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Andrea Useem, creator and publisher of ReligionWriter.com, is a freelance journalist and editor based in Northern Virginia who specializes in writing about religion. Andrea holds a Masters of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School, as well as a Bachelors degree in religion from Dartmouth College. Previously, Andrea worked as a freelance journalist in Eastern Africa for four years; she has also lived in Muscat, Oman. She is married and has three sons.

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The Purpose-Driven Journalist

What was your favorite New Year’s Eve? Here’s an unexpected one from Pamela Constable, a long-time foreign correspondent with the Washington Post. On Dec. 31, 1999, Constable found herself camped out in a freezing airport in Kandahar, Afghanistan, reporting on a hijacked Indian jetliner, after breaking off her winter holiday in Connecticut. When the hijacked passengers were finally released that night, Constable typed out her story while sitting on the floor of the frozen terminal and transmitted it via sat phone back to Washington. She recalls:

I was halfway through dictating my story when the editor on the other end interrupted and said, ‘Happy New Year!’ I looked up, startled, and saw several journalists touching their styrofoam coffee cups together in a toast. …The millennium was turning, the Post was printing a special edition the next morning, and my story, ‘Afghan Hijack Drama Ends Peacefully,’ was going to be on the front page. For me this was more thrilling than being invited to the most glamorous New Year’s gala I could imagine. … It was the best New Year’s Eve of my life.

One can easily imagine the thrill of professional triumph and personal adventure combining in a single, New Year’s Eve moment. What’s interesting about Constable, however, is that she has made a life of such moments, and in her memoir, Fragments of Grace: My Search for Meaning in the Strife of South Asia, she writes with arresting frankness about what a high price she pays for such adventure. After several decades of reporting on one hot spot after another, she reflects:

Each time I come home, it seems harder to pick up the threads, harder to revive the relationships I have put on hold for so many months. I have spent some much time compartmentalizing my life that I cannot remember how the pieces fit together. I have been absent for such long periods that people I love have ceased to rely on me, or even to send me important mews. My best friend delivered a baby girl, and my only glimpse of her was an e-mailed snapshot. … I missed the most important family funeral in years. I have become a name above a story, a postcard with an exotic stamp, a static-filled phone call of congratulations or condolence.

That’s a harsh self-appraisal by any standard, and Constable goes further, wondering if she made the right decision in not having children, or, as she implies, in allowing her marriages to lapse for lack of attention. Will her life, in short, amount to anything more than a pile of press clippings?Constable offers few answers to these naked questions of meaning. But, to this reader at least, her action provide an important answer: Constable seems to live an itinerant life of adventure because she is driven to. If she were meant to do something else, she would probably already be doing it.A fellow journalist gave ReligionWriter this book after a long talk about the romance, and downsides, of being a foreign correspondent. RW once lived a life that looked much as Constable’s did (though RW was younger and far less accomplished) — now she lives in the suburbs and does most of her reporting, if she does any at all, via telephone. Long gone are the days of tramping through Nairobi on a matatu, or flying off to Somaliliand or Southern Sudan . But these choices for RW have been as self-evident as Constable’s.RW recalls one particular moment when she knew she no longer had the drive to be a foreign correspondent. After a day of interviewing a famed Indonesian Qur’an reciter in Jakarta about the influences of Arabic music, she found herself back in her sweltering room that night, listening to a group of Indonesian guys on the sidewalk below singing a mangled version of “Hotel California.” That familiar tune made RW realize in an instant that she was through with foreign reporting, in spite of all the gratifying adventure and professional opportunity, and was ready to make a life for herself back in the comfortable confines of the U.S.So reading Fragments of Grace gave RW a chance to glimpse down a road not taken. Constable has made very real personal sacrifices, and as a result has contributed enormously to our American understanding of Pakistan, Afghanistan and the other places from which she has reported. She seems to be doing what she was meant to do. RW can relate to her introspection and self-interrogation, but there is a beauty and even peaceful inevitability to the final paragraph of Constable’s epilogue, penned in July, 2003:

Just as I was finishing my final chapter [of Fragments of Grace,] the foreign editor of the Post called and asked if I could go to Iraq. Conditions there were risky and unpredictable; American soldiers were being attacked every day. It was extremely hot and increasingly nasty. I didn’t hesitate for a moment to say yes.

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