my newspaper career was spotty. it was launched in a basement on a dead-end street that wound through leafy lots in old suburbia. i was editor, layout wizard, and scribe. i was 9. it was the brierhill news (named for our winding lane), in which i collected esoterica and bits of timeliness from up and down the half-mile from our house at the first bend to the stockade fence at the end of the lane. i rested my career till high school, junior year, when i signed up for the underground newspaper. (yes, it was the ’70s and all things underground were cool. even for “north shore creampuffs,” as our favorite english teacher called the mob of us.) i wrote under a pen name for that paper, cuz my dad didn’t like seeing his family name attached to revolutionary ideas and high school cynicism. (i wasn’t the cynic but i assure you cynics were abundant on the masthead.) i never gave journalism another thought, not through all of nursing school and not beyond, not till two weeks after my papa’s funeral when someone wise asked if i’d ever thought of journalism, so i went home and signed up for a master’s degree in writing pithy ledes (first paragraphs) and digging for the truth. i stuck around a newsroom for just shy of 30 years.
and i’m resurrecting my newspaper-making ways today, so i can bring a summery hodgepodge––a gazette––to the ol’ maple table, while i dive into another round of page proofs, that book-making task where every drip and drop of ink on the page is scrutinized, scoured for mistakes, typos, anything that doesn’t belong on the page. it’s all-absorbing work, so i stockpiled a few bits for you to savor while i toil away. i bring you here what amounts to a shrunken features section of old-fashioned news: a bit of commentary, a recipe, and a feature i’d call the poet’s corner if i was naming things (which it turns out, i am).
on summer’s quiet
i don’t usually think of summer as a quiet season, but i suppose that just means i’ve not thought deeply enough, because in fact summer is the season of a slowness that ushers in pockets of the quietest quiet…
… of hammocks strung between trees….
…of watching a popsicle puddle…
…of sweltering heat pushing us into repose…
…of sheltering in the nearest roomiest chair woven of wicker,** that grass that eases to the curves of the bum, a shelter best appointed with feets propped, and a pitcher of minty water always in each…
…of staying out late under the stars, catching the breeze that finally comes…
summer is falling asleep with the windows wide open, feeling the rustle of breeze cross your pillow, sinking deep into the night sounds that creep in and over the sills…
summer is turning pages, slowly, slowly. until your eyelids heavy and droopy give way to the summer’s nap that enfolds as words blur and then vanish — poof! — lost beyond slumber and dreams…
quiet is idling over the grill. counting clouds. watching the cardinal fling through the trees, daring that red-winged wonder to please, please, please, come close enough to look in each others’ eyes…
quiet is early, early morning, the newborn breaths of the day. before the heat chimneys in through the windows. before sweat is the layer between you and your clothes.
quiet is the soft whir of the fan. old-fashioned cool-making sound. a sound i prefer any old day to the sound of air-conditioner clunking.
the quiet of summer is unlike the quiet of any other season. summer’s quiet is bare skin to the breeze, unencumbered by blankets. summer is porous, is screens; summer does not hide behind storm-window panes.
summer’s quiet comes when we’re too hot to move. summer’s quiet is something akin to salvation: we slow to a pause to keep from wilting or wobbling there on the sun-baked sidewalk. summer’s quiet is retreat. is survival.
**more on wicker (from our friends at wikipedia): Wicker is the oldest furniture making method known to history, dating as far back as 5,000 years ago. It was first documented in ancient Egypt using pliable plant material, but in modern times it is made from any pliable, easily woven material. The word wicker or “wisker” is believed to be of Scandinavian origin: vika, which means to bend in Swedish, and vikker meaning willow. Wicker is traditionally made of material of plant origin, such as willow, rattan, reed, and bamboo, but synthetic fibers are now also used. (ick on synthetics. [that’s the long-retired cynic raising her knack for snark.])
summer quiet is this poem, this praise poem that perfectly captures the quiet rhythm in my heart in this deep heat of summer….
Eagle Poem By Joy Harjo
To pray you open your whole self To sky, to earth, to sun, to moon
To one whole voice that is you. And know there is more That you can’t see, can’t hear; Can’t know except in moments Steadily growing, and in languages That aren’t always sound but other Circles of motion. Like eagle that Sunday morning Over Salt River. Circled in blue sky In wind, swept our hearts clean With sacred wings. We see you, see ourselves and know That we must take the utmost care And kindness in all things. Breathe in, knowing we are made of All this, and breathe, knowing We are truly blessed because we Were born, and die soon within a True circle of motion, Like eagle rounding out the morning Inside us. We pray that it will be done In beauty. In beauty.
“So, I’m a poetry person. And I’m a bit obsessive about it—I want to be learning everything I can about poetry and poets all the time, and I want to be thinking about poems all the time. Lately, the podcast series that has really been satisfying my need to overdo it with poetry has been the London Review of Books series Close Readings. Each episode features Seamus Perry and Mark Ford, himself a poet worth reading, talking intelligently and interestingly about the work of a significant twentieth-century English-language poet (the only exception being Hopkins, but his work wasn’t published until the twentieth century, so he fits). And each episode is very heaven. The most recent, “On Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery,” is full of information you want to know about those most significant members of the New York School. Because you’re a poetry person, too, I just know it.” —Shane McCrae, Poetry Editor, Image Journal
a polychromatic taste-bursting salad: how ‘bout no-cook (okay, grill the corn if so inspired) summer confetti corn salad, a perfect summery bounty if you’re in the mood for playing with colors….
David’s J&L Confetti Corn Salad:
*my brother David worked at a high-end catering company for a few years, J&L Catering, and when they made something he thought was extra special, he’d copy down ingredients but not measures. So measures are always to your taste.
2-4 ears grilled corn 1 red pepper 1 orange or yellow pepper 1/2 to 1 whole purple onion 2-4 loose whole carrots, peeled garlic, to taste Cilantro
Dressing, to taste: Asian sweet chili paste Olive oil Juice of 2 to 3 limes (I also add zest of at least 1) salt and pepper to taste
Dice peppers, onion, carrot, to small dice. Chop garlic and cilantro. Cut kernels off grilled corn. Add to mixing bowl. Add dressing, stir, let sit at least 2-3 hours, or longer if possible.
Amid the haunting tremors of this national moment, and the bone-chilling worry that something awful could erupt, the dreadful sense that we are teetering at the precipice of something precious being lost, I interrupt the breathlessness, the imploring for peace, mercy, justice and truth, to turn ever so briefly to one of the countless personal narratives that unfurls against this shadowed backdrop. Someone with whom I’ve carved a life is turning the page on one of his most consequential chapters, and, as the family historian and archivist, it must be duly marked.
This is a love story.
It begins long, long ago, inside a vaulted cacophonous chamber inside a gray stone Gothic tower, one that hugs a river’s edge as it courses toward one great lake, in the crosshairs of the American metropolis that rose defiantly from the endless prairie.
A tall bespectacled gentleman, cloaked in appropriately puddle-splashed and newsprint-stained London Fog trench coat and holey-bottomed penny loafers, strides with his signature mix of certainty + humility down the newsroom’s center aisle, past desk after factory-assembled desk, each one equipped with typewriter, ancient desktop computer, and, chances are, one of the big-city news hustlers straight out of central casting (half-drained whiskey bottles hide in file drawers, stashed behind the extra pair of brogans down where dustballs grow; ashtrays brim with stubbed-out cigarettes; expletives punctuate the rumble, a slurry mix of ringing phones, clackety-clacking teletype machines, and the endless bark of irascible editors and the copy kids who dart and dodge at every bark before it turns to bite).
Our protagonist, the bespectacled one, is noticed by a young Irish-American nurse-turned-scribe, one whose presence in that very newsroom is as unlikely as anything in her curiously-scripted life. She especially perks her ears when newsroom talk spreads word that this new fellow — this 6-foot-3 Ivy Leaguer who’s arrived by way of Des Moines, and is reputed to write “like nothing you’ve never seen” — boldly exits the newsroom on Friday evenings at six o’clock sharp (akin to walking out of surgery just before the scalpels dig deep into flesh, as Friday night is when the big bulging Sunday paper is “put to bed,” and all hands usually on deck). Word is that the reason for his unnewsroomly departure is to sprint to synagogue for Friday night service. This unorthodox (for a newsroom) orthodoxy is a.) impossible to miss, and b.) highly impressive to the religiously-intrigued Irish-Catholic ecumenical one.
(Turns out, don’t you know, he was dashing out to the door not only to bow his head and pray, but also to keep a sideways glance on any nice Jewish girl who might wander into the synagogue’s so-named Singles Shabbat, a mix-and-mingle for the 20-something minyan set. Our unreliable narrator here obviously mistook urge to mate — or at least to J-date — for religious fealty.)
It’s not long into this newsroom tale till she — our narrator — falls for him. It is longer, markedly longer, till he returns the favor. But this is not that love story.
This is her ode to his third-of-a-century dedication, devotion, middle-of-the-night perseverations to the journalistic craft, to his unswerving eye toward excellence, toward equity and justice for all in the urban grid, from the greenswards to the cloud-poking steel-and-glass arisings.
Back in the beginning of this Chicago story, he worked the city desk, just like the legions of fresh-faced cub reporters who started out eager and naive to the wily ways of Second City aldermen and crooks (sometimes one in the same), ears trained to the police scanner, ready to leap with hat, coat, and scribbler pad to the scene of the nearest atrocity, disaster, or ambulance chase.
First time the Irish-Catholic and the new-to-the-newsroom Shabbat devotee found themselves dispatched to the same breaking news was the night ol’ Eddie Vrdolyak, an aldermanic stalwart of Chicago’s famed Democratic Machine, broke loose and turned Republican, stunning his Southeast Side constituents who filed into the Serbian Orthodox church hall with their bundt cakes and their murmured words of world-is-upside-down consternation and congratulations. She soaked up color, ambiance, mood; he stuck with the facts. (A telling distinction, one that in some ways would never really fade.)
From there, the hard core of the city desk, the one who’d studied hard the intricacies of balustrades and board-and-batten, casement windows and Corinthian columns, who’d versed himself in architectural volumes from primitivism to Postmodernism, dutifully bid his time pounding Chicago pavement, but he never took his eye off that glittering ever-shifting skyline.
In the fall of 1992, a mere five years after slipping on his Chicago Tribune ID badge, he was crowned the title he had long, long yearned for: architecture critic of America’s First City of built masterpieces and no little plans. (Note: For all my wanting to, and with all my years cobbling sentences and spinning yarns, I cannot do justice to his 28 years “on the beat,” as newsroom parlance would put it. Oh, but I shall try.)
He’s sized up the likes of Frank Gehry, Philip Johnson, Santiago Calatrava, Robert A.M. Stern, Jeanne Gang, and the iconoclastic-in-every-way Stanley Tigerman, among the many, many.
He’s marched into architectural battle with no less than Mayor Richie Daley (e.g., the infamous Meigs Field midnight raid, bulldozing Xs through the runway, among his many go-arounds with Da Mare), Mike McCaskey and the Chicago Bears (Soldier Field brouhaha, or in our critic’s inimitable description, “Starship Enterprise crash-landed on the Parthenon”), the Chicago Cubs (Wrigley Field, and specifically the Toyota sign planted in the bleachers, a “wart on the face of baseball’s grande dame”), Star Wars director and Hollywood legend George Lucas (a “cartoonish mountain” of a proposed lakefront museum the critic likened the “giant lump” to a “bloated Jabba”), and, of course, the Developer in Chief, Donald John Trump, who first courted then skewered our friend the critic.
Our critic’s story began long before the summer of 1987 when he loped into the Tribune Tower. He’d grown up in a newsroom, starting out at 13 on the night shift — writing obits by night, body surfing on the Jersey Shore by day — in his father’s newsroom, a classic PK, or publisher’s kid, in Red Bank, NJ. He’d interned in newsrooms in Newark, Pittsburgh, Miami, and Houston. And paused long enough for a masters in environmental design at Yale. This curious chemistry of take-no-guff news hound + aesthete and well-trained critic’s eye proved a formidable match for the rough-and-tumble of Chicago, where not even the arts are shielded from shenanigans and shysters.
This explosive combo, well, exploded. Often. In shouting matches with City Hall, delivered at full throttle and no words minced. The leitmotif (toned down for tender eyes or ears) went something like this: “Don’t give me that [baloney]! Tell me the truth!” It is reported that as these shouting matches unfurled for quarter-hour chunks of time, the heads of young reporters would pop up from behind their screens around the newsroom, “like gophers from their gopher holes,” to ogle the sight and sound of a scribe at top bellow.
Truth, most often, won out. Which might explain how, along the way, the critic’s sharp eye and voluminous and tireless reporting on the inequities of the city’s bejeweled lakefront — well-appointed and abundant on the North Side, decrepit and inaccessible from poor Black neighborhoods on the South Side — would in time reshape the city map. Bulldozers literally shoved parkland to where before there had been none. And millions once unjustly cut off from the great Lake Michigan shoreline now romp on beach and trail, “forever open, clear and free,” in accord with the 1909 edict of the Illinois Supreme Court that has become the rallying cry for decades of lakefront protection. Hands down, the opening up of the entire swath of lakefront is the critic’s proudest moment. That redrawing of the lakefront came in the wake of his 1998 series, “Reinventing the Lakefront,” six parts in all, that won him what a young friend of ours once and indelibly declared, “the Polish Surprise” (sound it out swiftly, and you’ll know what I mean, especially to the tender ears of a 5-year-old child).
Together, after all those decades in the same newsroom, the Irish scribe and the tireless critic (one of the rare perpetual newsroom bondings, wed in 1991) paired their names on only three double-bylines. One, named Will (now 27, and a brand-new lawyer — just yesterday sworn in virtually to the Illinois Bar from a Portland, OR, courthouse), and another, Teddy (19, and trudging through college). And yet a third: The mother of those double-bylines was asked by the critic to tag along when the new Prentice Women’s Hospital was opened and ready for architectural critique, since after all, the critic pointed out, she was the one who’d pushed out the double-bylined babies in the original hallowed Prentice hospital.
And now, for some undetermined chunk of time, the indefatigable and as-yet-unnamed-here critic (long ago, I made a vow that I would not write of him or our marriage, except for occasional sidekick insertions, as he was something of a public figure who deserved full control over his private life), is hanging up his London Fog, and kicking off those holey loafers. He announced his leave-taking on Twitter the other night (see tweets down below). And with lump in my throat, and tears not only in my eyes but running down my cheeks, I partake of the great newsroom tradition of clapping him out as he exits the building and the beat.
As he wrote in his own last column in the Tribune, which ran practically hidden in the inside pages of the Business section on Thursday:
When I became the Tribune’s architecture critic in the fall of 1992, there was no Millennium Park, no Museum Campus, no downtown Riverwalk, no Trump International Hotel & Tower Chicago and no St. Regis Chicago. There were no planter boxes in the middle of Michigan Avenue and few bike paths other than those on the lakefront trail.
Hulking public housing high-rises still stood at Cabrini-Green, the Robert Taylor Homes and Stateway Gardens. State Street was an ugly transit mall. Little planes still landed at Meigs Field. Sears Tower was still Sears Tower and the tallest building in the world.
I am chest-burstingly proud of the brilliant work he’s written under his byline, of the countless midnights when he slunk out of bed to fix a sentence or deepen some particular thought. His devotion must rank among the rarest in the business. His love for his city and his readers kept him writing long after counterforce made quitting the easier option. We’ve seen him trailed by TSA agents at O’Hare who wanted to keep up some architectural conversation, straight to the boarding gate; stood by as he was tapped on the shoulder as far away as London or DC by a reader who recognized him and didn’t want to miss a chance to say thank you, ask an architectural question. It’s that devotion — and infinite unsung kindnesses extended to readers and would-be someday critics — that is perhaps his shiningest prize, the one that comes with no crystal paperweight, and no plaque to hang in a back corner of his book-lined office.
He’s our beloved Blair Kamin, of whom we are soo soo proud. And who has left an indelible and breathtaking mark on the city he loved, the newspaper for which he wrote for 33 rollercoaster years, and who has written his best and most lasting lines in the narrative that is our blessed little double-bylined family.
But that’s the not end of this love story. Only this latest chapter.
Here’s how he broke the news on Twitter last Friday night:
After 33 years at Chicago Tribune, 28 as architecture critic, I’m taking a buyout + leaving the newspaper. It’s been an honor to cover + critique designs in the first city of American architecture + to continue the tradition begun by Paul Gapp, my Pulitzer-winning predecessor.
During these 28 years, I have chronicled an astonishing time of change, both in Chicago and around the world. From the horrors of 9/11 to the joy of Millennium Park, and from Frank Gehry to Jeanne Gang, I have never lacked for gripping subject matter.
Whether or not you agreed with what I wrote was never the point. My aim was to open your eyes to, and raise your expectations for, the inescapable art of architecture, which does more than any other art to shape how we live.
So I treated buildings not simply as architectural objects or technological marvels, but also as vessels of human possibility. Above all, my role was to serve as a watchdog, unafraid to bark and, if necessary, bite, before developers and architects wreaked havoc on the city.
I am deeply grateful to my newspaper, which has never asked me to pull punches. I have been incredibly fortunate to work with talented editors, reporters, photographers and graphic designers. They have been a huge help. Journalism, like architecture, is a team enterprise.
What will I do next? I have no idea. After decades of stressful deadlines and rewriting paragraphs in my head at midnight, I’m ready for an extended break — and many long bike rides along Chicago’s lakefront.
It’s essential that a new critic, with a fresh set of ideas, take up where Paul Gapp and I left off. Imagine Chicago without a full-time architecture critic. Schlock developers and hack architects would welcome the lack of scrutiny. -30-
you’ll note i put aside for this one time my disinclination to hit the shift key and write with capital letters (writing here in lower case is for me something akin to kicking off my shoes and shuffling around in slippers), but for the upstanding critic, i decided to pull out my big-girl keys and give him ups and downs on the keyboard scale. i’ll return to slippers, no doubt, though i do note it makes for easier reading when you can spy the peaks and valleys in each and any sentence.
in the tweets above, you might notice mention of Jon Stewart, the late-night genius, who once saw fit to enter the Chicago architectural fray, a little back-and-forth, you might say, between our hero here, the critic, and the comb-over developer who would go on to rule the Oval Office…watch here the clip of Signfeud, from the Daily Show…
i have now overflowed this space with a kitchen sink of Kamin esoterica and folderol. it is with all the love in the world, and bursting giant heart, that i thank the Chicago Tribune (where, combined, we toiled for 63 years) for bringing me the other half of our double byline. it’s been some rocket ride, and i’ll hold on tight for wherever this takes us next.
much love, BK. i am — in the great Tribune tradition of “clapping out” your final exit from the newsroom — standing and applauding. xoxox
and here’s a final twist for this week’s chair: how bout this, you ask the question this week, and i will try to answer….the annals of the newsroom are now open for the curious…..
the first draft of history is what journalism’s been called. and so, today, i take a crack at one such draft; i write not knowing quite what epiphany will come, toiling more as an excavator, seeing if there is any shimmering shard buried in the layers of history, my history, a piece of which recently unfolded — in three crisply typed pages — and stirred up the long long ago. turns out, it’s a love story…
it’s not everyday the artifacts of your past tumble out of the cracks of history. but one of mine came in the mail week before last. it was a letter, dated january 7, 1975, written by my papa, mailed to a beloved high school english teacher, a teacher i remembered most vividly because she was the one who asked a prescient question the monday after homecoming of my senior year, a question that foreshadowed the arc — the heartbreaking arc — of that last year of high school.
what i’d remembered was that she was the teacher, the arch, very cool at the time, teacher who’d assigned kerouac and burroughs and zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance, works with their thumb on the pulse of the thrashing that was 1970s america. what i’d never forgotten was standing outside the library on the monday morning after i’d been crowned the homecoming queen, an unlikely event if ever there was because i was nothing like most homecoming queens. i was not beautiful, not even close. i wasn’t a cheerleader, or one of the pompom girls. all i was was kind. and i remembered the names of just about each and every someone in my 2,400-student high school. and all the janitors, too.
as i was standing there, this teacher we all loved and were afraid of, in equal measure, strode up to me, raised one eyebrow, and volleyed her question: “barb, have you read ‘the demise of the homecoming queen’?” a book apparently with a very bad ending.
consider me unsettled. i answered no, and marched on with my day, the query sufficiently stinging.
but that odd interaction has nothing to do with the letter i got week before last. it only underlines the impact of running into this teacher at synagogue a few weeks back, on rosh hashanah to be exact, when a woman whom i did not recognize, leaned into our pew and exclaimed, “barb!!!!” while my brain gears churned to figure out who in the world this was, she went on, and soon i realized it was ms. feder, the high school english teacher we all feared and loved.
as i climbed over the legs between me and the end of the pew, so i could leap into the aisle to hug her, she went on with a story she was bursting to tell me. (mind you, i’d seen her only one other time in 43 years, when i bumped into her on a train riding downtown and i was carrying a baby, so this encounter was swiftly sweeping me back in time and space and emotion.)
she’d been cleaning her basement, she recounted, barely pausing to breathe, and was rummaging through piles and years of stuff accumulated, when she unearthed the first-ever issue of mother jones magazine, and as she lifted it from cobwebs to give it a look, out from its spine tumbled a 10-cent-stamped envelope addressed plainly to “Ms. Feder, Deerfield High School.”
inside, was a three-page letter from my very own papa, meticulously typed by his secretary of many, many years. in it he explains in thoughtful measured tones that it had come to his attention that the underground newspaper, for which ms. feder was the faculty advisor and to which i was a contributor, had recently raised a few eyebrows. scatalogical jokes, perhaps. he didn’t exactly detail, except to mention that they might be “in bad taste — more befitting bathroom walls than a student publication (even an unofficial one).”
and then toward the end of said letter, my papa takes off his official hat — he’d been writing as a member of the PTO board and editor of its newsletter (of which i have zero, zip, nada recollection) — and mentions that, on a personal note, he has exacted from me a promise that my name would no longer appear on the masthead (my first foray into journalism outside the walls of our basement, where i typed up the neighborhood news complete with comics, was the underground newspaper of our not-so-radical white suburban high school). he went on to write that “I have told her [that would be me, his scribe of a daughter] that I feel that her material has been completely acceptable and in no way of questionable taste.” but — brace yourselves — “Frankly, I am embarrassed to see her (and my) name in even a loose juxtaposition with some of this material.” and he asked that my name be deleted from any future publication.
apparently, that’s when i went even further underground and assumed the pseudonym under which i wrote for the rest of the year, or at least until i was taken out of high school in may, and plunked in a downtown hospital, a skin-and-bones girl who’d whittled down to 85 or 90 pounds (i can’t remember the low point), in the vanguard of that scourge known as anorexia nervosa, a clinical coupling of words that grates at my soul (and my psyche) to this day.
some decades ago, perhaps at a high school reunion, one of my fellow underground rabble-rousers had recounted this incident to me, told me the story of how my papa had forbidden me from writing any longer for the Student Voice, as our anti-establishment rag was called. i remembered not a wisp of it, couldn’t imagine my laser-focused-ad-man of a father paying one bit of attention to my underground toils. i considered it apocryphal, a story someone had conjured up over the years when i became — thanks to my early and strange diagnosis — grist for the small-town rumor mill.
thus, word of this letter’s actual artifactual existence intrigued me completely. to say nothing of the fact that i have astonishingly few (read, almost none) letters or personal writings from my dad who wrote two monthly magazine columns for the ad biz. and the finding of even a page — let alone three — was a find of supreme proportion.
i ran to the mailbox day after day. when two weeks had passed, but no letter had arrived, i began to search for ms. feder. i found what appeared to be a phone number, called, left a message. she called back. she’d made a photocopy, she explained, then put the letter aside. she’d forgotten, but she promised to send.
the day it fell from the pile of mail, i took a deep breath and pulled the three still-stapled pages from the 44-year-old envelope, mailed originally from my papa’s downtown office.
right away, i heard his long-silenced voice, oozing up from the spaces between the typed alphabet letters. i heard his tender protectiveness. his measured level-headedness. in fact, he began by defending our faux-radical shenanigans: “While much of it is irreverent, iconoclastic and generally anti-Establishment, that really didn’t concern me,” he wrote. and then, when i got to the part about my promise to erase my name, i got teary. when i got to the part where he wrote that frankly he was embarrassed, i winced.
this is not the memory of my papa i’ve kept tucked closest to my heart. the scenes that have played, over and over and over, are the ones where i’m in the hospital — a psych ward is where they put me, if you must know, and if i’m completely honest — and it’s lunchtime, and my lunch tray has just been delivered, and the door to my room nudges open, and in walks my papa, face beaming, brooks brothers suit crisp as ever, even after his long walk down michigan avenue, from his high-rise office tower to my hospital. he is clutching a white paper bag, one he’s been handed in the women’s auxiliary cafe just off the hospital lobby, where every day they sold sandwiches and every day for that month he bought one. he sat beside me, pulled a straight metal chair right to the edge of my bed, sometimes taking my hand. he unwrapped from wax paper his choice of the day — chicken or tuna salad on white bread, almost always on white bread. he chewed while i tried to. he never missed a day. not once in the month — the terrible, awful, loneliest month — i was there.
and that’s the love i’ll never forget. that’s the love i lost — or so it felt — when he died.
but now i have another story to tell. the day my papa made me give up my name, and go deeper underground.
i cherish them both. my papa was paying attention, such close attention. and i was blessed to be in his sights.
was there someone in your life who paid close attention to you, closer perhaps than you realized at the time? and what was the difference it made?
p.s. perhaps the sweetest part of the letter was that i could show it to my beloved blair, who read it the night it arrived as he rode home on the el (i’d taken a picture of each page and sent along to my mom, my four brothers, and blair and will and teddy, wanting everyone to share in this closest encounter of the typed-and-stapled kind). blair’s texts came in two parts: “Loving the letter. Have read first two pages. So, so wise and precise…eager to see conclusion….” and next: “Wow! Loved it. What a good parent. 3 pages of controlled passion. He loved you so much, Fred. I’m thoroughly impressed.”
the love of my life has only gotten to know another love of my life through the dribs and drabs of story, and now the three long-lost typed pages….
in the newspaper world, -30- means “the end.” at the bottom of every reel of type flying off the typewriter, once upon a time, a big-city scribe tapped four keys to signal the end, so the typesetters knew to move onto the next big story in their end-of-day unreeling of the hot breaking news.
all these years, the -30- stuck. only i grabbed it from my typesetting keys this morning not because of an ending, really, but because a bespectacled scribe i happen to love, one whose flight i’ve witnessed from an up-close unedited perch, he’s been waiting and waiting for today. today is the day he gets his 30-year watch. thirty years of calling himself a “chicago tribune reporter.” thirty years of chasing down just about any I-beam that dared to move in this old town. thirty years of thumbs-up or thumbs-down on wild-eyed architects’ intentions to make no small plans.
but more than what’s beautiful, soaring, inspiring, or not, he sees the way the carved-out hollows and high-rises of a big american city might move the human species into communion, or tear them apart. he understands the nuts and bolts of design, but he’s keen on justice and social equity; he understands the political powers and petty feuds that sometimes stand in the way of what makes a city — and its peoples — work, or not work.
and he’s spent three decades teaching all of us, teaching anyone who turns the pages of every day’s news, to do the same. it’s a way of seeing he’s intent on not keeping to himself.
and ever since the hot august morning of 1987 when he strolled into the chicago tribune newsroom in his navy brooks brothers blazer, white oxford, and khakis — aka “the uniform” — i’ve been watching. took another year till i rose to my rank as “girlfriend,” and then another three years before “wife” was affixed to my status (we had a lot to figure out, mostly in the religion department, during those long should-we-or-shouldn’t-we years).
so i know, more than almost anyone, just how much it means to him to have hit the sweet 3-0. to know that tonight, at the annual bacchanal that is the tribune awards hoopla, he will, at last, get his chicago tribune watch. actually, in a move that is so classily elegant and fair-hearted and loving as to be a signature BK move, he’s getting two tribune watches tonight. he put in an order for a pair, one for each of our boys, so someday, both will have a relic from their papa, one he wrote soooooo many stories to snare, one that in some scant way captures the nights after nights that he kept watch over stories, called in corrections to the desk, gave up a friday night dinner, surrendered a holiday, took yet another call from a “source,” chased a hot tip. because when you’re the son of a newspaper man (and he is) getting the news and getting it right, and never ever backing down from the truth, well, that’s religion to him. and he is devout, if anything.
and that might be the beauty of nights like tonight: they squeeze you into the think-back machine. have a way of making you stop in your tracks, think back across the long arc of your history, sift for those gold nuggets of meaning. (and you know i never ever miss a chance for gazing back over my shoulder, for rubbing my palms against the fine grain of time, squeezing out every succulent drop of “significance.”)
it’s the pause in the plot that always, always holds the possibility of taking life up a notch. that slows us down long enough to realize this isn’t just a race to the finish line, but rather a slow contemplative unspooling that is best lived and best understood, most certainly held up to the radiant light, if we pay close close attention to all the unspoken strands, the subtle and poignant shifts along the way, the moments where we rose up to champion status, where we lived with every ounce of hope and faith with which we were created and dreamt into being, and where we humbly account for our stumbles, realign our compasses and set forth again.
it’s a magnificent reel, this thing called our life, and it’s most closely savored when every once in a while we watch it in slo-mo, stop-gap, how’d-we-get-here, hallelujah style. and then, to anoint the moment, we bend knee, bow head, and whisper a holy thank you.
never, ever, in a million years did i imagine this 30 would bring my bespectacled scribe — and me, and thus W and T (our two and only double-bylines) — along this most blessed road to here.
a billion blessings, BK. and thank you.
have you hit the pause button lately, to look back on the road to where you are now? what have you gleaned, and what lessons might you carry forward?
p.s. an emphatic post-script to clarify, clarify, clarify: BK is NOT leaving the tribune, merely collecting his 30-year watch. he will be writing and writing and writing. so sorry for leaving wrong impression. it’s a tribune tradition that you get your watch and get right back to work. so so sorry if i left anyone thinking this was The End…..
it’s been one of those weeks that’s found me sifting through drawers, sifting through history, following threads hither and yon.
there’s a particular drawer, in the old pine writing table across the way from here where i sit, and it might as well be my holy of holies. it’s where i stash particular love letters, and every mass card from every funeral of someone i’ve loved. it’s where, apparently, i’ve stashed the polaroid snapshots of my firstborn lying bruised and bloodied in a hospital bed in the children’s hospital ICU, the day after he flew from his bike and broke his neck. and where i’ve tucked the recording of my then-little one’s long-ago phone machine greeting, a delectable slur of words that always left callers confounded — and me charmed, beyond words.
it’s been one of those weeks where threads seem to be pulling me this way, then that. one question leads to a search. another leads to the creaky old stairs that unfold from the attic.
i’ve been discovering shards and treasures all week. i’ve bumped into more questions than answers. why, oh why, do i have a silver coin from 1909, one with abe lincoln’s bust on the front, and on the back the words, “for merit in an essay on abraham lincoln”? who won this, and where is this prize-winning essay? and how did the coin come to be in my drawer? might it be from my grandmama mae, the irish school teacher who bore my sweet papa? might my love of words flow directly through her bloodline? and might my boys’ love of abe be their genetic inheritance?
these are the questions that keep me awake. and won’t let me rest till i unearth the answers.
long long ago, standing in the kitchen of the house where i grew up, i remember leaning into my father’s shoulder (he was wearing the navy velour pullover he so often wore, and i can conjure the nub of that cloth even today — 36 years after the moment), and my father spoke these words that have echoed ever since: “you have a real sense of history.” it was one of those moments when suddenly something you’d not known appears as the most obvious truth in your life. my father died less than two months later. so the words became prophetic. the words have become my divining rod. i follow history. i sift through old letters and artifacts. i study old photos, the ones now faded. i try to make sense.
and i can’t bear to let history — to let story or love, for that’s what so much of a history is — crumble to dust in a drawer or the attic.
which is why i was a bit frazzled this week when i realized that years of my old newspaper stories are all but lost in the cobwebs. it’s intricately complicated, i found out, to pluck certain stories from the digital archives. without a date and precise headline, it’s nearly impossible. which means a good 20 years of bylines might never again be unearthed. which, mostly, won’t matter. but among those two decades there are stories that poured straight from my heart, and i can’t bear the thought that they’re never to be pulled to daylight again. they were, each one, a love song to or about someone or something that mattered. they were moments in my story that i’m not ready to bury.
which is why i decided that, every once in a while, when i find one, i’m going to lovingly paste it here, a digital scrapbook of bylines gone by.
this is the first, a love letter, really, to the very fine soul who picked up his hammer and built the nooks and crannies of this old house and the one before it, a construction of love beyond what we’d dreamed.
Being graced by the hand — and soul — of Jim January 04, 2004|By Barbara Mahany, Tribune staff reporter.
At my house, his name is Jim.
I still remember the first time he walked in, walked in to talk about taking down walls, putting up a dormer. One minute, I’d never seen him before, the next minute, I’d known him all my life.
I still remember standing out by the sidewalk, watching the roof come off our old house, leaning against the wrought-iron gate next door, and he told me, in the most matter-of-fact way, “My dad always said to leave behind a footprint wherever you go.”
Jim leaves footprints. In the form of a box-bay window the architects hadn’t drawn, but that he knew was just what we wanted, to make the trees feel like they stretched right into our room, or, rather, to sweep the window seat right out into the limbs, making a treehouse of what might have been simply a room for a bed.
In the form of drawers that glide in and out as if on Rollerblades, making me feel elegant every time I reached inside for a lumpy old sweater.
In the form of bookshelves that wrapped around me in my little room, making me feel hugged and safe and home — very much at home.
It didn’t take long for all of us to fall in love with Jim & Co. The whole summer they were at our house — Jim and Tom and Bri, the musketeers three — my husband couldn’t wait to vault out of bed and dash over to the Dunkin’ Donuts, where he’d return with a box dripping with sugar and round puffy blobs. My little boy took to sitting on the stairs, watching. He had a big red tool kit that he started lugging around. He put on his safety goggles and he built things in the back yard. Boats. A race car. Bigger boats.
That was at our old house.
I didn’t want to leave it behind because I couldn’t bear to leave behind the magic that Jim had pounded into its walls, its windows, its tucked-away secrets.
Jim, you see, is indispensable, and not just because he wields a mean hammer. Jim is indispensable because what he builds goes far beyond the blue lines you see in the drawings. Jim is indispensable because he knows, without words, the poetry of walls and windows and doors, and all they hold for those of us who hatch our dreams at home like eggs in a nest.
So when we moved, it was pretty simple: We brought Jim with us.
In fact, we bought a house that I could see only through the lens of Jim and all that he could do. I saw right past the ugly tile in the kitchen, the tile someone loved so much they glued it right up the wall once they ran out of the floor. I saw right through the bathrooms with the vanities that looked as if they took three oak trees to build them, they were so big and bulky and in the way.
That was almost a year ago. And in that year, slowly, patiently, whenever he had a minute in between building other people’s houses, he’s been pounding magic into this house, as if it really mattered.
And the point here is: It does matter.
Every single day, most likely for the rest of my life, this house, these walls, these windows, will be the ones that shape my every day. It is within these rooms that I will take in my first waking breath each day and every other breath that forms my every word. It is through these windows that I will look out at the world and drink in the fuel of my dreams. These are the nooks I will curl up in. These are the stairs I will climb, every time it really matters, and plenty of times when it really doesn’t.
But the point is, because his hand is here, everywhere I look I feel his soul, and the soul of something much bigger that speaks to me in a soft still voice, in every room.
Where once upon a time there was a single-car garage, and where after that, just before we moved in, there was brown-striped vinyl wallpaper and nubby carpeting all shredded by a yappy dog, there are now floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall bookcases, and two window seats that stretch out beneath the windows. It is nearly a re-creation of the little tiny room of my dreams I had to leave behind in the house that is no longer ours.
Only this one is better, because I get to stay here forever, and because Jim & Crew pretty much built it from memory, trying to mend the heart that got wrenched in the move.
By the time we’re finished, pretty much every room is going to be graced by the hand of Jim. He’s building a corner cabinet for all the books my little boy has yet to read, and I have visions of us curled up for hours there, for years and years to come. He’s already built a wall of bookshelves for my husband, a wall that could only be called majestic, so elegant and mighty as its fine-honed pilasters reach for the ceiling, and hold my husband’s anchor in the world, his library of books about all the ideas he treasures most.
My 2-year-old, who picked out shoes at the shoe store because they look just like Jim’s, took on a refrain this summer that pretty much echoed the truth in all our hearts. He walked around the house, and whenever he noticed anything amiss, he proclaimed matter-of-factly: “Jim fix it.”
Jim, he fixes everything. And not just with his hammer.
and, now, that one is saved, tucked away in my treasure box, here at the table…..
have you ever discovered — in the nick of time — that some treasure of yours was nearly lost? and if so, how did you save it?
this old house will be a newspaper house as long as fish wrap is dotted with ink. every morning, seven mornings a week, the first sound that reverberates around here — save for the pre-dawn robins who rev up their vocal cords — is the THWOP! of rolled-up papers plopped onto the front stoop (three separate wads each weekday and saturday, two on sundays). twice a year, when the bill comes due, a bill that topples into the hundreds for all that fish wrap, there’s no discussion. we don’t debate the wisdom of rolling out hard-earned cash for an inflow of ink and paper. because you never know what the news will bring. and we couldn’t live without the possibility of getting lost in sentences that swoop our hearts away. or the joy of flipping through a section and discovering a story we otherwise never would have tumbled upon. or the raw eruption of hot tears spilling on the page, as some account of awfulness carries us miles and miles from where we’re reading, and into dingy corners we’d not know were it not for the newspaper’s insistence on wiping out our ignorance and insouciance.
heck, this old house and half the people in it were practically built on the backs of newsprint. were it not for one chicago tribune’s newsroom, i never would have spied — and uncannily fallen hard for — the lanky fellow who became my lifelong paladin, and the father to our children (the two we call our only “double-bylines”).
still, not every morning brings what this one did; these words from the one spooning oat-y Os into his hungry gullet: “you’re gonna go nuts over this one.” and then he shoved before my eyes the front page of the wall street journal’s friday arts-and-culture section.
“the first chapter of harper lee’s new book,” he mumbled between Os, lest i miss the red-hot scoop, the unparalleled capital-e Exclusive, the biggest leak in publishing in plenty a while, the newspaper’s literary splash four days in advance of tuesday’s worldwide release of what’s being called the reclusive ms. lee’s “new novel.”
actually, it’s harper lee’s old novel, “go set a watchman,” her first go-around with a manuscript, submitted back in 1957, when she was all of 31, to her new york publisher, j.b. lippincott.
as the book-peddling legend goes, ms. lee’s editor back then found the story “lacking,” and advised that the would-be author instead zero in on the flashback scenes, in what would become the searing tale of scout and dill and jem and atticus finch and boo radley, and racial inequity and empathy played out in small-town maycomb, alabama: “to kill a mockingbird,” the pulitzer-prize winner that went on to be named “the 20th-century’s best novel,” according to a vote taken by the nation’s librarians.
and so, before my first sip of coffee this morning, i was riding the rails with jean louise finch, aka the “scout” of mockingbird fame, as she “watched the last of georgia’s hills recede and the red earth appear, and with it tin-roofed houses set in the middle of swept yards, and in the yards the inevitable verbena grew, surrounded by whitewashed tires.”
i admit to having been among the skeptical when news of this “long-lost discovery” first made headlines. i admit to suspicion when word leaked out that the 89-year-old ms. lee’s not-long-out-of-law-school attorney just happened to find the manuscript tucked away in a safe deposit box, shortly after ms. lee’s 103-year-old sister, lawyer and lifelong protector, alice lee, had died. i worried that the not-altogether-with-it nelle harper lee might have been duped. coerced into publishing something she’d not wanted paraded through the glaring light of day, to say nothing of the folderol and zaniness sure to come after a half-century’s literary silence.
well, i’ve now read every word, every word the wall street journal rolled into print, and i’m here to tell you i’ll be among the ones in line to gobble up the next however many chapters ms. lee has lobbed our way. whoever was that long-ago lippincott editor who found the first-go lacking, i beg to differ. i’d not want to miss the chance to drink in a line like this one: “love whom you will but marry your own kind was a dictum amounting to instinct within her.”
or: “she was a person who, when confronted with an easy way out, always took the hard way. the easy way out of this would be to marry hank and let him labor for her. after a few years, when the children were waist-high, the man would come along whom she should have married in the first place. there would be searchings of hearts, fevers and frets, long looks at each other on the post office steps, and misery for everybody. the hollering and the high-mindedness over, all that would be left would be another shabby little affair a la birmingham country club set, and a self-constructed private gehenna with the latest westinghouse appliances. hank didn’t deserve that.
“no. for the present she would pursue the stony path of spinsterhood.”
dare you not to race out to add your name to the long list at the library, or order up your own copy from your nearest most beloved bookseller.
i for one will be inhaling every line, on the lookout for a passage equal to the one i just might call the greatest american paragraph ever penned, the one that makes my heart roar every time.
for the sheer joy of retyping its every word, here is one walloping passage from atticus finch’s closing argument in his defense of a black man wrongly accused of raping a white girl in the deep south of the 1930s. page 233 in my first perennial classics edition, printed in 2002:
“But there is one way in this country in which all men are created equal — there is one human institution that makes a pauper the equal of a Rockefeller, the stupid man the equal of an Einstein, and the ignorant man the equal of any college president. That institution, gentlemen, is a court. It can be the Supreme Court of the United States or the humblest J.P. court in the land, or this honorable court which you serve. Our courts have their faults, as does any human institution, but in this country our courts are the great levelers, and in our courts all men are created equal.”
heck, the whole closing argument — from the bottom of page 230, clear through to the fourth to last sentence on 234 — the whole magnificent thing was enough to make me a lifelong believer in the pen of harper lee. and the wall street journal’s gift this morning — slick as it was for the newspaper owned by the same outfit as lee’s new publisher, HarperCollins, to steal first crack at the watchman — twas a mighty fine one.
and an indelible reminder of why i’ll forever be a girl with ink pumping through her veins.
what’s your favorite line, or scene, or passage, from mockingbird?
and, for your summer reading’s consideration, here’s how the journal lays out the launch of ms. lee’s latest, under the news headline, “scout comes home”:
“The first chapter of ‘Go Set a Watchman’ introduces Ms. Lee’s beloved character, Scout, as a sexually liberated woman in her twenties, traveling from New York to Alabama to visit her ailing father and weigh a marriage proposal from a childhood friend. It also includes a bombshell about Scout’s brother.”
i’ll let you read for yourself and discover that bombshell…..oh, the joy of a byline we thought we’d never see again, one that bears the name harper lee.
sometimes it’s in the immeasurable glimmer flashing by that we catch notice of the years slipping by.
so it was when i got word that eric carle, he who cut and glued the tissue-paper colors of the first childhood i inhaled by heart, he who wrote the rhymes, and pounded out the rhythms of measured bars of caterpillars and brown bears and grouchy ladybugs who ate the page, he would be among the short list of honorees at my firstborn’s college graduation.
suddenly, i was back in an overstuffed armchair. a navy plaid. one we’d bought when my belly was full and round, one we’d bought — on what for us amounted to a whim — because suddenly i was overtaken with the urge to have a sitting place, a nesting place, for me and my soon-to-be-born. that boy was not a week old before i cradled him in my arms, plopped him on my lap, perched a book before his eyes, and began to turn the page. one ear pressed against his mama’s heartbeat, and through the other ear, his mama’s voice rising and falling in sing-song brown-bear rhythm.
and so it went, through bedtimes and lull times and any time we happened to be curled together on the floor of his room, where a nook carved along the wall cradled all the books of childhood i had gathered for this and any other child.
suddenly, in my mind’s eye, in that tumble of remembering, i was perched atop my firstborn’s hand-me-down four-poster bed. he was nestled beside me, my long-legged boy in his little boy pajamas. i could see his little hand, dimpled hand, his hand that loved to turn the pages — no pages more so than the ones of eric carle.
every child has their natural-born predilection for a certain page. there must be something about the words, the rhyme, the color, or maybe just the humor deep inside. it’s indecipherable, and unpredictable, just what that book, that page, might be. but in the case of our house, our bookshelf, there was no more-loved page-turner than eric carle’s brown bear.
“brown bear, brown bear,” i can begin to recite. and i can take it — still — clear through to red bird, and yellow duck, and blue horse, and green frog, and purple cat. i stumble on white dog, but pick right up with black sheep, and goldfish, and then, skipping right by teacher and children, crescendo comes: in which, in rat-a-tat retelling, we tick through the whole menagerie of curiously-colored critters.
if i read that book once, i read it three million times. it was in these pages, i’m fairly certain, that my sweet boy learned his yellow from his blue. and for some reason, one that might forever escape me, it’s where i heard him laugh on cue, each time we came to that horse of blue. did he know that horses were not blue? is that what struck him silly?
and here we are, the pages barely touched in years. but when i got the news, the news that mr. carle would be presiding, i tumbled up the stairs to the nook in his little brother’s room where the books now stand, forgotten soldiers, stiff-backed, listing, and i pulled out the trinity of carles — hungry caterpillar, grouchy ladybug, and brown bear — and there, i turned the pages, and there i saw the years-old crinkles on a page that once upon a time must have so excited a little page-turner that he up and scrunched that charming goldfish that swims across two pages.
that the author of the cornerstones of my firstborn’s childhood would, all these years later, be there, in the flesh, at his college graduation, the ceremonial whirl that is the close of college, well, it just put a zap to my heart, and melted me. and washed me over in a sudden measure of just how many years have passed. how many pages have been turned. and made me ask, again and again, how did we get here? how did we get to this brink of college graduation, a moment that shimmered in the far-off distance, an indecipherable mirage that felt miles beyond my reach?
and as is my wont to do, i tick back across time, i hold the celluloid frames up to the light. i study one after another. measured bars all unspooling toward this moment of glory-be, he-made-it. i think of the shadowed hours, the ones when darkness descended, the ones when that blessed child bared his deepest fears and worries. i think of the broken hours, when a dream slipped just beyond his fingers’ reach. i think of the occasional glory, when that beautiful boy felt invincible and whole and understood just why it was he was planted on this holy earth.
and so there is symmetry, full circle, weaving together the beginning and the end of this particular chapter, the chapter called school life (even his little brother announced the other afternoon, as if he’d just put two and two together: “gosh, willie is about to be a real adult!”). the beginning and end here seem to have serendipitously been marked by eric carle, a fellow who found his joy, his purpose, in making shapes of brightly-colored tissue paper, and who wrote the score for a childhood measured out in the joy of turning pages, the delight of stumbling on a page that makes you laugh out loud.
i wonder if i might wiggle my way through the crush of all those college kids, and yank the wise man’s sleeve, and whisper my almighty thanks for the animation he stitched into our long ago just-beginning picture-book days?
who wrote the score of your childhood, or a childhood you’ve been blessed to watch up close? which picture books can you close your eyes and still recite, page by page, word by word?
on this particular morning i am particularly tied to my firstborn, who is about to step into the defense of his thesis, his 180-page page-turner. with all my heart and soul i offer up this morning for his prayers and dreams to come tumbling true….
here is an essay i wrote this week for the nieman storyboard, a writerly nook of the nieman foundation for journalism at harvard that explores the craft of longform narrative and storytelling in all its guises. this was an essay that took particular courage. you’ll read why. you can read it below, or see it here on the storyboard, where you might decide to poke around and find a host of marvels and morsels….
I’ve written about my mother’s cancer. And the string bean of an unborn baby who slipped through my fingers in the dark of the hollowest night, amid clots of blood and a wail of primal grief.
I’ve written about the abyss of the hour when I paced an emergency room, waiting to hear if my older son’s spinal cord had been severed when he flew from his bike to a trail in the woods. I even once dared to write — in the pages of the Chicago Tribune, my hometown newspaper — how I became anorexic my senior year of high school, and, in the flash of a few short spring months, plunged from glory to shame in my infamy as the homecoming queen who had to be hospitalized after dropping 50 pounds.
But saying out loud that I look for and find God nearly everywhere I wander? That scared me.
Especially among my fellow journalists, for whom skepticism is religion. Pulling back Oz’s curtain, taking down the too-powerful, those are the anointed missions. To stand before an imagined newsroom and say I bow to the Almighty source of all blessing, I believe in the Unknowable, the Invisible, a force I know to be tender and endless and ever in reach, a magnificence that animates my every hour, that is to stand before the firing line. That is to expose yourself, I feared, as unfit for Fourth Estate duty.
But I did it. Led by a deep, still voice.
Now, it’s all bound in a book, called Slowing Time: Seeing the Sacred Outside Your Kitchen Door (Abingdon Press, 2014). And, as of Oct 7, you’ll find it in bookstores, on Amazon, even on the shelf of my town’s library.
The burning question for a journalist who’d dare to chart the spiritual landscape is how, using the tools of the craft, do you toughen the fibers, sharpen the edges, of a subject that, by definition, is formless? How do you put hard-chiseled words to believing, indeterminate act that it is?
For me, it boils down to three non-negotiables: Pay exquisite attention, even when it’s your soul you’re sliding under the examiner’s lens; root yourself in the earthly while soaring toward the heavenly; and don’t flinch. Your edge comes from your capacity to pull back the veil where others dare not.
It struck me recently that my paying-attention curriculum, the part that came from syllabus as much as natural-born curiosity, began in the halls of a college of nursing, where in shiny-linoleum-tiled classrooms, in the fall of 1976, a whole lot of us — sophomore nursing students on a four-year track — began to learn to see the world through a nurse’s dare-not-miss-a-detail eyes.
My very first assignment, once a white nurse’s cap had been bobby-pinned to my run-away curls, was to bathe a woman who was dying of a cancer. I was taught, straight off, to look deep into her eyes, to read the muscles flinching on her face, to hear the cracking of her words as she tried to tell me how warm she liked her bath, and which limb hurt too much for me to lift it.
And on and on, the learning went — as I became a pediatric oncology nurse at Chicago’s Children’s Memorial Hospital, and watched the waning light in the eyes of a 15-year-old boy at the hour of his death. As I gauged the depth of blue circling the lips of 6-year-old girl with cystic fibrosis. As I buried the sobs of a wailing father against my shoulder, as he absorbed the diminuendo of his 12-year-old daughter’s final breaths.
At the precipice of life and death, I learned to live a life of close examination. And when I made the leap from nursing to newsroom, a narrative twist brought on by the sudden death of my father, and an off-handed comment after his funeral that I ought to try my hand at journalism, I only broadened my lens. Paid keener attention to the singular detail that revealed the deeper story.
Root yourself in the earthly.
Even if I’ve never broadcast the holiness that informs my every day, it’s always been there. It was front and center, back in 1985, when I criss-crossed the country, documenting the faces and forms of hunger in America, for a 10-part series unspooled in the Tribune. It was a pilgrimage that put flesh to my own personal gospel: One that drove me to see the face of God in everyone whose path I happened to tread, everyone whose story spilled into my notebooks. From ramshackle cabins in Greenwood, Mississippi, to urine-stenched stairwells in Chicago’s Cabrini-Green, high-rise housing hell.
I never set out to be a religion writer, though when the slot opened once at the Tribune, I gave it a moment’s consideration. Nor did I ever set out to expose the whispers and truths of my soul. All I wanted was to hold up to the light the stories of everyday sinners and saints who so richly animate the grid, urban or rural or spaces between. It was in the backwash of the forgotten, the pushed aside, the indomitable that I noticed the glimmering shards.
In my own way, always drifting toward stories that fell in the crosshairs of human struggle or anguish and rose in crescendo toward triumph or wisdom gained, I was gathering notes on the human spirit, and never surprised when I felt the hand of God — like a thud to the heart, or, more often, a tickle at the back of my neck.
There’s an ancient Hebrew text, one with echoes of Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” that teaches us that while we can’t see God, we can see God’s shadows. The more etched the shadows, the more we know God, according to the teaching. It’s wisdom that drives me to tether my prose in the concrete, to allow the metaphor to spring from the particular, to capture a glimpse of the Holy from the depths of ordinary.
Back in 2006, my then 13-year-old, who’d scored enough in bar mitzvah gifts to cash in on a refurbished MacBookPro, bequeathed his old laptop to me. As part of the deal, he built me a website one December night when the winds whistled in through the cracks in the door. He told me I could handle a blog. I shivered.
Then I started to type. Called it “Pull Up a Chair.” Set out to write about the heart and soul of the home front.
Each weekday morning for a year, I rose before dawn, poured a tall mug of caffeine, and I wrote. Exercised narrative muscles I’d never known were there. Connected dots in the course of free-flowing sentences. Sometimes felt the particular buzz that tells you you’ve tapped just the right vein. The one, in my case, that flowed from my heart to my soul. I’ve been writing that blog ever since. Nearly eight years of accumulated essays.
By day, I forged on with the daily grind of newspapering. But what happened at dawn – the writing that drew me into places I’d never explored aloud – it freed a particular voice. What had been un-utterable became a tremulous whisper, and, in time, a brave clear call.
Along the way, I’ve endured what might be the hardest lesson: The one where I find myself plumbing depths that are truer than true, though I’d never quite put them to words. As in: “I seem to hum most contentedly when my canvas has room for the paint dabs of God. When I hear the wind rustling through pines, when I take in the scarlet flash in the bushes, when I trace the shift in the shadows through the long afternoon, that’s when I feel the great hand of the Divine slipping round mine, giving a squeeze. That’s when I know I am not deeply alone. But, rather, more connected than in a very long time.”
Or: Writing of the sleepless night when, in desperation, I reached for a rosary I’d not fingered in years. “It’s the [rosary] I squeezed till my fingers turned white when they threaded the wire into the heart of the man who I love, the man who I married. And when they dug out the cancer from the breast of my mother. And that I would have grabbed, had I known, on the crisp autumn night when the ambulance carried me and my firstborn through the streets of the city, his head and his neck taped to a stretcher. I prayed without beads that night, I prayed with the nubs of my cold, clammy fingers.”
Call me crazy — or oddly courageous — to invite readers under my bedsheets, where I finger the rosary. To whisper aloud the words of my prayer, not cloaked in cotton-mouthed vagaries, but laid bare in the most intimate script, the one that unfurls from my heart to the heavens.
Instead of playing it safe, instead of turning and running, I plunge forward. I follow the truth. I say it out loud. And then I hit “publish.” Often, I find myself queasy. Call a dear friend. I rant, and I fret. Consider deleting the post. Then the emails come in, the ones that tell me I’ve captured a something someone never quite noticed, something that gave them goosebumps. And therein, I discover communion, in its deepest iteration. That’s how you learn not to flinch.
The story of how my book came together — how hundreds of pages were sorted and sifted and whittled and culled, how words written in silence at my old kitchen table would emerge to be passed from friend to friend — is, like most things spiritual, an amalgam of the mystical and the prosaic.
It all traces back to books I spied on the desk of the Cambridge professor who would become our landlord during our Nieman year. I knew, once I saw the stacks of poetry and divinity titles, that his book-lined aerie, the top floor of a triple-decker just off Harvard Square, was the one we needed to rent. What I didn’t know is that the gentle-souled professor would soon introduce me to a Boston book editor he termed, “the best of the best.” Nor that I would fly home to Chicago at the end of that Nieman year with a contract and an end-of-summer deadline for a book I’d loosely conceived of as a Book of Common Prayer, believing it’s the quotidian rhythms that hold the deepest sparks of the Divine, and it’s in the rush and the roar of the modern-day domestic melee – held up to the light — that I find improbable holiness.
And so, what had been occasional dabblings into the sacred realm — written over seven years, refined over one summer — became a tightly woven tapestry that now, as I read from beginning to end, feels something like a banner. Or maybe a prayer shawl in which I quietly, devoutly, wrap myself.
I’m braced – I hope – for the cynicism, or maybe worse, sheer dismissal. A dear friend, one whose book spent the summer on the New York Times best-seller list, gave me what amounts to a lifeline: “The real reviews,” she said, “come in handwriting and human voices.” Already, those voices have begun to trickle in, to tell me they’re staining the pages with coffee rings as they read and ponder and read some more. To tell me they’re giving the book to their dearest circle of friends. To tell me they’ve underlined and scribbled in the margins. To tell me one particular essay carried one reader through the week-long dying of her mother.
I’ve found my holiness slow and steady. It crept up unawares, almost. I never expected that I’d write a prayerful book, with my name on the cover, and my heart and my soul bared across its pages.
But nothing has ever felt quite so right. Nothing so quietly sacred.
Barbara Mahany is an author and freelance journalist in Chicago, who writes these days about stumbling on the sacred amid the cacophony of the modern-day domestic melee. She was a reporter and feature writer at the Chicago Tribune for nearly 30 years, and before that a pediatric oncology nurse. She tagged along on the 2012-13 Nieman fellowship of her husband, Blair Kamin, the Tribune’s longtime architecture critic.
the parabola of time has caught up with me. it’s the morning i couldn’t imagine. the end of the year i could hardly wrap my head around, long long ago when word of it first flickered across my imagination, when i knew i couldn’t say no, but could not figure how i’d say yes.
i turn back into a pumpkin in precisely 23 hours and 49 minutes (as of the moment i typed that calculation), when the big jet plane huffs and puffs and in a somersault of gravity defiance and aeronautical wonder hoists its belly off the runway, pointing toward sky, toward home.
trouble is, i’m leaving a place that’s come to feel like home. when i lope round the bend onto franklin, just past petsi’s pie bakery & cafe, when i spot the curlicues of victorian frou-frou that bedeck our triple-decker at 608, i start fumbling for my keys. i know there’s a place up there, the aerie, where the breeze blows through, where the walls of books whisper sweet somethings in my ear.
true, i am headed home to a place that knows the secret hiding coves of my heart, to the muscled city that dares to rise up from the prairie along the great lake’s ruffled edge, to the creaky stairs of my old house, to my rambling roses now blooming in a tussle all along the white picket fence.
i’m headed home to the place where the walls are covered in black-and-white snaps of people we love, the people who came before us. to the place where two rooms at the top of the stairs are chambers that forever hold the frames of childhood that loop for both of my boys. i’m headed home, oddly enough, to the hand-me-down jug of the jolly quaker oats fellow my papa brought home from work a long, long time ago, and for reasons that could never be charted is way more priceless than old pottery has reason to be.
home is equal parts hodgepodge and heart. it’s quirky and lumpen. it creaks and it groans. sometimes you have to bang on the hot-water spigot just to get it to dribble. home soothes us nonetheless, kneads the knots out of our worn-down spirit at the end of the day.
and that’s what i’m coming home to: the real-deal, deep-soother rendition of that place where we lay down and breathe.
but before i zip the last of my bags, before i slip the key in the door one last time, turn and blow a kiss, i need to riffle through my cantabrigian* memory box one last time, pull out a few of the blessings i’ll never forget, won’t leave behind.
if there’s one frame that will forever spring to mind, it’ll be that meandering walk down by the charles river (the one pictured above), under the london plane trees, past the boat houses that hug the banks, dowagers of the past. it’s the walk that carried me, countless dawns, to my stone-walled monastery, where the monks always welcomed, and the votive candles patiently awaited the matchstick that lit them aflicker. mile after mile, week after week, we’d take to that path, the tall one, the professor, and i. it became our early-morning ritual, mostly on weekends, when we’d have a rare chance to catch up on what each other might have been up to in the long spaces between.
i’ll miss my kaleidoscope of neighbors here on franklin street: white-haired nan, of the caribbean-painted cottage, nan who fell in love with a civil rights compatriot, and wept fresh tears on my stoop just last night, as she clutched a framed photo of the pipe-smoking, tweed-jacketed gentleman she lost to cancer nearly two years ago, after 40-some years of marriage. nan, who found in cambridge a place where, back in the ’60s, no one looked twice at a white-skinned woman arm-in-arm with the black-skinned love of her life.
i’ll miss sarah, sarah who looks as if she’s just come in from blueberry picking in maine or, truer still, stepped off the pages of a children’s storybook with her sun-kissed hair and faintest freckles and that twinkle that never leaves her eye. sarah who came to the door with a tinfoil-wrapped platter of chocolate-chunk cookies on the day we arrived, and again last night, on the eve of departure. “bookends,” she called them. she is just that sort of across-the-way neighbor. and i will love her till the end of time.
and i’ll miss jane, eighty-something jane, who was born in a double-decker down the block, and has never left, spending her days leaning up against the cyclone fence or shuffling in bedroom slippers and top-knotted headscarf up and down the cobbled slopes of franklin and putnam and bay, the rectangle that defines her life’s landscape.
i’ll miss the harvard book store, and the coop, and the sun-drenched cambridge public library, my holy trinity of literary haunts, where books come curated by brilliant minds who know just which words will swoop deep into a reader’s heart and stir for a good long while.
i’ll miss the polyglot stew that rises up from the round-the-world crowds in harvard square, and the letters from the cambridge public schools that always come translated in at least 10 languages on the backside of every page. because here, in the 02138s and 9s, no one assumes english is the first language.
i’ll miss the intellectual bunsen burner that is 02139 and 02138, the zone the new york times proclaimed “the most opinionated ZIP code in america,” where ideas are the coin of the realm, and the shabbier the khakis, the holey-er the button-down, the better.
i’ll miss the body parts of cambridge that come pierced, stapled, studded, stretched and permanently inked in tattoos that know no end. i’ll miss the leggings in rainbow colors that peek out from underneath shorts that barely stretch across bums. i’ll miss the most eloquent cardboard pleas from the homeless folk who station themselves all along mass avenue.
i’ll miss the eastern seaboard, and the magic in the mist that coaxes rhododendrons and roses and dogwood and lilac to grow to proportions i never knew possible.
i’ll miss the breads of massachusetts and maine, just up the road. “when pigs fly” is my bakery of choice, and don’t be surprised if i lug home a suitcase packed to the brim with raisin-studded whole-grain goodness.
i’ll miss cambridge from dawn till starlight. i’ll miss cambridge when, plonked on an old wicker chair on my summer porch, i look up and catch the moon rising. i’ll know that a mere 1,000 miles away, that same sliver moon shines down on the charles, and the cobbled lanes that rise up from its banks to the hill i called home.
it’s a holy place, the place that opens your heart, that teaches you lessons. most of all the one where you find out that one simple “yes” made it all possible.
bless you, 02139.
*cantabrigian: a quirky latin-derivative adjective for all things harvardian or cambridge, englandian. took me most of the year to pick up on it, so i’m passing it along, providing the shortcut for you.
so that’s it, chair people. cinderella’s ball is winding down. only cinders by the hearth, come morning. though i couldn’t be more twitterpated at the thought of swooping through the clouds to touch down in sweet home chicago. forgive the cambridge-centric year; twas a promise to mamas who wanted in on every drop. or at least the week’s highlights. we’ll be back to musings from the home front soon as i unpack the 27 boxes now motoring along the massachusetts turnpike. can’t believe i’ll next type from my old pine desk, but tis true.
from the bottom of my heart, bless you and thank you for the solace, the comfort, the wisdom you brought to me here at the table, where each friday i plugged in, and felt zapped with all your goodness. blessings. and love, the chair lady.
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.
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:
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.