Dreaming of a house…

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1926, Maurice Vlaminck, lithograph; acquired at auction and now in our bedroom

 

By Caitlin Kelly

Blame it on journalism, an insecure business that lays people off every day and pays poorly.

Blame it on my insistence on living close to a major city, which spikes real estate prices; I lived for 18 months, (albeit pre-Internet and pretty broke), in a small rural town in 1988. It was a very poor fit, making me wary of being so far out again.

Blame it on a lifelong love for travel, blowing bucks on a trip to Paris instead of scrimping for a larger down-payment.

And, I admit, my aesthetic preferences for homes 100+ years old and my lack of carpentry/electrical skills also in play…

But I’ve never owned a house.

I re-arranged the artwork in our bedroom recently and noticed a subconscious pattern — a French lithograph from the 1920s; an anonymous oil found at a flea market and a watercolor bought at an antiques fair.

Each shows a house, surrounded by forest or land or near a river.

Not in a suburb.

Not in a city.

But a discrete dwelling with no immediate neighbors or nearby visual impediments.

A few other factors have made home ownership feel difficult-to-impossible — working freelance with a variable income makes mortgage lenders jumpy.

The serious responsibility of costly repairs — like a roof or boiler — is intimidating.

And, with no children, no real justifiable need for extra space, like multiple bedrooms or bathrooms.

There’s also no “Canadian dream” of home ownership and — unlike the U.S. whose policies make mortgage interest a tax deduction, making home ownership more appealing — Canadian banks usually insist upon a 30 percent down payment, not the 1 percent “liar loans” that got so many American home-buyers into terrible trouble in 2008.

And houses aren’t cheap!

The ones that are would require so much time, energy and renovation my heart sinks at the prospect — and we go off on vacation instead.

I lived in a house at 19, at home with my father and his girlfriend, later wife. It was white brick, two story, probably built in the 1920s or 30s, on a busy Toronto corner and facing a park.

I lived in a house in downtown Toronto, the top floor of a narrow Victorian home, then in a sorority house for a summer and then, my last Toronto home, rented the top two floors of a small house even as I lived alone.

But since then, I’ve shared hallways and a laundry room and adjacent walls — through which I can hear our neighbors’ laughter and conversations — in a six-story co-op (owned) apartment building in a suburb of New York City.

I like our life here — there’s a pool and Hudson River views and nice landscaping and I don’t have to shovel snow or clear gutters or mow a lawn.

But I long, deeply, for a private place where I can crank up my music really loud.

Where there isn’t a long tedious list of “house rules” and restrictions on everything from bird-feeders (verboten) to grilling outdoors.

Where we could easily host multiple friends, finally able to reciprocate their house-owning hospitality to us.

Which we could rent out and leave if we want to.

We’re thinking of a road trip to Nova Scotia — and found this, a 3 bedroom with 2 acres and ocean view, built in 1815.

And went a little mad with desire until I read that it’s the rainiest place in Canada except for the very rainy B.C. coast.

My father has owned many houses — including a great Georgian pile near Galway City in Ireland, built in 1789; a massive Victorian in Lunenberg, Nova Scotia and an elegant early Victorian in a small town in Ontario.

He just bought his latest, built in 1810, in another small Ontario town.

 

Do you live in a house?

Do you own it?

What’s it like?

Do you live to work — or work to live?

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Do you ever just STOP and take a breather?

 

By Caitlin Kelly

This recent blog post by a good friend — an American living in London — once more reminded me of what I value most…time away from the grind of work:

Last September Jeff and I spent a week in Greece and it was one of the most relaxing and restorative breaks I’ve ever taken in my life. It may be a silly thing to say about a fairly standard holiday, but it felt like a profound experience at the time. I needed it badly, felt great after I got back, and the sense of refreshment stayed with me a long time. When I was back in London I was emotional balanced, better at my work, and much better equipped to handle the flow of projects. We were in our 30s and this was the first holiday Jeff and I had ever taken that didn’t involve family or friends of some kind. There was no agenda, no purpose to the trip except to press pause on life for a moment and the positive effect of doing so was intense.

And then, like an idiot, I waited nearly a year to take significant time off again. It showed. I was getting anxious and overwhelmed by things that would not have phased me in a more rested state.

It’s not easy to take a proper holiday when you live far away from your family, losing a day each way to travel, (driving or flights, usually), plus cost.

You only get so many paid vacation days and then…they’re gone!

It’s also difficult if you’re burdened with debt, have multiple children and/or a very tight budget.

 

A holiday doesn’t have to be luxurious, but it does mean time for farniente — literally do nothing.

 

Relaxing.

People like Jose and I work freelance, which means that every day we don’t work we don’t get paid — and our bills don’t magically drop in size and volume. (Our health insurance alone is $1,400 every month, more than our mortgage payment.)

Even so, I usually take at least six weeks every year to not work, even if it’s just sitting at home.

American work culture isn’t as bad as Japan’s where karoshi — death from overwork — is real. But its savage demands of low wages, a thin social safety net, precarious employment, almost no unions — plus the insane costs of a university education — combine to keep too many Americans working with few breaks.

And —  how dare you look “unproductive”?!

Here’s my whip-smart pal Helaine Olen, writing on this in the Washington Post:

The United States is, famously, the only First World country that does not mandate employers give employees paid time off. (That includes Christmas and Thanksgiving.) In Canada and Japan, workers must receive at least 10 paid vacation days, and the Canadians also enjoy a number of paid official holidays. The European Union mandates all employees receive 20 days off annually — and that also does not include paid holidays. But in the United States? Nothing.

Instead, the wealthiest among us boast of their work habits — both Rupert Murdoch and Ivanka Trump (before her recent work-life family balance makeover) bragged that they would stop in their offices on Sundays to encourage their workers to do the same. Sheryl Sandberg urged women to lean in by going home and having dinner with the kids — and then signing back on the computer to catch up. At the same time, we all but demonize those who don’t have employment or can’t get by on what they earn.

I still enjoy writing, but I’ve been doing it for a living for decades and no longer seek the career-boosting thrill of a Big Magazine byline.

I’d love to write a few more books, but this year has been dis-spiriting — both of my book proposals, (which cost unpaid time to produce), have each been rejected by more than three agents. Not sure if I’ll keep trying with the second one.

 

Do you work to live or live to work?

 

Has that changed for you over time?

How to create a lovely outdoor space

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By Caitlin Kelly

Our balcony is on the top floor — sixth — and it’s 72 square feet of heaven. The minute it’s warm enough, we’re out there from dawn to dusk, savoring birdsong, Hudson River views, stars and cool breezes.

It’s not that difficult to make a small space affordably cheery and welcoming, but it can feel overwhelming when you start. Ours has zero inherent charm — red brick walls and a grey painted concrete floor.

Think of your outdoor space — whether a patio, balcony, terrace, verandah — as another room of your home with the same needs: comfortable seating, lighting, something soft and pretty underfoot — lots of color and texture.

Some tips:

Choose a color scheme and stick to it

Blue and green are perennial favorites, mimicking the colors of nature. If you’re in the city, surrounded by concrete — maybe bright yellow or brilliant fuchsia is more your speed. Ours are a light olive green, cobalt blue, navy blue and white. I chose our plant colors as well to play nicely with our cushions and tablecloths — planting only blue/purple lavender and salvia, deep purple lobelia and lantana — plus bright pops of orange.

 

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Invest in solid, attractive planters, pots and window-boxes

Jose’s my in-house carpenter and has twice designed and made lovely wooden planters, lined with plastic and gravel. Made of simple plywood, we painted them green and added a glossy navy blue trim for contrast.

Over the years, we’ve added some quality pots of varying sizes, (all in blue and green), a growing investment. If terrible weather looms (hail!), bring them indoors when possible and store them away from ice and snow. I found these fantastic navy blue ceramic planters this year at Home Depot.

 

Create a comfortable seating area

It might be a few chairs (please, not flimsy plastic!) —  woven bistro-style or durable powder-coated metal or a wooden bench or a lounger. Years ago, my first husband built a solid six-foot-wide wooden bench that I’m still using 25 years later, albeit with replaced top and bottom. With three wide cushions on top, it becomes a banquette, while also storing all our hardware, painting tools and leftover potting soil.

We’ve collected throw pillows for years, some custom-made from vintage fabrics, some custom-made of new fabric and some store-bought. We lean them against the (sturdy) glass divider separating us from our neighbor and — voila! — dining/seating area.

 

Shade?

If your space offers no natural shade, consider a patio umbrella or, if you own your home, an awning.

 

Table?

How big a table can your space accommodate? Ours is 36 inches wide and perfect for dinner for four. Yours can be made of pretty much anything, (wood, metal, glass), but will need to withstand weather! Ours is a powder-coated model from Crate & Barrel, and has lasted for many years. It’s light enough to move easily and folds flat.

 

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Lighting matters

This can be the most challenging. This year I scored three gorgeous, huge lanterns from one of my favorite sources — Jamali Garden — a Manhattan-based company whose selection of every possible garden-related item is both fantastic and surprisingly affordable. Mine were (!!) only $17 apiece — much less costly than competing offers from Pottery Barn or Crate & Barrel. I also bought 12 navy blue votive holders to line our windowsill. You can string Christmas lights, use hurricane lamps, even (if safe enough!) old-time kerosene lanterns.

 

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Rugs!

We have a very large plastic one (blue and white, of course) but this year I added a small blue and white rag rug for under my feet. Much nicer! There are many options now for outdoor rugs and even if it sounds impossibly splurge-y, it’s a great choice: they can be hosed down, stored during the winter and soften and cover nasty stone/concrete/worn-out wood beneath.

 

Plants and flowers

I’m not a great gardener, for sure, but opening our balcony door to a profusion of color and scent is such a treat! The tallest planter this year holds fragrant lavender and rosemary, while the purple salvia is a positive bee-fest. Make sure whatever you choose is suited to the amount of sun, shade and wind of your outdoor space.

There are so many great retail sources for all of these items — but don’t forget your local thrift and consignment shops, estate sales and flea markets, with lots of charm and low prices. Consider re-purposing a bright Indian-print coverlet as a tablecloth…

My favorite (American) retailers for outdoors design and accessories include:

Ballard Designs, Serena & Lily, Fermob, Wisteria, Frontgate, Jamali Garden, Crate & Barrel, Mothology, Anthropologie.

Who’s ruling you?

 

 

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MUST BE PRODUCTIVE — ALL THE TIME!!!! (not!)

 

By Caitlin Kelly

Love this piece by friend, former coaching client, author, Viv Groskop — a UK comedian and journalist who’s (natch) a Cambridge graduate who also speaks fluent Russian, from UK website The Pool:

Although it sounds like you need to say it in Jonathan’s voice in your head (“Yas, queen, brules!”), brules are genius. They are the “bullshit rules” you’re living by without knowing it. They’re another term for “limiting beliefs”, a popular expression that describes unnecessary myths and outdated values that not only don’t serve you any more but may even never have been true in the first place. If you can identify your “bullshit rules”, you can see clearly where you’re holding yourself back.

I see so many people making themselves unhappy living by other people’s rules — those of their parents, their peers, their neighbors, their friends, their co-workers.

And I hear so many (broke, resentful, frustrated) Americans say: “But I played by the rules!” As if the people who make the rules (banks, insurance companies, government) actually have to abide by them.

Life is short and living by other peoples’ rules that make you miserable can feel safe and secure — everyone else is OK, right? — but can be a real waste of time.

I was lucky enough to grow up in a family of creatives — my father made films and my mother and late step-mother were writers — so the notion I had to get a “real job” sitting in an office wasn’t ever one of our rules. (Be charming! Compete hard! Keep going! were more like it.)

 

Some of the “rules” I live by:

 

— Make as little money as possible in the least amount of time. Every day I see fellow writers crowing about their six-figure incomes — i.e. making $100,000 a year — a sum I never attained, even in my best-paid NYC journalism staff jobs. We have decent retirement savings now, so the pressure to make bank is lower than it was, and is, for many. I’ve never measured my human or professional value based on my income. I’m most proud of our savings, a more valuable figure because they give us freedom.

Sleep a lot. I typically sleep 8-10 hours every night, counter to the I’m-so-busy draaaaaaaama proving how “productive” some are. I also take naps, as needed. I’m not ashamed of my need to rest and recharge.

I’d rather be creative than productive.  I make much less money than some others, but I’m also not cranking out shit I find silly or stupid. People do what they have to financially, but after decades working as a writer, if a story doesn’t engage me intellectually or emotionally, no thanks.

— I enjoy cooking and cleaning. Our marriage is pretty retro in that regard and I do almost all the housework since my husband is earning the bulk of our income right now. Working at home makes this much easier for me, not losing hours every day commuting to an office.

— Travel as often and far away as possible. This definitely affects my thinking on everything — if something costs the same as a plane ticket or a week spent abroad, travel always wins! I just had lunch with a friend this week who’ll soon be teaching in Hong Kong for four months, a place I’ve never been. Hmmmmm. Time for a visit?

 

What are some of the rules you live by?

 

 

A few more thoughts about feelings

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

 

It’s been quite the rollercoaster, kids!

First off — very good news! My surgery July 6 went great and I’m free of disease.

What a blessed relief. I start radiation treatment in September.

But…what a disorienting time it’s been.

Jose, my husband, and I are career journalists — who, since the age of 19 when we began working for national publications even as college undergrads — learned early that having, let alone expressing, our feelings was an impediment to just getting shit done.

When you’re on deadline, no matter how stressed/tired/hungry/thirsty/in pain you might actually be, you have to get the bloody story done.

Jose, working as a New York Times photographer, once stepped on a nail so long it punctured his boot and his foot while covering the aftermath of a hurricane in Florida. He’d flown down — yes, really — aboard Air Force One, as he’d been in Connecticut covering Bush. He got a tetanus shot as the jet took off to head back to New York.

But this has meant, for decades, whatever we truly felt in a difficult situation — also listening to and photographing war, trauma, crime victims, fires — we suppressed our fear, grief, sadness. It might have popped out later, privately, or not.

Ours is not a business that welcomes signs of “weakness” — you can lose the respect of peers and editors, losing out on the major assignments that boost our careers if you admit to the PTSD that can affect us — even if it privately stains our souls with trauma for years.

This cancer diagnosis, and the sudden and reluctant admission of my own very real vulnerability, blew my self-protective walls to smithereens.

I’ve never cried as much in my entire life, (I never was one to cry), even in the toughest situations, as I have in the past month.

Tears of fear and anxiety.

Tears of gratitude for friends’ kindness.

Tears of pain. It’s a much rougher recovery than four previous surgeries on my knees, shoulder and hip.

Tears of pure exhaustion from being medically probed and punctured for weeks on end.

Tears of worry I won’t get back to being wry, wise-cracking me. (If not, who will I be?)

I feel like a lobster cracked open.

I’ve spent my life being private, guarded and wary of revealing weakness, vulnerability or need.

My late step-mother loved to taunt me as being “needy.” That did it.

I was bullied in high school which taught me that authority figures who did nothing to stop it didn’t care about me as a person, just a number in a chair.

But this has been life-changing — not only in the rush of so many negative emotions — but the kindness, gentleness and compassion I’ve also felt with every single medical intervention. Ten minutes before being wheeled in the OR, I was laughing with my surgeon and her nurses. That’s a rare gift.

I also feel some shame at how infantile one becomes — focused with ferocious selfishness  — memememememememe! — when in pain and fear. Two dear friends were widowed and another’s adult daughter died of cancer within the same month as all of this, and it’s taken a lot of energy to offer them the attention and love they so need.

People have offered to talk to me about their experiences of breast cancer. I can’t. Too often, they plunge into detail and I can’t listen, process and empathize. It’s too much.

That may be my own weakness, because feelings can feel so overwhelming.

Interesting times….

 

The power of comfort

By Caitlin Kelly

When we’re feeling anxious, few things are as helpful as comfort.

It can be difficult for some people — private, feisty, super-independent — to open up wide enough to admit: “I need help!”

*cough*

But if you can, and if people respond with love, my oh my…

Self-soothing is also a crucial life skill.

It might be food or drink or a hug or a hand to hold.

 

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My pre-op nerves soothed  by a tiny rhino. (Good band name!) It went well.

 

It might be a stuffed animal, whether you’re six, 16 or 60.

It might be a kind word in the middle of a tough moment or a gentle touch.

It might be a bright bouquet of flowers.

It might be a lovely notecard — on paper, sent with a stamp — that arrives just at the right time.

It might be the loving presence of your dog or cat — or husband/wife/partner.

It might be a view out the window of something lovely that soothes you.

It might be your favorite music.

It might be a familiar poem or prayer.

In a time of some personal anxiety, I have been truly grateful for all of these, arriving from Dublin and Paris and London and Hawaii.

Some of you have commented here and some have emailed me privately.

 

Thank you!

 

Carpe the damn diem!

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All the time in the world? Maybe not…

 

By Caitlin Kelly

 

You know how this goes.

I’ll do it: tomorrow, next week, next month, next year.

Sometime.

But not right now.

I’m too: busy, tired, broke, otherwise committed, ambivalent, not sure it’s going to work out perfectly.

It might be trying for a dream job.

It might be repairing a broken relationship — or starting a tender new one, romantic or platonic.

It might committing to a course of study.

It might mean selling everything you own and/or disappearing for a while (not abandoning your loved ones.)

 

Whatever it is, I urge you to get on with it.

 

It’s the worst cliche, but a cancer diagnosis — even one as incredibly hopeful as mine is — will instantly alter how you perceive time and its brevity and its value.

I’ve cut off useless drama. I’ve turned down invitations. I’m avoiding situations I know will stress me further.

But I’m also making and planting gorgeous new wooden planters for our balcony and accepting assignments for later this summer and planning a trip, possibly to Cornwall, in the late fall.

Two dear friends — one in London, one in California — were widowed in the same week. Both were, sadly, expected but still.

Now another friend’s husband is newly diagnosed.

 

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This time last year I was carefree, solo, sunning myself in a tiny, beautiful Croatian town on the Adriatic, Rovinj. I stayed in, and loved, a boutique hotel made up of two buildings from the 18th and 17th century, walking down smooth cobble-stoned streets.

If this had happened last year, I would have lost a ton of money on prepaid flights, tickets and hotels and had to cancel a trip that was absolute heaven.

This year I’m walking down hospital corridors and consulting with six physicians, submitting to seven presurgical tests and procedures — slightly less amusing!

I am so glad I was able, financially and physically, to make that journey as a birthday gift to myself.

To take it for myself.

To give it to myself without reservation or guilt or remorse for that “wasted” time or mis-spent savings.

 

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Whatever brings you joy, get out there and claim it.

 

Today!

 

 

 

 

This week’s best moment

By Caitlin Kelly

 

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It always starts with a bang.

We now know what it is — a tiny bird has hit our sixth-floor windows mid-flight and fallen, stunned and possibly injured, onto our balcony.

I heard it, jumped up and was there within seconds to find a tiny gray bird lying there.

We have a routine now. We get water and, very gently, pick them up, hold them and drop a tiny bit of water onto their beak.

If we’re lucky, they revive.

It takes a while — poor wee things are disoriented from the impact.

This little one sat very calmly in my left palm for maybe 15 minutes as (s?)he came back to himself.

What an amazing privilege it is to see and hold a wild creature, even briefly, and help them recover.

Our apartment is literally at the tree-tops so, after a few uncertain hops on the balcony, he flew back into them.

Some thoughts on being touched

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By Caitlin Kelly

Touch can be soothing or frightening, a source of comfort or terror.

The past few weeks have made clearer — personally and politically — the importance of touch, physical and emotional.

Since telling people about my DCIS diagnosis, Jose and I have been deeply moved and touched by so many people, worldwide, young and old, friends, neighbors and colleagues, who have called and emailed to share their love and concern.

It’s been surprising to us — tough old boots of journalists that we are, working for decades in a fact-based business — to feel such a powerful wave of love and emotion.

We are very grateful.

The business of diagnosing breast cancer, (like other forms, perhaps),  also means your body gets touched by many strangers, compressed repeatedly, punctured with needles and having markers inserted and written on your skin. By the time of my surgery, July 6, I will have had seven different medical appointments and five different pre-op tests.

When a medical professional, who does this job every day, is kind and compassionate, communicating it through their gentle touch — the nurse who held my hand through my biopsy, the phlebotomist so skilled I didn’t feel a thing as she took my blood, the radiologist who stroked my other wrist even as he guided the needle — it is deeply moving and so comforting.

As someone who has always really lived in her head — a thinker, not a feeler — and a lifelong athlete who sees (and appreciates!) her body not for its size or shape or putative beauty — but instead for its strength, flexibility and resilience, this is all disorienting in the extreme.

Of course, grateful for a medical team we like, but it is so odd to suddenly be — as of course we all are, every day (even as we may deny it) — so corporeally vulnerable and now so…handled.

The larger political current context — of tiny children being taken from their parents and shut into cages by American officials — is so grotesque it would be a parody, if it were not.

From Arizona Family:

Dr. Colleen Kraft, the head of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said that she visited a small shelter in Texas recently, which she declined to identity. A toddler inside the 60-bed facility caught her eye — she was crying uncontrollably and pounding her little fists on mat.

Staff members tried to console the child, who looked to be about 2 years old, Kraft said. She had been taken from her mother the night before and brought to the shelter.

The staff gave her books and toys — but they weren’t allowed to pick her up, to hold her or hug her to try to calm her. As a rule, staff aren’t allowed to touch the children there, she said. [italics mine]

“The stress is overwhelming,” she said. “The focus needs to be on the welfare of these children, absent of politics.”

 

From Texas Monthly:

Sometimes mothers—I was talking to one mother, and she said, “Don’t take my child away,” and the child started screaming and vomiting and crying hysterically, and she asked the officers, “Can I at least have five minutes to console her?” They said no. In another case, the father said, “Can I comfort my child? Can I hold him for a few minutes?” The officer said, “You must let them go, and if you don’t let them go, I will write you up for an altercation, which will mean that you are the one that had the additional charges charged against you.” So, threats. So the father just let the child go.

Feelings?!

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

Do you start most sentences with “I think” or “I feel”?

Having, managing, expressing (or suppressing) feelings is a big deal in my life.

As someone who faced and had to cope alone with mental illness and alcoholism in one parent and frequent work-related absence in another, I learned early that no one had much interest in hearing how I felt about all of this.

So I learned to bottle it up, or to share only with close friends.

Living in boarding school and summer camp ages eight to 13 (school) and eight to 16 (camp) also meant being surrounded by strangers, some of whom became close friends — but some of whom were bullies.

You learned to keep your counsel.

So a recent workshop at a writers’ conference — where the audience was urged to write “I remember” and dredge up some memories — proved both painful and illuminating for me.

Some of us then read our initial sentences to the room, maybe 150 other professional writers; I did, as well.

I was amazed and moved by what I heard.

It made me much more aware of how limited my ability to express some feelings still is — even later in life.

I’m reluctant to show vulnerability.

I very rarely say “I love you” to someone, even when I feel it.

I’m much more comfortable (which tends to unnerve others) expressing dismay, outrage or frustration — less tender and delicate emotions.

Except — thanks to a diagnosis I received since writing this post (tiny/early/contained breast cancer) — my view has shifted radically and I’ve told a number of friends, neighbors and even professional colleagues.

This is not something to face alone.

It’s also exhausting keeping up a brave face when I don’t feel at all brave or badass but feel worried and tired dealing with six (!) doctors, even if all of them are people I like.

The greatest challenge so far has been managing my anxiety, a battle in itself, while absorbing and making lucid decisions about treatment. It’s a lot to manage.

 

Are you at ease having and expressing your feelings?