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“North of Normal”: Q and A with best-selling Canadian author Cea Person

In behavior, books, children, culture, domestic life, family, journalism, life, parenting, women on January 13, 2016 at 3:03 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

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Sometimes you read a book and think…how did the author survive this?

The best-selling Canadian memoir “North of Normal” was that book for me in late 2015. I immediately started following its author, Cea Person, on Twitter.

I told her how much I admired her memoir and her ability to survive a childhood spent living in tipis in the Canadian wilderness with a family with very few boundaries.

An only child, she also had few friends and very little contact with others beyond the chaotic and isolated world her family created.

Cea, whose book was optioned as a possible film, and whose next book, “Nearly Normal” will be published by Harper Collins in early 2017, very kindly agreed to do a Q and A with me for Broadside, which we conducted via email.

When did you first decide you would write this book?

I first decided in my teens that I would write it — one day. I knew I had a crazy story to tell, and I just trusted that the right time to write it would reveal itself. I was finally prompted to start writing it at age 37, when my mother was ill with cancer and my marriage was falling apart. I knew I had to look into my past to find answers to my present.

(Her book is somewhat similar in tone and experience to the American best-seller The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls.)

Did Glass Castle strike you as a better/worse/wholly different sort of childhood than yours?

I think our childhoods were equally hard in that we had to struggle to have dignity and get our basic needs met every day, and to try to make our parents realize how misguided they were.

Jeanette had siblings, which in a way was probably both a comfort and added burden to her troubles, whereas I was on my own — so I think we were probably equally challenged. I would love to chat with her one day, but haven’t had the opportunity yet.

Was it hard to remember and to recreate your early life?

Yes, I had a hard time with some memories, my mother and family members helped me fill in a lot of details and straighten out the chronology before they died. I also used photos, but I didn’t keep journals. Also, I used storytelling devices to recreate some scene details and dialogue, as remembering every detail is of course impossible.

Did you ever study writing?

I did not take any writing classes — I just wrote and rewrote my book (about 25 times!) until I got it right! I would not recommend this method to others who want to write their memoir, however😉

 What other books like that one were helpful in conceiving of and structuring your own narrative?

My structure and narrative came from many drafts of trial and error, trying many different voices and structures until I found the right one. I was a lot like a person feeling my way through the dark with no idea where I was going! But I must say that all that experimentation really benefitted me in the end, because I really know what does and doesn’t work for me now — and I was able to complete my second book in a fraction of the time it took me to write my first.

I remember being greatly inspired by Angelas Ashes, White Oleander and Shes Come Undone. As I read them, I dreamed that I could one day write a book that would move people as much as I’d been touched by them.

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 Can you describe the writing process — how did you decide what to include and what to exclude? It’s a tough job with memoir to know what’s (most) important to the reader as it may have felt most important to us, the writer.

For me, this was by far the most challenging part of writing. In the beginning, I really didn’t have a clue what I was doing, because I didn’t know where I was going to end up.

This is key: you should know where you will end up before you begin. Once I decided that my story would go right up to present day, things became a lot easier. Deciding that three-quarters of the story would be devoted to my childhood was also an important decision, because it determined the pacing.

I also knew that I had to begin with my grandparents’ history before I was born, because that information was critical to the reader understanding their motivation for moving to the wilderness. After that, I literally just made a long list, chronologically and in point form, of all the scenes that I wanted to include in my book.

Then I asked myself how and why each scene was critical to the themes of my story. If I couldn’t find a connection, I either scratched it or found a way to make a connection to my story in the way I wrote that scene. As I wrote each into my book, I would simply cross it off my list. This list waxed and waned as I wrote, but it kept my vision of what I wanted to convey to the reader clear. The scenes at first were pretty bare-bones, and I went back and filled them in and connected them to each other in later drafts.

For me it’s about keeping the momentum going and not allowing negative self-talk to sabotage my process . . . so if my excitement about a scene starts to wane, I’ll move on to another one that I’m excited about and go back to the dud scene later, with a better attitude.

 How did you find an agent?

I actually queried for agents four times over the six years it took me to write the book. On my second round of query letters I actually got one, but he wasn’t able to sell the book. I went back and rewrote it many times after that, and when I finally did get it right I had offers from five agents. After so much rejection, it was exhilarating! I got my dream agent, Jackie Kaiser, who has been the best thing to happen to my writing career.

 Was this a difficult book to sell?

As I mentioned, I had some false starts and difficult times when I wondered if I should just give up. The whole writing/querying/selling process was extremely hard to go through. But I always had this feeling that if I just stuck with it, I would find success.

When I finally got my agent, she sold it in Canada within 24 hours and then in the US in a bidding war between three publishers. So, I have experienced the full range of writer’s dismay and joy!

How long did you take to write it — and what were some of the toughest challenges in doing so?

Six years of writing, and besides the challenges mentioned above, there was the tough part of wondering how my family would react to it, reliving difficult memories, and mostly just finding the time to write at all.

When I started writing it I had a toddler, no childcare, and a business I ran from home, and when I finished writing it I had three small children and no childcare. I wrote the book in ten-minute increments and during stolen moments on the weekends when my husband would take the kids to the park for a few hours. I still think it’s amazing that I got it written at all!

 What sort of reader reaction did you get and do you still? Do you get personal emails from people with similar untold stories?

The reader reactions have been by far the most amazing and rewarding part of this whole experience. I’ve received hundreds of emails from people who related to my story in one way or another—the mental illness, counterculture family, young single mother, little girl who never fit in—all of these are elements that people have related to.

I’ve also been shocked by the number of people out there who’ve told their own stories to me that are similar to mine. And I’ve been humbled by the friends and acquaintances I assumed had led “normal” lives who revealed their own troubled pasts to me after reading my book. It’s funny, because when my book first came out I was expecting some negativity, but it’s been completely positive. My readers were my inspiration for writing my second book.

 Were you at all concerned (many memoirists’ fear) how your own family would react? How did they?

Of course it was a concern to me. But I also knew that I had to tell my truth, and that if you tell the truth fully and show your characters as human, both good and bad, there isn’t much people can get upset about. I think that if we are upset about being written about, we should probably take a look at ourselves and the choices we’ve made and why.

In my case, because it took so long for my book to be written and published, most of my family had passed away by the time it came out. My father was the only family member who was in the book that was still alive and/or that I was in touch with, and he embraced it wholeheartedly after he got past his guilt. There have been a lot of people who knew me and my family when I was young, who stayed with us in the tipis or knew my grandfather in more recent years. I was afraid they would find my writing about my past too unvarnished, but they have come forward to tell me how well I captured the Persons in all their strengths and weaknesses. It’s been amazing.

 What were your happiest memories of that childhood?

Riding my stick horses through the meadows, close moments with my mother and grandparents when the rest of the world wasn’t yet a concern to me.

Your worst?

The constant instability I felt, never knowing what was coming next, fear of losing my mother to the cops or to her boyfriends, the open sex and drugs, feeling I didn’t fit in, feeling like a freak from the wilderness, knowing my mother and I were reliant on her boyfriends for our survival, wondering how I would ever escape and find the life I wanted.

 What strengths do you think it gave you long-term?

Definitely resiliency and courage.

I’m very proactive — if something isn’t working for me, I change it. I’m always striving for something better for myself and my family. And I have a deep appreciation and gratitude for the life I’ve created now — the stability, my wonderful husband and children and friends.

Wisdom can be slippery for me, because the little realizations I have don’t always stick with me long enough for me to change my habits, and I think a lot of my current happiness comes from the reality I’ve created for myself rather than the lessons I’ve learned from my past.

I don’t know that there’s any one thing that I know for sure, except that I value courage, strength and the ability to laugh at life and oneself perhaps more than anything else in people. I have learned that I can do anything if I want it badly enough — I wanted to have a normal life, to have a modeling career, a happy marriage and to write my book, and I achieved all that by being tenacious.

I have my grandfather to thank for that — he succeeded at the lifestyle he wanted against all odds, and though I wanted the exact opposite of him, it was his courage that inspired me. Also that we so often repeat the patterns of our family members despite our best efforts, and recognizing those patterns are key to changing them — but they are sneaky!

Thank you, Cea!

Your book is extraordinary and I’m so grateful you made time to talk with me for Broadside.

The immigrant’s dilemma — where’s “home”?

In behavior, domestic life, immigration, life, travel, U.S., urban life, US on January 10, 2016 at 1:10 am

By Caitlin Kelly

New York -- where I've lived since 1989

New York — where I’ve lived since 1989

Have you seen the new film “Brooklyn”? From the excellent novel by U.S.-based Irish writer Colm Toibin.

I saw it this week and was once more struck by the question of what’s home for those of us who have chosen to leave behind the country of our birth.

We didn’t flee in terror, so we’re not refugees who simply can’t stay in our country of origin, and leave knowing that we might never be able to return.

If we’re really lucky, we arrive in our new country with health, some savings, a good post-secondary education and skills, speaking the new language and with friends, relatives and/or a decent job awaiting.

 

In the film “Brooklyn”, young Eilis, the heroine, leaves the small Irish town of Enniscorthy for Brooklyn, with a job as a sales clerk in a department store arranged for her. A local priest also pays for her night classes in accounting.

It’s a lovely film, and one I enjoyed — but it is a golden story, and a much smoother arrival than many face.

Lake Massawippi, Quebec, one of our favorite spots to which we keep returning

Lake Massawippi, Quebec, one of our favorite spots to which we keep returning

I left my native Canada in 1988 to move from Montreal to small town New Hampshire, legally allowed to do so because of my mother’s American citizenship, which gave me access to a “green card”, the coveted right to live and work legally in the U.S.

I arrived in New York in 1989 with the man I would later marry — and soon be divorced from — with no job or contacts or advanced degree, which I would discover most my competitors in journalism possessed.

Then I weathered three recessions and an industry that has lost 40 percent of its workforce since 2008. Reinvention once is challenging enough. Post-secondary education in the U.S. is often extremely costly, and student loans are the only debt you can never discharge through declaring bankruptcy; I recently interviewed a young woman who owes more than $200,000 — for an undergraduate degree at a non-Ivy League school, a choice she now bitterly regrets.

I’ve been back to Canada many times since then, sometimes as often as four to six times a year. I’m not super-homesick, but it’s an easy drive for us, and I still have very close friends back in Ontario.

Every visit leaves me with a mixture of regret and relief. Regret for leaving friendships of a depth I’ve never found here and a kind of social capital impossible to achieve in a nation with 10 times the population of Canada.

But also relief for the option of another place to be, to try new things — like becoming a nationally ranked saber fencer and studying interior design — the freedom to create a new identity. I know I’ve done things while living in the States I’d never have ventured at home.

(I’ve also lived in England, France and Mexico, albeit for shorter periods of time.)

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The oddest moment for me is when I head north by train, because as it’s crossing the bridge high above the Niagara River we’re briefly suspended between the United States and Canada, their respective flags visible as well as the clouds of mist rising from Niagara Falls.

What better metaphor?

In the film, Eilis is initially wracked with homesickness; small-town Ireland, though, is so much more different from Brooklyn than big-city Toronto, where I grew up. It was no huge shock for me to arrive in New York, having visited many times before.

It was a shock for me to adjust to some American ways of behaving, from the relentless pressure to be real friendly all the time (exhausting!) to the omnipresence of privately-owned guns, (the subject of my first book.)

I still have difficult processing, (which I now pronounce as prawh-cess, not the Canadian pro-cess), the values of a country where everyone, everywhere, exhorts one another to “Have a good day!” — while millions of people own guns and many people now fear teaching in any classroom (thanks to so many college campus shooting massacres and that in Newtown, CT) or going to the movies (ditto) or just being in the wrong place at the wrong time.p

Pre-emptive pleasantry?

And the poverty rate of 18 percent — 12 percent in Canada (OECD figures) — is depressing as hell to me.

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

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

Watching a movie about immigration to the U.S., (my favorite of the few on that subject is the 2009 indie film, Amreeka), suddenly brought up a host of feelings I usually keep under wraps;  when you move to another country, you’re expected to fit in, to adopt its ways, to salute its flag and (in the U.S.) recite the Pledge of Allegiance, which I still don’t know or do.

In “Brooklyn” Eilis flees a tiny, gossipy town with few job prospects — the same reason I left Toronto, a city of 2.6 million now.

I recently had lunch there with a young friend, 32, who is super-smart and has a fantastic work history in his field. Yet he echoed what I keep hearing from people decades younger than I there, a deep aversion to taking risks. As one friend, also in her 30s, reminded me, if you misjudge the size or enthusiasm of the Canadian marketplace for your idea, there’s nowhere to hide your failure. With only a few major cities, where to go next?

And failing, getting fired, losing market share — these remain shameful in Canada for many people. That, in itself, discourages innovation, let alone the social and financial capital it takes to move ahead.

In the States?

Hah! People like Martha Stewart go to prison and come out unscathed, returning to their wealth and social circles. It can create a culture of lying and deception, (see: New York Legislature and its parade of felony convictions for corruption), but also encourages risk taking.

Lincoln Center, one of my greatest pleasures of living in New York

Lincoln Center, one of my greatest pleasures of living in New York

If dozens, if not hundreds, of people hadn’t been willing to take chances on me here, I’d have nothing to show for my own risk in coming here. I’m always grateful for that, and to them.

 

When you leave your home country behind, you also lose — especially in pre-Internet, social media days — the intimacy of your friends and family’s lives, all those births and christenings and showers and weddings you probably can’t afford the time or money to celebrate in person.

When I married for the second time, I chose to do so on a small island in the harbor of Toronto, a place filled with happy memories and the people I still feel closest to, even decades later.

I’ve made some friends in New York, but few, and several friendships here I thought would — as my Canadian relationships have — last for decades ended abruptly, three of them within a few years.  That’s a cultural divide I’ve never accepted or been able to successfully breach.

In Toronto on our last visit, I sat with a friend from university and her 23-year-old daughter, who I’d first met as a bump in her mother’s belly at my first wedding and only once more when she was 13. Now she’s an accomplished actress.

Another classic NYC pleasure. It can't be all work-all-the-time!

Another classic NYC pleasure. It can’t be all work-all-the-time!

There are some immigrants whose lives explode into massive wealth and success when they choose the U.S. Others find the grinding lack of social safety nets and ever-shaky job market, (zero job security, few unions, low wages, extraordinary competition), simply too much and return ‘home” once more.

If you have changed countries for a new one — especially the U.S. — how does/did that feel?

What have been your biggest adjustments?

My first book, published in 2004. As someone who grew up with no exposure to guns, I was deeply intrigued by this most American of obsesssions

My first book, published in 2004. As someone who grew up with no exposure to guns, I was deeply intrigued by this most American of obsesssions

Rest. Just…rest. Or play

In aging, behavior, domestic life, life, US, work on January 6, 2016 at 1:24 am

 

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An afternoon at the ballet. Bliss!

By Caitlin Kelly

In an era of constant distraction and exhortations to be more productive — (never, Be more creative! Be more still! Be more silent!) — I’m finally seeing published pleas in favor of doing nothing.

Like this one:

Recently I heard someone say if you want to see where your priorities really lie, look at two things: your calendar and your bank statement.

If you believe your priorities are what truly matters to you, look no further than those two places to confirm or deny your hunch.

Let’s do an experiment. Take a look at your calendar, and take an inventory with me. How much of it is work related? How much of it is spent in social engagements? With family? Doing hobbies? Self improvement?

And how much white space do you see?

We have become a culture that is severely uncomfortable with white space. We don’t like being left alone with ourselves, and that’s because it’s not always fun.

 

And this, from The New York Times:

To Dr. Brown, co-author of a book called “Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination and Invigorates the Soul,” the discussion begins with defining the term. He describes it, among other things, as a voluntary activity that can take us out of time or at least keep us from tracking it carefully. It is spontaneous and allows for improvisation.

Another crucial component, according to Dr. Brown, is play’s capacity to elicit diminished consciousness of self. Or, to put it in layman’s terms, it gives us license to be goofy. In an interview, Dr. Brown provided the most familiar example: how almost every person makes faces and sounds when meeting an infant for the first time.

“If you take a look at relatives looking at the bassinets, turn your camera back on their faces,” he said. “What you see is nonsense. There is this deep, innate proclivity for nonsense, which is at the core of playfulness.”

Finally, play is also purposeless, at least in the moment.

We’re now at the end of a break for the holidays in Canada, staying with my father at his house in a small town — with nothing to do.

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Port Hope, Ontario. pop. 16,500

The town is filled with very beautiful old houses and has a gorgeous waterfront trail along the edge of Lake Ontario. But there’s no movies (my drug of choice!) or theater or museums.

It’s forced Jose and I to…be still.

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Time to just sit still and enjoy the beauty all around us — June 2015 in a rented cottage in Donegal

So what have we done?

Organized photos, talked at length with friends on the phone or gone to see them in person for a long lunch, read entire books start to finish, slept, cooked a terrific Moroccan lamb stew for friends who came for the afternoon, browsed several bookstores and bought new books (yay!).

I binge-watched an entire season, 13 episodes, of Frankie and Grace on our computer.

I’ve written multiple blog posts and planned several new ones — Q and As with some fantastically creative and successful people I hope you’ll find inspiring — freed from the production line of life as a journalist. Planned a possible vacation next July and decided against one in Spain this spring.

Lit a scented candle bedside every morning and at night. Enjoyed the rumbling and whistles of passing trains. Savored the skeletal beauty of bare trees and bushes against a wintry gray sky.

Played gin rummy. Talked. Sat in silence to watch the jade green waves crashing against a snow-dusted beach. Emptied my email in-box. (OK. not so playful!)

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When do you just…sit?

Took bubble baths in my Dad’s old claw-foot tub.

I loved the Times’ story about planning for play because it’s so deeply unAmerican to even breathe a word of…laziness. Rest. Downtime.

The entire culture is one of non-stop doing, not mindful being.

It’s one reason we keep coming back to my native Canada for breaks; Canadians, in general, value a more balanced life, and love to be outdoors even in winter. In my decades living near New York City, a place of frenzied ambition, I’ve always felt like an outlier for wanting — and carving out in my life — a lot of room for play and relaxation.

Like one of the people featured in the Times story, we’ve chosen to remain in a one-bedroom apartment and drive an old, paid-for car in order to be able to work less.

There are times I’d kill for more space or a shiny new vehicle. But the time and freedom we gain by not having to gin up an additional $500 or $1,500 every single month for years to come to pay for them?

Priceless.

Our priorities are retirement, (so we have saved hard and lived fairly frugally to do so), and travel. Without children, we also have the means, and the time, to focus on our own desires and how to pay for them. Selfish or not, it gives us a life we enjoy and value.

Anyone who’s been reading Broadside for a while knows I’m a high-octane person. But recharging, for me, is every bit as essential as rushing around.


 

How about you?

Do you make time, and deliberately set aside money, to just relax?

 

No, being exhausted all the time is actually not a worthy goal

In behavior, business, domestic life, journalism, life, Technology, U.S., work on December 18, 2015 at 4:18 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

When do you just...sit?

When do you just…sit?

A powerful piece from the Washington Post about why being “productive” is such a punitive way to measure our human value:

I see it a lot when I interview people and talk about vacation. They talk about how they are wound up and checking emails and sitting on the beach with their laptops. And their fear is: If I really stopped and let myself relax, I would crater. Because the truth is I’m exhausted, I’m disconnected from my partner, I don’t feel super connected to my kids right now.

It’s like those moving walkways at the airport — you’ve got to really pay attention when you get off them, because it’s disorienting. And when you’re standing still, you become very acutely aware of how you feel and what’s going on in your surroundings. A lot of our lives are getting away from us while we’re on that walkway.

There are several cultural expectations in the U.S., even after living here for decades after leaving Canada, I’ll never agree with or adhere to.

One is the notion, an outgrowth of a nation with shockingly little government regulation or oversight of the workplace, no paid maternal leave, no mandated vacation days, that work is the single most important way for all of us to spend all of our time.

Every day, in every way, we are exhorted to workworkworkworkworkwork fasterfastefasterfaster and the hell with a personal life that includes family, friends, self-care, volunteer work, meditation, travel.

Looking at art restores and refreshes me. It isn't $$$-making but it soothes my soul

Looking at art restores and refreshes me. It isn’t $$$-making but it soothes my soul

Why, all that time you want to spend binge-watching Netflix or patting your puppy or making pancakes with your kids? That doesn’t boost the GDP! How dare you?

How about…rest?

Of course, a thin and fragile social safety net — hello, cause and effect! — makes working your ass off a necessity for all but the wealthy. The single largest cause of personal bankruptcy in the U.S. is medical bills; we now pay (yes, really) $1,500 a month for our health insurance, meaning we have to earn at least $18,000 after-tax dollars before any other cost.

For two full-time freelancers in a struggling industry, that’s enough to make me go back to bed.

Who owns your time?

Who owns your time?

One reason I’ve stayed freelance is the ability to control the use of my time, when and where and how often and for how long I work. I started work the other day at 8:10 a.m. (early for me) and had already written and filed a story by 10:30 a.m. I took the afternoon off to enjoy a day in Manhattan.

Some people need to work 1o or more hours a day — they have multiple children to support and/or a non-working spouse and/or earn low wages and/or live in a high-cost area. But beyond basic economic need, tethering your life to the profit-making demands of others rarely produces much joy for those of us expected to answer them.

Americans love to mock Europeans – those five weeks of vacation! That free health care! Those subsidized university educations! – as though the endless toil and debt required to earn the money to pay for all of that were somehow so much more virtuous.

When it’s really just exhausting.

Having lived in Canada, France, Mexico and England gave me a perspective many Americans lack.

Time off recharges and restores us to full mental, physical and emotional health.

You can work hard — and play hard.

It’s possible to be a deeply valuable human being without adding any economic value.

Working freelance means we’re choosing a life with less financial security but all the pressures faced while collecting a salary.

BUSINESS OF FREELANCING

The major difference is our ability to say no.

To not leap to answer an email at 11:00 pm or 1:00 a.m. or on a Sunday morning when we’re getting ready to attend church.

Yes, it might cost us some lost income.

But it gives us a life we deeply value.

Do you feel — or succumb to — this kind of pressure to be productive?

 

 

 

Who believed in you?

In aging, behavior, domestic life, education, family, life, love, parenting, work on December 8, 2015 at 1:17 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

caitlin painting

Me, creating…

The other day, I received an email from a young friend I met in Tucson a few years ago and who has since gone on to work in Nigeria, teach English in Turkey, do volunteer work in Mexico, compete for a London-based fellowship and intern at CNN in Atlanta.

He only graduated last May.

Nor is he a person of privilege, quite the opposite, making his trajectory even more impressive.

His email thanked me for my belief in him.

We had had a long and deeply personal conversation  during a student program I was teaching in. I was touched he trusted me enough to ask my advice and was happy to give it.

It made me stop and think about the people who’ve shown their belief in me along the way and how that trust and confidence in my skills and strengths kept me going when I thought I couldn’t.

While some of today’s millennials have won trophies for showing up and some have been told Good job! for almost everything they do, I’m a Boomer from a challenging and demanding family. Everyone is a high achiever and kudos were not the norm. So the people named here made a serious difference in my life.

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I know that I know how to photograph. It’s hard to take creative risks without some encouragement!

Ana

My high school art teacher, who allowed us to use her first name. Funny, warm, down to earth, she saw how troubled and unhappy I was, (bullied every day there for years), but she nurtured and appreciated my talents for drawing, painting and photography. I needed a safe place to be good at something, and to be liked, even on my worst days. She offered it and belief in someone who might not be bullied forever.

A friend of my father

He loaned me a Pentax SLR camera, knowing I wanted to become a photographer. Even more generously, he told me about an annual contest, open to anyone in Toronto to submit their images of the city to Toronto Calendar magazine — which used them as their sole cover image. Still in high school, I sold three of mine. That boosted my confidence in a way no high school grade ever could have.

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My second book, published in 2011

My editors

I started selling my writing to national magazines when I was 19, still an undergraduate at university. I still can’t quite imagine what they thought of the kid who showed up in their offices with a multi-page list of story ideas I went through until they finally said yes to one of them.

Or sent me out to report stories I’d never done before — like sitting in the open door of an airplane to watch a skydiver or calling the German headquarters of Adidas for a story about running shoes. I was hired at 26 as a staff reporter for the Globe & Mail, Canada’s best national newspaper, without a minute of daily newspaper experience after eight years’ freelancing for them and my editors there sent me out on major stories that ran front page, terrifying me but giving me opportunities to grow, learn and shine.

Philippe Viannay

Once in your life, if you’re lucky, you meet the right person at just the right moment. Not romantically, but in a much deeper sense.

A former Resistance hero, he was the founder of a Paris-based journalism fellowship I was selected to participate in, (and also founder of a home for wayward boys; Glenans, a sailing school, and a major daily newspaper.) He introduced me to everyone, proudly, as “Le terrible Caitlin!” — which I thought rude until I realized it meant terrific.

I was 25, desperate to somehow get a great journalism job, to build my skills and self-confidence. To have someone so incredibly accomplished like me and deeply believe in my potential? He did, for which I’m forever grateful.

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Reporting in Bilwi, Nicaragua for WaterAid

My clients

I’ve had some amazing adventures as a journalist. I’ve spent a week crewing on a Tall Ship and sailed with an Americas Cup crew.

The best adventure (so far!) was in March 2014 when I joined a multi-media team in rural Nicaragua for a week’s reporting on the work of WaterAid there. We worked in 95-degree heat in Spanish and Miskitu and became so close that we all stay in touch still. It means a lot to me that clients trust me to tell their stories.

My fencing coach

How cool was it to be coached by a two-time Olympian? Amazing!

I  had arrived in New York with no job/friends/family/college alumni — and had to re-start my journalism career at 30.

I landed in Manhattan, a hotbed of fencing talent. My coach, who was teaching the sport at NYU, was a former Navy man, who decided after a year or so of our mediocre foil fencing to turn a small group of women, then in our mid 30s, into sabre fencers. This was unheard of  — and we couldn’t even progress beyond nationals because there was then no higher-level competition available to women.

It meant learning a new weapon, new ways of thinking and behaving on the strip, and most of all, simply being willing to try something that looked weird and impossible at first.

His faith and belief in us — much deeper than any we had in ourselves! — was truly transformative. I went on to become nationally ranked for four years, happily surprised at what you can do when someone sees talent within you, pushes you hard to develop it and celebrates the results.

BLOWN AWAY COVER

My first book, published in 2004

My first agent

I found him through a friend. Quiet and soft-spoken, he took me to lunch at one of the city’s most elegant restaurants, Balthazar, where we ordered Kumamotos. (Oysters. I had no idea!)

I wanted more than anything to write non-fiction books, to do deep, national reporting on complicated subjects. Ambitious stuff. Finding an agent isn’t easy — you need to like, trust and respect one another, knowing you’re entwining your reputation and career with theirs.

And when an agent takes on a new writer, one who has yet to even publish a book, they’re gambling on a raft of things: your skill, your determination, your ethics, your ability to see it through to the end.

He fought hard for my first book as 25 publishers said no, some quite rudely. It did sell, and we’re now working together once more on my third book proposal.

M

She’s opened her home to me for decades and treated me as family, even though we met professionally when she was a PR rep in Toronto and I wrote about the organization she worked with. After I became a victim of crime here in New York, she let me stay in her Toronto home for three weeks to recover to decide if I would come back to the U.S.

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My best friend, my husband, Jose

Jose

My husband, a fellow journalist, has been-there-done-it-seen-it-all — he’s won a Pulitzer Prize for editing 9/11 photos for The New York Times, photographed three Presidents as an eight-year member of the White House Press Corps, covered two Olympics, several Superbowls, the end of the Bosnian war. He knows what excellence in our field looks like and demands.

His faith in me — even as our industry has lost 40 percent of its staff since 2008 — is enormous. He’s seen me write two books, (with two tired fingers!), and encourages me every day to take even more creative risks.

 

Who believes — or believed — in you along the way?

What did they say or do that kept you going?

 

How to be an everyday philanthropist — Jennifer Iacovelli’s new book

In behavior, culture, domestic life, family, life, love, parenting on December 4, 2015 at 6:41 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

 

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The word “philanthropist”, for me anyway, conjures up an image of someone with huge wealth, multiple mansions, a private jet. Someone who has so much money they don’t know what to do with it all.

The sort of people whose names cross PBS’ screen when they highlight the network’s biggest donors.

Certainly not most of us, right?

A new book, Simple Giving, Easy Ways to Give Every Day, written by Jennifer Iacovelli, a mother of two in Brunswick, Maine, working in the non-profit world for years — and a longtime devoted philanthropist — offers a new and different perspective.

Many people in New York working low-wage jobs need a food bank to help feed their family

Many people in New York working low-wage jobs need a food bank to help feed their family

I met her for the first time, in March 2014, in the Atlanta airport, when we joined a multi-national, intergenerational, multi-media team heading to rural Nicaragua, to the poorest part of the second-poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. We were going there to help tell stories about their work for WaterAid, a global charity whose sole North American project is in Nicaragua.

Neither of us had ever been there or worked together.

We hit it off immediately, which was lucky, since we spent 12-hour days for the next week working in 95-degree heat and traveling in a cramped van we often had to start with a good hard shove.

I learned how to canoe at camp -- useful when we went to Nicaragua

On assignment in Nicaragua for WaterAid — Jen in the bow of a dugout canoe

She was fun, down-to-earth and someone whose passion for giving back really inspired me, and still does.

As she writes: “A small contribution can make a big difference in someone’s life.”

I read her book carefully and dog-eared dozens of pages in it. It offers six different “giving models”, from everyday acts of kindness, taking action on your passion to giving as a business model. “People often don’t know where or how to give.”

Yes, we all know the big charities, the ones with big advertising budgets…but where does our money go?

Is it being used in ways we respect?

Jen urges you to consider getting the most our of your giving by considering choice, connection and impact. (Do you all know about Guidestar? It is an extensive online database with every possible bit of information about a charity you might be giving to. Check it out first!)

Here’s my Q and A with her:

What’s your goal with this book?

My main goal with the book is to inspire people to think about giving in a different way. I hope it empowers people to recognize their own meaningful ways to give on a regular basis.

 Tell us a bit about your past:

I was born and raised in Massachusetts. I went to college at Syracuse University and graduated with a dual degree in Advertising and Psychology. Those majors blended my love for writing, creativity and fascination of human behavior.

I lived in Denver for a short period after graduating college and driving the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile for a summer. Made my way to Maine in 2000 and haven’t had the desire to live anywhere else since! (though I do love to travel!)
Was there any emphasis in your family of origin on giving?

Not necessarily. I saw my parents donate money to nonprofits here and there, but there wasn’t a big emphasis on giving or volunteering. I did volunteer a lot while in school. I was always helping out with class events, the yearbook, etc. My parents encouraged me to get involved.

 


 

“There are so many more ways to give than just blindly sending a check in the mail”


 

What prompted you to start giving…was there a precipitating event?

I started working in the nonprofit sector in 2005 because I was looking for more meaning in my work. I guess you could say I’ve always had the pull to give more but didn’t know what to do with it. That’s where I realized that there were so many more ways to give than just blindly sending a check in the mail. I also saw that many people didn’t quite know how to give in the most meaningful way. I would (and still do in my current position) re-direct people and educate them on how they could best help our mission.
What sort of reaction did you get when you told people you were making a public commitment on your blog about giving?

People were supportive, of course. But most encouraged me and didn’t necessarily join me. I did it, of course, to show my process and share what I learned. Hopefully it inspired others along the way. It was a great experience

Do your friends and family have the same passion for this as you?

Yes and no. I do have some very inspiring and giving friends who are featured in the book or on my blog. Others are simply soaking it in, which is great too. I’ve met so many passionate people through writing this book. It’s been amazing!

 


“It’s often those who have the least that give the biggest percentage of their income”


 

In your experience, has the recession affected Americans’ willingness or ability to give — either time or money?

I believe giving has gone down a bit, as has funding for nonprofits. People still give though. And it’s often those who has the least that give the biggest percentage of their income.

What was the most difficult/challenging part of writing the book?

Finding the time to put it all together! I had so many thoughts, ideas, interviews, stories, research, etc to weave together while going on with regular life as a mom, writer and entrepreneur. I also went through a divorce during the process. I would just find ways to disappear for a few days to concentrate only on the book. It’s was a challenging process but I can’t wait to do it again.
The most fun?

Seeing the final product! It honestly didn’t seem real until I could hold the book in my hands. What an amazing feeling.

How does it feel to become an author?

Indescribable. I accomplished a major life goal when I signed my book contract. I am proud to have a published book before I turn 40. It’s about the only thing that has left me speechless!

 

 

 

Holiday gifts for 2015 — my 30 suggestions

In domestic life, family, life, love on December 1, 2015 at 1:25 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

Happy holidays!

Happy holidays!

Welcome to my annual gift list!

I have a lot of fun putting it together each year, and I hope you find some inspiration here.

NB: No one has paid me to mention them.

All prices are in U.S. dollars, hence a bit higher for Canadian readers.

What you won’t find here: electronics, books/music, sporting goods, baby/kids/teen suggestions, anything costing more than $300.

You’ll find variety — a $5 stocking stuffer, multiple tea and elephant options (albeit not in combination),  and a beautiful pair of moonstone drop earrings.

Enjoy!

Here are seven charities recommended by New York Times social justice writer Nick Kristof.

Love this double-sized duvet cover, in cream with a crisp black graphic folkloric design, by designer Gudrun Sjoden.  $110.00

If you’re here, you enjoy reading smart writing.

Broadside now offers more than 1,700 published posts, many of them offering helpful tips for fellow writers and travelers.

But today’s journalists, many of us now full-time freelance, are working with the only safety nets possible, our own savings. I’m now co-chair of an all-volunteer 13-member board, an organization that  offers grants — up to $4,000 within weeks — to qualified writers in financial crisis. Every penny we collect goes directly to those in need. Please consider making a tax-deductible donation to the Writers Emergency Assistance Fund!

I love to cook. I really enjoy Penzey’s spices. Here’s a four-pack of delicious spices you can rub into/onto any kind of meat (or mix into yogurt to make a marinade.) $30.75

Please add a charitable donation to your holiday shopping list

Please add a charitable donation to your holiday shopping list

Grey tights, yes. Grey tights with a bunny on the ankle, definitely! $29.99

Also pale grey, a carved-edged mirror to hang vertically or horizontally. We’ve owned this one for a few years and love it — especially nice against a colored wall. $128.00

And these trifoliate lovely moonstone drop earrings, by one of my favorite jewelry designers, Jane Diaz. $298.00

Dash & Albert make fantastic and well-priced throw rugs in a wide assortment of colors and styles. I love this wool throw rug in tones of lavender, cream, kiwi fruit and raspberry sorbet. 3×5 size $262.00


A watch? Yes really!


Enough with staring at your phone to tell time! Bring back the pleasure of wearing an elegant watch, complete with black crocodile strap. This one is gorgeous, made in arrangement with the British Museum and sold through the gift shop of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. $129.00

This Art Deco style watch is also terrific. $60.00

A regular delivery of fresh flowers, sent directly from growers in Ecuador, might make a lovely ongoing gift for someone who loves flowers as much as I do. $40-60.00

Who wouldn’t love an elephant…pillow? $220.00

Or maybe you’d prefer to foster an orphaned baby elephant through the Daphne Sheldrick Trust? $50.00

Waking up to beauty sets the tone for your day. Perfect for one small blossom on a bedside table, this glass riverstone shaped vase is only three inches high. $28.00

Lipault is a French maker of luggage in unusual colors and fabrics; I really like my chocolate brown satin backpack made by them. Love their 12″ cosmetics bag/dopp kit in four colors. $29


Time for tea!


 

Too fun! For those of you, like me, who drink loose-leaf tea, this infuser that looks like a deep-sea diver. $14.99

And to go with…how about a few pounds of loose leaf tea from my favorite Manhattan store, in business since 1907? $12.00/lb and up

Now, of course, you need a lavender glazed teapotone of 320 (!) china and metal teapot choices (from the shop we buy all our tableware from), William Ashley in Toronto. Yes, they ship domestically and to the U.S. $186.00 ($140.00 U.S.)

I love to sew and mend. Yes, very retro! If you know someone who does, they might appreciate this charming pin/needle holder, a tiny bird with a grey cotton cushion. Mothology is one of my favorite websites; roam around a bit if you like their esthetic. $22.95

These shawls from the Aran Islands of Ireland are a classic, perfect for travel and a lovely winter accessory — knit in baby alpaca and silk — in a range of neutral tones. $209 (186 euros)

We all need a good supply of elegant thank-you notes on hand. These gold-embossed ones are simple but lovely. $18.50

These earrings! Bronze and sea-glass. $60 (Check out their entire site. Some of the most interesting jewelry I’ve seen in years.)

One of New York City’s most elegant menswear shops is Paul Stuart, founded in 1938, on the corner of Madison Avenue and 45th. Here are some fun socks, in several colors. I like these bright blue ones, possibly terrific spotted between a pair of dark wash denim and polished black loafers. $44.50

ALL IMAGES COPYRIGHT CAITLIN KELLY 2013.

Readers of Broadside know how much I love to entertain and to set a beautiful table. We only use linen or cotton napkins and I have a small collection of colorful tablecloths. This company offers exquisite linen napkins, runners and tablecloths in 16 colors, from a soft red to teal to classic white, oyster and black.

You’ll have to trust me on this one. This soap! Crisp, fragrant, creamy, dreamy. Lasts for ages. $42.00 (for three)


 

Or a mysterious and lovely historic photo…


 

Fascinated by the American Civil War? Or pinhole photography? The photos made of Civil War re-enactors by our friend, the talented New York photographer Michael Falco, are truly mysterious. Like this one. Contact him for print prices.

In a world where tedious email and torrents of texts is the norm, few items are as deliciously old-school as personalized stationery, a gift I had made for my husband a few years ago. These letterpress cards, handmade in London, (but shipping worldwide), are simple but charming. $57.92 for 25 flat cards.

Do you enjoy baking as much as I do? This palm-sized bright red silicone scraper is amazing — both functional in itself and printed with metric/imperial measurements. $4.95

Those of us in New York know what a treasure trove are the stores of John Derian. Here’s a sweet glass dish, in his typically vintage-looking style you could use for a vide-poche or a spot to drop earrings at the end of the day. $48


 

This one!


 

Eager to raise your writing or blogging game? Want to write a non-fiction book? Break into freelance writing? Ask your sweetie for an hour of my coaching. One man gave this to his delighted wife for her birthday this year. $225/hour.

On Thanksgiving, grateful for…

In beauty, behavior, culture, domestic life, family, life, U.S., US on November 26, 2015 at 2:48 am

By Caitlin Kelly

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This is the warehouse for NYC’s food bank. As you enjoy your meal today, remember how many cannot, without help.

Today is American Thanksgiving, a day when friends and family gather to celebrate.

Here are some things I’m grateful for:

You!

This blog now has more than 15,900 followers worldwide, and more join every day. It’s a place we continue to have lively, civil, moving conversations about our lives. Those of you, like Ksbeth, Rami, Steve, Charlene, Matthew, Grace and Leah who have been here for years,  I’m honored you return here.

I enjoy writing it and hearing from you, and am so glad you make time to visit, read and comment.

Health

As someone who spent the fall of 2011 on crutches, so bad was the pain in my damaged left hip, (since replaced), and who has spent months on end in physical therapy attending to both knees and my right shoulder pre and post-surgery, I’m so grateful to be strong, flexible and healthy.

Without good health, we have nothing.

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My handsome hubby, Jose

My husband

Jose is a treasure. We met online when I was writing a story about internet dating for Mademoiselle magazine and 200 men replied to the personal profile I put up on one of the sites. He was in the mix. Ironically, we both work in journalism in New York but we would never have met any other way. It’s now 15 years and it feels like minutes.

Friends

We’re staying this week with dear friends in suburban Maryland, a four-hour drive from our home. They’ve welcomed us many times and it’s a blessing to know their home is open to us. In a world where work comes and goes too easily, where family can be complicated and moral support gets you through it all, deep and sustained friendship is one of my greatest joys.

BUSINESS OF FREELANCING

Work

Jose and I now both work full-time freelance. That means, every single month, we need to earn multiple thousands of dollars in income to pay all our bills. If we’re ill or tired, we can take time off, but there’s no paid sick leave or vacation. No one pays into a 401k to help save for our retirement now.

Everything is up to us. So having a strong network of people who know and respect our skill and hire us to write, edit, teach and take photographs is key to our ongoing success.

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Savings

We’ve been careful and frugal. Having a financial safety net allows us to take time off when needed and the creative risks we need to to compete effectively with people decades younger.

Ideas

We talk constantly about our ideas for work, travel, our home, new projects to work on individually or together, whether our blogs or creating new workshops. I’m grateful for a partner who is fun, funny and full of ideas. I am fortunate to have friends who help me refine mine and who share theirs.

caitlin painting

This is me, in Ireland, at my happiest — tea, travel, newspapers, painting

Creativity

I’m fortunate to have grown up in a home bursting with creative talent. My father, still alive and healthy at 86, was a film-maker and someone who makes art in multiple forms: engraving, etching, oil, lithography and silver. My late stepmother wrote for television and my mother was a journalist and editor. It was simply normal behavior to have tons of ideas, sell them to make a living and know that a percentage would be rejected or not very good. When I took the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking for a story, I scored in the 98th percentile. I guess it rubbed off!

 

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Paris, January 2015

Travel

As regular readers of Broadside know, we live to travel, and are gone usually several weeks each year to Canada, other parts of the U.S. and, in better years financially, to foreign lands. This year has been fantastic in that regard, with trips to Maryland, Ontario, Quebec, Maine, London, Paris and Ireland. Because we’re now both freelance, and have friends generously welcoming us into their homes, as long as we have work and wi-fi, there’s no need to stay put in New York. Beyond grateful to be able to keep my passport handy.

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Our living room

Our home

We live on the top floor of an apartment building with a spectacular view, facing northwest, of the Hudson River and the opposite shore. Every morning we’re greeted with a fresh bit of beauty, whether the rising sun creating a line of demarcation across the hills, sparking every window into a “ruby moment” as it reflects the sun, or fog so thick we can barely see the trees.

We live and work in a one-bedroom, so we have to be tidy and organized, but love that our balcony is our refuge/office/spare room when the weather is good.

I really enjoy our town, Tarrytown, NY, 25 miles north of Manhattan, a place so pretty films and television shows are made here — a few days ago HBO was filming a show with Sarah Jessica Parker.

We’ve enjoyed many fun versions of this holiday over the years — spent in frigid, dark-by-2pm Stockholm, others with friends in D.C. and N.Y, getting to know them and their relatives better. 

Our own families living very far away from us, we’re lucky to be invited to join others’ celebrations.

Wherever you are today, I hope your Thanksgiving is a happy one!

The gift of hospitality

In behavior, domestic life, family, life, love, parenting, travel on November 18, 2015 at 2:17 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

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A shared meal is a gift

How often — ever? — do you welcome guests into your home?

In some cultures, it’s normal to ask even people you don’t know very well in for a drink or a meal or to spend the night. In others, people can take years before they decide to open the door to you.

As the holiday season starts in the U.S. with Thanksgiving, thousands of people will be visiting friends and family, settling into unfamiliar beds, padding down the hallway to a new bathroom and wondering how best to behave.

I love having people come for dinner and our sofa is well-worn from the many visits we’ve had, sometimes for a week or more, from family and out-of-town friends. (We live and work in a one-bedroom apartment. I’d kill for a proper guest room!)

I love the intimacy of spending time in someone’s home and they in mine. You get to see their family photos (or lack of same), their choices of art and design, their books. Every fridge’s contents is a revelation. (You’ll always find maple syrup, eggs and half-and-half in ours.)

I love the ease of a morning spent in pajamas reading the paper or sitting by the evening fire at my Dad’s house, settling in. There’s no rush to get out of a crowded, noisy cafe or restaurant, no bill, no harried waiter or busboy.

In a few days together, you’ve got time. Time to drop and return to a deeper or more difficult conversation or to discuss things you never get to in all those quick meetings — who they first loved or what they studied in college or why they love Mozart so much.

One of the members of our jazz dance class recently had us over for a post-class hot tub session (bliss!) and lunch.

It was the most fun I’d had in a long time. Seven of us squished into the hot tub, the first time I’d seen any of us not in our workout clothes. Lunch became a hilarious and occasionally R-rated conversation that revealed all sorts of new things about one another.

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Cooking at the house we rented last year in Ireland

It was, I later realized, a true gift.

It takes time, energy, planning and an open heart to welcome people into your home. (Tidying it up can feel like too much of a chore.)

If you’ve got multiple small children, it can simply feel impossible.

But what a pleasure to sit in someone’s home, to see their taste, to enjoy their cooking and conversation.

Now that we all live so virtually most of the time, being in someone else’s space feels more important to me than ever.

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Quiche is a quick, easy and affordable way to feed a few people…

We’ll be driving five hours from New York to suburban D.C. to visit friends there for Thanksgiving. Dear friends, they’ve welcomed us into their home many times before, so we know their enormous dog will be at the door, soon shedding blond fur all over our New York uniform of black clothing. We know their fridge will be full and that it’s OK to raid it.

I look forward to helping my friend prepare the meal for all her family.

And — talk about unlikely! — I recently expressed a vague wish to learn to play the cello. I don’t even know how to read music and the only instrument I played in earlier life was the guitar.

My friend has a cello she’s going to let me try when we’re at her house. What a moment that’s likely to be. (Dog runs away in terror.)

Who will you welcome into your home this season?

Are you looking forward to it, dreading it — or avoiding it altogether?

What matters most to you?

In behavior, business, domestic life, family, life, parenting, work on November 14, 2015 at 1:04 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

When you wish upon a star...

When you wish upon a star…

I know a younger writer who — ho hum — has produced five books and four children in less than a decade.

Laura Vanderkam is happily and lucratively obsessed with the notion of time management, which isn’t as compelling to me. (But it’s clearly working for her!)

I do love her stance on a default phrase we often use — “I’m too busy”.

No, she says, the words you want, and want to mean, are “It’s not a priority.”

Travel!

Travel! I live for this. I work for this. Probably my number one priority

The things you devote the most of your time to become, de facto, your priorities.

It’s where we invest the bulk of our energy, money and attention. Our hopes and dreams.

We sacrifice other things to make sure these are, and remain, a central part of our life.

It might be your pet(s) or children or partner or your job.

It might be a passion project.

It could be competing in triathlons and beating your own personal record, time and again.

It might be setting up a charitable foundation, as several people I know have done.

It might — as several friends of mine are facing — be recovering, far more slowly than they’d hope, from surgery, illness or accident, losing hours and hours to maintaining or trying to regain their health and strength.

Sometimes life makes sure whatever we think is a priority…isn’t anymore.

Time to just sit still and enjoy the beauty all around us

I value making time to just sit still and enjoy the beauty around us

I think about this a lot because, like many of you, my life is filled with so many simultaneous things I hope to accomplish personally, professionally, intellectually, physically — from losing at least 30 pounds to publishing several more books.

So I make time to take a jazz dance class on Monday and Friday mornings which leaves my sweat in puddles on the floor and am finishing up my third book proposal, with a publisher already asking to see it.

I want my marriage (my second, 15 years in) to keep thriving, which means paying attention to my husband and his needs.

So we have both chosen to stay freelance (which means a sort of financial tapdance many can’t tolerate) so we can now sit and eat a mid-day meal at home together or travel much more often and widely because, as long as we have work and wi-fi, we can still earn a living.

A resort we love to visit...saving up for it means we make it a priority

A resort we love to visit…saving up for it means we make it a priority

I love to travel and am always planning the next journey, whether a road trip, a visit to a friend out-of-state or another flight across an ocean.

So I try to stay healthy enough to work hard, then take breaks. We nurture our relationships, so we have places to stay and friends to visit. We save money so we can afford flights, car rental, meals and lodging.

I want to make enough money to enjoy some real luxuries, whether beautiful new clothing, well-made accessories, regular massages.

Yet I also want to keep enough of a savings cushion I never have to fear poverty.

(That’s an ongoing conflict for me!)

I want to do work that deeply challenges me intellectually, no matter how much that can scare me.

What if I fail?

I now co-chair a volunteer board, The Writers Emergency Assistance Fund, (which sends a grant of up to $4,000 within a week or so to a needy writer who meets the criteria), so I’m testing and growing my leadership skills.

It’s already proving a real challenge to manage all the goals we’ve set for ourselves.

But which of all of these is most important and why?

How about you?
What matters most to you — and are you putting that first in your life right now?

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