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Posts Tagged ‘life’

Small town life — bucolic relief or isolating hell?

In behavior, cities, culture, domestic life, immigration, life, travel, urban life, US on September 16, 2014 at 12:18 am

By Caitlin Kelly

I love to visit them --- this one is in Florida -- but not sure I want to live there again

I love to visit them — this one, Appalachicola, is in Florida — but not sure I want to live there again

As a scarred survivor of 18 miserable months in a small New Hampshire town, this recent New York Times essay resonated with me:

In November 2012, I flew out to start work…We bought a house for maybe one-fifth of what we would have paid in San Francisco, less than what my parents paid for my childhood home in rural Pennsylvania.

We were betting on the fact that we wouldn’t be alone in fleeing the big city for a small town. Urban living has become unthinkably expensive for many middle-class creative types. A 2010 study from the Journal of Economic Geography found a trifecta of reasons some rural areas have grown instead of shrunk: the creative class, entrepreneurial activity and outdoor amenities. In 2012, a University of Minnesota research fellow called the influx of 30-to-40-somethings into rural Minnesota towns a “brain gain” — flipping the conventional wisdom on the exodus from the boonies to the big city.

Predictably enough, they end up abandoning what initially looked like a great choice.

I know another writer, fed up with the cost and craziness of New York City life, who fled north to the Catskills for silence, low rent and creative freedom. She lasted two years.

Another writer friend recently quit her job and traded a major American city for….the Catskills:

It’s remote. The other day I had to drive 45 minutes (one way) and pay $2.00 in tolls to get to my bank. So much is done online these days, it might not be that much of an issue, but it’s definitely an adjustment. I’m thinking I’ll have to coordinate trips into the larger towns to coincide with other errands.

It’s clean. I haven’t seen one piece of litter or trash — which is not to say I haven’t seen junk in people’s yards, but that’s different.

It smells good. The air is pure and fresh. On rainy, chilly days like today the air was filled with the scent of burning firewood and wet grass. The other day I walked by someone’s house and smelled the sweet buttery scent of an apple pie baking. I actually paused in front of the window and when the lady inside looked at me, I waved. “Smells delicious!”

It’s really dark at night. The other night I drove home after dark and needed my high beams the whole time. I try not to think of slasher movies when walking at night. Actually, I try not to walk at night.

It’s friendly. Some people are quicker to talk to me than others, but those who have were extremely friendly. People have given me their phone numbers, invited me to events and introduced me to other folks within minutes of meeting.

It’s intellectual and creative. I’ve received more bookstore and library recommendations in the past five days than I have in 19 years living in Los Angeles, and heard there are many other writers and artists up here.

It’s cheap. Not only are the prices of necessities and services lower, but there are fewer opportunities to spend money. I’m not eating out, going to the movies, walking by stores or cafes. I literally haven’t reached for my wallet to buy anything in three days.

I had that fantasy too.

In January 1988, I followed an American man I met in Montreal, where he was finishing medical school and I was a newspaper reporter, and moved to Hanover, New Hampshire, a small town two hours north of Boston best known for Dartmouth College, one of the most elite and costly universities in the nation. I worked there for three months on a visa, then moved permanently, expecting to stay there for the next three years while he finished his medical residency.

Yes, please!

Yes, please!

I barely lasted another year.

Summer was heaven: sailing, hiking, canoeing, soaking up the beauty and silence of the Upper Valley. Fall, with the leaves turning color and the smell of woodsmoke in the air, was glorious.

By January, though, I was ready to shoot myself: completely bored, lonely, broke and isolated. Unlike virtually everyone around us, I didn’t have a job and wasn’t married, pregnant or already a mother. I didn’t jog nor have the slightest desire to do so.

We had a great apartment, the main floor of a big old house in Lebanon, NH. I loved our large kitchen with its deep wooden flour bin and 1950s stove. It was a beautiful part of the country, and I loved exploring its backroads and rivers. Every Friday I took a folding chair at a local auction house and got a great education in antiques.

But my boyfriend, (later husband), was gone most of the time working and when home was exhausted and withdrawn. We struggled to live decently on his $22,000/year salary and my meager savings. Oddly, for being in the country surrounded by open land, there was nowhere to go for a walk, because all that land was privately owned.

I hate to admit it, but I also had no idea how to connect with anyone there; my primary identity, then as now, was my work. Not there.

And rural economies, I quickly learned — having only lived in large cities like London, Paris, Toronto and Montreal — were two-tier: you were lucky enough to find a decent, solid job (teacher, nurse, government) or toiled for pennies in a low-wage position.

In utter desperation, I once called a maple syrup farm that had advertised for workers, but was dismissed out of hand for having no prior experience.

(Here’s a sobering piece about rural homelessness in Missouri.)

Our phone rang all the time, each time a wrong number, and each time with the same request: “I need a new windshield”; ours was the former number for Upper Valley Glass. No matter how many times I entertained his co-workers, almost no one ever reciprocated. Without a job or friends, life was grim and lonely. There was no internet then, no Skype.

We moved to a suburb of New York City in June 1989, to a Hudson river town, and I’m — very happily! — still here. I know the people who run our coffee shop and gourmet store and hardware store. I’m at our YMCA a few days every week so have friends there as well. Even though it’s officially a village, it never feels claustrophobic.

On our main street, a terrific concert hall

On our main street, a terrific concert hall

I’m not sure I’d ever live in a rural small town again. I can see Manhattan’s mid-town towers from my street and be walking among them within an hour. I know how badly I need that balance.

How about you?

Do you live in — and love — a small town?

Have you tried it and abandoned it?

Cleaning house can be fun?

In antiques, beauty, behavior, domestic life, family, life on August 22, 2014 at 5:17 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

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OK, I admit it….

I don’t carry the burdens/pleasures of: 1) a huge house; 2) children; 3) pets; 4) slobby, gross room-mates.

I do have: 1) a small apartment; 2) a very tidy husband; 3) a work-at-home job.

So cleaning our home is much simpler and easier for me than those of you with dogs and cats that shed fur and/or with multiple children dropping/breaking/smushing things into your walls, furniture and flooring.

When you’re home the majority of the time (instead of fleeing to a tidy, clean office or other place of work), you tend to notice every dust bunny and mirror smudge. All of which is great for procrastination! Ooooh, time to polish the silver…

But I actually enjoy housework and usually do 15-30 minutes of it every day so I don’t end up feeling overwhelmed on weekends. My husband (who enjoys it!) does all the laundry and I do (which I enjoy) all the ironing.

Because my husband loses two hours every day commuting to his job, I’m OK doing most of the housework.

And, after we invested some very hard-earned money into two recent renovations, (our only bathroom and our galley kitchen), I also feel a much deeper pride of ownership and enjoyment than when we had a nasty old chipped Formica counter and a yucky and unreliable wall oven from the 1960s.

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Why, you wonder, could I possibly enjoy housework?

— It’s our home. I like it to be clean, tidy, polished, welcoming. By nurturing our environment, I nurture myself and my husband

— If you own a few good things (and it’s great when you can afford to invest in one or two), take care of them! That means dusting, polishing, waxing

— It is a way to break up my day, get off the damn computer and get a bit of physical exercise

— It helps me take inventory of what is soon to break and needs repair or replacement

— I really notice what’s working well and what is not (i.e. use of closets and storage space) and move things around so they do

— I appreciate my objects and items more when they look their best and I know I am not damaging them through carelessness or neglect (yes, coasters!)

— It helps me see what a lovely home all our hard work and creativity have given us. Your home is not just a place to gobble some food in front of the computer or television, to crash and burn. It’s where we recharge mentally, spiritually, physically and emotionally.

Here, from my favorite design blog, Apartment Therapy, some tips on how to clean your home better/more easily.

Do you enjoy it?

Or is it overwhelming and endless drudgery?

What was your life-changing moment?

In aging, behavior, Crime, culture, domestic life, education, family, life, love, travel on June 20, 2014 at 12:08 am

By Caitlin Kelly

She was wandering the shoe department at Bloomingdale’s, the one at 59th and Third in Manhattan. On a hot, humid day, her pale arms were fully bare, shoulder to fingertips.

But something terrible had happened to her, and to them; they were covered with deep, wide scars, dozens of them up and down each arm. Had she flown through a windshield? Been pushed into a window?

Whatever had happened to her surely divided the moments before and the moments afterward into two very different lives.

We all have them.

Sometimes joyful — a scholarship, a career-making award, a fellowship, a new baby, a wedding.

 

Sept. 18, 2011. Jose and I tie the knot!

Sept. 18, 2011. Jose and I tie the knot!

Sometimes devastating — an awful medical diagnosis, the onset of a chronic illness, an accident and subsequent injury, a divorce, the death of a child or loved one, getting fired or long-term un(der)employment.

It might not be, and probably isn’t, just one moment, but the epiphany that results is often very powerful and, like a river suddenly silted after a landslide, can radically alter a previously set course.

For my husband, Jose, then a White House Press Corps photographer for The New York Times, it was the 1995 assignment — which he volunteered for — to cover the end of the Bosnian war, over Christmas, a job that would prove to be frightening, dangerous, bitterly cold and mean spending six weeks, often alone, in utterly foreign surroundings with very little to eat in rough living conditions.

The first few times I asked him to describe it, he teared up. This is a man of ferocious sangfroid, so a lot had happened there and it changed him forever; he came back and soon afterward became a devout student of Tibetan Buddhism.

Three moments stand out for me:

1) At 25, I won a fellowship to live in Paris for eight months in a group of 28 foreign journalists from 19 countries, ages 25 to 35, and travel alone and in the group, all across Europe, from Denmark to Italy to Istanbul. I was bored with my quiet, calm life in Toronto with all the boxes ticked: boyfriend, dog, friends, work, family. I craved a major kick in the ass, both personally and professionally. That it was!

But I was also terrified to leave, knowing that it would forever change me. I’m still friends with people in Ireland and England and the U.S. and France I met that year, and have since traveled widely for work using my language and reporting skills polished there.

It showed me that the world beyond my city and country is filled with smart, passionate, kind people. By doing hard work, alone, I learned how fully capable I really was.

2) At 41, I was lonely, broke, struggling mightily, and nursing the sounds of an abrupt and unwanted divorce and two break-ups since then. Into my life came a smart, caring, witty man who seemed to want to help me.

But then he didn’t — the day the phone rang and a credit card company informed me that he had opened my mail, stolen my new credit card, activated it from my home phone, forged my signature multiple times and run up all sorts of charges on it. When I called him to ask if he had done it, his three words — said many times in his career as a convicted con man: “It’s not provable.” Nor was it, despite evidence of six felonies. The police and district attorney scoffed at my request to act: to arrest, charge and prosecute him. They refused.

I learned to be much less trusting and know that “authorities” in charge of protecting us from crime may legally choose not to. It was my job, and my job alone, to be much smart(er) about my romantic choices and to stay safe.

Landing in Bilwi with Jen. The start of a great adventure!

Landing in Bilwi with Jen. The start of a great adventure!

3) The third came recently, after an intense eight-day reporting trip to rural Nicaragua for WaterAid, in the poorest part of the second-poorest nation in the Americas. There were many emotionally powerful moments, from Marly, 5, who let me braid her hair, to 69-year-old Ailita, who used her machete to carve a bamboo stem into a canoe seats for us. Jen and I spent a morning trailing two women in their world, one completely alien to ours, (no electricity, no running water, sixth-grade educations, no shared tongue) — walking through the rain forest, crossing the river in their dugout canoe, watching them gather cucumbers and beans and squash from the vine so that we could best describe their lives and their need for water. They were kind and welcoming to us, even though we had never met.

It reminded me again that potential connection, mediated by empathy, kindness and curiosity ignores many visible boundaries.

What was one of your moments?

How has it altered your course since then?

 

 

 

Twenty more things that make me happy: lilacs, tea and B’way tix

In beauty, culture, design, domestic life, life, nature on June 1, 2014 at 12:48 am

By Caitlin Kelly

(all photos mine)

 

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Lilacs in bloom

Looking at gorgeous (affordable!) fabric and planning projects; available for sale here.

 

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Starting Saturday mornings with reggae on WKCR, the radio station of Columbia University

Doing developpes to B.B. King live at St. Quentin my Monday morning jazz dance class

Scoring a $41 fifth-row orchestra seat for “Once”, a Broadway musical nominated for eight Tony awards (value $100+)

You can attend a mid-week matinee!

You can attend a mid-week matinee!

The tree-shaded path beside the reservoir, a five-minute drive from our home in suburban New York

This delicious macaron — named Ispahan, rose-flavored! — at Bosie’s Tea Parlor in the West Village

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Manhattan’s many subway buskers, like this literal one-man-band playing in the 42d Street station

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My Moomin mug (anything Moomin!)

 

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The visible history found in Manhattan, like this cast-iron building on Prince Street in Soho

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Found art, like the graphic design of this weathered metal piece also on  Prince Street

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Driving on the FDR — the highway on the East River of Manhattan — with tugs, barges and FDNY fireboats spouting fountains beside me

A steaming pot of fragrant tea, sipped slowly from a bone china tea cup

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A Bloody Mary and the cheese and Ritz crackers at Sardi’s sitting at the bar with my husband on a Sunday afternoon

Ritz crackers and their tart cheese spread

Ritz crackers and their tart cheese spread

Making a great Sunday lunch for dear friends

Finding bits of eccentricity where you least expect them, like this tableau in a Soho clothing store

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The comfort of small, well-loved portable pals

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Patina…on just about any surface

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Early stained glass — this, from a Philadelphia church

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Heading north/home to Canada — family, friends and vacation. Yay!

Do you speak Canadian?

Do you speak Canadian?

 And you, my dears?

Decision, indecision (and consequences)

In aging, behavior, business, domestic life, journalism, life, work on May 3, 2014 at 12:25 am

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By Caitlin Kelly

 

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
 — Robert Frost

Two young friends of ours — both in their early 20s, both talented, ambitious photojournalists — have faced major life and career decisions this week.

The safer path or the one that, literally, is more dangerous physically and emotionally? (Of course that’s the one that will propel him further professionally.)

The more fun, adventurous one — or the one that is more difficult and annoying in some ways, but offers a chance for her to polish needed skills and solidify useful connections?

Jose and I are fortunate to be among the older people they have turned to for advice, fielding their urgent texts, calls and emails as our younger colleagues grapple with which path to choose.

We have given them both our ears, and whatever wisdom we’ve accumulated in our combined 60 years working in news journalism. We don’t have children of our own, so it’s a real honor to be asked for our advice and input. I’m really fond of both these people and wish them only the very best, in their work and in their private lives.

One of the many issues that ambitious young journo’s grapple with is that the best stories, and opportunities, may exist in a city or country that places you at serious risk of injury, even death. Or one that’s a five or 10 or 15-hour flight away from your parents and best friend, let alone your boyfriend.

Jobs are hard to get, hard to keep and even harder to figure out what happens after that…

It’s also difficult for bright, ambitious women to juggle their admirable and ferocious desire to achieve professional success — which likely demands long hours and the ability to deny other emotional needs (see: a boyfriend or girlfriend) — with the very human wish for someone to hug you and hand you a stiff drink at the end of a harrowing day or week.

So, we gave them our best advice, and are crossing our fingers that it will work out well for both of them, whichever path they choose.

But, we all know…

There are no guarantees.

There is no job security.

No one has the right answer.

I’ve made a few momentous choices along the way — leaving behind a live-in boyfriend/dog/career/apartment for an eight-month Paris fellowship; leaving my native Canada to follow a man I loved to rural New Hampshire; arriving in New York City with no job, contacts or American education or work experience, just in time for a recession.

But things worked out — eventually. The fellowship was the best year of my life; I married the man and he walked out after two years of marriage but I now have a much nicer second husband; I’ve since survived two more recessions, but have achieved most of my career goals anyway. It just took longer than I’d hoped or expected.

I think the single most essential tool in your toolkit today is flexibility. If you must only live in one city or work at one company or use one set of skills, you’re toast. If you’re willing and able to pivot, decisions aren’t quite so dire.

Also, low overhead! When you’re crushed by mountains of debt — whether student loans, credit card bills or a huge mortgage — you’ve lost your flexibility.

Here’s one of my favorite songs ever, Father and Son, by Cat Stevens, about making life choices.

And this one, another oldie, by Harry Chapin, Cat’s in the Cradle, about a man now deeply regretting his.

What’s the biggest decision you’ve made?

(Or avoided?)

How did it turn out?

Speaking of decisions — please decide to sign up for one of my blogging, interviewing, essay-writing, freelancing, idea-developing or thinking like a reporter webinars.

Details and testimonials are here: We work via Skype, May 10 and May 17.

Twenty more things that make me happy

In beauty, culture, domestic life, entertainment, life on April 20, 2014 at 12:08 am

By Caitlin Kelly

Last-minute $20 fifth-row tickets to one of my favorite bands ever, Johnny Clegg

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Seat-dancing like a fiend to his music and singing at the top of my lungs to old favorites like “Scatterlings of Africa”; he’s on tour in North America right now. Go!

Coming home after the concert to a midnight supper of soup and sandwiches

Treating myself to a beautiful DVF skirt on sale

The fresh-earth smell of spring

 

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Forsythia in every vase in every room

Re-finding a very good pair of earrings I’d thought I’d lost years ago

The magnolia tree that blossoms — so briefly! — and smells so delicious on our building’s property

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Listening to Yann Tiersen’s haunting, lovely music for La Valse des Monstres

After a long, cold, bitter, icy winter, finally walking along the reservoir with warm sunshine on my shoulders

Pretty new curtains — shower curtains re-purposed! — for a grand total of $50

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Finding a very good new-to-me Manhattan restaurant whose desserts are $6 — not the usual $10-12

Receiving an email this week — three years after the publication of my last book, “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail” — which began with the words: “It was a great book. I was captivated from the start, interested in your fellow employees and appreciated the research and insight you provided.” It’s so satisfying to keep finding appreciative readers.

My husband’s surprise gift to me — deep purple suede loafers with bright orange soles

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An out-of-the-blue email apologizing for a decades-old shattered friendship from someone I miss

A hand-written thank-you note from a client

Two offers of paid work in one day, both arriving unsolicited

This amazing goat cheese, super-creamy.

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The medicinal smell, translucent brown and lush lather of Pears soap, a brand founded in 1807

Daffodils! Everywhere!

Plus:

A stack of unread library books: (I watch GOT on HBO and follow fellow Canadian and very cool astronaut Chris Hadfield on Twitter)

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What’s making you smile recently?

 

A week working in Nicaragua: Lessons learned

In behavior, culture, domestic life, journalism, life, travel, women, work, world on March 25, 2014 at 12:03 am

By Caitlin Kelly

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Have you ever been to a place with no electricity — or refrigeration or candles or kerosene lanterns?

No running water?

No postal service?

A place where ham radio or a transistor radio are the one reliable link to the rest of the world?

A place where the bus comes past twice a day, and a trip in it to the capital takes 24 hours — a 90-minute prop plane 12-seater flight?

We spent one night in Ayhua Tara, a village of 10 families in a part of the country called RAAN; an autonomous region of isolated villages near the northern border with Honduras. To get there meant traveling a washboard road of red dust so thick I wore a kerchief every day to keep my hair clean. (It worked, sort of.) The road was in the best shape it had been for a few years, freshly graded with gravel, but still had multiple dips probably several feet deep for most of our journey, slowing us and jolting us all.

We rode in a small van: a team of five people and all our backpacks and video and camera equipment and lots of cold water.

The families we visited live on land granted to them as members of the Miskitu people. They live in wooden houses high atop stilts, their animals snoozing beneath and around them in the shade — a muddy piglet, a snoozing dog, a hen and and her tiny chicks, a goat or two.

We were welcomed as family. We brought our own food, which they cooked in the dark — with one small boy holding up a flashlight as they cooked on their small clay woodstove, waist-high at the back of the large kitchen.

A few moments:

We met new animals, like the coatimundi chained up at a Bilwi restaurant where we ate lunch one day. Or the turkey at Linda’s house who followed us everywhere, desperately showing off his fluffed-up feathers. And the pavon, an endangered species of bird  — with a brilliant lemon-yellow beak and what looks like a very bad black perm — that perched on the wall over the stove while Linda was cooking.

The pavon.

The pavon.

When traveling in hot/dusty places bring plenty of clean cotton bandanas: use as a napkin, towel, mouth-covering, (useful when we visited a live volcano in Managua and the foul steam started to hurt out throats), neck gaiter, blindfold, pillow cover, carry-sack, head covering, neck covering (soaked in cold water as often as possible) — and a bit of style!

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Lifesavers are the best! My bag of mint Lifesaver candies were the hit of the week when we were all feeling weary/hungry/thirsty/tired — offering a portable bit of sweet, saliva-producing relief.

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Kindness and generosity know no language. We stayed in a home where no one spoke much Spanish, only Miskitu. We worked through an interpreter, but their welcome to a bunch of strangers was warm and touching. We walked through the forest one morning with Linda, her mother-in-law and grand-daughter.

Jennifer was handed tiny orchids and some beans by Exelia, the little girl, while Ailita, 69, wearing rubber boots and a torn, repaired man’s shirt, gestured to me to wipe down my bare legs and arms in case I’d brushed against something noxious.

Water is heavy. Many people here carry buckets of it back and forth every day, multiple times, from a well or river. When you see a tiny child of four or five, (their growth stunted by chronic malnutrition, so they might well be seven or eight), with a filled plastic bucket in his head or in her arms, straining, you’ll never leave a tap running again.

Accessing water takes time and physical energy that might be better used for earning income or being with your family. When you need water in a place like this for any purpose, and you need to get it from a well, that means six cranks of the wheel to get enough to fill a small-ish cup. I watched a youngl girl straining just to reach and turn the wheel; I’m a strong adult and it still took energy — in 98 degree heat, direct sun and humidity.

Then you have to fill an entire bucket, if only for your own use. Now add the needs for cooking, bathing and cleaning clothes for a family of six or more who work in muddy fields and hot sun all day.

Traveling pleasantly and efficiently for a week in a multi-cultural, multi-lingual, multi-national team — two Americans, two Canadians, a Mexican and three Nicaraguans, (driver, interpreter and community contact), means being flexible, calm, gentle and fun to be around. I had met Alanna, the communications director, in New York but none of us had met before or worked together until we raced off together on our very first day.

Our team! Jennifer Barbour; blogger; Alanna Imbach; media director; me; Rodrigo Cruz, photographer

Our team! Jennifer Barbour; blogger; Alanna Imbach; media director; me; Rodrigo Cruz, photographer

I was happily surprised to see how quickly and easily we fell into a rhythm, sharing water, sunscreen, Lifesavers, nuts. Maybe because we’re all professionals. Maybe because we’d all traveled, and worked, in fairly tough conditions before. Even pushing the dust-encrusted van to get it started every time wasn’t a big deal as long as we were still laughing about it. I heard no whining, despite hot, 10+ hour workdays starting at 8:00 a.m. or earlier.

Focus is energizing. We never touched, or needed to touch, money: our week was sleep, work, eat, repeat. We wasted no time on shopping, laundry or cooking. If we wanted to Skype with our loved ones, we did so at 6:00 a.m., since they were all two hours ahead in time zone.

Passion is galvanizing. Journalism is a desperate business these days, rife with insecurity and peacocking, whining and competitiveness. To spend a week with a team of smart, warm people passionate about social justice, and wise in its folkways, was deeply inspiring to me.

Pre-industrial life has a rhythm we rarely, if ever, live. When it is dark by 6:15 and there is no light beyond a headlamp or flashlight, and your day has been hot and physically demanding, you go to sleep early because you’ll rise before, or with the sun. The soothing chatter of the transistor radio hung on a nail, or the indignant gobbling of a turkey are the sounds lulling you to sleep.

When you walk through the field to weed your crops, why wear a watch? The work itself will tell you when you are finished.

I read Facebook and Twitter, posting when we had Internet access — freshly struck by how many of our “conversations” are purely trivial. That was instructive.

There is beauty in simplicity. I will not romanticize poverty. But I appreciated the smooth, wide wooden boards of Linda’s scrubbed, swept hardwood floor beneath my feet, the children’s tiny stuffed animals hung from nails (no shelves), a bright yellow flower growing in a blue plastic tub, the region’s purple, turquoise, emerald green and mustard yellow painted houses.

In a poor country, concrete and glass are luxury materials. In a week of travel through several RAAN villages and Bilwi, I saw perhaps six houses with glazed windows and few homes made of concrete, let alone two-story ones. Ironically, the most pristine, spotless, freshly-painted building I saw anywhere — new red metal roof, fresh banana yellow walls — was a large church.

Our host, Linda Felix, paddling her canoe

Our host, Linda Felix, paddling her canoe

We all work. We all struggle. Watching Linda and Ailita head off to work in a dugout canoe, whacking their way through the fields with a machete, claiming the hard-won prizes of enormous white squash and sun-warmed cucumber, felt familiar, even though all of it was new to me.

Work is work.

Fear of economic loss — while theirs is truly dire, and means not even lighting a cooking fire in the worst months because there is no food to prepare — is not unique to the beleaguered American or European middle class.

The Mexican freelance photographer with us told me he’s waited up to five months to see his invoices processed. That, too, was familiar.

I spoke for an hour, in Spanish, to a woman whose 25 year old sister stopped speaking for 18 months. She sold two cows and went to a curandero, a traditional healer, whose ministrations didn’t help. Then they went to a psychologist in Bilwi, then to a psychiatrist in Managua; health care is free, but the cost of distant travel hammered their ever-fragile finances.

“If you want to eat,” she finally said, “you have to work.”

Managing your emotions — and the roller-coaster of beauty/squalor — is…interesting. It was a week of truly dire poverty, with many people living on $1/day with six or eight children in a one-room wooden shack with a rusted, patched corrugated tin roof or walls; Haiti is the only nation in this part of the world poorer than Nicaragua.

You want to cry, but you don’t. It will all be there the next day as well and you’re there to observe and interview, not indulge your feelings and reactions.

Then you stare into the deepest, darkest silent sky-full of stars and want to weep at its beauty, lost once you return to the town filled with light and noise.

A shy, tiny girl hands you an orchid as you tramp through a field of pumpkins with her. Another little girl lets you comb her hair into a ponytail.

You crawl into a narrow, muddy, tippy dugout canoe and pray you don’t tip out into the river.

You sleep under a mosquito net and hope it works; malaria is no joke and the region you’re in is the country’s worst for it.

Fear, joy, awe, anxiety, exhaustion, guilt, inspiration, confusion.

Yes to all of these, and more.

Trust is key. Trust that the van will start. That the water won’t make you sick. That those weird itchy bites on your ankles are nothing, really. That the food is safe to eat. That the very small plane won’t crash.

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That your outraged bowels will calm down soon. That all those long, hot tiring days filling our hearts and heads and notebooks and cameras have gathered valuable useful insights.

That your team is as smart, funny and professional as they appeared to be. That you won’t want to tear each others’ throats out after a super-intense week. (We didn’t, nor did we want to.)

Have you been to a place that changed how you see your world?

Tell us….

The writer’s week: vaccinations, revisions, vacation!

In blogging, books, business, culture, journalism, work on February 22, 2014 at 12:31 am

By Caitlin Kelly

For those of you new to Broadside — welcome! — this is an occasional look into my work week as a full-time freelance writer, which I’ve been doing since 2007.

Warts and all!

Sunday

Headed to church. We hadn’t been in ages, with mixed feelings. I attend maybe every four to six weeks, enough to feel connected but not claustrophobic. I’ve been attending this small Episcopal church since 1998, so have some friendships of long standing and some powerful emotional connections there.

Jose and I carried the Communion elements — wine and wafers — up the red-carpeted aisle to the altar, the chilled, polished gleaming silver of the ewer and bowl cool in our hands.

A friend has sent me her memoir, which arrived in a box from L.A. I’m eager to read it. One of the things I enjoy about writing is the community it creates, globally. I’ve had “first readers” help me out by reading the final manuscripts of my books and have done it, happily, for others. We all need fresh eyes and honest feedback.

Last week I also founded, (by accident, by mentioning the idea on-line to a listserv I belong to), a new writers’ group that promptly swelled to 34 people, from India to Austin, Texas, to talk about the craft of writing. So many of us work alone, with little to no guidance from our busy editors, and have no place to discuss the skills it takes to create excellent non-fiction work. I’m curious to see where we take it.

BUSINESS OF FREELANCING

Monday

In the U.S., it’s a holiday — Presidents’ Day. Even after 25 years of living here, I always forget American holidays! Embarrassing. For me, it’s work as usual.  Working freelance often means feeling out of step with people whose days off are dictated by their bosses. I take time off when I can and often prefer to keep working on a holiday; Jose is working today, earning overtime pay. (Yay!)

I file a story to The New York Times, with two more cued up for March. As we accumulate our 1099s, (freelance income statements sent to the IRS) for tax time, I see how reliant I’ve become on them as a client — 50 percent of last year’s income. Unwise. I lost an amazing market there when my most appreciative editor got promoted. His replacement hates every pitch I’ve sent. But people there are always moving about, so every few months a new opportunity arises.

I read my friend’s memoir in two huge gulps, all 311 pages of it. I sent her long emails with my feedback, and wrote editing notes on some of the pages.

Tuesday

I saw two job ads last week that made think “Ooooooh.,” one in London and the other in New York City, both for major organizations. After seven years alone at home, endlessly chasing income, it would be pleasant to just have a paycheck, and a large one, for a while.

But I’m spoiled by the variety of skills I use in my work now. The minute you take a job in someone else’s office, it’s their agenda, ethics and principles. Aaaah, the price of independence. The one place that looks appealing is the revived Washington Post, recently bought by Amazon chief Jeff Bezos, and on a hiring spree. Can we afford a commuter marriage?

I call my doctor to arrange vaccinations — for Nicaragua! I’ve never been there and am going in mid-March, as part of a team, to do some reporting and writing for a non-profit aid group. I also need to find and order a mosquito net, powerful bug repellent and loose, long trousers.

Plus rehydration salts and additional health insurance that will (!), if needed, re-patriate my “mortal remains.”

The opportunity came about as so many do for me, by taking a chance. I suggested having a panel of freelancers discuss how to pitch us most effectively to a group that works with public relations agencies worldwide; 75 PR people got on the call last summer. One of them was the woman who has hired me for this project.

This sort of sales cycle — six to eight months — isn’t  that unusual for me. It’s one reason I pitch almost every day, either to people I’ve worked with for years, or those I hope to. As long as enough work comes in every year, and I meet my income goals, or exceed them, it works out.

This life requires patience, persistence and faith.

Wednesday

I filed a profile last summer for Cosmopolitan and a new editor sends over her questions to answer. I re-interview the subject, who lives in Arizona, and gather a lot more detail, hoping it will be enough.

I go to the post office where I run into our accountant and, after chatting with him, get a great story idea. I buy a new phone — my first upgrade in about four years — and one of the store associates’ ex-girlfriend’s parents would be a perfect source for my new idea.

I pitch it to Quartz.com, (my third sale to them) and they’re in. Cool. Idea to sale — about 30 minutes.

I beg one of my editors for more time to work on a New York Times piece that came back with a lot of questions; when I get back from our week off, I have three revisions and a story to complete before I leave again 12 days later. Oh, and pitching…

I’m offered a last-minute assignment by a regional publication but the negotiations bog down. Just as well. The magazine pays 30 days after publication. Grotesque terms.

I spend an hour on the phone with my friend, in addition to making notes on her manuscript and sending two long emails with advice and suggestions for it. I think there’s a powerful story there, and writing memoir is damn hard.

FINGERS ON KEYBOARD

Thursday

I scan my passport for the Nicaragua client and review their revised contract for the work.

Hair appointment in the city — then a new headshot taken by my favorite (free!) portrait photographer, my husband Jose. (Check it out on my welcome and about pages here.)

Dinner out with a couple of married friends, one of whom works with Jose, the other a retired journalist now doing French translation work for the United Nations. The couple met in Tokyo and worked in France and Turkey. We take this sort of globe-trotting for granted among our journo friends, and it gives us a great network. As soon as Nicaragua became a real assignment, I emailed a friend in Colorado who has written several guidebooks to that country for his advice.

This is what we do.

This is what we do.

Friday

Submitted my headshot, bio and class description for next fall’s  blogging class — I’ve been hired to teach two classes at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. I’m relieved to have income lined up, excited to be teaching at college again after a 15 year hiatus, nervous about facing freshman.

Vacation!

We’re spending five days on an island two hours’ drive from Tallahassee, the capital of Florida at a house my father has rented there. No plans but sleep, read, take photos, draw, relax.

Jose and I have never, in 14 years, taken a warm mid-winter break. But this interminable winter, which has pounded the Northeastern U.S. with endless snowstorms and bitter cold, is really tedious. It will be wonderful to not wear boots and a down jacket and hat and mitts for even a few days.

Can’t wait to read for pleasure! Two of the books I’m packing are the new biography of Leonard Cohen, the Canadian folksinger, and the second volume of African memoirs by Alexandra Fuller, “Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness.”

The milestone-free life

In aging, behavior, children, culture, domestic life, family, life, love, women on February 16, 2014 at 1:26 am

By Caitlin Kelly

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“There’s a thin line between pleasing yourself and pleasing somebody else”– Indigo Girls

Here’s a great post from blogger Infinite Satori. Her thoughts on milestones — and ignoring them:

Get married in your mid 20s, buy a house in your late 20s, have a baby in your late 20s and early 30s, and the timeline moves along. That’s what they say right? The reality is you don’t have to get married, you don’t even have to have a baby if you truly don’t want to. Before I explain this any further, please know that I am not against any of these. Because I would love to have at least one child one day and if I, one day, decide that marriage is for me it would be because I found the right one who I connect with in all levels. Spiritually, emotionally, physically, mentally, everything. And more importantly, that it feels right to me. To my heart. To my soul. My point is, it’s very important to listen to what you inner voice is telling you. And if it’s telling you that kids aren’t for you, that marriage isn’t for you, listen to it.

You are probably meant for a different path in life, one that stays true to your purpose here on this planet. Don’t get married because your parents want you to, or because you’re in a long-term relationship and you might as well tie the knot, or have a baby because you’re a woman and that’s what you’re suppose to do, or because you’ve hit that “milestone” and you feel like you need to, or because you need a man to make you happy, or because your peers are all getting married and you don’t want to be left out. You don’t have to hit these societal milestones and timelines and you sure don’t have to plan your life around it most especially if you don’t want to. Create your own life.

Hell, yeah!

Most the women my age are now grandmothers or great-grandmothers, owners of multiple homes, thrilled with their expanding, multi-generational families’ achievements, running a business or enjoying a big fat corporate salary and title. Or they never had to work, having “married well.”

Few of these women, as I have and continue to do, stare into the sky at passing airplanes and still wish I was on one — heading to…who knows where? Somewhere new, somewhere to be tested, to not speak the language, somewhere I need to carry and read a map.

I feel completely out of step with them.

My life never really followed a tidy, laid-out trajectory. I attended university, and graduated, (after much prodding. I love learning, but didn’t enjoy a huge school, University of Toronto, where undergrads just didn’t matter much.) I never wanted an advanced degree so that was the end of that — until I studied interior design in my mid-30s. But after my marriage blew up, I didn’t finish my certificate.

I’ve always pitied people who feel the wrath or contempt from their peers or family for not doing what everyone expects them to — instead of creating and following their own path.

My parents never pressured me to marry, (young or at any age), or have kids or “settle down” or buy property or “grow up.” Thank God.

They wanted me, still, to enjoy life and travel and do the very best work I’m capable of. To be useful and kind to others. My maternal grandmother was married a bunch of times and my father has four kids with four different women, so “normal” doesn’t fit our family too well.

I freelanced as a journalist right out of college, (instead of desperately seeking a full-time job; luckily I had no student debt and Canada’s healthcare system covers everyone, job or no job.) I won a fellowship to Europe for eight months when I was 25, and only took my first staff job after that, at 26. I left after 2.5 years and went to a Montreal newspaper, stayed 1.5 years and followed my first husband to New Hampshire.

I married him late, when I was 35 — and was (sadly but somewhat relievedly) divorced two years later. I was single for six years, then met the man I’ve been with ever since.

Neither of us had children nor a desire to have any.

But when you don’t have children, nor even nieces or nephews, (none that we are close to, now adults anyway), life becomes weirdly shapeless. Nor have we attended others peoples’ kids’ birthdays, christenings, bar and bat mitzvahs, weddings and baby showers. I would have loved to, but we were rarely included.

(We have, sadly, attended wakes and funerals for the parents and partners of friends, honored and proud to do so.)

This makes our lives a milestone-free cycle — work, sleep, play, repeat.

Bizarre, really, when you scan the greeting card section of the drugstore and see the endless iterations of affection and progress most people officially celebrate all through their lives.

Not having children also really forces you to consider and examine — pardon the grandiosity of the word — your legacy.

You haven’t passed along your genes, or your sofa, to anyone.

No one will cherish our carefully-curated stuff 30 or 50 years from now, at least no one related to us.

We’re still stymied making out our wills, deciding who (who?) to leave our eventual estates and assets to: church, charities, friends, almas mater…

Do you feel compelled to hit specific milestones?

What if you don’t?

It’s V-Day! 14 Years in, 14 reasons my marriage (whew!) still thrives

In aging, behavior, domestic life, family, life, love, women on February 14, 2014 at 12:41 am

By Caitlin Kelly

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The image is our wedding, in September, 2011, late afternoon, in a small wooden church on an island in Toronto’s harbor.

We met in March 2000, online, and after our first date at a lovely French bistro in midtown Manhattan, that was it.

We couldn’t really be more different. Jose — an American, the cherished only son of a small-town Baptist minister, loves routine, security and familiarity. I — Canadian, the oldest child of a film-maker father and journalist mother, globe-trotters both — live for adventure, new experiences and spontaneity.

But we’re still delighted to have found one another.

Here are 14 reasons why:

We laugh our asses off

People look at us on the commuter train, where everyone else is quietly reading the paper, or snoozing, or texting. What’s so funny? Anything, really.

We talk to one another, every day, a lot

His workday — as a photo editor for The New York Times — is crazy-hectic, with six scheduled meetings every single day. He juggles assignments for photographers, staff and freelance, literally across the world, and speaks to dozens of editors and reporters. Sometimes he’s even emailing at 3 a.m. to a guy in China or India. But we chat, even for a minute or two, several times every day. I want to hear his voice, share a triumph and connect. When we’re home, our computers are (mostly) off and we eat our dinner by candle-light and catch up. Studies have found that the average couple speaks very little during most days. I find that really sad.

We have very different interests

I’m a culture vulture, forever seeing museum and gallery shows, theater and dance, coming home from the library with a pile of books. He’s a devout Buddhist who meditates every morning and reads his texts. But we have enough overlap and mutual curiosity about one another’s interests.

We share a ferocious work ethic

God, that man works hard! So do I. As I write this, it’s another major blizzard here in New York and he’s working from home. We attach to our computers and phones and go. He’s seen my freelance workday up close, and knows how intense and focused it is. We are both career journalists who started selling our work to national outlets while we were college undergrads. We enjoy our work and know why it still matters, to us and to the larger world.

We have one another’s backs

He has verbally taken both of my parents to the woodshed when needed, hotly defending my needs and concerns when I just couldn’t seem to do it myself. I’ve done the same for him with neighbors or anyone, anywhere, who disrespects him. He is Hispanic and has been mistaken for a manual laborer, when wearing his casual clothes. The man has a Pulitzer prize. I tell people that. He tells them about my accomplishments. We are absolutely one another’s best advocates.

We both have spiritual lives, individual and shared

He is a devout Buddhist, who had an altar and prayer flags hanging in his Brooklyn apartment when we met. I’ve been attending a local Episcopal church since 1998. We’ve attended one another’s services and appreciate and respect our individual traditions and choices. I’ve seen, and been touched by, how connected he is to his guru, Lama Surya Das, now a friend of ours, and we’ve invited our church ministers home for dinner.

We treasure our friendships

I love his loyalty to friends. We keep our friends close, even when they live many miles distant.

We take care of one another

After my left hip replacement, in February 2012, Jose took three weeks’ vacation time to stay home and nurse me. He made an enormous list of all my pills and exercise schedule and stuck it on the wall. He cleaned my wound, all 12 staples of it. I make our home as clean and attractive as possible: candles, fresh flowers, pretty linens, a beautiful table for mealtimes. I make us delicious meals, when I can muster the energy. I even brush and polish his shoes, much to his embarrassment. It’s just care. It’s what a good marriage is about.

We’re not scared to have a (loud, scary) argument

This was a big step for us. We fought like crazy for years when we met: stubborn, mid-life, long divorced, battling for recognition and respect in a dying and difficult industry. It’s not easy to allow someone new into your life after you’ve already had a few decades of one. He also grew up in a family that never (visibly) argued. It’s almost all mine did. That was an adjustment.

When we do, we know it doesn’t mean the end

That was another big step. For a variety of reasons, I’m a little (OK, a lot) freaked out by possible abandonment. He never once stomped away in silence or shut me out for days or weeks, as some men might. While we were dating, we both left one another’s homes in fury but we also made up the next day, after we’d cooled down. Just because we fight sometimes doesn’t mean we don’t love one another deeply.

We save a lot of money for our (we hope!) shared future

I save 15 percent, which I hate. He saves 10 percent. I want a comfortable retirement. The only way toward that is saving a shitload of money.

We play together

We love to play games — golf, Scrabble, Bananagrams, gin rummy.

We both survived lousy first marriages and want this to be our last

Once you’ve tasted the bitter fruits of a nasty marriage and even nastier divorce, marriage can terrify you. It scars you and scares you. It’s expensive and miserable and confidence-shaking. Why even bother doing it again? My maternal grand-mother married six times — maybe eight — we lose track. My parents’ marriage busted up when I was seven and my mother never re-married or even lived with another man. You have to really want to be married and do the work it takes to stick around.

We know we have a lovely thing going, and tell one another this often

We both say thank-you a lot, and mean it. I never take him for granted. Life is too short to waste it being horrible to the person you have taken vows with.

How about you?

How’s your love life these days?

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