The value of staring into stars/fire/backlit leaves

By Caitlin Kelly

Comparison showing the effects of light pollut...
Comparison showing the effects of light pollution on viewing the sky at night. The southern sky, featuring Sagittarius and Scorpius. Top – Leamington, UT, pop. 217 Bottom – Orem, UT, in a metropolitan area of ~400,000 I’ve attempted to match sky brightness to how it appeared to my eyes. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I love you guys. Really.

But two entire days far away from email and computer is a blessed and necessary break for my hands, eyes and brain.

To spend it, as we did last weekend at a friend’s cabin in the Catskills, right beside a rushing stream lulling us to sleep — bliss!

I was very lucky to grow up with parents who loved the outdoors and took long country walks. I also spent every summer, ages 8 to 17, at a summer camp in northern Ontario, surrounded by silence and birch trees, whispering pines and weathered granite.

We canoed across deep lakes, and the sunlight refracted in the tiny whirlpool of our every paddle stroke created a star sapphire in those ancient waters.

A stand of birch trees.
A stand of birch trees. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Loons called.

For a while, my father had a 200+ year old house in the Irish countryside, complete with a wide, cold stream thick with watercress we could pick and make into salad. We stood in Galway Bay, plucking fresh mussels, and went home and made soup.

I love re-connecting with nature and after too much time indoors by artificial light touching plastic, I miss it terribly.

After a week of so much computer time my eyes were sore and watery, I really needed to look at leaves and stars and stone.

So the weekend was perfect.

Lying, snoozing, in a wide hammock strung between two towering trees, dappled by filtered sunlight, all I could see was some bright blue sky with a fresh contrail.

Walking through the woods, I marveled at moss so thick and springy I wanted to make a bed of it and settle down for a nap. Mushrooms, of every possible variety, lay everywhere — many of them with their edges delicately nibbled by something small and hungry.

At night we light a bonfire and sat beside it, feeling small and primeval — not just weary New Yorkers, (three journalists and a spokesman for one of the area’s most-used services), usually attached to cellphones rushing to deal with the latest emergency. We stared up into the night sky and marveled at a rare sight in this light-polluted part of the world: the Milky Way.

As the fire burned out, we pushed the charred logs closer and closer, the embers winking and glowing through the darkness.

In the Catskills
In the Catskills (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Do you make time to be at home in the natural world?

When and where?

The dragonfly’s visit — and what it meant

By Caitlin Kelly

The other day, a dragonfly got trapped in our small dining room, where I work on my laptop. He buzzed and banged against the window but couldn’t get out. I opened the balcony door but he didn’t budge.


It was not a great day.

After feeling triumphant over winning a Big Women’s Magazine as a new client and getting nice feedback on my work, I received their all-rights contract, the now-normal land-grab that means they own everything in a story.

Given that most of my stories only earn between $1,000 and $2,000 apiece, that’s a lot of territory to claim for very little money. There are a few ways to make good money in freelance journalism:

1) earn $5,000+ per story on every story, (tough to do)

2) re-sell your material, in various iterations, to as many places for as much money as often as you can.

3) crank out a ton of copy asfastasyoupossiblycan.

An all-rights contract, in my view, is restraint of trade and a PITA way to limit my income. The serious cash  comes from better-paid media — re-use by television or film options or rights and/or books; I earned $5,000 from CBS’ television option for a possible sitcom derived from “Malled”, my book about retail.

With little stomach for the email argument with my editor, (and their legal department) that followed, I requested a different contract, knowing that many publishers have them, but will only offer one if pushed to do so.

They agreed, noting the exception. (Which means more such arguments probably lie ahead.)

It is wearying, every day, year after year, to defend the value of your ideas, trying to win the highest possible market valuation for them.

Publishers are increasingly greedy and their legal departments strong-armed. Many editors won’t fight for you, but simply drop you for someone who never fights back in order to protect their intellectual property.

The publisher for “Malled” has also passed on my new book proposal, which was disappointing.

The whole week felt like one long, exhausting argument with the world, over money, over revisions, over what to do next, over how to do it better — or whether I should even be doing it at all.

My lovely husband came home to find me in tears, an extremely rare occurrence in our 13 years together.

He looked up this website, which explains the significance and symbolism of the dragonfly:

To the Japanese, it symbolizes summer and autumn, admired and respected all over, so much so that the Samurai use it as a symbol of power, agility and best of all, victory.

In China, people associate the dragonfly with prosperity, harmony and as a good luck charm. Amongst Native Americans, it is a sign of happiness, speed and purity

And then there’s this:

Maturity and a Depth of character The dragonfly, in almost every part of the world symbolizes change and change in the perspective of self realization; and the kind of change that has its source in mental and emotional maturity and the understanding of the deeper meaning of life.

  • Power and Poise
    The dragonfly’s agile flight and its ability to move in all six directions exude a sense of power and poise – something that comes only with age and maturity.
    The dragonfly can move at an amazing 45 miles an hour,  hover like a helicopter fly backwards like a hummingbird, fly straight up, down and on either side. The awe inspiring aspect is how the dragonfly accomplishes its objectives with utmost simplicity, effectiveness…with 20 times as much power in each of its wing strokes when compared to the other insects.
  • Defeat of Self Created Illusions
    The dragonfly exhibits iridescence both on its wings as well as on its body…the end of one’s self created illusions and a clear vision into the realities of life…self discovery and removal of inhibitions.
  • Focus on living ‘IN’ the moment The dragonfly normally lives most of its life as a nymph or an immature. It flies only for a fraction of its life and usually not more than a few months. By living in the moment you are aware of who you are, where you are, what you are doing, what you want, what you don’t and make informed choices on a moment-to-moment basis.

Gently, using a newspaper and a strainer, he captured the dragonfly and safely released him on the balcony.


Message delivered.

What years of reporting violence does to journalists

By Caitlin Kelly

News journalism, no matter your gender, is a tough and macho business.

Showing weakness, fear or timidity is a career-killer and those who wade into the gore and muck and terror often win the best jobs, assignments and book contracts — no matter what the emotional toll.

English: Logo of NPR News.
English: Logo of NPR News. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some of you may listen to Kelly McEvers, the MidEast correspondent for National Public Radio.

She recently did a documentary about her experience of trauma as a result of her work, a rare and brave admission of its effects.

Here’s a bit of a Q and A with Kelly:

LO: I didn’t know that NPR had a therapist on retainer. At what point, do you know that there’s a therapist if you need one? Is it part of a basic benefits package for conflict journalists? 

KM: A colleague recommended Mark Brayne. Mark is very involved with the Dart Center. He’s part of a group of people who really advocate for this kind of thing at news organizations. I don’t really know if it’s part of NPR’s orientation or benefits package because back when I joined the company things were different than they are now.

At work, therapy was always this kind of thing that you wanted to do in complete confidentiality because you never want to be seen as weak at a news organization. I’ve tried to make it something that we talk about a little bit more—not who goes to see whom or when they go—but that it’s available and we should all consider using it when we need it.

Dr. Anthony Feinstein, who I interviewed, talked about this a bit. Newsrooms are insanely competitive places. You don’t want anyone to sniff weakness because then they’ll come for your job. Doing this piece was a big risk and that’s definitely one of the reasons.

The other thing is when you cover these horrible situations, you feel like a schmuck saying “poor me,” when the people around you have it so much worse than you, where there’s hundreds of thousands of refugees and people are dying violent deaths every day. That’s something you have to get over. Feinstein talks about this with his clients. He asks, “If you have a broken leg, but the guy next to you has broken leg, should you not fix your broken leg?” The truth is, we have to be well enough to tell people’s stories. And if you’re not well in the head, you’re not going to be able to do it. We have to stop feeling guilty about talking about our problems.

Reporting on the larger world often begins with local reporting on cops and courts, where most journalists have never been before. Drug abuse, murder, sexual assault, rape — we cover it, talk to survivors of it, photograph it, write about it or broadcast its images. We may sit for days or weeks or months in a courtroom, listening to horrific details.

In the 1980s, while working at The Globe and Mail, I was sent into a Toronto courtroom to cover for the justice reporter for a few days. It might only have been a day, but every detail is as fresh to me as it was then. They wheeled in the blood-streaked freezer into which the accused shoved his victim, minus his limbs.

We called it, with typical black humor, the roast beef murder.

Then there were the parents who had pimped their own children to a circle of their friends.

Stupidly, I’d had no idea what nightmares swirled around us.

While working, briefly, for the Canadian Press, my Sunday evening shift included writing up every fatality that occurred in the province of Ontario that weekend: car crashes, drownings, you name it. I started to dread my job and its perky nickname “Fats”.

One evening I asked a fellow reporter, a woman whose husband was a cop, if this ever bothered her, all those dead bodies and grieving families. “It’s just numbers,” said Judy.


Those who cover war see and smell dead bodies. They learn to distinguish the specific deep thudding of a Blackhawk helicopter or the sound of an incoming mortar, to survive the choking stink of tear gas and strap on their Kevlar vest before starting their day.

UH-60L Blackhawk helicopter flies a low-level ...
UH-60L Blackhawk helicopter flies a low-level mission over Iraq (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Friends of mine have covered war, famine, rape, the aftermath of floods and hurricanes.

One, a colleague more than a personal friend, war reporter Michael Hastings, only 33, died in a fiery crash in L.A. recently, to the shock and dismay of the journalism community.

But this long L.A. Weekly story suggests he was fighting plenty of his own demons:

Interviews with friends as well as the coroner’s report suggest that Hastings’ mental health was deteriorating. As a young man, he’d abused drugs and alcohol and received a possible diagnosis of manic depression. Now, after a long period of sobriety, he had recently begun smoking pot to treat his post-traumatic stress disorder — the product of years of covering combat.

My husband covered the worst prison riot in U.S. history, photographing the dead while he was still a college student.

Another friend wrote a terrific book about MRSA, the flesh-eating bacteria. She, too, was traumatized by what she heard and saw.

Those covering the mayhem in Egypt and Syria are staring into the abyss every day.

Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus 10048
Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus 10048 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

To write my first book, about American women and guns, I spoke to 104 men, women and teens about firearms in their lives, including women who had been shot, who had shot and killed, whose children and husbands had been killed or committed suicide.

I had a few weeks of insomnia and nightmares, and only a friend working in the prison system recognized it as secondary trauma.

I knew things were getting a little nuts when one of my sources, who had been shot point-blank in her home then pursued and shot her assailant, sent me a photo of his body lying in her front yard, and I asked Jose to preview it for me to see if I could handle it.

“It’s fine,” he said. “It’s just a dead guy in the mud.”

This is not a healthy reaction.

Last week, at a journalism conference, I met a tall, thin, beautiful television anchor who is hungry to do something different. “I’ve seen too much,” she told me. “Bodies without heads…all the things we see, but viewers do not.”

journalists_guide_to_firearms_ak47_glock1 (Photo credit: gnotalex)

This is what consumers of media rarely know or remember — that before you hear it on the radio or see it on the television news or read about it on-line or in print, people have first listened to and watched visions of pure hell.

The final product is, no matter how horrific to you, sanitized and scrutinized, argued over ferociously in news meetings as to whether it’s legal, ethical or moral to show you all of it. If so, how much?

Here’s help, in the Dart Center, whose mission it is to help us process the detritus of covering some of the toughest — and most important — stories. Here’s a blog post I wrote for them, back in 2004, about women and violence.

Do you encounter physical or emotional violence in the course of your paid or volunteer work?

How do you process it or recover from it?

Dude, where’s my exoskeleton?

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?

The allure of time travel — which century would you choose?

By Caitlin Kelly

I haven’t yet read this book, by an American author who spent time with some hard-core historical re-enactors who re-make the Civil War on a regular basis.

But we recently had New York City photographer Mike Falco over for dinner. He’s obsessed by the Civil War — an odd pursuit for a Yankee from Staten Island — and has been traveling the U.S. to photograph Civil War battlefields, using a pinhole camera he made himself. 

A pinhole camera requires making long exposures, so that movement is blurred, giving the images a ghostly, timeless feeling.  I love his passion, and his artisanal way of moving backwards in time. He even wears period clothing, and people have greeted him by name as Mathew Brady, the legendary Civil War photographer.

He’s met hundreds of re-enactors, some of them the descendants of the men who fought those battles.

English: American Civil War re-enactors, 1997,...
English: American Civil War re-enactors, 1997, by Rick Dikeman (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It was extraordinary hearing him describe some of these people and how emotional these encounters and re-enactments are. In the same landscapes, unchanged two centuries on, they’re re-making history, lost in time.

I read a lot of history, for pleasure, hungry to know how we got where we are, politically, economically, philosophically. So I  understand this impulse to try and feel what it might have been like to live 100, 200 or 500 years ago.

I’m intensely curious about what other lives are like — although there is a very large gap between a temporary dress-up fantasy of 19th or 18th century life and living it as it was — without anesthesia, antibiotics or a woman’s right to vote or own property.

I once owned, and wore, a Victorian combing jacket, with its own internal cotton corset. Paisley wool, with drifts of lace and ribbon, it was a glorious garment and I walked very differently when I wore it: more slowly, more deliberately. It was an intimate encounter with the woman who might have worn it then.

For my first wedding, I wore a cotton dress from about 1905, complete with a eyelet underskirt. My maid of honor wore a Victorian dress. I wasn’t trying to be anything or re-create a moment, but had hated every contemporary wedding dress I tried on.

Surprisingly, I felt completely comfortable, and we married in this rivers’s edge chapel from 1840 with no electricity, just a huge chandelier lit with candles.

Here’s a link to the most recent Victorian ball held in Nahant, Massachusetts a week ago, at which guests wore period clothing, much of which they made themselves.

I bet this is part of the fascination with the HBO television series Game of Thrones, which I occasionally watch. And steampunk. I love the Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes films with Robert Downey Jr., Jude Law and Canadian actress Rachel McAdams, for their stylish re-creation of period London. The films Moulin Rouge and Ana Karenina did this well, too, although the jewelry worn by Keira Knightley, (Chanel, carefully placed) was entirely wrong for the period. If you’re a historical accuracy maven, it’s fun to see when they get it wrong, or right.

I’ve had two experiences that moved me back in time to the 18th and 19th centuries. One was riding in, and driving, a horse-drawn sleigh through the woods of Quebec, much tougher than it looks!

The other, best week ever, was crewing aboard Endeavour, an Australian replica of a Tall Ship. We slept in narrow, swaying hammocks, climbed the rough rope rigging dozens of times a day to furl enormous, heavy square canvas sails while standing 100 feet in the air on a narrow footrope (just as it sounds.) We handled lines (ropes) so heavy and thick that two of them filled my forearm. I’ve never been more cut, more exhausted or more empathetic to the lives of the men who worked aboard whaling ships and other marine craft. Dangerous as hell!

I fantasize about living in Paris in the 1920s, England in the 1600s, with Elizabeth I on the throne and turn of the 20th century Vienna, when some of my favorite artists — Secessionists like Klimt, Kokoschka and Schiele — were alive.

I’d also like to have been a British or American or Canadian woman in the 1940s, when women first poured into the workforce en masse, although the loss of loved ones to WW II would have been terrible to bear.

Red Ensign (pre-1965 Canadian flag)
Red Ensign (pre-1965 Canadian flag) (Photo credit: Lone Primate)

I’m also somehow drawn to Edwardian England. (Hello, Downton Abbey and Parade’s End) but above stairs, please!

Do you ever wish you could time-travel back in history?

Where would you go — and why?

What writers really wish you knew

By Caitlin Kelly

English: Attention Icon.
English: Attention Icon. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s a fun life being a writer, which is why so many people are lining up, still, to do it.

I just spent a fun/tiring eight hours in Manhattan at a freelancers’ conference. But if you make your living at it, (and or dream of it), some frustrations become routine.

Here are a few things writers really wish you knew:

— It’s not a hobby. We attend conferences and take classes, (or teach them), and network and spend time and money and attention improving our skills. Assuming it’s something cute we do “just for fun” is ignorant and disrespectful.

— Working alone at home can be really lonely and isolating. Come meet us for coffee or a drink!

— We need feedback on our material, especially works-in-progress, aka WIPs. If we get up the nerve to ask you to read or review it, that’s a big gesture of trust on our part. Please say yes, please offer specific feedback and please do it.

— We need blurbs for our books. If you have a connection to A Big Name who might help us, please make the call or send the email. Asking for blurbs can be one of the hardest parts of writing and publishing a book.

— If you ask me for help, do not blow off the phone call I booked time for. Let alone twice.

— If you ask me for help, be classy enough to offer me some as well, if not today, then down the road.

— Don’t ask me to hand over the names and contacts of my editors. If I feel like that’s the right choice, I’ll offer.

— Don’t ask me for an introduction to my agent. I may not think you’re ready for prime time. I may not think you are a good fit for their list or their personality. Don’t put me on the spot. If I think it’s right, I’ll offer.

— Don’t ask to “pick my brain.” It’s annoying and presumptuous.

— Don’t ask me how much my advance was. It’s really annoying. I don’t ask your salary!

— Don’t whine about how hard/lonely/difficult/poorly-paid it can be, especially at the beginning. I know. Go do something else…like retail or fast-food work. That’s misery, kids. Rejection to a writer is like blood to a surgeon; a messy, necessary part of every working day. Get used it or don’t be a writer.

— We’re insecure. Did you really like that story/pitch/book/screenplay? Say so!

— Repeat business is the sweetest. When you find a writer whose work you like and you enjoy working with, throw them as much work as they can handle. You’ll win our loyalty.

— If you’re a client, and we bill by the hour, don’t cheap out and ask us for a 30-minute consultation. It can take that much time to even read your two-page material thoughtfully, let alone formulate helpful ways to improve it.

— If you’re an editor, and like what we’ve done, say so! We’re hungry for praise and enthusiasm, no matter how experienced we are. The check is what we work for. A thank-you or other additional thumbs-up is what we hope for.

— Just like you, we’re all juggling multiple projects every day, some competing for the same time you think you’ve bought exclusively. Don’t demand immediate replies, revisions or turn-arounds on a moment’s notice. If you need our undivided attention, say so, explain when — and pay properly enough that we’re willing to back-burner other things for you. Snapping your fingers at us just means we’ll never work for you again.

— Pay us promptly with no excuses! There is nothing more irritating than meeting every deadline, even beating it, then waiting weeks or months for payment. You got paid. The lights are still on in your office. The office rent got paid. Our turn!

— Make the time to get to know us, even a little bit. We, too, have kids and hobbies and new puppies. The more we know, like and trust one another, the better our working relationship is likely to be. We’re not robots. We don’t want to be treated like one.

— Let us get to know you a bit as well. We don’t need or want to be your BFFs, but people work best with those they like and respect. You can’t like and respect a cipher. I recently found out all the jobs one of my editors is expected to do. Jesus, no wonder she sounds so stressed and tired!

— Follow up. If we’ve pitched you an idea after a meeting or phone chat, or we’ve been introduced to you by your boss or someone you trust, don’t ignore us. It’s rude! These weren’t cold calls. We’ve done our due diligence to get a good referral. You’re dissing them and us.

— Be explicit about what you need, expect and in what order. If your publication normally expects three revisions, say so at the outset and we’ll budget that time, or not work with you. But insatiably grabbing more unpaid time on a set fee is greedy.

— If you’re my agent, and we’ve agreed to work together, please answer my phone calls and emails promptly. I won’t drive you mad, but I expect you to pay attention; you’ll be claiming 15% of every check I earn from our books together, so I expect you to earn it.

— If you wish to sever our working relationship, do so. Don’t be passive aggressive and neglectful. Just get it over with.

Here’s a great post, from Freshly Pressed, (which inspired this post), by a theater veteran about what actors really feel but are often afraid to say out loud about their working conditions.

I’m not where I expected to be

By Caitlin Kelly

Caitlin Kelly (New York Times), Ryann Gastwirt...
Caitlin Kelly (New York Times), Ryann Gastwirth (Financial Times), Jose Lopez (New York Times) and Jeff Bercovici (Forbes) (Photo credit: Financial Times photos) Talk about unexpected! How on earth did my photo end up on the Internet? Jose is my husband.

I had a business lunch recently with a woman a bit younger than I. We both work for ourselves, battered survivors of the (most recent) recession, hanging on to long-term clients while seeking solid new ones, a combination we admitted can be exhausting.

We’re both married suburban home-owners.

Although we had never met, and knew no one in common, we felt comfortable enough to speak more personally.

“I’m not where I expected to be,” she said.

I sighed, with relief that she had said it, that someone else felt as I often do, that we could talk about it without self-pity or whining — but truthfully and candidly.

Where I live now, in suburban New York, one is expected, from birth onward, to be Very Successful. Those of us who live in apartments or modest homes, driving old vehicles and doing funky creative work with inconsistent incomes are very much the anomaly in a sea of corporate poobahs and tenured academics, like two of my next-door apartment neighbors.

I recently attended a backyard book party for someone I frankly envy: huge, gorgeous old house; her book an instant best-seller; a tiny, trim figure in a stunning new dress from Paris.

I admit, I find it hard sometimes, surrounded by others’ success in all the areas I’d once hoped for, to look at one’s own life with deep satisfaction and gratitude.

Yet I know mine is good: a loving second husband; a home we own and enjoy; friends, decent work, health, retirement savings.

I never was someone with a Set Plan. I married late, at 35, to a physician, so I basically expected to stay married, and to enjoy a life of growing material ease.

But the marriage was unhappy and brief. I was once more single, living alone on a very tight budget, for six years.

Here’s Niva, who writes Riding Bitch, on the issue:

Sometimes I am still shocked by where I am in life: a widow, former caregiver, film writer/director who still works a day job and barely scrapes by, at 42 years old. Not feeling sorry for myself, just stating the facts. Actually, I was reminded of the facts yesterday.

Before leaving said day job, whether next month or next year, I’m using my health insurance to get everything checked out. There I was with a new OBGYN, from whom I need a referral for a mammogram, getting thoroughly probed and questioned about my family, medical and sexual history. Strangely, or perhaps not so strangely, the conversation found its way to a subject which I had not anticipated discussing, and inadvertantly brought up the reality of my situation.

“Are you thinking of having children?” the doctor asked.

“I’ve… thought about it,” I answered slowly. “But I’m not really sure what my options are at this point.”

Maybe, at any age, we’re all still waiting and wanting — something.

The long-time assistant to American artist Jasper Johns was recently charged with stealing and selling his works. One comment struck me as naive indeed as unrealized ambition is a powerful weapon:

“It’s crazy. Isn’t being Jasper Johns’s assistant enough?”

Then there’s Woody Allen’s newest film, Blue Jasmine, starring Cate Blanchett in a Blanche duBois-esque role, a Ruth Madoff character who’s plummeted from flying private in Chanel to living in her step-sister’s crowded, grubby walk-up in San Francisco. It’s a searing, depressing, reminder that hitching your entire identity and ego to wealth and power, especially someone else’s, is rarely wise.

According to this New York Times front page story, legal immigrants to the United States awaiting green cards face an absurd delay of 7.6 years.

Here is Angeles Barberena:

A supermarket is not where Ms. Barberena, now 56, thought she would be at this stage in life. After completing undergraduate studies in chemical engineering at one of Mexico’s best universities, she led a comfortable middle-class life in Mexico City.

But she left in 1995 with her husband, two small sons and a sense of desperation. A neighbor’s daughter had been abducted, bringing an epidemic of kidnappings within reach of her own family.

“I lived in panic because I did not have any way to protect my children,” Ms. Barberena said.

In 1996, her father, a naturalized American citizen, presented a green card petition for Ms. Barberena, his married adult child. And the wait began.

It’s an odd thing, this life.

We often grow up with such high hopes, even expectations, of who we will become and where we will live, the people we’ll love and who will love us.

Of our children, our home(s), our studies and travels and achievements.

(Who factors in the stumbling blocks of infertility, miscarriage, divorce, premature death? Grieving takes time and energy. It slows, or stops, our momentum. So do illnesses, surgeries and recovery, job losses and and protracted searches for paid work.)

We — naively — assume, or hope, we’ll earn and enjoy rising, unbroken income streams and good health, stunned and felled when one or both fail us.

We forget, or don’t want to imagine, that people we adore will die, sometimes very suddenly, tearing a hole in our world that no one else can replace.

Of course, as this blog post at key and arrow points out one can simply be content where you are.

Here’s a blog post by my mother-of-two-small-boys friend Sarah Welch, who runs her own company, Buttoned Up:

While still working, I’m doing it well outside the structured environment of corporate America. It definitely feels a little wacky some days. Technically, I think the actual description for what I’m doing is “Leaning Out.” Maybe even aggressively.

At least that’s what the 20-year-old-version-of-my-40-year-old-self thinks I’m doing. And she is deeply, deeply uncomfortable with it all.

My actual 40-year-old self is just fine thankyouverymuch. First of all, she begs to differ with her 20-year-old-version when it comes to the leaning out description. Um hello? Since when did sixty hours of work (even if you put them in at non-standard times) count as slacking?

As for marriage, kids, suburbia, and the unconventional job?

I chose them. Actively, willingly, excitedly, with arms-wide-open.

I want to be exactly where I am. Doing what I am doing. Downshifting, side- shifting, upshifting…whatever the current moment calls for.

Are you happy with where you are right now?

How much do you plan ahead — or wait for fate to dictate your next steps?

Moving across borders for love

By Caitlin Kelly

I fell in love in September 1986 when I opened my downtown Montreal apartment door to a tall, bearded, blue-eyed medical student from New Jersey, whose name, (which I won’t reveal) is shared with a cocktail. (No, not Tom Collins!)

But the week before we met, and we were soon seriously discussing marriage — a first, for me — he had accepted a four-year residency position in New Hampshire, a 3.5 drive south.

Statue of Liberty National Monument, Ellis Isl...
Statue of Liberty National Monument, Ellis Island and Liberty Island, Manhattan, in New York County (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Oh, and in another country.

I was extremely lucky. As the unmarried child of an American citizen, my mother, I was able to get a green card quickly and easily and move to the United States legally to join him. Even more unlikely, I found a three-month, well-paid journalism job in the  same small town as his program.

English: the forests in new hampshire in autumn
English: the forests in new hampshire in autumn (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But after it ended, reality hit. Hard.

I had no friends, family, income, history or job prospects. He was rarely home, and when he was home was exhausted and grouchy. The huge gang of lovely friends he’d made in Montreal? Gone and not replaced with anyone new.

Instead, homesick and bored, I commuted those 3.5 hours north every Monday for three months to teach journalism back in Montreal.

After 18 months of miserable, lonely, broke, isolated and career-threatening rural life, we moved to suburban New York.

We married three years later — and he walked out two years after that.

Anyone who moves to a foreign country for love takes an incredible leap into the unknown.

I know that several Broadside readers have, or are about to, done this. I also know it’s worked out well for two of them, and I have my fingers tightly crossed for Ashana.

But good Lord it’s scary!

Maybe not for other people.

It was for me. I remember, as if it was yesterday, feeling like a raindrop falling into the ocean. At 30, I was leaving a country in which I’d built a good national reputation as a journalist. I was leaving behind dear friends, a culture I knew intimately and liberal social and political values I mostly shared.

I was leaving behind a country whose entire population is that of New York State, barely 10 percent of the United States. How could I ever re-establish an identity or a career?

Seal of New York.
Seal of New York. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Before I married the first time, (worried on several counts), I consulted a local lawyer — $350/hour in 1992 — to ask what, if anything, I would get in alimony or support if we divorced. Zip! Nada! Rien!

Wow. Since I was very far from home and wasn’t working and didn’t have a place to run back to in case…

Good thing I asked, and demanded a pre-nuptial agreement that allowed me to stay in my home and re-establish myself financially after two years of not working.

Had I not made that scary cross-border leap, I would not have published two books on complex national American issues, written 100+ stories for The New York Times, met my lovely second husband or enjoyed my river-view apartment.

But…it’s been quite a bumpy ride. I’m lucky I still have dear friends back in Toronto and other parts of Canada I’m in close touch with, and visit a few times a year. I am rarely homesick, but I do miss some cultural touchstones and a shared history.

I also still struggle mightily with the power here of the religious right, their relentless assault on women’s reproductive freedoms and laissez-faire American capitalism, which enriches so many so effectively — and buries millions more in low-wage jobs and medical fear and debt.

Have you changed countries for love?

Would you?

How has it turned out?

What did you make today?

By Caitlin Kelly

It was the end of the day, time to go for my walk along our town’s reservoir.

It’s a walk I’ve made dozens of times, in every season, for many years, along an asphalt path shaded by towering trees, the  reservoir on one side, filled with ducks and swans and turtles. People come there to fish, or sit, or jog.

Cyclists whiz past.

Nothing new.

All familiar.

But for…a trick of the light.

Spider web
Spider web (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you’re in the right place at just the right moment, and you’re paying attention — not yammering on your cellphone or texting or racing past — you’ll see stuff.

A deer. A small black turtle. Some ripe raspberries.

And there, shimmering in the early evening sunshine, was a huge spiderweb, as big — I measured — as the entire size of my hand, from base of my palm to the end of my middle finger, seven inches.

It was spectacular!

It was attached, with multiple strands, to the thick bark of a tree, as if, like some bivouacking mountain-climber, s/he’d decided to latch on and dangle. There were multiple attachment points, and then the web itself, with so many concentric circles I couldn’t count them all — 20?

In the center sat a very small brown spider, (probably exhausted!), perhaps half the size of my smallest fingernail. Even better, there were about five other, smaller webs nearby, sort of a spider condominium, each with its own spider. (Relatives? Tenants? Guests?)

I stood there for a few minutes, awestruck by the skill, artistry and the spontaneous beauty it brought to the end of my day.

What on earth could I possibly make of such delicate strength?

What did you make today?

The secret of a lasting marriage is…

Husband Crèche
Husband Crèche (Photo credit: dullhunk)

By Caitlin Kelly


My second wedding anniversary, to my second husband, arrives soon — September 17 — here’s a link to a description of that lovely day, with photos.

We’d been together for 11 years already when we finally tied the knot, in a small wooden 100+ year old church on an island in the harbor of my hometown, Toronto.

I loved him, but just couldn’t imagine taking vows with someone so different from me: Buddhist/Christian; American/Canadian; 30 years at the same employer/self-employed; Hispanic/Anglo; passive/aggressive; meticulous/spontaneous.

For many years, we fought, bitterly — two stubborn mid-life journo’s, both long-divorced with no kids. Two people who arrived in New York from cities far away, both determined to make our mark in the most sharp-elbowed city in the world.

It’s not easy to switch at day’s end from being someone able to beat ferocious competitors all day long to being sweet and pliable at home.

We do have tempers, and we were both well-bullied as teenagers.

It left us wary, hair-trigger, thin-skinned.

This blog post at Salon, written by an American woman who admitted she hit her husband, provoked many comments:

My husband and I weren’t even married yet when I first hit him. Afterward, I tried to rationalize what happened. I told myself I hadn’t hurt him. How could my scrawny 5’4” self actually hurt his strapping 6’2” frame, right? I swore it wouldn’t happen. But it did anyway.

My anger became my biggest secret. Whenever I commiserated with my sister or best friend  about our husbands, I would agree that, yes, men are maddening. But I would always leave out the the part about me hitting or slapping mine. I wasn’t lying exactly. Besides, I’d tell myself, it hardly ever happens.

But I knew it was wrong. Being a child who hits inanimate objects is one thing, but being a grown woman who directs her rages into her husband’s face is something else entirely. Each time it happened, I’d apologize profusely. Each time, my husband would forgive me, and I’d vow it would never happen again. But it always did.

Why is forgiveness top of mind right now?

It might be living in New York — where two prominent local politicians both betrayed their wives and got caught, yet both are running for office again.

It might be reaching mid-life, when some once-egregious and unforgivable sins begin to lose some of their power.

It might be the basic realization that none of us is perfect. We will, inevitably, hurt and disappoint and dismay and embarrass the people who adore us, and vice versa. Without the salve of forgiveness, no wound can heal.

It might watching a couple we introduced at our dinner table now divorce.


Our wedding rings.

Yet Jose and I still spat. It’s not nice.

The other day, after a rough week, we went for lunch in a friend’s garden, and the universe decided to teach us both a lesson.

Within minutes — for the first time since our childhoods — we were both stung by wasps, I on the ring finger of my left hand (where a wedding ring usually goes) and he above his right eye, the one he uses to focus when taking photos.

We were in fucking agony!

But all we could do was fuss and coo, fetching ice and aspirin and trying to soothe one another.

It took a wasp’s venom.

But I’m paying attention, dammit.

What has saved your marriage?