The immigrant’s dilemma on Election Day

By Caitlin Kelly

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In a few days, American citizens will choose their new President, (and other elected officials, which tends to get lost in the fray.)

Some of us who chose to come to the United States — and not those (blessedly) fleeing war, oppression, terror, economic disaster — are now, nervously, wondering…what next?

Will we stay?

If not, where will we go?

When?

This is not unique to me; here’s a comment on a recent piece in The Economist:

An American friend who has 2 children to raise and educate has already emigrated, to Australia in this case, because his wife is Australian. And then a few Asian dual-citizenship friends already left. In their words, “America is not a good place to raise kids – too many guns, and too many strange xenophobes. It’s not worth it.” They are all bilingual, bi-literate, high-skilled professionals. I certainly am packing too if Trumps wins.

I’ve avoided much discussion here about this election, although I will say clearly I do not want Donald Trump to win and am very, very fearful of the effects, domestically and globally, his election would create.

I’m disgusted and appalled by the way he dismisses and demeans women, Muslims, Mexicans (my husband’s heritage), the disabled and others.

I chose a country I then believed welcoming to “the other”, a place where your background and beginnings mattered less than your education, skills, drive and ambition.

This no longer feels true to me.

I have not become a citizen, so I will not be voting. I will accompany my husband to the polling station, proudly, as I did last time.

Choosing to emigrate to the U.S. places you in an odd few buckets.

The word “immigrant” is too often conflated with “illegal” or assumed to be someone whose choices elsewhere were so utterly barren that we had to come, have to stay and have no better options back at home — or in any other nation.

The true picture is much more  varied.

There are immigrants who’ve made millions of dollars. There are those stuck in low-wage, menial jobs, sometimes for decades.

But there are also millions of us who thought coming to the United States, making a deliberate choice, was worth a try, maybe later in life or mid-career, maybe having to persuade a dubious spouse or children to create a fresh start here.

There are many of us, especially those with multiple language skills and the ability to work in other languages or cultures, those of us with cross-cultural fluency, who could leave, returning to our homeland or trying yet another country.

I left Toronto, and Canada, a nation with cradle-to-grave government supplied healthcare, (versus the $1,400 I pay every month here in NY, thanks to self-employment and corporate greed), a country whose very best universities offer a year’s tuition for less than $10,000 — not the $50,000 to $60,000 plus charged by the U.S.’s top private schools.

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I came to the U.S. at the age of 30; then as now, I had no children to worry about.

Nor did I mind leaving my family of origin behind as we’re not close emotionally and returning, in need, is a quick 90 minute flight.

But my decision was still terrifying!

I knew very few people. Had no close family here — cousins in California with whom I have virtually no contact.

Had no job. Had no graduate degree nor the Ivy League education and social capital I would (belatedly!) learn are essential to elite success in the crazy-competitive Northeastern enclaves of publishing and journalism.

I now own property here. I’m married to an American. I have long-standing friendships and deeply love the region I chose, the lower Hudson Valley.

But the prospect of a Trump Presidency is making me, and many, many others deeply anxious.

Those of us with portable skills and multiple passports and/or citizenships do have options.

Thanks to my paternal Irish grandfather, I can also apply for Irish citizenship and an EU passport; I already speak fluent French and decent Spanish.

Does this country, in an era of growing global competitiveness — when American schoolchildren rank lower than other nations — really want a potential brain drain of some of the most highly educated and highly skilled workers, thinkers and innovators it needs most?

 

Of those once sufficiently seduced by that elusive American dream to wave goodbye to everything, and everyone, we knew before?

No matter who we vote for, we can still vote with our feet.

Will we need to go?

Will we want to?

We’ll know soon enough.

Doing something difficult

By Caitlin Kelly

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Time to explore!

It might be emotional — coming out to your family or while transitioning at work.

Or standing up, finally, to a bully or withdrawing from a toxic narcissist.

Or learning how to discuss a tough topic with someone you love.

Or struggling to reach rapprochement after estrangement.

Or visiting a friend who is dying and attending their funeral, making sure their survivors have the support they’ll need afterward.

It might be political –– switching allegiance after decades, maybe generations, of voting for one party and one set of principles.

Or door-knocking and phone-banking to try to get every possible voter to the polls for this crucial election.

Or choosing not to vote at all.

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It might be physical — going through chemo, trying to lose (a lot of) weight, trying to stick consistently to a healthy eating and exercise plan.

Trying a new-to-you sport, maybe with a buddy.

Maybe committing to a daily/weekly routine.

Or getting the eye exam/dental checkup/skin check/colonoscopy/mammogram/physical you know you need and keep putting off because…ugh.

(Since late May, I’ve been carefully eating much less 2 days/week, [750 calories] plus consistently exercising. Fun? Not so much. But loving the results!)

It might be financial — living on a very strict budget to finally kill off your credit card debt or student loans or a mortgage.

Or asking for a raise or arguing intelligently for your value as a freelancer in a tight-fisted market.

Or really carefully reviewing your savings and investments, if you have some, to make sure your hard-earned money is working as hard as you are.

It might mean taking on an extra job, or two, to accumulate some emergency savings.

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It might be spiritual — leaving a faith community that no longer feels (as) welcoming, looking for another one.

Or maybe another faith entirely.

Or none.

Maybe it’s trying a silent retreat or daily meditation.

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She didn’t win, because her goat behaved badly. But she learned how to compete.

It might be intellectual — choosing to try a new way of working or thinking or reading/listening/watching that challenges you. that pushes your brain in another direction.

Maybe you’ll finally try to learn a new language, or a new skill or teach or tutor someone else.

 

Whatever the decision, it means making a choice. Shedding a prior behavior or set of habits, which only gets more and more challenging the older we get and more attached to those behaviors as the best (or most familiar) way through the world.

We’re blessed beyond measure if any of these choices are indeed choices, not sudden and unexpected terrors we have to face, let alone broke and alone.

Whichever new/scary direction you choose — as we all must if we’re to have a hope of significant growth in our lifetimes (and over and over!) — you may sit on the edge of that metaphorical cliff and think….nope! Nope! NOPE!

Pack a parachute! (Cupcakes? Liquor? A stuffed animal? A supportive friend?)

I hate the phrase “comfort zone” as if its limits were clearly demarcated and immutable.

How about “Here be dragons”, the phrase that once marked ancient maps of the world, indicating places that were unknown or unexplored?

HBD, kids, HBD.

The immigrant’s hope

By Caitlin Kelly

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This recent New York Times op-ed, by Imbolo Mbue really hit home for me:

Despite my pride in my new citizenship, I’m an immigrant first. If I were to wake up one morning forgetting that, by the end of the day I’d surely meet someone who, upon hearing my name or my accent, would say to me, kindly or unkindly, “Where are you from?” to which I might respond with stories about the beauties and complexities of my homeland. Then I’d carry on working toward the goals that brought me here.

In this pursuit, I share a bond with millions of my fellow immigrants — regardless of whether we’re naturalized citizens, green-card holders, visa holders or undocumented; regardless of our race, culture or religion. We all arrived here bearing dreams.

In the upcoming U.S. election, even after decades living here, I won’t be voting. I have a “green card”, am a “resident alien” and still call myself an ex-patriate, even though I’m really more of an immigrant.

Partly, it’s a language issue.

“Immigrant” often seems to connote someone fleeing, desperate, as many are, for a safe haven, a fresh start,  place to live without fear of government repression, criminal gang warfare, religious intolerance.

For too many Americans, it also connotes “illegal”.

For many of us, though, it’s a place to spread our wings, to see how, if and how well we fit into this enormous place.

When I crossed that border as a resident-to-be, I felt like a raindrop hitting an ocean.

Could I ever possibly make something of myself here?

I came to the U.S. in 1989, able to do so legally because my mother was born in New York, and thanks to her citizenship, I was allowed access to a green card. (I was born in Vancouver, Canada, as was my father.)

This election cycle has, I think for many of us who left another country, been a difficult and exhausting one. It has for many Americans!

But for those of us who chose the U.S., filled with hope (however naive) that it would offer us a better life…it’s often been a frightening and depressing time.

The 2008 bank crisis was a disaster. Three recessions in 20 years has meant depressed earnings and savings for many of us.

Now, a campaign so ugly and so bitter and so divisive that even my deeply patriotic American husband has been wondering if we should move back to Canada.

I chose the U.S. for several reasons:

— half of my family are American, and successful in business, academia and the diplomatic corps. I wanted to better understand them and how they prospered. Who were they?

— Canadians grow up inundated by American media and politics; something like 85 percent of the publications on our shelves are created by the U.S.

— Canadians can be deeply risk-averse, timid in business and social life. I was tired of that.

— A country of 35 million people is small, and offers limited work opportunities.

And, like everyone who leaves their homeland for a new one, I carried many dreams with me.

I’ve achieved some of them: (home ownership, a happy marriage, a successful career as a writer, some recognition in my highly competitive field.)

I don’t ever regret choosing the United States over Canada. I’ve been lucky enough to retain deep friendships at home (I still call it that!) and we go north about once or twice a year as well.

But, after so many years here, I also feel a deep loyalty to so many progressive Americans’  best hopes — for social justice, for racial equality, for decently-paid work for everyone.

Like millions of others, I want the best for this place.

The tougher question these days is: whose best?

Where do you feel most at home?

By Caitlin Kelly

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How about Washington, D.C.?

 

A friend recently posed the question on her Facebook page — and the many answers she received were fascinating.

Many said “Mexico”, and I was among them, and yet almost all of us were Caucasian.

I miss Mexico, having briefly lived in Cuernavaca as a teenager and having visited various regions there many time; I also speak Spanish.

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Or Donegal, where my great-grandfather is from…

But feeling most at home?

It’s always, since I spent a year living there on a journalism fellowship when I was 25, been Paris.

Seems unlikely, for a Canadian born in Vancouver and raised in Toronto, Montreal and London.

(For one American friend, it’s London or bust! If you aren’t reading her blog about life there, you’re missing out. For another, whose blog I also adore, it was a huge leap — from Portland, Oregon to Lisbon.)

It’s a cliche, I know, but I’m fine with it. I speak French, so that’s not an issue.

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One of my Paris faves…

I love all the things many people love about that city: great food and wine, style, flowers, the architecture, history, its scale, ready access to the rest of Europe.

I know the city somewhat,  and feel bien dans ma peau each time we return. It’s also a place that changed my life and work for the better, forever, so it’s marinated in memories.

And I know it’s not an easy city — as this blogger who lives there is sure to remind me!

 

 It’s not always easy to feel 100 percent at home.

 

Factors to consider include:

  • long, cold snowy winters — and/or hot, humid ones
  • lots of rain and cloudy days
  • jobs! And well-paid ones, a huge issue in this year’s Presidential election
  • quality (affordable) education — at every level
  • media — is quality journalism done there, and incisive reporting?
  • shopping. If this matters to you, what’s the quality, price and ready access to the things you value most?
  • food. Are there farmer’s markets? Great restaurants?
  • culture! Can you afford to attend ballet, theater, opera, dance, concerts?
  • style/elegance. If this matters to you, (as it does to me), a place where everyone schlumps around in sweats 24/7 is a lousy fit
  • landscape. I stare at the Hudson River every day, grateful for its ever-changing skies and beauty. One friend posts astounding images of his life in Arizona’s Sonoran desert.
  • history — is the place shiny new or filled with ancient stories to discover?
  • politics — right/left/mixed (and it the place welcoming to those who vote otherwise?)
  • guns. In the U.S., a serious issue; do your neighbors own them and carry one?
  • drugs. A scourge in many places now, whether meth or heroin.
  • public policies — what happens when you’re ill and/or out of work?
  • citizen engagement, volunteering and activism
  • the diversity of your fellow residents — ethnically, economically, religion, work, education
  • personal safety from crime
  • personal safety from natural disasters like hurricanes, floods, wildfires, earthquakes and tornadoes
  • Access to, price of and quality of housing, rental and owned
  • Do people on the street smile and greet one another — or do you prefer anonymity?
  • The quality (or lack of) urban planning and design
  • Clean, safe parks and ready access to nature for recreation
  • Clean, safe playgrounds, swimming pools, tennis courts
  • Well-financed libraries
  • Bike trails and lanes
  • Air quality (New Delhi and Beijing are now hardship posts because the air there is so foul)
  • Good medical care and safe, well-run hospitals
  • Policing — how safe are you and your loved ones? These days, for many angry and frightened black Americans, it even means being safe from the police.

Terrorism is now a serious issue for many people.

 

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A walk along the Palisades, on the western shore of the Hudson River

I’ve been living in a small town on the eastern edge of the Hudson River for more than 20 years, 25 miles north of Manhattan.

I love this town, (here’s my post from 2012 with 20 reasons why), and am very happy here, but it lacks, of course, the bustle and culture of a big city.

I chose Tarrytown on a recon trip for some of these reasons: it’s very diverse for a suburban New York town; its gorgeous location; its history and architecture and scale; easy access to Manhattan (40 minutes by car or train.)

It’s now become home to all the hipsters fleeing crazy-expensive Brooklyn!

I grew up and spent 25 years in Toronto, a large city that often makes lists of best places to live.

I didn’t hate Toronto, and usually return once or twice a year to see old friends there, but it has many ugly areas, a brutally expensive cost of housing, (and very poor quality below $1m), for purchase, crappy quality rentals and a long, grim winter.

More than anything, it held a limited set of professional opportunities — I know people still in the same jobs or workplace as when I left, decades ago.

As we hope to retire in a few years, deciding where to live and why becomes more and more a conscious decision, not just dominated by the proximity to enough decent jobs in our field.

I’ve long planned to spend some of that time living in France, some in the U.S. and some in Canada, with a lot of travel, as long as our health and finances allow.

 

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I believe that beauty – wherever we find it — nurtures us deeply; this is a painting of northern Ontario, a landscape I know, love and miss

Where do you feel most at home and why?

 

Is it far from where you were born and raised?

 

I admit it: I still like The Breakfast Club

By Caitlin Kelly

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THE BREAKFAST CLUB, Judd Nelson, Emilio Estevez, Ally Sheedy, Molly Ringwald, Anthony Michael Hall, 1985. ©Universal Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

This can be a real vote-splitter or relationship dealbreaker.

It’s basically a movie about five white kids in suburban Chicago, detained for bad behavior for a full day in their high school library.

Who cares, right?

Made in 1985, it opens and closes with a great tune by Simple Minds, Don’t You (Forget About Me) and was shot in a set in the gym of a high school closed in 1981.

But it’s really about what it feels like to be a teenager — misunderstood or ignored or bullied by your peers and/or teachers. To feel at odds with your parents, whose lofty expectations of success and prowess — you know, living up to your potential — can feel like an elephant sitting on your chest.

The movie was shot within three months for a reputed $1 million, since earning more than $97 million in box-office receipts. I can’t imagine how many residual checks its actors are still receiving, decades later.

It’s also about something that really never changes, no matter where you live or when you grew up — how you can spend four years in high school and walk past the same people for days, weeks and months assuming you have nothing in common, nothing to say to them or vice versa.

The five students are each a “type” — the criminal, the princess, the brain, the recluse and the jock.

I identify most with the brain, the nerdy kid who geeks out over physics and Latin club. Not that I was so smart, but I definitely didn’t fit the other categories.

I arrived at my Toronto high school halfway through Grade 10, a terrible time to arrive — halfway through the second year?! Even worse, I’d chosen a school in a neighborhood so insular that everyone there had been attending the same schools since their first grade. The lines were well-drawn, the cliques established.

I hadn’t even been in a public school, or in a classroom with boys, since Grade Seven. I had pimples and wore the wrong clothes and was far too confident, (having attended single sex schools and camps where I won every award available.)

I was nicknamed Doglin, barked at in the hallways, a dog bone laid on my desk. It was brutal. I cried every day after school and would crawl into bed with all my clothes on when I got home.

My torturers were all male, a gang of three or four, one a redhead with freckles whose 50s-ish nickname (and this long past the 1950s) was Moose.

I made a few dear friends, which kept me sane, and I made the team, two years in a row, for a high school television quiz show and our team did really well.

It finally got better in my senior year when — yay!!!!! — I even got chosen as prom queen, and will regret forever I have no photo of my gorgeous butter yellow chiffon gown, complete with matching scarf. I’m not sure I ever felt so pretty. Even then, a very long time ago, it cost $125, a bloody fortune.

By the time I graduated, I’d had a really cool boyfriend, sold three photos to a magazine for its cover and another to our school library. I’d rounded up my pals to create a school newspaper that fellow students were glad to have once more.

I still don’t know what turned it all around, but am so glad it had a happy ending.

Then, at our 20th. reunion, I re-met one of my closest friends and we re-ignited our friendship, which has continued on for decades more. We’ve visited their lake-side home in Ontario many times, in every season, and our husbands love spending time together.

Neither of us ever had children.

But our friendship is a joy and a pleasure I thought we’d lost.

How was high school for you?

 

Five years ago today, in a church on an island…

By Caitlin Kelly

We got married!

296313_10150820505020720_56988601_nWhy am I laughing hysterically just before I walk down the aisle? We married on Centre Island in Toronto, with a petting zoo very close to the church. All I could hear (instead of my processional) were cows mooing!

 

It was, as today has been — a gorgeous, sunny, warm September afternoon.

We chose a tiny wooden church on an island in Toronto, St. Andrew by the Lake. It’s surrounded by public parkland, so I could look out the window and see green grass and hear crickets during our ceremony, attended by 25 of our oldest and dearest friends, who came from as far away as New York, D.C. and British Columbia.

By late afternoon, the wood of the church was sun-warmed, and the place smelled wonderful, bringing back some of my happiest memories of other rustic, wooden places — the stage at summer camp, the costume cupboard, our cabins and the dining hall.

I grew up in Toronto and, even after living near New York City for decades, knew this was where I wanted to marry.

I walked barefoot from the vestry to the front door of the church, my burgundy slingback Manolos dangling from one hand. There, because my left hip hadn’t yet been replaced, the minister, (himself in Birkenstocks and ponytail), and my Dad helped me into my shoes.

My processional was Dona Nobis Pacem (Give Us Peace) and our recessional was Stevie Wonder’s You Are The Sunshine of My Life.

Our photographer? A young woman Jose had taught at the New York Times Student Journalism Institute, a talented young woman, now at the Houston Chronicle, Marie de Jesus.

I had never met her, she’d never been to Toronto and she’d never shot a wedding. No pressure! She did a great job and we were lucky to have her with us.

5th-anniversary

It’s been five years of marriage today — but we’ve been together since we met in March 2000; Jose’s move-in day to my apartment (no kidding), was 9/11. He moved in a week later.

We met, (how else for two career journo’s?), when I wrote an article for Mademoiselle magazine about online dating, then a new thing (1999) and he answered the ad I had to place as part of my research. (As did 200 others!)

My headline?

Catch Me If You Can.

We would never have met any other way, but knew many people in common, which eased our first few meetings.

It’s been a wild 16 years: he retired from The New York Times with a Pulitzer Prize after 31 years, and is now full-time freelance.

He’s seen me wheeled into the OR three times, (knee, shoulder, hip), with a right knee replacement now due in the next few years, maybe sooner.

We’ve traveled together to Paris and Normandy; to six cities in Mexico; to his home, Santa Fe, NM; to Ontario and Quebec many times, to D.C., to Texas, to New Orleans and Arizona.

He gave me a tent for my birthday one year.

Today we both worked, of course, even on a glorious Saturday; he at the computer editing images of several tournaments for the United States Golf Association, I sitting in the parking lot for a village tag sale.

We laugh a lot, share a fierce work ethic and hope for continued good health.

Here’s to a few more decades…

Vanquishing the body

By Caitlin Kelly

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There’s a woman in my spin class — our spin class — who rarely smiles. Her face is usually set in a mien of unsettling intensity, her eyes always agog at..something.

She is as lean as a whippet, her muscles shorn of all excess fat, all softening curves. She carries a large bottle water with ice cubes in it.

She’s in her 50s, maybe retired or self-employed or doesn’t have to work. She appears to live at the gym, working out for hours.

Culturally, as someone who needs to shed at least 30 pounds, if not more, I should envy her, despising my own excess adipose tissue — a tummy whose additional flesh I can still grab (OMG!), despite three months now of two-day-a-week calorie restriction (750 per day), no alcohol until Friday evening and two to three spin classes a week plus lifting weights.

(I do see a difference in my shape and size now, as do my husband and friends. It’s just sloooooow. This morning in the mirror I saw…shadows in my cheeks. Definition?!)

I’m working it.

She’s working it.

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The day after my left hip replacement….Feb. 2012

Another friend of the blog, a fellow journalist named Caitlin, writes Fit and Feminist — and is now doing (gulp) triathlons.

We’re all headed to the same place eventually, some much faster and more heart-breakingly so, than others.

I live in an apartment building where we own our homes, so I’ve stayed for decades and have gotten to know our neighbors.

It’s also a building with many — most — residents in their 70s, 80s and 90s.

Death stalks our hallways.

But in the past decade, we’ve also lost two lovely men, both mid-life, to brain tumors. One man on our floor died of cancer, at least three women in our building, (those that I know personally), are dealing with it.

It’s deeply sobering — (a fact I spend a lot of time denying!) — to stop and realize how fragile our bodies are, prey to genetic shit-shows we didn’t choose and must face nonetheless; my mother has survived at least four forms of cancer so I’m hyper-vigilant with mammograms, skin checks, Pap smears. I smoked once, for about four months, when I was 14 and am very careful about much alcohol I consume.

The weight I’m working so hard to shed is less for cosmetic reasons than for health.

And yet, life also offers tremendous sensual, shared pleasure in the form of delicious foods and drinks, which (yes, I admit) also include alcohol and sweets.

Some people dismiss this idea — sucking back juice or Soylent — treating food as mere fuel.

Not I. Not ever.

I was in great shape in fall 2014…then spent three weeks in Paris. Ooooohlala.

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I look at young women, and men, in shorts and tank tops on the summer streets, carelessly luxuriating in their unlined, unscathed beauty, and wonder if they’ll look back in a few decades with rue or remorse, or happy memories of having savored it all while it was theirs to savor.

It’s a fine balance, this, between the mortification of the flesh, the discipline and self-denial to keep (or regain) a lean physique — and the slothful joys of long naps, a slice of chocolate cake or pie, hours on the sofa watching terrible television or playing video games instead of lifting weights or running or yoga.

Having worked non-stop to meet a magazine deadline, (the story for Chatelaine, a major Canadian magazine, which I’m really proud of, a medical one of course, is here), I ended up in the hospital, in March 2007, with pneumonia, and spent three days there on an IV, coughing so hard I could barely sleep. Drenched with fever sweat, I staggered into the ward shower, and — out loud, alone — apologized to my poor, aching, weary, worn-out body.

It was not, I finally and belatedly realized, a machine to be run until it smoked for lack of grease in the wheels.

 

Our bodies are the greatest of gifts, to be cherished and held and adored.

 

Until it’s time to leave them behind.

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Self-preservation

By Caitlin Kelly

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Setting a pretty table to share with friends? That’s a soothing activity for me…

 

There’s a phrase I see and hear a lot, and one I never heard decades ago — self-care.

It’s often aimed at women, especially mothers of small/multiple children, typically run off their feet caring for everyone but themselves.

The simplest of pleasures, reading a book or magazine uninterrupted, owning lovely clothing not covered with various bodily excretions, disappear in a whirlwind of attending to everyone else’s needs all the time.

It also happens when you’re overwhelmed by anything: a crazily demanding job and/or boss; trying to juggle work/school/family; wearyingly long commutes that consume hours; a medical crisis; care-giving someone ill and/or elderly.

Your own needs come second or third or fourth.

Or, it seems, never.

It becomes a matter of survival, of self-preservation.

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Music, art, culture…feed your soul!

 

Of preserving, even a little, your identity, your hunger for silence and solitude, for time spent with friends or your pet or in nature.

It’s often reduced, for women, to consumptive choices like getting a manicure or massage, (and I do enjoy both, while some women loathe being touched by a stranger.)

 

But our needs are deeper, subtler and more complicated.

 

Caring for yourself isn’t always something you just buy, a product or service that keeps the economy humming — and can make you feel passive, resentful, a chump.

There’s no price tag on staring at a sunset or admiring the night sky or listening to your cat purr nearby.

There’s no “value” to sitting still, phone off, computer off, to say a silent prayer.

It’s one reason women who choose not to have children — as I did and millions do — are so often labeled “selfish”, as if caring for a spouse or friends or the world or, (gasp) your own needs, is lesser than, shameful, worthy of disapproval.

When it’s no one’s business.

We all need to preserve:

Our souls, whether through prayer or meditation or labyrinth walking or a long hike or canoe paddle.

Our bodies, which shrink and soften, literally, as we age, so we need to keep them strong and fit and flexible, not just thin and pretty.

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Our finances. Women, especially, can face a terrifyingly impoverished old age, thanks to earning less for fewer years, and/or putting others’ needs first, (those of children, aging parents, spouse, siblings), and hence a reduced payout from Social Security. It’s a really ugly payback for years of being emotionally generous.

Our solitude. Yes, we each need daily time alone in silence, uninterrupted by the phone or texts or just the incessant demands of anyone else. We all need time to think, ponder, muse, reflect. Silence is deeply healing.

— Our mental health. That can mean severing toxic relationships with family, neighbors, bosses, clients or friends who drain us dry with their neediness, rage or anxiety. It might mean committing the time and money needed to do therapy, often not fun at all. It might mean using anti-depression or anti-anxiety medication. 

— Our friendships. These are the people we often neglect in our rush to make money or attain some higher form of social status. It can take time, energy and commitment to keep a friendship thriving.

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— Our planet. Crucial. Without clean air and water, without a way to flee flood, famine, war and fire — or prevent them — we’re all at risk.

Our sexuality. At any age, in whatever physical condition we find ourselves in.

Our rightful gender. I recently met someone now transitioning from being born into a female body into the male one he now prefers. What an extraordinary decision and journey he’s now on. For some, it’s a matter of the most primal preservation.

Our identities. Whatever yours is focused on, it’s possibly, if you live in North America, primarily centered on your work and the status and income it provides. Which is fine, until you’re fired or laid off. Then what?

Or on your role as wife/husband (divorce can really shatter that one into minuscule shards, as this blogger, a divorcee and single mother, often reflects.)

Or on that of being a parent, (the empty nest can feel very disorienting.)

I think it’s essential to claim, and nurture, and savor lifelong multiple strong identities, whether athletic, artistic, a spirit of generosity or philanthropy, creative pleasures. You can be a cellist and a great cook and a loving son/daughter and love mystery novels and love playing hockey and love singing hymns.

 

We’re all diamonds, with multiple gleaming facets.

 

Take good care of yourself!

 

Is compassion a limited resource?

By Caitlin Kelly

prince

Have you reached your limit?

 

Some people I know — usually smart, curious, globally engaged — are shutting off the news, signing off of social media.

They’re exhausted and overwhelmed.

They just can’t listen to one more killing, whether of an unarmed black American man, or a police officer, (armed but unprepared for ambush), or of people gathered to watch  fireworks in Nice or music at Bataclan or shopping in a Munich mall or in a cafe in Kabul…

They can’t hear another video of despair, of crying, moaning, screams of terror.

It’s not, I think, that we don’t care.

At least, I truly hope that’s not why.

For some, it’s caring too much.

It’s also a feeling of powerlessness and, with it, a growing loss of hope.

What will change?

How and when?

What will make a difference?

It feels too grim, too unrelenting, too much to process or comprehend.

Compassion fatigue is real.

shadow

Here’s a poem that might resonate, written by a man fed up with the materialism he saw around himself…

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon,
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers,
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. –Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.

That’s a sonnet by William Wordsworth, written in 1802.

We live in divided times.

We live in increasing fear of ‘the other’, the people who dress, behave, worship and vote differently than we do.

Is it safe now (where? at what time? for how long?) to board a train (axe attack in Germany. head-on collision in Italy) or airplane (they’re about to give up looking for MH 370)…

Who can we trust, and should we?

It becomes easier and easier to mute, block, unfriend, ignore, turn off and turn away and turn inward, abandoning our best selves, our impulse to compassion.

That’s what scares me most…

I loved this story from my native Canada, a place where individual families (including one I know) are sponsoring entire refugee families from Syria, people as different from them in some ways as can be.

It’s worth reading the link, in its entirety — a bunch of strangers determined to help.

Compassion in action:

 

When Valerie Taylor spotted a family of newcomers looking lost in the hustle and bustle of rush hour at Toronto’s main Union Station on Wednesday, she offered to help them find their train. What she didn’t know was that some 50 people would do the same, on a day that would turn out to be one of her most memorable trips home ever.

Taylor, a psychiatrist at Toronto’s Women’s College Hospital, said she was heading home on Wednesday after what had been a hectic few days. The heat was blazing, she was tired and looking forward to getting home, when she spotted a family of seven with two baby strollers and several heavy bags.

They looked confused, she said, and a young woman was trying to help them.

Taylor went over to see if she could lend a hand.

“Are you new here?” she asked. Only one of the children, who said he was 11, could speak English.

“Yes,” he said. They had just arrived from Syria four months ago, he told her, and were looking to get to Ancaster, about 85 kilometres southwest of Toronto, to spend a few days with family there.

‘People started trying to problem-solve’

Taylor was headed in the same direction and offered to take them to the right train. To their surprise, strangers began to take notice and to help carry the family’s bags up the stairs and onto the train, some riders even making room to give the family a place to sit, Taylor said.

 

 

 

Q and A with Plum Johnson: her new memoir: “They Left Us Everything”

By Caitlin Kelly

 

AUTHOR PHOTO plum johnson

I recently read a lovely new memoir by a fellow Canadian and she was kind enough — thank you, Plum! — to agree to a question and answer interview with me for Broadside.

As regular readers here know, I love to find and feature talented writers and photographers whose work I hope will be valuable to my blog readers as well.

One great joy of the creative life is celebrating talent and sharing it.

Her book resonated strongly with me, as it’s set in the town of Oakville, near Toronto where I grew up and return often to visit.

I haven’t had to clear out a huge family home, as she did, but I totally related to much of her story. It’s fun, funny, poignant.

Certainly anyone faced with the daunting and often emotionally overwhelming challenge of sorting through decades of their parents’ belongings, let alone selling the family home, with all its attendant memories, will enjoy her book.

I also love that one of Plum’s role models for memoir is one of my favorite writers, Alexandra Fuller, a British woman (now living in the U.S.) whose two memoirs of growing up in Zimbabwe were best-sellers. When I teach writing, I always use some passages from her books.

Penguin Canada cover

The book’s Canadian cover

 

Tell us a bit about yourself…

My first book, (written when I was five), was called ‘The Mouse and the Hat.’ My mother saved it and it surfaced when I was clearing out her house. Writing came easily to me, but Dad said, “Life isn’t meant to be easy!” So I figured I should do something harder. Many of us ignore out childhood passions, don’t you think?

When I was six years old, a friend of my mother’s published a satirical romantic novel in which the feisty heroine was loosely based on Mum. That book sat on a shelf in my bedroom for years. Each night I’d stare at it, secretly dreaming that one day my own name might replace the author’s on the spine. I’m sure a therapist could infer all sorts of things from that early obsession, but I still treasure that book. It reminds me that my dream was there from childhood.

After college, I taught high school for a year and then switched to advertising. I got a job as a copywriter for Sears – in their catalog division. It was wonderful training! Copywriters spend all their time ‘killing their darlings’ – madly cutting until their copy achieves pure essence, using as few words as possible.

 When did the idea for this book come to you?

The light-bulb moment came when I was taking Mum’s stuff to the thrift store. I noticed three things: the store was piled high with identical stuff from the fifties; adult children were dropping it off by the truckload in a big hurry; and it had all lost its value – nobody wanted it.

I stood back and thought, Wow – look at this big picture!

 

Why isn’t anybody writing about this? I wonder if there’s a book here?

 

What did your agent think of it initially? Was it an easy sale, as there are so many memoirs now?

Memoirs used to be a hard sell, but I think that’s changing – especially with the success years ago of The Glass Castle. The popularity of reality TV has changed readers’ appetites.

 

We’ve become a nation of voyeurs

 

If ‘truth is stranger than fiction,’ why read a novel? My original pitch was that I’d write a “Goodnight Moon” for adults. (It’s got good “buzz” – right?) My agent liked the idea. I planned a lighthearted book about “saying goodbye to stuff.” But the more I wrote, the more the book changed. Suddenly the “old lady whispering hush” emerged: a strong mother-daughter theme that caused me to look deeper.

 

 

theyleftus.indd

The American cover

 

Did you have any concerns (as many people do when writing about their family)?

 

Sure. When I began looking deeper I was terrified. Not terrified of what my family would think, but what readers might think once the book was published. I was confessing so many private thoughts about my relationship with Mum – and I wasn’t proud of them.

 

Did you have any role model/memoirs whose tone or structure inspired yours?

 

I’ve always loved reading memoir, so I have lots of favorite books. I was reading Rick Bragg’s memoir about his mother, All Over but the Shoutin’, Susan Cheever’s Treetops, Alexandra Fuller’s Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness, and also rereading essays by Nora Ephron.

 

How did you structure the book and why?

 

My first attempt was strictly chronological. I happen to like chronological order – it’s a pure form and leaves no place to hide. But as different readers and editors offered opinions, the structure began to change.

One reader had marked a big red arrow about twenty pages in with the words: YOUR BOOK STARTS HERE.

 

Then my agent (who also happens to be a great editor) took all the chapters, shuffled them like a deck of cards, handed them back, and said, “What about this?”

 

We lived with that for a while until, at the eleventh hour, another editor gave me a thoughtful ten-page critique that was exactly right. It was like eureka! I spent a frenzied weekend putting yellow sticky notes all over my kitchen wall and changing the order of a few key things.

 

What was most challenging about writing it?

 

The editing of any book is the hardest part, but also the most satisfying. It took me about nine months to write and almost two years to edit. Of course, now I can’t remember what we left in or what got cut.

 

The most fun?

 

Trying to find my book in the bookstores. It was usually shelved under “Grief and Bereavement.” I had no idea it was about grieving.

 

Did you take notes as you were emptying the house or did you have to rely on memory?

 

Yes – notes! Remember – I was living in Mum’s house for more than a year. I knew very few people in town, so I had no social life.

After sorting all day, I’d collapse into bed and write down memories triggered by the things I was finding

 

Memories were in no particular order. Just a jumble of thoughts. But I ended up with a collection of “scenes” that I used later in my manuscript.

 

Any reaction from your family?

 

My family read the manuscript before it ever went to a publisher. I wasn’t prepared to sacrifice any relationships, so I promised to remove anything they found hurtful. Thankfully, nothing got removed – except later by the editors!

 

What sorts of emails/reaction have you gotten from readers — it’s so much a generational rite of passage for so many people now!

 

That’s the thing about memoir: you think you’re writing about your own life but it turns out you’re writing about everyone else’s as well.

 

We all have so much in common

 

I wish I could thank the stranger who came up to me outside an elevator shortly after my book came out. She recognized me from the book jacket and did a double-take. “Are you Plum Johnson?” she said. I started backing away, thinking: uh-oh, here comes the criticism. “May I give you a hug?” she said. “Because I had a mother just like yours!”