It had been two weeks since I'd heard those words that every newspaper employee these days wakes up dreading: "Your position has been eliminated." Two weeks since I signed a release form, handed over my ID badge and made an appointment to come clean out my desk after hours, so as not to further disrupt an already traumatized staff.
A third of our editorial staff was eliminated that day. Two weeks later, the shock and trauma were mostly past; I'd ditched the heels and dress slacks in favor of shorts and sandals and began to enjoy the spring. One day I asked my friend Ruhksana, a Pakistani native who volunteers from time to time as my self-appointed spiritual advisor, to accompany me to the newspaper. I needed to drop something off for a colleague. I knew it was silly, but my stomach was queasy.
"This is the first time I've been back since they fired me," I said. "I have to confess, It feels kind of strange."
"Tracy," Ruhksana eyed me severely. She is not one to indulge self-pity. "They did not fire you. You must stop staying that.
"No, they have not fired you. They have given you fire!"
I laughed out loud. Ruhksana's playful way with words frequently elucidates simple truths that it would take me a page and a half to explain. But this time, she really nailed it.
I had come to the Houston Chronicle just four months before to take over the merger of that paper's travel section with that of the San Antonio Express-News, where I had been serving as travel editor. I considered myself lucky; travel editors all over the country were disappearing in a shower of pink slips, and I was effectively getting a promotion.
But barely had I unpacked my last box and gotten up to speed on all the new systems that the word came from the top: Another round of cuts was imminent.
Now, let me say here that one cannot be working in the newspaper industry these days and not know their days are quite likely numbered. Like most of my colleagues, I've lived, breathed and dreamed newspapers since I was a kid in college, preparing for a career as the new-age Brenda Starr.
But the past few years have seen a rapid disintegration of the once-invincible Fourth Estate. Much has been written about the reasons why this is happening, what it means for our democracy and what might be done about it. This essay is not about that. It's about the fire.
Once the shock had passed, I found a reservoir of creative energy and a support group I didn't know existed. I reworked my website and created my own blog, learned rock climbing, pulled out my old guitar and took up invitations to travel to Europe and Mexico and other places.
Gradually I've redefined my focus to one that's more authentically me. I've returned to my roots as an environmental writer and am finding ways to integrate that field into my work as a travel writer. I began the painstaking task of building up a freelance business, day by day by day.
The jury's out on whether I'll be able to make a living this way. But I'm giving it my best shot, and I'm here to report there's an immense satisfaction in it. Every day I wake up feeling that I'm growing more and more into my new work, tending it and watching it like a garden.
Meanwhile I watch as former colleagues across the country make their way into this uncharted territory. What will this newly liberated brain trust of laid-off journalists do with all of that creative energy, intellect and dedication? My mind goes to the recurring metaphor employed by the great Texas author Cormac McCarthy in his most recent novel, The Road. A father and son, two of humanity's last survivors after a planetary holocaust, struggle to survive and find meaning in a blasted world. They speak of "carrying the fire," perhaps symbolizing hope, perhaps the human spirit.
My hope is that we - not only the journalists, but the hundreds of thousands of others dislocated by the economic crisis - can nurture that fire into a force that will illuminate our path in these changing times. This crisis will pass, as they all do, but make no mistake: Another one looms, this one related to our unsustainable way of life. Time is growing short to move to a global vision that will enable survival for all, not just the fittest. The paradigm is shifting, and our goal should not be business as usual. Our goal should be transformation, and that fire is just the tool we need.
Tracy L. Barnett, www.tracybarnettonline.com, is the former travel editor of the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News. She now works as a freelance multimedia journalist focusing on sustainability, travel, Latin American and the Southwest.