The three A’s that matter most

By Caitlin Kelly

You might argue that three C’s matter more: compassion, conscience, commitment.

I’m going with agency, autonomy and authority.

As a writer — and author of two books — I love that the word authority starts with the word author. You have to stand up intellectually and be counted. It’s risky, for sure. But that’s where authority comes from, actually knowing your stuff, not just performing it on social media, preening. Maybe you’ve heard of the 10,000 hours theory — that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master a skill.

 

 

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I’ve been writing for decades, and each story, probably, from start to finish, might take 20 hours (at most, maybe 10 at best, for reporting/interviewing/writing/revising.)

So that means producing 1,000 stories before I could legitimately say, yeah, I’m excellent at this — which by now I surely have.

But here’s an interesting story that says — nope, wrong!

I recently went down a three-hour rabbit hole — three videos, about an hour each, of British writer, actor, poet Michaela Coel, who created the hit new HBO series “I May Destroy You” based quite a bit on her own life as an emerging artist and her own experience of being drugged at a bar then raped.

What I found most interesting about her comments in all three, one of which is the McTaggart Lecture, delivered in 2018 to the great and the good of the British TV industry, was how essential it’s been for her to insist on her own sense of agency and autonomy as she has created.

Her lecture is powerful and honest and makes clear that learning how to navigate the arcane and byzantine world of profitably selling your ideas and retaining some control over them is damn hard, and no one really teaches you.

The word agency has multiple definitions; here are five.

It’s fascinating that you hire an agent/agency to represent you in many endeavors, certainly creative — music, film, writing,  art — and in so doing must also surrender your own sense of agency to them, always relying on trust and knowing they’ll claim 10 to 15 to 20 percent of your earnings for the privilege. Which is why I’m loving the three season French TV series “Call My Agent” (10 percent in French), as it lays bare the hustle and drama and chaos behind the scenes of a Parisian talent agency.

Like Michaela Coel, who’s quite adamant about the need for transparency in an industry premised on little of it, I want to see the process, not only the shiny finished object.

How to re-charge your creative juices

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By Caitlin Kelly

If you live and work in the United States, as I do, you will daily — hourly! — be exhorted from every direction to be (more!) productive.

It’s a Taylorist industrial model and has nothing to do with creativity.

An early blog post of mine (2011) — chosen for Freshly Pressed — challenged this:

 

Shutting down the production line for a while — silence! solitude! no immediate income! I’m wasting time! — can feel terrifying.

It’s absolutely necessary.

But we don’t talk about the downtime, the quiet moments of connection and insight that can, when allowed to blossom quietly unforced by another’s schedule, birth wonders.

Whenever I’ve taught or lectured on journalism, I crush a few young dreams when I make clear that traditional news journalism more resembles an industrial assembly line than an artist’s studio.

360 people liked it.

Nine years later, with so many of us working from home (or living at work!), it’s even harder to carve out the time, privacy, silence, solitude and lack of income-producing pressure to just think.

Uninterrupted.

Not worn out.

Not grieving.

Without free and unstructured time to ponder, noodle, make connections you’ve never seen or noticed before, how is it even possible to create?

Only in conversation last week with a friend we visited upstate for a few days did I realize how much we have in common and how that shared passion fits perfectly (!) into my potential book proposal — because hanging over the toilet in the cramped bathroom of his rented 235-year-old country house is a gorgeous lithograph of the topic I want to explore and which he knows very well.

These serendipitous moments can only happen when we step out of the grooves of everyday life.

I also love reading books that inspire or offer new and helpful ways to think and behave. Not a fan of woo-woo, but practicality!

An older business book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, includes my favorite chapter — Sharpening the Saw —  finding ways to stay sharp and refreshed and use your strengths.

The title is goofy, but there’s a lot of smart stuff in it, even if you work at home in leggings and not in some corporate environment.

I sometimes read business books as well and have found smart ideas in the Harvard Business Review.

 

Here are some of them:

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The Tharp book– by the American choreographer — isn’t new but is excellent. She is not one to sit around waiting for inspiration since no working artist can afford it. Much discipline!

 

Time to get cracking! I’ve written many book proposals, but it never hurts to read up again.

 

Have heard a lot of good things about Big Magic.

 

Uncommon Genius is a brilliant idea — go out and interview winners of the MacArthur “genius” prize about how they think and work.

 

Daily Rituals is good fun — dozens and dozens of creative folk, including those from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, in all kinds of fields, and how they work (or don’t!)

Where and how do you find creative inspiration?

A return to earlier pleasures

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Age six or seven, in our former Toronto back yard, with one of our two Siamese cats, Mitzpah and Horowitz

 

By Caitlin Kelly

I’m very lucky to live with a skilled photo editor and archivist for the United States Golf Association — whose ability to rescue faded, torn, wrinkled images is amazing.

I’d lost hope for this photo, which is in color and was so so faded! But he brought it back.

Me, back.

This photo means a lot to me, because it’s the only image I have of the last home I shared with both parents, on Castlefrank Road in Rosedale, a lovely neighborhood of Toronto. It would prove to be the last time I lived in a house until I was 15, as my now single mother and I lived in different apartments in Toronto and Montreal.

Bored by isolation during this pandemic, I’ve recently returned to two activities I haven’t done in decades and used to really enjoy —- swimming and playing the guitar.

In my teens, I was a skilled swimmer and used to compete, do synchronized swimming and worked part-time through high school as a lifeguard. But I’ve never enjoyed swimming at the Y — the pool is enormous and even one length daunting.

Luckily, our apartment building pool is open this summer, even if only for two months, and I’m trying to do multiple lengths every afternoon. To my surprise and joy, I’m finding it really relaxing, and a great time to stretch out muscles cramped from too much sitting.

I used to play guitar and write songs and haven’t even touched it in 20 years. But it’s time! I’m excited and nervous to start building up the calluses needed to play without pain. I love singing and really miss it.

 

Have you taken up new skills or activities in the pandemic?

 

Or re-discovered older ones you’d let go?

 

On not wanting to have children

 

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I do love this photo of my late mother and me. I always found her glamorous. In this photo she’s probably 28 or 29, as she left my father when she was 30.

 

By Caitlin Kelly

The Guardian has been running a fascinating series recently, of essays by women who don’t want to have children, and it includes a 6:57 video with five interviews of women ages 22 to 45, explaining their feelings as well.

Here’s an excerpt from the essay by American novelist R.O. Kwon:

 Throughout history, people without children – women, especially – have often been persecuted, mistreated, pitied, and killed for their perceived lack. In ancient Rome, a woman who hadn’t borne children could legally be divorced, and her infertility was grounds for letting a priest hit her with a piece of goat skin. (The blows were thought to help women bear children.) In Tang Dynasty China, not having a child was once again grounds for divorce. In the Middle Ages, infertility was believed to be caused by witches or Satan; worse yet, an infertile woman could be accused of being, herself, a witch. In Puritan America, it wasn’t just having no children that was suspect. Giving birth to too many children could be perilous, too, and grounds, yet again, for being condemned for a witch.

Also in the US, enslaved women were expected to have babies, and were routinely raped, their potential future children considered a slaveholder’s property. Some of the only times women without offspring have garnered respect might be when they have formally devoted their lives to a god, and to celibacy: nuns, vestal virgins.

Which brings us to a word I haven’t yet used, but which often is levied against childfree women like me: selfish. Despite everything, it’s still common to view parenting as a moral imperative, to such an extent that voluntarily childfree people can be viewed with such outsize emotions as anger and disgust

The series is interesting, with reasons from not making enough money or not wishing to pass on a genetic disposition to addiction to having watched their own mother really resent having had children.

I knew from childhood I didn’t want kids, for several reasons:

— My mother started having manic breakdowns when I was 12, several times when I was alone with her and with no one to turn to for help or advice. It was terrifying and overwhelming. I felt burdened too young with too much responsibility, “parentified.”

— I wanted to become a journalist, especially (initially) a foreign correspondent, a job that makes parenthood pretty much impossible since you live out of a suitcase, travel constantly and have to be ready 24/7 to go where the news is happening, often with little or no notice.

— Journalism. It pays badly compared to many other industries, is very insecure (much worse now), offers a lot of obstacles to making better wages. Without money, raising a child, I knew, would be really stressful. And the hours can be terrible; news happens 24/7 and night, weekend and overnight shifts, if you even have a job now, are real at every stage of one’s career.

— My parents didn’t care. Neither pressed me hard to have kids and neither ever showed interest in doing what many grandparents do — move in or move closer to help out, offer financial aid for a nanny or helping me acquire better/larger housing to make parenthood more comfortable.

— Bodily autonomy. While I know some women absolutely adore being pregnant and breastfeeding, I had heard too many horror stories. The idea of carrying someone inside me for nine months, then being put through the agony of labor, then 20+ years of someone relying on me utterly? Not a chance.

— Freedom. As some of the women in the Guardian series say plainly — this has offered me tremendous freedom, in work,  in partners, in where I live, in how I work.

— Weird parenting. Having done a lot of therapy, I had to be persuaded that my childhood was in some ways deeply neglectful, because it was materially privileged but, often, handed off to others. I spent ages 8 to 16 at boarding school (8 to 13) and summer camp, all summer, every summer. My parents, it seemed, just didn’t want me around. So why would I choose to have kids when they found it so…unappealing?

I know,  everyone thinks we’re selfish. Because women without children have chosen a life that’s not spent, de facto, in service of others for decades — breast-feeding, changing diapers, rushing to the ER for the latest bleeding wound, doctor and dentist and teachers’ appointments.

It also makes clear that a woman who is not subservient to the needs of others ahead of her own, always, is deeply suspect.

Why not, missy?

Some people make a lot of rude and unfounded assumptions about us:

that we hate kids (I don’t); that we are incapable of sustained sacrifice (hello, work?!); that we shun intimacy (ask our husbands, partners and friends); that no one will care for us in old age (hah! as someone often estranged from my own parents, this is a fantasy.)

 

I’m in awe of the time, energy and attention it takes to be a good and loving mother!

 

I just didn’t want the job.

 

Do you have children?

Or not?

Have you enjoyed it?

Resilience is a learned skill

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

In my last blog post, I named some of the worst experiences I’d faced in earlier years, and several people commented on how tough they were.

Or how tough I must be to have weathered them.

I later realized there were two more years that were also very difficult, one when I was 14 and another right around my 20th birthday.

What I also realize, looking back now, is what made the first one excruciating and the second one less so, was having emotional support, people who love me who really stood by me through it all.

When I got a diagnosis of early stage breast cancer, right at my birthday in 2018, I was floored and deeply surprised by the flood of love and support and good wishes, cards and gifts and flowers, that people sent to me. One woman I know really only professionally, who lives far away from me, sent me a bracelet with the word I chose — onward. Even though I did a lot of crying and was very scared, knowing how many people were with me in spirit was incredibly helpful.

My late mother suffered a tremendous amount of health problems — multiple cancers (which she survived), COPD, a late-life colostomy — but she, until that point, was relentlessly determined to just get on with it.

Her expression, whenever face with yet another crisis: “What should I do? Jump out of my skin?”

I agree.

 

Life is rarely smooth and easy!

 

We get sick and injured and people we love get sick and injured and get dementia and fade in front of our eyes. We don’t get the dream job — or we do, and get fired or laid off. We may face (as I did, even at 30, when I arrived in New York seeking a journalism job) a six month job search. Or a search that never produces a job we want.

Or any job.

So the things I’ve faced and overcome are nothing compared to what others face — a drug-addicted or incarcerated parent; having to care for younger siblings; not being able to afford any sort of education with which to escape poverty.

Chronic poverty. Disability or chronic illness. Food or housing insecurity.

Or racism and daily microaggressions, as so many BIPOC are describing now. Police brutality and mass incarceration.

 

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Sometimes it’s all just a hopeless mess!

 

My experiences, for sure, have been much eased by my race, decent health, the skills to make a living, an excellent university education with no debt (Canadian) and the financial help of a relative.

But I also take pride in my acquired resilience when the shit — again!! — hits the fan, in not lying in bed in the fetal position weeping for days, escaping into drugs or alcohol. I’m not judging people who do.  People do what they can with what they have.

Surviving hardships creates resilience. It’s a muscle we only develop by using it, probably repeatedly.

 

You don’t know how strong you can be until you’re sorely tested.

 

Right now, thanks to the news and social media, I see a tremendous amount of whining and complaining, mostly by Americans, some who just can’t tolerate the slightest discomfort (wearing a mask, staying out of crowded places indoors) and whose selfishness is lethal as it continues to spread COVID-19.

This behavior sickens me. It’s stunningly immature.

Ironically, I gained a new client this year who is Finnish.

And Finns take pride in a national culture with a name — sisu. It means grit, determination, the willingness and ability — and pride in so doing — to tough things out.

 

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Stay or go?

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By Caitlin Kelly

I’ve been very lucky of late to find an editor who likes my essays, so she bought this one on the  topic I have come back to many times — too many! — on this blog: whether to remain living in the U.S. or return to Canada.

Here’s a bit of it:

And so I left behind a perfectly good country, one with excellent and heavily subsidized university education, cradle-to-grave healthcare, a wide, deep social safety net, and a Constitution that promised “peace, order and good government” rather than “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

For years, Canadians had often guessed I was American, which is a veiled insult that means too bossy, too direct, too nakedly ambitious. I wanted faster decisions and a wider playing field, not the endless foot-shuffling of risk-averse fellow Canadians and a career limited to a handful of major cities.

I’d thought American was more egalitarian than it is, but that turned out to be silly idealism. When I dared suggest to someone at Dartmouth that I audit classes there, since we were in the middle of nowhere for the next four years, pre-Internet, the university administration refused. How about part-time study? Also no.

As I began to try to make sense of my new home, I read two seminal works of the early 1990s that explained the shadowed side of John Winthrop’s 1630 vision of America as a much-admired “city on a hill”: the first was Alex Kotlowitz’s There Are No Children Here, about two boys growing up in a decrepit Chicago housing project during the 1980s; the second was Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities, a study of two school districts, divided by wealth and class, which were allotted wildly unequal resources by the American way of funding education through housing taxes. This was a key difference between my experiences in Toronto and Montreal.

In Hanover, a local social worker told me about the grinding poverty she saw on muddy backroads, the battered trailers with plastic on the windows, while Dartmouth’s most privileged students raced their shiny sports cars through town and dropped enormous sums in its few stores. There is poverty in Canada; this is particularly true for the shamefully neglected Indigenous people. But the shocking inequality of the United States, where the three wealthiest Americans collectively own more wealth than the bottom half of the population (while the middle class struggles to pay for healthcare and university tuition), is absent; Canada has its billionaires and millionaires, but they tend to be more discreet about their good fortune.

First American lesson: Prove you’re rich! Income inequality be damned.

 

I really enjoy the quality of life and the kind of professional opportunities that living in the U.S. — near New York City — has given me.

I would never have had these things had I stayed in my home country.

Canada is both geographically enormous — and really small!

 

 

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Montreal harbor — with the legendary housing Habitat, from Expo 1967

 

If you have (as I have) lived in a few of its major cities and have no wish to keep moving just to find a new job with a slightly different perspective, then what? I had lived in Toronto (a really ugly and expensive city) and Montreal (a charming city but with very limited prospects for an ambitious Anglo journalist). Vancouver was too far away (and also has very costly housing) Ottawa and Halifax and Calgary too far away or too small.

My half-brother, 23 years younger, married an American and has long lived in D.C. and recently became a first-time father, of twins — so now we have American citizens in the family.

And my husband, Jose Lopez, is also American, as was my first husband.

I know it hurts my Canadian father, who had a very distinguished career as a film-maker there, that we both have professionally and romantically dismissed Canada, even though we visit. I suspect many immigrants to the U.S. feel some of what I do — pride and pleasure in our accomplishments here (it’s HUGE) — but also something of a tug to our homeland.

It is an utter nightmare for many Americans to have a President like Trump. It is very frightening to imagine four more years of him, while also having little optimism about how much better Joe Biden would do.

 

 

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I love old diners, anywhere! This is on the North Fork of Long Island, NY

 

You choose to leave your home country, initially, for all sorts of reasons — education, marriage, adventure, a job, a fellowship.

You choose to stay elsewhere for a host of others.

I lived in Mexico at 14, in France at 25, and moved to the U.S. at 30.

Moving away is always a little scary, but — for me — so was the prospect of spending my life in a city I didn’t like much, and which still is the professional hub of my industry.

And the truth is that, being gone for decades, means re-entry can make you feel like a stranger in your original homeland.

 

Have you lived outside of the country of your birth?

If you returned, what brought you back?

 

And if you would never go back — why not?

Where will you go?

Listening well

 

Caitlin Kelly Health Care Story
Interviewing GP Dr. Margaret Tromp, President of the Society of Rural Physicians of Canada, in Picton, Ontario, Sept. 2019.

 

By Caitlin Kelly

I listen for a living.

Most people think I write for a living, and, yes, the product I sell is an article or story or blog post for publication, for a company or for a journalism outlet.

But before I have anything to write about, I’ve listened carefully to strangers who have to place their trust in me to get it right, make their views known without distortion and communicate it all compellingly to even more strangers.

It’s a challenge!

I really enjoy it, but it can be difficult. My current project means speaking to a source in Europe and using a video interface, which can freeze or drop words or whole sentences. Add to that an accent and a complex topic, and away we go!

My interviews have sometimes been extremely delicate, like the young black women I spoke with for my first book about American women and gun use. Each had been arrested for a gun-related crime (not murder) and each had her own reasons for owning and using one.

My job was simply to listen quietly, non-reactively, kindly, without judgment.

I suspect it may have been a rare occasion for them to simply tell their story and just be listened to — not to a cop or a judge or a social worker, let alone a middle-aged, white stranger.

The photo above is fairly typical of me when I’m really focusing hard; I’m not looking at the speaker (not to be rude!) but really thinking.

 

An interview, journalistically, is a terrific experience but it’s not conversation in any conventional sense. It has elements of that — nods, laughter, echoing back what someone just said, asking a clarifying question, even swearing — but it’s also a controlled interaction where the writer must stay in the driver’s seat, even if done delicately and invisibly.

 

I recently did my first transcription for a fellow journalist, whose interview was with a major pop musician. Oh, I felt for them! The replies were often mumbled or mono-syllabic. I was as tired at the end of making sense of it as they probably were as well.

To conduct a really good interview requires both intellectual acuity (make it interesting for them! ask smart and incisive questions and follow-ups) and emotional sensitivity (don’t rush them!) 

 

 

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I did a series of interviews in Edmonton, Winnipeg and Toronto, years ago, for Chatelaine, a national women’s magazine, which meant asking sources — all women — to revisit an extremely painful experience, a side effect of a drug, Mirapex, all had taken for their Parkinson’s disease or for restless leg syndrome.

The side effect was an excess of dopamine over-stimulating the brain’s pleasure centers, and the women had unwittingly become compulsive gamblers, terrifying their families and confounding their physicians.

Between their emotion and the disease, they shook and/or cried through the interviews and one’s family raged about her behavior — without really understanding, medically, what was even happening or why. It was one of the most difficult stories I’ve ever reported and I apologized to each beforehand and thanked them afterward for how exhausting it was for them to share their stories.

Sometimes, I feel more like a therapist than a journalist.

 

When I listen for work, I bring tools to the table with me:

 

empathy

compassion

curiosity

cultural sensitivity (what’s taboo, what’s likely to elicit passion or emotion or silence)

prior research (to know what to ask)

patience (not every word or sentence is riveting)

editing as we go (see above!)

attentiveness to their pauses, hesitations, laughter, emphasis, repetition

Here’s a recent and interesting New York Times piece about how to listen well:

 

Start out by talking about something the other person likes, or maybe doesn’t like, and finding out why that is. It could be music, art, books, films, food, favorite childhood toys or even other people. The point is to explore one another’s affinities, attitudes, beliefs and opinions — but never argue about them. As the Polish-born social psychologist Robert Zajonc wrote, “We are never wrong about what we like or dislike.”

Likes and dislikes develop through experiences, and those back stories are willingly told if you ask questions and listen carefully to the answers. These don’t necessarily have to be long, drawn-out conversations.

 

Even when I interview super-smart eminent scientists, as I did for a recent story, I make time for some casual personal conversation as well. I discovered that one of the leaders in water treatment shared my experiences of flying Nicaragua’s domestic airline — and eating at a great Indian restaurant in Montreal (where he attended McGill, across the street.)

Those fun, personal, quirky moments make even the most serious interview more human and playful.

We talk most easily to other human beings, not robots.

Jose and I talk to one another a lot.

It’s one of my favorite elements of our marriage — because really listening to someone is an active form of love.

Looking back…

By Caitlin Kelly

With so much more time at home to reflect, it’s been interesting to flip through old photos, enjoying happy memories.

A few of these:

 

Jose and I, now together 20 years, married in 2011, met through an online dating site, which I was writing about for a magazine story. His was one of (!) 200 replies to my profile, whose candid headline was Catch Me If You Can. He did!

Not one to hesitate, he pulled out the big guns and, within two months of meeting me, invited me to the White House News Photographers annual dinner, a black tie affair in D.C. seated with senior photo editors of his employer, The New York Times. No pressure!

And, showing off his extraordinary access as a former NYT White House Press Corps photographer, we were allowed into the Oval Office.

 

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Two of my proudest moments: Malled (2011) and Blown Away (2004.) I loved writing both books and have two proposals I’m slowly working on. Journalism has been so decimated in the past decade and there are very few places that still offer room to tell a story in depth — and pay enough to make it worth doing.

 

Caitlin Kelly Health Care Story

 

September 2019, Ontario, doing one of the 30 interviews for my story on Canadian healthcare, interviewing a physician. Jose and I traveled around rural Ontario for three weeks that month and had a fantastic time — I interviewed plenty of people but we also stayed with old friends, like a woman I hadn’t seen in 50 years (!) I went to private school with. So fun!

 

 

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Jose thought it would be a good idea to photograph the judging of the Pulitzers, so he did! When you work 100 percent freelance, as we both do, you’re constantly drumming up ideas to sell. No ideas, no income!

 

 

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The fab team of radiologists and physicians my on my final day of radiation for early stage breast cancer, November 15, 2018. They were so kind and compassionate.

 

 

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We love visiting Montreal. Such charm! It’s about a 6.5 hour drive from our home in New York. I love speaking and hearing French encore une fois and we have some friends there to catch up with. We even now have a favorite room at the hotel we like, the Omni Mount Royal — which overlooks the exact site of the (torn down) brownstone I lived in at 12 with my mother. We used to fly kites on Mount Royal — and when I met my first husband in his final year of med school at McGill, took him up there on a ffffffrrrezzzing caleche ride. So many memories!

 

 

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Summer 2017, a glorious Budapest cafe. I treated myself to an unprecedented six weeks’ travel through six countries: France, Germany, Hungary, Croatia, Italy, England. It was worth every penny. Dying to travel again! Unlikely — I met up there with my best friend from university, who lives in Kamloops, B.C., whose daughter had been studying in Eastern Europe. 

 

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Yup, that’s fellow Canadian, actor Mike Myers, who I met at Fleet Week in NYC a few years ago, at a Canadian consulate event. He was a lot of fun.

 

 

5th-anniversary

 

Our wedding, September 2011, on an island in Toronto. A tiny church, with 25 friends/family in attendance. It was a perfect fall afternoon.

 

 

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This would have been pre-1994, when I was competing as a sabre fencer at nationals.

 

 

 

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The view from across the road. Can’t walk down to the sea very far — thorns and bog!

 

June 2015, Co. Donegal, where we rented a cottage

 

 

I learned how to canoe at camp -- useful when we went to Nicaragua
On assignment in Nicaragua for WaterAid — Jen in the bow of a dugout canoe

 

I’ve been so fortunate to have paid adventures like this one! March 2014. My first ride in a dug-out canoe.

 

 

 

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I had planned to leave journalism and become an interior designer so I studied here in the 1990s — and loved it! Then I taught writing there for years.

 

 

ALL IMAGES COPYRIGHT CAITLIN KELLY 2013.
The Grand Canyon — whose profound silence makes your ears ring

 

I’ve been twice. What an amazing place! This is from 2013

 

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What a hoot! This would have been 2011 or earlier, before my hip replacement. They gave me the clothes to keep! And the photographer (small world!) came from Atlanta to New York, the husband of an old friend.

 

 

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This is probably my proudest writing moment — a National Magazine Award for an essay (humor!) about my divorce. I wrote it and sent to a national Canadian women’s magazine who sat on it for a few years (I got divorced in 1995), but they did a great edit — and voila!

Looking forward…

By Caitlin Kelly

 

We’re all living in the subjunctive now.

From Wikipedia (for Spanish):

The subjunctive is used to express desires, doubts, the unknown, the abstract, and emotions.

 

Americans, especially, are a nation accustomed — beyond those in the worst poverty — to a specific sort of aggressive optimism, the “American dream” that life will, through lots of hard work, get better.

A pandemic killing thousands every day has shredded this.

 

How can anyone look ahead with optimism?

How can anyone plan?

How can we make rational decisions without reliable information?

Can we stay healthy?

For how long?

 

It’s a challenge to keep moving ahead when you have no idea if you’ll get your job back or your health insurance or if your children will be back at school or college or university.

German schoolchildren are back in their classrooms.

My French friends are celebrating the end of “le confinement” — while a feckless America lurches deeper into recession and chaos and morons carrying guns storm a…Subway sandwich shop.

How are you coping with this uncertainty?

The pain of Mother’s Day — not what you think

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By Caitlin Kelly

Tomorrow in North America, the annual paeans to great mothers begins again.

It doesn’t resonate the same way for others, like me.

I wrote about this once in detail, here, and it spurred one of my most valued friendships, since that person and I finally saw the effect of having really difficult mothers on our lives and life choices.

It does change you.

It’s also deeply taboo to not like your mother — and it’s extremely painful to have your mother not like you, especially if you’re their only child.

So, at the request of an editor, I wrote this essay about how my mother and I became estranged, and still were when she died this February, in a nursing home very far away from me.

I hadn’t seen her or spoken to her in a decade.

I did love my mother, even as I was fed up with how she chose to squander every gift life can offer: physical beauty, Mensa level intelligence, curiosity, open-mindedness, inherited wealth, deep and abiding friendships.

Between her bipolar illness and alcoholism, her behavior was often erratic and selfish. It deeply hurt and really scared me, as my visits to her were usually alone, with no one to turn to for moral support or help. I had no siblings to commiserate with — or strategize.

I couldn’t turn to one of her friends. She was someone who eschewed close relationships unless with very old friends, most of whom lived in other countries. She didn’t know her neighbors, so neither did I. When she attended church, she never went to coffee hour and,  when I forced her to on one of my annual visits (selfishly desperate for someone else to know her), she was furious with me.

When she left my father, and she was 30, she had plenty of suitors, and one was very kind to me — oddly, decades later, that man’s daughter, living in England, contacted me (or vice versa) and we renewed a friendship we’d had at 12 in Toronto.

So I miss the best of her, as it was lovely.

But I don’t miss the worst.

Here’s some of the essay:

 

I hadn’t seen her in years nor tried to re-connect. I knew better, even though others repeatedly urged me to, including my father, 50 years divorced from her but lately back in touch.

“You’ll regret it!”

“What if she dies?”

“Just go!”

“You never know…”

But they didn’t know the full story.

Every year I sent her a Christmas card filled with the past year’s news, but never received a reply, not even in 2018, the year of my early-stage breast cancer, surgery and radiation. When she had had a mastectomy decades before, I’d flown from New York to Vancouver to get her back home and re-settled.

A few years ago, she told my best friend, a local who went to visit, to tell me to stay away.

How does one end up so estranged?

More easily than you’d think.

I hope you’ll read the rest — and if you, or someone you know, is also estranged from a parent, this may comfort them.

It’s an oddly secret society.