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Archive for the ‘behavior’ Category

Does your job (have to) define you?

In behavior, business, journalism, life, Money, U.S., work on August 1, 2016 at 2:00 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

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Here’s a powerful story about what it’s like to lose a job, and a career, that you love — and turn into someone who, like millions do in many places, just gets up every morning and does his best anyway:

First comes rage. The rage of impotence.

It’s not easy being nobody, especially when you used to be somebody. But times are tough; jobs are scarce. When you’re falling straight down the financial cliff face, you reach out to grab hold of anything available to stop your descent and there, just before you land in a homeless shelter or move in with your sister, is Uber….

I think of Uber as a modern-day version of the Works Progress Administration during the Depression. Thanks to Uber, I am not poor. I am just . . . nobody.

When I first started driving, I talked to every passenger. I engaged in conversation about the city, life and politics. I told them about my work as a reporter, and as a strip club manager. I felt the need to say, “I’m not really an Uber driver. I am someone too. Just like you!”

Nobody cared.

The writer, John Koopman, used to be a journalist at a major U.S. newspaper — a job, today, that has all the future growth potential of a Zeppelin operator.

More than 30,000 of us, (I was laid off from the New York Daily News in 2006), have in recent years lost well-paid staff jobs at places we liked, doing work we enjoyed with people we respected. Our industry is in chaos, and well-paid newspaper jobs are being replaced with fewer digital ones, often paying far less.

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Many career journalists also make a trade-off, settling for what’s called “psychic income.”

No,  not clairvoyance!

We accept a lower salary — much less than you might think — because we actually enjoy(ed) our daily work. It’s a great way for publishers to get highly educated staffers cheaply and, with few unions left to fight for better wages and conditions, ask them for the moon.

The problem with invisible income is, especially after years or decades of it, that it doesn’t add up to shit — no retirement, no paid-off-mortgage, no fuck-you fund for when (not if) you finally get fired or laid off. Very few people now have a defined-benefit pension, so all that “psychic income” didn’t fill a 401(k) either.

And (surprise!) many of the journalists, like me, who are losing their jobs — some paying $80,000-120,000 year or more — are in their 50s or beyond, and now deemed “too expensive” for anyone else to hire.

So, no new J-job for you, missy!

Back to college to start a shiny new career at 50 or 55 or 60? Not likely.

So, for Koopman, it’s Uber.

For me, it’s freelance, and nowhere near the full-time income I earned 11 years ago, despite all the usual accomplishments.

 

When you lose your job, and your title, and your Big Name Affiliation — no longer able to say “we” about your coworkers and employer — who the hell are you?

 

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My second book, published in 2011

In the fall of 2007, a year out of the News job, I was scared to death and couldn’t gin up enough freelance work.

I took a part-time job at $11/hour as a retail sales associate in an upscale suburban mall near our home. I worked for The North Face, an enormous company that has since bought Timberland.

We sold $600 ski jackets to hedge fund managers from Greenwich, Connecticut — and never got a penny in commission for the biggest of sales.

I stayed until December 18, 2009, by then grateful to be earning $450/month for blogging, twice my store wages, and finally able to flee.

My feet were killing me — and my soul was dying.

 

You can only be underestimated for so long.

 

I had been “someone”, (a writer, an author, i.e. a person whose work elicited envy), for decades, since college.

Now, like Koopman, I was deemed a peon, in humbled service to shoppers, many of  whom assumed I must be uneducated (untrue), stupid (ditto) and had never traveled further than the mall parking lot (38 countries, for work and pleasure, in better years.)

 

When I opened my mouth to help a customer in French or Spanish, they looked at me like the dog had started singing Aida.

 

Impossible!

This is where Koopman is now.

This is why Koopman — and it’s such deceptive insanity to define your worth by your job title — feels like he’s nothing and nobody.

He’s not.

But in a country relentlessly focused on income, status, work, more income…a low-wage, low-status job marks you as someone with a big fat L for loser on your forehead.

It’s ugly and it’s demeaning and it’s really demoralizing.

Jose and I have a glory wall, I’m both embarrassed and proud to admit. We were very lucky, because we both had well-paid staff jobs at major newspapers for years, he for 31 at the New York Times.

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The glory wall is the pile of laminated press credentials you get, and proudly collect, when you cover the biggest stories — political conventions and inaugurations, the Olympics (he did two, as a photographer), Presidents (he covered three).

I met Queen Elizabeth and covered a Papal visit as well.

Those glossy credentials publicly and visibly define you as someone with a good job and challenging, coveted assignments.

When you no longer have a lanyard or press pass or credential…you’re persona non grata. You can’t just cross police lines anymore, (as you can with an official city-issued press pass.) You’re not of the Times or with the News.

 

You’re…just you.

 

This has been a rough year, (and many other writers I know), so much so that I suffered persistent stomach pain for weeks and went for a check-up.

The pains have, fortunately, subsided, no doubt caused by work-related stress.

My doctor reminded me, kindly, what I already knew — you can’t assign your value, and your mental and physical health in this world to worldly success, a job, a title, a salary, an income.

But we do.

 

Pay attention!

In behavior, culture, domestic life, life on July 28, 2016 at 10:20 am

By Caitlin Kelly

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They’re asleep, encased in glass and plastic — don’t be like them in the real world!

Whether your children or grand-children or sweetie or spouse. They want, need and deserve your undivided focus.

Whether to the current Presidential campaign, (if you live in the U.S. and are able to vote, certainly.)

Whether to the people around you on the road as you drive — no texting!

Whether as you walk around your city or town, playing Pokemon Go or reading something on your phone, forcing everyone else to dodge you.

Whether you leave your grocery cart sprawled in the middle of a parking lot because…be considerate.

Whether you yammer away in a public, shared space on your cellphone reallyloudly, Face-timing or speaking to someone.

Whether — as someone did yesterday in our small, congenial town several times — you open a cafe door into a cool, air-conditioned space — carelessly leaving the door wide open to the 90-degree-plus air outside, as you enter and exit.

Utterly oblivious to the needs of those around you.

We share the world with others.

Please pay attention to them as well.

 

Is compassion a limited resource?

In aging, behavior, culture, domestic life, journalism, life, news on July 25, 2016 at 12:43 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

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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.

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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.

 

 

 

How’s your Saturday going?

In behavior, domestic life, life on July 23, 2016 at 2:46 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

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photo: Caitlin Kelly

On the balcony, in my white cotton nightie — visible only to the low-flying prop planes and helicopters and assorted birds — listening to reggae on WKCR, the radio station of Columbia University.

Enjoying the breeze off the Hudson River.

Loving the daily posts from fellow blogger Beth, on vacation in Ireland.

Maybe out for lunch later, and buying food for a friend visiting from California who’s coming for Sunday lunch tomorrow, one of our favorite traditions.

The NYT and Financial Times waiting to be read, plus all the piles of unread magazines.

Maybe down to our apartment’s pool this afternoon.

Reluctantly turned down a visiting Toronto friend’s last-minute to catch up in Manhattan – it’s going to be 100 degrees there today with heat/humidity. (We’ll see one another in Toronto next month.)

 

What are you up to this fine weekend?

Six days of silence

In behavior, culture, education, Health, life, religion on July 20, 2016 at 4:02 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

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Five years ago this week, my husband — then fiance — decided to take me to a silent Buddhist retreat.

It was a birthday gift, one he thought might prove calming and healing.

I went in like a sulky five-year-old, arms crossed, dubious.

I emerged with a lot of new insights — if you’re interested, search my archives for July 2011 and you’ll find them, as I posted every day, a bit stunned by how powerful my feelings were and how much they changed over that week.

I’m not a Buddhist, but have spent time at various sanghas with Jose, who is, so was already familiar with the language, precepts and rituals like mantras, chants and prayers. I also knew and was friends with his lama, Surya Das, so wasn’t intimidated by him or his presence. Had every single bit of it been unfamiliar, it might have been even more challenging.

It’s never a bad thing to withdraw and retreat from the insanity of “normal” life and this was an opportunity to do so, and one — I admit — I would never have undertaken on my own.

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A play is on in New York City right now, Small Mouth Sounds, premised on exactly this thing — a group of people attending a week-long silent retreat —  and it addresses the emotional turmoil so many people bring with them into the meditation hall.

 

In a week of silence, your heart speaks very loudly indeed.

 

Every morning, as we nestled once more into our cushions or chairs for the morning teaching, more and more were empty as people fled, unable or unwilling to stay.

Even those who stayed rebelled, some driving off-campus in their cars to a local bar or standing deep in the woods, yammering on the cellphones — both a violation of the rules we agreed to when we arrived; 75 of us had come from across the globe to do this thing, knowing it would be difficult, and craving that discipline.

I emerged from it dazed, sharpened, newly and exquisitely aware of the daily noise we barely even notice, and had never been conscious of before: cars, sirens, animals, neighbors, airplanes overhead, people talking on their cellphones or listening to music too loudly through headphones.

Jose and I drove to a local bar — where two enormous television screens blared…something. Instead of it feeling, as it usually would, like background noise it was suddenly alien and very much in the foreground. We felt assaulted and exhausted by it.

I missed the precious, glorious, cocooning silence we’d bathed in all week.

I missed the inter-generational community we had created in our silence, sometimes with just a raised eyebrow or shy smile.

I missed sitting in the retreat’s luxurious garden, alone for an hour, my only companion a very bad bunny eating everything he could reach.

I missed the soothing simplicity of our days, from the waking early-morning hand bell rung down the long corridors to our meals eaten together at long wooden refectory tables, the only sounds the clinking of cutlery on china.

Here’s my first entry:

The retreat offers three teachings a day, the only time we’ll be allowed to speak. The food will be vegetarian. There will be no cocktail hour, or wine at dinner, both something we usually enjoy daily at home.

Steak? TV? Three daily newspapers? No, no, no. Ah, the things I cling to.

We’re taking my softball glove and ball, and my bike. I’m taking my camera and watercolors, and plan to write a speech due August 10 in Minneapolis.

I’ll sit in the teachings and meditations and chanting as much as feels comfortable. He and I will share a room, and plan to write notes back and forth. It will be very odd — and difficult — not to talk to him. We typically talk several hours a day and I really enjoy it.

So it’s already a powerful meditation on the loss of that comfort. We may whisper to one another in our room. We’ll see.

I’ve been the butt of jokes for weeks now. “Buddhist,vegetarian, silent — I can’t think of three words less likely to describe you,” said one friend.

 

 Have you ever taken a silent retreat?

 

Would you?

Taking comfort in…

In behavior, domestic life, family, Health, life on July 12, 2016 at 12:38 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

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Reliving happy memories helps — my wedding day in 2011.

 

When life gets ugly and out of control, as it inevitably does for everyone at some point, we  need to rest, recharge, maybe withdraw and definitely seek comfort.

It’s a deep hunger and one we dismiss or ignore at our peril.

Many Americans turned to their faith communities last week, with churches in many cities welcoming people who are angry, confused, grieving and needing solace.

The entire country feels wounded and wary.

Things aren’t much happier in Britain, with political leaders lying and quitting at a rapid rate.

It’s also been a rough time for me personally; nothing life-threatening, but I’m weary.

So I seek comfort in several ways:

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– A walk in nature

— Hugs from my husband

— Reading for pure pleasure (not the usual glut of must-read news and non-fiction)

— Bubble baths

— A cold beer (weekends only)

— Classical music

— Playing my 80s vinyl

— Rice pudding

Freshly-ironed pillowcases

— Flowers, everywhere

Cooking a favorite recipe (this week, tomato/leek quiche)

— Entertaining dear friends; six coming for Sunday lunch this week

— Sitting a cafe with a pal, the kind who knows you really well and is OK if you start crying in public

 

When things go south, how do you comfort yourself?

 

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Do you know “the other”?

In behavior, cities, education, life, news, parenting, politics, religion, travel, U.S., urban life, world on July 10, 2016 at 3:09 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

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The level of poverty in the U.S. is deeply shocking — given the astonishing wealth here

It’s been a week of horror, shock, dismay.

It’s been a week of disbelief that American police officers are gunned down in cold blood in Dallas during a peaceful march — and disbelief that even more black men have been shot and killed by police as well.

In Dallas, local residents are approaching police officers, many likely for the first time, to hug them and pray with them and thank them for getting up every day, ideally, to serve and protect them.

In normal life, barring bad luck or criminal behavior, very few of us ever talk to a police officer.

Few of us are likely  to know one socially unless police work, as it is often is, is part of your own family.

As a career journalist, for whom aggressively challenging hierarchy and questioning authority is key to doing my job well, interactions with police have been been few and far between — I didn’t cover “cops” as part of my job and, more generally, the way police are trained to think and behave is very different from that of journalists.

 

So how, then, do we ever meet, sit down with and get to know “the other”?

 

That “other” — i.e. someone whose race, religion, politics, ethnicity or socioeconomic class is wildly different from our own — is someone we really need to know and care about, more than ever.

The divisions, literally, are killing us.

How, then, and where, do we meet one another?

In a world now devoted to narrowed and narrower niches of communication — Snapchat, Tumblr, Reddit, blogs, media slanted in one direction or another — how do we find and listen thoughtfully to other points of view than our own?

How do we sit down face to face and have a civil conversation?

 

It doesn’t have to be about anything serious. It might be about baseball or music or what books you’ve been reading or your theory about Dany and her dragons on Game of Thrones.

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A tram ticket in Dublin. Travel, to anywhere new to you — if you’re curious and open-hearted — can broaden your vision and understanding.

For me, there are only two places like this right now, and I wish I had more.

One is the church I attend, although less and less of late. It is in a small, wealthy, white and conservative town near me. Of those labels, I’m white.

It’s a polite crowd, but deeply corporate and high-earning, with no one who really understands why I and my husband would choose such a poorly paid industry as journalism. What we have done for decades, and done very well, seems like an amusing hobby to them.

I’ve stayed partly because of those differences, although they are starting to wear me down.

The challenge of engaging with “the other” — beyond stilted chit-chat — is initial discomfort. They might have grown up somewhere far away you’ve never seen or attended a college you’ve never heard of. Maybe they didn’t go to college.

They might out-earn you by a factor of 10, or vice versa. Your collar might be white, blue or none, because you work, as we do freelance, at home in a T-shirt.

The discomfort of “the other” — and theirs with you! — is the point of friction we have to move beyond to create and enjoy dialogue, understanding and friendship.

Just because it’s uncomfortable doesn’t mean it’s not well worth the effort.

The other place I frequently meet a wide range of people and experiences is with a group of men and women, ages 20s to 70s, who play softball on Saturday mornings. We’ve been doing that since 2001, an unimaginably long time to do anything in a world that changes daily.

Here’s my New York Times essay about them.

In a time of economic and political disruption, even chaos, it’s a haven of comfort and familiarity — even as it brings together a disparate group: a retired ironworker, several physicians, several lawyers, several editors, a gallerist.

After each game, about a dozen of us sit under a tree at a local cafe for a long lunch, whose conversations can turn surprisingly personal and intimate.

It’s not some Kumbaya moment and the group could be even more diverse — people find us through our friendships, generally.

 

If you never meet or talk to people who are very different from you, how can you credibly listen to their experiences and concerns, giving them the same validity you do your own group(s)?

 

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Try climbing those steps in the dark, wearing a headlamp! My week in rural Nicaragua, working with WaterAid, was an extraordinary education. Nicaragua is the second-poorest country in the Western Hemisphere

I grew up in Toronto, one of the world’s most multi-cultural cities, in a country whose population of immigrants remains higher than that of the U.S. — 20.6 percent.

In the  U.S., with 10 times the population of Canada — it’s 13.3 percent.

Statistically, there, your odds of encountering someone very unlike you — in your classroom at school or college, on your hockey team, in your apartment building, on the subway or bus — are high in Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver. Calgary now has a Muslim mayor (as does London.)

So it’s normal to know, like and respect people who worship on different days, wear different clothing, eat different foods. They’re just…different…not, per se, a threat.

When Jose and I think about moving elsewhere for retirement, our first question is not just “can we afford it?” or “what’s the weather like there”?

It’s — how comfortable will he feel as a man with brown skin?

Donald Trump’s dog whistles of hatred and racism are deeply shocking to many people, in the U.S. and beyond.

My husband is of Mexican heritage, and well established in his field so the taunts can’t hurt him professionally.

But they are a disgusting way to dismiss a nation of people whose hard work has helped the U.S. for decades, if not centuries.

In  a time of relentless, growing fear and xenophobia, I hope you’ll keep talking to, listening to and staying close to “the other”, however that plays out in your life.

Without that, we’re lost.

 

Simple summer pleasures…

In beauty, behavior, domestic life, food, life, nature, urban life on July 2, 2016 at 12:40 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

(an ongoing occasional series)

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The early morning swoosh/swoop of a flock of swallows flashing over our roofline and into the sky — returning at sunset

 

The chittering of a lone robin in the treetops

 

A cool, fresh morning breeze

 

Pretty sandals and a fresh pedicure

 

Crashing waves on the seashore

 

The scent of woodsmoke from a campfire

 

The lap of water against stone, lakeside

 

Water gurgling around your paddle as it bites deeply into cold water, canoeing

 

Wearing linen — wrinkles be damned!

 

Picnics in the park

 

Long light-filled evenings

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Beauty helps!

 

Pots, or a garden, filled with plants and  blooming lowers — and filling your home with beauty from it!

 

Free outdoor movies and concerts in city parks

 

A seersucker suit

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My handsome hubby, Jose…

 

Blueberries and cream

 

Working on our balcony, with its Hudson River view

 

Fresh corn, buttered, salted and peppered

 

The gentle whirring of a fan, its breeze lulling me to sleep

 

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A splash of citrus-y/crisp fragrance — like Oyedo (top note, yuzu), Cristalle (Chanel), O de Lancome, Eau Sauvage (for men) or my standby, from 1903, Penhaligon’s Blenheim Bouquet

 

A red ball sinking below the horizon, a few mares’ tails in the pale sky

 

The exultant cries of “Marco? POLO!” from a pool party across our suburban New York street

 

A drippy Popsicle

 

A cold gin & tonic or gimlet

 

Sleeping out beneath the stars, in the backyard, on your balcony, camping…

 

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Stay hydrated!

 

A long drink of fresh cold water (this jug found while visiting Maine)

 

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Fleece came in handy when playing golf in 19 mph winds (yes, I checked!)

Golf! (This in Cruit Island, Donegal, Ireland)

 

Fireflies, flitting by in the dark

What are some of your summer pleasures?

 

 

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

In aging, behavior, books, domestic life, family, life, love, women on June 30, 2016 at 1:44 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

 

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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.

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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.

 

 

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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!”

 

 

 

The joy of rekindled friendship

In behavior, life, love, women on June 28, 2016 at 2:04 am

By Caitlin Kelly

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One of my Twitter friends — an archaeologist in Berlin — and I tweet RHPS lyrics to one another. Because…friendship!

 

Few moments are sadder than a friendship’s abrupt and unforeseeen end — through anger, misunderstanding, a conflict no one is willing or able to resolve, a moment of no return when no one, (as the British say), will grasp the nettle and get through a tough moment to the other side.

A true friendship means creating and nurturing deep intimacy, sharing secrets (and trusting those will be held tightly for decades), daring to reveal your weaknesses and flaws along with your utter fabulousness.

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One of the many lovely people I’ve met through my blog (!) — Mallory Guinee, with me in Paris in January 2015

A true friend — in my world — is someone who knows you really well and loves you anyway.

Some people come from tight, loving, intact families and, as a result, perhaps have much less need of friendship. They know they can count on parents, siblings, grandparents, even cousins, for moral support throughout life’s ups and downs, and sometimes even receive financial help.

If you emerge from a family like mine, poisoned by estrangement, friends are family, the people you learn to turn to first and always.

They’re the ones who walk uphill in a blizzard to get you to the hospital at 6 a.m. for knee surgery and who stop you from falling head-first into the bathroom door as you emerge from  anesthesia.

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The ones who sit with you as you weep through hearing the sound of bagpipes for the first time since they marked your marriage, now ended.

The ones who know your dogs’ names and the man who broke your heart and the woman you dreamed of becoming .

They never forget your birthday.

You know their parents and their siblings and how they’re all doing.

Losing one of these friends is a terrible loss, and one not quickly or easily replaced.

 

Some friendships outgrow their time and not all of them are meant to last.

But I hate it when someone I really enjoy suddenly disappears from my life, which has happened a few times.

After trying to talk through some troubling (to me) behavioral patterns, I lost three friends in rapid succession about a decade ago, all of them women I had hoped would be friends for many years to come, but they’re gone, and they’re gone for good.

I don’t regret it now, although it’s not been quick or easy to replace them.

At a recent wedding of a friend, I knew I would run into a younger woman I’d been close with about a decade ago, and — after a silly falling-out  — we had not spoken since then. We had met through that mutual friend, who kept me up to date for years on K’s progress through life and how, since our fight, she had since found all sorts of happiness.

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My best friend, my husband, Jose

I knew she was now married, with a baby.

And she was there, glowing, with her handsome husband and photos of her lovely new baby on her phone.

I said a nervous hello, and it was, thankfully, an instant of hugs and reconciliation.

And how very glad I was.

 

Have you lost — and later re-made — a friendship?