The deep comfort of seeing old friends

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By Caitlin Kelly

Imagine opening your kitchen door to someone you haven’t seen in 50 years.

That just happened for me and a woman I knew at boarding school in Toronto, with whom — both of us bad girls asked to leave the school at the end of that year — I then, briefly, shared a room there.

She’s an incredibly talented art photographer, with three books to her credit; here’s her website.

After we lost touch, she moved to Ireland, then back home to Toronto, then to the U.S. — as I did, and there married and divorced without children (as I did.) Now she’s back in Canada and we caught up on so many stories! It was eerie how much we had in common and so comforting to feel like it had not been so many years; she, too, had DCIS (early stage breast cancer) and reached out to me on Facebook last year when I was diagnosed, then living in New Mexico — my husband’s home state.

On this trip we also caught up with a man I’ve known since my very early 20s, married for years to his husband, now retired to the country. We met their gorgeous Airedale and enjoyed a great meal together. We hadn’t seen them in a few years and look forward to returning. How nice to know we’re welcome again.

We also spent an evening with yet another friend of many, many years — who I met when he was a tenant in an apartment in a house my father owned. It’s lovely when you’re out on the road for three weeks, most of it working, to sit at a friend’s table and savor their hospitality. (We arrived there with a big box of delicious bakery goodies.)

I finally, after many lonely years there, have several good friends in New York, and one who’s known me for about 20 years — but the depth and breadth of my earliest friendships, the ones who knew me before my first husband, (pre-1986), are so precious to me. They knew me “when” — and, still, gratefully, know me now.

On this trip, I’ve also made several new younger friends through Fireside, and I am really enjoying getting to know them better.

 

Friendship sustains me.

Row, row, row your boat

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Can’t wait to sit fireside once more….

 

By Caitlin Kelly

We leave this weekend for a much-awaited trip back to Ontario, where we’ll see and stay with five different friends — one, I literally haven’t seen since ninth grade — in two cities and three towns. I won’t be back home in New York until late September.

We’re grateful and fortunate to have so many close friends who happily welcome us, sometimes many times, to stay in their homes, sometimes for as long as a week, to share morning coffees and late-evening conversations, to catch up in depth and detail on one another’s lives in a way that no social media chitchat can ever provide.

We’re also eager for respite.

When Jose took the buyout from The New York Times in March 2015, an opportunity we couldn’t afford to pass up at the time, we knew it wouldn’t be easy. I knew, more than he did, that in a chaotic and youth-obsessed industry like journalism, we probably would never have another staff job in it, or likely any other, and get stuck with costly health insurance.

Our applications — even with our industry’s top awards — go unanswered.

So we’re both full-time freelance, hustling hard to make our financial commitments — $20,000 a year just for health insurance is a huge burden, and not an item we can afford to cheap out on.

Much as we enjoy the relative freedom this life offers us, being able to go away when and where we can afford to, it’s also a real scramble. Clients come and go and must be replaced quickly to keep income incoming.

In our leaky little boat, we row hard every day, bailing when necessary.

I left home at 19, never with any option of returning when times got tough. My parents don’t offer help, financial or emotional, and Jose’s parents died decades ago.  I have three half-siblings and know none of them well; I haven’t even met one. His two sisters have their own lives and live far away from us.

I watch, in awe, when a younger friend is handed $50,000 by her parents…because they can, and another pays half a million cash for her apartment, also a family gift. (I was very lucky, in my mid-20s, to inherit some money from my late maternal grandmother.)

Today, we have no one anywhere to rely on but ourselves: our wits, our health and our skills.

We’re attending and speaking at an annual and unusual conference held at a camp in northern Ontario, called Fireside. The creation of two young Ontario lawyers, it attracts participants from around the world — no badges or lanyards, no wi-fi and sleeping in unheated cabins when it’s about 40 degrees F at night.

It’s a great adventure.

 

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The dining hall at Fireside

We’re OK, generally.

But the past year has worn me out.

This summer cost us an anticipated $1,050 from two of my projects that blew up due to others’ tantrums and a tiny skin cancer on my leg (treatable, I’ll be fine!) had me watching anxiously for months before biopsy, diagnosis and treatment, paying (of course) additional out-of-insurance-network costs for a dermatologist I like and trust.

So this chance to wake up among pals in a spacious, multi-roomed house — not our overused one-bedroom work/office/apartment — and have food prepared for us by people who love us, to rest, to not hustle every day, even for a bit, is a great luxury and one we are deeply thankful for.

 

We all need to be cared for at times.

 

Talking to strangers…

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For this New York Times story, I spoke to this woman and teachers and volunteers and many middle school students

 

By Caitlin Kelly

I spend my professional life speaking with strangers, an odd way to describe journalism — since everyone focuses on the (cough) fame, fortune or fake news that’s the written or broadcast end result.

But if I don’t speak to strangers — and those have included Queen Elizabeth, Olympic athletes, convicted felons, a female Admiral and a few celebrities (like Billy Joel at the very start of his career) — I have nothing to work with. Just as every builder needs bricks and mortar and windows and doors and HVAC to create a functional home, I need to assemble quotes, facts and anecdotes to write interesting stories.

People assume that, because it’s a journalist’s job to talk to strangers, we each find it comfortable and easy. But sometimes it’s excruciating, like speaking to the survivors of or witnesses to rape, genocide, war, mass shootings — meeting people in their most vulnerable moments, sensitively (at best!) managing their tender emotions even as we struggle to mask or contain our own.

But it’s also the part of the work I most enjoy. People are so different, and yet we all want to be listened to attentively and respectfully.

We want to be met with interest, empathy, compassion.

It’s good to find common ground.

It’s great to share a laugh!

I also talk to strangers when I’m out and about — at the gym or grocery store or on the train and, especially, when I sit alone at a bar and chat (when welcomed) to the person beside me.

And because I’ve traveled widely and often alone — Istanbul to Fiji, Peru to the Arctic — I’ve also had to rely many times on the advice, kindness and wisdom of strangers. It does require good judgment and the confidence to suss out a baddie from a perfectly kind soul. So far my only misjudgement, of course, happened at home in suburban New York.

This past week was a perfect example of why, (and yes I’m careful)…I sat at the bar, as I usually do when I eat out alone, at a fun restaurant, and the man beside me was heavily tattooed, had a thick, gray lumberjack beard and was on his second or third tequila. His name was Joe and we had a terrific conversation — he’s a tattoo artist and former Marine.

We could not have less in common!

And yet, a lively, friendly chat ensued.

The power of journalism, in forcing its front-line staff to talk to hundreds of strangers every year, is that it shoves us out of any self-defined “comfort zone” — a phrase I truly loathe. No matter how I personally feel about a specific subject (and, as a freelancer I won’t take on something I know will revolt me), I have to remain polite and respectful to my interlocutor.

If only every teen and every adult would make time to civilly engage with people they don’t know, whose politics they haven’t predetermined and admired, whose race and gender and sexual preference and age and clothing and demeanor and house and vehicle don’t signal they’re predictably and cozily “one of us.”

 

Would the U.S. — or Britain — be any less divided?

 

Do you speak to strangers beyond necessary commercial or medical interactions?

Learning to say no

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By Caitlin Kelly

Anyone poorly parented and/or the victim of bullies and narcissists knows how extremely difficult it can be for their victims to say no.

Ever.

To anyone.

To anything.

To the most absurd and unrelenting demands.

 

Because what happened after I’ve said no is…abandonment. Estrangement. Rejection. Verbal or physical cruelty. Job loss.

I’ve lived in fear for decades — and readers know I express plenty of strong opinions here and in my writing and books and on social media — of these outcomes in my personal and professional life.

My industry, journalism, is in such utter chaos — with the most job cuts in 2019 since 2008 — that those with jobs will do anything to keep them, and the hell with us freelancers, seen by many as disposable commodities, easily and cheaply replaced with someone, always, terrified and docile.

I have never seen such shitty behavior.

The past two weeks made me snap.

First, a baby editor with zero social skills — who I later found out has been this rude and aggressive with other veteran writers. Then, this week, a source decided it was appropriate to throw me and my skills under the bus.

Then stalk me on Twitter.

 

Done.

 

In both instances, their entitled behavior — unprovoked and insistent — left me shaking and shaken.

From now on, I’m just walking.

This is,  a great luxury, and a measure of privilege because it’s possible only with the explicit agreement and financial and moral support of my husband and a bank account plundered to make up the lost $1,050 in anticipated/needed income from these two stories.

Most Americans don’t even have the savings to say…I’m gone. I’m not putting up with this.

Because without savings, and the ability to never engage with them again, we’re all left groveling to bullies.

 

DONE.

Getting older, becoming invisible

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By Caitlin Kelly

I live in a building dominated by older people.

Here’s my essay published this week about it on nbcnews.com:

If you really want to know what old age looks like and feels like and sounds like — forget playing around with FaceApp, whose AI technology can age your appearance in seconds on your phone. Simply plug in a current photo and the app will generate a falsely wrinkled face, sagging jowls and wispy white hair. But while the app has quickly gone viral, with artificially aged photos of celebrities and friends alike popping up all over social media, such images have almost nothing in common with the true experience of aging in America.

You just can’t imagine old age. You have to live it firsthand.

I was prompted to write it after our next door neighbor, Flo, died last week, at 91, after a final year at home bed-ridden. All we ever saw were visits from her daughters and the Russian woman who was her in-home aide.

Flo was deeply private, with a head of thick white curls and bright eyes. Only at her funeral did I learn she’d been widowed at 44 with three daughters to raise, aided by a large and supportive family.

Living in a place surrounded by seniors — a word I dislike (we don’t call people juniors!) — has shown me what aging really looks like. The same week my first husband walked out, some 25 years ago, was the week L’s husband had a stroke and never spoke again. He later died and she dated a jaunty older man who wore cool sneakers. He died.

She is now so impossibly frail, sitting with her aide.

It’s sobering. It’s instructive.

As someone with no children, I’m acutely aware, should I live into old age, I will need money and physical help to live well, safely and independently, if lucky enough to do so — my 90-year-old father does.

I lost my grandmothers the same year, when I was 18 and never met my grandfathers.

So this is what I know.

But we also have people here in their 80s looking great and living an active life.

You can’t understand what you don’t see.

The challenge of finding love

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My sweetie, making photo history by photographing the Pulitzer Prize journalism judging — his idea!

 

By Caitlin Kelly

In the romantic sense, anyway.

I see a lot of anguish among my friends who are single, no matter their age. One is desperate to have children but has no partner. Another has had her heart broken a few too many times.

Another already knows men her age insist on dating women decades younger.

One of my Sunday morning pleasures is reading The New York Times wedding announcements, aka the social box scores. I admit it — my mother’s wedding and both of mine made the cut. And, for every kindergarten teacher marrying an investment banker, or a Harvard-educated physicist marrying a former White House speechwriter, there are a few fun couples you just want to cheer for, like the 71-year-old therapist and mandolin player who married an 80-year-old — and met him while sharing their love of vintage Porsches.

I married for the first time at 35 and he bailed after barely two years, re-married to a colleague within a year. He was “perfect on paper” — a tall, handsome, medical student who played clarinet and guitar and also loved to travel. But it was not to be.

Divorced (no kids) for six years, I had plenty of time to re-think who or what I most wanted — as I missed being married. One of my hopes (realized!) was to find a partner who was interesting, well-traveled, accomplished yet also modest. In New York, that’s almost impossible; I was way out of most leagues, not having an Ivy degree, let alone several.

In those years I dated a computer geek of Greek origin, a ship’s engineer and a Jewish man whose parents’ first question to me was: “Are you Catholic?” (No.)

I met a few charming liars, as anyone does when meeting people on-line. Even a convicted con man. Terrifying!

Then I wrote about online dating — still a novelty then — for Mademoiselle, a now-defunct national women’s magazine. My profile headline read, truthfully: Catch Me If You Can. Jose, now my husband, liked the challenge and we met and…that was it!

 

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In sickness, surgery and in health…

 

We would never have met any other way, as he lived 30 miles south of me in Brooklyn and worked full-time, an odd schedule, at The New York Times. The day he was to have moved in with me was 9/11.

Yes, the 9/11.

Our first few years weren’t smooth. We loved one another, but were tough, prickly, set in our ways and, typical of successful journalists, extremely competitive. Whew!

But we’ve also always been quick to laugh, to hug, to forgive. We share a ferocious work ethic. We love to mentor and entertain, to share what we have with those we love. Our sofa is well-used by visiting younger pals.

We love to travel, whether in a tent (rarely!) or an elegant city hotel. We both have spiritual practices — mine, Episcopal church, his Dzogchen Buddhism; you can see his mala beads on his left wrist below and the stained glass of the tiny wooden church on Toronto’s Centre Island.

 

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September 2011

 

It’s never easy or simple to find a great match, especially later in life as career and education and children enter the picture and each of which can make a commitment more challenging.

I was unhappily single for years in Toronto because I knew I really wanted to move to New York — and who would move with me, legally? It all worked out (moved here with first husband who I met in Montreal), but who knew at the time?

I’m so grateful for how it worked out.

How have you found romantic love?

What’s your legacy?

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By Caitlin Kelly

 

Few events will raise this thorny question as powerfully as a funeral.

 

Who came?

How many?

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.

Every day we create our legacy.

Yes, including weekends!

Do you ever think about this as well?

 

10 years, 2,137 posts, 21,461 followers — thanks!

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By Caitlin Kelly

A decade!

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.

 

 

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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.

Like:

 

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— 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!

 

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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!

 

 

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— 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.

 

Thank you!

Having extra means feeling rich

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Custom made pillow covers. A splurge.

 

By Caitlin Kelly

 

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.

 

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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.

Another big zuszh!

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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!

 

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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.