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Dec. 29 2009 - 9:37 pm | 1,501 views | 3 recommendations | 7 comments

2009: this one’s for you

2009 has not been my favorite of years.

Early in the year, I left a job I loved under unpleasant circumstances, launching myself into unemployment in the midst of the Great Recession – perhaps the most foolish thing I have ever done. I left my salary and health insurance to write – to write about what I wanted and how I wanted – and embraced the terrifying world of freelancing and the internet.

Next, I discovered a Pandora’s box of unresolved grief inside myself, remnants of my father’s traumatic death when I was eleven. Unwillingly, I dove into that box and immersed myself in it, reliving moments I hadn’t considered in 16 years. It has been painful, to say the least.

And then, in the midst of that grief, my dear friend and mentor, David McClendon, passed away suddenly. David was like a father to me – a protector, guide and confidante. When I left my secure job to write what was in my heart, he diligently edited my pieces, even though he was no longer paid to do so, and helped me figure out what the hell I was doing.

His death felt like a deep stab in festering wound. I have never been more angry at God and at all the other people around me – going along, blissfully unaware of what had been taken from me.

Sometime during this year, I came across the idea of finding meaning in grief. The thought repulsed me. Why, I thought, would I ever want to find meaning in the horrible, searing pain of losing a parent while I was just a child? Although I love finding meaning in every day experiences – from dropping my newspaper in a puddle to stirring my oatmeal – I could not find meaning in these experiences. I flat-out refused to find meaning there.

Sitting at my table one morning, I read a glib article in Time magazine about whether or not the hit show Glee was anti-Christian. Towards the end, Nancy Gibbs writes that some children are more open to messages that are not force-fed, like J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter, which, although bashed by many Christian parents, shows how love always triumphs, even over death.

At that moment, a little switch flipped in my brain. I’ve read Harry Potter over and over since it came out, reading it at least once a year. Since I was a little girl, I have always found solace in books. I was a sort-of only child and a shy one. One summer, I would go to the library every week and check out six Nancy Drews – one for each day of the week except Sunday – and return them the next week for six more.

Harry has been my secret friend, like Anne Shirley’s Katie in the window. A boy who’s parents died and longed for his family, who felt different that everyone else, and who sometimes raged with pain – he was someone I could understand and who I felt understood me.

It’s clich√©, I know. But try imagining grieving sixth grader at a middle school in cornfield, Michigan. There was never anyone who understood me before Harry, and what a relief it was to find him.

In the books, Harry is constantly told that he’s special because he continues to love, despite the pain he’s experienced. He doesn’t understand how special that is, and neither did I.

And yet, this year, I looked out into the world and saw many people who aren’t able to do that.¬† Who let their pain eat them alive, until they are a shadow of a person or not really human at all anymore. And pain, I’m told, is the consequence of loving people. It’s the yin to the yang of love and cannot be separated, protected, or quarantined, despite how much we might try.

I’m still beset by grief. But I find a quiet, heavy solace in this idea – that love has the ultimate power, even over death. That hope has the upper hand over pain. That kindness can’t undo cruelty, but it can bring comfort to a grieving world.

It’s not just me that experiences this kind of pain. A woman I’m going to write about next week who’s being evicted from Altgeld Gardens with her two kids – her best friend was shot this year, her car was hit by a Pace bus, and her aunt died right before Christmas.

I can’t take away these terrible things, but I can choose to tell her story.

And through doing so, I find a small comfort in the idea that history is not an endless progression of bad, but a log of the choices we did and did not make to do good. I can choose to be a part of that goodness, that kindness, or I can choose to turn away from it. That is the beautiful and painful reality of being human.

And so, 2009, you have not been my favorite. You haven’t been the most fun. But you have been deeply meaningful and true, and for that, I am grateful.

(If you’re not a regular reader, or even if you are, my regular blogs are usually about public housing and urban poverty. This was just something on my mind that I wanted to share. Back to the beat next week, I promise.)


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  1. collapse expand

    Thanks for such a powerful and personal post. No need to apologize for going “off your beat.” What other beat is there if you’re there without your heart?

    David was a great gift to you and, through you, to us. That’s his legacy.

    I traveled to a small French town in June 2008 to pay tribute at his grave to my mentor, a French journalist who also kick-started me when I was younger. He had died in November 1986. I dedicated my first book to him and think of him often with enormous gratitude.

    We’re lucky to have met and known such people and to have won their love and respect. Now, be that person for someone else in his honor.

    I hope 2010 is much less painful for you.

  2. collapse expand

    Thanks, that was profound. I don’t know as many people as I used too, but this was a funky year for everyone I know. I think we are all glad to see it go. These end of the year reflections can bring us all good though. My new theme are two words I saw on a childs hand held electronic game Christmas day that she had typed where her name should have gone. It said- Love Life.

  3. collapse expand

    Kudos to a well written article, even if it was off the beaten path of your normal genre. I too am a huge fan of Harry Potter, and I am a Christian, and have had many conversations with other Christians about why the books are so great, aside from being especially well written.

    Love is a characteristic often overlooked by people. I wouldn’t necessarily say that pain is the only consequence of love, but it certainly is one of them, and an important one. It shapes who we are and how we respond to the circumstances we are in.

    Keep up the great writing Megan, and I wouldn’t be opposed to seeing more articles of this nature if you ever feel so inclined to write them.

  4. collapse expand

    Megan, your articles have had a deep impact on me this year. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve cried reading your posts. Thank you for continuing to remind us that God has always identified with the poor, the oppressed, the powerless.

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    About Me

    I'm a journalist living in Chicago writing about poverty and public housing. I don't come from the streets - I grew up on a farm. But I'm passionate about urban issues and getting to know people who are completely different from me. I'm quirky, funny and friendly.

    I have this idea about journalism - that it should be approachable and less "newsy." I want my stories to make you laugh, cry and draw you in to neighborhoods and situations you don't deal with every day. I hate the broadcaster voice. I hate TV news. I hate the inverted pyramid. I love surprise. I love humor. I love people and telling their stories.

    In addition to being a journalist, I also teach dance for the Chicago Public Schools. I don't just do it for the money. I love children and love arts education. I'm also on the board of a new nonprofit dedicated to helping the underserved find jobs called Employing Hope. I write fiction, keep house, and am generally a renaissance woman.

    Follow me on twitter @mmcottrell.

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    Contributor Since: October 2009
    Location:Chicago