The other night, my husband and I arrived home to find a letter slipped under our door. It was a long note in jagged cursive from our neighbor, an elderly man who lives alone.
“Hello Mr. and Mrs. Miller, I notice you get the Washington Post. I cannot afford such a fine newspaper on my modest retirement benefits. I was wondering if I might borrow it after you are done with it each day.”
We were both caught off guard by his earnest request. He had obviously been taking note of our paper and wanting to read it. He had probably watched a couple issues pile up during the week and wished he could rescue the papers from their negligent owner. We mostly read our subscription online, so we told him he could take our paper whenever he noticed it in the lobby. He was effusively grateful.
For the last several days, I’ve been thinking about our neighbor reading the paper — a way for him to connect with the world he lives in, to witness and analyze the frenetic activity of the city around him, to be anchored each day in that day. I’m so glad he asked to read it.
I have several distinct memories of being centered by a newspaper. March 2010, I was in Montreal — lonely, adrift, feeling disconnected from my family, friends, everything going on at home. Standing in line at a coffee shop, I picked up a newspaper on the day the House passed the Affordable Care Act. The headline was in French, but I immediately knew what it meant. I had been following the bill through online news, through Facebook, through conversations with my friends and family. But picking up the paper, seeing the news for the first time in print, holding the historic day in my hands connected me to reality in a way I’d been missing. I couldn’t even read the text of the article, but I bought the paper, cut the headline out, and folded it into my journal for safekeeping.
I realized in that moment that just having access to physical newspapers –whether you can (or do) read them or not — makes an impression. Just skimming a headline, noting a front page story as you pass by, can confirm a truth, stitch you into the world, ground you in a piece of time. Online news keeps you informed, but a physical newspaper timestamps you, imprints a headline into your memory that commingles with the details of your day.
This is where you are today. This is what the world looks like. Soon everything will be different. But you will remember this small piece of what happened on March 22, 2010. You will remember holding this paper in the rain and that your coffee was especially bitter because they ran out of cream. K bye!
I remember struggling with illness in summer 2011 and reading about Gabby Giffords leaving the hospital. I remember hot tea, thick socks, a big, cumbersome newspaper, and the hope and inspiration I felt knowing she would recover.
I remember picking up a newspaper the day after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School and shaking with sadness and anger. I put it down without buying it and decided I wanted to study gun violence prevention.
Last month, on November 9, I’d planned to go downstairs early and get our paper before anyone else could snatch it. I was going to clip out the front page, fold it, and staple it into my current journal. I envisioned the headline — “Clinton Makes History.” I imagined showing the clipping to my future daughters and granddaughters. Instead, I spent most of the day with the covers pulled over my head. I never saw the paper that day, and still, I will never be able to scrape November 9, 2016 from my memory.
I have felt mostly helpless since the election. I’ve tried to channel my devastation into positive action. I’ve read articles about organizing and gotten more involved. I’ve worked hard at my nonprofit job. I’ve donated to a couple of organizations that will work to counter Trump. I’ve done the small things we have been told we should do. None of it is satisfying, but it’s something. I keep grasping around for “what else?”
Last night, our neighbor slipped another long note under our door — a thank you.
“The Washington Post often reminds me of the wise advice written by Thomas Jefferson in an 1816 letter to Du Pont de Nemour: ‘Enlighten the people generally … and tyranny and oppression will vanish...’”
After looking at his note all day, I’ve added a few more items to the post-election to-do list: elevate real news. Champion facts. Continue to subscribe to a daily newspaper, or subscribe for the first time if you have the means. Buy individual newspapers when you can. Share your paper. Order a subscription for a public school, a high school journalism class, an after-school youth program. Give news as a gift. Keep real journalists in business. Push back against the idea that reading real, good news is elitist. Call out fake news when you see it. Teach your kids how to recognize fake news. Ask your neighbors to borrow their papers when they’re done with them.
The fake news crisis we are living through may thoroughly delegitimize online news; a physical paper may become the mark of truth. It’s an alien, dystopian idea as of now, but crazier things have happened (see November 8, 2016).
The tyranny and oppression we will see in the coming years won’t just vanish. People are not easily enlightened. 2016 is proof.
We will have to get up, anchor ourselves in each day, and fight like hell.
And we will need people to write about our fight, read about it, see themselves in it, and discern its urgent reality.