September and everything after

The September 11 and 12, 2001 editions of the Biddeford Journal Tribune, where I worked my first job as a reporter. The Journal Tribune was an afternoon paper, giving the editors time to remake the front page after the attacks began.

Every time I pass through Southern Maine, I’m startled by its openness. There are no roadblocks on the highways or police officers patrolling the bridges. Portland harbor is busy, traffic is often heavy, and airplanes pass overhead. To a casual visitor, there’s little to hint at the shock and fear that descended there 15 years ago.

My tenure as a resident of Southern Maine was brief, but those 11 months are inseparable from one brilliant, blue September day and the grim autumn that followed. To me, it’s a region frozen in time, and even the briefest visit evokes a dizzying disconnect, similar to what happens when I remember my college journalism students were preschoolers when Mohamed Atta boarded an early-morning commuter plane at the Portland Jetport.

When it happened, my college diploma was three months old, and I dreamed of a life as a writer. Late that August, I’d started my first job as a reporter at a little paper in Biddeford, a city about halfway between Portland and the New Hampshire border. I had a shitty apartment in a building that reeked of tobacco and sweat. On most nights, the guy down the hall came home drunk and screaming. I installed yellow contact paper on the backsplash in the galley kitchen, stuffed my bookcases with empty journals I planned to fill and began learning the intricacies of covering city government.

The editors at that paper were the best first bosses I could have hoped for, especially on that day. When we knew the second plane was not an accident, there was no coddling – just assignments and a promise that we would shovel information to our readers until we dropped from exhaustion. A photographer and I crisscrossed the city, stopping at a high school, a department store, a college. We paused downtown, where the streets were silent and drivers wept in pulled-over cars. Later that week, I sat across a kitchen table from a woman who’d escaped one of the towers and come to Maine to stay at her parents’ beach house. I stumbled through my questions, scribbled notes and wondered how long it had taken to wash the dust from her hair.

For a long time, I tried not to think about what that autumn was like for me. I wasn’t in Manhattan or Washington, D.C. or Shanksville. I didn’t know anyone who died. It felt wrong to make myself a protagonist in a story that harmed so many others in so many more devastating ways. My thinking is different now, mostly because of my journalism students. Last year, I walked into a crowded classroom and started a discussion about coverage of the Paris terrorist attacks. The cafes, the theater, the dead and the wounded were on another continent, but my students were frightened in a way that tugged at something deep in me. At some point, they began to ask me about the fall of 2001 the way I ask my parents about Kennedy and Kent State.

Over the years I’ve developed a September tradition of reading E.B. White’s 1949 essay “Here is New York.” It’s a sweeping meditation of the city’s speedy post-war evolution, beautiful, chaotic and, as he writes in this passage, terrifying:

“The city, for the first time in its long history, is destructible. A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers, cremate the millions. The intimation of mortality is part of New York now: in the sound of jets overhead, in the black headlines of the latest edition. All dwellers in cities must live with the stubborn fact of annihilation.”

We no longer need to live in physical cities to feel this kind of geographic vulnerability. We spend our days inside a sprawling, digital metropolis of videos and photos. Every place can feel like our place. Paris. San Bernardino. Brussels. Ankara. Orlando. The shattering headlines aren’t one giant break but an evolving tangle of tiny, thread-like fractures.

Two weeks ago, I met a new batch of bright journalism students. I hope we make it through this year without another act of violence that spurs questions about where I was – about who I was – on that day 15 years ago.

That is, alas, unlikely.

When it happens, we’ll look at the news alerts, analyze the credibility of facts, critique the narratives that emerge. If they ask about that time I lived so briefly in Southern Maine, I’ll answer. I’ll also tell them this: We were not annihilated then. By embracing knowledge and compassion and grace, we will not be annihilated now.







#5: An ode to dirtbags

(This is the fifth of 50 essays I’ve resolved to write in 2015. To follow my progress, sign up here for the Inbox Essay newsletter.) 

Call me a dirtbag now, and I’d probably be insulted – but 15 years ago, it would have been a different story.

In alpine skiing and a few other mountain sports, the term “dirtbag” is an honorific awarded to the quirkiest and most devoted practitioners. Dirtbags measure their self worth by the number of days they spend on skis, and they’ll do just about anything to increase the count. Once, I almost joined their ranks.

I worked for a season at a giant ski resort in Maine, swapping my life as an English major for a job that involved freezing my ass off in one of the few places colder and more remote than the New Hampshire town where I grew up. I had a goal: to ski 100 days, a tidy number I imagined would secure my status among the sport’s elite. It was a faux adventure, just like I was a faux dirtbag. A real dirtbag would not have planned the whole thing a year in advance. Nor would she have enrolled in a college near the resort to earn enough credits to graduate on time. Or visited (twice) to make sure everything, including a bed in a cozy dorm and a job as a ski instructor, was in place.

By most accounts, skiers started using “dirt bag” as a compliment in the 1970s. I couldn’t find any formal etymological research, but it seems to have evolved over the years into a single, compound word. Merriam-Webster defines it simply as someone who is “dirty, unkempt, or contemptible.” The Urban Dictionary is a bit more nuanced, explaining that dirtbags are “committed to a given (usually extreme) lifestyle to the point of abandoning employment and other societal norms in order to pursue said lifestyle.” They’ve become such common alpine archetypes that many mountain towns host dirtbag balls – annual parties that are similar to proms but with flannel and goggle tans instead of taffeta and mascara.

My reasons for embracing the dirtbag lifestyle were varied. There were things I hoped to escape: friend drama, an illness, adolescent ghosts. I was studying journalism, and I dreamed of writing cover stories for Powder magazine. There was also a boy I thought might like me more if I could really ski.

The first few weeks of my new life were cold and beautiful. Every morning I drove 40 miles from my dorm to the resort. I loved that drive, perhaps more than anything else. I wrote poems about the scenery and made lists of the eclectic things I passed: churches, bait shops, regal old homes, a country store selling hard liquor, egg sandwiches and wedding attire. There were almost always logs trucks, teetering as they traced the corkscrew path of the half-frozen river running next to the road.

Skiing was – and is – a big part of my life, but that winter taught me that it would not be my career. When I was 15, I started working as a ski instructor at a mountain near my parents’ house. I loved it, but that homey hill was completely unlike the resort in Maine, a place I came to think of as Disneyland in a Freezer. It was massive, corporate and crowded. My clients were wealthy, stuffing $20 bills in my gloved hands at the end of nearly every lesson and sometimes paying me more to babysit their kids at night. Away from the mountain, it was different. The poverty rate was high in the surrounding county, and I noticed the signs more and more as the winter wore on. In the grocery store one night, I watched a young man with stooped shoulders and a shivering toddler count the change in his hand and reach for a tiny jug of milk. I stood in the frozen vegetable aisle and cried.

Until that winter, I hadn’t been very good at making friends, but the people I worked with at the resort were easy to like. I admired how they came together to face the day, even when the day brought sub-zero temperatures, no lunch breaks and busloads of teenagers from cities to the south. My colleagues weren’t really dirtbags either. They were budding coaches and businesspeople; many of them have built careers skiing, rising to the top levels of the sport. They were serious about their work, but also laid back. I am the exact opposite of laid back. I struggled with things like spur-of-the-moment trips to Canada, skiing out of bounds and skipping class to enjoy a lunchtime scorpion bowl special, but these people seemed to like me anyway. They convinced me to launch myself through a flaming arch during a torch light parade, introduced me to the local dive bars and taught me to (sort of) play pool. And they didn’t take it personally when I left a party early to sit in my room and read.

I made enough in tips that winter to fly to Utah where some friends let me crash in their apartment. The snow was melting in Boston when I lugged my ski boots through the terminal at Logan Airport. I would never admit it to my traveling companion, but I was restless for my adventure to end. By the time it did, I’d skied 86 days. I know because I recorded each one in a meticulously color-coded journal that I wrapped in a sandwich bag and stored in my jacket pocket. The last entry is from mid April. I should have been in class at that little college in Maine. Instead, I was squinting under a cloudless sky at Alta, trudging deep into a rugged, frozen rock formation called the Devil’s Castle. For the first time in a long time, I wasn’t scared of anything. Not the terrain around me, not my mortality, not the specter of all the things that might go wrong.

I still ski as often as I can, but I seldom venture beyond that homey mountain where I grew up. That’s probably why I hadn’t heard the term dirtbag in so long. Last year, on a family trip to one of Maine’s other alpine behemoths, I saw signs for the evening’s activity: a dirtbag ball. I sat at a table in a slope-side bar, picking over potato skins. Dozens of young people in flannel shirts and Carhartt pants wandered in, rosy cheeked and thirsty after a long day on the hill. They looked a little like my friends from that winter. They looked a little like me. My brother wanted to stay for the party. I thought for a moment about what might have been all those years ago. What if I hadn’t been so uptight? Spent more time on a chairlift and less with my books?

I paid the tab, went back to our room and went to sleep.

#4: Yakety Yak

When you work in a local newsroom, it sometimes feels like conspiracy theorists, gadflies and cranks have you on speed dial. The phone rings, and it’s impossible to know if the person on the other end wants to have a reasonable chat or, as was the case one December, to complain about an editorial by wishing the staff a “shitty Christmas.”

The oddest caller I remember, though, was a recent parolee who spent his days posting vitriolic comments on our website. He was upset that we had banned two of his online personas from our discussion boards, and he wanted to ask me – the web editor – some questions. How, he wondered, was he supposed to argue with other readers about global warming, gun laws and vegetarianism? Why were we letting other people maintain multiple profiles? And why hadn’t we allowed his third identity to post a particular photo?

My answers were short: Our rules specify one profile per reader, sir.  We didn’t realize other users had multiple accounts, but thanks for letting us know. Yes, I understand you really like that photo, but it’s borderline pornographic. The phone call lasted close to an hour. The guy was nice enough, his voice reflecting none of the anger in his online posts, but this conversation tops my list of reasons why I hate the anonymity of the web.

That editing gig ended years ago, but I still think that, unless you’re working to overthrow a corrupt government, you should connect your real name to any opinions you share online. So I was pretty skeptical when I learned about Yik Yak last fall. Yik Yak is the latest in a growing field of anonymous social networks accessed through smartphones. Users – typically teens and 20-somethings – share short posts about homework, food, professional sports, sex, booze, popular culture, the weather, their bowel movements, their roommates and pretty much anything else that floats through their minds. These posts are visible to other users within a 10 mile radius. It sounded stupid but, after some of my journalism students wrote stories about Yik Yak, I was curious enough to download the app. To my surprise, I didn’t hate everything I saw.

I’ve never posted anything myself, but I do occasionally thumb through the conversations Yik Yak funnels into my iPhone. It’s an odd combination of digital anonymity and the intimacy of sharing physical space, similar to the CB radio my dad used to listen to on family road trips. Transient. Personal. Funny. Crass enough that my mom would dive for the mute button every few dozen miles.

Back in my newsroom days, when it was part of my job to monitor website comments, I would spend hours interacting online or on the phone with regulars like that parolee with three personas. It was headachy work. Each day brought hundreds of new comments, most of them filled with rage. Three editors were responsible for filtering out unsuitable posts, recording our efforts in a shared log. Personal or ad hominem attacks were marked “ad hom.” There was a good chance that a post about the presidential campaign of a young senator from Chicago would earn the tag “racist.” Some comments were so stupid  that one of my coworkers developed the category “adds nothing.”

Scrolling through Yik Yak reminds me of this old system. There are plenty of posts that deserve to be marked “ad hom” or “adds nothing.” For some reason, though, Yik Yak feels different. It’s a community that, while rough around the edges, seems earnest, maybe even hopeful. That’s not to say that there aren’t real concerns around these kinds of anonymous social networks. They can be venues for racists, misogynistic trolls and cyberbullies and, because they’re popular among young people, they’re worrisome for dorm directors, teachers  and guidance counselors.

But hate and stupidity aren’t the only things in this emerging digital space. It can be funny as hell, a window into the minds of tech-savvy Millennials.  I’ve also seen something else amid the poop jokes and double entendres: hints at Yik Yak users’ capacity for compassion. This has been true wherever I’ve logged on. A student at the community college near my house posted about final exam stress and received dozens of encouraging replies. In Boston, someone asked for – and got – advice on which library to visit for an obscure book. In New York City, I saw this: “Fellow yakkers, I’m going through terrible heroin withdrawal please try and talk me out of going to score. I’m trying to stay clean.” In a matter of moments, someone had posted the number for a sobriety hotline.

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#3: It’s always like this…

This installment of my essay-writing resolution is a little different. It’s my first attempt at the emergent genre of #instaessays — short, pity dispatches packaged with a photo and published on Instagram.

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It’s always like this, bitter cold, with thin winter sunbeams brushing the columns and golden dome. Crowds of people in heavy coats, some tailored, some misshapen, some flannel, trudge through the slush and enter New Hampshire’s State House. This place is old. It was built before the Civil War, before the Washington Monument and before anyone imagined that this lovely, cramped building would, every four years, be a destination for everyone who wants to be president. Inside, it’s like a museum. A hall of flags and old portraits on the walls. A gift shop. Commemorative plaques. There’s road salt on the marble stairs, tracked in by the lawmakers’ boots. And there are so very many pairs of boots, so very many lawmakers. Four hundred in the House and 24 in the Senate. On Earth, there are only three legislative bodies larger than this one. Inside, it’s also a little like a high school – and not just because there are lockers in the basement. Underground hallways connect all the buildings in the legislative complex, funneling everyone together as they move from place to place. In cliques, they stop in the cafeteria for coffee and snacks. They sneak outside for a smoke. They know the details of each other’s lives. Some things do change. Different lawmakers in the chambers and different kids singing the national anthem. Sometimes, the flags on the roof flutter high. Sometimes, they’re at half staff, dipped low in mourning. #instaessay

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#2: Sophomoric

(This is the second of 50 essays I’ve resolved to write in 2015. To follow my progress, sign up here for the Inbox Essay newsletter.) 

It’s weird sometimes to work at the same university where I was once a student. Random, distant memories surface almost daily: The coffee cart where, in 1997, I bought my first latte. The accounting worksheets I struggled through while sitting at long, honey-colored tables in the library. The running trails I crisscrossed on days when I couldn’t sit still.

The classroom where I teach (and where I once studied) is named after Donald Murray, a Pulitzer Prize winner who founded our journalism program and wrote prolifically until his death at the age of 82. In some of his columns for The Boston Globe, Murray calls this phenomenon “double exposure,” the then superimposed on the now. He’s not the only writer to experience this kind of cognitive surprise. Robert M. Pirsig touches on something similar in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance when he writes about “lateral truths… knowledge that’s from a wholly unexpected direction.” Sometimes, as I’m walking to my car at the end of a long day, I’ll see something out of the corner of my eye – a student who looks like a friend from my old dorm or a tree I studied under 15 years ago – and, suddenly, I’m displaced. The physical space is the same, but the now is, for a moment, gone.

There was nothing profound or unusual about my undergraduate career. I was a normal kid with average grades, nice friends and typical worries, but it’s still interesting to wade through those memories now. Many of my students are sophomores, so I’ve been thinking especially hard about that time in my own life. Freshman year seems too much like high school, a blur of adolescent anxiety. Sophomore year was different, the borderland between who I was as a kid and the first version of my adult self.  I began to find my voice as a writer and a person. It was when I took my first journalism class, started working for the student newspaper, cold called a boy I liked and asked him to dinner.

I was a devoted journal-keeper back then, recording the things happening around me and inside my head. It’s fascinating, as someone who now teaches writing, to read these journals, to see the change in sentence structure, tone and technique. It’s a little like watching a puppy clomp around the yard. The dog is clearly having fun, but it will be a while before she figures out what to do with her feet. In September, I was whining about a roommate in a way that now makes me cringe. In October, I described the campus in fall, mimicking the way my favorite writers crafted scenes. December’s entries are full of dialogue from conversations I overheard in the dorm. Around New Year’s, I started to sound like me, creating narratives of my own instead of tracing the patterns of those I’d read. In March, I tried a little poetry.

By the time summer came around, I was writing a love story — about journalism, about that boy and about the hint of who I might become.

#1: No really, I’m awake

The site of a workshop I attended about yoga, writing and meditation. Photo/Meg Heckman
The site of a workshop I attended last spring about yoga, writing and meditation. 

(This is the first of 50 essays I’ve resolved to write in 2015. To follow my progress, sign up here for the Inbox Essay newsletter.) 

I remember when writing felt easy, when I could effortlessly fill page after page. Spiral notebooks. Legal pads. Plush leather journals. Moleskines. There’s half a bookcase in my office packed with 20 years of this rambling writing. Twenty years of uninhibited discovery through ink.

My journaling habit is more sporadic now. I still write daily, on Facebook, on Twitter and on my blog. These online communities are exhilarating and have introduced me to people and ideas I’d never encounter in the physical world. But so many constant, jumbled connections have also made me blurry, impatient, unable to see bigger themes.

That’s why, six months ago, I went away to a seminar on writing, yoga and meditation. The name – Writing Through the Chakras – sounded over-the-top new age, but the subject matter was practical and profound. I’ve been pondering and applying it ever since.

I’ve been writing for as long I can remember; it’s how I understand the world. Yoga became a part of my life more recently. Seven years ago, a colleague’s wife started teaching vinyasa classes in a conference room at the newspaper where I worked. I loved them. Soon after, I wandered into the studio where I’ve practiced a sweaty, playful, spiritual brand of yoga ever since.

Reconciling these two parts of my life hasn’t been easy. As a reporter, I wrote about people who wanted to be president, local zoning squabbles and kids coming home in coffins from Fallujah and Helmand Province. At the studio, we chanted the names of obscure deities and learned how to stand on our heads. The breathing felt a little like those effortless journaling sessions, but I didn’t have time to think about why, to consider the interplay of my practice as writer and my practice as yogi. I was in a performance state – getting into grad school, quitting my newspaper job, churning out enough freelance assignments each month to pay the bills. Accuracy and clarity, of course and always, but not process. Who can think about process when there are so many deadlines to meet? When the Internet wants a perfect, share-worthy statement from me right now?

As my first semester teaching college journalism finished last spring, I decided to figure out how to live a sustainable, creative life in a digital world. The stakes were high. I can’t imagine not writing, but the process was so fraught that it made my days difficult. I was cranky. Distraught. Not much fun to live with. Yoga helped but also created more questions than it answered about how the writing actually works. So I signed up for the seminar and hoped for the best. The workshop was held at Kripalu, a brick and cinderblock compound in the Berkshires built for Jesuit monks and later converted into a yoga retreat. The place oozed serene joy. There was a lot of hugging and smiling and organic food. Even the rabbits on the lawn looked enlightened.

Our instructors were Dani Shapiro and Stephen Cope. Shapiro is an author whose recent work explores the intersection of writing and yoga. Cope is a therapist and yoga teacher who has written several books informed by his spiritual inquiries. We practiced some yoga, we breathed, we chanted, we scribbled. It was nice, almost fun. Both Cope and Shapiro shared their experiences with the creative process, how they work through their own anxiety and frustration. Cope also talked about his research into the science of meditation. People who meditate, he said, have more organized minds – minds that are more capable of identifying complex and subtle patterns in the world around them.

Complex and subtle patterns. New patterns. Things that hide in plain sight.

Journalism, at least the kind I practice, is a way of seeing, a way of thinking that reveals the relationships, themes, issues, patterns that draw communities together and threaten to tear them apart.

I tell my students that the first step in becoming a journalist is to open their eyes. My yoga teacher tells us that the only prerequisite to the practice is that you are awake.

Neither Cope nor Shapiro are renunciates. They are committed professionals, devoted to their personal quests, but they also exist – and write – in modern times. It’s not realistic to hide forever in some perfect little cabin devoid of technology. I can’t (and don’t really want to) abandon Twitter or Facebook or my iPhone. I’m curious about things like Big Data and Yik Yak and Bitcoin. I like kitten GIFs.

In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali writes something that translates loosely to “when negative thoughts arise, think the opposite.” It’s not an excuse to lie to yourself, but rather an invitation to reframe. And that’s what I’ve done these last six months. Technology is a tool of my practice, part of what it means to be a writer in the here and now, something else to make sense of word by word and breath by breath.


I’ve made plenty of New Year’s resolutions in my life, pledging to eat more vegetable or run marathons or remove the coffee cups from my car at least once a week. (The first two were a success. The last one is, alas, a work in progress.)

This year, I’m trying something a little different and a lot more public. I’m resolving to make 50 essays in 2015 and share them with the world via an email newsletter. (Sign up here.) I’ll also post them here on the blog, but you should get on the mailing list anyway.

Why am I doing this? Because I like a challenge. Because I don’t like how easily my own writing drops to the bottom of my to do list. Because essays and newsletters were both Big Deals in 2014, and mixing them together for 2015 feels like the storytelling equivalent of pairing peanut butter with chocolate.

Much has been written about how good things are right now for the essay as a genre – although there’s still plenty of discussion around what that genre actually is. To me, an essay is like taking a road trip with a companion who’s chatty in all the right ways. Maybe she’ll tell you a story about herself, or describe the strange history of landmarks passed along the way. Whatever the topic, it makes you think.

I’m calling my project Inbox Essay, and here’s how it’s (probably) going to work: I’ll make roughly one essay a week. The topics will vary. You’ll read about current events, my thoughts on the creative process, random ancestors with interesting life stories, pop culture and food. Suggestions will be welcome.

Newsletters will come out on Thursdays. Each issue will contain an original essay, plus links to other things I’ve published, read or thought about that week. Most of these essays will be written, but I’m also planning to try other interpretations of the genre: audio, photo, video.

Please consider coming along for this adventure. You can sign up here.