I Just Met Marina


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I just can’t seem to shake her story and the way it continues to be told through the magic of the Internet. Marina Keegan was a Yale grad in 2012, poised to bust out of academia and into a fresh new life chapter with a job at The New Yorker, an essay-gone-viral after it was published in the Yale Daily News, and a now newly published book of essays that delivers this talented young woman’s voice to the world. 

As I am studying the continuous, almost rampant evidence of grief expression and the development of a person’s life story on line, I am stunned at the way I have come to know some of Marina’s life story in such a short time. I came across Marina quite inadvertently. It was simply the opening of my web browser one morning before work, as it is often my routine to scan news feeds for interesting stories to share on my social media networks – usually to save those links so I can return to them later when I have more time to absorb and savor their information. But Marina’s story was not one to save for later. I saw the headline as my Yahoo! account opened up, and the words instantly reverberated. That’s what working on a dissertation will do to you. Your brain is at heightened sensitivity to the terms, images or concepts that you are drowning your thoughts in, on a regular basis: 

Life Lessons From Marina Keegan’s Posthumous Book of Essays

Life lessons. Posthumous. 

What is this? I thought. An immediate “click” and I was thrust into Marina Keegan’s life.

I hate to “summarize” her because there is so much to share, but with the Internet at your disposal, you can find out more details than you probably should be allowed to by searching for her on line. For now, I’ll just tell you that at 22, Marina Keegan led a life of purpose in exploring her talents and how to offer them to the world in words and deed. The Boston Globe ran a story just the other day about Marina’s book of essays, so I’ll let that article fill you in:


This is why I am writing a dissertation. This experience of being compelled to know more about this young woman, and understanding how this kind of content on line presents something of a phenomenon in literary expression. I need to figure out what it all is, still, but I am convinced that something big is happening here.

The story that introduced me to Marina, as many Internet stories do, contained other links. Those led to other content about Marina including photos and the now archived news coverage of the accident in which she was killed. The layers of information and storytelling kept going.

For now, I continue to explore this hard-to-pin-down category of grief storytelling. And I grieve for the loss of someone I never knew, but whose work and life approach has inspired me.

Copyright 2014 By Marianne V. Heffernan

Fresh slate

Here it is, a new year. 365 days ahead of me. Less than that, if I aim to graduate before year-end. 

Impossible? Let’s just say “impossible” is not a word I use frequently. I’m not sure if I’ve ever used it, now that I think about it. So perhaps that means I am an optimist who believes anything is possible if you put your mind to it. 

It’s going to take more than determination or thinking to get me over the goal line of finishing my doctoral program this year. If today is any indication, I am going to be hard pressed to do it, seeing as how I didn’t write a single word. 

No, my doctoral research consisted of more “percolating” than writing. I’ll allow myself that. One day to restart the project that’s been on a back burner for almost a year. My exploration of grief memoir – or, what I suggest is being produced as “grief memoir” online today – has been on hold for too long and I am not willing to let it sit any longer.

But today was the first day of a new year. The first day of the rest of my life, you might say. I took this day to do good: for someone else, and for myself. Recharging the batteries, reviving a goal (or two), taking action to say, “I’m committed and I am going to take charge.” 

Maybe all that binge-watching of Breaking Bad last weekend fired up more in me than my passion for writing. Maybe it brought out the Walter White in me. You have to admire a fictional character who can get you thinking about your life. 

Walter White, the main character in AMC’s Breaking Bad, is diagnosed with lung cancer in the pilot episode. Without describing the full series here, I’ll zero in on the point that resonated with me – Walter White takes control of his life by deciding to live it by his rules, on his terms. 

Now that’s freedom. 

I followed that mandate today – got rid of all the “requirements” of my day and just went with it for the whole day. And you know what I learned? 

There is great freedom in living in the moment. Your focus is clear and your experience is full. 

In the moment today I went out for coffee with my husband. I ran the vacuum for my parents and had a leisurely visit with them afterward. I went to the high school track and ran 1.25 miles, and felt great doing it. I had a lovely dinner with my husband, and spent 20 minutes in meditation. 

Did I write a single word on my dissertation? No, I did not. But I reviewed my notes (a little) and I refreshed myself with relationships, healthy exercise for my body and renewal for my spirit.

I’d say I’m ready to jump in and get my project back into gear. It’s back to work tomorrow after a long holiday break, but I’m refreshed to tackle things with presence of mind and an eye toward saving sufficient energy for my after-work time. Tomorrow, I pick up the pace.


Content that shakes the soul


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Grasping to understand the need for news organizations to pump out 140-character details of the Sandy Hook state police report before posting whole stories. Surely, this is the kind of story that requires more thought than the rapid tweeting on the social media site Twitter that ensued yesterday after the official report was made public at about 3 p.m.

Many reporters showed great sensitivity on Dec. 14 – just two weeks ago, on the one-year anniversary of the shooting – by not converging on the little village of Sandy Hook to cover the “news” of how residents and the families of the victims are faring. Most did that work in the days leading up to the anniversary, to give the families a respite when they clearly needed their privacy on what would undoubtedly be a painful day of remembrance. 

But there many were yesterday afternoon, pumping out the bits of information as soon as the report was out. It makes sense as a business strategy, of course. News organizations must entice followers and drive social media metrics, presumably to encourage online readers to go out and get the hard copy newspapers today to read the more comprehensive coverage. In the news business, you’ve got to be first. You want to be known as the best, the leader in your field. You want readers to keep coming back because they know they will get the scoop from your organization. You’ll get it right, you’ll get it first, and you’ll deliver the goods with professionalism and sensitivity.

As a former journalist, I had a heightened awareness to the release of the records, and a curiosity, like anyone else, about what they contain. As a social media user, I also wanted to see how the story would play out on Twitter and other sites. And there’s where I’m having some trouble getting my head around it.

What is the value of a piece-meal telling of a story this complex? The competition of a 24-hour news cycle and an immediate, on-demand mentality to be first and accurate is mind blowing to me and fascinating. I’d love to have been there for the news meeting where editors and reporters discussed how to cover the release of the report, because the social media element of dispatching the news is just a whole different realm.

Maybe it is because I know what it feels like to be the family member of a murder victim that I am sensitive to the news spotlight on details that, for a family member, feel like they are yours and yours alone to share or not. It feels exploitive to hone in on details without offering a full story in context, to consider it with deliberate thought before pressing the “Send” button that publishes it for the world to read. How do we decide that quickly what information is of value to the reader? Where does the news judgment have a chance to weigh in when you are tweeting to beat the clock?

I get it, it’s a different news industry than the one I belonged to some 14 years ago. But in a sense, it isn’t. Back then, we were all about grabbing readers and driving up circulation, thus sales. The difference was we had a longer deadline window to review the facts, consider the angles of the story, and bounce it around with editors and other reporters to flesh out a story that would do a service to readers.

It’s also true that many people – particularly the younger generation of 20-somethings – get their news from social media. They may never pick up a newspaper but they’ll scroll through social media on their smartphones and get enough detail to feel like they’re in the know.

I have many friends and former colleagues who are still in the news business so I mean no disrespect to them for their social media efforts to get the news out. Quite the opposite – I highly respect the extremely difficult job they do. It is a tough job to do well, and I am honored to know so many who fit that bill. As a matter of fact, in scrolling through the tweets from news sites yesterday, I think it is remarkable that so many of them were done so well. This is content that shakes the soul.

But I have to wonder how it feels to sift through a report like the Sandy Hook file on a timer. 


Wheels up



As the start of a new year looms next week, I am doing my usual self-assessment, reflecting on where I am and who I am. I’m thinking of my hopes for the year ahead. I had kicked off 2013 by hitting the road for work on the first day back after the holiday break, and an intense schedule of accelerated deadlines and on-demand assignments put work on the front burner and everything else on the back one. 

Arkansas to Louisiana. Brazil, Norway, Las Vegas, West Palm Beach, Washington, D.C. Back to West Palm Beach again.




I can’t even remember all the places I traveled for work in 2013. Great experience, no doubt, but every time I packed my bags for business, I left my PhD dream twisting in the wind. 

Well, this year, I’m thinking it’s time to consider a new way. Mind you, it’s not totally within my control to orchestrate a work load that allows my work days to have a clear beginning and end. I am told it is the nature of the business when you have a job in “communications,” to be on call and in demand 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

I choose to change that channel. The pinging in my psyche has grown louder. The passions that I have for storytelling, and my need for a healthy lifestyle in which my daily schedule includes time for meditation, yoga, a brisk walk, or the exercise of my choosing are just too big to ignore.

Among all of these “needs” clamoring for my focus and attention is my Journey to Dissertation. For most of the past year, I have failed to move ahead in my research writing. I can admit that my discipline was not in peak form, but I chose rest and family most times when I had the time to sit down at my laptop after an extended day juggling the requirements inflicted on me by my day job.

It’s true, I am behind schedule to graduate. Still, I am not ready to quit. I am renewing my commitment to get it done, and to get it done in 2014. It may mean the job landscape has to change. It may mean my indulgence in great storytelling (through books, favorite movies, or rare, solid television programming) will cease. For now. It is a double-edged sword: to give up my exposure to stories that inspire me means I’ll lose some of that spark to generate the ideas for my own storytelling. That’s a sacrifice I must make. A temporary one.

It’s time to finish what I started. As hard as it is to find the threads I was weaving into a clear research study, I am sure of one thing: I need to finish. I know that I started to uncover an important trend in grief memoir evolution, and that my work will make an important contribution to scholarly study.

I also know that it will lead me back to the inspiration that pointed me down this path: my sister’s story. The loss of my sister Joyce nearly 30 years ago is at the heart of this journey.


Perhaps that is why I cannot stop until I finish. I have much to learn on this journey, and much to teach in my learning. I’m mapping it out, my schedule to succeed. If you don’t see me around, keep a good thought for me. It means I’m in the canyon, navigating, exploring, uncovering. Mine is a journey with a final destination: a doctorate. ETA: the end of 2014. Wheels up. Time to fly.





Counting my blessings

As 8:19 a.m. approached this morning, I was marking the close of my 50th year. The ritual of another birthday always officially begins with a specific phone call that comes at that time. 

For the last 25 years, my mother has called me at the moment of my birth. The past two months threatened to take away that precious memory this year, as my mother was dealing with health issues that arose from what was expected to be a “routine” surgery. 

So when the phone rang at 8:18 in the ring tone I assigned to my parents’ home phone number, I barely let it finish its first tone before taking the call. 

I usually don’t make birthday wishes because there isn’t anything that I want so desperately to utter a fervent wish for it. This year was different. I knew what I wanted quite a few weeks before today arrived.

I would have felt supremely blessed in my mother’s sweet call, but the birthday blessings continued to flow all day, from a surprise call from my father (who is not a phone guy), to calls and texts and Facebook messages from friends, family, and colleagues from all career-points in my life. Tremendously grateful, am I, for the kindnesses of so many. 

As I relished the goodness coming my way, I couldn’t help reflecting on the year past. There were so many pivot points. I thought about all that I had hoped to accomplish when I turned the Big 5-0. I am a List Maker and a Bucket List keeper. I take this stuff seriously. 

So what did I hope to achieve in my 50th year on the Planet and how did I do?

For one thing, I had hoped to finish my dissertation and get my PhD. What a grueling process it is, and I hate to admit, I missed the target again. Paint my home office, improve my health and fitness, read several of the books on my shelf. Nope, nope and nope. Didn’t exactly hit the mark on those things either. 

Many of my goals were sidetracked by life’s offerings, good and bad. That’s LIFE.

I chose to visit my mother in the hospital. I spent extra time with my father while he was adjusting to a lonely home life during the two months that my mother was away with illness. I accepted my husband’s offer of a few moments of “normalcy” when life was upside down all around me, opting to lounge outside in the autum chill warmed by a bonfire instead of hunched over my laptop deciphering research code.


Moments like those I wouldn’t trade. They were God’s blessings, even the tough parts. 

Even though I didn’t get to do all the things I had planned or wanted to this past year, I’m counting my blessings. I laid eyes on the Grand Canyon and Acadia’s Cadillac Mountain views too, with a bonus of the Hoover Dam tossed in — all Bucket List wishes granted over the last several months.


My husband and I vacationed with our kids – teenagers now and a far cry from the little ones we last vacationed with more than seven years ago. A different experience but a wonderful one, and memories of our week in Maine are indelibly etched in my mind.

My job pushed me hard, especially with travel assignments, but the flip side of working my butt off and being away from my loved ones was the opportunity to fly over the fjords of Norway, to get up close and personal with the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro, and to take a side trip to New Orleans in between uncooperative flying weather in the Gulf. Complain? Not a chance.



So in the year that I have been 50, did I do everything I set out to do? Of course not. If I had, I would have had to say no to the flow of life, the unexpected and the difficult. Miss the experience, miss the growth. I’ll never say no to what Life serves up.

Blessings are two-sided, you know. You just have to flip them over and take a different view.

Copyright 2013 by Marianne V. Heffernan

Circling to settle in


It has become my personal writing process to require a full day of “circling” when I am wrestling with a writing challenge. Last Friday was my circling day.

Circling, in this case, refers to the practice of my dog, Trixie, in positioning herself on her bed, to get herself comfortable and in just the right position to settle in for a while. She will purposefully tip-paw onto her squishy Orvis dog bed and begin circling it, turning and twisting her lean doggie body to complete a series of spins until she decides she is in just the right spot to plop down and snuggle into the cushions. 

It usually takes her about 10 seconds or so, but she somehow knows when it’s time to stop circling. Like some unhearable music that is playing in a musical chairs for dogs, Trixie stops and takes a seat abruptly. Once she does, she is settled in for the night. 

I had my circling day on Friday. I spent an entire day digging back into my most recent draft of my dissertation introduction and first chapter. I backpedaled to re-read the Proposal I presented   more than a year ago, to return to the original thoughts I had on my project. I glanced over the completed dissertations  of my Salve Regina classmates and reviewed Creswell’s Qualitative Inquiry and Research Design. 

That’s when it hit me. All the confidence I had in breezing through the writing won’t get me where I need to go next. I may need to do the one thing I had cut out of my process. I may need to consider adding an interview component to my work.

Normally, I’d be fine with this, since interviewing is one of the things I do best. Nearly 30 years as a communications professional, with career experience as a reporter and editor, I don’t shy away from interviews. However, in this case, interviews mean one thing: a longer road to finishing. 

They also mean the writer’s block I have been struggling with – if indeed, I can blame this long delay (even partially) on writer’s block – is beatable. Interviews could just give me the information I need to crystallize what I am trying to unearth. Much as I hate to add more work to the mountain of work I already have ahead, I think I have made a critical discovery. I need absolute clarity on what I am pursuing. My elevator speech. My 30-second explanation of the problem or question about all this online grief memoir-like content that intrigues me so. I’m not there yet but the clouds are clearing. I need to finish circling. It’s time to settle in.Image

Gonna go get it

This time, I mean it.

I’m reigniting the dissertation flame, long smoldering for too many months. I have no idea how I’m going to keep it going this time, but evidently, I am not a quitter. Just a long break-taker, it appears.

I had a flash of motivation this evening to conjure up a rational thought about what the hell I am trying to do with my research topic. Instead of climbing into bed early (as I always need to but rarely ever do), I turned around, grabbed a couple of research books that have been mocking me from my dresser top, and plodded back downstairs to the couch.

I’m doing it this time.

I’m rejecting those taunts in my mind from my Mentor (I imagine him saying, “Where have you been? You’ve disappeared…”). I’m rebuffing the fact that I have just started a new position at work and am knee-deep in adjustment mode. I can’t afford to waste another day.

Now is the time.

So just to bring you all up to date, I’ve put it on record, right here, right now. I am officially putting you all on notice that I will likely disappear for periods of time, coming up for air only for the most important occasions.

I must do this. It is that classic hero challenge of film lore. The quest to do what one does not really want to do, but cannot escape.

Destiny. Thy name is PhD. I’m coming for ya.

Copyright 2013 By Marianne V. Heffernan

God bless the Newtown angels

Just unthinkable and yet it happened.

Yesterday, a gunman walked into the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, and ripped out the heart of a community. He killed 20 children, babies ages 6 and 7. He killed their principal, their school psychologist, and four other teachers who rushed to protect the children under their care.

The world is reeling from such unspeakable horror.

How do we get through it?

For me, it’s just not the time to start debating gun control or anything else. It’s time to reach out. Pray. Support those who are hurting. Do whatever you can to help others. The hurt is overwhelming and it has many faces. It will last a long time.

There will be time to debate gun control, but for now, each of us has an opportunity to simply do the “human” thing. Let’s focus on the people, not the politics. There are many people living a painful nightmare; it is real, and it will take a world of love to help it heal.

Each of us will respond in a way that is individual to us, in a way that is personal to us. We all are broken-hearted. God bless the Newtown angels and the families they left behind.

 #easethegrief #pieforNewtown

Copyright 2012 By Marianne V. Heffernan




Where’d I go?

If you have been following Walking Distance in its previous life form on Blogger.com, you may have noticed that it recently disappeared. I found this out by accident too, so don’t feel stupid if you lost sight of me there. So did I.

What a metaphor that is for my doctoral progress. A little lost. Feeling invisible.

No worries. I’m back. I’ve resurfaced here in WordPress and and newly revived to finish this journey, with you along for the ride, I hope.

It’s nice to be back with you. Let’s catch up.