The power of silence

By Caitlin Kelly

There are only two places I’ve been, so far, where I was surrounded by utter silence — inside the Grand Canyon and on a friend’s ranch in New Mexico, a place so quiet I could hear myself digesting.

Some cultures revere silence and know how much we all need it. The United States isn’t one! People love to talktalktalktalktalktalk and will spill what sound like the most intimate secrets in a quick conversation with a stranger. It’s exhausting and disorienting if you come to the country from a more discreet, reticent culture.

And silence?

Terrifying!

Jose and I did a seven day silent Buddhist retreat in the summer of 2011 a month or so before we married. There were 75 people of all ages and it was fascinating to be surrounded by people with whom not a word was exchanged until the final Saturday evening, when we “broke silence” and found out, verbally, who everyone was.

I admit, we had whispered occasionally in our shared monastic bedroom but mostly relied on Post-It notes to communicate.

I was shocked to see participants walking through the woods — on their cellphones — or leaving in their cars to head into town for…talking?

I blogged about it every day and found the experience healing and insightful. Talking and listening is really really tiring! If you actually pay attention to others, this consumes a lot of energy.

Not talking is very freeing.

Silence imposes discipline.

It forces you into your own head, a place many prefer to avoid.

I was fascinated, when I tell people I did seven days without speaking, (we could ask questions of the teachers once a day), they all said: “I could never do that!”

And I would reply….why not?

Here’s an interesting NYT story about staying silent at breakfast:

Eating in silence is an ancient practice with roots in many monastic communities. “Buddhists, Celtic Mystics, Sufis, Vedic Mystics,” said Ginny Wholley, a teacher at the UMass Memorial Health Care Center for Mindfulness. “Everyone has a component of silence that is an inherent part of the practice.”

Jon Kabat-Zinn founded the center where Ms. Wholley teaches in 1979 as a way to promote and study the benefits of practices like these in a secular setting — in part because it’s challenging. The concept for silent breakfast is simple enough: focus on your food, quietly, and deal with whatever thoughts come up. But it’s more difficult than it seems.

….“One of the funny things about starting a mindfulness practice is that when you quiet the external noise, you start to hear more of the internal noise. If you’re not used to this, it can be incredibly unpleasant,” said Ravi Kudesia, a mindfulness researcher and assistant professor at Temple University’s Fox School of Business. “The key idea here is that it’s better to notice the whispers before they become screams.”

Here’s a list — one of my posts from that 2011 retreat — of all the sounds I heard instead.

Do you read self-help books?

By Caitlin Kelly

The book has sold more than 25 million copies in 40 languages.

It came out in 1989.

It has a really boring title — The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

But I think it’s also smart and worth reading, still.

That year, I had just moved permanently to the United States, a country whose population is 10 times greater than my own, Canada.

I was nervous as hell and felt like a raindrop falling into an ocean.

How could I ever make my mark?

Find my place socially and professionally?

I needed help!

And my family lived in Canada as did all my friends.

I had no American staff experience or any formal American education — as did all my competitors!

The United States is a country of very sharp-elbowed people, taught practically from birth lessons few other nations teach so assiduously — to compete really hard, beat the other guy, it’s all about you and your individual needs.

American success is a zero-sum game, with only one winner.

Covey’s book up-ended some of this.

I especially like the final Habit — Sharpen the Saw — staying mentally and emotionally sharp and refreshed.

You can’t do much when you’re burned out, bitter and exhausted. And, maybe like some of you, I have been at times.

I find some of his advice either banal (start with the end in mind) and some — within an American mindset — less so, that thinking “win-win” is more effective than punching every competitor in the face.

But as I near the end of a long career in an absurdly competitive and insecure industry — journalism — I find sharpening the saw ever more important. I’m now competing with people half my age with possibly three times the basic energy and stamina.

Add this to the general anxiety of self-employment, and we’ve been inundated in 2020 by a global pandemic, fires and floods and hurricanes and racism and violence and, oh yeah, the most important American election in maybe a century.

So staying calm, energized and focused matters more than ever. As I learned as a teenage lifeguard, people don’t always drown because they can’t swim — it’s because they panic.

So how do I stay sharp?

Long conversations with good friends about the joys and pleasures and many interests in our lives, not just work or politics. How are the new grandkids? The dog? (In two separate instances, both in Tennessee, the cow and the hedgehog.)

Naps, daily. I have no embarrassment about this, even though Americans are told ALL THE TIME they must always be more productive. i.e. don’t rest, don’t nap. A federal minimum wage stuck at $7.25 for years is one way to dump millions into a life without leisure and respite.

Exercise. I need to do a lot more, but am swimming 30 minutes three times a week.

Box breathing. I recently discovered this interesting way to reduce stress.

Playing Scrabble on the computer (advanced level.) I usually play 45 to 60 minutes and love how it’s both fun and challenging.

— Playing cards or Bananagrams with my husband. Both require quick thinking, especially Bananagrams, which demands thinking really fast and making/rearranging words you may have already committed to. I really like how that aspect alone forces you to hastily abandon “commitment” to something that isn’t working!

Have you read any self-help books you found truly helpful?

How?

What do you want them to see?

By Caitlin Kelly

So, finally, I have a new headshot, thanks to a sunny fall day and our balcony and a good salon and Jose’s talent.

I’m really happy with it, as my previous ones were, to my critical eye, all too casual or too formal or just out of date.

My favorite one until now was a quick snap Jose took on our balcony in March 2014 (!) just before I flew to rural Nicaragua with WaterAid for a fantastic week of work with them. I’m always my happiest when challenged, facing a trip or some sort of new adventure and it showed!

I’m very much my parents’ child in this respect — my mother traveled much of the world alone for years on end, and lived in places like New Mexico, Bath, Toronto, Montreal and Gibsons, B.C., a pretty coastal town. My father traveled the world for his work as a film-maker and, at 91, is considering trading the solitary boredom of rural Ontario for….Marrakesh.

I’m in!

Because I live on social media, on here and Twitter and Facebook and (ugh, rarely) on LinkedIn, I always need a fresh, appealing headshot. I do a lot of interviews for my work, and I always look online for any images of the people I’ll be speaking with — seems only fair to let them see who I am as well.

But my image needs to be:

not stuffy

not boring

friendly and approachable but also professional

When you’re in the public eye — and these days if you’re self-employed you really have to be — you need a terrific headshot!

So why does this one work?

— fresh from the hair salon! I can never do this so well myself.

— subtle make-up, but strong enough it reads well in black and white.

— very simple clothing, which is very much my style.

— Simple gold earrings for a hint of shine.

— a lovely background.

— no direct sunlight! We, both being photographers, know this. I see a lot of not-great headshots, often a selfie. I’ve tried, many many times, to snap a selfie that works as a headshot and, occasionally, have done well.

— obviously, very fortunate to have a talented professional as my photographer, my husband Jose Lopez! For The New York Times and others, he has photographed three Presidents and thousands of images, from the Bosnian war to pro football to cowboys.

Taking my photo is never that easy!

I have versions of this high and low-res and both in black and white as well.

It makes me feel more confident to be seen as I am now — but cleaned up!

Caitlin Kelly headshots, October 2020

The new COVID-era etiquette

Only solitude is 100 percent safe

By Caitlin Kelly

Canadians have just had their Thanksgiving and Americans are already geared up for Hallowe’en and their Thanksgiving, let alone other holidays and the (large) family gatherings usually expected and anticipated.

Not us.

Jose’s parents are long gone, his nearest sister lives a four-hour drive away and my only close relative, my 91-year-old father, is in Canada, where my American husband is banned and I face a 14-day quarantine. I haven’t seen him in more than a year and haven’t crossed that border since late September 2019, when it was no big deal.

Every social gathering — let alone professional — is now so fraught with menace and fear, caution and basic human desperation for a damn hug!

This week we are joining two friends, outdoors (bringing a blanket!) for a two-person birthday celebration at a Manhattan restaurant. This weekend, we’re meeting three people, also outdoors, for lunch.

The grilling!

Who will wear a mask and when and for how long?

Who have they met with and how recently and under what circumstances?

Do we trust their friends — who we have never met?

We live in downstate New York, where daytime temperatures are still in the 60s or 70s but night-time plunging to the 40s, hardly a comfortable temperature for sitting anywhere for very long.

It’s wearying.

Our family’s first and only grandchildren are twins born in D.C. in May — and my father still hasn’t seen them. Nor have I, since my half-brother refuses all contact after a 13-year estrangement.

Millions of people have now lost loved ones to COVID and never had the chance to say good-bye.

Forget weddings and other groups….the latest NY crisis was the result of (!?) a Sweet 16 party, after a wedding in Maine had the same effect.

Our local church is now, finally, open again physically, with an indoor service (limited, it’s a small space) and outdoors at 4pm on the lawn. What I miss more than anything is belting out my favorite hymns…now a dangerous thing to do.

Yes, it’s hard and lonely to never see anyone.

Yes, it’s annoying and difficult to negotiate these times, especially with government “guidance” that shifts daily.

Needs must.

Why work freelance?

By Caitlin Kelly

Here’s a powerful reminder that some jobs scar us for years, written by an HR expert I really admire and follow on Twitter, Katrina Kibben:

Trauma is the only way to describe what happens when managers go out of their way to demean and shrink their team’s confidence. Nothing is the same. The safety humans need to thrive, especially at work, is gone. Three years into owning my own company, those bad managers still influence how I lead my team every minute. I go to extremes to make sure I’m never like those bad bosses.

I will spend hours writing and rewriting a coaching email to ensure that people know I see them. Why? Those moments when someone you admire makes you feel small are seconds you never forget. When the shame happens on a daily cycle, it’s a whole new world of mind games. I can’t do that to people.

I know first-hand that the mind games don’t end because you quit your job either. After I walked away from my worst managers, I caught myself questioning the intentions of everyone with feedback. Let me tell you – that is not a good way to live your life. I still get coaching on feedback to make sure I deliver and receive it with empathy.

I’ve been doing Zoom sessions with American high school journalism students and really enjoying it — so far, with Florida, Michigan, Ohio, California and with Texas and Pennsylvania ahead.

One of the questions — why freelance?

What are its advantages?

My first reply?

Intellectual freedom!

I enjoyed aspects of my three staff newspaper jobs — at the Globe & Mail (Canada’s national newspaper), the Montreal Gazette and the New York Daily News.

But each job carried some truly heinous challenges as well: cut-throat internal gossip and competition, stupid or lazy or rote-minded management, sexism.

I loved breaking stories (i.e. getting them ahead of all my ferocious competitors).

I loved the crazy adrenaline rush of reporting and writing on deadline.

I loved learning so many new things and having tremendous experiences — from meeting Queen Elizabeth to visiting a rural Quebec commune to flying into an Arctic village of 500 people.

I loved knowing that my work was being read by so many people and could, occasionally, prove helpful to them.

The Daily News job, as Katrina writes, was the last straw for me. I won’t bore you with all the details but here’s one — I started in June and by late September my direct boss stopped speaking to me. He never again spoke to me until I was laid off about a year later.

As the unofficial company motto said — Sink or Swim!

So I’ve since stayed freelance, which is basically intellectual piecework. We joke that we eat only what we kill — i.e. no paycheck or pension or paid sick days or paid vacation.

Holidays? Hah! Only when we can afford the time and cost of using them.

But it also has freed me from working with and for bullies and brutes, a huge advantage for me.

I’ve also found a few communities of fellow independents on Twitter and participate in weekly Twitterchats, like #remotechat (Wednesdays, 1pm EDT) and #FreelanceChat (Thursdays, at noon EDT.)

The range of people on them is terrific — with people arriving from across the U.S., Canada and Europe. It makes us feel less lonely!

I also really enjoy the wild variety of my work.

In the past year, I’ve written on:

— STEM education (for an engineering magazine)

— pancreatic cancer research (for the Lustgarten Foundation)

— A Finnish energy executive (Neste)

— Why some long-resident foreigners in the U.S. choose not to become citizens (The Conversationalist)

All of these are on my website.

Working on your own — as so many are now doing because of the pandemic — is challenging, and next to impossible for women trying to manage multiple small children (800,000 have left the American workforce!)

It means being super-focused and self-disciplined, and not having an office with an appropriate chair, desk or lighting. (I write on a laptop on our dining table.)

It can also mean working to others’ needs and schedules — not, as some fantasize, sleeping til noon. My husband, a freelance photographer and photo editor, works freelance and his hours can start at 6:00 a.m. and sometimes go until 2:00 a.m.

But we enjoy it.

Has COVID changed your priorities?

By Caitlin Kelly

No one would ever dare suggest that a lethal virus is a good thing.

No one could have imagined that more than 200,000 Americans would already have died — and many more now suffer serious long-term effects.

But I’ve started to notice some changes in how we think and behave that, oddly and maybe shockingly, feel better for some of us — while hurting others! — than how we all lived, unquestioningly, before.

Shared and public places are much less crowded

Thousands of small businesses have closed. Disney laid off 28,000 employees and airline staff, from cleaners to veteran pilots, are out of work.

So it’s not kind to be happy about that. But if you, like me, loathe crowds of all sorts, even before they were potentially life-threatening, this is a huge relief. Our town YMCA recently finally re-opened and the pool has four lanes, open now only one swimmer at a time. (Normally, five, which I would find really uncomfortable. Having someone tap my foot to pass? NO.)

Since my beloved spin class is long gone, I’ve started doing three pool visits a week and sometimes have it all to myself. I would never have experienced our old, overcrowded Y as luxurious — but this is.

I miss such fun, silly, spontaneous moments — like meeting Canadian comedian Mike Myers at a Canadian consulate event in Manhattan

We’re being very , very selective about our relationships


In normal life, we tend to include a lot of people — face to face or through social media — who we may not especially like or admire. It’s a sort of social lubrication, necessary to get things done smoothly and efficiently, even when it’s basically pretty insincere.

In a time of terrible political division, with millions refusing to wear masks it’s really not a wise use of our limited energy to argue with anyone anywhere.

We need every ounce of it for ourselves and families and pets and true loved ones. This is a good thing! Conserve energy.

Now, certainly, seeing anyone in person means de facto assuming risk — even if you’re both masked or outdoors and well-spaced. Is this relationship worth it now?

Why?

Fewer relationships can also make for deeper emotional connection

I’ve noticed this. By the time I make a phone date or set aside time to be with someone face to face, why make chitchat? I’ve never been a fan of it, anyway, and now, with COVID’s sudden and invisible lethality/mortality so much closer to all of us, it’s no time for performative intimacy.

We’re being very clear and direct about what we need and expect of one another

I have a friend of many years, a fellow Canadian who runs her own successful business, and who has invited us many times this year to their country house. Much as I appreciate her generosity, I just won’t go and keep saying so.

I finally wrote her a very blunt — not angry — email explaining why: she interacts, for her work, with a lot of people. Many of them are very wealthy and rich New Yorkers (like many wealthy people) do what they please. So I don’t trust their choices, which may affect my friend and me and my husband.

Luckily, Jose and I are fine…This is him earlier in 2020 photographing the Pulitzers at Columbia University in New York City

Lousy relationships and marriages are under an intense new microscope when we have nowhere to flee

There are few experiences more miserable than being confined to (small) quarters for months on end with someone you really don’t like or love.

Here’s a New York Times essay about Coronavirus divorce:

In regular times, we’re always in motion, we’re always hustling, we’re always consuming, striving, climbing, struggling to get from A to B. And if you are unhappy with your relationships or your marriage, there’s a thousand ways to distract yourself: travel, work, socializing. I’m told that some people golf.

Now, all of a sudden, everyone has to be still. There’s no place to go but inward.

We’re all seriously re-examining our choices, whether about where we work, who we work with/for and how (hard) and where we really want to live now

This is huge.

City dwellers are fleeing to suburban or rural areas, desperate for outdoor physical space and the ability to distance from others. On my recent four-day visit to small-town Pennsylvania — about a 90 minute drive from Manhattan — every real estate listing I read said “pending” and a local told me her realtor friend was working 70-hour weeks.

American life — with no unions, low wages and a relentless capitalist drumbeat of DO MORE FASTER NOW — is typically really exhausting. The pandemic is now forcing millions to think, behave, work and relate differently, and for many months yet to come, whether managers or workers or the self-employed.

Some are planning to leave the United States.

Yes, it’s really hurting some people — mothers of small children especially are at their wits’ end, (one crying on-air on a recent national TV show after being fired by a boss who said “Figure it out” while managing a one year old and four year old at home.)

If nothing good comes of this massive upheaval, maybe it’s some long overdue change.

21 questions, answered

By Caitlin Kelly

I miss travel the most!

Time for something lighter!

The FT’s glossy magazine How to Spend It runs a 21-question survey of people whose taste and opinions they consider interesting.

Here are my answers to their questions:

My personal style signifier

A scarf or muffler, in silk, cashmere, wool, linen.

The last thing I bought and loved

Two throw pillows from Svenkst Tenn, a Swedish department store.

On my wishlist

Travel! To leave the United States and travel far and wide, slowly.

The best gift I’ve given recently

A copy of this book, to a friend I met online (!)

The best gift I have ever received

The massive Times Atlas of the World, given by my then very broke medical student boyfriend, later first husband

In my fridge, you’ll always find

Cheese, half and half, selzer, lemons and limes

My favorite room in my house

House? House!? I wish! Have never owned a house and haven’t lived in one since 1989, a New Hampshire rental. (Our one apartment bathroom is gorgeous, if tiny. I designed it and delight in it.)

The last album I downloaded

I never download and have long lists of things I want to.

I have a serious collection of

Brown and white transferware 19th century china. Linen napkins.

An object I would never part with

My Canadian passport.

An unforgettable place I’ve traveled to in the past year

A nature sanctuary in Pennsylvania, filled with silence and very tall pine trees. Not another soul.

The best souvenir I ever brought home

A set of metal mixing bowls from my favorite cookware store in Montreal — now out of business.

Recently I’ve been reading

A variety of fiction and essays.

The best book I’ve read in the past year

A recent “find”

Doyle online auctions!

If I could, I would collect

Friends!

I had a memorable meal at

A basic, small-town Italian restaurant in Pennsylvania. Great food. Welcoming staff.

My style icon

Hmmmm. Tough one! Probably Auntie Mame.

My grooming staples

Sunscreen. Many fragrances: L’Eau de l’Artisan by l’Artisan Parfumeur; Chanel Number 5; Terre by Hermes, Prada Iris. Glossier eyebrow liner.

If I weren’t doing what I do, I’d have been

A radio talk show host. Interior designer. Retail store owner. Choreographer.

I can’t wait to get back to

Canada, to see all our friends. Europe, for the same. Travel!

How to be a successful writer: my video

By Caitlin Kelly

Here’s a new video, thanks to Abby Lee Hood, who generously included me in her ongoing series of writer interviews.

It’s 1:08 and we talk about how to (re) define success in a world that too often equates making a LOT of money with being “successful”. I argue there are other metrics, as writers and as human beings.

Hope you enjoy!