Whose (nasty) voices live inside your head?

By Caitlin Kelly

She was pretty, in an elegant black dress, nylons and shoes. Her hair was carefully highlighted, her gold jewelry tasteful. Likely in her late 50s or early 60s, she radiated elegance and confidence.

But, as she turned the corner the wrong way to head to the five-star hotel dining room, I heard her mutter: “Pathetic!”

To herself.

Who was living inside her head and why were they — still — so cruel?

I later saw an interaction with her husband, a soft-spoken and highly-educated retiree, as she made another meaningless and minor error anyone could make — and he immediately chastised her.

It was painful to watch, both his attitude and her reaction.

Don't stay trapped!
Don’t stay trapped!

Here’s a smart and helpful piece from Alternet via Salon:

Loser! You messed this up again! You should have known better!

Sound familiar?

It’s that know-it-all, bullying, mean-spirited committee in your head. Don’t you wish they would just shut up already?

We all have voices inside our heads commenting on our moment-to-moment experiences, the quality of our past decisions, mistakes we could have avoided, and what we should have done differently. For some people, these voices are really mean and make a bad situation infinitely worse. Rather than empathize with our suffering, they criticize, disparage and beat us down even more. The voices are often very salient, have a familiar ring to them and convey an emotional urgency that demands our attention. These voices are automatic, fear-based “rules for living” that act like inner bullies, keeping us stuck in the same old cycles and hampering our spontaneous enjoyment of life and our ability to live and love freely.

Some psychologists believe these are residues of childhood experiences—automatic patterns of neural firing stored in our brains that are dissociated from the memory of the events they are trying to protect us from. While having fear-based self-protective and self-disciplining rules probably made sense and helped us to survive when we were helpless kids at the mercy of our parents’ moods, whims and psychological conflicts, they may no longer be appropriate to our lives as adults.

One therapist I know calls them “old tapes” — possibly a meaningless phrase to anyone under the age of 30: “Tapes?” (As in: tape recordings on cassette or [gasp] reel-to-reel. Things we keep re-playing and listening to, even if they’re toxic.)

I felt so badly for this woman, whose external appearance and life of ease — retired, dividing her time between two homes in lovely areas of the country — initially might have intimidated me.

Because I know all too well what it’s like to have a nasty voice, or several, echoing in your head.

Some of us try to drown them out with alcohol or drugs or food or shopping, costly ways to self-soothe.

Some of us spend a lot of time and money in therapists’ offices, trying to make sense of why these voices still resonate so loudly, sometimes decades after we first heard them.

They can carry such power and pollute or destroy so many other relationships, whether with friends, lovers, our spouse, co-workers, a boss…

Is there an unwelcome and nasty voice inside your head?

What are you doing to silence or exorcise it?

 

And then, suddenly, it gets real…

By Caitlin Kelly

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It was a sad, sudden shock to read this from a fellow blogger recently:

It’s raining, and the sky is overcast.  I cried.

I woke up to an empty apartment.  The water leaking from the ceiling is hitting a tin bucket, sending out an echo.  I cried.

Today, I am not strong.  But I’m giving myself permission to feel it all.  And I’m not so sure that’s weak, either.

It turns out, losing what feels like home is much more difficult than I thought.  Buddy.  Georgia.  They were my home.

I respect him and what we had far too much to shell out details to a semi-faceless-web, but I feel that to move on, I have to say this “out loud”; Georgia and I have gone our separate ways.

The blog, Key and Arrow, written by a young schoolteacher in Austin, Texas, has been a source of pleasure for me for a while now. Every Monday, she posts “Seven Things”, a recap of seven pleasures from her past week, charming and inspiring, with lots of photos of meals, her man, her dog…

Now the man and dog are gone and I, too, feel a little bereft.

The Internet is odd that way, all this uninvited intimacy with strangers, people we will likely never meet in person, but whose children and pets and lives become a part of ours for a while, possibly for years.

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Some people disclose a stunning amount in their blogs, as I have occasionally as well, including infidelity, mental illness, family strife and addiction. The Internet sometimes feels like a safe place to park difficult and complicated feelings, hoping against hope that someone else out there will read you and say:

“You, too? I thought that was only me!”

Admitting publicly, especially to strangers, that your life is actually complicated and difficult takes guts. We’re not all perky and shiny all the time, and blogs that reveal little of the writer behind it quickly lose me. There’s plenty of that faux fabulousness on Facebook already.

But doing so also means trusting that others will read you with compassion and empathy  — not schadenfreude and voyeurism. (It happens.)

It takes trust.

I like that it demands trust, as when intimacy is met with kindness, friendship blossoms.

In the past few years, I’ve become friends with several readers of Broadside and plan to finally meet and visit with two of them, both living in England, this winter; both moved from reader to new friend after I posted this very dark and personal piece about my mother.

I find these web-created friendships sustaining, as sometimes people thousands of miles away better comprehend us than our own families, colleagues or neighbors.

Do you feel close to anyone whose blog you read?

Or to your blog followers?

 

 

The quest for belonging

By Caitlin Kelly

Is there one more existential?

Maybe not, for some people, who are born, live and die within the same four walls or zip code or area code, state, province or country.

Others, like me, feel both at home in many places yet not really rooted in any of them.

I was born in Vancouver, Canada; moved at two to London, England; back at five to Toronto; then on to Mexico, Montreal, Paris, New Hampshire and then New York.

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I’m writing this on a park bench in a small town in Ontario, visiting my father for a few days to celebrate my birthday and his 85th next week. He bought a lovely 1860s home a few years ago here and has fixed it up nicely — the garden now has fruit trees and a pond with koi.

To me, it’s heaven, a place I’d be thrilled to own.

But he wants to sell it and move. To where? Anyone’s guess.

Happiest in motion...
Happiest in motion…

Itchy feet are normal in our family.

My mother has lived in New York, Massachusetts, New Mexico, Mexico, England, Toronto, Montreal, Peru, British Columbia; my father in Vancouver, Toronto, Ireland, London and for several years on his boat in Europe.

So I have nowhere to call “home” in the sense of some long-cherished family homestead, nor any expectation of inheriting one.

And longtime Broadside readers know that my husband and I are not close to our families physically or emotionally. Working freelance means those relationships are tenuous and often temporary.

I like living in suburban New York and am always glad to return there, but some of my deepest friendships  remain in Toronto, a place where real estate is breathtakingly and punitively expensive, as out of reach for me financially, even after decades of hard work and saving, as Santa Fe, New Mexico is for Jose, my husband, who grew up there and would love to return. My husband’s late father was the minister for a church there — long since torn down and replaced by the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum.

Only a small courtyard and an apricot tree now mark his childhood home.

I joined a local church in 1998 but have not been there much recently, too often feeling out of step with a wealthy and conservative congregation focused on child-raising.

Oddly (or not), these days I most often feel I belong at my local YMCA, as I am there so often for my dance classes and to use the gym. There, I always see people I know and like.

I spent a few minutes in the library here, asking if they have my latest book. They don’t, but the librarian said “I read you!” Which was pleasant.

Then I went to the local convenience store and was thrilled to find my first-ever story in the July 2014 issue of Cosmopolitan.

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Sometimes I feel my work, friends and husband are my real home, the place(s) where I belong and always feel valued — not within family or a job or faith community or specific geographical setting.

Where do you belong?

 

Five reasons to freelance — and five reasons not to!

By Caitlin Kelly

I went freelance, for the third time, in 2006 after losing a staff job at the New York Daily News — but I also freelanced, by choice, full-time for four years right out of college, so it wasn’t a terrible shock to lose an office, colleagues and a paycheck.

I grew up in a family of freelance creatives, people who wrote for print and television and my father was a film director. No one had a steady paycheck or pension to look forward to and rely on. So it all felt normal to me.

You can attend a mid-week matinee!
You can attend a mid-week matinee!

Five reasons to go, or stay, freelance:

You’re very intrinsically motivated (i.e. you don’t need a whip over your head to get it done)

Autonomy ‘r us! Some people are just a whole lot happier not having a boss. And any organization, no matter how small, is going to impose policies and procedures, some of which are usually inane and some of which you might deeply disagree with.

All of which come with someone else’s paycheck.

You want more control of your work/life scheduling

Maybe you have children and/or pets and/or an ailing loved one who needs your attention as well. Maybe you prefer to work from 4pm to midnight or 2am to 8am…or whenever it suits you. Freelancing allows you tremendous freedom, within limits, to set your own hours and schedule.

I take a jazz dance class on Monday and/or Friday mornings, from 9:30 to 10:30 or 11:00 a.m — and no staff job I know of would allow for that. It’s fun and social and gives me tremendous pleasure and keeps me healthy. And I like knowing this is a bonus no job would offer.

I also take as much vacation, whenever possible; my husband, even after 30 years at the Times, must request his vacation time in early January and defer to those (!) with more seniority than he.

This was a workday for us in rural Nicaragua. Sweet!
This was a workday for us in rural Nicaragua. Sweet!

You can choose a wide variety of clients and projects

Staff jobs, de facto, have set roles and responsibilities they have hired you to perform. Freelancers can freely pick and choose our clients and types of work, from quick 300-word stories to 3,500 word features to 100,000 word books. We can fly to another country to do some reporting or spend a week at a conference meeting cool people who can help our careers.

If you’re getting bored or have a difficult client, switch it up!

Intellectual challenge is up to you

If your personal life is crazy and all you have energy for is lighter projects, that’s your call. That’s a huge benefit when our personal lives go haywire and we need to lighten our loads for a while. When you work for someone else, it’s all up to them. Plus, your professional opportunities for advancement and growth (and pay) are largely within their budget, schedule and control.

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Your income is your choice

Key! If you want to double or triple your income — or even just boost it by 22.3% — that’s also within your control, not something at the pleasure of your boss or company CEO.

Freelancers see a very direct and satisfying correlation between our energy, stamina, skill and experience, and the zeros on our tax returns — with no office politics and no bullshit excuses why you still, somehow, don’t deserve — or just won’t get — a raise, commission or bonus.

Five reasons to stay on someone’s payroll

You’ve got huge overhead you can’t quickly and easily reduce

If you’ve got multiple children expecting you to pay for their educations, freelancing is going to be tough. If you’re crushed by student debt yourself already and/or credit card debt (especially with a high APR), freelancing — i.e. not having a reliable income each month — can be really stressful, certainly as you are just getting started and cannot command the highest fees.

And many clients pay late (45 to 60 days after invoice) while some try to screw us out of our fees.

I know some people earning $100,000 to 130,000 a year freelancing, but they are not, certainly as writers in journalism today, in the majority.

You need someone telling you what to do, and when to do it, and how to do it right

If you’re the sort of person who craves routine and a structure and people making sure you have done the work correctly, freelancing may feel too loosey-goosey. Every single day’s productivity is completely your own responsibility, so if you’re someone who likes to watch daytime TV or Candy Crush, good luck with that.

Your ability to make enough income to gas the car, feed your family and take your dog to the vet are often the primary or exclusive measure of your success. Your primary goal is to find, nurture and keep ongoing and profitable relationships — not please your superiors and colleagues.

A lovely gift from my former assistant. Someone cared!
A lovely gift from my former assistant. Someone cared!

You really need the company (and input) of other people

Working alone at home is lonely and isolating. If you treasure your office pals and going out for margaritas with them, freelancing all day by yourself may drive you nuts. Yes, you can rent a co-working space, but you’re still there to work and paying for additional space, and not necessarily surrounded by like-minded folk.

Hustling scares you (to death)

Freelancers eat only what we kill. No, not literally! But we start many weeks, or years, with no clear, definite idea what our income is actually going to be. Sure, we set income goals — but clients die, turn into insatiable monsters we have to fire, publications suddenly close or trim their budgets and mayhem just happens sometimes.

Yet those monthly bills keep coming! If the idea of constantly seeking out, and nurturing, new client relationships fills you with dread, keep the day job.

You crave the validation of “I work at…”

A phrase that drives me crazy is “Who’re you with?” I’m with myself, actually.

The constant status-check of ascribing your value and prestige to your Big Name Employer seems, to me, sadly antiquated now that 30 percent of Americans work for themselves, or as temps or contract workers only.

But if you really like saying “I work for BNE”, then get and keep a job there.

The downside? If or when you’re laid off from a staff job, your identity — and your income, of course — may take a serious and unexpected whack.

How about you?

Which lifestyle suits you best?

Do you hate your work?

By Caitlin Kelly

This was a workday for us in rural Nicaragua. Sweet!
This was a workday for us in rural Nicaragua. Sweet!

Here’s a truly depressing look at the American workplace:

 Curious to understand what most influences people’s engagement and productivity at work, we partnered with the Harvard Business Review last fall to conduct a survey of more than 12,000 mostly white-collar employees across a broad range of companies and industries. We also gave the survey to employees at two of The Energy Project’s clients — one a manufacturing company with 6,000 employees, the other a financial services company with 2,500 employees. The results were remarkably similar across all three populations.

Employees are vastly more satisfied and productive, it turns out, when four of their core needs are met: physical, through opportunities to regularly renew and recharge at work; emotional, by feeling valued and appreciated for their contributions; mental, when they have the opportunity to focus in an absorbed way on their most important tasks and define when and where they get their work done; and spiritual, by doing more of what they do best and enjoy most, and by feeling connected to a higher purpose at work.

My recent trip with WaterAid America to the poorest part of Nicaragua– all these photos– was an amazing re-set for me. Our multi-national, five-person team, only two of whom had met previously, worked 12-hour days in 95-degree heat, and even had to push the van every time to get it started.

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We also faced extraordinary poverty, interviewing people living on $1/day in the second-poorest nation in the Americas after Haiti. It could, I suppose, have felt depressing and enervating, but we were meeting amazing people doing valuable work.

It was by far my happiest paid week in a very, very long time.

What I saw and felt there also radically altered the way I now think about my career and how I hope, at least some of the time, to earn my living.

Because our work during that week — driving four hours a day into the bush to interview local women in Miskitu — hit all four of the core needs at once.

We were treated with kindness and respect, laughed loudly and often, and knew the work we were focused on was life-changing. How much better could it get?

A typical working lunch in Nicaragua
A typical working lunch in Nicaragua

People fantasize wildly about the life of a writer, how creative it must be, how satisfying.

I discussed this recently with a female friend, recently retired after a 30-year career as a writer at the Toronto Star.

“Do you think our work is creative?” I asked her.

“Not so much,” she said.

We’re expected to be highly productive. We get to meet and interview a wide variety of people, but creative? That’s not what journalists (sad to say) are paid for.

I stay freelance for many reasons, and the key one is autonomy and the chance to re-make my work into something that, whenever possible, hits all four core needs.

Jennifer and I at the beach; our translator, Dixie, takes a break
Jennifer and I at the beach; our translator, Dixie, takes a break

My field, journalism and publishing, has changed a great deal in recent years — pay rates have been reduced to 1970s-era levels,  which requires that I and many others now work much, much faster on many more projects at once to make a decent living.

I dislike having to race through most of my assignments to earn a profit — but quality costs time and money to produce and very few people are willing, now, to pay for that.

I never used to hate my work, and I find it very stressful when I do. But journalism is a field in which workers are rarely thanked or praised, in which sources can be elusive or demanding and in which we rarely seem to find time or money to focus on serious issues.

As they are for too many frustrated workers, the four core needs are often damn difficult to attain.

(Or is it “just work”? It’s not meant to be enjoyable)?

How about you?

Do you hate your work?

The challenge of giving away your money

By Caitlin Kelly

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Interesting piece in The New York Times recently about a college class that teaches students about philanthropy:

Vinay Sridharan must make it through microeconomic theory and the writings of Proust before the end of his senior year at Northwestern in June. But in one course, the final project is far less abstract: give away $50,000.

It is also far more difficult than it may seem.

This course in philanthropy, endowed with a grant from a Texas hedge fund manager, requires students to find and investigate nonprofit organizations and, if they stand up to scrutiny, give them a portion of the five-figure cash pot.

“I didn’t realize they had real money to give,” said Margaret Haywood, the director of work force development at the Inspiration Corporation, a Chicago charity that received $25,000 from the Northwestern students last year.

The workshop — and others like it that have sprung up in the last few years at a dozen universities, including Harvard, Stanford, Princeton and Yale — offers a real-world experience of philanthropy that is rare in the cloistered halls of academia, and which otherwise is reserved for institutions and the affluent.

If you are fortunate enough to have income, and savings, beyond that needed for immediate basics — food, housing, health care, education, transportation, clothing — the question quickly arises:

How much, to whom and when will you give some of it away?

My working trip to Nicaragua in March with WaterAid, (which I blogged about here), introduced me to a terrific woman who is passionate about philanthropy and who blogs about it, Jennifer Iacovelli Barbour. Mother of two small boys, Jen lives in Maine — and the first time we met was in the Atlanta airport enroute to Managua, soon to share a small van in 95 degree heat for 12-hour days for a week. We had a blast!

Jennifer and I at Bilwi airport, after arriving in a 12-seater airplane.
Jennifer and I at Bilwi airport, after arriving in a 12-seater airplane.

It was such a tremendous pleasure to spend time with people who care so deeply about the work they are doing, and whose work is changing people’s lives for the better.

I also wrote recently about this question of legacy for the Times:

The decision-making process should begin with some philosophical questions, said Isabel Miranda, a partner in the Bloomfield, N.J., law firm Pearlman & Miranda. Ms. Miranda, a former bank trust officer, now specializes in helping clients plan their wills, trusts and estates.

“Who do I owe my success to? What values do I want to reflect? How do I want to pay back the organizations I believe in?” she said.

The subject is an interesting one, since not everyone has children to leave their assets to — we don’t and nor are we close to young cousins or nieces or nephews — and we’ll need to make thoughtful decisions about who are the best stewards of our hard-earned dollars.

In my case…I’m still not sure.

One organization I am passionate about, which supports the work of journalists who cover traumatic issues (war, violent crime, health, conflict) and helps them recover afterward is the Dart Center, so they’re on my radar already.

Sorry to say, I doubt my alma mater will get anything, as I found it sadly impersonal and bureaucratic, even if I did get a decent and affordable (Canadian) education.

One charity I now support with my time and skill is the Writers Emergency Assistance Fund, which can grant up to $4,000 within a week to qualified non-fiction writers facing financial crisis. Please donate here!

Do you make charitable donations?

To whom and why?

 

 

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

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?