How has the pandemic changed you?

By Caitlin Kelly

I can’t recall a year recently — maybe the crash of 2008, 9/11 — that has so radically and permanently changed our world, and how we experience it.

I was an adult for both of these and both affected me deeply, as it did for millions of others, even those who did not lose a loved one to 9/11. I’ve never gone down to the memorial in Manhattan. I have enough memories of it.

This terrible and relentless year has shifted so much of how we think and behave and what we expect from government and one another.

Here’s some of how it’s changed me:

I’m more fearful.

I hate that! I’ve always prided myself on being bold and up for new adventure. But when everyone around you can be an invisible vector of disease? Not so much.

I have to calculate risk every single day, not just on rare occasions.

We live in New York state, where the current infection rate is a reassuring one percent. But for how long? I have eaten inside a restaurant a few times, with tables far apart and people masked when not eating. But a recent meal, even far from the table of eight, left me worried after they sang Happy Birthday, since singing spreads virus. Now I have to hope their celebration won’t sicken me.

I’m short-tempered and tired

Who isn’t?!

We don’t even have to home school children, but we are two self-employed workers sharing an apartment with no office space. Constant mask-wearing drives me mad, even while I do it and know it’s necessary. I’m sick to death of the political incompetence and lies that has killed 200,000 Americans and the fools who worship the man who made it happen.

If you haven’t read it, this is a smart analysis of how we feel and why.

An excerpt:

It was, as I’d soon describe in an emotional post in a social media group of professional colleagues, an “anxiety-tainted depression mixed with ennui that I can’t kick,” along with a complete inability to concentrate. I spoke with my therapist, tweaked medication dosages, went outside daily for fresh air and sunlight, tried to force myself to do some physical activity, and even gave myself permission to mope for a few weeks. We were in a pandemic, after all, and I had already accepted in March that life would not be “normal” for at least a year or two. But I still couldn’t work, couldn’t focus, hadn’t adjusted. Shouldn’t I be used to this by now?

“Why do you think you should be used to this by now? We’re all beginners at this,” Masten told me. “This is a once in a lifetime experience. It’s expecting a lot to think we’d be managing this really well.”

My social circle has shrunk

It’s minuscule. Gone are the friendly quick moments of banter in our apartment hallways and laundry room, at the grocery store or gym. I speak to a small handful of people by phone and restrict my access to others. We hosted a couple a few weeks ago for the first time in six months — on our balcony, with a breeze. When winter forces us all indoors again, I dread the isolation.

I don’t make plans for the future beyond a week or two

This is deeply unsettling. But who can?

My greatest pleasure is usually travel. Not now.

I went away for four days — planned to be six — to an inn in Pennsylvania but left early, bored and restless and alienated by Trump signs for miles.

When every encounter now carries physical risk, the reward had better be amazing! But because of COVID, so many experiences are smaller or diminished and altered in ways that are just annoying, that, for me, sap the joy and spontaneity out of the whole endeavor.

I’m even more reliant on my husband than ever.

When we’re now able to see so few people, our marriage has to be a source of daily sustenance in ways it never has. We’ve been together 20 years and really enjoy one another’s company. But it’s a lot to expect of one other tired, cranky human being!

Routines matter much more than they once did.

When the world is in such daily and mismanaged chaos — floods, fires, hurricanes, daily political malfeasance, racism, violence — even the simplest routines become deeply grounding and comforting. For me, it’s everything from two newspapers a day, in print, to Netflix binges at night or my 4:00 p.m. pot of tea. This is not a good time to feel untethered.

How has it changed you?

A few days away, alone

By Caitlin Kelly

The last time I was away from home alone was early March, almost seven months.

It’s a real luxury to leave home, to have a working vehicle and the spare time and income to travel, but the challenges of two people working full-time from a one bedroom apartment — as so many are now doing! — are tiring.

I needed some solitude.

I decided to head to small-town Pennsylvania on the recommendation of a friend, staying at a small hotel with a handsome Arts & Crafts design and a large, lovely garden. I had planned to stay seven nights, but decided to leave early, which surprised me.

It was a rougher part of the world than I generally prefer — tattoo parlors and shooting ranges. There just wasn’t much to do, although I loved my morning routine of reading in the garden for a few hours every day, catching up on months of the many unread magazines I lugged with me.

But the main reason?

It’s Trump country.

I did enjoy a break.

The inn was welcoming and their meals delicious.

I drove country roads in warm fall sunshine and enjoyed rolling hills and lush green farms, weathered barns and old mills.

But the vast majority of lawn signs — and signs posted on barns and other buildings — were overwhelmingly for Trump, a man I despise, who has destroyed many of the things I value, including 200,000 American lives lost to COVID.

I despair every day he remains in office.

So every sign I saw supporting him made me feel ill and alien, surrounded by people who don’t care about any of the things I care most about.

I didn’t have conversations about it. I don’t go looking for trouble!

But it’s been a useful and important reminder of the largely Democratic bubble I live in. I knew that before leaving home.

What I didn’t realize is how viscerally sick seeing so much support for him would make me feel.

It’s a constant subject of conversation now — what will we do if he wins again?

I spoke to an immigration attorney recently and learned that I can get a re-entry permit to leave the U.S. for two years and keep my green card. That’s welcome news, but it doesn’t solve the problem of my husband’s work, based physically in New Jersey.

And another four years of Trump?

I don’t think the United States will survive.

The managing of money

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Broadway tickets always a splurge — worth it?

By Caitlin Kelly

Few things are as frightening to some people as managing money.

For many, it’s a question of sheer survival — when the American federal minimum wage, shamefully, hasn’t risen from $7.25/hour in 10 years — while the cost of living now dictates a minimum of $14.84 an hour in Cleveland and $24.30/hour in San Francisco.

For others, it’s the best barometer, literally, of their worth and value to the world, to their family, to their industry — and to themselves.

One freelance writer bragged this week about making $10,000 in a month and how she’s about to hit her $50,000/year income goal.

Which inspired many others but also annoyed me and some other writers I admire. I really tire of money being held up as the sole metric of success.

Income is not one-size-fits-all.

Expenses, as well.

I recently had an interesting conversation on Twitter with a stranger, a mechanic earning $40/hour, about my use of the words “working class” — wondering if that meant him. I suggested “blue collar.”

I’m endlessly fascinated by what we earn, how we earn it, what we spend it on and how much (if any) we save and for what purpose. As subscribers to the Financial Times, we also get its glossy oversize magazine called — no kidding — How to Spend It, which often features $10,000 dresses and $100,000 watches, pocket change to the bankers and other HNW (that’s high net worth) readers it’s aimed at.

I’m fascinated by money partly because my maternal grandmother inherited a lot of money from her father, a Chicago stockbroker and real estate developer — and spent it so fast and so freely you would think it burned her fingers. She lived a life of opulence: homes designed by the city’s top decorators, limousines everywhere, custom-made silk muumuus and matching turbans and enormous jewels. It was quite something!

She also never bothered to pay any taxes to anyone — so when she died there was little left after paying off the Ontario, Canadian and American governments.

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Our weekly indulgence, fresh flowers

So I’ve seen the effects of both privilege and profligacy.

 

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Don’t end up in trouble!

Living in the United States for decades — without doubt the meanest and most punitive developed nation when you are poor, ill, vulnerable and struggling — has also really opened my eyes and taught me to be extra cautious about what I earn and how much to save. It’s not a place you ever want to be in trouble with no lifelines or savings, reliant on charity or the shards of government help potentially available to you.

We were offered a huge break this year, a tax credit that has saved us $1,000/month (!) on our health insurance. But we’re also now required to account for every penny of our income and expenses to bureaucrats who have no understanding that — as full-time freelancers — we do not have an employer, yet keep hounding us for more and more paperwork.

That’s when I get libertarian in a hurry and would rather just pay for things myself.

I’ve stayed put in the same one-bedroom apartment for decades; our housing cost is $2,000 month, (half of it the maintenance fee we owe to the co-op,) fairly cheap for New York (suburbs.)

But we don’t have children or pets or dependent relatives, when so many others bear the costs of all of these. So we’re usually able to save money and that gives us some breathing room — helpful when we lost $27,000 worth of anticipated income overnight thanks to the pandemic.

We were also lucky to each graduate college with no debt, (Jose had full scholarships and I attended university in Canada), another enormous burden for so many Americans, even into their 30s or far beyond.

So much of the money we have access to, and how we manage it, is circumstance and luck: where we were born and raised, what resources were made available to us and when. The job market.

Good health — or its lack.

This year has, oddly, been a busy one for us. We have both had steady work and found new and appreciative repeat clients.

But we both really know how fragile it all is.

My husband grew up in a wholly different way, his father a small-city Baptist minister living in church housing. So Jose tends to be very risk-averse and I tend to be bolder when it comes to spending and investing. It makes for some challenging moments!

We work really hard, splurge when we can, and pray for ongoing good health.

Does handling your finances cause you stress?

Do you enjoy it?

Did anyone teach you money management skills?

A perfect afternoon

By Caitlin Kelly

If there’s one activity I’ve missed more than maybe any other thanks to this pandemic — it’s hosting old friends for a delicious meal and hours of great conversation.

Finally, yesterday, we did, and a married couple — both journalists — came up, and with us outdoors, with lots of breeze, it was pure pleasure!

They live in the city but we hadn’t seen them in six months, and a parent had died in June and we had a lot to catch up on.

We baked a salmon and I tried out two new recipes from my Gordon Ramsay cookbook — a green bean/almond salad with honey/mustard dressing and a fantastic cooked lentil salad with roasted zucchini, red pepper and sun dried tomatoes.

Plus our favorite champagne and a bottle of sauvignon blanc and two gorgeous creamy cheeses and baguette and chocolate cake…

The weather was perfect and, with the change of seasons, the balcony was still in shade by 4:30 as they left…it had been sunny by 2:00 p.m. just a few weeks ago.

Our friend was a Times colleague of Jose’s who since re-trained as a medical yoga instructor. Her husband is mostly retired but does translation work. We’ve all covered major stories, have lived in different countries, have shared memories of work and our families.

A deep friendship takes time.

It takes attention.

It takes remembering.

Bordertown: a wild Finnish crime series

By Caitlin Kelly

Whew!

I just finished my latest Netflix binge, three seasons — 31 episodes in all — of Bordertown, a Finnish crime series set in the real life town of Lappeenranta, a 90-minute drive across the Russian border to St. Petersburg.

Horror writer Stephen King has proclaimed his love for it, and for the lead actor, Ville Virtanen.

I’ve really enjoyed it, for reasons I’ll explain here, but one of them, highly unlikely, is that this summer I interviewed a senior corporate executive via Zoom from her family cottage on an island in Lake Saimaa, the exact setting of this show! The opening credits for each episode are drone images of the lake, whether yachts in a harbor, a huge freighter passing beneath a bridge or logs.

It’s the largest lake in the country — 1,700 square miles.

I’ve been intrigued by the two Finnish women I’ve gotten to know a bit through this new work, my editor and the executive. I’m very interested to visit Finland now, and have been for years since discovering the beautiful black and white photography of the country’s top photographer, Pentti Sammallahti, and buying one of his images at an art show in Manhattan.

It’s a small country, bordered on the east by Russia and the north by Norway and to the west by Sweden, with only 5.3 million people, one of the least densely populated in Europe.

The show follows Kari Sorjonen, a weather-beaten detective who moves to Lappeenranta from the big city of Helsinki with his wife Paulina, who grew up there, and their only child, a teen daughter, Janina.

Unlike most crime shows, their family dynamics are as essential to the story-lines as his work: Paulina has survived brain cancer but she and Janina have a tough time with a man who shows very little emotion and leaves almost every family meal to rush to another crime scene. You really see the effects of his workaholism.

Sorjonen is eccentric as hell — and makes use of a “memory palace” to recall crucial details and make patterns of them to solve crimes. He does this in his bare feet in the basement of their home.

The crimes are varied, and some shockingly brutal, which can get wearying when you watch several shows in a row. But the music is haunting, and the landscapes and homes really beautiful and the characters complex and interesting.

It tends to run in pairs, with two episodes to complete each story arc, but its threads and clues begin at the first episode and go to the final one.

The first two seasons are shot only in summer or fall — with the final third season shot in winter, the crunching of footsteps in deep snow a part of every episode. As someone who loves and misses a snow-covered landscape, I enjoyed that.

And, if you love simple, elegant Scandinavian design as much as I do, you’ll also enjoy the stunning interiors! Lots of interesting hanging lamps, neutral furnishing colors, interesting wall colors and some very nice exteriors, whether a hotel or an office or even a hospital’s interior doors.

One really striking design element — even in all 31 episodes — no bright primary colors like red, blue, green or yellow, or bold patterns, whether in interiors or clothing. The cops all wear black, brown, navy or gray, always in plainclothes and mostly in jeans. The characters all wear shades of gray, brown, cream, pale pink — all of which are flattering to pale Finnish complexions and either dark hair or pale blond. You might see a flash of burgundy in someone’s tie, but that’s it.

And it’s so strikingly unemotional, in American terms — in 31 episodes, I think each parent says “I love you” maybe once to each other and to their daughter, even after she’s been traumatized by a crime. I wonder how much the Finnish tradition of sisu informs this: grit, determination, the pride in just toughing it out.

I noticed a striking absence by the end — not one person of color, ever. No Blacks, Hispanics, Asians; 87% of this very sparsely populated nation are Finns.

Have you seen it?

What did you think?

More simple pleasures

By Caitlin Kelly

 

An ongoing series…

 

The last few days of our outdoor pool, swimming laps beneath a blue sky

A new bathing suit that really fits!

Having that new bathing suit fit even better after weeks of daily laps

Hanging it from a doorknob, ready for the next day

The cool side of the pillow

Snuggling beneath the duvet as evenings grow cooler

 

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Newspapers and breakfast in bed

 

Strong coffee with half-and-half

Fresh pineapple

Wondering what birds we’re hearing in the treetops

The low, golden, slanting light of autumn, so distinct and different

Sitting on a friend’s back deck catching up after months apart

Fresh scones from a local bakery

Watching the bees arrive every morning to enjoy our small balcony garden

New York City’s museums re-opening soon!

My gym (we’ll see how I feel) re-opening soon!

 

 

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A vintage kilim rug, bought at auction

 

 

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Enjoying meals on the balcony

 

 

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Diner rice pudding!

 

 

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Homemade iced tea

 

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Late afternoon living room shadows of a carved wooden horse atop an armoire

 

 

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Endlessly re-watching  favorite films like this one, The Maltese Falcon

 

 

What are some of yours these days?

How do you self-soothe?

 

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Baby Elephant was a gift after my tonsils were removed — age five or six. Sawgy is a stuffed green crocodile my husband brought back from a golf tournament.

 

By Caitlin Kelly

The ability to moderate one’s emotions — especially sadness, fear, anxiety — is one of the skills we all learn to acquire. It’s essential to our mental health, especially in times of trouble, like right now!

It’s called self-soothing.

When we’re little, we might have a favorite blanket or stuffed animal. We might also (as I did for many years) suck our thumb or obsessively twirl a lock of our hair, as I once saw a Big Name writer do in the audience of a writing conference.

This recent post by a therapist is extremely detailed and helpful, with lots of great suggestions.

The reason this interests me is that what we choose is so individual — and this recent story for HuffPost by writer Aileen Weintraub about sleeping with a stuffed animal very quickly drew negative comments:

I can’t remember the magic age when I felt it became taboo to sleep with a soft toy. It may have been after college or perhaps when I landed a job on Wall Street and began wearing business suits. When I ask close friends if they sleep with a stuffy, they scoff, wondering if I’m serious. So I open up the conversation to find out how they self-soothe when they can’t sleep. One confesses to sneaking down to the fridge and eating ice cream out of the container, another obsessively reads medical mysteries, and another says she pets her real dog more than she feels is normal by other people’s standards, whatever those are.

Stuffed toys are “transitional objects,” meaning they provide stability and comfort for children when their caregivers aren’t there. But maybe we are always transitioning. Becoming a parent is a transition. Heading into middle age is a transition. Right now, we are collectively transitioning through a pandemic. Admitting this can be hard. We keep these secrets to ourselves, letting only a select few witness our vulnerabilities. It goes against every cultural norm we have learned to honestly discuss our need for softness and comfort because perhaps by acknowledging it, we are acknowledging our deepest insecurities.

In the light of day, I might consider myself a confident, successful woman, but at night I’m reminded that I run on anxiety and self-doubt, and George makes it better. Sometimes I sleep with him on top of my chest like a weighted blanket.

I’ve long had a collection of stuffed animals and have no shame or embarrassment about it as an adult.

I don’t use drugs — while others do.

I don’t drink a lot of alcohol — as others do.

Both are perfectly acceptable ways, publicly, to self-soothe as an adult.

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Yay, Rhiny!

 

Not a stuffy!

I want to wake up and go to sleep feeling calm and happy — and if the faces of a collection of small furry friends is helpful — who is there to criticize that choice?

 

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This little guy traveled across six European countries with me in the summer of 2017, no doubt amusing many hotel chambermaids.

 

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The fallow field

IMG_5301We all so badly need time to just rest!

 

By Caitlin Kelly

When you work wholly freelance, it tends to be feast or famine — so much work at once you’re pulling 10 to 12+ hour days, working nights and weekends and not taking a vacation — or panicking because the work has dried up but the bills keep coming.

The pandemic has exacerbated this problem.

 

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Thrilled to have won this in an online auction from the NYC auction house Doyle. It’s a vintage kilim, a flat-weave Caucasian wool rug in perfect condition.

 

We are grateful and lucky to both have a lot of work, enough to even finally add some needed, costly and nice things to our home, like a new sofa, a vintage rug scored at auction, and hiring a painter to do a badly needed repair to the (sigh) cracked walls in our living room, an annoying and ongoing feature of living in a 60 year old building.

But we’ve had only taken four days’ vacation in six months and we’re whipped. We usually take a two or even three week break — doing no work at all — and travel back to Canada or overseas to rest and recharge.

Not this year.

The fallow field is one that isn’t being worked, and is being quietly replenished.

It’s resting, as this writer posted in 2017:

 

 

So there are days now I just do…nothing.

It’s not really nothing, because I’m usually reading for hours and hours, trying to wade through piles of magazines and newspapers.

But I’m reading more books for sheer pleasure.

I’m watching movies and bingeing on Netflix.

I’m taking an hour’s nap pretty much every day.

Unlike a farmer with three fields I only have one weary heart, mind, soul and body.

I have no “extra” brain to keep using for work —- while the other one just rests!

And with almost nowhere safe to flee to because of this damn virus, a change of scenery in every way, it’s even more enervating to try and wind down in the same small space you work in.

We’re very lucky in New York as finally, all our museums are re-opening.

I can’t wait to “waste time” looking at old beautiful things again.

 

The hell with excellence

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Worrying doesn’t get you there…

 

By Caitlin Kelly

When Kamala Harris was named as the Democratic nominee for Vice President, a somewhat bitter joke made the rounds of social media — every Indian parent wondering — why not President?!

I realize it’s a mark of real privilege not to strive and struggle to be the best all the time and have done plenty of struggle, thanks — try starting at 30 as a new immigrant to New York City journalism (a cabal of Ivy League graduates) and weathering three recessions in 20 years!

I grew up in Toronto, the media capital of Canada, and competition there has always been extremely fierce, so I’ve always known to bring my A game to work.

But the rest of my life?

Feh!

Our home is lovely and I do brush my hair and we cook some very good meals and I do dress up nicely when I got out and enjoy making that effort.

 

But the endless pursuit of excellence is just too tiring!

 

It feels so American, to constantly be proving you’re better/stronger/faster/cheaper/whatever it takes to be at the top of the heap.

For work, and especially in some fields, of course this is necessary, for years or even decades. There’s no choice.

And I know, firsthand, being married to a Hispanic-American-born man whose own family expected excellence of him, that high parental expectations can be really important.

But the perfection so many people now perform on social media is also so weird to me. I’m so very much imperfect, and I’m fine with it.

There are only two groups of people whose approval I most value —  people I love and respect and people whose good opinion of me as a professional means I can make a living.

So when my poor husband urges me, repeatedly, to improve my golf game — lessons, a special glove, practice — I make a nasty face and shrug because the word amateur means someone who loves….not just someone who’s a REALLY good non-professional.

We recently played one of our county’s most challenging courses, all 18 holes (a first for me) and we did not play slowly (as is deemed extremely rude) and thereby hold up the many players right behind us. So I did fine, even playing poorly compared to many others.

Golf is meant to be fun, but knowing (and seeing!) others right behind you at the last hole is not wildly relaxing at all.

So I need to be good enough to not mess up others’ enjoyment, and I get that. But I don’t feel compelled to get really good at golf or other leisure pursuits.

 

It’s leisure!

 

It rhymes with pleasure.…not work.

This summer I finally started swimming laps in our apartment building pool, building up to 30 laps, about 20 to 25 minutes. I could have pushed much harder but I want to enjoy my life too!

I’ve just never been someone attracted by “perfection” — which is also deeply subjective, as any writer quickly learns. Any creative person learns. What one person adores about you and your ideas another may loathe.

 

So, maybe because of this, you learn to value yourself and your own internal standards.

 

I think this is an overlooked and undervalued superpower.

 

The risk/reward of being vulnerable

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By Caitlin Kelly

In a time of social media perfection, who dares publicly admit to a flaw or two?

This, from The New York Times:

Rachel Elizabeth Cargle, a public academic, writer and lecturer, said that vulnerability in practice means allowing others to see what you are ashamed of — showing uncomfortable truths ranging from not being able to afford rent to simply feeling lost. In a culture that places an extremely high value on nearly unattainable perfection and likability, these revelations can be quite terrifying. But “it can benefit us greatly to let down walls that can often be exhausting to maintain,” Ms. Cargle said.

 

A few years ago, attending an annual New York City writers’ conference, mostly filled with others competing for the same pool of well-paid freelance work, a writer I barely knew stopped me in the hall and said, clearly a bit horrified: “Your blog is so…honest.”

Maybe not her exact words, but she was clearly shocked by how much I choose to reveal here, with the potential that employers might see it, and what would they think then?

 

Maybe that I’m simply human?

 

I grew up in a family that just didn’t discuss difficult things and never talked about our feelings. I was in boarding school at the age of 8 and summer camp ages 8 to 16, always sharing a bedroom with four to six other girls, some of whom could be cruel.

So being vulnerable and revealing my fears or doubts or weakness? NOT a wise choice, either at home or there.

I’ve always been able to count on a few very close friends, who know the full story. But being in a public and highly competitive industry has also meant that when, at 30, I very much misplaced my trust in a colleague in Toronto, those juicy details about me provided months of vicious gossip about me —- even spread to a pal in India.

Pre-Internet.

I left Toronto, furious and wary, and never went back.

I learned to be more cautious about being trusting and truthful with anyone professionally, leaving myself vulnerable as a result.

I clammed up tight.

It takes courage to admit things are difficult or you’re scared or you don’t think you’ll ever achieve your dreams or goals. You take the risk, in so doing, that your words will be used to wound you, and it happens.

And the Internet is — like this blog — a very large place full of strangers, some of whom wish us well and some of whom delight in our travails; any time a journalist bemoans losing their job on Twitter, there’s a parade of “Learn to code!” shitty replies.

 

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The only photo I have of me at this age, maybe seven, in the backyard of the last home I shared with both parents, in Toronto. The gate in the background was nicknamed “Catti’s Gate”, my family nickname. I treasure this image because I was happy and relaxed and loved that big house and backyard and neighborhood. I still miss it.

 

So I was always a very private person — until June 2018 when I got a breast cancer diagnosis. It was as good as these things get: stage zero, totally removed and no need for chemo, only radiation. But it cracked me open. There was no way I would get through it all without admitting I was scared, and willing to receive the tremendous love and support that came my way: flowers and gifts and cards and emails and phone calls that revealed that people actually loved me, a lot.

I had never been so sure of that.

 

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That’s me, pre-surgery, July 6, 2018, clutching a small stuffed rhinoceros because everyone needs a little comfort in those nervous hours.

 

I  now reveal quite a lot about myself on social media — here and Facebook and Twitter. It’s a deliberate choice and one that doesn’t work well for many others. I get that.

But I’m in the last few years of a long and successful career, so if someone dislikes me now — or decides not to work with me because of what they read — see ya!

I’ve posted some serious and intimate stuff here and in my published personal essays, like this one, which ran in 2008 in The New York Times, about why I enjoy my apartment building.

After the story ran, in which I named a neighbor who made me a sandwich after my first husband walked out and I hadn’t eaten in days, she laughed, nicely, and said: “That must have been some sandwich!”

Little did she know how much it really did mean to me — with my family both emotionally and physically distant and not many close friends nearby.

Only by my taking the risk of being vulnerable enough to write about it, to an audience of millions of strangers, did she know.