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Michelle's column: It’s important to take a break sometimes

I cleaned out our office refrigerator last week. Oddly, it seemed to be somewhat cathartic, given the past couple of weeks.

June was kind of a rollercoaster of news, you know? I started the month highlighting the graduation of Christian Life School and Farmington High School seniors. I wrote about fun community events, like camps at Dakota City and the city’s annual farmers market.

When I went on a 10-day vacation, all was well and normal in Farmington. My vacation was scheduled so that my first day back was Saturday during Dew Days. Dew Days is a great way to ease back into work after vacation, because it’s kind of like still being on vacation. I get to do fun things, I get to see my friends, I get to eat food that’s not so good for me. I like that.

An intriguing voicemail left at my desk prompted me to call Farmington’s police chief, Brian Lindquist, that first day back. His explanation when I called back was, “Oh, it was probably about the fatal fire.”

What? I hadn’t looked at that week’s paper yet, so I didn’t know about the fire that claimed the life of a Farmington woman.

Then I heard about a couple of suspicious car fires over the weekend. So when I called around to fire chief Tim Pietsch and fire marshal John Powers that next Monday, we talked car fires, but then we also talked about the fatal fire of the previous week.

I’ve covered plenty of fires in my 20-year career in this community. I’ve seen some really bad fires, but this was the first time in my career that I had to ask how our firefighters were doing emotionally after a call.

Two days later, I got information that the missing woman I’d written about back in December had been found, dead, in a suitcase in Wisconsin. I got all of the grizzly details that went along with the discovery of her body. After spending 2 ½ days doing interviews and updates to the story, I went home for the weekend.

When I came back June 30, I spent more time on the same story to get it ready for print. By the time I got home that night, I was numb inside. My head buzzed, but I couldn’t focus on any one thought.

I leashed up my little dog, and we went for a long, long walk that night.

I have been to fatal accidents, and I’m always sensitive to the fact that someone out there has just lost a person he or she loves. It rocked my world a bit the first time I realized I knew a person had died — I didn’t know his identity yet, but I knew he’d died — before his wife or girlfriend or parents or siblings did.

Believe me when I say, I have never taken my responsibility to those families lightly.

In this business, I write the good more often than I write the bad, and I’m thankful for that. But the bad? Well, it sticks with a person. Now that I’m in Hastings, I worry every time I hear multiple sirens, because I don’t know where my brother and his family are, or I worry that something has happened to my parents while I’ve been out on a walk. It sticks with a person.

It also causes me to feel a certain admiration for our community’s police, firefighters and paramedics. And deep, deep gratitude. So many times, when tragedy strikes a community, they are on the inside, right there, involved in it. If being on the outside and simply writing the facts of an incident can affect me the way it does, I cannot begin to fathom the emotions they experience.

So when last Wednesday rolled around and I didn’t have anything big or serious looming ahead of me for the day, I decided it was time to clean out the refrigerator. I went so far as to pull out the racks and wash everything down. Somehow, I felt like some of my recent stress was going down the sink drain, along with the disinfectant I used to clean.

And writing my thoughts about these last few weeks, that’s been helpful, too. Being able to put these thoughts into words, and being able to share these words with our community, helps me to recognize I’m still a compassionate human being, no matter how big the story.

Michelle Leonard

Michelle Leonard joined the Woodbury Bulletin staff in November, 2014, after 14 years covering news for the Bulletin's sister publication, the Farmington Rosemount Independent Town Pages.  Michelle earned her Bachelor of Science degree in Mass Communications: News-Editorial from Mankato State University in 1991. She is an active member of the American Legion Auxiliary Clifford Larson Unit 189 of Farmington, and served as the 2014-15 Third District President to the American Legion Auxiliary Department of Minnesota. Michelle is also the volunteer coordinator for the Minnesota Newspaper Museum which is open annually during the Minnesota State Fair. She has earned Minnesota Newspaper Association awards in Investigative Reporting, Local News Coverage, Feature Photography and Column Writing. 

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