Approaching an institution long held in high esteem can be intimidating, and not just because it’s suddenly in such close proximity. There’s also the fear that it will prove something less than hoped for. It’s like meeting a favorite artist or finally visiting a famous city: How will the experience compare to the expectations?
When I first arrived as editorial assistant at Commonweal, I was tongue-tied and, compared with my new colleagues, ignorant on just about every topic. I quickly decided it would be better to follow the old adage about staying quiet and seeming foolish rather than saying something to confirm it. I vowed to listen, and like a sponge, absorb anything I could.
Unfortunately, the folks at Commonweal are so friendly and eager to engage with others (keeping in mind that teasing is the highest compliment) that deference can’t last long—the aura of Venerable Magazine is soon lost, replaced by intimacy. In fact, it was only my third day on the job when I began to see what Commonweal was really about. That was the day of the first (and perhaps the last!) “company picnic”—an afternoon of bocce and swimming and grilling at the beautiful home of a board member in bucolic Connecticut. Of course, I feared at first it might all be an elaborate hazing scheme. But I was wrong: it turned out to be lovely, with no nefarious purpose.
On our way to the outing, our editor surprised us with a visit to the grave of Michael Williams, Commonweal’s founder and first editor. Our caravan pulled into a cemetery and Paul Baumann pulled out a few bottles of champagne. We poured libations, toasted our founder, and lingered a bit before proceeding to the picnic. Drinking champagne at the grave of someone I’d never met but whose life was now affecting my own highlighted several things about Commonweal: its sometimes controversial history (Williams resigned over his support for General Franco), its catholicity (particularly revealed in combining celebration of the dead with early-morning drinking), and most important, its embodiment of the authentic experience of community, along with communion with one another and those from Commonweal’s past. Intimidated as I might have been, I felt I’d just witnessed something fundamental about the identity of the magazine I’d so long admired.
But, if I’m being honest, in finally encountering this idealized object I was also shown its imperfections—such as the frustrating, day-to-day aspects of magazine work. For instance, I learned it was the editorial assistant’s job to register each issue for copyright status—an awful (and awfully tedious) chore. I spent what felt like endless hours folding and stuffing envelopes. (Won’t someone send us one big check so we can stop dunning you all!) And even though I didn’t write or edit the stories we published, it often fell to me to pacify the readers who called to complain about them—even when I might not have liked some of those stories myself. More Francis, less Obama; I can’t stand that writer, why can’t you get the other one; that editorial wasn’t funny; you aren’t Catholic/liberal/moderate/secular enough; your articles are too academic; your articles are too simplistic; you don’t have enough female writers. I heard it all.
But no complaint—or affirmation, for that matter—can finally define what Commonweal is, essentially. People get it wrong when they think just one aspect of the magazine (editorials? columnists? reviews? Commonweal Conversations?) captures the nature of the whole enterprise. One of the benefits of finally seeing it up close is learning how important all of these things are—including the people I came to know as colleagues, along with those who preceded them—and that there was really never any reason to feel intimidated in the first place.
From our 90th Anniversary feature "Formative Years," in which we asked a number of our former staff members (along with our current marketing coordinator) to write about their responsibilities at Commonweal, what they learned while working here, and about their hopes for the future of the magazine. See all of their contributions here.