Soundings : Grief and gratitude
Truth is an eternal conversation about things that matter, conducted with passion and discipline. - Parker J. Palmer, in "The Courage to Teach"
John Walter, my best friend and critic, was a passionate quester after truth. The craft of journalism provided the context in which he devoted his lifetime to that quest. But looking back at his full life, so abruptly cut short last week, it's clear that the larger context, beyond his craft, was his love for the conversation itself.
John enjoyed a good conversation so much, in fact, that you could be taking your life in your hands when you went for a ride with him at the wheel. For two years, he and I had a regular early-morning date on Mondays and Wednesdays, heading out to a coffee shop or, packing thermos and mugs, to a nature sanctuary or beach to discuss the local and national news, our professional projects, our lives.
When John grew excited about a subject, which was approximately always, his hands would stray ever farther from the wheel with animated gestures. Our trips from Edgartown to the Beetlebung coffee shop and back were doubly memorable, for the liveliness of his conversation and the suspense of waiting for him to correct the car's path.
John was an ardent newspaper buff - he had boxes full of historic editions, a library full of books and a brain full of information on the subject. (One of the best books he shared with me is The Paper, Richard Kluger's engrossing history of the late, great New York Herald Tribune.) But John was no trivia maven. He honestly saw journalism as the highest calling, the greatest business on earth.
It wasn't until four years ago, when John and I were both alumni of the Vineyard Gazette, that I began to appreciate how his love of journalism partook of his deeper passion for people and for the eternal conversation that is our highest life's work. I've known plenty of intellectuals, and plenty of highly sociable "people people," but no one who combined those two qualities - cleverness and human kindness - as powerfully as John did.
As a former long-time editor of a metropolitan newspaper, the Atlanta Journal Constitution, John worried about the future of this business as readers' eyeballs migrate to the Internet (and advertiser dollars chase them). For John, this wasn't mere nostalgia for the good old days when the daily paper was the common cup of civic discourse. He saw promise in the possibilities the Internet holds for fostering a healthy dialogue between news sources and news readers. He was also distressed at the way blogs and online forums, with their promise of anonymity, can overwhelm light with heat, dragging the public conversation to its hateful extremes.
John was inclined to blame not the public for ignoring newspapers, but rather the publishers and editors for hidebound, last-century thinking. "More and more," he wrote to a Poynter Institute forum in 2005, "editors need to ask themselves: 'What precisely do I offer the public that is distinctive, high quality, relevant and useful, worth 50 cents ($2 on Sunday), because one can't find it - or better - anywhere else for free?' And the answer, increasingly, is: Less and less. What, then, is this beleaguered editor to do? Drop defensiveness. Drop tradition. Drop self-delusion. Gather creative people around - and think outside the box."
In 2006, The New York Times published his letter commenting on a piece about the struggles of newspapers in this era of change: "The challenge for a newspaper," he wrote, "is as simple as it has always been: Make 'em need us. Not browse us, not enjoy us, not like us, though sometimes those are nice, too. But need us. End of story. Simple - and complex."
In the end, John didn't see the newspaper as an institution on the teacher's high podium, dispensing the truth to a grateful public. He saw it as joining with its readers in the circle of our conversation, with that ultimately mysterious truth in the center, helping us all to advance the conversation by bringing both passion and discipline to bear. Whether the words of that conversation were printed on ground-up tree pulp, glowing on liquid-crystal computer screens or spoken over morning coffee didn't matter much to him.
I've been thinking lately about the connection between grief and gratitude. The depth of the grief John Walter's friends and family feel this week speaks directly to the magnitude of the gift we've received from knowing him.
I've been thinking also about another friend who, years ago, was hired to compile a book of children's prayers from around the world. At first she found the task overwhelming. But soon, she told me, she realized that every prayer she collected could be organized using three boxes of index cards. The labels on the boxes? Help. Thanks. Wow.