A View from the Hill: Matters of relevance

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After chewing on a bunch of news for too long the other day I came to a revelation: Time had overtaken me. I was, simply, no longer relevant in a world that was changing at mind-numbing speed.

When the Black Lives Matter rallies swelled and blossomed in Portland, I stayed home. It wasn’t that I didn’t care. It was that I didn’t want to get in the way, that my presence would not matter, that the thousands of young people organizing and participating in these rallies were, day after day, right on schedule, carrying out their mission, disciplined and laser-focused.

Late in the afternoon, I would see them walking down Congress Street off Munjoy Hill to join the day’s rally, dressed in black, talking earnestly, laughing. They looked as if they were heading to the office for another day at work, which they were, but their office was in the streets, in front of the Portland Police Department headquarters or City Hall or on Commercial Street.

They were working hard, and they had it under control. They had my proxy, if they even needed it.

This feeling of irrelevance is not a wonderful thing to experience, even at age 69. But it wasn’t the first time I had felt such a clear sense that time had rolled over me.

Relevance was always a concern during my later years as a journalist. In my 20s and 30s, it never crossed my mind. I was young and energetic and determined to make the world a better place through my reporting, and, as an editor, through documentary photography and leading a staff of talented reporters.

It went without saying that we were relevant, though looking back I realize we really weren’t, as we pretty much ignored issues of racism, hunger, poverty, and other societal ills to which we were blind or that simply seemed too complicated to tackle. If there were degrees of relevance, we were perhaps 25 percent relevant to our readership on a good day.

In other words, we blew it. Just look where the news profession is today.

So I left daily newspaper work and moved on to teaching journalism at the University of New Hampshire. I would use my experience to create a new generation of journalists who would achieve relevance using the modern tools that the digital world offered. 

That was great fun – at least until irrelevance struck again. The skills that the rapidly evolving industry required as it moved to save itself were way beyond my ability to teach them. I could pass on the old values that were the foundation of good journalism, but the new tools were a mystery to me. 

I left teaching.

So here I am in retirement gasping for a last breath of relevance with an assignment to write a column for the Portland Phoenix every couple of weeks in exchange for enough cash to pay for half a trip to Whole Foods.  

Often the assignment is agony because I haven’t the foggiest idea what people want to hear from me or even whether they want to hear from me at all.

That brings me back to the revelation I had in the first paragraph. I saw only one way out: Quit and ask the editors to find someone whose voice, temperament, energy, background, and demographics were a better fit with the people of Portland.

Actually, I extend that invitation to them right now. Despite the occasional agony referenced above, I enjoy the writing process. But feel free to shove me aside if you think our community has outgrown me. No hard feelings. And no more Whole Foods.

I’ll just head up the path to the East End Community School Garden, where I have been volunteering my pathetic gardening skills. The garden is associated with Cultivating Community, whose mission is “Feeding our hungry. Empowering our families. Healing our planet.” What’s grown in the garden ends up on the tables of those who need it most. That feels relevant.

Of course, everyone wants to be relevant, or at least appear to be. That’s why you’re seeing so many statements about race coming from organizations and corporations around the world. Too much of it is meaningless pablum being spewed by public relations departments. But not all of it.

Consider my young friends Mary Chapman Sissle and her husband, Will, who own The Cheese Shop on Washington Avenue in Portland. They told the Portland Press Herald this week that while they generally eschew politics in their business, they felt that in light of all that has happened they needed to speak up.

“This wasn’t about left or right,” Mary told the newspaper, “it was about who we are as human beings. We can’t be quiet about this.”

But they didn’t issue a statement. Instead, they and their staff donated Saturday’s profits, about $2,000, to the National Black Food and Justice Alliance.

Two thousand dollars. During a pandemic that is crushing small businesses.

Now that’s being relevant.

Andrew Marsters is an award-winning journalist and former journalism instructor at the University of New Hampshire. He lives on Munjoy Hill. And his offer to quit has been respectfully rejected.

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