For the first seven years after college, I lived the nomadic life of a young journalist, moving from newspaper to newspaper.
Right after college, I spent a year working for a small daily newspaper in a Southern Minnesota town about an hour from where I grew up. I covered cops and courts and tiny rural school districts that had merged with other tiny school districts in towns whose populations had dropped so low that they couldn’t support their own schools. During that year, I occasionally popped in on the one Presbyterian church in town.
I’d had little journalism in college—one class, plus a semester in Washington, D.C., that was mostly devoted to listening to famous reporters talk about their jobs. I was well aware that I was winging it. So one day, after I’d been reporting for a few months, I went into the managing editor’s office. “I feel like I’m doing OK, but I’m sure there are things I could be doing better,” I said. “What should I be working on?”
Her response: “If I don’t call you in here to yell at you, you’re doing fine.”
That one terrible answer sealed it. I had to get out of there. My graduate school applications went into the mail, and a few months later I was in journalism school at Northwestern University. I started in the summer, with the basic copy editing class they usually allowed people with real-world experience to skip. I was mildly offended that I had to take it, but they were right, I needed it.
During graduate school, I admired the churches ringing the campus but rarely set foot in one. The program was only a year long—nine months in Evanston followed by three months in Washington, D.C. I was just passing through not trying to make a life there.
After graduate school, I was determined to go west. Two college summers working in Yellowstone National Park had given me a taste for the wilds. I’d applied to spend the summer working in a national park during my freshman year of college under threat of a boring, cashless summer back home. I put in my application and got an offer to work at the gift shop at Old Faithful Lodge.
That June, I made the thousand-mile drive in a 12-year-old dark blue Lincoln Town Car with a white top—a mid-70s model designed to win any highway altercations. After three days of driving, punctuated by my first nights ever alone in a hotel room, I sat in a café in Gardiner, Montana, on the edge of the park, looking at the snow-capped mountains just across the park boundary and feeling as small as I’ve ever felt. I called home to check in—trying to sound braver than I felt.
The next morning, I reported for training, fighting back tears of loneliness, looking around for someone to attach to, and noting which of the people around me were also headed for Old Faithful. I slowly became more focused on learning the ropes and less focused on how far off the edge of the map I was.
Once the training ended, I drove the hour to Old Faithful, found my dorm, and was alarmed to see I was assigned to a room with the biggest smart-ass from the training. But it turned out to be good luck. She and the cousin she was with were outgoing and friendly, and I wound up having the time of my life. I hiked, I socialized, and I danced on the chairs in an employee pub where dancing on the floor made the juke box skip. I cheerfully yelled at Japanese tourists who yelled back over the counter as though volume could overcome our language gaps, trying to answer the questions I thought they were asking. I was part of a group—playing an important part since I was the one with a car big enough to transport a pack to Quake Lake for pizza or captain a middle of the night trip to the Bozeman airport for a friend’s emergency trip home. Mostly, I learned I could strike out on my own and be just fine.
After my year in graduate school, I wanted to go back to the part of the country where the mountains made me feel reassuringly small, hiking trails were plentiful, and nature felt so close. But I ultimately overshot by 900 miles. The resumes and clips I’d sent out across the West, resulted in a job at the daily newspaper in a small, poor logging and fishing town on the Oregon Coast, where the newspaper’s managing editor was willing to take a chance on a reporter from 2,000 miles away. He’d called Northwestern when he was looking for a new reporter, and one of my professors who knew I wanted to go west had sent him my way.
So once again, I arrived somewhere where I didn’t know anyone and tried to find my place.
In rural Oregon, I once again struggled with how to be a newspaper reporter in the kind of town where I’d run into the sheriff at church or the school board president at the gym—most memorably on a night when I almost fell off the Stairmaster laughing while reading “Molly Ivins Can’t Say That, Can She?” I did not want to explain that I was hooting at her reference to the only known country music song title to use the subjunctive case correctly—and in a very off-color way. Fortunately, I didn’t have to.
Fitting into small-town Oregon was tough. How do you find a place to belong when it’s your job to be an observer, the town is too small to compartmentalize being a reporter and just being a person, and you’re too far from home to pop in on friends or relatives for some comfort and familiarity?
Once again, I felt like I had walked off the edge of the map but this time I wasn’t rescued by a band of merry co-conspirators. The culture was unfamiliar. The town was small and isolated. And many of the residents were angry at the economic and government forces that had killed off the logging and fishing jobs. The bumper stickers said it best: “I love spotted owl…boiled” and “Welcome to Oregon. Now go home.” I could understand the anger on an objective level—people who had grown up believing they could make a decent living in the forests or mills or on the ocean found themselves in a world with few options for them.
I hadn’t seen the good times. And I wasn’t cut out for the bad times. When anyone asked me where I worked, I cringed. People were more than happy to tell me how bad the paper was. The ones who read bylines started as soon as they figured out why my name sounded familiar. And the revolving cast of reporters who’d come from elsewhere and couldn’t wait to leave didn’t help the situation. Most of us were never going to stay long enough to truly understand the place.
True to their expectations, I was desperate to leave almost from the moment I arrived. Life that rural was not for me. I looked for a church instinctively—as a way to maybe get to know a few people while I sent out resumes and hoped for my next job offer.
I was looking for an answer, too. I was having my first experience with the kind of anger you’re not sure you’ll ever get over and an attendant crisis of faith. I’d been victimized and I hated the perpetrator. I wanted the person to rot in hell. Except I didn’t. I hated feeling that way. I was a Christian. I was supposed to be forgiving. I wanted to be forgiving. I hated how it felt to be so angry, but I couldn’t find my way through to any sliver of light. Not through thinking, not through prayer, not through grace. I’d stand at the communion rail praying for forgiveness for my inability to forgive, but even that didn’t feel like it moved me an inch forward.
I was banging my head against the same mental door over and over, trying to find the doorway to the next room, where I was sure I’d find the magic wand of forgiveness—one that would evaporate my anger and let me be the benevolent person I wanted to be instead of the small, stuck one I was.
As I tried to get settled in, one of the first churches I tried was Presbyterian, but I left mid-sermon as the pastor preached that we had a duty to try to convert our Jewish friends to Christianity because no matter how good they were as people, they couldn’t get into heaven without accepting Jesus into their hearts. By then, I’d met some Jews. The sermon wasn’t about theoretical people I had never encountered, it involved graduate school friends and acquaintances. Actual people who did not need to be fixed in accordance with this pastor’s narrow view of God. I wasn’t interested in a church that thought it offered the only path. I hadn’t grown up with this kind of sermon, and I certainly wasn’t going to embrace that kind of church as an adult.
Happily, I quickly found a better fit—a little United Methodist church where most of the women over 50 were named Helen and the pastor was not concerned with who’s in and who’s out. People were friendly and frankly happy to see a young adult. But getting involved in the workings of the church meant going to meetings—the last thing I wanted to do on nights off. I was already covering a city council, a school district, a port authority, a (yawn) water district, and (my favorite) a sanitary district board that had raised fighting with the water district to an art form. My 20s were slipping by as I sat through endless discussions of community policing, school budgets, and whether the water district was over billing the sanitary district, as calculated by a sanitary board member who spent an afternoon counting how many times a storage tank or something filled and emptied. The fact that this counted as an entertaining discussion was a testament to the depths of my boredom.
For volunteering commitments, I needed action, not talking. So I started teaching Sunday school to 4- to 6-year-olds, who, mercifully, did not have an opinion on the newspaper. It was my first introduction to what happens when young kids meet the concept of God. One day, the curriculum said to have them draw pictures of God, but to explain that God doesn’t have to look like a person. I dutifully explained that they could draw God as a tree or a flower or a rainbow—that he didn’t have to be an old man. The children blinked at me. Then every one of them drew a man with a white beard wearing a long robe. Five-year-olds are not that kind of abstract.
When Father’s Day rolled around and we started talking about dads, one of my students—one of a clutch of hardscrabble siblings—popped out with, “My dad’s in jail.”
“Oh,” I said. Before I could engage my brain, the reporter question popped out, “What did he do?”
I don’t know which one of us looked more horrified by my idiocy.
“Nothing!” he said.
As my human brain engaged—the one that knows better—I managed to recover with, “It’s OK. God loves people who are in trouble too.”
As I slogged through my days, enjoying the parts of reporting that let me ask questions of regular people, loving the writing, barely tolerating the meetings, trying not to drown in my loneliness, and being way too focused on when Max and Luna would finally kiss on “One Life to Live,” I kept wrestling with my anger.
One weekend afternoon, I went for a walk on the beach. Worn down by loneliness, sadness, and anger, I lifted my hands up to the sky, “Here, God, take this. It’s too much for me.” It was an out-of-character gesture—a desperate attempt to lift the weight of the world off my shoulders. After, I felt a little better, but not wonderful. Just slightly less heavy. Like I’d subtracted one of the smaller continents from my load.
One Saturday night, after I had been struggling for the better part of a year, I went to see the “Muppet Christmas Carol” movie. The combination of the impending holidays and the movie’s theme—sillified as it was, that story of how things were, are, and could be always affects me—had me right there wrestling with my inability to forgive even as I stopped by the grocery store on the way back to my apartment.
I stopped to peruse the herb teas. As my eyes settled on the Lipton’s Gentle Orange, Silent Night started to play over the store’s speakers. And I suddenly had an overwhelming sense of reassurance that my anger was OK, that I was free to struggle, that the promise of the baby Jesus—whose birth the song is about—was that I could be patient with myself. It wasn’t encouraging me to hate, but instead was giving me permission to keep working on it—to not worry that any given moment would be the freeze frame against which I’d be forever judged.
I’d been wrongheadedly looking for a magic wand that would change everything in an instant when what I really needed was patience with myself. I needed to give myself time to get where I wanted to be. It was the message I needed, in a language I understood, at a time when I’d exhausted my own ability to figure things out.
Afterward, I could remember the thoughts, but could never quite call up the feeling again. It was different from other memories. I couldn’t run my finger over it and re-experience the reassurance. It came and then was gone. But I was never stuck in the same way again. I’d been freed from the desire to find a magic answer and set on the path toward the more genuine, time-consuming one. It wasn’t a loud flash or a voice or anything that looked dramatic, just a comforting epiphany at an Albertsons supermarket on a drippy Oregon winter night. A moment of grace that allowed me to stop worrying about what I couldn’t muster and start moving toward compassion.