Dancing for your life…street version

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

Loved this, from The New York Times dance critic:

One day, before the coronavirus pandemic, a river of pedestrians — half manic, half clueless — was feeding onto the escalator at the West Fourth Street subway station during rush hour. Blocking the escalator entrance were people gazing at their phones. Once they finally stepped on, they planted themselves on the left. It was a mess.

You stand on the right; you pass on the left. This is the choreography of everyday life.

I found myself directing people where to stand and when to move. As the bottom half of the escalator started to organize itself, I noticed that something similar was happening toward the top. I recognized the voice up there: It belonged to Ori Flomin, a dancer, teacher and choreographer. We saw each other and giggled.

“Of course,” he said, “we are the ones arranging people in space.”

 

I started studying ballet at 12, and took ballet and jazz classes five nights a week in my 20s. I only stopped a few years ago thanks to my messed-up knees.

Dance, for fun or in a studio, has long been a way to stay in touch with my senses and sense of balance and rhythm and grace. I’ve never really understood people who “hate to dance” but I know there are many of them! Once you learn to parse a piece of music — a waltz or a mazurka, have your body remember allegro and adagio and what it should do in response — it’s a permanent muscle memory.

And understanding how your body moves within space — and especially in relationship to other bodies — is key to dance, even if all you ever do is take a dance class. You still have to navigate your spot at the barre or leaping and spinning across the floor. You swing your legs in grands battements, careful not to knock anyone while focused on staying strong, centered, elegant.

Spatial awareness is a very real quality we all need to cultivate right now in shared spaces to avoid endless transmission of COVID-19.

Heedless selfishness is now, we all know, lethal.

Those days are gone. Or soon will be; on April 1 — no joke! — New York governor Andrew Cuomo declared every New York City playground closed.

But the ambitious, driven, rushrushrush sort of people who live in New York City — a massively dense city to start with — are also used to being shoved and jostled, in the subway, in line-ups, pretty much anywhere.

So learning to literally keep your damn distance, every day, everywhere — to step out of an elevator with anyone else in it (a la Devil Wears Prada!) — is a new challenge.

Add to this the relentless American individualism that somehow insists each person’s own comfort and safety matters far more than anyone else’s…good luck!

 

6th floor life

 

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Our view

 

By Caitlin Kelly

The number 6 has always been a good one for me — my birthday is the sixth day of the sixth month.

We live on the sixth, top floor of our building — the third time I’ve had that spot in an apartment, first as an undergrad in Toronto, attending University of Toronto, and later in Montreal, in a gorgeous 30s complex called Haddon Hall; I dream of actually getting that apartment back! Two bedrooms, great views, perfect condition, working fireplace, tall ceilings….sigh. All for $600 a month, mid 1980s.

My ongoing decision to live on the highest floor of a building, far away from any access to it, is the result of a terrifying experience in my second year at university, when I lived in a studio, alone, at the back of an alley on the ground floor, in a sketchy downtown Toronto neighborhood.

The kind of place, if anyone had been paying attention to my welfare, someone would have said: “No way! Not a safe choice!”

But no one  paid attention and it was affordable.

One night I yelled out the window at people making noise. A few nights later (I really don’t remember), a man tried to pull me out through the bathroom window — as I was taking a bath, directly below the window.

I was wet and slippery and the window too small and narrow.

But that was the end of that apartment.

I spent the summer, recovering emotionally from this attack, in a shared sorority house on a quiet and lovely street, surrounded by other women.

My next home was the 6th floor studio at the back of a six-floor 60s building, with a balcony, overlooking a park.

No one could possibly get at me.

No one ever did.

It was a great little apartment, only one long block north of campus, so I could zip home and change clothes in fall and spring as the temperature shifted. It gave me back the confidence I could live alone, safely, and enjoy my independence again. I was already writing for a few national magazines and would sit at my desk, tapping on my pale turquoise manual typewriter, staring out over the park’s treetops, like a bird in my own little nest.

In Montreal, that high perch proved, sadly, less secure as our building was broken into repeatedly, thieves assuming that renters were wealthy, which we weren’t. I got so scared I went to the police for advice since my bedroom was at the very opposite end of the apartment from the front door — no escape. They had little comfort to offer except that burglars were likely unarmed. I lived there for 18 months while working as a reporter for the Montreal Gazette.

When my first husband and I bought this suburban New York apartment, the first attraction wasn’t its great view of the Hudson River, or the lovely grounds — it was all we could afford! I was lucky enough to have a decent down payment, thanks to an inheritance from my maternal grandmother. The place was a bit gross, thanks to wall-to-wall filthy beige carpet that stunk so badly of cat urine even the realtor stood on the balcony while we looked it over.

In the decades since, by far the longest time I’ve ever lived in one home, (the longest before that was maybe three or four years, in childhood/adolescence), I’ve repainted each room and hallway multiple times. The living room morphed from a mushroom beige/gray faux finish to a brilliant Chinese red to the pale yellow/green we last did in 2008. The bedroom went from a faux-finish crisp blue and white to aqua to apple green to Skimming Stone, a lush, warm gray from my fave, Farrow & Ball.

I really love the quiet perch of a top floor.

We’re literally in the treetops and red-tailed hawks soar close by daily, one even landing on our balcony railing once.

Our river view, looking northwest, is now obscured by tree growth, but fine in the winter. We watch barges gliding upriver and storms heading south.

In these perilous times, home up here once more feels like a nest, safe and enclosing.

And impossible, we hope, to breach.

 

 

Trying to be normal

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

So we’re doing some of our usual silly banal things, like watching Jeopardy and playing gin rummy and tossing a softball into our battered leather gloves then sitting for a while on a bench in the sun — far away from anyone on our building’s property.

They are comforting and familiar and we need them so so badly.

We haven’t yet, thank God, lost anyone we know to COVID-19 but our minister has it and two of our parishioners, (who are recovering.)

Those of us old enough to remember it, the only time, domestically, that feels like this was the 1980s and the AIDS crisis, which I covered for The Globe & Mail and the Gazette in my native Canada.

Thank God, we still (for now!) have the same smart, tough, wise, no-bullshit public health expert today that we turned to back then, Dr. Anthony Fauci.

But, no matter where you live, we’re all grappling with a sort of life that makes no rational sense right now:

— millions out of work

— no idea if, how or when the economy will recover

— millions still at work endangering their lives and those of others, whether healthcare workers, first responders, police, grocery staff, delivery staff, to care for us

— the world’s richest nation with so few ventilators, let alone trained ICU staff, that triage is going to become brutal for everyone

— a “leader” who babbles and lies and and sneers at and insults any journalist who dares to challenge or question him

 

We are lucky, so far, to be healthy.

 

We are lucky, so far, to have continued freelance work.

 

We are lucky to live in a quiet suburb with places we can go out for a walk safely without dodging dangerous/selfish crowds of people.

 

We are lucky to live in New York, a state massively whacked by this disease, but led by a governor, Andrew Cuomo, who is calm, empathetic, tough. His daily 11:30 EDT press briefings (available on CNN) are a morning ritual for us now.

 

From The New York Times:

The governor repeatedly assailed the federal response as slow, inefficient and inadequate, far more aggressively than he had before.

Mr. Cuomo was once considered a bit player on the national stage, an abrasive presence who made his share of enemies among his Democratic Party peers. He was too much of a pragmatist for his party’s progressive wing, too self-focused for party leaders and too brusque for nearly everyone.

But now, he is emerging as the party’s most prominent voice in a time of crisis.

His briefings — articulate, consistent and often tinged with empathy — have become must-see television. On Tuesday, his address was carried live on all four networks in New York and a raft of cable news stations, including CNN, MSNBC and even Fox News.

 

How are you doing?

 

What are some of your coping mechanisms?

20 years together — how we do it

 

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Jose on assignment in Bosnia for The New York Times, December 1995

 

By Caitlin Kelly

He was a staff photo editor at The New York Times, living in Brooklyn, long divorced, with no kids.

I was a freelance writer living in a New York suburb, divorced with no kids.

Online dating was still new and weird and no one was really admitting they needed it, but I did. Even after years living in New York, I had a small social circle and wanted to find a new partner — so it was really my only way to do so.

I pitched a story about this to Mademoiselle, a women’s magazine, and they agreed. My online profile headline, truthfully, read Catch Me If You Can.

Even though Jose and I actually knew a Times sports editor in common, we would never otherwise have met, between his grueling work schedule and physical distance from my home.

 

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Jose shooting the judging of the Pulitzer Prizes at Columbia University  — his idea!

 

Our first date was in March 2000 at Le Madeleine, a midtown French bistro in the west 40s. He arrived wearing a bright red silk Buddhist prayer shawl as a muffler. Of course!

And that was it…

He moved north into my apartment in 2001 — his original moving day (no joke) was 9/11, for which the Times would win a Pulitzer for team photo editing.

 

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My final day of radiation, November 2015.

 

In the 20 years since, we’ve been through quite a bit, including:

2 knee surgeries, a shoulder surgery and left hip replacement for me in 2012; his Times buyout in 2015, propelling him into a wholly new world of freelance work; the death of several friends and colleagues; my mother’s recent, sudden death; the work and publishing of my two books and his diabetes diagnosis and mine for early stage breast cancer — both in June 2018.

 

5th-anniversary

Toronto, September 2011

What works?

 

Laughter, lots of it!

Mutual respect

Shared goals and values

History — what we’ve already successfully survived

Optimism, always much more his than mine

A shared passion for producing great journalism

A shared skill of taking terrific photos, mine more art-y, his more news-y

A sense of perspective — if we’re vertical and breathing, that’s a good day

A home we’ve worked hard to make beautiful and welcoming, safe and tidy

We each bring a serious work ethic

A love of luxury — a great bottle of wine, a visit to Paris

Understanding (finally) that two bossy, determined, competitive career journalists will have some conflicts

Knowing that some conflict, unless chronic, is normal

Endless curiosity about the world and how it works

A wide global network of people who value us, personally and professionally

Staying as calm as possible through scary times

 

As we all muddle our way through the current global crisis of COVID-19, I’m grateful as hell to have his comfort and companionship.

I hope you, too, have someone as loving and reliable to help you through this terrible moment.

 

Getting through this

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We need this tree’s determination to thrive. Split rock, as needed.

 

By Caitlin Kelly

It’s not a joke or a hoax.

It’s forcing everyone to re-think every element of our lives: work, relationships, employment, money, access to government aid, education, worship, mourning, celebrations, trust in government, the safety and reliability of medical and hospital care.

Many people have died. Some are very ill. Some wonder — without easy access to testing — if they’ve even been infected with COVID-19, its now official name.

 

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It’s forcing Americans, especially, to behave in ways that run counter to how they’ve been socialized for decades — i.e. to behave as individuals, to behave as they please, free of most government interference, (but also government aid.)

Writing in this week’s New York Times, Donald McNeil says:

Is that what some countries are missing? This sense of collective action and selflessness?

That is absolutely what many Americans are missing — that it’s not about you right now. My parents were in the World War II generation and there was more of a sense of, “Hey, we did something amazing; we ramped up this gigantic societal effort.” It was this sense of we’re all in this together.

We’ve got to realize that we’re all in this together and save each other’s lives. That has not penetrated yet and it needs to penetrate because we all have to cooperate.

 

 

When you grow up not giving a damn about “the other” — people unrelated to you or you’ve never met and why would you even consider universal healthcare for the “undeserving”? — a pandemic throws this thinking out the window.

The nation’s addiction to capitalism and for-profit healthcare and limited government has also led to this crisis — you can’t keep an economy centered on consumer spending alive when no one is shopping or traveling or buying a house or a car.

The wealthy? They’ve already hopped aboard their private jets, and are safely ensconced in their third or fifth home, like the guy writing to The New York Times who fled New York for his house in Rhode Island.

In a time when Americans have never been more divided racially and economically and politically, this virus doesn’t care.

 

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Like it or not, ready or not, we’re all intertwined now

 

People may look, sound, earn and vote just as you do — and still be carrying and widely spreading this lethal virus.

I finally went out for a walk yesterday on our town reservoir path — lots of people (safely distant!) walking, running, biking. It felt great to be out of the apartment and moving.

It’s no fun being stuck indoors all the time.

It’s really hard not to get irritable and snappish if you share a small space with others.

Yes, people are really disappointed by cancelled parties and weddings and kids’ sports and graduations.

But seriously?

Stay home and be responsible.

We have to buck up.

 

I wish,  more than anything, we could still hear the wise and seasoned voices of those who survived WWII, who knew the kind of shared terror we’re only now beginning to feel — and who can share the mental strength and stamina they all needed to get through it.

 

Here’s my new theme song, from one of my favorite bands, The Talking Heads:

 

 

Adjusting to the Covid-19 pandemic

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By Caitlin Kelly

I won’t belabor you with the endless details of the coronavirus pandemic — trusting that you’re paying attention to reliable sources of news like the World Health Organization.

If you live in the United States, where millions — like my husband and I — have no sick pay or access to unemployment benefits since we are self-employed, this is very worrying.

Thanks directly to the coronoavirus, we’ve just suddenly lost a very large piece of paid work  — with no access to unemployment benefits — that we’ve been counting on for months; unlike many Americans we do have savings.

The only people I know who aren’t panicking right now have significant savings or the ability to move back home with their parents to cut their living costs.

That’s a small percentage of Americans.

What worries me most isn’t just the lack of preparedness by the American government and the lying grifter in the White House “leading” it all — but the bedrock of traditional American values.

 

Individualism.

 

The “I”ll do whatever I want and screw you” behaviors I’ve seen for years.

Only now, they’re lethal.

If you’re on Twitter, as I am, you might have seen the hashtag #CoronaKatie, a young woman who tweeted:

 

I just went to a Red Robin [a fast casual restaurant chain] and I’m 30 [a very high risk group for spreading the virus.]

It was delicious and I took my sweet time eating my meal. Because this is America and I’ll do what I want.

 

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Get used to being alone!

 

I can’t adequately express how angry this selfishness makes me.

I fully expect many of us, unwittingly, may have already infected others while we remained without active symptoms. I feel guilty and worried, and don’t even know if I should.

As one brilliant UK physician Graham Medley, a professor of infectious disease modelling, has said — stop behaving as though you hope to avoid the virus.

Behave as though you already have it and do everything in your power to not infect others!

I moved to the United States when I was 30 — but was born, raised and socialized in a country with two attitudes profoundly different from the United States, to this day, both affect how I think and how I behave:

 

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a national, equally bedrock concern for the common good, which this public policy makes abundantly clear.

 

Everyone matters.

 

Anyone who still insists on going out into crowded, shared public spaces — unless medically or legally necessary — is a fool and possibly risking others’ deaths.

If you’re OK with this, please stop reading and following this blog at once.

As you likely know by now, anyone over 60 — with a weaker immune system than those younger — is more vulnerable. Those with underlying conditions, especially respiratory, are very much at risk; my late mother, who died in a Canadian nursing home February 15, had COPD and other health issues. It may have been a blessing she died before this, as nursing homes are a petri dish for this disease.

I am scared.

Even though we have savings, we’re wholly self-employed and if our work dries up, we’re screwed. Whatever the U.S. government offers as help, it never — as usual — affects anyone self-employed.

For now, Jose’s two anchor clients are still going and he is able to work from home for one of them. I have work through mid-May, but nothing after that.

We will figure it out. We have to!

 

I pray that you and your loved ones stay safe and healthy.

 

Ten ways to enjoy working from home

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Step into our office!

 

By Caitlin Kelly

 

Welcome to my life!

 
As the world  suddenly learns the words “social distancing” and every crowded place is closing, many people who have always worked away from home are now…working at home.

While The New York Times laments the lost joys of office life, I deeply disagree.

 

An excerpt:

Steve Jobs, for one, was a famous opponent of remote work, believing that Apple employees’ best work came from accidentally bumping into other people, not sitting at home in front of an email inbox.

“Creativity comes from spontaneous meetings, from random discussions,” Mr. Jobs said. “You run into someone, you ask what they’re doing, you say ‘Wow,’ and soon you’re cooking up all sorts of ideas.”

 

Sure…if your workplace is full of smart, motivated, helpful co-workers.

Is yours?

My last staff job, sorry to say, was a shitshow from start to finish. I was hired by someone who soon left, leaving me vulnerable to management that wanted nothing to do with me and frosty co-workers.

It was the worst experience of my life.

So I never spent much energy looking for another office job.

I’ve been working alone at home, with no pets or children, in a suburban one-bedroom apartment since 2006. I occasionally spend the day working at our local library, which is large, sunny and gorgeous.

 

Here are my ten ways to enjoy working from home if this is all new to you:

 

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— Wake up (more) when it suits you.

Even if you have to be on the clock for your employer by 9:00 a.m. you’ve lost all the mad rush to get ready/showered/dressed/shaved and the cost and annoyance of a commute.

— Savor healthy meals

I eat so much better at home! I know exactly what’s in my food without added salt, sugar, fat and calories. Your late afternoon pick-me-up might be my daily pot of tea or fresh coffee or an apple and cheese or…anything not junky and gooey and full of sugar.

— No eating at your desk!

This is such a gross American habit because everyone’s expected to work all the time. Or, worse, in your car or on the train or bus.

 

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— Take walks, maybe with your very happy dog

You must build in some breaks. Fresh air is a good perk.

— Exercise!

If you can’t use your gym, take a walk or bike ride. If your home is big enough, you can do yoga or workout to exercise videos.

 

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— Avoid the sofa!

I literally won’t sit on it until work is done. In a small space, I have to delineate areas of work and areas of pure leisure (that includes the bedroom.)

— Avoid the TV!

Until your work is done.

— Enjoy music!

Jose and I have a few favorite stations we listen to when working from home. One is TSFJazz from Paris.

 

 

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Zzzzzzzzz……

 

— Naps

As long as you are getting your work done and joining Zoom or Skype or phone meetings as expected, you can probably grab a half hour when needed.

— Comfortable clothing is a real pleasure

Pajamas are not a great idea and sweatpants can feel gross after a while. But there’s no need to keep wearing more formal clothing unless that’s your preference.

Taking a break

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By Caitlin Kelly

I leave this week for a week away from home, alone, and am ready for it.

I drive to Virginia — about six hours (not a fan of flying) — and have two small-town days at an inn, all to myself.

Then to a conference, the Northern Short Course, which is an annual event for photojournalists, some freelance, some working for news organizations. It’s the second year I’ve been invited to speak, and I’ll talk about the many challenges of pitching ideas and projects to would-be clients. I began my career in Toronto as a teenager selling my photos to newspapers and magazines, so I have some street cred as a photographer as well as writer.

A dear friend of Jose’s, and a lifelong mentor, will be flying in from New Mexico, so I am looking forward to dinner with him and his wife; we stayed with them in June.

 

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Then two days’ playtime in D.C., catching up with friends there.

Then home and diving into three successive freelance projects: for The New York Times, my second story for Mechanical Engineering (!) and a story for a Canadian business magazine.

I’ve done very little work over the past two weeks since my mother’s sudden death.

It’s been the usual and expected flurry of phone calls: her nursing home, the funeral home, her executor and the law firm handling her estate and will.

I’m really really tired.

Despite our last decade of estrangement, I’m still struck by/with grief, grateful for Jose’s support and the cards, emails, calls and flowers from loving friends.

I wish — however retro and weird this sounds — we still wore black to signify mourning (instead of what all New Yorkers wear all the time!) or even a black armband on the left sleeve. I Googled it and it appears to be wholly out of fashion and would not be understood.

It would be a powerful and effective way to signal mourning — without having to discuss, explain, react. The conference organizer is losing her mother right before the event, so she will be so exhausted. While others’ love and consolation and condolences are very welcome, they’re also tiring to acknowledge and respond to, especially in person. Some (luckily, only a few) will try to share their story of loss.

You just can’t. You’re too tired.

While I’ve shared quite a bit of my feelings on social media, I also have many, many more and need to process them slowly, quietly and without the energy drain of being social.

Now that coronavirus is making public gatherings suspect, this will be easier.

So I may post later this week — or not.

Thank you for all your comments and kindness!

 

 

How to thrive unmothered

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By Caitlin Kelly

The word mother, like the word  husband, is a noun and a verb.

Some are better being a noun.

Some aren’t given the tools to do that job well.

Some are distracted by mental illness or  addiction.

Some end up incarcerated.

Some lose their children because the children, or the state, removes them.

Many people learn to thrive unmothered.

I left my mother’s care at 14 and moved in with my father and his girlfriend, later wife, who was 13 years older. I was 14 and she was 27.

Neither of us were equipped for this.

So, what happens when you’re not classically nurtured by another woman related to you?

 

You figure stuff out on your own

You read magazines and watch TV and listen to the radio and to podcasts. You talk to other adults.  I was a teen and young adult long before the Internet or YouTube. But opening myself early to the world meant learning to pay attention and deciding what was important.

 

You learn to ask others for help  — and know when you need it most

No crying wolf! When you know your requests are falling into the ears of people with their own lives and jobs and families, you know not to be a whiny pest but ask when you need them most. If you’re healthy and solvent (and if not, it’s much harder), you can manage a lot by yourself and grow massively in self-confidence as you do.

 

You’re fine challenging authority — because classic maternal authority isn’t there

Many people live in fear of what their mothers will say or do if…they say or do something that might offend or scare or anger her. When  your mother isn’t around and your stepmother isn’t very interested, you get on with it, unimpeded.

 

 

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You have to suss out what it means to be pretty or attractive or well-dressed

This was a big challenge, since I was taken shopping twice (both times with great success) between the ages of 14 and 20, once for a prom dress and once for a winter coat. But no one ever showed me how to wear makeup or what to do with my eyebrows or what stockings went with which shoes. It just wasn’t in the cards. So I learned to develop and trust my own taste, and work within a budget.

 

And how to cook!

My stepmother was an amazing cook but never taught me. I have a pile of well-used cookbooks, and recipes. I entertain often and  make very good meals. I take a lot of pride in this.

 

Managing money well is essential

I had money from my maternal grandmother, which for four years of university was all I had to live on  — $350 a month when my rent was $160 and annual tuition $660. It took me a few months to save the $30 I needed to buy a leotard, tights and slippers to take a ballet class. Wants had to wait behind needs. No one was there to bail me out and I knew it.

 

You learn to stand up — and fight for — your own needs

There’s no one calling ahead to smooth  your path or help you battle whatever shows up. I learned very young to figure out what I need and to ask other adults for it — whether professional, medical, financial. That would be my job as an adult anyway. It just started early.

 

The world is full of “other mothers”

From Guillemette in Paris to Marcia in Toronto to Salley in D.C., I’ve found deeply loving women friends whose kindness and affection and loyalty have felt maternal to me. Salley was the witness for my second wedding, which my mother did not attend. Barbara sat with me for a whole day’s worth of hospital tests and Catherine, in Dublin, sent flowers after my breast cancer surgery.

 

When you can’t rely on your mom, you rely on  yourself

Most things are quite manageable on your own. Many skills can be learned or, if  you have the money, hired.

 

 

caitlin team

The terrific team at radiation, Phelps Hospital, November 2018, at the end of my treatment

 

The kindness of strangers is astounding

I’m always amazed and grateful at the kindness I’ve experienced, especially when traveling alone. When  you haven’t been nurtured much, you forget — or never know — that many others have been well-loved by their mothers, and are happy to share their love with you as well. That generosity and acceptance, let alone affection, always surprises me and always  delights me.

 

Friends are family

The truest lesson of all. If you can open your heart and arms — and without a loving mother you have to — there are so many people happy to take pride in you and your work and your character, to laugh and cry with you, to take you to the hospital, to visit you after surgery, to send you flowers and cards and remember your birthday.

It doesn’t have to be your mother.

Some more memories…

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at home with Roo

By Caitlin Kelly

Before we were estranged, we weren’t.

Obvious, right?

Like me, she had dear friends all over the world, but she was never a joiner. She never stayed for coffee hour after church.

So, sorry to say, there are not enough people to gather for a funeral or a memorial.

Some memories to share:

She and my father love(d) to be rabble-rousers and rule-breakers, so I remember — before they divorced when I was six or seven — one of them, maybe her, choosing to get arrested for non-payment of parking tickets.

 

In the 60s, anything went, so she decided to wear sarees and sandals — in WASPy Toronto, a definite outlier amidst the cashmere-and-pearls mummies at my prep school.

 

When she left my father, we moved from a large house in one of Toronto’s nicest neighborhoods to a two-bedroom apartment, a two-story walk-up, in a basic (safe) downtown area. But, typical of her style, she had a wooden playhouse made for me and put on our balcony.

She threw great, stylish birthday parties for me, usually at a local hotel.

 

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Not a flattering pic, but years ago on our New York balcony

 

She had endured a moneyed-but-strange childhood — including a governess and a mother who kept changing husbands (six? eight?) the way some people change their shoes.

We moved to Cuernavaca so she could study with Ivan Illich. We lived in a basic neighborhood and I walked up the hill to school. We had no phone and didn’t know anyone — so when she had a manic breakdown on Christmas Eve I ended up on my own for two weeks with another 14-year-old friend, visiting from Toronto.

She never discussed her childhood or adolescence. I tried. 

She traveled for years alone, even through Latin America. She taught me to shove a chair beneath the door handle, if needed, to stay safe in your hotel room.

 

She never enjoyed cooking. We used to joke that dinner was ready when smoke poured out of the kitchen.

 

Born American, always a fervent progressive, she wept the day Robert Kennedy was assassinated — my 11th birthday. I couldn’t understand why she was crying on my birthday.

Whenever I gave in to some sort of panic, she’d reply with her own solution: “What am I going to do? Jump out of my skin?”

 

As she traveled, always alone, she’d import me once a year to wherever she was — so I visited Costa Rica, Colombia, Peru and Fiji all in my early 20s. Fun, sometimes. Peru was the best, including a fffffffreezing midnight train ride through the Andes and sunrise at Machu Picchu. Loved the blue starfish in Fiji. 

 

She never re-married and had few romantic relationships. I think intimacy wasn’t enjoyable.

She endured some terrible health issues, including thyroid cancer at 30, breast cancer in her 60s and a brain tumor at 68, a massive meningioma that had likely been growing for a long time, maybe decades. The Vancouver neurosurgeon who performed the six-hour surgery told me it had made her irritable and moody because of its location — so I’d been arguing with a tumor for years?!

When she had the brain tumor, but before we knew for sure when she was taken many miles south to Vancouver for tests, she was taken to a small regional hospital and we flew from NY to see her. Jose was then national/foreign photo editor for The New York Times (a huge job) but took a week off to go with me — and he had never met my mother before. He cleans up nice, and in his khakis and crisp white button-down, came into her room.

“Holy cow!” said Cynthia — maybe the only woman I know who could flirt while battling a big-ass brain tumor.

She traveled the world with a small stuffed mouse with a string tail — her mother’s nickname for her.

 

 

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Worn, but well-loved

 

When I went into the hospital in  London, age maybe four?,  to have  my  tonsils removed, I was told I was there to have a baby elephant…and she’s still in my life.

A mass of contradictions, Cynthia Blanche von Rhau.

 

Yes, I will miss her.