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Posts Tagged ‘life’

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?

The view from the plateau

In aging, behavior, domestic life, family, life on December 31, 2013 at 1:08 am

By Caitlin Kelly

As we head into 2014, the view from here is distinctly novel. Finally, after decades of struggle and toil — and thank heaven for some respite! — things are in pretty good shape.

It’s such an odd notion for me, to not have to struggle all the time. It’s felt like a default status.

When you’re as ambitious, driven and competitive as I am, there’s always some new mountain to scale, a new place I need to plant my flag.

I’ve written two well-reviewed works of non-fiction, which for many people is a terrific accomplishment, a mountaintop from which to enjoy the view. But being a New York-based writer means knowing people — some half my age — who have already produced six or ten books, or a TV series or a NYT best-seller or…

It’s difficult to just sit still and enjoy the view.

Time to try.

Evening view from Col de Perjuret on the south...

Evening view from Col de Perjuret on the south edge of the Causse Méjean plateau in the Cevennes, France. Panoram stitched from several shoots. —- (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Our apartment, after years of waiting, is finally renovated and an absolute joy to come home to; here’s my blog post, with photos, of the big reveal of our fall kitchen renovation this year.

My husband still has a good job he enjoys, with no imminent threat of losing it, a very real fear we faced in the winter of 2009 when his employer laid off many of its staff. I have a decent list of established clients who want to work with me, even as I still seek new ones almost daily.

We’re in good health and have savings. We have friends. My parents are still alive and fairly healthy. We have no kids or grandkids or nieces or nephews to worry about, (or to enjoy.)

For the moment, (she wrote, praying for more of the same), our lives contain no sweat or drama or conflict, all of which have simply felt normal to me for a long, long time. Operating in crisis mode, as many of you know, is exhausting and distracting:

Between 2000 and 2012, I had four orthopedic surgeries, the most recent being the replacement of my left hip. I waited 2.5 years for the surgery because I was scared of the operation and needed to find the income to allow me to fully rest and recover for a month; freelancers get no paid sick days.

Between 2002 and 2010, my mother, (whose only child I am, and who lives a six-hour flight away), faced multiple major surgeries and months-long hospital stays, first selling a large house and moving into a small apartment and, on a week’s notice in 2010, into a nursing home.

I moved to New York in 1989, to face the first of three recessions since then; the latest one, reaching its nadir between 2007 to 2009, was a terrifying time for us financially, as it still is for millions of Americans.

My step-mother was diagnosed with lung cancer in March 2006 and was dead within 18 months, dying on my husband’s 50th birthday.

So, for a very long time, life felt like trying to swim in rough surf — every time we surfaced for air,  we were thrown back onto the sand, coughing up salty mouthfuls.

Now, grateful but somewhat disoriented to find ourselves on a calm and quiet plateau, we wonder what our next steps are.

How does your life look and feel these days?

Are you looking forward in 2014 to some new travels or adventures?

Expecting or enjoying a new baby or grandchildren?

Coping with your first year of university?

Whatever it is, and wherever you are, I wish all of you  — now almost 8,800 readers worldwide — the very best for 2014!

Twenty more things that make me happy

In antiques, art, beauty, behavior, design, domestic life, life, Style on November 1, 2013 at 10:30 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

Česky: Granny Smith

Česky: Granny Smith (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

– A crisp apple — a Jonah Gold or Granny Smith — sliced, with sharp cheddar cheese

– The huge flock of starlings that flash toward our windows every late afternoon, swooshing into the sky

– A tall, cold glass of beer, probably a weissbier

– A Sunday afternoon nap beneath a woolen throw

– The BBC News theme music

– Re-playing our wedding reception mixtape, which includes the Clash, Sinatra and the B52s

– Wandering the narrow cobble-stoned streets of Manhattan’s West Village

– Buying tea and coffee by the pound at Porto Rico Importing on Bleecker

20131028083928

– Lighting all the candles for dinner, votives and tapers

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– Balvenie on the rocks

– Receiving hand-written thank-you notes on heavy stationery

– A steaming cup of tea (possibly with a piece of chocolate or two on the side)

– Making my first-ever stuffed pork loin (stuffed with panko, fresh sage, fresh thyme, garlic, onions and chicken broth)

– Late-afternoon sunlight through crimson leaves

photo: Jose R. Lopez

photo: Jose R. Lopez

– The smell of jet fuel — imminent take-off!

– The white Christmas lights on our balcony, lit year-round

– Getting lost inside a great book

– The unexpected arrival of my very own personal cephalopod (thanks, Sarah!)

photo(25)

– Wearing my burgundy fur headband, a la Lara in Dr. Zhivago

Caiti:winter

– Driving out to Coney Island to see a baby walrus, eat Nathan’s hot dogs and wave at the Statue of Liberty with my friend Sarah from Tucson

DON’T FORGET — THIS SUNDAY’S WEBINAR IS “FINDING AND DEVELOPING STORY IDEAS”,  AT 4:00 PM EST. REGISTER HERE.

What do you remember of your childhood home(s)?

In aging, beauty, behavior, children, culture, domestic life, family, life on October 26, 2013 at 1:10 am

By Caitlin Kelly

English: Carl Nielsen outside his childhood ho...

English: Carl Nielsen outside his childhood house at Nørre Lyndelse, Funen, Denmark in 1927 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This writer, a columnist for the weekend Financial Times, Harry Eyres, is one of my favorite writers. He recently wrote a poignant piece about emptying his childhood home and finally leaving it for the last time:

Strangely, I dreaded the loss of the house from a very early age. I had nightmares about it.

Leaving a
house you love is hard. Relinquishing a house where you grew up from
your earliest childhood, where you spent your first springs, summers,
autumns, winters, every one of whose corners, cupboards, creaking
staircases, floorboards and smells became almost like an extension of
your being, is harder still…

We bade farewell to the house on a perfect golden September day,
which started misty and hazy and rather mysterious before the sun broke
through. Some people had told me that it would be easier to leave the
house when it was empty, as it would have lost many of its most personal
connotations, pieces of furniture, even curtains. But I did not find it
so.

The house seemed just as beautiful as ever to me on the day of our
departure. In some ways even more beautiful, as being emptied of
furniture can restore a certain youthfulness and sense of possibility to
a dwelling. The upstairs spare room, which had become a sort of dump
before I cleared it out, hadn’t looked so inviting for decades.

We, three generations and a stalwart family friend, had a sunny
picnic on the raised terrace outside the front door, sitting on the low
wall rising up from the hydrangea beds, as there were no longer any
chairs.

I’ve only lived in a few houses with my parents, at least those I can recall.

There was one in London, when I was very small, then one in Toronto, a big brick house with a deep backyard and my bedroom at the very top, where I lay in bed and listened to the radio. I knew my mother was climbing the stairs when I heard her ankles popping. There were brilliant yellow forsythia bushes outside the kitchen window I used to call “for cynthia” — my mother’s name.

When my parents split up, and I was about seven, that was the end of that house. I miss it still.

I didn’t live in another house until eleventh grade, when I moved in with my father into a white brick house on a Toronto corner. There was a lilac tree just outside the kitchen door and a huge park behind our yard where our dog would get out and run in circles really fast, usually whenever I was having a party and it was the last thing I wanted to deal with.

Since then, after leaving that house when I was in university, I’ve never owned one nor have my parents stayed very long in any of theirs, usually only for a few years, scooping up a healthy profit, and moving into yet another. I watch the houses come and go, envious they’ve even owned a house, let alone several. I wonder if I ever will.

My father had a 200+ year-old house in Athenry, just outside Galway City, for a few years, that’s now a nursing home. I loved my few brief visits there, scything the lawn and staring out through its ancient, rippled glass panes.

When I return to visit Toronto, I often drive past that white brick house. It doesn’t look much different, even all these years later.

Jose’s childhood home was torn down and is now the Georgia O’Keefe museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The only remainder of his life there is a tiny courtyard and the apricot tree from whose fruit his late mother once made jam.

Do you remember your childhood home?

Is it still there?

The greater pleasure of taking (more) time

In art, beauty, behavior, books, business, culture, domestic life, family, life, Technology, urban life, US on September 22, 2013 at 12:03 am

By Caitlin Kelly

Cover of "In Praise of Slowness: How A Wo...

Cover via Amazon

Loved this post, from one of my new favorite blogs, key + arrow, written by a young couple in Austin, Texas. This, from georgia, on the sensual, slow-moving pleasure of shaving, old-style:

I use an old style safety razor..the kind your grandpa may have used. A big heavy piece of chrome and a single double sided blade.

Once I found myself in the position of trying to explain why I prefer to use this older style to a friend of mine. He’s like most guys these days and use whatever 4 blade vibrating head gel strip gizmo they have selling these days.

As i described the process involved in preparing for a proper shave, the pleasure, the advantages….one item provoked the strongest reaction.

He couldn’t understand why I took up to 20 minutes or more to shave and that’s really when it hit me. When you look at the rise of technology and the death of manly rituals, inevitably the clock is to blame. We have sacrificed a whole host of simple pleasures for the sake of time and we are ultimately the poorer for it.

The pipe gives way to the cigarette. The ocean liner gives way to the airplane. The restaurant becomes the drive-through and the conversation becomes the text message…and all because we, as society, continue to believe that if we could just save a bit more time in our day we’d be able to really get to the things we wanted to do.

Ironically, in the pursuit of having enough time to do what we want we are forced to dilute or discard the very things we wanted in the first place…

While it’s easy for city folk to romanticize oldey-timey hand-hewn rusticity — who really wants to chop (all their) wood and haul their water? — I agree with his point of view.

Slow down!

One of the things that vacation reminds me to do — and I always, eagerly, do it wholeheartedly — is mostly ignore technology and its pinging, ringing, buzzing, beeping, dinging, lit-up demands.

Respondrightnow!

Or else.

Or else, what, exactly?

Unless you’re a head of state or awaiting the news of someone’s imminent birth or death, is anything really that urgent?

There is something so lovely and soothing and sensual about slowing down and doing things with a measured, thoughtful, focused attention.

Twice on our recent vacation in Canada, I simply lay down for a good half hour or more, once on the mossy edge of a granite lake-side and once on the smooth, rounded grey stones of another lake. I watched dragonflies and ants and small leopard frogs and got up again with pine-cone gum embedded in my leggings.

Whatever.

I also emerged completely refreshed.

You can’t really speed up the making of risotto, one of my favorite time-consuming recipes. Nor can you quickly and enjoyably make bread or soup or pastry or bathe a baby or give someone a really good massage or arrange flowers or stare into the night sky.

All of these activities take time.

They require our attentiveness. They can’t be rushed, without spoiling the experience.

Which is, in my view, the whole point of the blessing of our senses. If you don’t stop to even notice the roses, how can you make time to bury your nose in those pink or orange or creamy white petals and smell them?

Do you really want to rush patting your dog or cat? Hugging your sweetie?

One of my favorite books on this topic is by a fellow Canadian, Carl Honore, a fellow alum of the national newspaper, The Globe and Mail.

Here’s his 2005 TED talk in praise of slowness, the subject of his book of the same name; he was prompted to write the book when he found he couldn’t slow down at bedtime when he read to his small boy, tempted to do it at his usual frenzied pace.

In his talk, he says:

“We live in a world obsessed with speed…to quote Carrie Fisher, these days, even instant gratification takes too long…We’re hurrying through our lives instead of living them.”

How about you?

Do you ever slow down?

How does this affect your quality of life?

Twenty more things that make me happy

In animals, antiques, art, beauty, behavior, culture, domestic life, life on September 14, 2013 at 2:32 am

By Caitlin Kelly

— My black cashmere turtleneck

— Driving a winding country road in late afternoon sunshine

— The soft, white silence specific to fresh snowfall

— The sound that skates make carving into the ice

— Making a delicious meal for someone hungry and appreciative

— Laughing with Jose

—  A glossy, slippery pile of unread British magazines — Vogue, Country Living, World of Interiors

World of Interiors

World of Interiors (Photo credit: qwincowper)

— A glossy, slippery pile of unread French design magazines — Cote Sud/Est/Ouest, Marie Claire Decoration, Elle Decor

— An upcoming flight, preferably to a foreign country

— A large, icy-cold martini; (Tanqueray, dry, olives, no ice)

Tanqueray

Tanqueray (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

— Speaking French

— The sillage of a delicious fragrance, a crisp classic like 1881, Blenheim Bouquet or Caleche

— Gratefully applauding until my palms sting after a spectacular performance of music, dance or theater

— A fierce hug

— The white French bulldog with the jeweled hot pink collar who lives in my building, who explodes with joy when she sees me and lets me adore her in return

French Bulldog

French Bulldog (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

— A country auction, returning with a car full of affordable loot

— An hour’s conversation with someone I love

— A stack of new books

— Croissants slathered with raspberry jam

— Paris, anytime, any season

Bonus: staring into a roaring fire in a fireplace, firepit or woodstove

How about you?

Dude, where’s my exoskeleton?

In behavior, culture, design, entertainment, life, movies, Technology on August 26, 2013 at 12:51 am

By Caitlin Kelly

Have you seen Elysium yet?

It’s the summer blockbuster starring Matt (swoon) Damon, (who worked out for four hours a day to get ripped for the part) and Jodie Foster, scary-mean in gray silk Armani and speaking excellent French.

The director, Nell Blomkamp, also did District Nine. His vision is dark, terrifying, sardonic.

An electrically powered exoskeleton suit curre...

An electrically powered exoskeleton suit currently in development by Tsukuba University of Japan. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One detail I enjoyed was Damon’s exoskeleton, although I confess with no shame that during the gross, gory surgery scene when it’s attached to his body I covered my eyes. The sound effects were bad enough.

I kept muttering: “It’s just the Foley guy. It’s all post-production.”

But once he’s girded with his external hardware, he becomes seriously bad-ass, practically invincible.

Made me think how handy this would be.

We all have — and need — exoskeletons of one sort or another, something external that strengthens and fortifies us for the fight, whether yet another Monday morning or something much nastier and bigger.

Maybe it’s prayer.

Maybe it’s your granny’s wedding ring, worn on a necklace.

Maybe it’s your Dad’s handgun.

Maybe it’s your husband’s hugs.

Maybe it’s yoga.

Maybe it’s playing your cello/guitar/flute really loudly.

Maybe it’s a glance in the mirror at your newly-defined abs, or the curve of your pregnant belly.

Maybe it’s a small hand tucked into yours or a wet, black nose snuffling you awake at 5:30 a.m. to go for a walk, now.

I love, oh, how I love, this poem by Blake, set to music as the glorious hymn “Jerusalem” in 1916. We played it at our wedding:

Bring me my Bow of burning gold;
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!

What’s your exoskeleton?

What helps you stay strong when you are scared and feeling small?

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