In college, I decided that I wanted to spend my life learning about people who weren’t the slightest bit like me. People I saw in bus stations and on the streets. People I wasn’t likely to meet if I went on to graduate school or married well or became a successful, high-achieving professional.
I took a job at a daily newspaper writing wedding announcements, and later covering local community meetings. I did end up going to graduate school, but this didn’t deter my real life as a journalist and essayist. I made my way to Boston, and after a few years of odd jobs (including teaching in the Expos writing Program at Harvard), I became a staff writer for The Boston Phoenix.
My beat was the city’s forgotten: prisoners, drug-addicted women, homeless families. In 1985 I was awarded first prize in Feature Writing from the New England Press Association for my articles about J. Anthony Lukas’s book on Boston’s busing crisis, “Common Ground.”
After stepping over homeless women huddled for warmth in the lobby of The Phoenix offices for a while, I realized that I had to write their stories. I spent two and a half years on the streets, in shelters, detoxes, and under bridges, buying coffee and listening. My book, Songs From the Alley became the first in-depth look at the lives of single homeless women and the childhoods they survived.
I gained, in the process, a keener awareness of the fragility of human connectedness in America. I traveled through New York, Philadelphia, Washington, Alabama, Oklahoma, and Florida reporting on homelessness for The Washington Post. I wrote about bereaved mothers in Detroit trying to console one another after the deaths of children in drug and gang wars; I wrote about education, the inner-city church. I spend three years in the immigrant Latino community of Chelsea, MA, getting to know gang members and their families in the public housing projects where they lived, seeing first-hand the struggles immigrants face finding jobs, decent schools, a real life.
It was in the Boston neighborhood of Jamaica Plain, that my husband and I discovered a community that captured our hearts. (I did end up marrying, a wonderful reporter and editor at The Boston Globe!) Stability and roots were new to me. My understanding of what it means to “dwell” among others shifted dramatically – from the confrontation with political power to the “way” of relationship. I fell in love, and chronicled my education as an urban community dweller in A Home in the Heart of the City.
As I began to focus more deeply on the conjunction of being and action, I began teaching in a social justice program at Boston College. I founded Witness: A Journal of Social Responsibility, an online journal for the B.C. community – students, faculty and staff — to share their own stories of transformation in a world hungry for hope.
My most recent book, A Sabbath Life: One Woman’s Search for Wholeness, recounts the beginnings of my journey inward. In addition to teaching, I became trained as a spiritual director — a new kind of listening. I spend several days a month at a retreat house in Arlington, MA, Bethany House of Prayer, offering spiritual direction and retreats. In 2014 I joined the Catholic website, Crux (Cruxnow.com) as a regular contributor.
It is a good life.
In over 30 years of listening and telling stories, the most important lesson I have learned — from laborers, artists, parents, addicts, priests and college administrators – is that all of us need the same thing. We need a friend to sit with us and listen, to hold the thread of lives often too scattered or lonely or weary to carry alone. Someone who can see the majesty of our small journey, even when all we can measure is the gaps between old failures.
Recently, I met a young man named Abel. When he was 8 years old, he broke down the door of the bathroom to save his mother from slitting her wrists. She was his only tie to the world. His mother lived, and some years later they were living in a car together. A family in the neighborhood noticed that he wore the same shirt to school every day, took them in and gave them shelter. This was the lift they needed, the beginning of a new life for them.
“Everyone is a stranger,” Abel observed as we sat together. “Until they’re not.”
He’s right. We need one another. Our stories. Our willingness to listen. Our prayers.