I’m beginning the new year with a clean office. It seems a good place to start, a practical way to set me up for any other resolutions I make.
My office used to be meticulous.
Early in our marriage, my husband surprised me with a u-shaped mahogany desk he’d found on Craigslist. It conferred dignity as it housed all my material: two computer screens in front of me, notes at my side, shelving behind me for journals and magazines.
In its fold, I felt capable, equipped. And the hours flew by here: late-night drafts, early-morning revisions.
But over time the desk became a catch-all, piling up paperwork and books, covering dust bunnies and power strips.
I decided to make like Marie Kondo, the Japanese personal organizer whose bestselling book spawned a Netflix series. Her advice is unflinching: Discard almost everything. (And if someone else in your house won’t let you, purge when that person is gone.)
“By doing this,” Kondo writes, “you can reset your life and embark on a new lifestyle.”
I set to work in my office, one pile at a time. Pictures, newspapers, insurance forms.
With each patch of desk that emerged, I felt better. Lighter, clearer-headed.
Then came the bulk of the build-up: dozens and dozens of legal pads. Hasty black cursive sprawled across the pages, unfettered by the lines. Names that conjure hazy faces — people I had interviewed at the mall, at the coffee shop, at the baseball game, in the movie theater. Auctions, ordinations, trials, protests.
The story of my journalism career is here in the stories of strangers. It’s what I made of their accounts, what happened between the handwritten interview notes and the published newspaper articles.
Certain sources stand out. Some present golden nuggets of wisdom topped in red velvet bows. Art Fry, the Post-It inventor, articulated the value of failure, of making mistakes and trying new things. Kim Smolik, CEO of Leadership Roundtable, said good leaders practice self-care.
Mark Shea, the prolific Catholic author, offered advice on writing that applies to living: “The real trick is to cultivate interest in everything.”
A year before his death, Archbishop Emeritus Harry Flynn described the place for faith amid uncertainty. “Life is a great mystery, and we can’t figure it all out,” he said. “Lean into the mystery.”
Other sources linger in my mind because of what they do not disclose. Last month the manager of a fast-food manager answered all my questions for a story but left me wondering about his story. The 50-year-old has never married and has had 11 children with eight women. Yet I am sure he is good and kind.
I remember the unemployed mom who bundled up and went to the Minneapolis library to scan help-wanted ads when it was 15 below. “I see a little sunlight,” she told me, “and I always come out.”
I believe our stories are sacred. They are worth telling and re-telling.
I believe it is our Christian calling and our human duty to listen to others’ stories.
A journalist gathers information using the five W’s: who, what, when, where and why. The latter unlocks many doors. Why did you marry her? Why did you vote for him? Why do you live here? Why are you Catholic? Why did you pursue this profession? Why did you become a parent?
And a powerful follow-up to any comment: “Why do you say that?”
These are the questions we should ask our parents, our neighbors, our colleagues, our cashiers.
When asked with sincere interest, they reflect a core Catholic social teaching: Each of us has value and dignity, each of us has an interesting story.
May we scribble them wherever we can: on napkins, in notepads, across the lines and against our hearts.