Living with very old things

By Caitlin Kelly

No, not me or Jose!

A decade ago my mother had to suddenly sell all her belongings and go into a nursing home, and into a small room. She was able to take a few pieces of art but lost a lot of it to auction.

I shipped home, across a border and country, a pair of her early textiles, framed. I have no idea where she bought them or when or if my grandmother had owned them. I wish I’d asked when we were still cordial, but of course I didn’t.

I’m a massive fan of textiles, old and new, and always wondered what these two pieces were — and I follow a serious antique textiles dealer in Britain on Instagram. I recently asked her if these were what I suspected — 17th century Italian.

They are!

Wow.

I’m now wildly fantasizing who used them, and when and where and for what purpose. They are velvet and gold thread and the centerpiece, I believe, is linen.

Italy in the 1600s was quite the place…1.7 million Italians died of plague in the first years of that century. In 1656 around 300,000 people in Naples, this was half the population of Naples at that time….Good God, why is this so awfully familiar?!

We own a few other quite old objects, which have been gifts or bought at auction or antique stores or shows. I know some people have zero interest in old stuff or owning old stuff, but I really love living with, enjoying and using lovely and material bits of history.

I find it extraordinary to tap away on a laptop on top of a gate-leg oak table, probably British, someone made in the 18th century. Ours looks almost exactly like this one, without a drawer.

The craftsmanship is amazing — finely curved edges, smoothly fitted leaves and legs. My father gave it to us a few years ago and I love it. It easily seats four, six at a pinch.

Then there’s a tiny teacup, hand-painted. I love its designs — also very unusual, and someone said, maybe made for the Islamic market. I’ve studied ceramics and silver and furniture and textiles because they fascinate me, so when I spot something potentially that’s very early (for me, anything 18th or 17th century) — and undervalued — I know what it is!

Like this 18th century teapot, missing a lid — $3.50 in an upstate NY junk shop; if it had a lid, it would sell for about $1,000.

The teapot on the table…

If I could own something really ancient, it might be a piece of Greek, Roman or Middle Eastern sculpture or art.

Do really old pieces interest you?

More simple pleasures

By Caitlin Kelly

With so many of our normal activities now too dangerous, what’s left?

Lots!

Gorgeous fall light, low and slanting

Peter Lorre in The Maltese Falcon

Bingeing great TV shows and movies

Lying under the duvet listening to the radio

Making butternut squash soup and apple crumble

Long phone calls with old friends

Planning your Christmas card list

Cosy new pajamas and slippers

A new wall or room color!

Farrow & Ball’s most recent fandeck

Shelter magazines to dream by

Fresh pillowcases

Bouquets in every room

Late afternoon naps

Choosing new recipes to try

If you have art or design reference books, leafing through them and enjoying the visuals

A bowl of tangerines

Drinking your tea or coffee from a favorite mug or lovely cup and saucer

A warm croissant with raspberry jam

Sitting alone in silence, every day

Waking up, dining and going to sleep by candlelight

A pot of tea

Patting your dog or cat or maybe even your tiny albino hedgehog

Playing cards with your sweetie

Hugging your kid(s)

A Kit Kat!

And yours?

Home for the holidays?

By Caitlin Kelly

Not for me!

I haven’t been back to my native Canada since summer 2019, when I was reporting a major story and attended a northern Ontario conference.

My father lives alone in rural Ontario; at 91 he has to be very careful about exposure to the virus, even though he’s in pretty good health. If I tried to go up, I’d face a two-week quarantine, so I’ve chosen not to.

The pandemic has killed almost 250,000 Americans and infected millions worldwide.

In the U.S. Thanksgiving is a huge event for many people, the one holiday that gets people to travel far and wide to celebrate with family or friends.

This year?

It’s just too dangerous!

We’ll be at home, just the two of us, but that’s been our norm for many years, as Jose’s family all live very long drives away from us and his closest sister heads further south to visit her own adult children.

Yet many Americans — as usual — insist they’ll host as many people as they like and the virus is a hoax and all those morgue trucks full of COVID corpses are…some sort of illusion.

How about you?

Do you have Thanksgiving plans?

What about Hannukah or Eid or Kwanzaa or Christmas?

Why EQ beats IQ

Are you someone eager to start a fire — to destroy?

Or to comfort?

By Caitlin Kelly

I found this story interesting — a list of 19 things emotionally intelligent people do.

Here are some of the ones that really resonate for me:

2. They pause.

Emotionally intelligent people realize that emotions are fleeting, and that often making impulsive decisions leads to regrets. Therefore, they try to pause and think before speaking or acting—especially when they find themselves in an emotionally charged moment.

In short, their goal is to never make a permanent decision based on a temporary emotion.

Boy, does this one ring true!

How many of us can easily destroy a friendship, relationship, marriage or job with something snapped or shouted in anger?

Even if it doesn’t end it, it can cause serious damage.

The key word for me here is temporary — if you’re consistently miserable, time for a change.

7. They’re authentic.

Those with high emotional intelligence realize authenticity doesn’t mean sharing everything about yourself, to everyone, all of the time.

Rather, they endeavor to always say what they mean, mean what they say, and stick to their values and principles above all.

I think about this a lot with my social media presence, here and on Twitter, where I spend (too) much of my time in these lonely, isolated stay-at-home pandemic days.

As I said to a friend, a very senior level journalist, I may be playful and revealing on social media — but never careless. Whatever I decide to reveal publicly, it’s actually who I really am and expressing how I truly feel and I do that know anyone, anywhere can see it — including future clients.

15. They help others.

One of the best ways to inspire someone is to help them.

By extending a supportive hand, emotionally intelligent people help others to become the best version of themselves.

I’m no Pollyanna, but one of the things I do consistently — like every day or at least every week — is try to help others.

Recently, I introduced a writer in Nashville to one in London, to help her work on a high-level, potentially career-making story. A student whose class I addressed a few weeks ago has become a fairly regular email correspondent.

I work as a journalist, a challenging business that demands decent intellectual ability (not nearly as much as you’d hope) and, ideally, real emotional intelligence — as one of the 19 keys is empathy.

We recently caught up with a friend who’s won a lot of journalism awards and really is a fantastic writer and reporter. While writers love to brag about how much they earn or what awards they’ve won — we so rarely talk about how we do our reporting.

How we get total strangers to trust us with their stories.

Only empathy gets us there, she agreed.

I have no kids and my only niece and nephew are twins born in May 2020 to the brother who refuses to have any relationship with me — for 13 years.

He’s 40 and someone who’s spent his lifetime, since winning major awards in his teens, preening in front of everyone that he is super smart.

I find him one of the least emotionally intelligent people I’ve ever met, and not just because he dislikes me.

Because he places all his value on being a tedious “intellectual”, determined to out-argue everyone on every topic.

Intelligence isn’t something you beat people to death with.

That’s insecurity.

Women and money

One place I do love to splurge — Via Carota in NYC

By Caitlin Kelly

This story surprised me, that millennial women are less likely to handle their own finances than us Boomers:

A study published in June by the Swiss banking group UBS underscored that point. It found that even the most educated and high-achieving millennial women were not as involved as their husbands in long-term financial decision making.

In fact, millennial women — part of a generation thought to have pushed for open-mindedness about gender roles — exhibited less financial independence than boomer women did. Among millennial women living with male partners, 54 percent said they deferred to their partners for long-term financial planning rather than sharing that responsibility or taking the lead themselves, compared with 39 percent of boomer women, according to the study, which surveyed 1,320 women with at least $250,000 in investable assets.

This — initially — made sense to me:

Sallie Krawcheck, chief executive and co-founder of Ellevest, an investment platform for women, said millennials might not have realized that if they do not have financial equality, they do not have independence.

“Younger women haven’t had as many hard-won lessons,” she said.

But I know several millennial women (ages 23 to 28 in 2019) and they’ve faced a difficult economy and massive student debt, both of which can make anyone fearful of money matters.

The reason the women surveyed for not handling more of the money offered was their assumption that their husbands knew more.

This is madness!

The ability to manage money well — whether debt or investments — isn’t a male skill. I’ve seen this in my marriage with Jose, who did not grow up in a wealthy family, while my family of origin (at the grandparents’ level) had some serious money.

So I was fortunate at 19 to have a fat $350/month (thanks to my maternal grandmother) I had to make sense of and, throughout three years of full-time university, use for all my costs, including living alone in a major city.

Living on $350 a month was hardly luxury — my rent consumed 50 percent of it.

So I learned young to hustle hard for more income, through freelance writing and photography assignments.

I still remember what clothes I owned then, bought new, but very few of them and nothing as shiny as my live-at-home fellow students.

Jose and I have been able, without the additional costs of raising children or carrying student debt, to accumulate a decent amount of savings, enough that we really do have to pay attention.

He got a buyout package when he left The New York Times in 2015 and it’s our job to keep it safe and grow it when possible as we’re not going to get hired into another well-paid full-time job again, and never again enjoy job-subsidized health insurance — thanks to age discrimination.

So the pressure’s on to be smart and savvy.

I read the Financial Times every day. It’s really written for the professional experts who work in capital markets in London, New York, Hong Kong — not for me! But I learn a lot and keep an eye on companies worth investing in. If you refuse to pay attention to the global economy you’ll always be surprised by what happens.

I’ve read a few financial self-help books — the best takeaway? Don’t put your money anywhere that you just don’t understand! For me, that’s ETFs. They’ve been explained to me several times but my brain just freezes so I stick to what I know — a wide variety of mutual funds and a few individual equities (i.e. stocks.) We have no bonds at the moment.

If you’re willing and able to invest you do need to learn some lingo:

— asset allocation (where you invest)

— diversification (making a range of different investment choices to balance out the risk of individual ones failing)

— capital (i.e. money!)

That’s just a super bare bones start!

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

Even if you’ve got some savings in a mutual fund, have you checked how it’s doing? Do you know the top 10 holdings? I was stunned — a few years ago — to see how dominant China was even then.

Do you know what a fiduciary is? They’re the only people whose financial advice you should heed.

I also learned the hard way never to play ostrich with how your money is doing — and lost about $11,000 that way on an investment my first husband made. I was an utter fool, too scared to open the envelopes they sent, and discovered that my own money (already saved) had been used to keep paying the company every month after I lost my full-time job and could not get another.

Back when, like these women, I assumed he knew better than I.


He didn’t.

The power of silence

By Caitlin Kelly

There are only two places I’ve been, so far, where I was surrounded by utter silence — inside the Grand Canyon and on a friend’s ranch in New Mexico, a place so quiet I could hear myself digesting.

Some cultures revere silence and know how much we all need it. The United States isn’t one! People love to talktalktalktalktalktalk and will spill what sound like the most intimate secrets in a quick conversation with a stranger. It’s exhausting and disorienting if you come to the country from a more discreet, reticent culture.

And silence?

Terrifying!

Jose and I did a seven day silent Buddhist retreat in the summer of 2011 a month or so before we married. There were 75 people of all ages and it was fascinating to be surrounded by people with whom not a word was exchanged until the final Saturday evening, when we “broke silence” and found out, verbally, who everyone was.

I admit, we had whispered occasionally in our shared monastic bedroom but mostly relied on Post-It notes to communicate.

I was shocked to see participants walking through the woods — on their cellphones — or leaving in their cars to head into town for…talking?

I blogged about it every day and found the experience healing and insightful. Talking and listening is really really tiring! If you actually pay attention to others, this consumes a lot of energy.

Not talking is very freeing.

Silence imposes discipline.

It forces you into your own head, a place many prefer to avoid.

I was fascinated, when I tell people I did seven days without speaking, (we could ask questions of the teachers once a day), they all said: “I could never do that!”

And I would reply….why not?

Here’s an interesting NYT story about staying silent at breakfast:

Eating in silence is an ancient practice with roots in many monastic communities. “Buddhists, Celtic Mystics, Sufis, Vedic Mystics,” said Ginny Wholley, a teacher at the UMass Memorial Health Care Center for Mindfulness. “Everyone has a component of silence that is an inherent part of the practice.”

Jon Kabat-Zinn founded the center where Ms. Wholley teaches in 1979 as a way to promote and study the benefits of practices like these in a secular setting — in part because it’s challenging. The concept for silent breakfast is simple enough: focus on your food, quietly, and deal with whatever thoughts come up. But it’s more difficult than it seems.

….“One of the funny things about starting a mindfulness practice is that when you quiet the external noise, you start to hear more of the internal noise. If you’re not used to this, it can be incredibly unpleasant,” said Ravi Kudesia, a mindfulness researcher and assistant professor at Temple University’s Fox School of Business. “The key idea here is that it’s better to notice the whispers before they become screams.”

Here’s a list — one of my posts from that 2011 retreat — of all the sounds I heard instead.

The new COVID-era etiquette

Only solitude is 100 percent safe

By Caitlin Kelly

Canadians have just had their Thanksgiving and Americans are already geared up for Hallowe’en and their Thanksgiving, let alone other holidays and the (large) family gatherings usually expected and anticipated.

Not us.

Jose’s parents are long gone, his nearest sister lives a four-hour drive away and my only close relative, my 91-year-old father, is in Canada, where my American husband is banned and I face a 14-day quarantine. I haven’t seen him in more than a year and haven’t crossed that border since late September 2019, when it was no big deal.

Every social gathering — let alone professional — is now so fraught with menace and fear, caution and basic human desperation for a damn hug!

This week we are joining two friends, outdoors (bringing a blanket!) for a two-person birthday celebration at a Manhattan restaurant. This weekend, we’re meeting three people, also outdoors, for lunch.

The grilling!

Who will wear a mask and when and for how long?

Who have they met with and how recently and under what circumstances?

Do we trust their friends — who we have never met?

We live in downstate New York, where daytime temperatures are still in the 60s or 70s but night-time plunging to the 40s, hardly a comfortable temperature for sitting anywhere for very long.

It’s wearying.

Our family’s first and only grandchildren are twins born in D.C. in May — and my father still hasn’t seen them. Nor have I, since my half-brother refuses all contact after a 13-year estrangement.

Millions of people have now lost loved ones to COVID and never had the chance to say good-bye.

Forget weddings and other groups….the latest NY crisis was the result of (!?) a Sweet 16 party, after a wedding in Maine had the same effect.

Our local church is now, finally, open again physically, with an indoor service (limited, it’s a small space) and outdoors at 4pm on the lawn. What I miss more than anything is belting out my favorite hymns…now a dangerous thing to do.

Yes, it’s hard and lonely to never see anyone.

Yes, it’s annoying and difficult to negotiate these times, especially with government “guidance” that shifts daily.

Needs must.

Has COVID changed your priorities?

By Caitlin Kelly

No one would ever dare suggest that a lethal virus is a good thing.

No one could have imagined that more than 200,000 Americans would already have died — and many more now suffer serious long-term effects.

But I’ve started to notice some changes in how we think and behave that, oddly and maybe shockingly, feel better for some of us — while hurting others! — than how we all lived, unquestioningly, before.

Shared and public places are much less crowded

Thousands of small businesses have closed. Disney laid off 28,000 employees and airline staff, from cleaners to veteran pilots, are out of work.

So it’s not kind to be happy about that. But if you, like me, loathe crowds of all sorts, even before they were potentially life-threatening, this is a huge relief. Our town YMCA recently finally re-opened and the pool has four lanes, open now only one swimmer at a time. (Normally, five, which I would find really uncomfortable. Having someone tap my foot to pass? NO.)

Since my beloved spin class is long gone, I’ve started doing three pool visits a week and sometimes have it all to myself. I would never have experienced our old, overcrowded Y as luxurious — but this is.

I miss such fun, silly, spontaneous moments — like meeting Canadian comedian Mike Myers at a Canadian consulate event in Manhattan

We’re being very , very selective about our relationships


In normal life, we tend to include a lot of people — face to face or through social media — who we may not especially like or admire. It’s a sort of social lubrication, necessary to get things done smoothly and efficiently, even when it’s basically pretty insincere.

In a time of terrible political division, with millions refusing to wear masks it’s really not a wise use of our limited energy to argue with anyone anywhere.

We need every ounce of it for ourselves and families and pets and true loved ones. This is a good thing! Conserve energy.

Now, certainly, seeing anyone in person means de facto assuming risk — even if you’re both masked or outdoors and well-spaced. Is this relationship worth it now?

Why?

Fewer relationships can also make for deeper emotional connection

I’ve noticed this. By the time I make a phone date or set aside time to be with someone face to face, why make chitchat? I’ve never been a fan of it, anyway, and now, with COVID’s sudden and invisible lethality/mortality so much closer to all of us, it’s no time for performative intimacy.

We’re being very clear and direct about what we need and expect of one another

I have a friend of many years, a fellow Canadian who runs her own successful business, and who has invited us many times this year to their country house. Much as I appreciate her generosity, I just won’t go and keep saying so.

I finally wrote her a very blunt — not angry — email explaining why: she interacts, for her work, with a lot of people. Many of them are very wealthy and rich New Yorkers (like many wealthy people) do what they please. So I don’t trust their choices, which may affect my friend and me and my husband.

Luckily, Jose and I are fine…This is him earlier in 2020 photographing the Pulitzers at Columbia University in New York City

Lousy relationships and marriages are under an intense new microscope when we have nowhere to flee

There are few experiences more miserable than being confined to (small) quarters for months on end with someone you really don’t like or love.

Here’s a New York Times essay about Coronavirus divorce:

In regular times, we’re always in motion, we’re always hustling, we’re always consuming, striving, climbing, struggling to get from A to B. And if you are unhappy with your relationships or your marriage, there’s a thousand ways to distract yourself: travel, work, socializing. I’m told that some people golf.

Now, all of a sudden, everyone has to be still. There’s no place to go but inward.

We’re all seriously re-examining our choices, whether about where we work, who we work with/for and how (hard) and where we really want to live now

This is huge.

City dwellers are fleeing to suburban or rural areas, desperate for outdoor physical space and the ability to distance from others. On my recent four-day visit to small-town Pennsylvania — about a 90 minute drive from Manhattan — every real estate listing I read said “pending” and a local told me her realtor friend was working 70-hour weeks.

American life — with no unions, low wages and a relentless capitalist drumbeat of DO MORE FASTER NOW — is typically really exhausting. The pandemic is now forcing millions to think, behave, work and relate differently, and for many months yet to come, whether managers or workers or the self-employed.

Some are planning to leave the United States.

Yes, it’s really hurting some people — mothers of small children especially are at their wits’ end, (one crying on-air on a recent national TV show after being fired by a boss who said “Figure it out” while managing a one year old and four year old at home.)

If nothing good comes of this massive upheaval, maybe it’s some long overdue change.

The value of solitude

By Caitlin Kelly


“Loneliness creates sadness, but solitude is quite lovely because you really start to think of — and take care of — yourself.” artist Marina Abramovic, quoted in How To Spend It magazine in the FT

If there’s one thing the pandemic has imposed on us, it’s either way too much solitude — those living alone, isolated, shut-in, vulnerable to the virus — or far too little, for people living with lots of children and/or parents or in-laws.

I really value solitude.

If I go too long without it, I feel ill and angry and resentful of having to constantly be social. I find it tiring.

So my recent four days away, even in a place I didn’t love — small-town Pennsylvania — reminded me how much I need it.

The very best moments were an hour or so at a nature sanctuary, filled with old, very tall pine trees and total silence. No one else around.

It is so rare now, anywhere, to just be totally free of people and their noises!

I lay down on my back and stared up into the trees, their glossy green branches glistening in the sun, waving in the breeze.

I watched a Daddy-Long-Legs amble past.

I got pine sap on my arms and sneakers.

Then, to my surprise, I started to cry, hard.

Months of anxiety and grief and frustration had piled up, unacknowledged and unprocessed.

My mother died February 15 — on my best friend’s birthday — and even though she and I were estranged for a decade, I grieve all the losses we sustained because of that.

I grieve the deaths of 200,000 Americans from COVID.

I grieve the loss of the hopes so many of us had for 2020, let alone 2021 and beyond.

It felt good to let it all out, alone and in private, surrounded by beauty.

Even driving the two hours home again, alone, singing along to my favorite music, was replenishing.

I really enjoy others’ company and my 20 years, so far, with Jose, my husband.

But time alone is as necessary to my happiness as time with others.

Women, especially, often have to fight hard for time alone, tending only to their own needs. We’re expected to keep everyone else happy, and it’s depleting when you have no equal time to just be quiet and by ourselves.

And there’s a big difference between precious privacy — which usually implies others, and their noises and their needs, nearby — and solitude.

Do you need and value solitude?

How has the pandemic changed you?

By Caitlin Kelly

I can’t recall a year recently — maybe the crash of 2008, 9/11 — that has so radically and permanently changed our world, and how we experience it.

I was an adult for both of these and both affected me deeply, as it did for millions of others, even those who did not lose a loved one to 9/11. I’ve never gone down to the memorial in Manhattan. I have enough memories of it.

This terrible and relentless year has shifted so much of how we think and behave and what we expect from government and one another.

Here’s some of how it’s changed me:

I’m more fearful.

I hate that! I’ve always prided myself on being bold and up for new adventure. But when everyone around you can be an invisible vector of disease? Not so much.

I have to calculate risk every single day, not just on rare occasions.

We live in New York state, where the current infection rate is a reassuring one percent. But for how long? I have eaten inside a restaurant a few times, with tables far apart and people masked when not eating. But a recent meal, even far from the table of eight, left me worried after they sang Happy Birthday, since singing spreads virus. Now I have to hope their celebration won’t sicken me.

I’m short-tempered and tired

Who isn’t?!

We don’t even have to home school children, but we are two self-employed workers sharing an apartment with no office space. Constant mask-wearing drives me mad, even while I do it and know it’s necessary. I’m sick to death of the political incompetence and lies that has killed 200,000 Americans and the fools who worship the man who made it happen.

If you haven’t read it, this is a smart analysis of how we feel and why.

An excerpt:

It was, as I’d soon describe in an emotional post in a social media group of professional colleagues, an “anxiety-tainted depression mixed with ennui that I can’t kick,” along with a complete inability to concentrate. I spoke with my therapist, tweaked medication dosages, went outside daily for fresh air and sunlight, tried to force myself to do some physical activity, and even gave myself permission to mope for a few weeks. We were in a pandemic, after all, and I had already accepted in March that life would not be “normal” for at least a year or two. But I still couldn’t work, couldn’t focus, hadn’t adjusted. Shouldn’t I be used to this by now?

“Why do you think you should be used to this by now? We’re all beginners at this,” Masten told me. “This is a once in a lifetime experience. It’s expecting a lot to think we’d be managing this really well.”

My social circle has shrunk

It’s minuscule. Gone are the friendly quick moments of banter in our apartment hallways and laundry room, at the grocery store or gym. I speak to a small handful of people by phone and restrict my access to others. We hosted a couple a few weeks ago for the first time in six months — on our balcony, with a breeze. When winter forces us all indoors again, I dread the isolation.

I don’t make plans for the future beyond a week or two

This is deeply unsettling. But who can?

My greatest pleasure is usually travel. Not now.

I went away for four days — planned to be six — to an inn in Pennsylvania but left early, bored and restless and alienated by Trump signs for miles.

When every encounter now carries physical risk, the reward had better be amazing! But because of COVID, so many experiences are smaller or diminished and altered in ways that are just annoying, that, for me, sap the joy and spontaneity out of the whole endeavor.

I’m even more reliant on my husband than ever.

When we’re now able to see so few people, our marriage has to be a source of daily sustenance in ways it never has. We’ve been together 20 years and really enjoy one another’s company. But it’s a lot to expect of one other tired, cranky human being!

Routines matter much more than they once did.

When the world is in such daily and mismanaged chaos — floods, fires, hurricanes, daily political malfeasance, racism, violence — even the simplest routines become deeply grounding and comforting. For me, it’s everything from two newspapers a day, in print, to Netflix binges at night or my 4:00 p.m. pot of tea. This is not a good time to feel untethered.

How has it changed you?