By Mary Lou Sanelli

After the shooting in Paris, I lost the capacity for emotional response. Now, I’m having trouble keeping my terrorist attacks straight. Like school shootings. And I think that is just about the saddest thing I have ever said. But when newspaper writers are gunned down, it strikes a deeply personal chord. I felt as though a big part of my life was left lying there on the floor of the Charlie Hebro office. Daily life became problematic for me at best.

On the surface I was OK, but I was haunted by how the writers and cartoonists must have felt in their last moments about their “irreverent and non-conforming” opinions. It made me remember one of the finest compliments I’ve ever received came from a poet who was also a Catholic nun: Madeline DeFrees. She told me she enjoyed my irreverent take on things and that I had the soul of a non-conformist. I will never forget that.

I had to take a few days off from writing, but more importantly, time off from Shouldering Guilt That Does Not Belong To Me, neither of which I am very good at. The best way for me to do this is to get outside where people are talking about, oh, I don’t know, how about that Super Bowl? When I get to the beach, I spot a woman who clearly needs a hand getting down the wooden steps that lead to the sand. She is ballet-thin and dressed fashionably.

And for a second I thought she was much younger, though when she lifted her head, it was clear she was likely in her 80s. Her clothes, however, were much younger. But not as if she is trying to look younger. She wore a long, asymmetrical, wool sweater over black skinny  jeans. As if she enjoys paying attention, just not to every trend. I said, “You look lovely.” She came right back with, “Well, I do love clothes. Too much so, according to my husband.” She laughed. But what really struck me is how much she wanted to talk.

And I remembered my mother telling me that she longed to talk to people more in her later years but that it didn’t happen much to her anymore. “Most of the world is so much younger, they don’t want to talk to me,” she said. And I’m telling you, those words were like a knife to my heart. “Oh, my husband is the same way,” I said. “I hope you don’t take yours shopping with you?” “Oh, he’s gone now,” she said. But they had a good marriage “right up until the cancer.” That’s what she told me.

Today as I sit writing about her, I realize she loved being noticed. But more than that, she loved being listened to, it helped her feel connected. And I enjoyed listening, it helped me get out of my head and into the immediate present where my chatty-womanly-self needed to be. A much better place than spending too much time alone with my fears.

And I feel myself wanting, no needing, to take time to do this more often. Because, let’s face it, the terrorists will not let up. And the world of journalism will have to wear bulletproof vests and lock its doors now. But I don’t want to feel as if fear is locking up my heart. I’m sorry if that sounds too dramatically hopeful. It’s the writer in me. Or is it my chatty-womanlyself again? Because I know she tries to see hope in everything.

Mary Lou Sanelli is a writer whose commentary has been heard on Morning Edition, NPR. Her new book, A Woman Writing, is due out this fall. Read more at

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