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Archive for September, 2012|Monthly archive page

The pleasure of working by hand

In beauty, behavior, culture, design, domestic life, life, women, work on September 11, 2012 at 1:08 am

Adding vintage embroidery to a new pillowcase

I spent the morning covering a pillow with vintage fabric, likely from the 1930s. I stitched the seams by hand, unreasonably happy when it was done.

This evening I stitched some vintage needlework, probably from the 1960s, onto new pillowcases. The whites don’t match exactly,  but that’s part of the charm, I think.

I love sewing by hand.

I find it meditative, soothing, calming. I think of the women, going back centuries, likely millennia, who used their needles and thread — whether a bone needle lacing dried gut or a gold needle sewing silk by a 17th. century fireside — and feel connected to them, and to the long history of domestic arts, no matter how simple my attempts may be.

I have a sewing box. In it are spools of thread, hundreds of antique buttons of mother-of-pearl and brass and glass I keep collecting, with no specific use in mind. I just find them lovely to look at and to touch. I don’t use a thimble so I often prick my fingers. I have, and use, pins, stabbing them into a little pin-cushion I’ve had since childhood, now impossibly politically incorrect — a pillow of red silk encircled by tiny Chinamen holding hands.

It feels good to disconnect from metal and plastic — Ipods, Ipads, the phone, and, most of all, the computer that makes me feel like a cow attached to a milking machine (all production, all the time!) — and re-connect with soft fabric. I wonder whose skin it touched, who designed it and printed it and wore it, where and when it was a part of their life before adding beauty to mine.

Now Jose is off pricing sewing machines for me…and turns out we’re part of a trend, among both men and women, reports The New York Times:

Once the domain of apron-clad matrons tasked with domestic busywork, sewing, like knitting before it, is making a comeback. At 3rd Ward, the number of monthly beginner classes has doubled to four. Purl in SoHo offers popular sewing seminars. The number of members at BurdaStyle, a five-year-old social network for sewing novices, grew to 753,184 in mid-May, an increase of 47 percent from a year earlier, the company said.

And sewing-machine sales are booming, with sales in the United States expected to top three million in 2012 at SVP Worldwide, the maker of Singer sewing machines, up from 1.5 million a year more than a decade ago.

While some of the craze can be chalked up to the popularity of reality television shows like “Project Runway,” sewing instructors say students in their 20s and 30s, particularly women, are embracing sewing also as a form of self-expression and a way to assert their independence.

“What once was considered a womanly task is now a way of defining oneself,” said Patti Gilstrap, an owner of Flirt, a clothing store in Brooklyn that teaches introductory classes in alteration and skirt making.

The other day, hoping to revive sun-faded fabric on a balcony pillow-cover, (vintage linen I’d bought in Paris), I soaked each piece in dye, one yellow, one deep blue, then hung them on the clothesline. It worked! I felt absurdly self-sufficient — $4 worth of dye, an hour of my time and a plastic bucket.

Pioneer Girl!

It’s too easy and expensive to just buy new stuff. I love it when I can restore older things and keep them in use.

What do you enjoy doing by hand?

Twelve ways to blog better

In behavior, blogging, culture on September 9, 2012 at 12:13 am
compassion hearts

Go ahead — share your heart with us! (Photo credit: journeyscoffee)

Last December I posted fifteen tips on how to make your blog more compelling. A few of you have since emailed me privately to ask how to find more readers, and more quickly.

Since I started blogging here at WordPress, in July 2010, I’ve been chosen for Freshly Pressed five times, which has been a pleasant validation that I’m doing OK in this new medium.

Here are twelve tips I hope will inspire and help you to grow your readership.

None are necessarily simple or quick. Just because it’s “only” a blog doesn’t mean creating quality content is, or should be, painless.

We all have limited time and attention

You know how few seconds we’re willing to offer anything on line. If you’re demanding others’ attention, which you are with a blog, why does yours deserve it? What value are you adding to my day if I take three or five or even ten minutes to read it? Don’t just hit publish because you think a post a day is worth doing. Make every single post something you truly think worth others’ valuable and limited attention.

The very best blogs combine the personal with the universal

We all feel fear, crave humor, hope to avoid embarrassment, experience sadness or anxiety. How often is your blog being emotionally truthful?

Compassion and empathy rule!

Snark isn’t my default mode and the blogosphere is full of stupid photos and political rants. You don’t have to be smarmy, but realizing that 99% of us feel pretty much the same feelings all throughout our lives (yes, really!) will inform the best writing.

Check your spelling, vocabulary and grammar

Messy copy shows a lack of respect for your readers. Spell-check is not your best friend. A dictionary is.

Pretend your blog is a magazine and you’re the editor in chief

By that I mean, make me eager to read it, using great visuals — photos, drawings, video — and a terrific headline to tease me in. Magazine editors are intensely aware of the need to entice readers away from all their competitors. Think a little more like them.

You’re being read worldwide — be inclusive

It’s easy to forget that whatever you’re writing about may be read by someone thousands of miles away. It drives me nuts when people can’t be bothered to tell me where or who they are. It’s extremely common.

Use social media to spread your work, selectively

As I write this, 25 people have wandered over for a look from Facebook, where a guy I’ve never met who lives in California liked one of my posts enough to link to it. Don’t beat people to death with your opinions, but social media is the one sure way to attract new eyeballs and potential readers.

Leave thoughtful, funny and/or helpful comments on others’ blogs. Do it every day.

I did this every single day for more than a year. It took up a ton of time and I’m glad it’s no longer necessary, but it is something you simply have to do if you’re truly hungry for more readers. I read Freshly Pressed every day and often find two or three posts I can leave a useful comment on. “Liking” isn’t enough! Leave a trace of your personality as well, which may well intrigue others back to see who you are.

Fill out your “About” page. Today!

Even if you’re not writing using your real name, readers want to have some idea who you are and why they might want to listen to you. Include a photo, a recent and flattering one. If you’re too scared to write even a paragraph about who you are and why we should be reading you…are you really ready to blog?

Move us!

The very best blogs, like a piece of music, leave us feeling something emotionally, whether outraged, laughing or pensive. Bland = zzzzzzzzzzzzz.

Edit, revise, repeat

Do you bang out your posts in an urgent frenzy to share your views with the world, and hit “publish” right away? If this is your automatic habit, time to re-think. Use every revision to make it tighter and stronger.

Use paragraphs

A blog that goes onandonandoandonandon without a single line break, or paragraphs, is just selfish and rude, the written equivalent of a big fat boring monologue.

Does anything you read in the real world lack punctuation and paragraphs?

What are some of your tips?

If I could vote in the Presidential election…

In behavior, immigration, life, politics, US on September 7, 2012 at 11:57 pm
Barack Obama

Barack Obama (Photo credit: jamesomalley)

It would not be for Mitt Romney.

If this means a stampede to the exits from some of you, sorry.

But that’s how I feel.

I have a “green card”, (pink actually), that allows me to work and live in the U.S. But, for a variety of reasons, I do not have citizenship. I can easily get it, and retain my Canadian cititzenship as well. I just have not made that choice.

So I can’t vote for anyone.

I watched President Obama’s speech, and those of his VP Joe Biden and former President Bill Clinton — who I’ve seen a few feet away in a local restaurant, as we live about a 15 minute drive south of his home.

I came to the U.S. to live in 1989, writing on the consular application “better job opportunities” as my reason. It’s one of the reasons I’ve stayed.

That, and two American husbands (not simultaneously.)

It’s been a really rough four years and I’m terrified that Obama is not going to be re-elected. Not because I think he’s done such a great job, hamstrung by partisan politics.

But the notion of Mitt Romney, and his dressage-horse-owning wife, his $250 million fortune, his absolute disregard for the middle class (and below) — and his Mom jeans — in the White House is making me look at my Canadian passport with longing.

Would I leave if he won? It’s not that simple.

But I would want to.

I’m a self-employed, middle-aged feminist. Republicans care not a whit for anyone in those three categories.

Every week another insane-o Republican politician, usually male, tosses some red meat into the cage by offering up yet another way to control our reproductive rights. As many of us have noted, Republicans loathe government intervention into any aspect of their lives — but they love telling American women what to do with our bodies. It’s my uterus, boys. Back off!

A third of American workers now look like me: self-employed, permalance, temp or contract. That means the only way to get health insurance is to marry someone who has it or buy it, at whatever price is on offer, on the open market. For anyone living in New York, you’re looking at $600-1,200 a month, easy. You can go bankrupt paying for health insurance or you can go bankrupt with enormous medicals bills. Now that’s my kind of economic freedom.

I’m also weary of the fantasy that the wealthy are “job creators.” They’re not. Right now, American corporations are earning record profits, (often having pounded their desperate, un-unionized workers into lower wages and worse working conditions), and are stuffing their pockets with that dough. They are not hiring or giving raises, promotions or bonuses.

The latest job numbers are terrible — only 96,000 new jobs were added here in August.

And the two largest areas of job growth?

Foodservice and retail, the subject of my memoir of working 27 months as a sales associate.

Dead-end jobs for lousy pay.

From The New York Times, August 30, 2012:

The occupations with the fastest growth were retail sales (at a median wage of $10.97 an hour) and food preparation workers ($9.04 an hour). Each category has grown by more than 300,000 workers since June 2009.

Some of these new, lower-paying jobs are being taken by people just entering the labor force, like recent high school and college graduates. Many, though, are being filled by older workers who lost more lucrative jobs in the recession and were forced to take something to scrape by.

“I think I’ve been very resilient and resistant and optimistic, up until very recently,” said Ellen Pinney, 56, who was dismissed from a $75,000-a-year job in which she managed procurement and supply for an electronics company in March 2008.

Since then, she has cobbled together a series of temporary jobs in retail and home health care and worked as a part-time receptionist for a beauty salon. She is now working as an unpaid intern for a construction company, putting together bids and business plans for green energy projects, and has moved in with her 86-year-old father in Forked River, N.J.

“I really can’t bear it anymore,” she said.

Either can I.

Americans’ slavish devotion to the “free market” is killing the hopes and lives of millions. People who can’t find a job and can’t afford to go back to school to re-train (again) because — funny thing — they’re already in debt from the crappy mortgage they bought or they ran through savings in the years it took to find their last job or because getting the next costly credential is no guarantee that anyone is going to hire you.

For those of you who live outside the U.S., the defining mythology here is that of the boot-strapper, that each of us is fully able, from birth onward, to create and define and shape our lives.

Regardless of race, education, family background.

I’ve spent a lot of time, as a reporter, talking to people whose lives make this a lie:

– A woman who shot her husband dead because the police were unable or unwilling to stop him stalking her.

– The 19-year-old raped in the dark, dirty hallway of the public housing where she lived.

– The family who showed me a quilt with the images of their mother and father, both killed violently, woven into it.

– The contractor who had to fire half his staff because he could not afford to keep them.

– The businessman paying $1,000+ every month to buy health insurance for his family.

– The student terrified to be job-less because she’s carrying $30,000+ of student loan debt.

The U.S. is a great place to live if you’re smart, strong, well-educated, healthy, socially connected. Don’t get sick. Don’t need help. Don’t have dependent family members who can’t earn their own way.

If someone tries to crawl into your lifeboat — say the Republicans — beat the oars on their frozen hands and tell them to save themselves. No one ever needs help. It’s their own fault!

If you’re unlucky enough to be ill, old, physically weak, in debt, financially illiterate…you’re Republican carrion.

If the Republicans win the White House, I fear, deeply and genuinely fear, for the well-being of all but the winners at the craps table of laissez-faire free-market capitalism.

How are you feeling about this election?

Do you plan to vote?

Another post about the blog

In behavior, blogging, books, business, journalism, Media, women on September 6, 2012 at 12:01 am

I’m Caitlin Kelly, author here.

Since my last behind-the-curtain post about Broadside, this crowd has grown! Every day, new followers are signing up, men and women of all ages from across the globe, from Kenya to Indonesia to my hometown of Toronto — now at 2,300.

A few things to know about me, and what you’ll continue to find here:

I’m Caitlin Kelly, a career print journalist who’s worked as a reporter for three major dailies, the Toronto-based Globe and Mail, the Montreal Gazette and the New York Daily News, the 6th-largest newspaper in the U.S. Each of these experiences helped shape who I am as a writer, how I think and how I approach my stories, here and for my paid assignments.

I landed at the Globe when I was 26, with no experience at any newspaper, a fairly unheard-of trajectory. I’d been freelancing for them for seven years already, but suddenly had to meet daily deadlines. The Globe, being the national paper of record, and one with five daily editions, was a terrifying, inspiring, career-making place to work. No matter what the story, their standards were scarily high, even when they didn’t pay for it…like the prison riot in a city a 3-hour drive away that I had to cover, (the competing Toronto Star simply flew their reporters over by helicopter), while I just had to work the phones.

My newspaper staff jobs, which I still miss, taught me the professional values I live by today:

Get it first, run!, do it better, ask all the questions everyone else is too scared to, stay around longer, go places you’re not supposed to. Piss off the powerful. When the press pack turns left, head in the opposite direction. Get the quote! Talk to people with quieter, less-heard voices. Go find them. The perfect is the enemy of the good — just write the damn thing!

Never give up!

One of the reasons I so love news journalism as a training ground is that it forces you to meet and work with a wide range of humanity. You can hold any political or religious beliefs you choose, but you will  cover people who are utterly different from you and it is your job to listen to them carefully and respectfully. That’s a great way to live.

We all have a point of view and the more we listen to one another, the more we’ll learn.

Some of the many people I’ve met and/or interviewed include:

Queen Elizabeth, Rudolf Nureyev, Billy Joel, Olympic golf medalist Kim Rhode, Patty Varone, the NYPD cop who kept New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani alive on 9/11, convicted felons and set designers, professional ice skaters and female chefs, sailors and district attorneys.

I’ve loved the crazy variety, the constant demands of finding/wooing/interviewing people of all ages and interests, from a professor of nuclear physics whose Scottish accent and rapid speech made note-taking almost impossible to the doctors I had to interview, in French, while working in Montreal.

Since losing my Daily News job in 2006, I’ve been working full-time as a freelance writer, editor, blogger and paid speaker on retail work. I write often on business for The New York Times, for their Sunday section. I’ve also written for Marie Claire, Smithsonian, USA Today and dozens of others.

Along the way, I’ve won five fellowships and have written two well-reviewed non-fiction books.

I hope you’ll click the links to these books — you can read a few sample chapters free — and buy them. I know that some of you are teachers and professors. I hope you’ll take a look at them for your classes as both books have also been course-adopted as they’re lively, easy-to-read and fact-based.

I’m happy to write a guest post or do a Q and A with you about any aspect of writing and publishing.

The first book, “Blown Away: American Women and Guns” came out in 2004. I came up with the idea after I discovered a friend and colleague owned a handgun. I grew up in Canada, where civilian gun ownership is not nearly as prevalent and there is no equivalent of the Second Amendment, which many Americans use to justify their gun rights. To research it, I traveled across the U.S., to Ohio, New Orleans and Texas, interviewing 104 men, women and teens about the issue. It was a difficult subject, and I experienced secondary trauma as a result. It happens to journalists (and others) whose work exposes them to others’ trauma, whether sexual, war-related, as victims of crime and violence.

My newest book, which will be published in China in March 2013, is “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail” which describes, firsthand, low-wage work in the U.S. It’s rough: part-time, no benefits, little chance for advance scheduling, few raises or promotions. It’s been compared to the best-seller Nickeled and Dimed, in which another writer went behind the scenes to work for low wages.

So when you read and link to Broadside, you’re reading the work of a trained career journalist who plays by old-school rules. You won’t read anything that’s false, made up, exaggerated. When I write about my husband, Jose, a photo editor at The New York Times and a Pulitzer winner, I tell him or ask his permission first. I don’t accept payment for anything I write, nor I do I accept freebies or giveaways or discounts.

I blog because I enjoy it.

I blog every other day, sometimes on the news, often far from it. As some of you already know, I’m passionate about a few things: women’s rights, travel, design, work, living a full and balanced life, emotional connection.

I blog because, more than anything, I want to hear from you!

A lively global conversation is my goal.

Thanks for being here!

Interviewing “virgins” — how to do it right

In behavior, blogging, books, business, film, History, journalism, Media, work on September 4, 2012 at 10:58 pm
New York, New York. Newsroom of the New York T...

New York, New York. Newsroom of the New York Times newspaper. Reporters and rewrite men writing stories, and waiting to be sent out. Rewrite man in background gets the story on the phone from reporter outside. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Not the kind you think!

For those who haven’t yet read my Welcome or About pages, I’m Caitlin Kelly, a journalist since my sophomore year of college, more than 30 years. Like every journalist, it’s my ongoing challenge  to make total strangers feel comfortable talking to me within minutes.

The journalist’s job, contrary to popular current belief, is not to yammer on breathlessly about celebrities and their pets/kids/shopping  — like a walking press release — but to get out into the world and find people with compelling stories to share.

And many of the best stories haven’t been told before, at least not to a stranger wielding a notebook, camera or tape recorder. Unlike public figures, like politicians or celebrities, trained and skilled at media manipulation, these people don’t even know the rules.

I’ve recently been writing features for The New York Times business section, like this one about Google. Many of the people I’m interviewing for these have never spoken to a reporter before. They’re “virgins.”

Several admitted to me beforehand how nervous they were at speaking “on the record” , knowing their words might end up in The New York Times; for those of you living outside the U.S., it’s hard to to overstate its power and prestige. I’ve been writing freelance for the Times since 1990.

There’s such an imbalance between how I feel walking into those rooms — excited, curious — and how they feel — often wary, anxious, unsure, wondering what will happen next.

It boils down to trust. How much can they trust me to get it right? To tease out what they might not be able to fully articulate? Will they, as they fear, end up sounding stupid?

These “virgins” sometimes forget, or don’t know, that my every word is read and re-read by several editors who can question or challenge what I’ve written.

During my visit to Google, which lasted two days, two public relations reps tapped away madly on their computers and Blackberries, noisily noting everything I asked and what their staff said. Typically, only very senior executives and officials receive this much protectiveness.

It might have reassured the people I spoke to. But once you’re “on the record” that’s it. Two people — days after the interviews were finished — emailed to tell me “You can’t use that” about a few comments. Technically, I can. (But I didn’t, a judgment call on my part.)

I’ve been interviewed a lot, for both of my books, and it is stressful!

I’ve felt that visceral oh shit moment when you create an official and frighteningly permanent representation of how (at that moment, perhaps) you think.

And none of us really knows what will happen to your story after you’ve shared it. The reporter might be stupid, lazy, disorganized, deceptive — or get it absolutely right.

It’s rare to hear a journalist admit how they feel when dealing with civilians….Here’s a blog interview with New York Times freelancer Devan Sipher:

The brides and grooms I talk to confide in me, and I take extraordinary time and effort to make sure what what goes in my articles doesn’t violate that trust.  It’s not always easy, because the best quotes are often things they would regret having said if they saw them in print.  One could argue that if they said it, I can use it. But the people I’m writing about aren’t running for public office (usually) and they didn’t steal anyone’s retirement funds.  They don’t deserve to be embarrassed by an article celebrating their marriage.  I feel I have a responsibility to protect them in addition to my responsibility as a journalist to write the best and most accurate story for my editor and readers. It’s a responsibility I take very seriously.

Here are a few tips, if you’re facing a first-time media interview:

– Find out the reporter’s name and media outlet as far in advance as possible. Google them and carefully read check their LinkedIn page for any mutual connections, like the same hometown, college or people in common. Find out as much about them, and how they write, as you can.

– Read a few of their stories and tell them you did. It’s both a compliment and a warning.

– Ideally, find out: which section of the paper or magazine it’s for, what the angle is and who else they’re speaking to. Some reporters are fine with this, others not. The more you know what they need from you, the better it’s likely to go.

– Try for more time, rather than less; i.e. 20-30 minutes instead of five or ten. Very few people with no media training are great at offering quick, pithy sound bites. But be ready to answer succinctly.

– Make notes of your three most essential talking points before the interview. Keep them in front of you, with all relevant facts and figures as necessary.

– If you’re not 100 percent sure of the accuracy of your answer, say so! Offer to get right back to them, (within minutes if possible), with the correct data, and a checkable source for them (like a report, study, poll or government statistic.) Never guess. Never lie!

– Get the interviewer’s name, phone numbers and email address so you can  follow up or add something later. Be sure they get yours as well.

– Be very clear, before you say a word, if you want the interview attributed to you by name, on background or off the record. Be sure you and the interviewer have both agreed, and that you both agree on what these terms mean.

– Do not monologue! Take a breath, for heaven’s sake. Let the reporter ask their questions as well. Some people do this out of nervousness, but it’s also (perceived as) a way to control the interaction, and therefore annoying.

– Give the interview your full and undivided attention. That means carving out some time to do it and placing yourself in a quiet, private room with no background noises (dogs, kids) or interruptions (cellphones, assistants, etc.) We can work around these, but unless it’s an emergency situation, why make things harder on both of us?

– You can ask to see their story before it appears, but most won’t do it. Magazines usually use fact-checkers, who will contact you before the story appears to make sure the basic facts are accurate.

Have you even been interviewed by a journalist?

How did it feel at the time?

How did it turn out?

“No one reads books anymore”

In art, books, business, culture, entertainment, History, journalism, Media, US, women, work on September 3, 2012 at 1:13 am

As if!

Having just witnessed the largest independent book festival in the U.S. – as an invited speaker about my book, “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail” -- I saw with my own grateful and astonished eyes, how untrue this is.

If you’re a dancer, you perform, and you see your audience. Same for actors and musicians.

Writers, not so much. We spend about 95 percent of our lives sitting before a glowing computer screen in lonely silence. Every day we tap the keys, possibly collect a few checks for what we cranked out, then get up the next day and hustle hard all over again.

As one fellow freelancer said, “When I left my newspaper job, I was so thrilled to get off the hamster wheel. Now I’ll work on longer projects! But I’ve put myself right back on the hamster wheel.”

We all have relationships, sometimes for years or even decades, with agents and editors, but we rarely see them or even speak to them. They often live very far away and some travel frequently — to the annual London Book Fair or to L.A., as my agent recently did to meet with several film and television agents there.

We’re all busy, isolated and often quite insecure about whether anyone, anywhere even cares that we’ve written a word.

So imagine the heady, giddy pleasure of stepping out of your hotel — into stunning heat and humidity — to see streets clogged with men, women and children, people of all ages, who’ve come just to see and hear authors speak, to meet them, to thank them, to query them about how they do what they do.

Decatur Book Festival, 2012.

Bliss!

The festival, now in its seventh year, doesn’t pay writers to come, so being invited is an honor, but not one without a price tag. And, contrary to popular belief, almost no one gets financial support from their publisher. People who have yet to commercially publish have some gauzy, hopeful notion that their publisher will surely be the most generous relative they’ve yet to meet, sort of a Fairy Godmother with very deep pockets and a burning desire to boost their careers.

(Laughs bitterly)

Nope. Writers who know the game know, and learn quickly, to do almost everything for themselves: create and register the domain name(s) of their books, pay someone to design a site for them, maintain and update it, hire a PR team to publicize it. I overheard a man at the authors’ party say, mournfully, he’d already been through three different firms — and his book was barely months on the market. I asked a man with a booth there how much he charges for his PR services — $4,800 for a month. That’s standard, kids.

For many authors, that’s half their advance. Or their whole advance.

In the cab from the airport, I sat with a psychologist who had come from Hawaii, a 12 hour journey, and a massage therapist from Tucson. In the 30 minutes it took to reach our hotel, I learned about the Rwandan genocide from the Tucson author, who had written a novel about it, “Running the Rift”, and how to die gracefully, the topic of the other woman. I went to hear Naomi speak, and learned more about Rwanda in her 45 minute talk than through almost anything I remember reading about it at the time.

The psychologist had just published her first book, so she had no benchmarks of what’s a good number of sales, or the number of people in the room she read who bought her book afterward. It’s a truism that published writers are on a continuum of part-timers, full-timers, best-sellers with six figure advances and those happy to get — as one told me — $10,000 for her manuscript. With two books (so far), under my belt, I’m a grizzled veteran to some newbies, but nowhere near (sigh) a best-seller.

The festival was beautifully organized, using a variety of venues, from a gorgeous, enormous Baptist church to a conference center. I heard Isabel Wilkerson (who used to work with my husband at The New York Times) speak about her award-winning, best-seller “The Warmth of Other Suns”, about the great migration of African Americans to the North.

It made me want to cry to see every single seat — thousands of people — filled. She’s a terrific speaker and many gave her a standing ovation.

I went to join the line to buy her book, which sold out within minutes. After 90 minutes in stunning heat, I finally had the chance to simply say hello and congratulate her.

I did my event this afternoon at 2:30, nervous that no one would come. But they did! It was held in a small auditorium and I’d say a good 75 to 80 people were there. They asked great questions, laughed when I hoped they would and lined up to buy books afterward. The bookseller sold out!

I fly home to New York tomorrow morning grateful, inspired, refreshed.

Have you ever attended a book festival?

Did you enjoy it?

Sobbing upon departure — when place sears our soul

In behavior, cities, History, life, nature, travel, urban life, women, world on September 1, 2012 at 2:13 am

This weekend I’m visiting Decatur, Georgia, speaking Sept. 2 at the literary festival about my new retail memoir, “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail.” If you’re in the area, come on by!

I don’t expect to find it hard to leave, but you never know.

There are, I’ve discovered a few times, places in the world that sear your soul, where you unexpectedly feel so at home you can’t bear to leave, plotting your return even as you reluctantly pack your bags.

I rarely cry, especially not in public. But three places, (so far), left me in tears of regret and longing as departed: Corsica, northern Thailand and Ireland.

Corsica

I had one week between the end of one job and the start of another. I was single and craved something absolutely amazing.

I love France and speak French and friends had raved to me for many years about this island, known for its rugged interior — and fierce desire to separate from France.

Corse-bastia-port2

Corse-bastia-port2 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I flew from New York to Nice, Nice to Bastia and rented a mo-ped at the port, while the hotel owner in Bastia helped me plot out a five-day circle tour of La Balagne, all in the north. It still remains one of the best holidays of my entire life, (and I’ve been to 37 countries, so far.)

Imagine buzzing along empty, winding country roads in brilliant sunshine, with the maquis, the island’s thick scrubby undergrowth filled with herbs, sending its rich, delicious sun-warmed fragrance into your nostrils. Meander down a series of hairpin turns to a hotel at the ocean’s edge, so close you’ll hear the surf from your bedroom window. It’s a lovely old house from the 1850s or so. You eat dinner, alone, on the terrace at dusk.

One day it poured so heavily I couldn’t wear my glasses, (which I really do need for driving), nor did my helmet have a visor. I got a black trash bag from a restaurant to cover me, and kept on going, whizzing past 1,000-foot drop-offs into the sea. People invited me into their homes for a meal. I chatted with a handsome young mason in a bar, who gave me several CDs, still some of my favorite music ever, the polyphonal a capella group I Muvrini.

The landscape is wild, untamed, primal, timeless. When my plane took off for Nice, I cried so hard the flight attendant came to comfort me and ask what was wrong. I couldn’t even speak for grief, watching the island disappear into the clouds.

I’d found, as I did in every place that has seared my soul so deeply: beauty, peace, scent, kindness, history, adventure.

Here’s the story I wrote about it for The Wall Street Journal.

Northern Thailand

I visited in January 1994 with my husband, our new marriage already in tatters and soon to blow apart.

We’d visited Bangkok and Chang Mai, both standard tourist destinations, and decided, spur of the moment, to fly further north to Mae Hong Son, which one guidebook called the most beautiful town in Thailand. I’ve only seen one other airport — in Bastia — so rural and tiny that sheep grazed a few meters from the runways. As we walked (!) into town, the only sound was that of bells from the temple across the unpaved street.

English: Mae Hong Son, a capital of the Mae Ho...

English: Mae Hong Son, a capital of the Mae Hong Son Province, Thailand Русский: Город Мэхонгсон, административный центр одноимённой провинции (Таиланд) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Guesthouses, then $15 a night, ringed a lake. We rented mo-peds, (clearly, my favorite mode of transport), for a day-trip even further north to the Burmese border. Madness! The road, quite literally, was under construction, with huge machines grading the land, their quizzical drivers gazing down at us in pity and wonder.

We went with Roy, an Englishman we’d met at our guesthouse, who’d worked in developing countries delivering vaccines. When the road forked, with a sign we couldn’t read, what next? “Follow the power lines,” Roy said.

The road dust was a thick, silky red, so deep I put my feet out on both sides and used them as pontoons to steady the bike. As we pulled into town for lunch, men wearing extremely large rifles across their chest stared at us — we were now in the Golden Triangle, then the world’s largest suppliers of opium.

We ate lunch, then turned south in the golden late afternoon light, back down the insanely steep hills we’d so eagerly climbed. On one turn, (no guardrails), I got off the bike and had my husband walk it down, too terrified of flying off the road and over the treetops to my certain death. I’d already fallen and shattered the bike’s side mirror, giving me a tiny scar on the inside of my right wrist as a permanent souvenir of the day.

When our plane took off a few days later, having witnessed the town’s legendary three mists, I cried hard. I knew I wouldn’t be back any time soon. And I knew I’d never be there again with that man.

As in Corsica, I’d been transported by the emerald-green landscapes, silence, the kindness and wisdom of strangers. Another deliriously crazy, ill-advised, adrenaline-pumping adventure.

Ireland

I’ve since returned four times, but this was my first visit — in the days just before Christmas of 1985 — visiting a friend, a fellow journalist, in Dublin.

With a surname of Kelly, you’d think I’d identify heavily as Irish, but I don’t and never had. Like me, my father was born in Canada.

But, there, everywhere, were people who looked like me. Who loved to chat, and prized witty, intelligent conversation. Who liked a good glass of beer. Who valued the ability to burst into song.

I felt at home in a way that hit me hard, that I’d never felt in my native land or my home city, Toronto.

Stores and restaurants and passing delivery vans had my name on them!

As I filed into the small aircraft that flew me to Bristol to visit my mother, I found myself blinking back tears.

And every visit back to Ireland since then seems to touch a sort of sense memory, a “me” that maybe existed 100 or 1,000 years ago. Maybe I was Grainne, the 16th. century pirate queen!

Here’s a beautiful post, recently chosen for Freshly Pressed,by a female American professor about how living in Afghanistan at the age of 10 so deeply affected her.

Has this sort of geographic coup de foudre happened to you?

When and where?

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