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where wisdom gathers, poetry unfolds and divine light is sparked…

Month: February, 2012

first up: filing, filing and more filing

i knew that before i could sink down roots, allow them to furrow deep into the soils of this new garden bed of a life, i’d need to spend some time with rake and hoe. maybe even a hefty shovel.

there was cleaning to be done. there were boxes to unpack.

and, oh my, my old garage of an office had sprouted a bumper crop of piles over the last many months, when stacking vertically seemed to be the handiest option after long days in the cubicle and riding home on the bumpy el.

it became one of those now-blurry weeks, fueled by more caffeine and fewer calories than would be smart, when one cobwebby corner led me to a motherlode of old, yellowed papers, and before i knew it, i was neck-deep in dust. i was sneezing. i was yanking off my fleece. i was stripped-down and pretty much a one-woman get-to-the-bottom-of-it machine.

on the surface, i was simply clearing out the clutter, sinking down the start of something new.

but along the way, i was sorting, grieving, remembering, rejoicing, all in one fell swoop.

when you are a treasure keeper, as i have always been, you find little bits of gold tucked in far back corners of a cabinet you’ve not peeked in for years and years and years.

you find notes and emails decades old. you read words of moments you’d long forgotten. but the ink on the page brings it all rushing back. you remember little girls and little boys you have loved. you remember writing your beloved, back before you wore his wedding ring.

you stumble into stories from the news pages. you remember what happened because of those words. you hold the papers close to your chest. you whisper benedictions, blessing the moments that add up to a life, to your life’s work.

you marvel at what’s passed by your lookout tower. you count the lucky stars in your sky. you feel the bottom go out at the pit of your belly, as you wonder what comes next. as you ask, will it ever be so good again?

you are alone, for hours at a time, just you and all that dust. just you and crumbled bits of papers, the few traces of the places you have been, the loves you have known.

you are, to the world outside your office door, sure making quite a racket in there. you sure seem to be determined in your cleaning.

but really what you are doing is sifting, sorting, assembling. you are finding your way through the woods. you are starting over once again. you are paring down what matters after all. you are crumpling up remnants of the past, pieces you no longer need to hold, to keep.

you know now what belongs. what needs to be saved. what will carry you forward, propel you.

every once in a not-so-often while, you catch a whiff of pure fresh air. you think, i can do this. this is good.
you look up, bleary-eyed, from the latest drawer you’ve found to sort, to stack, to straighten. you notice snow flakes falling. you catch a cardinal flitting by. you feel a stirring deep inside, a scritch-scratch from heaven’s door, telling you this is right where you belong.

you’ve moved back to where the sun streams in. to where the only sound is the simmer on the stove, or the tick and tock of your grandma’s clock.

you make your old pine table clean again. you vacuum dust from the butter-yellow braided rug. you dab dots of paint onto a picture frame, so your boys, your muse, can smile at you from over the top of the computer screen. you pad your nest, indeed. you are not unlike mama bird in april, when she tirelessly spends her days flitting back and forth with bits of twig and snips of yarn, padding the place where birth will come. where eggs will be laid, will hatch, will squawk, will be fed, will fly.

it’s what we do, some of us, before the flying comes.

we clear out what had gotten in the way, what had piled up, collected dust. we run our fingers over pages long forgotten, now refreshed. we remember where we’ve been and how deeply we have filled our lungs.

we exhaust ourselves with all our clearing, cleaning. we work till too, too late. because this is not about just dust and papers. this is about getting to the bottom of our soul, so we can drink in what we need, that pure fresh air, the oxygen of life, of faith.

first up, we file and file and file some more. then, we take a breath. and see if we can fly.

so went the second full week of what i now think of as BAM inc. an exhausting week to be sure, but in the end a week that will propel me. i now sit in the tidiest office that ever was. i have tossed out every last distraction, and ordered and labeled what’s left. are you, like me, inclined to clear the decks before leaping into a significant undertaking, or are you more inclined to wing it, and let it rip, piles and all propelling you?

page 1: creatures stir, and that’s just the start

so, yes, we bid our farewells, we wiped away tears, and we slid out of bed that first monday morn. it was a whole new page, a whole new chapter, and we made the mistake of yanking open the old soap drawer.

all we’d intended to do was tuck away a brand new bar that had arrived over the weekend.

but then, what to our wondering eyes should appear, but the sight of deeply nibbled soap bars. bars of lavender. bars of rosemary. bars upon bars, nibbled and GONE!

why, there was nothing left behind but some newfangled confetti, the sort one scatters at a parade. or perhaps, when one exits a newsroom only to face an anxious typewriter.

as often happens when these sorts of mysteries plop down onto the paths of our lives, it took a minute or two to catch onto the drift.

ah, but we scanned the scene before us. we noticed the telltale deliverance of a mouse on the run. or, make that some sort of rodent — we were placing no bets on the particular species.

in fact, once we noticed the chewed-through metal tube of rear-end-repair ointment, we started to wonder if maybe a long-tailed sewer-slithering r-a-t had moved into this leafy old town where lawns are mowed, manicured and tied up in ribbons.

sniffing the hot trail of trouble, we opened drawers no. 2, 3 and — for good measure — 4.

and what to our wondering eyes appeared there, there, and there?

you got it: a bumper harvest of some-sort-of-rodent droppings.

yippee! this valiant new chapter opened not with a whimper, and not with a bang, but with the sound of drawers being swiftly and certainly dumped of their half-eaten goods.


it took the better part of two hours to clear the decks, haul out the vacuum and make like a madwoman charging the enemy.

all those lovely soaps carefully tucked into suitcases over the years, hauled-home memories of some faraway place’s luxury bathrooms? gone.

all those well-intended gifts, from folks who figured a bar of herby soap was just the thing to soothe my oft-jangled self? KAPUT!

more than likely, the better part of two decades of toiletries, tossed into the monday-morning garbage pickup, flung from the house with emphatic abandon.

and then it was onto the rest of the week, the rest of the all-new adventures in sentence making, as one of my brothers so perfectly put it.

but then, something happened. lights started to flicker near the computer. then lights went out. blank. zero. zippo. for three days and three nights, our new best friends were the gaggle of folks who stand by to help in mumbai and hyderabad, and even one fellow in san francisco whose english i could make out without repeating every other syllable.

by the time i fired up the new router, that fine black box that sends signals (or maybe it’s morse code) to this here keyboard and far into the vapors, it was time for the seeds of a high-raging fever to plant themselves deep in the chest of my littlest angel, the one who hasn’t slept now for two long nights, which means, neither have i.

and so goes the prologue to whatever comes next.

and herein are the lessons:

1.) don’t think mice stick to the cheese drawer.

2.) don’t be afraid to unplug and re-plug 1,000 cables, whatever it takes on the long tangled road to internet connection.

and, finally, 3.) never underestimate the power of a cool wet washcloth applied to the head of a burning-up child. you might hear a sizzle when 103-degree skin meets squeezed-out rag, but press on anyway.

eventually, the mice will move on, the computer will glow, and the fever will crumble into last week’s news.
so much for adventures in big-league journalism.

and how was your week, dear friends? and by the way, late but insistently, happy day of ever-pumping hearts. xoxo

and so she wrote….

this is it.

end of chapter. start of new…

but, before we finish turning the page, before i sit and stare at a whole blank page of the newsprint of my life, i want to sift through a few old, yellowed sections. i want to remember. to spool forth thanksgiving. to send smoke signals out to people and places far far from here.

i want to hold up this moment, these moments, this chapter. i want to grace it with abundant blessing.

i walked out of the newsroom yesterday afternoon, my last day there. i had to leave early. i laughed. even my last day i sort of flubbed, if you want to call it that, because my little one had invited me to the fifth-grade wax museum, and i wasn’t about to miss it — he’d spent the better part of two months crafting and memorizing and dramatizing the life of PT barnum, and it just so happened the show’s opening was the very close of my newspapering.

so, instead of staying in my desk till the bitter end, i had to throw on my backpack and dart out the door, a mother’s best move so very often.

i didn’t pop champagne. didn’t turn out the lights at the billy goat tavern, that subterranean watering hole that’s doused so many a newspaper scribe’s parched, dry gullet.

but there was coffee served in the conference room yesterday morn, and all the folks i type with, they huddled around, took seats at the table as if it was any everyday meeting.

being journalists, they rattled off a few great questions: what was your favorite story? how many jobs have you had here at the tribune? how did you meet blair (my mate of 20 married years, my dear friend and “crush” of nearly 25)?

i loved the question about the favorite story. took time to answer that one with plenty of heart.

i’ve been pondering it for the last couple weeks. in fact, i decided a while back that my own private chapter closing would be the day i climb to the attic and sift through the boxes and crates of old yellowed newspaper clips, to read and remember, to run my fingers over the grainy photos from long ago, to absorb through and through the holy walk that was this chapter.

but, without even yanking the rope that lowers the door to the attic, i can sift through a few stories here.

after all, all of you here at this table, have been behind every breath of this passage, even when you hadn’t a clue.

there is much to remember as i flip through the pages of all of the years.

my favorites?

one has to be the story i wrote about the farmer who lost her soldier son, and turned to the fields to till through her grief. i sat beside her one hot summer’s day on her creaky old porch swing, down on a farm where the trees scratched the sky. i wrote what she said, what i noticed, what stirred in the air. and once that story hit the paper it somehow wound up in faraway maine.

there was a fellow who worked in some shop up there, and when he sat down to lunch one particular day, he found the chicago tribune spread on the table. he picked it up and read the story about the farmer and all of her sorrow. he put the paper back down, and went back to work.

but that night, driving the two hours home, he couldn’t stop thinking of the story — and the farmer. so he turned his truck around, and drove back to the shop. he tore through the trash cans till he found it, the newspaper section with the farmer, standing out in her field looking skyward. he rolled up the paper, tucked it under his arm, tossed it onto the passenger seat and drove home. he stared at that paper for awhile, then he got brave. sat down and penned a letter. addressed the envelope with nothing but her name and the name of the town he read in the dateline of that newspaper story.

to make a long story short and sweet, here’s what happened: he wrote, and she wrote. back and forth for the better part of a year. even a phone call or two. he invited her to come up to maine. she did. she went back home and put her farm up for sale. they farm together in the north woods of maine now.

all because he read her newspaper story.

another favorite is the one about the pigeon man of lincoln square, a curious fellow, a fellow who struck me right away, a fellow whose story i had to find out.

he used to sit on a fire hydrant along a busy city street, and dozens of pigeons flocked to him, perched on him. i nearly swerved out of my lane the first time i saw him. i drove back quick as i could, talked to him off and on over the course of a few days. went up to his attic apartment, the place where he kept his pigeon-feeding supplies and rested his head. i wrote his story. wrote how he struck me as some sort of st. francis of the city.

three years later, that old man with the crooked spine was shuffling along another busy street when a van up and hit him. he fell right there on the sidewalk, died before they got to the ER. as they lifted his body onto a stretcher, the police told me he was clutching a laminated copy of the story i’d written three years earlier.

those might be the bookends of my shelf of favorites — a start and an end.

but in between, there would be so very many. the trek across america, all on my own, back in 1984, as i traveled to see and to hear — from the rio grande valley to the mississippi delta, from pennsylvania steel mills to backwoods in maine, from salmon fisheries in northern california to farm towns in iowa — just what it meant to be hungry in america.

or the night when i stood, nose pressed against the crack between ballroom doors, and watched prince charles swirl on the dance floor with all of the ladies of the oak brook polo club.

or the mother, long long ago, who had a sweet boy with down’s syndrome whose smile i will never forget. or the father whose daughter lay dying of anorexia nervosa. or the little boy who fell through the ice of lake michigan but did not die, and so i kept vigil with his mama and papa as the whole city watched and waited and held their collective breath.

after all those 30 years, when i think back over the breadth and depth of humanity i have scribbled into my notebooks, soaked into my heart, i sigh a mighty sigh and whisper one solitary truth: it really was the voyage of a lifetime.

and i am so deeply grateful and humbled and blessed.

i wrote one last column, a “Dear Reader” goodbye. i sent it to my editor the other morning, but i don’t think she’s letting it run in the paper.

so i will end this meander with the one column that no one else will ever read.

these are the last words i typed for the chicago tribune, where i worked from june, 1982, to february 10, 2012:

Dear Reader,

There is a breathtaking tradition in newspapers when one of the ink-in-the-veins scribes leaves the newsroom for the very last time: Everyone at every news desk stands up and “claps out” the exiting reporter, a parade of final applause that is, in every way, the highest salute.

I want to reverse that tradition on this, my last day in this newsroom. I want to be the one who stands and applauds all of you, dear readers — even though I’m the one leaving.

I want you to know that for the last nearly 30 years I have poured my heart into each and any story, because as journalists we get to be the eyes and the ears and the heart for all of you as we go about the business of gathering stories. We ask questions, listen hard to answers, and soak up the scene, so we can bring you to the news as much as we bring the news to you.

I want you to know that it has meant the world to me to be trusted to tell you those stories. And I want you to know that I treasure our connection, a very real connection. I have saved — and will carry home — your emails, and your letters. Alas, I will have to leave behind a few glorious voicemail messages, some of them saved years ago. I consider all of them — penned, or typed, or recorded — the prizes of my life.

I will miss you.

And I thank you for inviting me into your homes, to your kitchen tables, and your favorite armchairs, for all of these many very rich years. I leave this newsroom in very good hands, and in very good hearts.

Bless you all.

Your grateful scribe,

Barbara Mahany



back in the old days, when i started out in the newsroom, that nurse who’d wandered in off the street, in search of a great story to tell, we pounded out stories on typewriters, on triple-thick pages.

at the bottom of any news story, to let the desk know you were ending your tale, you typed “-30-”

and so, today, -30- is the keystroke of the day.

my phone rang just minutes ago. i’d been jumpy all day. had put off typing here, because i wanted to see if finally i could tell you, could let the ol’ cat out of the bag.

here’s the cat, squirmed from the sack:

my days of newspapering at the chicago tribune are nearly through. they told me just now that my request for a buyout has been “allowed.”

what that means is that next friday will be my very last day to walk into the great gothic tower, the one with the flag waving up against the clouds. it will be my last day to tuck my badge in the little card-reader box and to see the light flicker green. it will be my last day to call out “hullo,” to ricky the guard who always starts my day with a big fat smile.

it will be my last day to shuffle over to my cubicle, to sit down among the cards and letters and books piled high.

it will be my last day, after nearly 30 years, to type, “barbara mahany, tribune reporter.”

but i have utterly no intention of hanging up my story-gathering cape, or retiring my deep and unending dream of telling stories that wend their way straight into the deepest corners of the human heart.

something was born here, where we pull up chairs.

i learned a way of writing here that i can’t muzzle.

it is a way of writing that every once in a while found a place on the news pages. and whenever it seeped out into the world of readers, i got plenty of notes. heartfelt, beautiful, make-me-cry notes. from readers.

oh, i will miss those readers.

i’m leaving because i want to be free to find and to tell stories that burn to be told.

i’m leaving because i’ve achingly missed being here in this little typing room, where the birds flit by, and the sun slants in, where the sacred dwells all around me and through me.

oh, sure, i’ve managed to find moments of joy on the el train. i love rumbling through the city. but i don’t so much like locking the door behind me each morn, and not coming back till the day is nearly done.

i love slow cooking while i type.

i love being here when my little one leaps through the door.

this is the thing that took so much courage: to finally, after so many years there on the edge of the high dive, take the final big bounce and jump through the air.

it’s not easy leaving behind a once-every-two-weeks paycheck.

it’s not so easy letting go of the knowing — till now, anyway — that my stories would always find a place to land, without me having to peddle too hard.

but i finally, finally dug down deep to where the answer was crouched. i finally reminded myself how brave i could be. and how deeply i want to see if my words and my stories and my heart can make a difference. can make this world just a little bit more compassionate. can shine the light on some lost soul in the shadows. or some phenomenal hilarious character whose life might make us all want to get up and dance.

i am taking a big fat chance on me and myself.

i am believing that somewhere deep down inside me, i can stand on a mountaintop and whisper long lines of poetry.

i am holding a candle in the dark, and believing a long line of wicks will flicker, one at a time.

i am being brave, and teaching my boys not to be afraid. not to be bound. to march, always, to the sound of the drum that they alone hear.

i am begging for grace to come raining down.

i will keep writing this story, one word at a time.

i can’t imagine that all this living i’ve done, all this collecting of hearts, has not been a serious chapter in the education of bam.

i’m not looking for fame. i’ve seen that pass by the best of the best too many times.

i am looking for simply one thing: to live my every last day with full heart, and full soul, and full courage.

and that’s the thing i’ve been wanting to tell you.

now, we all know.

thank you for giving me wings.

ever grateful,

your bam