We sat at a round table as she talked, her Dutch accent seasoning her story.
I scribbled her words down in my notebook.
Tales of war. Of espionage. Of persecution. Things we don’t live through here and now.
She spoke German, so we traded a few words over our tea cups, just as practice for us both.
“I wrote down my story,” she said, her eyes brightening. She left and went into the back room. The sounds of rifling followed. Then she produced the thick pad of paper full of words and sentences, double spaced.
“It’s my manuscript of the time.”
I nodded and thumbed through the pages.
She was remarkable. At age 89, her mind was still sharp. Her boyfriend, who would have been her husband except that the logistics of a ceremony were too great at their age, sat nearby in a wheelchair listening.
She gave detailed stories of her escape from the Germans during World War II. She told of watching loved ones be dragged away. She told of traveling alone through snowy fields by herself. She described how a she used a passing flirtation to become a spy for the underground. It was a little lipstick that helped her find out that it was safe for an Allied weapon drop.
I listened rapt, wondering if I would have been capable of her bravery.
Her courage had left its scars, in the form of a fear that resurfaced at odd times, such as when I asked for a photo for the story I was writing. There might be some who still seek to harm the Jews, she explained, as she declined.
After I had filled the lines and rows of my notebook with her words, she turned to more personal matters. She handed me a dusty German novel.
“Will you read it?” she asked. I nodded, but wondered if I could, my German having rusted without consistent use.
She turned back to the manuscript. She needed an editor, she told me. Would I be willing? I hedged, but said maybe. She asked me to visit. It’s lonely in this small town.
With the lines of journalistic ethics tumbling in my mind, I held her at arm’s length. I smiled and said goodbye in German. I took what I had and wrote the story.
Months later, she called. Her husband had just died, she said. “I am alone now.” I told her I was sorry, feeling the pity wash over me. She again brought up the manuscript, urging me to stop by.
“I will try,” I said, my conscience tapping on my shoulder. I thought I would. I intended to. But the town where she lived was out of the way. I seldom had reason to go there. Maybe I could stop by one Saturday afternoon, I thought.
I never did.
One day I stopped to snatch a fax off the machine. Obituary information. Nothing out of the ordinary. I let the paper flutter onto the news clerk’s desk, but caught the name before it came to a rest.
It was her.
Suddenly all my good intentions deflated like a beach ball pricked with a pin. She died alone, her manuscript collecting dust in the back room. I wondered where that bundle of papers was now. I wondered if anyone would ever read it, or if it the details of her life would end up on a shelf somewhere, unedited.
I’m sorry, Sophie.
The memory of my first day as a reporter is tinged with my own envy.
Someone is paying me to write, I thought with an awe only rookies possess. I shuffled through papers and tweaked ledes and made phone calls with elation. I might have done it for free.
I continued with that youthful vigor for years, approaching public information officers with ferocity that bordered on peskiness. Sneaking in time for in-depth features between daily space fillers. Staying late to cover meetings.
I made mistakes and learned from them. I wrestled to find my place. Somewhere along the line, I got good at it. Maybe not excellent or Pulitzer-Prize winning, but good. If passion and dedication equates to ability, maybe even better than average.
There were bouts of boredom, but for the most part, I thought I found my niche.
When did it change? Over the seven years I churned out copy, when was the turning point? When did burnout and cynicism eclipse that drive?
I thought changing jobs and scenery would wet my appetite again, and for awhile, it did. But eventually my energy dried out again, like the cracked surface of an empty pothole. I tossed and turned in my effort not to let it show. I marveled at those who have made a life of it, when I always thought I would become them.
Then I found it. Something else that awakened whatever was lying dormant. I thought about it at night before bed. I plotted and planned. I held the coals of the idea in my hands and blew them into a flame. I prayed and prayed, asking God if this was right. Then I made the move.
Today is the final step. The final clip that will sever the ties to that former me, at least temporarily.
Suddenly, I feel panicked. Suddenly I remember everything I love about being a career writer. The pace. The constant chatter of the scanner. The people. The incessant click of keyboard keys. The questions. Knowing first. The jargon. The games of wit we play with sources. The dry sense of humor that prevails. That inquisitive spirit we share. The art of taking confusion and crafting it into something sensical and interesting and relevant.
I look around the newsroom, the characters hemming me in like building blocks of an industry. To the right is the clever veteran who paints words like art, even in common conversation. Straight ahead is the wine writer who can get away with cursing his sources out while still remaining endearing. On my left, page designers tug at imaginary lines to build layers of virtual color into something eye appealing. Elsewhere there’s the political reporter who is perplexingly private. The new ones who are already leaving, never having found a home here. And the web editors engaged in their real-time clash with day-delayed news.
I feel as if a part of me was already fading into a sunset of names they now struggle to remember.
Then it dawns on me. What if my new calling goes the same way, the zeal I feel for it snuffing out amid the barrage of daily tedium? What if in a few years, I am back where I am now with writing?
It is a fleeting thought, one of “cross that bridge later” caliber.
For now, I stay focused on what I am leaving. Tomorrow, I will dedicate my energy fully to a new goal. In between, I pack up my desk and say goodbye.
As I walk out, the door slams shut with a finality that makes me jump. It’s too late to turn back inside; I’ve already turned in my key. For a moment, I don’t know who I am.
It’s time to piece together new building blocks.
I didn’t write a post the New Years everything changed. I didn’t write about my trip to the Dominican Republic, which proved to be life-altering, and not in the cliche, unmeasurable way. I didn’t write when I started a new career and pushed journalism aside to a part-time role.
But I am writing today: the day before I am about to work my last day as a reporter.
It’s been about two years since my last post on my old blog. For all you know, the past two years didn’t even happen. My old blog has slunk silently into oblivion. I would have been OK with it. You probably would have too.
I thought about picking it up from time to time, then got caught up in other things. Busyness is really just a cop out though, because you make time for your priorities. I guess this wasn’t just one of them. Then too much time passed for me to resuscitate it. I worried it would become a false start even if I could.
If I began again, I wanted it to be different. It had turned into mundane accounts of monthly milestones in my life. Really, the only people who care about that is family members and a few close friends, who I talk to regularly anyway. In short, I was boring myself.
I decided I had to start new, with a new format and new template and new colors. Starting fresh, like I did when I moved.
I still don’t know how I want it to be different, or what it will be. But I figured that now that I am not going to be writing for a living, I better keep it up somehow. I wonder if writing is a skill that can grow dull if unused, or if it’s more like bicycle riding.
Maybe now that I’m not writing for a living I will be more inclined to write for fun. We’ll see.
Either way, I’m back for now, restarting fresh.