What have you kept from your early years?

This little bear used to sit deep in my uniform shirt pocket during my years at boarding school. Invisible comfort and companionship.

By Caitlin Kelly

I read very few newsletters — already inundated by Twitter, two daily newspapers, a dozen monthly magazines and, when I have an ounce of attention left, books.

But I really enjoyed the latest one from an American journalist, Anne Helen Peterson, on the boxes her mother kept for her from her teens — a time, she writes, so much more memorable to her than her 20s and 30s.

She writes beautifully about what it felt like to go through those boxes and reconnect with her much younger self; I’d guess she’s in her mid to late 30s.

An excerpt:

That big plastic storage bin was allowed to sit undisturbed because my mom lives in a small town in Idaho with a basement approximately the size of my current house — as is the Idaho way. But now she is moving to a place with NO BASEMENT, and some tough decisions have to be made. By me.

I spent the day after Christmas pouring out the contents of these envelopes, taking pictures with my camera and, as an old friend of mine used to say, with my heart, and allowing that heart to be towed in so many unanticipated directions. Because turns out: I was an excellent archivist of my teen self.

The corsages, sure, but that’s classic memory book stuff. I’m talking about movie stubs and campaign pins, about 9th grade English notebooks and printed-out (and pencil-edited) drafts of college admissions essays.

All archives are, to some extent, narratives: edited stories of the self or others. What I kept then was a story of myself that felt precious and still, at that point, untold. I wasn’t saving in the hopes of someone else discovering who I was. I think it was much more a case of ensuring my future self’s attention. The artifacts were the grammar that made the story readable.

I envy her terribly!

I lived with my father and his girlfriend (later wife) ages 14 to 19. I have very few artifacts of those years: my high school graduation yearbook, some photos. I struggle to think of much else.

My family of origin was never one to keep stuff for others…my father sold the house we lived in and went to live on a boat in the Mediterranean when I was 19 and in my second year of university. I took my wooden trundle bed and wooden desk to the studio apartment I moved it with me. And my stereo!

I really treasure the photo below.

I was maybe six or seven and sitting in the backyard of the last house I shared with my parents before they divorced. It was a big house on a beautiful, quiet street — Castlefrank — in one of Toronto’s nicest neighborhoods, Rosedale. I never lived anywhere like that again.

Luckily, my husband Jose (a photo archivist for the USGA) was able to take this one precious very faded color photo and bring it back for me.

My mother left behind several thick photo albums, but, typical of our relationship, I know very few of the people in them. She never spoke much about her life to me. I do have images of her — slim, gorgeous — modeling for the Vancouver Sun, and a spectacular photo of her that I love.

Cynthia being glamorous.

My stuff? Not much. I moved a few times and only years later found a set of excellent encyclopedias that had been in storage while I was boarding school and camp.

I still fondly remember some items from my teenage-dom — a thick caribou skin rug my father brought back from the Arctic which shed horribly, a poster and a fantastic embroidered sheepskin coat, wildly bohemian and wholly out of place in my white, suburban-ish high school. But I own none of these.

Oddly, a little embarrassedly, I still own and treasure a few stuffed animals from my childhood — like the elephant I found in my London hospital bed after my tonsils were removed. Faded but much beloved, she sits in our bedroom still.

Baby Elephant!

Because I moved around a fair bit and neither parent even had a basement — let alone the willingness to store any of my stuff in it — I’ve definitely lost some very precious teenage things, like a green and white Marimekko notebook in which I wrote my prize-winning poetry and some songs. That one really hurts. I had a storage locker here in New York, but I lost track of the payments for it — and they sold everything in it.

Do you still own treasured items from your early years?

Who, if anyone, will want or value them later do you think?

A matter of trust

By Caitlin Kelly

It’s foundational to everything we do, from earliest childhood to later years — we (have to!) place our trust in medicine and health procedures, in the men and women who pilot airplanes and drive subway trains and schoolbuses, in the chefs and cooks who prepare our meals when we eat away from home — and the health inspectors whose role it is to make sure it is safe.

If you live in the U.S. and follow news — which some of you don’t — a big story of late has been a shocking, relentless barrage of lies from a newly elected Republican congressman from Long Island, George Santos.

From The Daily Beast:

The perplexing series of alleged lies from George Santos, the Republican congressman-elect from Long Island under investigation by countystate and federal prosecutors, have continued to roll in this week—with each “embellishment” as shocking as the last.

Among the new claims under scrutiny in the last 24 hours: Santos’ high school education, his claim to be half-Black, a claim that his family’s Jewish last name was Zabrovsky, and that “9/11 claimed” his mother’s life after she’d “fled socialism” in Europe.

Basically everything he told voters is a lie. And…he will still be sworn into office.

HOW?

I think about trust all the time because trust in journalists — my career since university — is very very low.

This causes endless problems if voters believe a pathological liar like Santos — but not the reporters who uncovered those lies.

It’s a problem when people shriek “Fake news!” when they hear things they don’t want to, like COVID running rampant still.

It’s a problem when we keep sending our hard-earned tax dollars to governments that don’t do what they said they would, further eroding our trust in them, which, for Americans especially, seems subterranean at best.

From the moment a writer proposes a story, there’s a level of trust between them and their editor, whether they’re on staff or freelance. A staffer can be disciplined, suspended or fired for lying while a freelancer can lose access to a coveted market; The New York Times, for which I’ve written more than 100 stories, periodically sends every freelancer its long and detailed ethics code, and those who break it are out.

But there are legendary stories of lying reporters and their names are known to those of us in the industry, like Janet Cooke and Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair, all of whom were — of course — much lauded for brining in powerful stories and every ambitious editor wants material like that. Until they turn out to be false.

Every time I ask a source to speak to me, they generally agree quickly and kindly, which, in itself is a sign if trust that I’ll behave professionally; my website makes clear I have a long and solid career in place as testament to that. Only once, and it was interesting, was I told “oh hell no!” when I tried to get sources, by an agency that helps teens on Riker’s Island accused of crimes. Only after pleading my case to them face to face did I win the interviews, which are in my first book “Blown Away: American Women and Guns.” I’m proud of having won these stories, as they were untold and powerful and I’ve never forgotten them — and I’ve done thousands of interviews in my career.

That took trust.

We live in an era of easy, quick and profitable manipulation — of words, ideas, images. A few years ago the news agency Reuters invited a group of New York journalists (arguably pretty savvy) to listen to a powerful and frightening presentation about how easy it now is to alter images, whether video or still. It was deeply sobering to know how much energy is spent trying to sort out the garbage. My husband, Jose, is a photo editor for The New York Times, and it’s also his job — like every news editor now — to sniff out fake images. Staff photographers and longtime freelancers have earned their trust, Many photos arrive through a photo agency like the AP, Getty and and Reuters, to name three major ones — by the time they’re looked at for publication, they’ve been vetted by many editors who’ve already vetted their photographers.

Trust requires a long unbroken chain.

In 1997, as I think I’ve written here before, I became the victim — one of many! — of a skilled and determined con man who had duped many people in Chicago, done time and moved to New York where he picked up again. I won’t get into all the grim details, but it was a lesson for me, for anyone, in what behaviors inspire our trust and why.

He was physically attractive.

He dressed well.

He was very intelligent and engaging.

He was (of course!) initially charming — later creepy and threatening.

I fell quite ill the day before I was to fly from New York to Sydney Australia alone, hoping to research my first book — he brought me a pot of homemade soup.

How can one — when should one — mistrust kindness?

Read The Gift of Fear, a must-read book for every girl and woman — which includes charm and niceness as warning signs.

Are you wary by nature or experience?

The best of 2022, hopes for 2023

By Caitlin Kelly

That last post wasn’t my cheeriest!

Some of my happiest moments of 2022:

The view from my friend’s cottage

In late May I flew to Toronto, my hometown, for the first visit in 2.5 years, catching up with dear friends there; even though I moved away permanently decades ago, I stay in close touch with about half a dozen of them. I was invited to a cottage on Georgian Bay only reachable by boat…six adults, a cat and a dog and all our supplies! It was very beautiful and quite cold! The cabin I slept in had no heat so I wore a wool hat and a very heavy wool blanket.

Big Sur, CA

My tiny perfect room at Deetjen’s, Big Sur

In June, my birthday month, I finally spent a solo month driving from San Francisco to Los Angeles — a lifelong dream only made possible thanks to a wholly unexpected inheritance from my late mother. Along the way, I stayed with a pal in a town near SF, with another in Santa Rosa, had meals with nine other pals, some I had never before met — but have known for years only through social media. It was a real joy, after so much social isolation and loneliness trying to avoid COVID, to sit and chat for hours. I reconnected with two dear friends, both former colleagues of my husband Jose at The New York Times. I had lunch with a woman who became a friend after we cooperated on an exclusive story for the Times…with 150 emails between us by the time the paper flew me from NY to San Francisco to write about Google. I hadn’t been back to that city in a decade, or L.A. in 20 years. I fell very hard to California — such beauty! I cried on the way to the airport the day I left. What a joy it all was!

A great visit with Jose in November to Montreal and a hotel four hour drives’ northeast of the city on the north shore of the St. Lawrence. We live within a mile of the Hudson River — but this was a whole other sort of river! I loved speaking and hearing French again; I lived in Montreal as a Gazette reporter, in Paris at 25 and have been back to both places many times since.

A few days upstate in Saratoga Springs visiting very good friends, former Times colleagues. The hot springs did seem to help my arthritic hip!

I enjoyed some well-paid and really interesting work writing for a non-profit foundation that gives money for academic research. It allowed me to interview three brilliant, passionate and accomplished researchers. Loved it.

Jose continues to enjoy good health and has plenty of steady well-paid work, which has lightened my workload. I’m so grateful! I started writing and selling my photos at 19, hustling hard for decades. It is a great gift to just do a lot less.

Three dear friends each came to visit. We love our pals who live far away — one in Portland, Oregon, one in Milwaukee (both former students of The New York Times Student Journalism Institute) and my pal Scott, who lives in Pennsylvania. It was great to finally catch up with them, even though one of them fell desperately ill for about 24 hours — and so did we! With one very small bathroom, it was a bit of a horror movie. It wasn’t COVID or flu. Maybe norovirus.

Completely new, a much stronger relationship with one of my two half-brothers, 10 years younger, who fought stage 4 cancer and looks likely to be OK. We met when I was 15 and he was 5 but spent very little time together, even though we lived in the same city for decades; we had different mothers and never lived together. I had very early stage breast cancer (no chemo) in June 2018 so I have some idea what he’s been through and made sure to call and text him often. I’m surprised and glad (however a terrible way to get there) we have a deeper friendship now.

A lovely surprise — a C1 rating after my written and oral tests from Alliance Francaise (C2 is the highest), i.e. expert.

As you can tell, renewed and strengthened friendship remains my life’s greatest gift (beyond Jose and good health!)

For 2023 I hope:

For good health for me and Jose — and you!

Continued freelance opportunities

The health and income to allow me to travel more

To study and practice my French and Spanish

Mentoring journalists working at Report for America

A publisher for our book proposal (20 rejections so far, 16 more to go…)

What were some of your year’s highlights?

Hopes for 2023?

Christmas Eve memories

By Caitlin Kelly

Whether you celebrate Christmas or Hanukah or Kwanzaa, I bet you carry some powerful memories of those dates, especially from childhood. Some are happy, some painful.

Some of mine:

I’m 12 and my mother and I are living in a brownstone in Montreal for a year, at 3432 Peel Street. We have a meal with local friends, then board a British Airways flight to London with decorations across the middle aisle — and a holiday meal — then have Christmas dinner in London with my aunt and uncle. Three Christmas meals in 24 hours!

I’m 14 and my mother and I are living in Cuernavaca, Mexico, a city south of Mexico City. We live in a walk-up apartment building in a residential neighborhood, Lomas de San Anton. She attends CIDOC and I go to a school just up the hill. We know no one. We have no telephone, just a pay phone on the corner. The only people who know and care about us are far away in Canada or the U.S. or England. She is bipolar and decompensating more and more as we head toward Christmas Eve, when a friend my age is arriving for two weeks from Toronto. Things are getting weird — and I have no one to tell, nor the language to describe it.

My friend arrives on the worst night of my life, then and now. My mother is in full-blown mania, driving Mexican highways with her vehicle lights off. I’m in the camper van with a student of hers, an American who’s maybe 19. We’re terrified and captive. We collect my friend. My mother drives to an industrial town and drives the van into a ditch, where there is no way to get it out again.

We leave. My friend and I are alone for two weeks, at 14 and have some great adventures traveling around by bus as I speak enough Spanish by then and we somehow have money. She goes home (I have no recollection of how) and I move back to Toronto and move in with my father and his live-in girlfriend (later my stepmother) who I haven’t lived with in seven years. I never live with my mother again.

We never discuss the events of that night.

It’s 1996 and I’m two years divorced after a miserable two-year marriage and my mother flies to New York to visit me, but gets off the flight from Vancouver already tipsy and carrying some liquor in a paper bag. My boyfriend has driven to the airport to get her, and meet her, and I am mortified. She and I have a huge fight and she leaves to go to a local hotel. It’s Christmas Eve — and it’s chaos and misery again. I go to a nearby church, as I can’t think where else to go late at night on December 24. I squeeze into a pew beside a family (whose daughter has my name!) and belt our some carols, grateful for warmth and light and refuge and peace. My mother leaves the next day.

We never discuss this.

Jose and I have discussed getting married. We’ve been living together for a few years and he has bought a lovely vintage engagement ring. We attend Christmas Eve service at the same small church I ran to that Christmas Eve in 1996, and as we leave the church, it’s starting to snow.

“Let’s go to the lych gate,” he says. The small structure, typical of English country churches, has two benches, and a roof. “I know Christmas Eve is one of bad memories,” he said. “I want to rebrand this evening with a happier memory.”

Then he proposed!

Happy ending!

Do you have any special memories of the holidays?

My writing year in review

One of my best memories of 2022…Pete’s Tavern, one of NYC’s oldest. I sat at the bar and had a long conversation in French with a visiting historic costume designer. She bought my beer!

By Caitlin Kelly

I’m writing less now than I used to…in some ways, this is good because at higher pay rates I can afford to produce less.

These were three challenging and interesting assignments speaking to academic researchers on health policy for a grant-making foundation; the communications director and I have never spoken or met but she knows me and my work through Facebook. I loved speaking to such smart, passionate people. It’s a real privilege and their work can be somewhat complex to explain.

My favorite story of the year was my first ever for the Financial Times, a global business paper in London I read every day. The quality is amazing so it was a real thrill to sell a story to them, about women ironworkers in New York City. Here’s the link. The pay rate was half what The New York Times pays — barely $500. I had to drive an hour each way to Queens, spend an hour or so speaking to the women there, then do additional phone interviews, so it wasn’t lucrative. But it was a lot of fun and a real accomplishment to break into the FT, so I’m proud of that.

I had two unpleasant experiences with New York Times editors, which effectively shut off any chance of writing for those two sections. I hate any sort of professional conflict because you can’t make a freelance living without ongoing relationships! I also lost $3,000 from the shady crew at ZZDriggs, a furniture sales website, who had committed to $6,000 worth of blog posts from me in a year — and abruptly, and without any warning at all, dumped me in July and gave no explanation. My attempts to recoup that lost income from a CEO who lives in a multi-million-dollar brownstone (of course) were fruitless. Not cool.

Also my basic mistake of not having a much tougher and clearer contract. Beware of twinkly charm!

Jose and I spent a lot of time and energy producing a 20,000 word book proposal for fellow freelancers which, so far, has failed to find any publisher, much to our annoyance and frustration — OK, mine. There are still more than a dozen looking at it…

One win was getting my rating from Alliance Francaise after taking their written and oral tests — C1 (expert!) Only one category is higher. Those bloody subjunctives!

The work I most enjoy — and I really love it — is coaching other writers. I admit it, it’s money I make with the least friction or drama as clients seem to find me, mostly through Twitter. I don’t market myself heavily as such. My greatest weakness is my laziness when it comes to endlessly marketing myself to new clients and editors.

Usually when people come to me for coaching, they already have a defined need or problem they hope I can help them with. Sometimes it’s an essay they’re working on or a book proposal or a need to just brainstorm new markets for their work. I charge $250/hour (with a one hour minimum, paid in advance.) No one has asked for a refund!

My goals for 2023 are less about writing than reading and traveling more, working on my French and Spanish skills. I have a few potential clients lined up, but just won’t chase work hard at this point. I’ve been writing for a living since I was 19 and I’m pooped!

How does one become creative?

In 1845, a young girl made this sampler…early creativity

By Caitlin Kelly

Back when I started this blog — 2009 (!) — one of my first and best-read posts was about the endless American fetish for “productivity” when creativity is really what drives most innovation, and certainly the arts.

As every blogger knows, blogging demands creativity! Ideas, some skill and the eternal optimism there might actually be an audience out there for us.

As readers here know, I only moved to the United States at the age of 30, so its cradle-to-grave obsession with work and being seen as obsessed with work — above all other pursuits (family, friends, health, a spiritual life, etc,) struck me, then as now, as weird. Yes, I know about the Puritan work ethic. But we’re not all wearing shoes with buckles or moving around by horseback and making our own soaps and clothing either…

In a country whose minimum wage pushes millions into poverty, millions will never find the time and energy and encouragement to savor creative pursuits, even for their own pleasure — cooking, knitting, crocheting, embroidery, woodworking, making music or visual art. American capitalism makes sure only the well-off have the leisure to do it without sacrifice — I still get a payment every year from Canada’s Public Lending Rights program, a sort of royalty system that pays authors for the library use of our books. It’s not a large amount, but is deeply meaningful to me, both because it democratizes access to our work and sends a powerful message to creators — you matter!

I don’t have children, but I do see the tremendous pressure American children face — to pass endless state tests, to do terrifying “active shooter drills”, to get into fancy and costly colleges.

None of which seem likely to foster creativity.

So I’m always in awe of creative people, some of whom manage to keep producing their work in the face of some serious odds.

Here’s a 9:07 video of actor Ethan Hawke talking about creativity; it’s gotten 5.2 million views.

“We’re educating kids out of creativity” says Sir Ken Robinson on this 2006 TED talk; it’s 19:12 minutes long and has received 74 million views, with lots of laughter and insight. “We need to radically rethink our idea of intelligence,” he says. Worth it!

Here’s one unlikely and interesting example of creativity — a book out May 16, 2023 from a San Antonio nephrologist whose Twitter threads on medicine were moving and powerful. Social media networks like Twitter, Instagram and YouTube have fostered and spread all sorts of creativity, from high schoolers to seasoned professionals.

We recently visited friends who worked with my husband at The New York Times for decades, one a photographer renowned for his portraits and his wife, a photo editor. Her father was an architect and her mother a textile designer; his father and grandfather were bakers.

I grew up in a home filled with all sorts of art — Inuit prints and sculpture, 19th c Japanese prints, Mexican masks, a Picasso lithograph — and all three of my parents (father, mother, stepmother) worked in creative fields: journalism, TV and film-making. So it feels natural and felt inevitable I’d work in some creative capacity, as I’ve done since my teens when I sold three photos as magazine covers in Toronto while still in high school.

But creativity requires many things some people never have:

  • silence
  • solitude
  • uninterrupted time to think deeply
  • a physical space in which to paint, draw, print photos in a darkroom, weave, sew
  • access to needed tools and materials
  • the disposable income to buy needed tools and materials
  • a larger culture that admires and celebrates creativity, whether family, school, neighborhood, country
  • skill sufficient to make something you might want to keep or sell
  • time, energy and spare income to learn and perfect those skills
  • good health and mental focus
  • encouragement!

My favorite book on the subject is the 2003 book The Creative Habit by American choreographer Twyla Tharp.

She is ferocious! No awaiting the muse!

When, how and where does your creativity emerge?

Have you been encouraged along the way?

By whom?

Do you have a shadow life?

I love having this Inuit print over our bed. A daily taste of home and its distinct arts.

By Caitlin Kelly

Not sure what else to call it.

Maybe a ghost life.

I don’t mean you’re haunted.

It’s a conversation I’ve had with other people who chose to emigrate, leaving a country behind where they likely grew up and were educated, leaving behind easy access to their childhood home(s) and earliest memories. In my case, leaving behind a thriving career as a reporter and writer, since I moved to New York at 30 — with no job, no connections and no American educational credentials, (in a city where Ivy League degrees proliferate.) It took me six months to find my first job, as senior editor of a national magazine, aided by my French and Spanish skills.

I’ve now lived in New York longer than I lived in my native Canada.

Some of my Canadian friends, some who stayed home their whole lives, have risen to stunning heights of achievement, one of whom runs the CBC; she and I used to argue ferociously as university freshmen in our philosophy class. Maybe not surprisingly, we followed oddly similar paths, from Toronto to Montreal to New York, and I kept bumping into her along the way.

If you spend your entire career in the same Canadian city, you don’t have to re-invent or explain to Americans that U of T is not Texas but Toronto…

Interviewing GP Dr. Margaret Tromp, President of the Society of Rural Physicians of Canada, in Picton, Ontario, Sept. 2019.

I recently met up with a fellow Canadian who’s also lived in New York for decades, also a writer and editor.

And, as we did, I guess predictably, we wondered what would life be like had we never left — who (if anyone) would we have married? Where would we be living? Would we, as most of my friends now do, head for the cottage every weekend between May and October? Would we attend our high school and university events and reunions? Would we have regretted not leaving and trying for our American dream?

There are no do-overs!

And yet she and I actually own our own NY homes, apartments, in a place people assume is only for millionaires — we were both very lucky to buy ours decades ago and each of us aided by an inheritance. There is nothing anywhere in our native Ontario now we could afford to buy, including in remote northern towns. That decision to stay in NY, alone, has proven a lucky and fortunate one.

We don’t regret our move, and both love living here; unlike many parts of the United States now, New York City and environs remains largely diverse, liberal, full of work opportunities and interesting, high achieving creatives. People are not legally allowed to own or carry guns; (there has been a frightening uptick in stabbings and shootings in the city, especially on public transit.)

Lacing up my skates atop Mt. Royal, Montreal in Feb. 2019, our last visit

I left Canada for a variety of reasons:

  • I could, thanks to my mother’s American citizenship. I was able to easily obtain a “green card”, to become what’s now as an alien (!) I renew the card every decade.
  • Canada has only a few major cities, and I’m usually a pretty urban person. They’re very different in character, history and climate and the only truly affordable one, Montreal, has brutally long winters and, even for a bilingual Anglophone reporter, limited longterm job prospects.
  • Half my family — my mother’s side — is American, some highly accomplished. I was always intrigued by them and their lives. Ironically, I never see any of them and am only in touch with one cousin, in California, in her late 80s.
  • I wanted to see if I had the skills to compete in a larger, tougher place. Canada, with only 38 million people, has the population of New York State — and one-tenth of the U.S.
  • I had always wanted to live in New York; I’ve lived, instead, in a small historic town 25 miles north of it, its towers visible from our street and easily reached within 45 minutes’ train or drive. Works for me.
  • I was bored of Toronto and its intensely vicious media gossips. I knew I couldn’t take another few decades genuflecting to the same half dozen people in power. New York journalism has plenty of its own drama, but — as I like to joke — I’ve clawed my way to the bottom of the middle. I have enough access to the people I want, but I remain powerless enough to avoid attack, slander and sabotage. A few people even lied and gossiped about me in Toronto; if that was the price of local success (as it was), thank God I had good options to leave and never return.
  • I wasn’t emotionally close to my father and his wife or to my mother, so no need to stick around for emotional reasons.

We head back to Canada today for a visit to Charlevoix, a region on the north shore of the St. Lawrence — ironically with lots of local advice from a fellow Canadian I knew when we were both baby reporters in the 80s, who became a U.S. network news reporter for decades. Then four days in Montreal, seeing friends and eating at our favorite restaurants and savoring sights both new and deeply familiar — I lived there for a year at 12 and for 18 months at 30 as a reporter for the Gazette.

I love speaking and hearing French, seeing familiar foods in the grocery stores — butter tarts! Shreddies cereal! — and once more being around people with whom I can share political and cultural references, even specific words, without explanation. Because, for anyone who’s an immigrant, there’s a lot your friends, neighbors and colleagues in your new country will never understand or even ask you about.

We’re very fortunate that Canada’s border is within 5.5 hours’ drive so, when and if I want to go back, it’s easy. That, or a 90-minute flight. I do miss it and I miss our friends especially.

Have you lived outside your native land?

Is this a question for you as well sometimes?

The comfort of the familiar

From 1963, one of the first Canadian Inuit silkscreen prints made

By Caitlin Kelly

I love novelty and new adventures, exploring places I’ve never been, meeting people for the first time. I really crave it and miss it…Covid made this much more obvious to me since it denied so much of this, and still does.

But, like many/most people, I also take tremendous comfort in the familiar, maybe much more these days — of climate grief, political vitriol, daily mayhem and violence, inflation — than ever.

I’ve now lived in the same one-bedroom apartment for more than 30 years.

I find this truly astonishing, as I changed homes/residences between August 1982 and June 1989 so many times: Toronto-Paris-Toronto-Montreal-New Hampshire-New York. It was overwhelming and exhausting, even though my Paris year was the best of my life, still.

I hate moving!

I also was lucky enough to be able to buy this apartment with my first husband, and afford to remain in it, in a place — 25 miles north of Manhattan, its towers clearly visible from our street — where rents are routinely punishingly high. Having a fixed mortgage and maintenance costs allowed me this privilege.

Our next-door neighbor on one side moved in with a shy five-year-old daughter, now a stylish, confident 15-year-old. The other neighbor, Flo, died there, and now her grand-daughter — and 4-month-old daughter — lives there. It’s been a real joy to see new lives and friends arriving.

My maternal great-grandmother’s pastel portrait…basically life-size!

I recently inherited a few items from my late mother, including the images above, and a few smaller decorative items. It’s so lovely and comforting to have that visual continuity. I’d never inherited objects before so I’d never appreciated that element of it.

I love this 177-year-old sampler that for years belonged to my late mother. I have no idea where or when she found it, but it hung in

every one of her homes. I very lightly bleached it and reframed it in acid-free paper with special glass to protect it. Now it hangs in our kitchen.

I love our street. It’s hilly and winding, with a low-level condo complex across, only one private home and lots and lots of trees. It’s normally extremely quiet — and we have terrific Hudson River views. I can’t think what better view we could acquire.

Nor has it changed one bit in all those years.

I love our town, a mix of million-dollar condo’s and projects (subsidized housing.) It’s a mix of old school townies, born and raised here, and a stampede of Brooklyn hipsters.

I like our county, stretching between the Hudson to the west and Long Island Sound to the east.

I like knowing where things are and that some of them are still there.

I like knowing the guy who owns the hardware store, the one his great-grandfather founded. And the former commercial photographer from Manhattan, who came north after 9/11, and who first opened a gourmet store, now a thriving restaurant and whose wife added a busy BBQ joint.

I like knowing the names of the waitstaff at our local diner and hearing their news.

It’s that sort of town.

I’m also lucky to have deep friendships, still, in my hometown of Toronto, so there’s always a loving welcome awaiting, even decades after I left for good. That’s comforting.

I also find it comforting to watch some of the same movies over and over, so much so I know some dialogue and theme music by heart — the Bourne movies, The Devil Wears Prada, Almost Famous, The King’s Speech, All The President’s Men, Billy Elliott, Casablanca, Spotlight and others. I also re-watch some TV series I love, now enjoying the three-season Babylon Berlin on Netflix for the third time — Season Four starts October 8 and I am super excited! And Derry Girls returns October 7.

Not to mention my older favorite music, from my 80s vinyl and my new favorite radio station, Kiki Lounge (132) on Sirius XM, with some of the most unlikely covers — like (amazing!) Dolly Parton’s version of Stairway to Heaven.

I was deeply struck — as maybe some of you were — by the death of Queen Elizabeth. As I’ve written here, I spent two weeks covering a Royal Tour of Canada and met her. To suddenly lose her after 70 years was a shock.

The familiar is comforting. Change can be tiring and disorienting (even if welcome.)

What do you cherish in your life that’s comforting in its familiarity?

Welcome to Usetaville

Our apartment building in Cuernavaca, Mexico where I lived at 14

By Caitlin Kelly

At a certain point in your life — after a few decades on earth, and especially if you know a specific location really well — you still see, and fondly remember, so many things that “used to” be there, hence usetaville.

In our Hudson Valley town, this includes long-gone antique stores, including the just-closed E-bike shop that used to be an antique store, the art gallery that used to be Alma Snape flowers and the photo studio that was once Mrs. Reali’s dry cleaners.

There’s a growing tree across our street I’ll never like as much as the towering weeping willow that once stood there, also long gone.

Of course, change is inevitable!

Businesses come and go — so many killed by the loss of customers in this pandemic — and in cities where every inch of real estate has commercial value, almost everything is up for grabs…the former three-chair hair salon I loved for many years is now part of the growing empire of two very successful local restaurateurs and the lovely cafe across Grove Street, formerly Cafe Angelique, has been a Scotch & Soda (a Dutch owned clothing chain) for a long time now. Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village of New York City, once a treasure trove of cool indie shops, is legendary for its rapid store turnover.

I enjoy reading the writing of British Airways pilot Mark VanHoenacker, who wrote recently in The New York Times about going back to see the interior of his childhood home in Massachusetts; he now lives in London.

A childhood home — if we lived in one house or apartment long enough and especially if our family has since moved out — may enclose a nearly undimmed set of early memories, as if its walls formed a time capsule we sealed behind us as we left. And if the possibility of retracing my flight from this Pittsfield house has both troubled and fascinated me for many years — if it’s what recently compelled me to write “Imagine a City,” a memoir and travelogue, and if even now I can’t decide whether to climb this darned staircase — well, my favorite stories remind me that I’m not alone as I grapple with the meaning of return.

I recall a scene from Marilynne Robinson’s novel “Home,” a modern rendition of the parable of the prodigal son, in which Jack — like me, the son of a clergyman — writes a letter: “Dear Father, I will be coming to Gilead in a week or two. I will stay for a while if that is not inconvenient.” After Jack walks into the kitchen for the first time in 20 years, his sister tells him, “The cups are where they always were, and the spoons.” I think, too, of Henry James’s Spencer Brydon in “The Jolly Corner,” who after 33 years abroad returns to his childhood home in New York and an encounter with a ghostly self who never left.

I haven’t been back to my earliest childhood home — on Castlefrank Road in Toronto — in many, many years. It was very big house with a long deep backyard and I still remember well my playmates who lived on either side of us. But I left it when my parents split up when I was six or seven and we moved into an apartment downtown. As a teenager I lived with my father for four years in a white house on a corner, easily visible when driving in Toronto, but have never asked to see it again inside.

So many changes!

I suspect these sorts of memories are very powerful if you spent a decade or more in the same home and if you liked living there. When we visit Montreal, our hotel windows overlook Peel and Sherbrooke — my home for a year at 3432 Peel Street in a brownstone — gone! My visits to Ben’s delicatessen a few blocks south — gone! But — hah! — the glorious Ritz Carlton is still there; we used to have Friday night dinners there when my mother hosted a TV talk show.

I lived for all off four months in an apartment in Cuernavaca, Mexico with my mother — and decades later went back to see how much it had changed, including the empty field next to it.

Not at all!

I had some difficult moments living there, but it was very good to revisit the place and see it again.

I’ve been back to my high school and university campus, both in my hometown of Toronto, and even once revisited my former summer camp, the one I attended every year ages 12-16 and loved.

Our town also holds a few 18th century buildings, including a stone church from 1685, the second oldest in New York state.

Do you have specific places that you remember well — now long gone?

Have you ever revisited your childhood home(s)? How was it?

Work should be fun! (Really?)

By Caitlin Kelly

Long loud harrumph.

Thumps cane for emphasis.

No!

Ok, yes, of course, often, maybe, if you’re really lucky, much of the time.

But always, every damn day of a 40+ year career?

Unlikely and foolish to desire.

The tedious cliche is “that’s why they call it work.”

The opposite fantasy is “love what you do and you’ll never work a day in your life.”

Ask anyone who’s been in the working world for a decade, let alone 20, 30 or 40 years.

This is also, I know, somewhat stiff-upper-lip generational — and I think an insistence work be “fun” is really proxy for a lot of other frustrations: carrying massive student debt for decades, low wages, terrible/non-existent promotions and raises, toxic managers, coworkers and/or customers (hello, foodservice and retail!)

As I’ve written here many times, I generally enjoy my work as a writer of journalism and content marketing, coaching and teaching. But there have been many times I was utterly miserable, even for a full year — like my last staff job as a reporter at the New York Daily News — where I was consistently ignored or bullied. It was torture.

It was a steady, decent paycheck at a then-respected newspaper, then the nation’s sixth-largest.

But happy? No, I was not happy. Fun? No, it was not, ever, fun.

When I worked for a few months in Toronto at Canadian Press, the national wire service, I had to write up every weekend’s accidental deaths across the province, slugged (named) Fatalities — aka Fats. NOPE. Not fun.

As a trade magazine editor in New York, I had a terribly low freelance budget and a highly demanding boss. Not a fun combination.

I do not subscribe to the belief that all work is, or should be, drudgery. But accepting that even the coolest-looking work has downsides and frustrations is more realistic. Even the best-known and wealthiest musicians and film stars have had work that failed to find an audience, auditions that were a disaster, spent years in the trenches working away before hitting the big time. Fun? Probably not.

I think we’re fortunate if we can find work that:

pays decently

offers kind, fun, funny, smart co-workers (even one of these!)

decent management

respect for the work we do

offers room for growth, internally or a boost to our next job elsewhere

helps other people live better/safer lives

I admit that, at its best, journalism has been amazing fun for me, many many times.

But it’s not a well-paid career.

It’s not a secure career and getting fired or laid off is pretty normal, even if expensive and annoying.

Forget a pension.

It’s often insanely competitive, even within your organization. So there’s plenty of stress and anxiety as well.

What’s the most fun job you’ve ever had?