Who’s your rock? And gravel…

By Caitlin Kelly

If you’re going to somehow get through a frightening time in your life — whether it’s health, work, family, marriage, kids’ issues — you need a rock, someone you can turn to who’s as firm and solid as a boulder, something steady and calm to lean against and take shelter behind, a fixed point you know will be there the next day and the next and the next, no matter what happens.

As I got my breast cancer diagnosis — ironically, sitting on rocks at the edge of the Hudson River in the New York town where we live — my husband Jose had just left for work in the city on the commuter train. I sat in the June sunshine alone absorbing this news, delivered by phone by my gynecologist.

 

5th-anniversary

Those vows include, for better and for worse, in sickness and in health…Sept. 2011

 

Since then, as he has been throughout our 18 years together, Jose has been my rock. For which I’m so damn grateful and so damn fortunate. He came with me to every meeting with every doctor, (and there have been five MDs), listening and taking notes as a second set of eyes and ears. I’m not a person who cries easily or often — maybe a few times a year — but in the past five months, have done a lot of that. He’s stayed steady.

There’s an old-fashioned word I really like — character. Jose has it. I’d seen it on multiple occasions as we were dating. I wanted it in my second husband, that’s for damn sure.

 

caitlin team

So lucky to have had the kindness of this fantastic team!

 

Then there’s gravel, a poor metaphor perhaps, for the pals and acquaintances whose love and sweet gestures have also proven hugely supportive, through letters, cards, calls, texts, flowers and even gifts. None of which I really expected.

Some live in distant countries. Some are editors I’ve worked with for years and have still never met. Some are women I went to school with decades ago. All of whom stepped up.

There were several putatively close friends I assumed would check in — and who proved wholly absent. That hurt. But it happens, and you have to know, especially with this disease, some people will flee and totally abandon you.

The most depressing thing I heard this summer — and it truly shocked me — is that some cancer patients have no one at all to turn to. No family. No friends. I can’t imagine facing the fears, pain, anxiety and many tests and treatments without someone who loves you sitting in the waiting room with you, driving you to appointments, holding your hand.

I recently got a call from a younger friend facing her own crisis, and was so honored and touched that she called me. I try to be a rock for the people I love. Sometimes I’ll fail them, I know.

But that’s what we’re all here for.

Be the rock.

 

Or be gravel.

 

But be there!

You don’t forget trauma. Ask Ford.

IMG_1204

By Caitlin Kelly

Maybe you — as I did — spent hours last week watching the testimony of Christine Blasey Ford and Brett Kavanaugh to the Senate Judicial Committee, to determine Kavanaugh’s fitness to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court, a lifetime appointment granting him tremendous power.

As you may know, she accuses him of assaulting her sexually when she was 15 and he was 17.

The dubious think this memory is impossible.

Here’s a story from NPR addressing how and why one tends to remember traumatic events for decades after they occur:

A question on many people’s minds is, how well can anyone recall something that happened over 35 years ago?

Pretty well, say scientists, if the memory is of a traumatic event. That’s because of the key role emotions play in making and storing memories.

On any given day, our brains store or “encode” only some of the things we experience. “What we pay attention to is what’s more likely to get encoded,” says Jim Hopper, a teaching associate in psychology at Harvard University and a consultant on sexual assault and trauma….

“The stress hormones, cortisol, norepinephrine, that are released during a terrifying trauma tend to render the experience vivid and memorable, especially the central aspect, the most meaningful aspects of the experience for the victim,” says Richard McNally, a psychologist at Harvard University and the author of the book Remembering Trauma.

That’s because a high-stress state “alters the function of the hippocampus and puts it into a super-encoding mode,” says Hopper, especially early on during an event. And “the central details [of the event] get burned into their memory and they may never forget them.”

Whether it’s sexual assault victims or soldiers in combat or survivors of an earthquake, people who have experienced traumatic events tend to remember the most essential and frightening elements of the events in vivid detail for life, says McNally.

I find this dismissal of another’s memories appalling — and of course, politically expedient for Republicans.

As someone whose life changed forever at 14, thanks to a traumatic event (thankfully, not assault or abuse), I think those who  challenge early, brutal memories, even if they’re fragmented, both arrogant and unscathed.

I won’t get into every detail, but my mother had a manic episode on Christmas Eve when  I was 14. We were living in Mexico, far from friends or relatives, not that any relatives ever cared that I was an only child in the care of a mentally ill mother.

We had no phone. We’d been there maybe four months, so even schoolmates were still acquaintances.

It was basically terrifying.

That evening, driving recklessly down Mexican highways, she endangered my life and that of two other people with us before driving into a ditch at midnight on the edge of an industrial city I had never been to.

I ended up taking care of another girl my age, alone, for two weeks, before returning to Canada to live with my father — for the first time in seven years.

 

 

 

IMG_3067.jpg

Image used with permission from its creator Aaron Reynolds; a card from his deck Effin’ Birds

 

Some moments of that evening, and what came next, are etched into my memory.

But some others?

Not at all.

I never lived with my mother again.

Nor would I ever again allow her, or anyone, to endanger me like that.

 

IMG_2082

If you’ve suffered trauma, let no one try to dismiss what you already know.

 

If you haven’t, don’t inflict further pain on anyone by disbelieving or questioning them.

Shhhhhhhh! (the quest for silence)

 

forest 04

By Caitlin Kelly

Next to attention, it’s becoming a rare and precious resource.

Complete silence.

No phones.

No airplanes or helicopters.

No drones.

No one yelling.

No motorized boats or snowmobiles.

No cars or trucks.

The irony?

I bet people in previous centuries had similar complaints — the clattering of horses’ hooves on cobblestones! The clamor of crowds in narrow urban alleys!

Here’s an interesting piece from The New York Times about one man’s quest for blessed silence in New Hampshire:

Connoisseurs of quiet say it is increasingly difficult, even in the wilderness, to escape the sounds of vehicles, industries, voices. A study published last year in the academic journal Science found that noise pollution was doubling sound levels in much of the nation’s conserved land, like national parks and areas preserved by the federal Bureau of Land Management.

Noise that humans create can be annoying but also dangerous to animals who rely on hearing to seek their prey and avoid predators. “We’re really starting to understand the consequences of noise and the importance of natural sound,” said Rachel Buxton, a conservation biologist at Colorado State University who worked on the study.

I’ve been lucky enough to experience total silence — and it is profound and oddly disorienting. I once stood in a place so totally quiet — a friend’s enormous ranch in New Mexico — that I could hear myself digesting.

 

Ironically, there really are some spots in the city of Manhattan where you can enjoy near-silence, while my suburban street echoes almost constantly with birdsong, night-time coyotes (!), leaf-blowers and construction work.

What’s the quietest place you’ve ever been?

Life in cancerland: 18 tips

 

rhiney

 

By Caitlin Kelly

Some reflections on my having entered — as of June 2018 — a new and sometimes overwhelming world; if useful, please share!

 

You are not alone

You may certainly feel it as you reel with shock and try to make sense of what will happen to you next. My early June diagnosis of DCIS, (a sort of pre-cancer, even though the word carcinoma does mean cancer!) is one shared annually by 44,000 American women.

 

You will likely be in shock and feel utterly disoriented

Even if your prognosis, as mine is, is excellent, you’re stunned.

One minute, you assumed you were healthy, the next…you’ve entered cancerland, filled with sights and sounds and sensations both foreign and unwanted, that you may never have experienced.

What the hell is an aromatase inhibitor?

What are my eight tattoos for exactly?

How tired and ill will treatment make me feel?

 

You face a learning curve

Until you’ve had a biopsy, you don’t know what it feels like, during and afterward. Same for chemo and radiation and other things likely to happen. It’s all new and unfamiliar and a lot to process, physically, emotionally, intellectually — and, in the United States — financially.

 

Ask as many questions as many times, of as many medical staff — including technicians — as you need, and take notes

It’s complicated stuff!

Don’t ever feel stupid or intimidated or rushed or that your concerns are unimportant. Health care includes feeling cared for, not just surgery and medications.

 

People who have never had experience with cancer may behave in hurtful ways

Even with the most loving intentions, people may say things (oh, it’s not that bad!) or do things (send you books about cancer, unasked for) that can leave you even more anxious, scared or disoriented.

They may also tell you to “fight” and “battle” — when (if they don’t know the details) this might not even be necessary, or might not be possible. Ignore them!

This is not what you want!

 

Get off the Internet and listen to your MDs

The first advice my gynecologist gave me — who told me the news by phone — was to not start reading about this on the Internet.

I didn’t and have not and will not.

But I make my living seeking and processing vast amounts of complex information as a journalist — how could I behave this way?

Because I’m human and had to process enough new information as it is!

I also have avoided any detailed conversations about this unless with fellow patients, and not even a lot of that.

 

Some people will flee

This can be painful. It’s them, not you. As one friend (whose wife died of lung cancer) said: “You don’t know what their vulnerabilities are.”

 

Some people will step up unexpectedly

This is a great gift.

 

You will need to let some new people in, even when that feels weird to you

I find this difficult, as someone who’s always been quite private. But without allowing others to know the details of your situation and to comfort you, it’s too hard.

 

Some people will over-share and overwhelm you with their medical story

Shut them down.

This is not the time for you to hear, process and empathize with others’ details and fears. This is the time for you to focus on your needs. That may feel unkind, even brutal. Just do it.

 

If at all possible, find a medical team and hospital you like and trust

You will be spending a lot of time in their offices, possibly daily, weekly, monthly and for many years to come. If you like, trust and respect them, you will feel safe — literally — in their hands.

If you have doubts, find a team you feel good about; this is more difficult if you live in a rural area or have poor health insurance, I know.

 

L1000534

 

You’ll be seeing, and see and be touched by, a lot of people you have never met

That’s another stressor right there.

So far, I’ve seen more than a dozen different MDs, multiple technicians and been to two different hospitals. It’s a lot of new people, and different personalities, to cope with at once — in addition to your diagnosis and treatment.

As one friend told me, you’re spending a lot of emotional capital.

 

Ignore (most) others’ advice!

People will rush to give you all sorts of advice, leads, insights and tips. Everyone’s body is different. Everyone’s tolerance for pain is different.

Just because they or someone they know had a better/worse/horrific/painful outcome, this may not be your experience.

Don’t let their possibly frightening, unhelpful or inaccurate data bombard you while in a weakened physical or emotional state.

 

Educate a few people about your cancer — and let them do the talking for you

It’s time to conserve all your resources, especially time and energy. People who have not faced cancer, and your specific kind of it (what stage, where are you in treatment, invasive, recurring, metastatic, ER+, etc.) have no clue.

Having to keep explaining things to them can be too tiring and upsetting.

 

Do whatever comforts you most deeply

That might mean withdrawing from most social events to save your energy. Hugging your kids or pets. Knitting or playing video games or binge-watching TV, prayer and meditation.

 

IMG_1486

 

Rest as much as possible

Your mind and body are under assault. Naps are your best friend.

 

You don’t have  to be “brave”

People will tell you how brave you are.

You’re just doing what you have to to stay alive, even if (as I have) you might be fearful and crying a lot to a few people. Even a good diagnosis is enough to shake you hard.

 

Ask for help — and don’t think twice about it!

You may need help getting to and from medical appointments — tests, bloodwork, chemo, whatever. Even if you’re not feeling tired or weak, it is deeply comforting to have a friend or loved one waiting for you when you emerge from whatever it is you faced that day.

Having someone to drive you there and back is a real blessing. Ask for it, and accept it with relief and gratitude. Same for dog-walking, babysitting, food shopping, cooking, laundry.

Love is action.

 

Why we need more apologies

By Caitlin Kelly

IMG_1543

Time doesn’t heal all wounds. A sincere apology is a lot better!

 

Years ago, I had a job that was, to put it plainly, a brutal experience — alternating between being bullied and ignored by bosses and colleagues alike. It was at a Big American Newspaper, one now half its size, but then a very big deal and a well-paid job in a dying industry.

But I wasn’t about to quit, no matter how terrible it was to survive.

Then, years after I left, I met one of those former bosses again in another situation, and was quite nervous about how he might behave.

To my shock — and gratitude — he apologized if he’d made things worse for me.

How rare it is to receive an apology!

Here’s a great piece on the subject from Elle magazine, which I found thanks to this blog:

I have never spoken this phrase. To anyone. Not a lover, not a friend. Not a bad boss or a vindictive colleague. This is not for lack of opportunity. I’m a black woman in America. I have been owed plenty of apologies.

I just never believed I deserved to demand one.

In the instant that I watched Serena’s firm command, I anxiously searched my consciousness to determine why, in my 33 years of living, I had never demanded an apology I believed I was owed. I have certainly expressed personal and professional grievances; I have given voice to hurt feelings and frustrated moments with greater intention as I’ve grown in confidence—a confidence which is hard earned.

But the idea that someone would need to affirm responsibility for their actions and impact on me had just never occurred to me. I have quietly carried the scars of apologies desired but never received, seething with resentment but never questioning why I didn’t demand an apology in the first place. I have always known, as seemingly all Black mothers say, that “closed mouths don’t get fed,” and that it is rare that anyone receives that which they do not ask for. Still, I had not formed my lips to utter the words: you owe me an apology.

How many times in your life have you just sat there, seething, when we should have demanded an immediate apology for someone else’s shitty behavior?

Most recently, I sat beside a woman at someone’s landmark birthday party (hardly the time for a confrontation!) who scared the hell out of me about the upcoming radiation for my DCIS.

I was a bit shell-shocked by her attitude (she’s a naturopath); we’re often slow and deeply reluctant to demand an apology since we don’t want to make a scene in public (oh, how bullies count on this!) and react like deer in the headlights, inwardly appalled, but passive and stunned in the moment.

 

Too stunned to say “Excuse me?!!!”

 

Not to mention all the powerful people, usually male, who set and enforce the rules. It’s damn near impossible to “demand” anything when your survival depends on shutting up and putting up with appalling behavior.

There’s a lot of Internet conversation right now about the many men — shunned for harassing women sexually at work — now crawling back demanding our forgiveness and more of our attention, like Canadian former broadcaster Jian Ghomeshi, American comedian Louis C.K. .and American broadcaster John Hockenberry.

I don’t really care for excuses, like “I don’t remember” because, unfortunately, I can’t forget some of the worst moments from my own life.

You can wait a long time, maybe forever, for some people to apologize, but it doesn’t mean giving other miscreants a pass just because it’s become your default.

 

Here’s a recent piece from The Atlantic about having a high school friend-turned-would-be-rapist eventually apologize:

 

A few minutes later, I saw him coming back; it was the boy who’d tried to rape me. He had tears in his eyes, and he seemed almost overwrought. And right there—in the A&S department store in the Smith Haven Mall—he apologized profusely.

“It’s okay, it’s okay,” I kept saying to him. “I forgive you, don’t worry.” It was a weird ambush of intense guilt and apology, and it was the wrong place and time—but the thing was, I really did forgive him. My life had moved on, and things were better. It felt good to get the apology and—as it always does—even better to forgive him. He’d done a terrible thing, but he’d done what he could to make it right.

 

Have you ever demanded an apology?

Did you receive it?

Was it sincere?

Cooking up a storm!

market 01

 

By Caitlin Kelly

It was a veritable frenzy — a combination of impending medical anxiety, again, no work to produce and fall’s slightly cooler temperatures that make our small, un-ventilated galley kitchen more bearable.

In the space of 24 hours I made: curried corn soup, pork chops with red onion and red peppers, (both from a Gordon Ramsay cookbook), morning glory muffins, (a NYT recipe, so good — filled with carrot, walnuts, raisins, coconuts, apple), lemon roasted potatoes and a lemon loaf.

Whew!

I really enjoy cooking, and went through two sweat-soaked T-shirts and bandanas to produce it all. Cooking is physical! All that slicing and chopping and grating and mixing and peeling.

I love having a fridge filled with ingredients — fresh dill, eggs, unsalted butter — and reaching for my baking pantry of flours, baking soda, baking powder, spices and sugars. To make it easier, we have a dishwasher, multiple sets of measuring spoons and cups, multiple mixing bowls, a hand mixer and a small blender; (the poor Cuisinart stays in the garage as there is NO room for it in the apartment.)

 

20131224092448

 

 

COMBO 01A
The left is before; the right is after. I designed the kitchen myself

 

I play loud music on the radio or stereo and off I go. Our stove/oven is a four-burner Bertazzoni and still burns hot. Our kitchen counters are stone, so I sometimes cut directly on them.

I’ve been collecting recipes for decades and have a good collection of cookbooks — favorites include oldies like Patricia Wells’ Bistro Cooking, The Vegetarian Epicure Part Two, The Silver Palate and Barefoot Contessa. But I also clip recipes all the time from papers and magazines — I made mince tarts last year for the first time, thanks to one in the weekend FT, our preferred weekend read.

When it all turns out well — and it usually does — we sit, light candles, pour wine, and savor what we happily call “restaurant food”, carefully thought out and prepared with care and energy.

I know that, for some people — those with fussy kids or eating disorders or medically restricted diets — food can be a source of frustration and stress. I know I need to lose at least 30 pounds, too, but my intense pleasure at eating a delicious meal is a constant challenge in that regard.

 

Do you enjoy planning a meal, prepping and cooking?

 

What do you like to make?

 

Why?

Taking a needed breather

 

IMG_2782

Time for a break!

 

By Caitlin Kelly

Luckily, I have good friends in Toronto willing to host me for a week, and I’ve been enjoying time away from the endless toxicity of American politics, work and health issues.

Late summer is a good time to visit this city, as winter can be bitter and midwinter days depressingly gray. (My husband, Jose, is busy right now photo editing the U.S. Open Tennis, ending his work shift as late as 1 or even 2:00 a.m. after the final evening match.)

I arrived here bringing champagne and chocolate and books. I try hard to be a low-maintenance guest, since we have often hosted friends in our one-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment, and I know it can feel overwhelming. My friends have a large enough house we can all disappear when needed — and one sign of a good friendship is the ability to do so, and no one feels offended, since everyone needs quiet time alone.

I grew up in Toronto, ages five to 30, so I still have many deep friendships and lots of memories here — I usually return once or twice a year, the last time in April with Jose.

This visit I shared a friend’s 70th birthday celebrations, caught up with five more of my friends and just enjoyed some badly needed downtime; (several more local pals were posting FB photos of their trips to Paris and Prague.)

Like most of my visits, it was filled with reminders of my history here. One of the party guests knew me as a baby (!) and hadn’t seen me since. Another knew me from fifth grade at a Toronto girls’ school. And I worked with yet another at Canadian Press — in January 1982.

I slept in, visited with my hosts and binge-watched The Alienist. Shopped at my favorite store, Gravity Pope. Ate a few good meals.

What a gift to detach from work and all things medical for a while!

A few images…

 

IMG_2874

Every Toronto summer ends with the Canadian National Exhibition, aka The Ex, which closes on Labor Day. I hadn’t been in about eight or nine years, met a good friend there and wandered. But it’s gotten stupidly expensive ($20 admission alone) and too commercial for my taste.

 

IMG_2839

My friend’s party had such delicious food — ribs and salmon and corn and caprese salad and lots of wine and this amazing pavlova for dessert, made by one of his daughters. Yum!

 

IMG_2879

It’s trendy as hell, but a good spot for a cold beer and lunch on a scorchingly hot day.

 

IMG_2878

I’m total and unrepentant fan of all things aviation related, so the CNE air show was so so so cool!  It was a little terrifying to hear the thundering of jets flying low over downtown, but what skills!

A summer of reckoning

 

rhiney

By Caitlin Kelly

 

I’m so ready for this summer to end!

 

Not being a beach person, I don’t spend the year eagerly awaiting summer, as many of our friends do.

And this summer has felt like a series of waves smashing us both in the face:

— Husband now using insulin and adjusting to all that it entails

— My breast cancer diagnosis right around my June 6 birthday

— The ensuing tests, procedures and appointments that have consumed precious days of lost work/income since my husband and I are both wholly freelance, with no paid time off that we don’t fund ourselves. (Thank God for savings.)

— Multiple $100 co-pays to have some of these tests and procedures.

— An infection in my breast, six weeks post-op. Extremely painful, but resolved. Breasts are such sensitive things!

— Two friends widowed the same week, a friend’s young adult daughter dying and the sudden and shocking death of a former colleague and friend.

— Far too many days shuttered indoors with AC blasting, curtains drawn, escaping 90+ degree heat

— Far too many days with torrential rain

OK, what’s been good?!

 

— Meeting a new Canadian-in-the-States friend, a fellow writer living in Oakland, CA and his husband who came to NYC and joined us for dinner.

— The thoughtful gift of a classic Hermes silk scarf from a friend; it belonged to her mother, who died last year and was a dear friend of ours.

— So many loving cards, emails, flowers and phone calls from friends worldwide as I adjust to a new reality.

— Blowing insane money on a designer handbag, (on sale, dammit!) after my diagnosis

 

IMG_2190(1)

 

 

— Jose made us gorgeous new wooden planters and the brilliant orange marigolds and fragrant lavender have been amazing. I love watching bees dive into the salvia each morning.

— Discovering how multi-talented my friends are, both journalists like me, one of whom made us home-made soap, the other really delicious home-made bread. I love all things artisanal and am in awe of such colonial skill.

— Snagging a potentially very good new freelance opportunity after seeing an editor participating in a Twitter chat. We met in NYC for lemonade and hit it off.

 

How’s your summer been?

Highs?

Lows?

Dreaming of a house…

IMG_2296

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?

IMG_0886

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?