Few events will raise this thorny question as powerfully as a funeral.
Who spoke and what did they say about the deceased?
I spent an hour Thursday morning at the funeral of the 91-year-old woman who shared a wall with us for 17 years. We didn’t know her well. We knew her name, and that she was a local, and that she had several adult daughters in town.
She was always friendly, but deeply private.
I learned a lot about her and her life — widowed at 44 with four daughters — when I listened to the eulogy.
The pews were filled with friends and neighbors, children and grand-children, including a very small baby.
This time last year, we attended a funeral for a much beloved and eccentric New York Times colleague, who worked, literally, side by side for eight years with my husband Jose. They weathered the storm of the crash of 2008, fought, made up, laughed and became close.
Zvi, who played tennis every week into his 70s and was lean and fit, was hit by a rare and aggressive cancer and dead within months of his diagnosis. Jose was asked to give the eulogy.
When you sit in the pews attending someone’s funeral, it’s natural to wonder what those left behind would say of you and how you chose to live your life.
Did you give back?
Were you generous and kind?
Did you laugh often?
Did you mentor?
If you don’t have children or close younger relatives — and I do not — this question of legacy is a real and pressing one, and only grows with every year I’m still alive.
Am I leaving a good life behind?
Am I doing enough for others?
Legacy isn’t only about your family or your work or whatever financial assets are left in your estate.
Nor need you be wealthy enough to be an official philanthropist or have your name on a building, as most of us never will.
I was pushed into blogging in the summer of 2009 by my then-agent, as we were trying to sell my second book (which we sold on September 11, 2009), and even then “having a platform” was becoming a publishers’ demand — i.e. bringing with you a built-in audience for your work.
I didn’t want to blog and was fearful I’d have anything useful to add. There were, then, 400,000 (!?) blogs on WordPress, and who knows how many now?
The ensuing ten years have proved both personally and professionally interesting, much of which I’ve chronicled here.
— 2011, got married on Centre Island in Toronto harbor, with 25 dear friends.
— 2012, finally got my destroyed left hip replaced
— 2012, won this exclusive about Google teaching meditation for The New York Times, the fruits of six months’ negotiation
— 2013, renovated our kitchen, which I designed
— 2014, back to Paris and London, where I met the fabulous blogger behind Small Dog Syndrome, Somehow we survived a week of me and my too-large suitcase and her and her husband in their very small flat. Whew!
Hotel Flora, Venice
— 2017. I took a six week vacation, most of it solo, traveling from NY-Paris-Berlin-Budapest-Zagreb-Rovinj-Venice-London. Bliss!
— 2018, diagnosed in June with DCIS, a very early form of breast cancer.
It means a lot that some of you keep reading and commenting, year after year.
It’s heartening to know my words are of value beyond the monetary price put on them for my paid assignments.
She had in her early teens what some would call “a reversal”, my late step-mother, and so, later in life when I knew her, she owned a lot of stuff.
She never talked about her family of origin; in 40 years of knowing her, I only learned the names of her mother, brother and sister — none of whom I ever met — but never that of her father, who had been well-off, then wasn’t.
Never having gone to university, needing to work right away, she later worked as a highly successful writer and editor of TV show scripts and, in good years, made a lot of money, which she spent on expensive shoes and jewelry, amassing garment racks filled with designer clothes, her cupboards bursting with products and cosmetics…all of which proved even more overwhelming to dispose of for my father when she died of lung cancer at 63.
I never understood why having so much stuff — basically, extras of everything — could feel so satisfying.
Now I do.
When Jose and met and started dating 20 years ago, times were tough for me and he was extremely generous, buying me everything from a colander and toaster to new air conditioners. I was living alone, divorced, paying — in the 1990s — $500 a month health insurance as a freelancer. There was very little money left over after paying all the bills.
I certainly had no need for this lovely early 19th. century tea set. But it gives me such pleasure to use.
Now we do have extras: cloth napkins and tablecloths, rolls of toilet paper, candles, rubber gloves, multiple computers. Summer and winter clothing.
We own sports equipment for bourgeois pursuits like skiing and golf.
I feel alternately guilty and weird for having more when so many have less, but I admit it also comforts me.
When you’ve run in survival mode for years, extra is luxury.
We moved this Vlaminck litho, bought at auction two years ago, from bedroom to livingroom
By Caitlin Kelly
Grateful for eight days completely out of the apartment — where we both also work as freelancers, my husband as a photo editor and I as a writer and writing coach.
We save a lot of money not renting office space or a co-working desk, (and can write off a small part of our monthly living costs as a result as a tax deduction), but that also means we’re using every part of our one bedroom all the time: one bathroom, one kitchen, every hallway, etc.
But it means additional wear and tear, even for two tidy adults with no pets or children.
So while we were away on holiday we had the following jobs professionally done:
— had the entrance hallway, wooden floor, re-sanded and refinished
— had the flaking, peeling bedroom window frame smoothed and repainted
— had all kitchen cabinets given a fresh coat of paint (installed 2013.)
That was, certainly, a big investment of $3,000.
When we got home and took another week off to settle in, we got to work:
— moving art from one room to another; we have a good collection of photos, by us, by friends and colleagues and prints, drawings and posters. Sometimes we put them away for a few years to appreciate them anew. We also rotate out intense/dark colors during the hot summer months.
— painted one wall a deep olive green
— moved three mirrors into the dark foyer. All are vintage/antique, none costing more than $300.
— ordered a new chandelier for our dining room and found an electrician ready to install it.
I found that funky old beveled mirror for $125 in an antique shop in Port Hope, Ontario
— added a patterned fabric, (home-sewn by hand, double width), cover for Jose’s homemade computer desk and moved a different lamp into its corner.
— arranged for pick-up by our local thrift shop for a number of items, including a standing lamp and balcony chair.
I’m more obsessed with beauty and good design than many people.
But I’m fine with it.
I studied interior design and learned a lot. And having lived (!?) 30 years in the same space means I’ve made multiple changes over time — wall colors, curtains, art, rugs — to not go mad with boredom and claustrophobia.
We’re not buying all-stuff-all-the-time! I often carry a tape measure with me to make sure anything we acquire will fit into our space, both spatially and visually.
Once you’ve established a color scheme, stick to it!
We use a great tribal wool rug I bought in Toronto decades ago for $100, and a nice repro wooden Pembroke table I found in a local consignment shop and a Crate and Barrel sofa we might soon replace, even though we love it, as the arms are sagging and an upholsterer told us it would cost more to re-do them than buy anew…
I also know what I like and will wait a long time for it….like our black Tizio lamp I bought in my 20s for (!) maybe $500, a huge sum then as now. It’s elegant, efficient, classic and versatile.
To save money, we do most of our own interior painting. We’ve been given some tremendous/iconic images as well — like the famous black and white photo of JFK standing at the Oval Office windows; this one signed by its creator and given to Jose, his colleague at The New York Times.
Same hallway — top image is a rotogravure by Steichen. The lower image is mine, a stairwell shot in Paris. Wall color: Gervase Yellow (archived), Farrow & Ball.
Tips for a quick refresh:
— Whenever you paint a room, note the paint color, brand and date you purchased it. Colors get discontinued! Farrow & Ball archives some colors but will remix any of them for you on demand and quickly.
— Keep some paint handy for touch-ups. Don’t allow it to get too hot or cold as this degrades the product; we keep ours at the back of a hallway closet.
— Replace items as they wear, chip, fray or discolor. If impossible, wash/dry clean/dye or toss and go without. It’s depressing to live in dirt or chaos.
— Throw stuff out! Those of us lucky enough to even have too much stuff have too much stuff!
— Sell whatever you can. I found out a vintage tribal rug I paid $200 for might fetch me $1,200 after I showed it to a local dealer. Next step, hope to sell it on Ebay or Chairish.
— Clean every corner, deeply. I had to scrub one wooden floor with a Brillo pad to remove grime that mopping didn’t address. Baseboards, the back of things (fridge, stove, printer, etc.) All windows!
Old Crate & Barrel cabinet, glass lined with fabric by the yard. Above, a photo of Jose and his parents, long gone, and a Moroccan lantern found at a flea market, sand-blasted at the auto body shop and painted in Blazer (Farrow & Ball, archived.) I hand-carried that huge wicker suitcase home from a Canadian antique show — thanks, Air Canada!
It always feels good to re-fresh our home — it nurtures, protects and revives us.
This week, a year ago, a female surgeon — wearing monkey socks she proudly showed me beforehand, sharing a laugh I needed — removed a small growth from my left breast.
Today it’s a thumb-length pale pink scar I see every day. Since the end of 20 days’ radiation treatment in November 2018, my skin there is now brown and freckled, unlikely to change. The skin is also still orange peel-ish in texture, odd and unpleasant to the touch or appearance.
The minuscule black dots on my back and stomach, used to guide the radiation machine, are still there as well.
And there’s nothing to be done but accept it.
Serious illness will knock any vanity out of you, no matter how we hope to remain forever pretty or thin or strong.
If we survive it, we’re forever altered, our bodies a map of our journey.
After a decade or two, our bodies bear witness: scars, wrinkles, a few persistent injuries that twinge us on a rainy day.
My two favorite scars are maybe half an inch in length, almost matching, one on the inside of either wrist — both the result of great adventures I thoroughly enjoyed at the time.
One, falling off a moped in northern Thailand, as I and my first husband rode to the Burmese border. The other, sustained by scraping against a metal cable while crewing aboard a Long Island yacht in a fall race.
I have three little scars on the top of each knee, like the top of a coconut, from meniscus repairs, also the result of a highly active life.
Friends who have faced multiple surgeries know this all too well.
Our bodies demand repair.
If we’re fortunate, we’re treated with skill and kindness and heal.
As long as my body is able to function freely — and thank heaven, for now it still is — I don’t care as much how it looks as what it can do.
Below, I show a reasonable projection of the share of national income that will have to be spent paying for these obligations in the future if there is no substantial restructuring of liabilities. It’s based on consensus forecasts from groups such as the Congressional Budget Office and the Office of Management and Budget for economic growth and for programs such as Social Security and Medicare where such forecasts are available—but in some cases, such as state debts and pensions, no such forecast was available, and so I developed a simple one.
Making these payments will require fiscal austerity, through either higher taxes or lower alternative spending. Younger Americans will bear the burdens of the Baby Boomer generation, whether in smaller take-home pay or more potholes and worse schools.
Furthermore, the basic demographic balance sheet is getting worse all the time, increasing the relative burden on young people. Working-age Americans are dying off in alarming numbers.
As someone in this cohort, I have a real problem with this.
I would never argue that younger workers and voters don’t face tremendous headwinds, economically and politically. They do!
I look at the current cost of American university education and find it absurd that schools you have never heard of are demanding $40,000 to $60,000 a year to educate their students. Get real! Nor do many state schools offer a much less expensive alternative.
I paid all of $660 a year to attend University of Toronto — the annual fee for an equivalent course of study is now 10 times as much. But it’s $6,000, not $60,000.
That’s also a nation with different political and economic values, more interested in the common good (yes, higher tax rates) than individual wealth-building.
Blaming Boomers for every impediment to financial progress is so appealing. Intergenerational warfare is such a shiny little distraction from the heavy hand of capitalism, forever demanding “shareholder value” (i.e. return on institutional investments) instead of recognizing everyone’s need to save and invest and hope for a better financial future.
I know many many people in this cohort who are struggling mightily financially — hardly sitting on their thrones of gold, their private jet awaiting their flight to their fourth home. The truly wealthy are so rich it’s beyond comprehension at this point, leaving the rest of us to beat the hell out of one another.
Many people in their 50s and beyond who do not have a well-paid or secure full-time job, let alone one that offers a pension, are scared and desperate, facing:
— a possible next recession, having barely recovered from the 2007-2009 recession
— the costs of paying their children’s college
— having their adult children (and grandchildren) needing to return home for food and housing.
— the costs of paying their parents’ health care aides or nursing home
— the fear of those enormous costs for themselves
— facing widespread, rampant and illegal age discrimination, leaving them/us financially impotent to earn, save and invest for all of the above if we are shut out of decent, full-time employment with (in the U.S.) the subsidized health insurance everyone needs.
Half of Americans over the age of 48 have no money saved for retirement.
From Bloomberg Businessweek:
“Social Security provides most of the income for about half of households age 65 and older,” the GAO said.
The Employee Benefit Research Institute estimated earlier this month that 41 percent of U.S. households headed by someone age 35 to 64 are likely to run out of money in retirement. That’s down 1.7 percentage points since 2014.
EBRI found these Americans face a combined retirement deficit of $3.83 trillion.
People fantasize about freelance life — no boss! no meetings! no cubicle! no commute!
Also — no steady income! no security! no workday!
One great pleasure, though, is disappearing when we can find the time and money to do so.
So we’re off to Jose’s hometown, Santa Fe, New Mexico, my first visit there in 20 years, right after we met.
We’ll visit childhood friends, hike, get a massage at 10,000 Waves, play golf.
Jose just finished photo editing for the U.S. Open, held in Pebble Beach, California — sitting in the hallway of our one-bedroom New York apartment. His workday stretched from 7:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. for a solid week. I don’t know where he gets the stamina!
I’ve spent the past week pitching a lot of stories, all of them to new-to-me markets, and now await (I hope) a few assignments to come back to.
In American life, workers feel lucky to even get two weeks’ paid vacation, while Europeans are accustomed to five. Working freelance, we generally take five or six weeks, although three-at-once is the most we can do because of Jose’s work.
3. I speak what I call fluent French, (but don’t try any super-specialized vocabulary!)
4. In March 2014, I shared a dugout canoe with a blogger from Maine in backwoods Nicaragua, on assignment for WaterAid America.
5. I hate hot, humid weather. Give me a good snowstorm any day.
6. My favorite painting at the Met Museum in New York City is this one, an enormous image of Joan of Arc realizing her destiny, from 1879.
7. One of my favorite ways to spend time is rummaging around flea markets, antique shows and consignment shops.
8. In my 30s, for four years, I took up saber fencing, with a two-time Olympian as my coach, and was nationally ranked every year.
9. My first husband walked out after two years of marriage — but my humor essay about the divorce won me a Canadian National Magazine Award. Sweet revenge!
10. I never had children nor wanted to. Being parentified early by a parent who needed too much from me too often left me burned out and unwilling to assume that responsibility. I admire loving parents. It’s hard work!
11. I play softball and hit to the outfield.
12. At 25, I lived for a year in Paris, and traveled across Europe on an EU journalism fellowship. Best year of my life! I went to London, Copenhagen, Sicily and Amsterdam alone on 10-day reporting trips. I was one of 28 journalists from 19 countries — including Sweden, New Zealand, Togo, Japan, China, Brazil, China, Italy and Ireland — and was the youngest one, ages 25 to 35. Still good friends with several of them.
13. My best journey that year was a reporting trip of eight days, from Perpignan to Istanbul, in an 18-wheel truck, (sleeping in it! no showers!) with a French trucker who spoke no English. Lovely man and great adventure!
14. My husband, Jose Lopez, is a super-talented photojournalist and photo editor. He spent 31 years at The New York Times and eight years as a member of the White House Press Corps, including a flight aboard Air Force One. Oh, and a team Pulitzer Prize! Here’s his website.
15. I’ve met Queen Elizabeth aboard her then-yacht Brittania, after two exhausting weeks of 15-hour days following her Royal Tour of Canada as a reporter for the Globe & Mail. She has some amazing jewels!
16. After deciding to leave journalism, I studied interior design seriously at the New York School of Interior Design. But my first husband bailed, and I was fearful of starting over at the bottom at very low wages alone and with a mortgage. I did love my schooling, and it helped me tastefully renovate our apartment.
17. My mother and I are estranged. I’m her only child.
18. I have three half-siblings, including a half-sister I’ve never met and don’t even know where she lives. None of us were raised in the same household and there are four mothers. Yes, it’s complicated.
19. My favorite color is navy blue — a tone I associate with calm authority and competence, (like pilots’ uniforms.)
20. I’ve published two non-fiction books, each of which was rejected by 25 publishers before the 26th said yes.
21. I like to make a pot of tea every day between 4:30 and 5:00 p.m., for a lovely break and some hydration. Favorite teas include PG Tips and Earl Grey.
22. A huge fan of the British paint company Farrow & Ball, (every room in our apartment in their colors), in July 2017 on holiday I made the 2.5 hour one-way journey from London to Dorset, by train and taxi, to visit their factory, get a tour and meet Charlie Cosby, their creative designer. So fun!
23. I listen to TSF Jazz many days, online from Paris. Radio remains my favorite medium: intimate, portable, informative.
24. I miss Mexico! I lived in Cuernavaca with my mother for 6 months at 14 and have gone back many times, but not since our three-week vacation in May 2005.
25. We eat dinner by candlelight and use only cloth napkins. I like a slow and elegant meal.
26. When I was 12 I wrote a fan letter to the legendary writer Ray Bradbury, from my summer camp in northern Ontario to his New York publishers. Within a few weeks, I had a hand-signed postcard from him, with his home address, thanking me.
27. Mad for movies, I usually watch two or more every week, whether on TV, a streaming service on in a theater; this week Booksmart (go!!!) and The Souvenir.
28. My fashion signifier is a scarf/muffler, worn in every season, whether silk, cotton, linen or wool.
29. I love to travel — but am a useless sniveling/weeping weenie if there’s much flight turbulence.
30. My Instagram feed reflects my eclectic tastes: vintage textiles, historic costume, owls, a Danish printmaker, a female NY candlemaker, an Indian woman features her day’s saree, female commercial airline pilots, military aircraft, ceramic artists, photographers, mountain climbers and a UK woman who makes amazing marbled paper, some of which is being showcased in the (fab!) new BBC series Gentleman Jack.
Two of my favorite journalism assignments in 2018 involved a six-hour drive from my home in New York to farms in Quebec, near Montreal. I worked in French and learned a lot, quickly, about agriculture, thanks to Messieurs Bachand and Bousquet.
A city girl, I’ve never lived on or worked on a farm, but I love one farming concept deeply — the fallow field.
The field left to recharge, empty, after being over-planted.
Welcome to my brain!
I started writing for a living as a full-time undergraduate at a demanding university, juggling term papers and exams with assignments for national magazines and newspapers.
I didn’t take a break until I was 30, completely worn out and — very fortunately — financially able to do so for three blissful summer months while living in a small town in New Hampshire.
I haven’t written much lately.
Many people dream of “being a writer”. The part often overlooked is the tremendous hustle required to sell that work.
I send out pitches for stories to various editors — five last week, three this week — and wait for replies, whether a paid/work/yes or a no…meaning more pitching and still no income.
I look daily for story ideas and, with some, do initial unpaid pre-reporting to see if there is a saleable story; one I’ve been chasing for six months and which (yay!) prompted an immediate “I’m intrigued” reply from an editor I’m dying to write for.
My latest book proposal is now with two editors at major New York City publishers, so I also await their decisions. I may apply for another fellowship, the application due June 26.
It’s been eight years since Malled was published.
I’ve recently attended two local networking events, as I’m long overdue getting out to meet local businesses that might be able to use my writing, editing, blogging and coaching skills. I enjoyed both events, but whew! It’s also tiring being charming to strangers.
Instead of writing all the time, I’ve been reading a lot (even fiction! Station Eleven, by fellow Canadian-in-NY Emily St. John Mandel), and going to the gym and shopping for some new summer clothes for a June vacation in Jose’s hometown, Santa Fe, New Mexico.
It’s disorienting to write less, mostly because that’s where the money eventually comes from!
But I’ve also been coaching other writers (details on my Welcome and About pages here), a nice income-producing break from word production.
It’s a long weekend here in the U.S., Memorial Day, and that means — for some — a three-day break from work.
Things have been quiet-ish here for me: lots of pitching of story ideas, attending local networking events and following up with the people I’ve met there — and (!) waiting nervously to hear from two editors about my book proposal.
In an economy where so many are self-employed, work can dominate every day of the week unless you set tight boundaries. It’s also tough for many people with high-pressure jobs to slow down and just rest.
I hope you’re making time for this as well!
Here are some of the ways I rest, recharge and relax:
I try to get to spin class three times a week, 45 minutes in the dark with great music. When not being lazy, I also lift weights, skate at a local ice rink and go for walks. I need the social aspect of being around others as much as the cardio and stretching. I may get back to playing softball, even with a runner to fill in for my bad right knee.
The walkway next to our town reservoir
We live at treetop level, eye-to-eye with blue jays and with ready access to gorgeous walking trails along the Hudson River or the nearby Rockefeller estate (750 acres that one of the nation’s richest families donated for public use.) I love seeing the world change with the seasons — our local cormorant is back at the reservoir!
Little kids get play dates to look forward to. Adults need them too! I make sure each week to set up at least one face to face meeting with a friend, over coffee or lunch. I’ve been working alone at home, with no kids or pets, since 2006. It gets lonely. I also make time for long catch-up phone calls with old friends in Canada (for whom [?!] long distance rates still somehow apply.)
This is a new thing for me, held every Wednesday morning at 10:00 a.m. in the chapel of our church and led by our minister’s wife. This all sounds starchy, I’m sure, but it’s a truly powerful place to share ideas and insights, to sit still in silence, to learn and to build community. It’s women only, ranging in age from 40s to 80+, and we usually have eight to 12. It’s good to have a standing date with one’s soul.
After my breast cancer diagnosis last June, even a very good one, anxiety has become an unwelcome new companion. Therapy helps.
Found this 1940s diner on a great road-trip last summer, on Long Island’s North Shore
Always my favorite! We just took a quick two-day trip to Montreal, a five-hour drive door-to-door from our home, and it was a perfect break. Sometimes a change of scenery is just the ticket.
Escaping into a great book is a perfect way to de-compress.