Living with pain

By Caitlin Kelly

Some of you, I know, live with/in chronic pain. It’s exhausting and demoralizing and you measure your available energy in “spoons”, a word I learned from Twitter.

I have a severely arthritic right hip now, and it hurts whenever I do basically anything — get into the shower, roll over in bed, stand up. Like many people with arthritis it diminishes my appetite for exercise, which makes it worse. I just suck it up and rarely take painkillers. It is what it is. I have to bear the pain until I get the damn thing replaced.

I’m used to living in pain.

My husband has recently suffered a kidney stone whose 24/7 pain has been driving him mad.

But it’s been a real education for a man who has enjoyed superb health his entire life since childhood: no surgeries, broken bones or hospitalizations.

I’ve spent a lot of time inside the hammering sounds of an MRI machine and when my left hip was destroyed by a course of steroids meant to help me (!) the pain became so relentless I went on crutches for a while; it was replaced in February 2012.

Living with any sort of pain — mental, physical, emotional — is a challenge for everyone, but especially for those whose lives have, so far, been pretty pleasant and unscathed.

It can seem like a personal affront: how dare you inconvenience me!?

But, as the cliche says, you only develop resilience by going through some serious shit, and usually coming out of it aware that millions of us are also carrying some burden of pain, but often quietly and invisibly.

Witness the national meltdown chronicled in The New York Times:

In Chicago, a customer service agent for Patagonia described how a young woman became inconsolable when told that her package would be late. Another customer accused him of lying and participating in a scam to defraud customers upon learning that the out-of-stock fleece vest he had back-ordered would be further delayed by supply-chain issues.

In Colorado, Maribeth Ashburn, who works for a jewelry store, said that she was weary of being “the mask police.”

“Customers will scream at you, throw things and walk out of the store,” she said.

I flew only once in 2021, in late November, on a flight on Air Canada to Toronto from New York, then to Halifax, and back. Thank God, everyone wore their masks and were polite and calm — since more than 5,779 incidents of rage erupted on American domestic flights, 4,000 of them related to wearing a mask.

I have zero patience with this!

Every flight, I guarantee you, also contains people who are weary, grieving, scared to fly — and the last thing they need is the terror and anxiety (and delays) created by selfish aggressive babies, aka fellow adult passengers with no self-control.

I recently witnessed, at the local pharmacy in our suburban New York town, a similar adult tantrum — by a grown man raging at the clerk for limiting his purchase of at-home COVID tests to only four. Hah! Good luck finding any anywhere now.

As some of you know, I worked retail at $11/hour for 2.5 years at a suburban upscale mall, for The North Face, and, yes, I saw and felt some of this behavior there as well; I wrote about it in my book, “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail.”

Americans cherish the weird fantasy that anyone can become President or a billionaire, maybe both! But their consistent contempt for low-wage, customer-facing work — retail, hospitality, etc. — is really ugly, as if lower-paid workers deserve to be treated like shit because…they don’t (yet) have a better-paying and more prestigious job.

If we can’t get our collective act together — and behave like the adults we are — 2022 is going to be even more of a shitshow; we’re already losing so many burned-out, talented healthcare workers, sick of being yelled at, spat on, now even scared to leave the hospital in their scrubs.

When things get rough — or, as the British would say, go pear-shaped — it’s an adult choice to use your strength and maturity to not whip others with your misery.

I found this, from former Guardian columnist Oliver Burkeman’s final column, really smart:

The capacity to tolerate minor discomfort is a superpower. It’s shocking to realise how readily we set aside even our greatest ambitions in life, merely to avoid easily tolerable levels of unpleasantness. You already know it won’t kill you to endure the mild agitation of getting back to work on an important creative project; initiating a difficult conversation with a colleague; asking someone out; or checking your bank balance – but you can waste years in avoidance nonetheless. (This is how social media platforms flourish: by providing an instantly available, compelling place to go at the first hint of unease.)

It’s possible, instead, to make a game of gradually increasing your capacity for discomfort, like weight training at the gym. When you expect that an action will be accompanied by feelings of irritability, anxiety or boredom, it’s usually possible to let that feeling arise and fade, while doing the action anyway. The rewards come so quickly, in terms of what you’ll accomplish, that it soon becomes the more appealing way to live.

Pain is an inevitable part of life.

The Dior show at the Brooklyn Museum. Swoon!

By Caitlin Kelly

This is really one of the best museum shows you will ever see anywhere — even if you’re not a fashionista.

Christian Dior, the French fashion designer who died so young at 52, and who was quickly succeeded by 21-year-old (!) Yves St. Laurent, left an indelible mark on fashion and fragrance.

I love the contrast here between the simple rope and layers of crisp tulle!

This show, which ends February 22, is a massive, gorgeous, mesmerizing tribute to Dior and all the in-house designers who followed him — Marc Bohan, Raf Simons, Maria Grazia Chiuri and John Galliano. Each brought a specific vision to their work, from the clean-cut elegance of Bohan to the riotous OMG-ness of Galliano.

1949, silk taffeta

The show begins with Dior’s earliest work, sober-suited dresses and coats from the 1940s, as Europe was emerging from the misery of WWII — and a fantastic tomato-red coat with deep patch pockets and a cravat-type collar is a hit of joy.

One of the many terrific elements of this show is how well it also explains and unveils some invisible design processes — like the creation, for every garment, of an initial muslin prototype, which is refined until it’s time to use and cut expensive fabrics. (If you’ve never watched the film Phantom Thread, starring Daniel Day-Lewis as a fashion British designer, it’s a great primer.)

A wall of paper sketches, each with a tiny swatch of fabric pinned to each design, helps us see how designers plotted out an entire season, as do the “inspiration books”, (which reminded me of “The Book” taken home every evening by Miranda Priestley in The Devil Wears Prada.)

There’s a wall of magazine covers, vintage and contemporary, showing how the house of Dior has stayed fresh and relevant decades later.

I’m obsessed with textiles and fabric (no idea why!) so seeing the spectacular fabrics used here — in addition to the final design — was a great joy for me, like this, by Fortuny.

I loved the gallery of photos, black and white and color, of models and celebrities wearing Dior. If you know and love Richard Avedon’s classic 1955 image, Dovima with Elephants, the dress she wore is here!

The museum’s central atrium is astounding, with dresses somehow stacked all the way to the ceiling and a dazzling light show and music, leaving you happily awestruck by so much elegance. The curators also showcase a few gowns in glass cases you can literally sit beside, soaking up every detail, like a gown with embroidered tarot cards.

A detail of a French Revolution inspired gown by John Galliano
Oh, no big deal — just a skull and snake of gold lace guipure.

There are dozens of mannequins to admire and benches to sit on for a bit to just savor it in comfort.

As you finally leave, a bit drunk on beauty, there’s a room full of the dresses worn by current celebrities at the Oscars or Golden Globes or at Cannes. I’m not really a celebrity follower but I do love fashion, so it was actually a thrill to see the exquisite pale pink gown, a sort of damask with roses, worn by Jennifer Lawrence when she won her Oscar — I remember her working hard to gracefully scoop up the enormous train to climb those steps to the stage.

And — oooooh! — Absinthe, the stunning chartreuse satin cheongsam with fur trim worn by Nicole Kidman.

Why read a grim book?

By Caitlin Kelly

There are happy books and there are books you think…really?

I’m expected to get through the whole thing?

There are books, whether novels or non-fiction, about alcoholism, drug use, family abuse, that can feel like a real slog. The subject is undeniably depressing, frightening, even terrifying and most of its characters are people you would never want to meet.

I admit, I didn’t enjoy reading a huge 2018 best-seller, Educated, by Tara Westover, about the terrible family she grew up with, eventually escaping to a better life. I was (however unfairly) impatient with her for staying so long in an environment that was so awful. An earlier best-seller, also by a white woman, Jeanette Wells, was 2005’s The Glass Castle. But I did enjoy a Canadian book like this, North of Normal.

One of the best books I read last year was also emotionally difficult, In The Dream House, by Carmen Maria Machado, a memoir of lesbian domestic abuse. Now that sounds appealing! But her writing is extraordinary and it’s a great book.

I recently read the 2020 Booker Prize winner, Shuggie Bain. As I described it to a friend, a fellow journalist, she said she just couldn’t do it. I found that interesting as journalism, with our decades of exposure to some very tough stories, tends to harden us somewhat.

I did enjoy it, but it’s rough — a young boy, Shuggie, living in Glasgow poverty with an older brother and sister and a severely alcoholic mother, abandoned by his father.

I also found elements of it painful and hard to read because my mother was also an alcoholic, and the novel is filled with his hopeless hope that someday, someday, she won’t be — a fantasy painfully familiar to any child of an alcoholic.

The author, Douglas Stuart, survived a very similar childhood, so his ability to turn such grim fare into a compelling novel is impressive. And his background isn’t the standard trajectory of writing classes, workshops and an MFA — he worked in fashion design for decades and was writing it while working as the senior director of design for Banana Republic.

From Wikipedia:

In a conversation with 2019 Booker winner Bernardine Evaristo on 23 November, livestreamed as a Southbank Centre event, Stuart said: “One of my biggest regrets I think is that growing up so poor I almost had to elevate myself to the middle class to turn around to tell a working-class story.”[22] Discussing the “middle-class” publishers’ rejections he had received for Shuggie Bain, he told Evaristo: “Everyone was writing these really gorgeous letters. They were saying ‘Oh my god this will win all of the awards and it’s such an amazing book and I have never read anything like that, but I have no idea how to market it’.”[22] Stuart said in a 2021 conversation with the Duchess of Cornwall that winning the Booker Prize transformed his life.[36]

But I also liked a very tough book, Triomf, from 1994, by Marlene van Niekirk, the most celebrated Afrikaans author of South Africa. It’s dark as hell; the family she features even includes incest.

What, then, is the appeal of such books?

For some, voyeurism….thank God it’s not me!

For some, curiosity, having never experienced poverty and/or alcoholism, or life in a cult in the woods.

I hope, for some, as a way to develop or deepen empathy for people whose lives are wholly different from their own, as — in non-fiction — the storytellers have clearly been able to survive and thrive despite a really difficult earlier life. It becomes a narrative of resilience, not despair.

I admit, I cried hard at the end of Shuggie Bain, as it brought up a lot of unexpressed and painful memories of my own experiences of being “parentified”, always worrying about my mother’s health and safety instead of my own, (even though we were not, thank God, poor), and tied to a woman who was unable or unwilling to create a larger social safety net for herself. So reading a similar book can be painful but also cathartic — someone else really gets it. And, God forbid, someone else had it much worse.

Do you ever read books like this?

Which ones?

How have they left you?

NOTE: I refuse to use Amazon for any purchases, (I loathe its labor policies), so links to these books will not connect to their site.

More simple pleasures

By Caitlin Kelly

Happy New Year!

As we plunge into 2022, COVID raging, so many of us confined to quarters, we all really need some extra cheer!

First — a big thank you to everyone still showing up here. It’s been (!) 13 years since I posted for the first time, and here we all are.

Also — I am very much hoping you will stay healthy, but if this terrible disease catches you, you are well-vaxxed and it won’t be too grim.

A few things I enjoy:

Regaining our full northwest view of the Hudson River now that the treetops are bare

The exact moment, easily missed and so lovely, when the rising sun behind us on the east bank of the Hudson hits a row of windows on the west bank — making them look like signal fires. I call it the “ruby moment.”

Twinkling lights on a Christmas tree

Getting up for a morning bath, then back to bed under the duvet for more snoozing

Lying in bed reading

The astonishing burst of brilliant orange just as the sun sets

Enjoying all the Christmas cards we stick to the back of our front door

Fruitcake! (yes, really)

Fresh flowers in every room because the skies are so gray — and so are our moods

Silence, broken only by the hissing of radiators

So much great music on Sirius XM: jazz, classical, Classic Rewind, Deep Cuts

The endless beauty of the sky and clouds — just look up!

English and French decorating magazines — all those charming 17th c Cotswold cottages and rambling chateaux!

Playing my vinyl records, from Rocky Horror Picture Show to Vivaldi to Billy Bragg

Clipping and organizing recipes

Trying out new recipes

Clearing out clothes, shoes, household goods for donation or sale

Organizing every drawer and closet, ready for 2022

Re-watching beloved TV series (Derry Girls!) and movies I know so well I can quote the dialogue (The Devil Wears Prada, Casablanca, all the Bourne movies.)

Starting every cold dark morning with the gentle glow of a scented bedside candle

What are some of yours?