Social triage

caitlin team

I miss these amazing women — the team at my radiation clinic. This was Nov. 15, 2018, my final day of treatment.

 

By Caitlin Kelly

I’ve written a lot here about trying to find community and loneliness.

But social triage is also  — as we say — “a thing.”

Just as ER and conflict medical staff triage patients into: will die, might die, treat first, we tend to decide who’s going to be closest to us and to which friends, or family, we’ll devote the bulk of whatever time and affection we can spare.

I was diagnosed in late May 2018 with very early-stage breast cancer and am, thankfully, fine. But it has, as serious illness tends to do, made much clearer to me who I most want in my life and who, now, I really don’t.

(Others have made the same decision about me — three former friendships died a long time ago. It happens.)

 

 

IMG_1486

So who are the people I now want closest and treasure most?

 

— We laugh a lot.

— We make consistent and concerted efforts to see one another face to face, even if only by Skype across an ocean.

— Regular long phone conversations — texts and emojis are just not enough.

— Regular play dates: coffee, lunch, a museum or show.

— Some have accompanied me to medical appointments, their mere presence a tremendous comfort.

— Months may go by without much contact, but we trust one another’s affection and loyalty to know that life gets crazy and we will re-connect.

— We send one another little gifts or cards just because we can.

— They really understand that life can be frightening, and show compassion for fear, anxiety and tears. They don’t flee when times are difficult.

 

 

market 04

Those left behind?

 

— It’s always all about them. They don’t even draw breath before launching into a 20-minute monologue.

— They never simply ask “How are you doing?”

— So much drrrrrraaaaaaaama! Exhausting.

— People who radiate haste and anxiety. Much as I have compassion for them, I stay far away. I have enough anxiety of my own.

— People with no sense of perspective, who whine and complain about issues that are for them enormous — but which in the larger scheme of things are minor and easily resolved.

— People who never initiate contact but wait for me to jump-start every meeting.

— People unable to know how much their own challenges are already softened by the privileges of good health and enough income.

 

Have you become more selective about your friendships?

Bath time!

Bathtub02
Those little mosaic tiles we bought in Paris and shipped home

 

By Caitlin Kelly

Too funny.

Turns out bathing is the new black, according to The New York Times Style section:

“In the past two years we have seen bath time taking off,” said Alisha Ramos, the publisher of Girls’ Night In, an online newsletter aimed at 25-to-34-year-olds seeking a respite from overcharged lives. For her followers and a widening circle of contemporaries, the bath is a place to unplug, to indulge in the ultimate luxury: taking time for oneself.

When we renovated our minuscule — 35 square foot — only bathroom — the deepest tub I could find was top of mind. It’s 21 inches deep, takes a good 20 minutes-plus to fill and is annoying as hell to clean.

But oooooohhhhhhhh. The luxury of having every inch covered by warm water, especially on cold, windy winter days.

I buy cheap-o bath oil and toss in drops of scented oils: cinnamon, eucalyptus, peppermint. Or my favorite product ever, Algemarin, a German product which my granny used to use, which turns the water a deep blue and smells divine.

I know showers are more efficient, but — as anyone who reads this blog knows already — efficiency is not my highest goal. Pleasure, yes. Our building’s water pressure is lousy, so a shower is also no great source of enjoyment.

I don’t stay in the tub for hours, usually maybe 15 minutes at most.

I designed our bathroom to look and feel like a spa somewhere in the Middle East, splurging on gorgeous tile I shipped home from Paris, choosing a strong mustard Farrow & Ball color for the walls and adding metal touches like the copper jug I bought in Istanbul, a copper handmade sink we bought in Mexico for $30, ($1,000 here), a small brass bucket to hold things like toothpaste and floss and a metalwork bowl my father brought home from Jerusalem.

The curved wooden vanity, (which I also designed and had custom-made), floats above the floor to make cleaning easier.

I also planned for safety and comfort and made sure the edge of the tub is a wide, smooth piece of marble, perfect for sitting on comfortably when ill or post-surgery.

One of the happiest moments of my life was on a bitterly cold winter’s day in Paris, visiting one of the city’s many old-school hammams, spending the day wet and steamy, then swaddled tightly in crisp white sheets, then sipping mint tea.

A schmancy spa has nothing on an old-school hammam, crowded and noisy and a real taste of normal life for even middle-class Parisians; my last visit to one, in the 18th. arrondissement, had me slipping across a marble slab with dozens of naked women, clustered like seals.

Quel souvenir!

 

Are you a bath person?

Where will love take you?

 

L1010282

Atwater Market, in Montreal, where I met my first husband

 

 

By Caitlin Kelly

My mother was 17 — a headstrong American beauty freshly graduated from her prep school. My father was then 23, a handsome sailor from Vancouver painting in the south of France, supported by his father.

They met, bien sur!, in a little village on the Cote d’Azur at a party and that was that. My mother, desperate to flee life with her wealthy mother who kept marrying and divorcing (six times, maybe eight?), returned to New York City and married my father at the enormous Romanesque Park Avenue cathedral of St. Bartholomew. I used to walk past it on the way to one of my Manhattan journalism jobs, aware it was partially responsible for my even being in New York.

They moved back to Vancouver — a provincial backwater in the early 50s —  but they had fun: he opened an art gallery and she modeled. They moved to London for three years after I was born; (he made films for the BBC) then to Toronto, finally divorcing there, where I grew up.

I wanted to get to New York and I also wanted to marry, but I couldn’t quite imagine how either of those things would happen. I couldn’t picture a Canadian man willing and legally able to move to New York.

 

L1010197

Montreal

 

Living in Montreal in the 1980s, working as a reporter for the Montreal Gazette, I met my first husband — also a party guest at my housewarming. He was an American from New Jersey, in his final year of medical school at McGill.

We spent seven years together in New Hampshire and New York; I followed him to the U.S. in 1988, legally able to do so thanks to my mother’s citizenship.

My mother and I basically switched lives — I to live in a town 25 miles north of her birthplace, New York City, and she living 25 miles north of Vancouver, my birthplace.

I also longed to better understand the American side of my family, which included a rancher, an ambassador, a bullfighter and an archeologist, and the drive and ambition that led my paternal great-grandfather to develop a Chicago landmark, still there, the North American Building. Thanks to him, I knew the names of downtown Chicago streets as well as those of my native Toronto.

 

IMG_0873

The Met Opera. New York City. I do love the elegance!

 

My mother, politically liberal, was much happier in Canada than in the sharp-elbowed U.S. Without a college degree, she also couldn’t compete effectively for good jobs; luckily for her, she inherited enough money she never had to.

Jose, my second/current husband, and I met in the year 2000 — when I wrote a story for a women’s magazine about a then new trend called on-line dating; my profile placed on aol.com drew 200+ replies from around the world but he lived within the desired radius of 35 miles.

We were wondering the other day how our lives would have turned out had we never met, which seems happily unimaginable to us now, all these years later.

What if he’d gone back to Denver, a city he loved?

What if I’d returned after my divorce to Canada or to France?

What if?

What if?

 

IMG_2952

Northern Ontario, a landscape I love and miss

 

I’m always intrigued by people who move very far from their homes for love.

It is a huge leap of faith — as getting divorced in another country can be really expensive and lonely and confusing.

It seems normal in our circles, peripatetic journalists and photographers. One friend became the “trailing spouse” and follows his wife to every State Department posting. I have a friend in London, recently widowed, who met her American husband while reporting in Israel. A couple we know — he’s French, she’s American — met (of course) while both were were working as journalists in Tokyo.

 

Have you ever moved a long distance, even to another country, for love?

Did it end happily?

 

Too many screens?

IMG_3986

At least these screens were used at a recent photo conference — in a room filled with other people!

 

By Caitlin Kelly

And yet, here we are again!

A recent New York Times piece on how the wealthy eschew screen time while the rest of us poor suckers spend all our time on them:

Life for anyone but the very rich — the physical experience of learning, living and dying — is increasingly mediated by screens.

Not only are screens themselves cheap to make, but they also make things cheaper. Any place that can fit a screen in (classrooms, hospitals, airports, restaurants) can cut costs. And any activity that can happen on a screen becomes cheaper. The texture of life, the tactile experience, is becoming smooth glass.

Which is a terrible paradox.

 

Without a screen, your phone or computer, I couldn’t be communicating right now with you and with readers arriving at this blog (!) from the most unlikely of places — New Zealand, Nepal, Romania, Zimbabwe, VietNam, Yemen, South Africa.

Without a screen, I wouldn’t be earning our monthly living costs by reading on-line, setting up interviews by email then writing on a laptop and hitting send.

Without a screen, I couldn’t use Skype to chat with friends, and coaching fellow writers and doing PR strategy, with those living outside my town.

 

And yet…I get lonely and bored if all my interactions are thus mediated.

I get out into nature.

I regularly meet friends for a meal or a coffee.

We throw dinner parties.

Church, occasionally.

A new-to-me weekly meditation group of women.

 

fullsizerender4

 

I host an annual women’s tea party, using an early 19th. century tea-set.

I go to the gym at least three times a week, as much to be social in spin class and afterward as to exercise.

 

Here’s a new book I’m eager to read, written by Mark Boyle,  a British man who has gone back to living alone an 18th century rural life there since 2016, eschewing all technology.

Here’s a recent piece by him in The Guardian:

 

This way of life is often described as “the simple life”. Looking at it head-on, it’s far from simple. This life is actually quite complex, made up of a thousand small, simple things. By comparison, my old urban life was quite simple, made up of a thousand small, complex things. I found industrial life too simple, and thus repetitive and boring. With all of its apps, switches, electronic entertainment, power tools, websites, devices, comforts and conveniences, there was almost nothing left for me to do for myself, except that one thing that earned me the cash to buy my other needs and wants. So as Kirkpatrick Sale once wrote in Human Scale, my wish became “to complexify, not simplify”.

 

 

How about you?

Are you trying to lessen your screen time these days?

Coping with fragility

 

 

IMG_2217

 

By Caitlin Kelly

What a concept.

I’ve spent most of my life — basically until 2018 — behaving in ways that start with the letter B: bold, brazen, brash, ballsy, bumptious.

I was, or looked, fearless. At 25, I jumped into a truck in Perpignan with a French driver 10 years my senior and spent eight (amazing!) days crossing southern Europe to Istanbul with him, for a story. I’ve interviewed people across the U.S. who own a lot of guns. Have traveled alone in some funky places.

Today?

Not so much.

My health, as far as we know, is fine — after completing 20 days’ radiation treatment November 15, 2018 for very early stage breast cancer, no chemo — I’m now taking medication for five years.

But I feel so much more fragile.

Like, oh yeah, I can be broken and weak, My body can/did surprise me and not in a good way.

It’s a challenge to manage fragility — as anyone (not me) who has had and cared for very small children or very old/ill people or animals.

We live in a culture of haste and acquisition and competition and relentless shows of strength and prowess. There’s little useful discussion of how to be slow and gentle and take very good care of ourselves and others. The lack of compassionate American public policy makes brutally clear that being ill and “unproductive” are taboo.

So we don’t talk much publicly about what it’s like to be fragile and to navigate life and work and friendship and family when we feel like wet bits of paper instead of big strong ferocious creatures.

I don’t like feeling vulnerable. I suspect others don’t like that feeling too much at all.

But my new MO is to tell people —- hey, I just can’t do X right now. I don’t explain. I just withdraw from demands, social and professional, even for a few hours or days until I can bring my A game and respond fully.

I grew up in a family that had little interest in my times of need and weakness and fragility — so I learned to suppress and ignore and deny those feelings.

But those needs were always there and are now, Jaws-like, re-surfacing with some serious insistence.

Therapy helps.

Telling good friends helps.

But it’s a process.

 

L1000742

Why “Queer Eye” makes me cry

L1000708

Demons, be gone!

 

By Caitlin Kelly

We  live — in the U.S. anyway — in such cruel times. Money is tight for far too many and compassion for those struggling in increasingly short supply. It can feel overwhelming and dis-spiriting to even glance at the news: racism, sexual violence, terrorism, etc.

Which is why the Netflix reality TV show “Queer Eye” is such a treat, now in its third season.

It features five gay men — Antoni Porowski (food expert — and fellow Canadian), Bobby Berk (decorator), Jonathan van Ness (grooming), Tan France (fashion) and Karamo Brown (culture.) If you haven’t seen it, I urge you to check it out.

In every show, the fab five — setting out in a shiny black minivan — choose a man or woman (in one case, a pair of African-American sisters whose barbecue shack is a local legend) to help pull together their life, whether a cramped kitchen, shredded self-confidence or someone just feeling really lost and overwhelmed.

We’ve all been there!

The men are funny, loving, insightful and there to offer the soul balm everyone needs so desperately — empathy, compassion, wisdom, advice, hugs and a lot of kind laughter. Just watching them swing into action is inspiring. Reality TV can be gross, but this feels lovely.

We watched a few episodes this week and one featuring Jess, a 23-year-old African American lesbian living in Lawrence, Kansas, was astonishing. She was adopted — and thrown out by her conservative Christian parents when she came out as gay at 16. She had lost touch with her sister and baby niece. Working as a waitress, she struggled with a host of challenges — but with energy and good spirits.

When the Fab Five show up, Jess is trying to figure out how to be fully who she really is — not uncommon at 23 — with no parental support or love. Karamo, 38, who worked for 10 years as a social worker, is of tremendous help to her, both as a gay American but also an African-American; their scenes together are really powerful.

I love Tan, whose is of Punjabi Pakistani descent — and (!?) speaks with a thick Yorkshire accent.

If you’re simply craving some feel-good entertainment, with a healthy side dose of inspiration, grab the tissues and settle down with me on the sofa!

A backpack filled with stones

IMG_1486

 

By Caitlin Kelly

Had a conversation this week with a friend facing some serious health stuff. She’s not getting the support she needs and someone who should be there for her is instead adding to her very considerable stress by not being useful and making needed changes.

No one wants a backpack filled with stones.

I won’t be more specific but it was clear to me — as someone who’s had health issues (that oh-so-American euphemism for cancer) since June 2018 — that the minute you get a shitty diagnosis (or lose your job or face the loss of a loved one), your life is now weighted down in ways that may appear invisible to others but are very, very heavy and something you (mostly) alone are carrying.

Shame — especially in the U.S. where being “unproductive”, ill and needy is somehow taboo — adds yet another damn boulder.

Unless you can drop the backpack — and ask for help and count on getting it — having to listen to anything stupid, thoughtless or callous (and there’s plenty of it out there, from friends, family and medical staff) only adds another few stones.

No one wants that pack.

No one wants to carry it, sometimes for months or even years.

In tough times, their pack is already filled with grief and fear and physical pain and exhaustion and guilt and anxiety.

Carrying it isn’t much of a choice, even as others call you “brave” and “tough” and call out “you can fight this.”

If you know someone facing tough times, please do anything you possibly can to lighten their load.

Diminish that pack.

 

Do not add one more stone.

 

It’s called growing up

IMG_2782

Been standing on my own two feet for a long, long time

 

By Caitlin Kelly

I read this story and wanted to weep….at how crazy this is:

Bribing SAT proctors. Fabricating students’ athletic credentials. Paying off college officials. The actions that some wealthy [American] parents were charged with Tuesday — to secure their children a spot at elite colleges — are illegal and scandalous. But they’re part of a broader pattern, albeit on the extreme end of the continuum: parents’ willingness to do anything it takes to help their grown children succeed.

As college has become more competitive and young adults’ economic prospects less assured, parents have begun spending much more time and money on their children — including well after they turn 18. Modern parenting typically remains hands-on, and gets more expensive, when children become young adults, according to a new survey by Morning Consult for The New York Times.

A significant share of parents, across income levels, say they’re involved in their adult children’s daily lives. That includes making doctor’s appointments, reminding them of school and other deadlines, and offering advice on romantic life, found the survey, which was of a nationally representative sample of 1,508 people ages 18 to 28 and 1,136 parents of people that age. More than half of parents give their adult children some form of monthly financial assistance.

 

I often wonder how I might have turned out if this sort of behavior was normal in my life.

Here’s my college experience:

— Lived at home in Toronto with father and his girlfriend, 13 years my senior, for my freshman year. No additional responsibilities, got terrific grades.

— In November of sophomore year, father announces I need to move out and find a place to live as they are selling the house to live on a boat in the Mediterranean. This is many decades before email or cellphones.

— I get $350 a month from my grandmother to live on. This pays my rent on a studio apartment ($160/month, terrible neighborhood), tuition ($660/year), food, phone and answering service, books. Everything, basically. The monthly income from my maternal grandmother wasn’t enough so I started freelancing at the age of 19 to supplement it.

— My mother was traveling the world alone for years, also far far away. I saw her maybe once a year when she flew me to wherever she was. Sort of fun, mostly weird.

— During my university years, I lived alone, was attacked in my apartment while taking a bath, moved, moved again, suffered some health issues, started writing for national magazines. And attended and graduated from the most demanding  and least nurturing (53,000 students) school in Canada.

— In those three years, I had no relatives to check in on me. Just friends. That established a lifelong pattern for me; friends as family.

 

So, you know, this kind of intense parenting strikes me as completely nuts.

 

The only reason I was able to get people twice my age to give me ongoing well-paid assignments was being responsible, meeting deadlines, delivering excellence. Was I mature enough to handle all this alone? Well, I had to be. I had no choice.

The New York Times quotes a survey finding that 74 percent of American parents are making medical appointments for their college-age children, the same percentage reminding them not to miss deadlines for tests and classwork.

I mostly loved my independence in those years. I dated all the wrong boys, made some great friendships, wrote a lot for our weekly student newspaper, led a student exchange with UNC-Chapel Hill that was life-changingly great. Jump-started my career.

Neither parent attended my graduation.

 

What do you think of this relentless parenting?

 

Do you do it?

 

Have you experienced it?

Why (worship) work?

IMG_2082

Do you ever just sloooooooow down and savor life? Not just work?

 

By Caitlin Kelly

A recent story in The Atlantic tries to unpack why Americans are so obsessed with work:

Workism is among the most potent of the new religions competing for congregants.

What is workism? It is the belief that work is not only necessary to economic production, but also the centerpiece of one’s identity and life’s purpose; and the belief that any policy to promote human welfare must always encourage more work.

Homo industrious is not new to the American landscape. The American dream—that hoary mythology that hard work always guarantees upward mobility—has for more than a century made the U.S. obsessed with material success and the exhaustive striving required to earn it.

No large country in the world as productive as the United States averages more hours of work a year. And the gap between the U.S. and other countries is growing. Between 1950 and 2012, annual hours worked per employee fell by about 40 percent in Germany and the Netherlands—but by only 10 percent in the United States. Americans “work longer hours, have shorter vacations, get less in unemployment, disability, and retirement benefits, and retire later, than people in comparably rich societies,” wrote Samuel P. Huntington in his 2005 book Who Are We?: The Challenges to America’s National Identity.

Working in a free-market, winner-take-all capitalist country like the U.S. is…instructive if you’ve lived in any other country that treats workers as slightly more than fuel. I grew up in Canada, ages 5 to 30, and spent a year in France at 25, so I have experienced (and enjoyed) life and work in two other nations that actually provide social safety nets, paid vacation and even paid maternal leave.

To arrive in 21st. century American work culture is to feel one’s been catapulted back to some feudal era — except even serfs got something. Women are still fighting every day for better wages. Age discrimination is rampant. Unions are the smallest and weakest in a century.

Wages remain stagnant for many of us despite record corporate profits.

IMG_1543

Time….or money? If you want more private time, it’s likely to cost you income

 

Yet Americans are exhorted daily to work harder! Be more productive! Longer hours!

If you’re struggling financially — as many are — work is what you have to do, and a lot of it to just survive. But once you’re past survival, then what? Oh, right. Work more, because…

Because it’s the only identity many Americans are truly comfortable taking pride in.

Being a parent? Good luck with that! A fortune in childcare, daycare and skyrocketing higher education costs. Hobbies? Who’s got time? Private passion projects? Quick, turn them into financially profitable side hustles.

Being creative artistically or musically? Quick, get an Etsy site or YouTube channel. Monetize every breath!

When I recently announced on Facebook that I’d be addressing a photography conference — and had begun my career as a shooter — one friend expressed (admiring) astonishment that I had “another skill set.”

I have plenty! But this is so deeply unAmerican. Every thought, action, book, conference,meeting must — de facto — provide financial profit to someone or, it seems, you’re just wasting time.

How about:

Friendship?

Inspiration?

Connection?

Learning?

Pleasure?

 

American work culture leaves no room, no time and — most toxic and crucial — no respect for those things. Patting your dog or making a fantastic meal for your wife or spending two hours consoling a heartbroken friend?

No economic value!

Here’s a beautiful piece on Quartz about the value of slowly and carefully building a community, not just a bank balance:

 

In seeing his community, I became acutely aware of the feeling that I did not have my own. I had friends and a loving family. But as Annie Dillard wrote, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” And I spent my days focused on optimizing myself: Endlessly working and improving, on a permanent quest to do as much as possible in the unforgiving confines of 24 hours. It was the only way I knew how to be. Compete. Excel. Win.

I had never considered there might be a cost to a life of high-octane, high-reward competition.

 

I spent my own 20s making myself and many people around me nuts with my white-hot ambition and professional drive. By 30 I was fried. Since then, I’ve worked to live, amassing enough money to pay for the things we need (including retirement) — but also taking as much vacation as we can afford. Some years that’s a few months’ worth, albeit in two or 3-week increments.

Even that’s considered weird since even many Americans who get paid vacation are too scared to actually use it (OMG you’re….relaxing?!) or too broke to go anywhere.

Nor do I work nights and weekends or when we go away to rest and recharge.

I know most of my competitors do. I also know how tired and resentful they are.

 

Do you live to work?

Why?

When estrangement feels right

IMG_1486

It’s not an easy decision to make

 

By Caitlin Kelly

It’s still a social taboo, to cut off contact with a parent or child and/or a sibling, sometimes for months or years, and sometimes forever.

Divorce is now almost banal in many cultures — but not estrangement from your family of origin, held up in most cultures as sacrosanct, the place they have to, and always will, take you in.

But that’s not true for many people, and I’m one of them.

My mother and I gave up our strained relationship in 2010 — 2011? — and while I send an annual Christmas card and letter, no reply. Having run through a large inheritance, she lives in a charity nursing home a seven hour flight away. I’m her only child, but a local woman my age made sure to be cruel to me, and triumphantly replace me.

The details are too tedious, and yes it hurts sometimes, but how much energy can you keep wasting on a relationship? Alcoholism and poorly managed mental illness, both in my mother, destroy many relationships. If one person isn’t willing to work with the other toward a tenable relationship, it ends.

And the break may come when things don’t look that bad to an outsider — but there’s been one final straw and decades of forbearance just explode. With the agency of adulthood, you’re done.

I recently had yet another fraught phone encounter with my father, one of too many over the decades. We’ve had years when we simply don’t speak or visit.

There are calm and affectionate periods when it all looks like it will be OK….and then it’s not.

Again.

 

IMG_2878

When every encounter feels like incoming warfare, flee!

 

I know why. I’ve read books and done therapy.

It’s difficult to dismiss your parents for good. They’re the only ones we get. As it is, one of my two half-brothers cut me off 11 years ago and didn’t invite us to his recent lavish wedding. (There are four adult children in our “family” — from four women, two wives, two affairs. It’s no Hallmark card.)

The damage that prolonged estrangement, if you wish otherwise, can inflict on one’s self-confidence is considerable — but no matter if you’re at midlife, being ignored or subjected to abusive language and anger are also corrosive and toxic.

I recently read a truly harrowing book whose author, badly abused for many years (emotionally) by her parents and siblings, also chose to cut them off — Tara Westover, author of the best-seller Educated. 

She grew up in rural Idaho and now lives in England.

I actually found her book re-traumatizing, between her family’s relentless verbal (and often physical) abuse, gaslighting and her unwillingness or inability to break free from all of it.

 

Have you ever been estranged from your family?

Did you resolve it?