Who’s your rock? And gravel…

By Caitlin Kelly

If you’re going to somehow get through a frightening time in your life — whether it’s health, work, family, marriage, kids’ issues — you need a rock, someone you can turn to who’s as firm and solid as a boulder, something steady and calm to lean against and take shelter behind, a fixed point you know will be there the next day and the next and the next, no matter what happens.

As I got my breast cancer diagnosis — ironically, sitting on rocks at the edge of the Hudson River in the New York town where we live — my husband Jose had just left for work in the city on the commuter train. I sat in the June sunshine alone absorbing this news, delivered by phone by my gynecologist.

 

5th-anniversary

Those vows include, for better and for worse, in sickness and in health…Sept. 2011

 

Since then, as he has been throughout our 18 years together, Jose has been my rock. For which I’m so damn grateful and so damn fortunate. He came with me to every meeting with every doctor, (and there have been five MDs), listening and taking notes as a second set of eyes and ears. I’m not a person who cries easily or often — maybe a few times a year — but in the past five months, have done a lot of that. He’s stayed steady.

There’s an old-fashioned word I really like — character. Jose has it. I’d seen it on multiple occasions as we were dating. I wanted it in my second husband, that’s for damn sure.

 

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So lucky to have had the kindness of this fantastic team!

 

Then there’s gravel, a poor metaphor perhaps, for the pals and acquaintances whose love and sweet gestures have also proven hugely supportive, through letters, cards, calls, texts, flowers and even gifts. None of which I really expected.

Some live in distant countries. Some are editors I’ve worked with for years and have still never met. Some are women I went to school with decades ago. All of whom stepped up.

There were several putatively close friends I assumed would check in — and who proved wholly absent. That hurt. But it happens, and you have to know, especially with this disease, some people will flee and totally abandon you.

The most depressing thing I heard this summer — and it truly shocked me — is that some cancer patients have no one at all to turn to. No family. No friends. I can’t imagine facing the fears, pain, anxiety and many tests and treatments without someone who loves you sitting in the waiting room with you, driving you to appointments, holding your hand.

I recently got a call from a younger friend facing her own crisis, and was so honored and touched that she called me. I try to be a rock for the people I love. Sometimes I’ll fail them, I know.

But that’s what we’re all here for.

Be the rock.

 

Or be gravel.

 

But be there!

20 days later…done!

By Caitlin Kelly

 

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With their permission — the team whose kindness and skill got me through; Left to right; manager of clinic, Katrina; tech Yadi; Dr. Andrews; nurse practitioner Amara; receptionist/scheduler Khaleila and tech Susan.

 

I got to ring the gong today!

It’s the lovely ritual — some hospitals use a bell — with which patients mark the end of treatment. Jose, as he has for so much of this summer, came along to keep my company, to and celebrate.

It was a day of teary good-byes as well. Who would cry leaving a hospital clinic? If the team was as kind and fun and funny as mine was…you would, too!

 

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I had been  heading to our local hospital every morning for 20 days, the time prescribed for radiation for my left breast after surgery. I had a lumpectomy on July 6 removing all cancer, but this was considered a standard course of treatment to make sure nothing minuscule remained.

It began with a simulation, which was uncomfortable and disorienting, and also included weekly X-rays and a weekly meeting with the radiation doctor, a woman I liked a lot.

For the sim, I lay on the long narrow table while the team decided how to position my body and practiced it.

At the sim, they also gave me eight minuscule black tattoos — barely the size of a freckle — three on my front, five on my back — so the techs could align my body into position each time using laser beams. (It’s all stunningly space age.)

 

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The entire machine pivots around you. The blue rubber ring is where I placed both my hands, my face in the cradle.

The actual daily treatment was painless and quick , once the two technicians shimmied me into precise position on the table. I lay face down, with my left breast dangling, to minimize radiation to my heart and lungs — about 24 seconds per side.

Here’s a link to the website for the machine, a Varian Trilogy.

The machine is enormous, and you get used to hearing it whirring into position, with a sound sort of like running water, as it pivoted to one side, then overhead, and down to the other side of my body.

With my face in a cradle, and my arms in a sort of V-shape above my head, I saw only peripheral flashes of light, heard a buzzing noise, and felt nothing.

The hardest part, initially, was the strain on my tight left shoulder staying immobile in that position.

The techs were always extremely kind and upbeat — apologizing every time they had to move my body into position and (gently!) move my other breast out of the way. They always placed a heated blanket over my bare back, put a scented strip beneath the cradle for my head and played a variety of music during the procedure.

Sort of a spa, I joked!

 

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It’s enormous!

 

The clinic staff did everything possible to make it less frightening. There’s a huge fish tank in the waiting room and free coffee and tea and snacks and piles of new magazines and a television you can mute.

You can sit as long as you like before and after treatment, and there are never more than two or three people waiting.

I’m lucky that ours is a small suburban hospital and not some enormous, bustling big-city facility.

I never felt like a number, but a human being.

Of all the tests and treatments my body experienced this summer, this was in some ways the easiest since at least it was non-invasive — and, luckily, I don’t need chemo.

 

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I have no idea what these numbers mean. It’s all quite mysterious.

 

But, by the end, I was done; I was really tired and my skin sore, itchy and irritated.

I got to know several other patients, as we all came at the same times every day. There’s a powerful sort of intimacy in a space like this. We don’t need to say much or ask probing questions. We can share a hug or an eye-roll.

We all arrive unwillingly, alone or with a loved one.

And we all pray for the best possible outcome.

Exposing oneself to millions

By Caitlin Kelly

Thanks to a reader here, I decided to pitch one of my earlier blog posts as a larger, reported story about medical touch — and my own experience of it — to The New York Times, and it ran today, prompting many enthusiastic and grateful tweets.

Here’s the link, and an excerpt:

It started, as it does for thousands of women every year, with a routine mammogram, and its routine process of having my breasts — like a lump of dough — manipulated by another woman’s hands and placed, albeit gently, into tight compression. It’s never comfortable, but you get used to it because you have to.

Unlike previous years, though, my next step was a biopsy, for which I lay face down, my left breast dangling through a hole in the table. Several hands reached for what’s normally a private and hidden body part and moved it with practiced ease, compressing it again into position for the radiologist’s needles, first a local anesthetic and then the probes needed to withdraw tissue for sampling.

I was fearful of the procedure and of its result and, to my embarrassment, wept quietly during the hour. A nurse gently patted my right shoulder and the male radiologist, seated to my left and working below me, stroked my left wrist to comfort me. I was deeply grateful for their compassion, even as they performed what were for them routine procedures.

 

It is decidedly weird to out one’s health status — let alone discuss your breast! — in a global publication like the Times — but it also offered me, as a journalist and a current patient undergoing treatment,  a tremendous platform to share a message I think really important.

 

I hope you’ll share it widely!

 

 

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Every patient needs to be touched kindly and gently

You don’t forget trauma. Ask Ford.

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By Caitlin Kelly

Maybe you — as I did — spent hours last week watching the testimony of Christine Blasey Ford and Brett Kavanaugh to the Senate Judicial Committee, to determine Kavanaugh’s fitness to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court, a lifetime appointment granting him tremendous power.

As you may know, she accuses him of assaulting her sexually when she was 15 and he was 17.

The dubious think this memory is impossible.

Here’s a story from NPR addressing how and why one tends to remember traumatic events for decades after they occur:

A question on many people’s minds is, how well can anyone recall something that happened over 35 years ago?

Pretty well, say scientists, if the memory is of a traumatic event. That’s because of the key role emotions play in making and storing memories.

On any given day, our brains store or “encode” only some of the things we experience. “What we pay attention to is what’s more likely to get encoded,” says Jim Hopper, a teaching associate in psychology at Harvard University and a consultant on sexual assault and trauma….

“The stress hormones, cortisol, norepinephrine, that are released during a terrifying trauma tend to render the experience vivid and memorable, especially the central aspect, the most meaningful aspects of the experience for the victim,” says Richard McNally, a psychologist at Harvard University and the author of the book Remembering Trauma.

That’s because a high-stress state “alters the function of the hippocampus and puts it into a super-encoding mode,” says Hopper, especially early on during an event. And “the central details [of the event] get burned into their memory and they may never forget them.”

Whether it’s sexual assault victims or soldiers in combat or survivors of an earthquake, people who have experienced traumatic events tend to remember the most essential and frightening elements of the events in vivid detail for life, says McNally.

I find this dismissal of another’s memories appalling — and of course, politically expedient for Republicans.

As someone whose life changed forever at 14, thanks to a traumatic event (thankfully, not assault or abuse), I think those who  challenge early, brutal memories, even if they’re fragmented, both arrogant and unscathed.

I won’t get into every detail, but my mother had a manic episode on Christmas Eve when  I was 14. We were living in Mexico, far from friends or relatives, not that any relatives ever cared that I was an only child in the care of a mentally ill mother.

We had no phone. We’d been there maybe four months, so even schoolmates were still acquaintances.

It was basically terrifying.

That evening, driving recklessly down Mexican highways, she endangered my life and that of two other people with us before driving into a ditch at midnight on the edge of an industrial city I had never been to.

I ended up taking care of another girl my age, alone, for two weeks, before returning to Canada to live with my father — for the first time in seven years.

 

 

 

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Image used with permission from its creator Aaron Reynolds; a card from his deck Effin’ Birds

 

Some moments of that evening, and what came next, are etched into my memory.

But some others?

Not at all.

I never lived with my mother again.

Nor would I ever again allow her, or anyone, to endanger me like that.

 

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If you’ve suffered trauma, let no one try to dismiss what you already know.

 

If you haven’t, don’t inflict further pain on anyone by disbelieving or questioning them.

The only body we have…

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By Caitlin Kelly

 

This is a heartbreaking essay, by a woman writer, about 50 years of hating her own body, from Medium:

 

Sandwiched between two ruthless brothers in a household where verbal cruelty was a competition sport, I was easy game. My parents — the should’ve-been referees — were, instead, the audience. With the rebuttal they should’ve been providing to my brothers’ barrage of relentless brutal nowhere to be found, I had nowhere to go, nowhere to hide. In the void of any contradiction, every harsh word became truth.

Few events will make you as deeply, weepingly grateful for your body’s health and strength than than the loss of some of it — or the potential loss of all of it.

I say this with the hindsight of someone who, before the age of 40, never saw a damn doctor for anything more intense (ouch!) than an annual mammogram and Pap smear. Since then I’ve had both knees “scoped” — i.e. arthroscopy — which removed torn cartilage (the price of decades of squash games, now verboten), a right shoulder repaired (minor) and my left hip fully replaced.

It’s a funny moment when — as I was being wheeled into our local hospital’s OR for my breast lumpectomy in July — the female, Hispanic (so cool!) head of anesthesiology recognized me and vice versa. That’s comforting, but also a bit too much surgery.

I really hit my limits in March 2017 when I arrived at the hospital with chest pain so intense I could barely tolerate the seatbelt worn for only 20 minutes to get to the ER.  Turned out I had a 104 degree temperature and pneumonia I had been ignoring. That meant three days in the hospital on an IV and coughing so hard I thought I might pass out.

I sweated so much I was thrilled to be able to shower there.

I apologized out loud to my exhausted body, the one I’d been abusing and taking so for granted.

Never again!

As someone who came of age during second-wave feminism and in Canada, I never spent a lot of time fussing about my body and how it looked. I like to be stylish and attractive and have always loved fashion. But freaking out about the shape or size of my body?

Nope.

 

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I care most, still, about being healthy, strong and flexible.

I love being able to hit a softball to the outfield and savored my four years being a nationally ranked saber fencer — in my late 30s.  I hope to get back to downhill skiing, horseback riding, hiking.

Social media has made the endless and relentless scrutiny of our bodies even worse than it’s always been — policing our size and shape is such a useful way to distract us from essential issues like the size of our paycheck.

Shaming women for being fat(ter) than someone would prefer us to be (MDs only, thanks) is just another way to undermine us in a culture that demands insane “productivity” and only makes beautiful clothes for women smaller than a size 10 — when the average American woman is now a size 14.

Some of the most “beautiful” women I’ve met — those externally chic and spotless — have been ruthless and unkind.

So my definition of beauty, and human value attached to a body, isn’t only rooted in what we see on the outside.

 

How do you feel about your body?

 

 

View story at Medium.com

View story at Medium.com

View story at Medium.com

View story at Medium.com

Life in cancerland: 18 tips

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

Some reflections on my having entered — as of June 2018 — a new and sometimes overwhelming world; if useful, please share!

 

You are not alone

You may certainly feel it as you reel with shock and try to make sense of what will happen to you next. My early June diagnosis of DCIS, (a sort of pre-cancer, even though the word carcinoma does mean cancer!) is one shared annually by 44,000 American women.

 

You will likely be in shock and feel utterly disoriented

Even if your prognosis, as mine is, is excellent, you’re stunned.

One minute, you assumed you were healthy, the next…you’ve entered cancerland, filled with sights and sounds and sensations both foreign and unwanted, that you may never have experienced.

What the hell is an aromatase inhibitor?

What are my eight tattoos for exactly?

How tired and ill will treatment make me feel?

 

You face a learning curve

Until you’ve had a biopsy, you don’t know what it feels like, during and afterward. Same for chemo and radiation and other things likely to happen. It’s all new and unfamiliar and a lot to process, physically, emotionally, intellectually — and, in the United States — financially.

 

Ask as many questions as many times, of as many medical staff — including technicians — as you need, and take notes

It’s complicated stuff!

Don’t ever feel stupid or intimidated or rushed or that your concerns are unimportant. Health care includes feeling cared for, not just surgery and medications.

 

People who have never had experience with cancer may behave in hurtful ways

Even with the most loving intentions, people may say things (oh, it’s not that bad!) or do things (send you books about cancer, unasked for) that can leave you even more anxious, scared or disoriented.

They may also tell you to “fight” and “battle” — when (if they don’t know the details) this might not even be necessary, or might not be possible. Ignore them!

This is not what you want!

 

Get off the Internet and listen to your MDs

The first advice my gynecologist gave me — who told me the news by phone — was to not start reading about this on the Internet.

I didn’t and have not and will not.

But I make my living seeking and processing vast amounts of complex information as a journalist — how could I behave this way?

Because I’m human and had to process enough new information as it is!

I also have avoided any detailed conversations about this unless with fellow patients, and not even a lot of that.

 

Some people will flee

This can be painful. It’s them, not you. As one friend (whose wife died of lung cancer) said: “You don’t know what their vulnerabilities are.”

 

Some people will step up unexpectedly

This is a great gift.

 

You will need to let some new people in, even when that feels weird to you

I find this difficult, as someone who’s always been quite private. But without allowing others to know the details of your situation and to comfort you, it’s too hard.

 

Some people will over-share and overwhelm you with their medical story

Shut them down.

This is not the time for you to hear, process and empathize with others’ details and fears. This is the time for you to focus on your needs. That may feel unkind, even brutal. Just do it.

 

If at all possible, find a medical team and hospital you like and trust

You will be spending a lot of time in their offices, possibly daily, weekly, monthly and for many years to come. If you like, trust and respect them, you will feel safe — literally — in their hands.

If you have doubts, find a team you feel good about; this is more difficult if you live in a rural area or have poor health insurance, I know.

 

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You’ll be seeing, and see and be touched by, a lot of people you have never met

That’s another stressor right there.

So far, I’ve seen more than a dozen different MDs, multiple technicians and been to two different hospitals. It’s a lot of new people, and different personalities, to cope with at once — in addition to your diagnosis and treatment.

As one friend told me, you’re spending a lot of emotional capital.

 

Ignore (most) others’ advice!

People will rush to give you all sorts of advice, leads, insights and tips. Everyone’s body is different. Everyone’s tolerance for pain is different.

Just because they or someone they know had a better/worse/horrific/painful outcome, this may not be your experience.

Don’t let their possibly frightening, unhelpful or inaccurate data bombard you while in a weakened physical or emotional state.

 

Educate a few people about your cancer — and let them do the talking for you

It’s time to conserve all your resources, especially time and energy. People who have not faced cancer, and your specific kind of it (what stage, where are you in treatment, invasive, recurring, metastatic, ER+, etc.) have no clue.

Having to keep explaining things to them can be too tiring and upsetting.

 

Do whatever comforts you most deeply

That might mean withdrawing from most social events to save your energy. Hugging your kids or pets. Knitting or playing video games or binge-watching TV, prayer and meditation.

 

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Rest as much as possible

Your mind and body are under assault. Naps are your best friend.

 

You don’t have  to be “brave”

People will tell you how brave you are.

You’re just doing what you have to to stay alive, even if (as I have) you might be fearful and crying a lot to a few people. Even a good diagnosis is enough to shake you hard.

 

Ask for help — and don’t think twice about it!

You may need help getting to and from medical appointments — tests, bloodwork, chemo, whatever. Even if you’re not feeling tired or weak, it is deeply comforting to have a friend or loved one waiting for you when you emerge from whatever it is you faced that day.

Having someone to drive you there and back is a real blessing. Ask for it, and accept it with relief and gratitude. Same for dog-walking, babysitting, food shopping, cooking, laundry.

Love is action.

 

Why we need more apologies

By Caitlin Kelly

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Time doesn’t heal all wounds. A sincere apology is a lot better!

 

Years ago, I had a job that was, to put it plainly, a brutal experience — alternating between being bullied and ignored by bosses and colleagues alike. It was at a Big American Newspaper, one now half its size, but then a very big deal and a well-paid job in a dying industry.

But I wasn’t about to quit, no matter how terrible it was to survive.

Then, years after I left, I met one of those former bosses again in another situation, and was quite nervous about how he might behave.

To my shock — and gratitude — he apologized if he’d made things worse for me.

How rare it is to receive an apology!

Here’s a great piece on the subject from Elle magazine, which I found thanks to this blog:

I have never spoken this phrase. To anyone. Not a lover, not a friend. Not a bad boss or a vindictive colleague. This is not for lack of opportunity. I’m a black woman in America. I have been owed plenty of apologies.

I just never believed I deserved to demand one.

In the instant that I watched Serena’s firm command, I anxiously searched my consciousness to determine why, in my 33 years of living, I had never demanded an apology I believed I was owed. I have certainly expressed personal and professional grievances; I have given voice to hurt feelings and frustrated moments with greater intention as I’ve grown in confidence—a confidence which is hard earned.

But the idea that someone would need to affirm responsibility for their actions and impact on me had just never occurred to me. I have quietly carried the scars of apologies desired but never received, seething with resentment but never questioning why I didn’t demand an apology in the first place. I have always known, as seemingly all Black mothers say, that “closed mouths don’t get fed,” and that it is rare that anyone receives that which they do not ask for. Still, I had not formed my lips to utter the words: you owe me an apology.

How many times in your life have you just sat there, seething, when we should have demanded an immediate apology for someone else’s shitty behavior?

Most recently, I sat beside a woman at someone’s landmark birthday party (hardly the time for a confrontation!) who scared the hell out of me about the upcoming radiation for my DCIS.

I was a bit shell-shocked by her attitude (she’s a naturopath); we’re often slow and deeply reluctant to demand an apology since we don’t want to make a scene in public (oh, how bullies count on this!) and react like deer in the headlights, inwardly appalled, but passive and stunned in the moment.

 

Too stunned to say “Excuse me?!!!”

 

Not to mention all the powerful people, usually male, who set and enforce the rules. It’s damn near impossible to “demand” anything when your survival depends on shutting up and putting up with appalling behavior.

There’s a lot of Internet conversation right now about the many men — shunned for harassing women sexually at work — now crawling back demanding our forgiveness and more of our attention, like Canadian former broadcaster Jian Ghomeshi, American comedian Louis C.K. .and American broadcaster John Hockenberry.

I don’t really care for excuses, like “I don’t remember” because, unfortunately, I can’t forget some of the worst moments from my own life.

You can wait a long time, maybe forever, for some people to apologize, but it doesn’t mean giving other miscreants a pass just because it’s become your default.

 

Here’s a recent piece from The Atlantic about having a high school friend-turned-would-be-rapist eventually apologize:

 

A few minutes later, I saw him coming back; it was the boy who’d tried to rape me. He had tears in his eyes, and he seemed almost overwrought. And right there—in the A&S department store in the Smith Haven Mall—he apologized profusely.

“It’s okay, it’s okay,” I kept saying to him. “I forgive you, don’t worry.” It was a weird ambush of intense guilt and apology, and it was the wrong place and time—but the thing was, I really did forgive him. My life had moved on, and things were better. It felt good to get the apology and—as it always does—even better to forgive him. He’d done a terrible thing, but he’d done what he could to make it right.

 

Have you ever demanded an apology?

Did you receive it?

Was it sincere?

Taking a needed breather

 

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Time for a break!

 

By Caitlin Kelly

Luckily, I have good friends in Toronto willing to host me for a week, and I’ve been enjoying time away from the endless toxicity of American politics, work and health issues.

Late summer is a good time to visit this city, as winter can be bitter and midwinter days depressingly gray. (My husband, Jose, is busy right now photo editing the U.S. Open Tennis, ending his work shift as late as 1 or even 2:00 a.m. after the final evening match.)

I arrived here bringing champagne and chocolate and books. I try hard to be a low-maintenance guest, since we have often hosted friends in our one-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment, and I know it can feel overwhelming. My friends have a large enough house we can all disappear when needed — and one sign of a good friendship is the ability to do so, and no one feels offended, since everyone needs quiet time alone.

I grew up in Toronto, ages five to 30, so I still have many deep friendships and lots of memories here — I usually return once or twice a year, the last time in April with Jose.

This visit I shared a friend’s 70th birthday celebrations, caught up with five more of my friends and just enjoyed some badly needed downtime; (several more local pals were posting FB photos of their trips to Paris and Prague.)

Like most of my visits, it was filled with reminders of my history here. One of the party guests knew me as a baby (!) and hadn’t seen me since. Another knew me from fifth grade at a Toronto girls’ school. And I worked with yet another at Canadian Press — in January 1982.

I slept in, visited with my hosts and binge-watched The Alienist. Shopped at my favorite store, Gravity Pope. Ate a few good meals.

What a gift to detach from work and all things medical for a while!

A few images…

 

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Every Toronto summer ends with the Canadian National Exhibition, aka The Ex, which closes on Labor Day. I hadn’t been in about eight or nine years, met a good friend there and wandered. But it’s gotten stupidly expensive ($20 admission alone) and too commercial for my taste.

 

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My friend’s party had such delicious food — ribs and salmon and corn and caprese salad and lots of wine and this amazing pavlova for dessert, made by one of his daughters. Yum!

 

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It’s trendy as hell, but a good spot for a cold beer and lunch on a scorchingly hot day.

 

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I’m total and unrepentant fan of all things aviation related, so the CNE air show was so so so cool!  It was a little terrifying to hear the thundering of jets flying low over downtown, but what skills!

A summer of reckoning

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

 

I’m so ready for this summer to end!

 

Not being a beach person, I don’t spend the year eagerly awaiting summer, as many of our friends do.

And this summer has felt like a series of waves smashing us both in the face:

— Husband now using insulin and adjusting to all that it entails

— My breast cancer diagnosis right around my June 6 birthday

— The ensuing tests, procedures and appointments that have consumed precious days of lost work/income since my husband and I are both wholly freelance, with no paid time off that we don’t fund ourselves. (Thank God for savings.)

— Multiple $100 co-pays to have some of these tests and procedures.

— An infection in my breast, six weeks post-op. Extremely painful, but resolved. Breasts are such sensitive things!

— Two friends widowed the same week, a friend’s young adult daughter dying and the sudden and shocking death of a former colleague and friend.

— Far too many days shuttered indoors with AC blasting, curtains drawn, escaping 90+ degree heat

— Far too many days with torrential rain

OK, what’s been good?!

 

— Meeting a new Canadian-in-the-States friend, a fellow writer living in Oakland, CA and his husband who came to NYC and joined us for dinner.

— The thoughtful gift of a classic Hermes silk scarf from a friend; it belonged to her mother, who died last year and was a dear friend of ours.

— So many loving cards, emails, flowers and phone calls from friends worldwide as I adjust to a new reality.

— Blowing insane money on a designer handbag, (on sale, dammit!) after my diagnosis

 

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— Jose made us gorgeous new wooden planters and the brilliant orange marigolds and fragrant lavender have been amazing. I love watching bees dive into the salvia each morning.

— Discovering how multi-talented my friends are, both journalists like me, one of whom made us home-made soap, the other really delicious home-made bread. I love all things artisanal and am in awe of such colonial skill.

— Snagging a potentially very good new freelance opportunity after seeing an editor participating in a Twitter chat. We met in NYC for lemonade and hit it off.

 

How’s your summer been?

Highs?

Lows?

Failure? Let’s discuss

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By Caitlin Kelly

In the shiny, buffed world of social media, how often do you see someone — or do it yourself — admitting to failure?

It’s a parade of perfection, and one that can make any of us feel like a total loser for not being as thin/pretty/well-dressed/groomed/wealthy/well-employed/living on a Greek island…

Loved this New York Times piece about why we need to talk more openly about it:

In a new working paper, co-author Alison Wood Brooks, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School, found that discussing failures can help to humanize the sharer by making them seem more approachable and relatable in the workplace. It also generally increased levels of so-called “benign envy,” which can motivate and drive employees to perform better.

However, the enemy of benign envy, according to the paper, is “malicious envy”: The type of envy others feel when we talk about our achievements much more often than our struggles. Projecting that image of perfection can be especially harmful for those in leadership positions who risk coming across as disingenuous, Ms. Brooks and her colleagues found.

A simple way to understand this is to look at the polished-though-unrealistic lives many of us present on social media.

 

 

One of the most powerful lessons I learned last year — despite their towering reputations lasting centuries — is that Japanese print-making legend Hokusai, Michelangelo and even Leonardo da Vinci all suffered setbacks and penury and failure.

It happens!

I’ve spoken here a few times about the many failures I’ve experienced in my life and career, but let’s review a few.

The only true value of failure is learning something useful.

 

— Moved to Montreal age 30 for a staff newspaper job I had doubts about (not a very good paper.) Was gone within 18 months after some unpleasant interactions with my boss and a union that shrugged and wouldn’t help.

Lesson: trust your gut.

— Moved to a small town in New Hampshire, pre-Internet. Despite efforts, made no friends and, again, left within 18 months to move to New York, just in time for a recession.

Lesson: I’m not a rural girl!

— Took six months, crying every day, to get a magazine editing job after cold-calling hundreds of strangers.

Lesson: Re-starting your career in a highly-competitive industry in a highly-competitive city with zero social connections is really hard.

— Married in 1992, husband walked out 1994. 

Lesson: Don’t marry someone who won’t do the work to go the distance.

— Have applied many times for competitive fellowships like the Knight-Bagehot (to study business at Columbia), the Alicia Patterson (tried three times), a Canada Council grant (worth $20,000 Canadian) multiple times.

Lesson: Thousands of competitors want the same bag of goodies. You can keep trying, even if you feel pissed off and humiliated.

— Spent many hours in 2018 producing two full book proposals, both of which were rejected by five agents. Fun!

Lesson: Intellectual growth — creative growth of any kind — is almost always going to be unpaid, speculative and suck time away from paid work. How much do you want it?

 

I admit, though — I’m much less amused by failure at this point in my life.

I want to stop working within five years, ideally sooner, which places a lot of pressure on me to to do good work and well-paid work and work that I really care about and am proud to have produced.

All of which now run directly counter to current industry trends in journalism.

I’m not someone who spends her days consumed by envy when I see social media brag-fests. Sure, it hurts to see people winning, especially if you feel like you’re losing. But it doesn’t accomplish anything to focus on their success and your (relative) failure.

No one succeeds alone, so I’m also attentive to people’s headwinds and tailwinds — the many invisible forces beyond talent, skill and experience — that can propel some people to massive/quick success while the rest of us struggle.

That might be family money, social capital, alumni connections, anything that offers a leg up.

Some of my younger friends, in their 20s and 30s, end up consumed with envy at their peers’ glittering achievements, which is a terrible distraction. I do think, once you’re past 40 or 50, life should — ideally! — have brought you some of the rewards you once coveted.

A feeling of success, despite the inevitable setbacks and failures we all experience.

I’ve also found that some things we’re completely obsessed with at 25 or 35 or 45 can shift so that not getting it — i.e. what we once would have deemed a failure — is no longer a goal we even want.

It’s too easy to focus solely on one area of accomplishment — work — rather than being proud that you’ve been a great friend or spouse, have managed to regain and maintain good health, have planted a thriving garden.

We’re all diamonds, multi-faceted, and several sides will always catch the light.

We also all have many successes, if we take time to notice and celebrate them.

 

How do you handle failure?

Do you obsess and freak out or just move ahead?