Updated: May 3
(Editor’s Note — 1120 Press is proud to publish this moving essay by journalist Liza Frenette, who reflects on retiring after 20 years at a job writing about the lives of others. Born and raised in the mountain and lumber town of Tupper Lake in the Adirondacks, Liza — pictured below on the right while on assignment — is a writer and author who resides in New York’s Capital Region. We hope you enjoy her piece!)
The last four days I have been a silent preacher ministering to myself through a death.
I have been boxing, shredding, sorting, releasing and ripping papers, folders, files and stacks upon stacks of small, spiral bound notebooks swarming with words. I have been rubbing my nose, which is agitated by the paper dust, wishing I could sneeze to release it.
Just as I’m releasing two decades of writing at this job.
I have been gathering a life of 20 years at this particular job and putting most of it in a massive blue, heavy-duty plastic bin on wheels standing like a sentry outside my office. It has a lock on it and a slit where I shove all the paper. The bin has a name tag so I know who I’m spending these final intimate days with, and the name is: CONFIDENTIAL.
It is a fitting name, for in my job I have sat with people in their places of work or in their homes, learning who they were, what they did, how and why. I have sat with people and earned their confidence. I gave them a place to put stories — and that place was Me.
Me, with a pen and small, spiral-bound notebook, never a recorder. Me, listening, writing, then taking their tales from my ears and my notebook to my laptop, where I arranged and rearranged words and breathed life into those words, carrying their breath to my breath; and then to the page on my screen – and then to the newsmagazine or the website for all to see. I was a channel.
How many ways can words be stacked, stripped, hammered, floated, steadied, placed, sautéed, dropped, enlivened, loved or set loose?
Every story was its own dwelling.
I have stood with them in their colorful classrooms; or on the picket line; or in the legislative offices at the state Capitol where they laid out their cases for more funding for education so that zip codes don’t determine access; for more school social workers to help students in need; or for more workplace protections in schools and hospitals. I’ve stood with farmworkers asking for a law that would give them one day off a week. Just one day. I’ve spent time outdoors with teachers using nature as the classroom. I’ve spent time with hospital nurses needing personal protection equipment to save their lives and the lives of their patients felled by the pandemic. I’ve seen students receiving their first very own book, ever, choosing from a table full of books donated by the teacher’s union.
Now, though, a new time is coming and death is calling: the death of this job, of a career that I built, because as of yesterday I retired. I’ve been at this particular job 20 years, and before that, witnessed the deaths of writing for a magazine about public higher education; writing for magazines at two different colleges; writing for a magazine about magazines; writing for three different newspapers. Each one came with a funeral and then a commitment ceremony to something new.
As I packed, colleagues walked by my open door and shook their heads at the piles and clusters of paper and newspaper clippings, folders and tousled groups of books and conference packets in bursts all over my office. In the piles are precious cards, some faded, from people who felt I told their stories well and took the time to thank me.
Now my work is being channeled into CONFIDENTIAL; being hugged by the big blue protective sentry. It is the burial vault. I am an elder. I am dying as this person at this job, in the middle office of a row of offices of writers and editors and web techies. Middle office for a middle child.
My office is painted pale yellow and I was the first one, the only one, to ever call it mine. It was a brand new building when we moved in 20 years ago, when I first started at this job. Newly planted trees reached only to the first-floor windows. I remember peering down at them, and now their crowns are eye-level to me on the third floor, where I have an open view of clouds and sky and planes coming in to land at the nearby airport, day after day, deadline after deadline. Their crowns, often a drive-through for passing birds, are glittering with white spring flowers right now.
As I prepare for this death, I think of the fallen trees I’ve seen at the edge of the forest at the border of the lakes and rivers I often kayak. These are mighty trees that have been felled by time or hollowness or storms or massive uprooting from eroded soil. They lie in the water, partially submerged. They were once elders in the forest, the wise ones, the ones who’ve seen hundreds upon hundreds of passing seasons, but upon their death they became newcomers in the water. Yet, even stagnant — no longer standing tall, catching breezes in their leaves — they can still make movement happen when the water passes around them. They are safe ground for turtles to lumber up and sun on. They make ripples for the passing water to dance, even as their bark becomes gold dust.
I wonder who I will be as the next newcomer, the one who will cross over the threshold carrying three, maybe four, small cardboard boxes of office art and books; and three, maybe five, folders of only a couple dozen articles out of hundreds and hundreds.
It’s all I need for now, even knowing those stories into which I once breathed life will someday themselves become paper dust in a box.