Dan Haley asked Wednesday Journal staff recently to write a few words on why we work here at Growing Community Media (the nonprofit company that recently replaced the for-profit Wednesday Journal Inc.). Fifty words was all he needed, but 50 words isn’t enough for me to clear my throat, as writers like to say.
So I’m giving him something on the order of 950 words — not exactly suitable for donation pitches, needed for our very survival, but he can extract any 50-word excerpt that pleases.
Now that I’ve cleared my throat, why am I still working here 30 years, almost to the day, after I started in November of 1990? The short answer is: Not for the money, but for the meaning.
One of the books that changed my life was Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, which I read in high school, saints be praised, because I really needed it. I was just trying to survive adolescence, but Frankl survived Auschwitz, and attributed it largely to finding meaning, in small ways and large. Those who found meaning survived. Those who didn’t perished. It became the gospel he preached for the rest of his life.
Last Friday, I took a walk to think about why I work here, and stopped, as I often do, at Mulata for coffee. The nice young guy behind the counter no longer needs my order. We exchange one word: “Regular?” he says, and I nod. Mulata says a lot about Oak Park. If we were as politically correct as Trumpists think, that name would have been contested, but it only caused a small stir. The old, thankfully obsolete, term “mulatto” had negative connotations when it was spit out by bigots in this country in the past. But “mulata” is a positive term in Brazil, celebrating the blending of multiculturalism, and the owner is herself a proud mulata. And Oak Parkers are smart enough, informed enough and sensitive enough to avoid the pitfalls of political “purity.”
I walked across the intersection of Lake Street and Oak Park Avenue, the current neverending construction project, and into Scoville Park, which used to be a neverending construction project, with the mountain-range façade of the Oak Park Public Library, another former neverending construction project, looming in the background. All of these projects eventually ended (or will), just as this pandemic will eventually end. Oak Park endures because Oak Parkers have learned how to endure and are better for it.
I headed up Grove Avenue and spotted a fence post with something dangling from it — a child’s necklace, dropped, as kids do, then found by some thoughtful homeowner or passerby, who draped it here on the off chance it might be spotted and reunited with its tiny owner. This small act of kindness captures an active ethic in our community — a place of families with kids and sharp-eyed neighbors who watch out for them.
Which I wouldn’t have noticed, much less thought about, if I hadn’t walked these streets for three decades, working at a job that prizes observation, even the smallest details, and finds meaning in them.
When I was younger and starrier-eyed, I wanted to be great at something, specifically writing. It’s good to dream, but wanting to be “great” is a function of ego. Over too many years, I learned that greatness exceeds our grasp if we can’t tame the ego that produced the desire in the first place. I became a better writer when I stopped trying to be a “great” writer. And I learned that you can’t be a better writer unless you first become a better person.
Working in this job, in this place, has made me a better person. I wrote about so many quality people who made me want to be a better person, too. This job’s other gift is meaning. Thirty years ago, I boomeranged back to the town I grew up in and got to know it for the first time, burrowing beneath the surface, where meaning lies.
But none of this would have happened if I hadn’t met so many remarkable people through the years, some of them gone now but not forgotten, and I wouldn’t have met them if I weren’t working. I had the privilege of examining close up the fine stitching of community life and becoming one of its chroniclers.
I also took a walk in River Forest last week, a community I have spent much more time in these past viral months, and was treated to the annual migration of sandhill cranes flying overhead in long Vs, signaling their passage with distinctive bugling/bleating — the setting sun lighting up the underside of their wide wings, as they circled and climbed the thermals, gathering stragglers before heading to their winter refuge in the South.
The next day I received an email from a reader, Jack Bizot, which you can read in its entirety on the opposite page, who actually heard these bleating hearts from inside his home and hurried out, forgetting his coat in his rush to admire the “majesty” of their journey. He read my past columns on the cranes and wanted to share the moment. I first learned about this annual odyssey thanks to another Jack, the late Jack Levering, whom I met in Austin Gardens one day over 20 years ago. Every year, March and November, as I crane my neck to locate these great-winged wonders, I’m thankful for his tip.
And thankful is what I’ve felt for 30 Novembers now, for Wednesday Journal and Oak Park and River Forest and all the other communities we cover, located at the intersections of independence and interdependence, of I and We, of connection and meaning.
Whenever I find myself asking the question, “Why am I still working here?” I just go for a walk.
It doesn’t take long to rediscover the answer.