Social triage

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I miss these amazing women — the team at my radiation clinic. This was Nov. 15, 2018, my final day of treatment.

 

By Caitlin Kelly

I’ve written a lot here about trying to find community and loneliness.

But social triage is also  — as we say — “a thing.”

Just as ER and conflict medical staff triage patients into: will die, might die, treat first, we tend to decide who’s going to be closest to us and to which friends, or family, we’ll devote the bulk of whatever time and affection we can spare.

I was diagnosed in late May 2018 with very early-stage breast cancer and am, thankfully, fine. But it has, as serious illness tends to do, made much clearer to me who I most want in my life and who, now, I really don’t.

(Others have made the same decision about me — three former friendships died a long time ago. It happens.)

 

 

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So who are the people I now want closest and treasure most?

 

— We laugh a lot.

— We make consistent and concerted efforts to see one another face to face, even if only by Skype across an ocean.

— Regular long phone conversations — texts and emojis are just not enough.

— Regular play dates: coffee, lunch, a museum or show.

— Some have accompanied me to medical appointments, their mere presence a tremendous comfort.

— Months may go by without much contact, but we trust one another’s affection and loyalty to know that life gets crazy and we will re-connect.

— We send one another little gifts or cards just because we can.

— They really understand that life can be frightening, and show compassion for fear, anxiety and tears. They don’t flee when times are difficult.

 

 

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Those left behind?

 

— It’s always all about them. They don’t even draw breath before launching into a 20-minute monologue.

— They never simply ask “How are you doing?”

— So much drrrrrraaaaaaaama! Exhausting.

— People who radiate haste and anxiety. Much as I have compassion for them, I stay far away. I have enough anxiety of my own.

— People with no sense of perspective, who whine and complain about issues that are for them enormous — but which in the larger scheme of things are minor and easily resolved.

— People who never initiate contact but wait for me to jump-start every meeting.

— People unable to know how much their own challenges are already softened by the privileges of good health and enough income.

 

Have you become more selective about your friendships?

Why buy art?

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Tools of the trade! An auction catalogue and bidding paddle

 

By Caitlin Kelly

Isn’t that something only rich people do? Billionaires in salerooms like Christie’s and Sotheby’s (pronounced Suth-uh-bees with a soft, slurred th) flicking an eyelid to denote their multi-zero bid?

Actually no.

But buying original art — even a numbered print, (lithograph, engraving, etching, silkscreen, monoprint, linocut) — can feel intimidating until you learn the lingo.

My father is a documentary film-maker but also a talented artist working in a range of media, including oils, lithograph, engraving and even silver. He’s collected art  — from a Picasso litho to a Renoir engraving, (both of which I’ve spotted in Swann catalogues), to Inuit soapstone sculpture to 19th century Japanese prints.

I was very lucky to grow up with such eclectic beauty on our walls, and it absolutely informed how I see and what I enjoy. It also showed me that owning art is a lovely decision. You can go through a few sofas in your lifetime, but art you love is something to keep for years.

In my 20s, thanks to an inheritance, I bought a large silkscreen print, photos by Jerry Uelsmann, Andre Kertesz and Steichen and three colored pencil sketches. I did, I admit, make a calculated decision about the photos, and sold the Kertesz later at Swann.

 

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The saleroom at Swann Galleries in Manhattan. The works are all on display for preview and you can ask to examine them closely without covers before you bid to know what their condition is and how much it might cost to restore.

 

If you’re on Etsy or Instagram, you’ll find many artists selling their work, some of it very affordable. Generally, it’s wise to frame paper artwork carefully with acid-free matt and UV-protective glass  and photos, especially, need to displayed out of direct sunlight.

 

But why buy art?

 

Good heavens, why not?

If you can afford $500 or $1,200 for a new cellphone or computer you can acquire art at that price.

Hanging on our bedroom wall is a gorgeous litho I got at Swann for $600 by Maurice Vlaminck, from the 1920s. Over our bed now hangs an etching by Raoul Dufy, from the same auction, for which I paid a bit more.

I read the catalogue carefully, decided which ones I wanted and decided what my budget was — the auction house always adds a “buyer’s premium” of 25 percent, sometimes less. I registered, got my paddle (which you raise to show you’re bidding on that item), and waited for hours til “my” pieces came up. There are hundreds of items in an auction, and its rhythm is carefully planned. There’s always an estimate given weeks in advance, which can go low or blast far above projections.

But you can also buy art at antique stores, galleries, graduating student shows at local art colleges, street fairs.

I love the explosive style, brilliant colors and Canadian landscapes of this artist, Julia Veenstra, who I found and follow on Instagram.

A splurge — $1,500 — was for an image I stumbled across at the Winter Antiques Show, a very fancy New York City affair I usually just attend to savor museum-quality material I could never afford. But…oh my…there was a photo exhibitor from California selling images by a man I had never heard of that stopped me in my tracks.

I now want all his work!

Here’s a link to the image I bought; the photographer is a man in his 60s, a Finn named Pentti Sammhallahti. Here’s the page of his work.  

I find it mysterious, quiet and deeply compelling.

I’ve been collecting photography since my 20s and Jose, of course, added some extraordinary images from his own collection — including a signed and numbered original print of The Loneliest Job in the World, the iconic black and white image of former U.S. President John F. Kennedy standing in his office, silhouetted against the window; Jose began his career at The New York Times working with the photographer George Tames, who signed and gave it to him.

Copies now sell for $50 from the Times’ archive — our print is very different, much darker and has a totally different feeling to it as a result.

So, where to start?

 

Go to a museum or contemporary art gallery — and take your time!

 

Notice which pieces move you.

 

Which make you stand still and stare, mesmerized?

 

What is it about them: color, period, artist, detail, scale, brushwork, subject matter?

 

It doesn’t have to be pretty or decorative.

 

Ignore everyone who snaps a cellphone image and doesn’t even look at the work.

Learning about materials and processes will make asking questions of gallerists and auctioneers easier.

I wish everyone could afford and would own some original art. Few things I’ve ever spent money on have offered me such consistent daily pleasure.

 

Do you own any?

Would you ever buy a piece if you could afford to?

Which categories appeal to you?

Bath time!

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Those little mosaic tiles we bought in Paris and shipped home

 

By Caitlin Kelly

Too funny.

Turns out bathing is the new black, according to The New York Times Style section:

“In the past two years we have seen bath time taking off,” said Alisha Ramos, the publisher of Girls’ Night In, an online newsletter aimed at 25-to-34-year-olds seeking a respite from overcharged lives. For her followers and a widening circle of contemporaries, the bath is a place to unplug, to indulge in the ultimate luxury: taking time for oneself.

When we renovated our minuscule — 35 square foot — only bathroom — the deepest tub I could find was top of mind. It’s 21 inches deep, takes a good 20 minutes-plus to fill and is annoying as hell to clean.

But oooooohhhhhhhh. The luxury of having every inch covered by warm water, especially on cold, windy winter days.

I buy cheap-o bath oil and toss in drops of scented oils: cinnamon, eucalyptus, peppermint. Or my favorite product ever, Algemarin, a German product which my granny used to use, which turns the water a deep blue and smells divine.

I know showers are more efficient, but — as anyone who reads this blog knows already — efficiency is not my highest goal. Pleasure, yes. Our building’s water pressure is lousy, so a shower is also no great source of enjoyment.

I don’t stay in the tub for hours, usually maybe 15 minutes at most.

I designed our bathroom to look and feel like a spa somewhere in the Middle East, splurging on gorgeous tile I shipped home from Paris, choosing a strong mustard Farrow & Ball color for the walls and adding metal touches like the copper jug I bought in Istanbul, a copper handmade sink we bought in Mexico for $30, ($1,000 here), a small brass bucket to hold things like toothpaste and floss and a metalwork bowl my father brought home from Jerusalem.

The curved wooden vanity, (which I also designed and had custom-made), floats above the floor to make cleaning easier.

I also planned for safety and comfort and made sure the edge of the tub is a wide, smooth piece of marble, perfect for sitting on comfortably when ill or post-surgery.

One of the happiest moments of my life was on a bitterly cold winter’s day in Paris, visiting one of the city’s many old-school hammams, spending the day wet and steamy, then swaddled tightly in crisp white sheets, then sipping mint tea.

A schmancy spa has nothing on an old-school hammam, crowded and noisy and a real taste of normal life for even middle-class Parisians; my last visit to one, in the 18th. arrondissement, had me slipping across a marble slab with dozens of naked women, clustered like seals.

Quel souvenir!

 

Are you a bath person?

When age becomes a four-letter word

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By Caitlin Kelly

I’m now in that fabulous place where I’m at the top of my game professionally —- and fewer and fewer terrific work opportunities, certainly full-time jobs with affordable health insurance, are available to me because of my age.

Speaking by phone, I recently had a new/potential PR strategy client — a man — ask me directly: “How old are you?”

I was a bit stunned and finally, laughing, replied: “Over 45. That’s enough.”

I could have said over 50 but imagine….all those extra years!

Here’s a recent New York Times op-ed on the double standard women in politics face regarding their age:

 

The Democrats vying for 2020 run a remarkable age gamut. Mr. Buttigieg is the youngest and Bernie Sanders, at 77, is the oldest. The prominent female candidates cluster more in the middle: Kirsten Gillibrand is the youngest at 52, and Elizabeth Warren is the oldest at 69, with Kamala Harris (54) and Amy Klobuchar (58) in the middle. But whether a youngish candidate is bright, brilliant and promising or inexperienced, off-putting and ruthlessly ambitious depends on whether the young thing in question is male or female…

Unfortunately for women, age poses an unsolvable problem: They are seen as too young and inexperienced right up until they are branded too old and tedious. Ms. Warren, for example, finds herself put in the sameold” category as Mr. Sanders and Joe Biden, even though both men are nearly a decade older than she is.

Men who are more or less the same age as Ms. Warren — Sherrod Brown (66), John Hickenlooper (67), Jay Inslee (68) — are not lumped in with the white-hairs. If women in their 40s are “in a hurry,” and women in their 50s are old news, and women in their 60s are just old, when, exactly, is a woman supposed to go to the White House?

 

I probably use social media more often than most women in their 30s or 40s — who are already swamped climbing the career ladder, commuting and/or parenting.

Yet, here we go, also in the NYT:

 

“We don’t want to lean out of that, we want the Cami-stans to want to pick it up,” one editor piped in. (For those over the age of 40: a “stan” is a kind of superfan.)

 

Seriously, enough with this bullshit.

Like anyone north of 40, let alone beyond, doesn’t read?

Watch TV, YouTube, Insta?

Tweet?

I have no kids or grand-kids, so if I want to talk to someone decades my junior, it’s going to be social and/or professional, not familial.

Luckily, I still have friends in their 20s, 30s and 40s and really enjoy their companionship. I’m delighted when they choose to hang out for an afternoon or catch up for a long phone or Skype chat. I offer advice when asked (and sometimes when not!) but our concerns are hardly wildly different — where’d you get that fantastic lipstick? How’s work? How’s the new house?  What are you reading these days? Mammos hurt!

 

Friendship, in my world, need know no boundaries.

 

Work, illegally and so annoyingly, does.

I don’t Venmo (I use PayPal) but I actually do know what it is.

The next time you assume someone older than you is de facto ignorant of a word or phrase or reference, ask.

Then be pleasantly surprised — or have a useful conversation in which you share your knowledge.

Where will love take you?

 

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Atwater Market, in Montreal, where I met my first husband

 

 

By Caitlin Kelly

My mother was 17 — a headstrong American beauty freshly graduated from her prep school. My father was then 23, a handsome sailor from Vancouver painting in the south of France, supported by his father.

They met, bien sur!, in a little village on the Cote d’Azur at a party and that was that. My mother, desperate to flee life with her wealthy mother who kept marrying and divorcing (six times, maybe eight?), returned to New York City and married my father at the enormous Romanesque Park Avenue cathedral of St. Bartholomew. I used to walk past it on the way to one of my Manhattan journalism jobs, aware it was partially responsible for my even being in New York.

They moved back to Vancouver — a provincial backwater in the early 50s —  but they had fun: he opened an art gallery and she modeled. They moved to London for three years after I was born; (he made films for the BBC) then to Toronto, finally divorcing there, where I grew up.

I wanted to get to New York and I also wanted to marry, but I couldn’t quite imagine how either of those things would happen. I couldn’t picture a Canadian man willing and legally able to move to New York.

 

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Montreal

 

Living in Montreal in the 1980s, working as a reporter for the Montreal Gazette, I met my first husband — also a party guest at my housewarming. He was an American from New Jersey, in his final year of medical school at McGill.

We spent seven years together in New Hampshire and New York; I followed him to the U.S. in 1988, legally able to do so thanks to my mother’s citizenship.

My mother and I basically switched lives — I to live in a town 25 miles north of her birthplace, New York City, and she living 25 miles north of Vancouver, my birthplace.

I also longed to better understand the American side of my family, which included a rancher, an ambassador, a bullfighter and an archeologist, and the drive and ambition that led my paternal great-grandfather to develop a Chicago landmark, still there, the North American Building. Thanks to him, I knew the names of downtown Chicago streets as well as those of my native Toronto.

 

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The Met Opera. New York City. I do love the elegance!

 

My mother, politically liberal, was much happier in Canada than in the sharp-elbowed U.S. Without a college degree, she also couldn’t compete effectively for good jobs; luckily for her, she inherited enough money she never had to.

Jose, my second/current husband, and I met in the year 2000 — when I wrote a story for a women’s magazine about a then new trend called on-line dating; my profile placed on aol.com drew 200+ replies from around the world but he lived within the desired radius of 35 miles.

We were wondering the other day how our lives would have turned out had we never met, which seems happily unimaginable to us now, all these years later.

What if he’d gone back to Denver, a city he loved?

What if I’d returned after my divorce to Canada or to France?

What if?

What if?

 

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Northern Ontario, a landscape I love and miss

 

I’m always intrigued by people who move very far from their homes for love.

It is a huge leap of faith — as getting divorced in another country can be really expensive and lonely and confusing.

It seems normal in our circles, peripatetic journalists and photographers. One friend became the “trailing spouse” and follows his wife to every State Department posting. I have a friend in London, recently widowed, who met her American husband while reporting in Israel. A couple we know — he’s French, she’s American — met (of course) while both were were working as journalists in Tokyo.

 

Have you ever moved a long distance, even to another country, for love?

Did it end happily?

 

Too many screens?

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At least these screens were used at a recent photo conference — in a room filled with other people!

 

By Caitlin Kelly

And yet, here we are again!

A recent New York Times piece on how the wealthy eschew screen time while the rest of us poor suckers spend all our time on them:

Life for anyone but the very rich — the physical experience of learning, living and dying — is increasingly mediated by screens.

Not only are screens themselves cheap to make, but they also make things cheaper. Any place that can fit a screen in (classrooms, hospitals, airports, restaurants) can cut costs. And any activity that can happen on a screen becomes cheaper. The texture of life, the tactile experience, is becoming smooth glass.

Which is a terrible paradox.

 

Without a screen, your phone or computer, I couldn’t be communicating right now with you and with readers arriving at this blog (!) from the most unlikely of places — New Zealand, Nepal, Romania, Zimbabwe, VietNam, Yemen, South Africa.

Without a screen, I wouldn’t be earning our monthly living costs by reading on-line, setting up interviews by email then writing on a laptop and hitting send.

Without a screen, I couldn’t use Skype to chat with friends, and coaching fellow writers and doing PR strategy, with those living outside my town.

 

And yet…I get lonely and bored if all my interactions are thus mediated.

I get out into nature.

I regularly meet friends for a meal or a coffee.

We throw dinner parties.

Church, occasionally.

A new-to-me weekly meditation group of women.

 

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I host an annual women’s tea party, using an early 19th. century tea-set.

I go to the gym at least three times a week, as much to be social in spin class and afterward as to exercise.

 

Here’s a new book I’m eager to read, written by Mark Boyle,  a British man who has gone back to living alone an 18th century rural life there since 2016, eschewing all technology.

Here’s a recent piece by him in The Guardian:

 

This way of life is often described as “the simple life”. Looking at it head-on, it’s far from simple. This life is actually quite complex, made up of a thousand small, simple things. By comparison, my old urban life was quite simple, made up of a thousand small, complex things. I found industrial life too simple, and thus repetitive and boring. With all of its apps, switches, electronic entertainment, power tools, websites, devices, comforts and conveniences, there was almost nothing left for me to do for myself, except that one thing that earned me the cash to buy my other needs and wants. So as Kirkpatrick Sale once wrote in Human Scale, my wish became “to complexify, not simplify”.

 

 

How about you?

Are you trying to lessen your screen time these days?

Coping with fragility

 

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

What a concept.

I’ve spent most of my life — basically until 2018 — behaving in ways that start with the letter B: bold, brazen, brash, ballsy, bumptious.

I was, or looked, fearless. At 25, I jumped into a truck in Perpignan with a French driver 10 years my senior and spent eight (amazing!) days crossing southern Europe to Istanbul with him, for a story. I’ve interviewed people across the U.S. who own a lot of guns. Have traveled alone in some funky places.

Today?

Not so much.

My health, as far as we know, is fine — after completing 20 days’ radiation treatment November 15, 2018 for very early stage breast cancer, no chemo — I’m now taking medication for five years.

But I feel so much more fragile.

Like, oh yeah, I can be broken and weak, My body can/did surprise me and not in a good way.

It’s a challenge to manage fragility — as anyone (not me) who has had and cared for very small children or very old/ill people or animals.

We live in a culture of haste and acquisition and competition and relentless shows of strength and prowess. There’s little useful discussion of how to be slow and gentle and take very good care of ourselves and others. The lack of compassionate American public policy makes brutally clear that being ill and “unproductive” are taboo.

So we don’t talk much publicly about what it’s like to be fragile and to navigate life and work and friendship and family when we feel like wet bits of paper instead of big strong ferocious creatures.

I don’t like feeling vulnerable. I suspect others don’t like that feeling too much at all.

But my new MO is to tell people —- hey, I just can’t do X right now. I don’t explain. I just withdraw from demands, social and professional, even for a few hours or days until I can bring my A game and respond fully.

I grew up in a family that had little interest in my times of need and weakness and fragility — so I learned to suppress and ignore and deny those feelings.

But those needs were always there and are now, Jaws-like, re-surfacing with some serious insistence.

Therapy helps.

Telling good friends helps.

But it’s a process.

 

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Why “Queer Eye” makes me cry

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Demons, be gone!

 

By Caitlin Kelly

We  live — in the U.S. anyway — in such cruel times. Money is tight for far too many and compassion for those struggling in increasingly short supply. It can feel overwhelming and dis-spiriting to even glance at the news: racism, sexual violence, terrorism, etc.

Which is why the Netflix reality TV show “Queer Eye” is such a treat, now in its third season.

It features five gay men — Antoni Porowski (food expert — and fellow Canadian), Bobby Berk (decorator), Jonathan van Ness (grooming), Tan France (fashion) and Karamo Brown (culture.) If you haven’t seen it, I urge you to check it out.

In every show, the fab five — setting out in a shiny black minivan — choose a man or woman (in one case, a pair of African-American sisters whose barbecue shack is a local legend) to help pull together their life, whether a cramped kitchen, shredded self-confidence or someone just feeling really lost and overwhelmed.

We’ve all been there!

The men are funny, loving, insightful and there to offer the soul balm everyone needs so desperately — empathy, compassion, wisdom, advice, hugs and a lot of kind laughter. Just watching them swing into action is inspiring. Reality TV can be gross, but this feels lovely.

We watched a few episodes this week and one featuring Jess, a 23-year-old African American lesbian living in Lawrence, Kansas, was astonishing. She was adopted — and thrown out by her conservative Christian parents when she came out as gay at 16. She had lost touch with her sister and baby niece. Working as a waitress, she struggled with a host of challenges — but with energy and good spirits.

When the Fab Five show up, Jess is trying to figure out how to be fully who she really is — not uncommon at 23 — with no parental support or love. Karamo, 38, who worked for 10 years as a social worker, is of tremendous help to her, both as a gay American but also an African-American; their scenes together are really powerful.

I love Tan, whose is of Punjabi Pakistani descent — and (!?) speaks with a thick Yorkshire accent.

If you’re simply craving some feel-good entertainment, with a healthy side dose of inspiration, grab the tissues and settle down with me on the sofa!

Should women travel alone?

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I drove the 10+ hours to reach this gorgeous place for a conference — alone.

 

By Caitlin Kelly

Seems like a bizarre question — since many of us have to do so for work, and many of us like to do it for pleasure.

But this sobering New York Times piece raises some questions as well:

 

In December, the bodies of Louisa Vesterager Jespersen, 24, of Denmark and Maren Ueland, 28, of Norway, were found with knife wounds in their necks in the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco. Danish officials called the murders an act of terror. That same month, the Briton Grace Millane disappeared in Auckland, New Zealand, on the night before her 22nd birthday; she was found slain days later. In 2015, a 19-year-old British backpacker was gang-raped by bikers in Thailand. In March, an Australian man was convicted of kidnapping and raping a Belgian traveler seeking work after keeping her locked up in his pig shed for two days.

There’s no question that women face unique risks when traveling solo, experts say.

“We have evidence that shows that women face risks that men don’t face in public spaces, at home, wherever they may be,” said Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, executive director of UN Women, an organization that promotes female equality. Increasingly, “wherever they may be” includes alone in foreign countries.

 

 

I’ve traveled alone, most recently in the fall of 2018, driving alone for hours through upstate New York on my way to Canada. For many hours, I was out of cellphone range (although comforted by a system in our car that tracks it and had a way to communicate) and far from ready access to police or a hospital.

I drove only in daylight, as is my habit when going solo, whenever possible.

Was I scared? No.

I’ve also traveled alone in rural Sicily, Istanbul, rural Portugal, Thailand, Mexico and other places where bad things can happen and where “decent” women are generally accompanied by one of three people — their mother/father, their husband or their child(ren) and thus left unhassled.

Yet the worst things that have happened to me have always happened at home — in Toronto, Montreal and suburban small-town New York.

All were robberies, none assault or worse.

 

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Also alone, albeit in my hometown, a place filled with friends

 

I plan to spend some time alone again this summer, albeit in the cities of a Western European country, more worried about an act of terrorism now than personal attack.

I really love being outdoors and wish I could just go camping alone, but I don’t. I hate that I’m afraid of others, but I think it’s prudent. Last time I did it was about four years ago in a crowded campground at the Grand Canyon.

My mother traveled solo for years, an attractive woman in places where women don’t really go out alone, and was fine. She also taught me how put a chair beneath the door handle of my hotel room to prevent someone opening it and to dress modestly and remain hyper-aware of my surroundings and culture.

I’ve only gotten drunk once while traveling alone (in San Francisco, a few blocks from my hotel) and I don’t take drugs nor dress provocatively. I don’t walk around wearing headphones or staring into a phone or wearing expensive jewelry.

I try to be extremely aware of local customs and dress and behave accordingly.

I think it’s one of the best things a woman can do — to travel alone and know how to trust her instincts. It has, so far, given me tremendous self-confidence and brought me new friendships.

 

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Venice — alone, July 2017

 

But one of the challenges of solo female travel is knowing that we’re often being closely observed and — yes — sometimes considered vulnerable prey by the wicked. That’s frightening and I know of no very practical solution for it.

Here’s part of a wise comment (722 of them!) on the Times story by a woman in Montana:

solo travel teaches intense situational awareness, reliance on gut instincts, and a willingness to run rather than trying not to offend, as women often do to our detriment.

 

Do you travel alone as a woman?

 

Have you ever felt unsafe?

A backpack filled with stones

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By Caitlin Kelly

Had a conversation this week with a friend facing some serious health stuff. She’s not getting the support she needs and someone who should be there for her is instead adding to her very considerable stress by not being useful and making needed changes.

No one wants a backpack filled with stones.

I won’t be more specific but it was clear to me — as someone who’s had health issues (that oh-so-American euphemism for cancer) since June 2018 — that the minute you get a shitty diagnosis (or lose your job or face the loss of a loved one), your life is now weighted down in ways that may appear invisible to others but are very, very heavy and something you (mostly) alone are carrying.

Shame — especially in the U.S. where being “unproductive”, ill and needy is somehow taboo — adds yet another damn boulder.

Unless you can drop the backpack — and ask for help and count on getting it — having to listen to anything stupid, thoughtless or callous (and there’s plenty of it out there, from friends, family and medical staff) only adds another few stones.

No one wants that pack.

No one wants to carry it, sometimes for months or even years.

In tough times, their pack is already filled with grief and fear and physical pain and exhaustion and guilt and anxiety.

Carrying it isn’t much of a choice, even as others call you “brave” and “tough” and call out “you can fight this.”

If you know someone facing tough times, please do anything you possibly can to lighten their load.

Diminish that pack.

 

Do not add one more stone.