere to escape.

In my mid-twenties, a mentor suggested that becoming a homeowner might make me feel more grounded. She was totally right. I spend most of my free time building furniture with my husband or frantically googling “Monstera brown spot on leaf root rot?”

What is the first memory you have of being creative?

When I was in fourth grade, I lay in bed while my parents fought and devised a plan for how to convert my favorite secular band— The A*Teens, an ABBA cover group— into a Christian praise pop quartet. I re-wrote “Mamma Mia!” to glorify the Lord.

What is your biggest regret?

For two-and-a-half years of college, I was in a toxic relationship with an older man who got mad at me for things like going to the library with another guy or failing to upgrade my operating system in a timely manner. It was really hard to break up since I didn’t have family support, so I had to focus on finding a steady job that would help me get away. I wonder who I’d be if I’d instead spent those formative years playing beer pong or experimenting with literature or something.

How have you gotten over heartbreak?

Before bed, I line up my stuffed animals and I tell them a bedtime story about little baby penguins who were crushed and devastated by life, but then find peace and tranquility in their Baba’s embrace. (I’m the Baba.) Then I wrap them up and wing them tightly. I always feel better in the morning.

What makes you cry?

Thinking about little baby penguins. I’m tearing up right now. I love my stuffed animals so fiercely, I worry about what’s going to happen to me when I become a parent.

How long does the pride and joy of accomplishing something last for you?

5-10 minutes. For a huge, life-long dream— maybe three days, max.

I wish I were better at celebrating instead of moving onto the next thing.

But to be fair, the deeper pride does last much longer. I’m still proud of essays I wrote in high school (and of being Minnesota’s bible memorization champion in 4th grade).

Do you believe in an afterlife, and if so, what does that look like to you?

I don’t really believe in an afterlife, but if my partner dies first I plan to move to a retirement community where happy hour starts at noon, have a lot of sex, and go to bed by 8pm. Honestly, that sounds like a pretty ideal afterlife.

What do you hate most about yourself?

I can be very status-oriented at the expense of greater happiness. I spent my teenage years obsessed with the Ivy League and saw it as my “way out” of my family problems. When I got into Harvard, I threw myself into learning how to be a “Harvard person” and leaving my old self behind. I didn’t realize how much that environment focuses on prestige and how that takes people to some really dark, harmful places. Seven years after graduating, I’m finally really rethinking those values.

What do you love most about yourself?

I have a huge capacity to change. I went from not being able to run down the block to being a Division One rower. As a college freshman, I had no idea what coding entailed; I graduated with a job at Google. Then I went from being a software engineer to writing a book and becoming a journalist. Sometimes it’s overwhelming to change so fast, but life is never dull.

What is your absolute favorite meal?

My only way to deal with the Sunday Scaries is by cooking an enormous meal, ideally to share with friends. Right now, I’m obsessed with Instant Pot Lamb Biryani, served with mint, cilantro, boiled eggs, and a ton of greens. Nothing feels as good as staring into a fridge full of leftovers.