11 ways to be a great host

By Caitlin Kelly

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After a long journey, time to relax…

Thanks to Jackie Cangro for the idea!

A few suggestions for those of you about to become a holiday host:

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No nagging, chivvying or political battles

Of all years, this is probably going to be the toughest for many of us. If you and your guests hold opposite political views, staying calm and civil is key. Garden-variety queries all guests dread — “So, why are you still single?” are bad enough!

Whatever it takes, try to avoid big arguments. Not much winning likely.

Private time!

Even the most social and extroverted among us need time to nap, rest, read, recharge. To just be alone for a while. Don’t feel rejected if someone needs it and don’t be shy about suggesting a few hours’ break from one another, every day.

A cheat sheet

Offer a sheet of paper with basic info: the home’s street address and phone numbers; nearby parks or running trails; an emergency contact; taxi numbers or the nearest gas station; directions to the nearest hospital, pharmacy and drugstore; how to work the coffee-maker and laundry facilities.

Anything guests need to know to stay safe and avoid creating inadvertent chaos.

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Thoughtful details: nice bath/shower gel or soap, bottles of cold water at bedside, setting a pretty table with a tablecloth, flowers and cloth napkins, a scented candle bedside, extras they might have forgotten or need (sanitary supplies, razors, diapers.)

Good guests really appreciate these.

A mini flashlight in their room

Especially helpful in a larger home, to navigate one’s way to the bathroom, on stairs or into the kitchen for a midnight snack.

A small basket of treats

Granola bars, crackers, some hard candy, almonds. We all get a bit hungry between meals.

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A selection of magazines

Nothing gloomy! Glossy shelter magazines always a safe bet.

Ask about and accommodate serious dietary preferences and allergies

Adding some half-and-half or a loaf of multi-grain bread won’t break the bank. If your guests have long lists of highly specific must-haves, it’s fair to ask them to bring some with them, (if traveling by car.)

If your guests are arriving with multiple ever-ravenous teenagers, maybe discuss splitting the grocery bill; it’s one thing to be a gracious host, but if your normal budget is already tight, don’t just seethe in silence at the need to keep buying more and more and more food.

A frank discussion about what you expect and all hope to accomplish: (lots of nothing? A tightly scheduled day?,  and at what speed

Few things are as grim as staying in a home that has vastly differing standards of cleanliness, timing, punctuality, tidiness, organization — even religiosity — than you do.

Some people are up at 5:00 a.m. every day on their Peloton or email while others’ notion of a holiday mean sleeping until noon. Do your best to coordinate schedules, at least for shared meals, then prepare to be easy-going and flexible.

A card in your room with your home’s wi-fi details and password

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The private home we stayed in in rural Nicaragua, while working for WaterAid. We felt deeply welcomed, and grateful for it!

A true sense of welcome

Most essential.

People know when their presence is really wanted and welcomed — and when it isn’t, (like the dirty cat litter box under my pull-out bed at one “friend’s” home and the empty fridge in another’s.)

If you really can’t bear having others staying in your home with you, (for whatever reason), don’t do it. It can be a difficult conversation and you may have to gin up some solid excuses (bedbug invasion?) but there are few experience as soul-searing (believe me!) as staying with someone — especially if your own home is a long expensive journey away — who doesn’t want you there.

11 ways to be a great guest

By Caitlin Kelly

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A shared meal is a gift

With American Thanksgiving looming and the holidays after that, many of us will soon become guests, whether meeting the parents of the one you love, (and maybe hope to marry — no pressure!), reconnecting with friends or with family you might see infrequently and who you don’t know very well.

Being a guest can also mean stepping into a potential minefield of mutually hurt feelings and/or unexpressed frustration.

Some hosts are explicit about their wishes, but many are not.

I’ve stayed with friends many times, some of whom live in fairly tight quarters; no one we know lives in a 4,000 square foot house or a stately mansion.

Fortunately, Jose and I have been invited back many times by the same hosts. (On a blessedly few occasions, it’s been a total shitshow, usually when staying with [sigh] my family.)

 

Here’s to a lovely holiday season!

 

 

Eleven  ways to hasten a return invitation:

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No political arguments!

The reason you’ve been invited into the sanctuary of someone’s home is to enjoy fun, friendship, fellowship not to engage in ferocious battles or shift them, suddenly, to your opposing worldview. (Or vice versa.)

When political conversation becomes (over)heated, contentious and ad hominem insults are flying — slow down long enough to ask yourself, seriously, what’s the upside? How much anger, even estrangement, is worth it?

(If it’s time to torch a bridge or two, have at it, but make sure there’s gas in your car or a taxi nearby and alternate lodging you can afford.)

Bring Scrabble, cards, Bananagrams, a good book, headphones and music you love, a sketchbook.

Head out for a long, head-clearing, blood-pressure-lowering walk.

Or, as some Americans are choosing to do this year after such a contentious election, just stay home, or at a hotel instead.

When asked for your dietary preferences, remember  — it’s not a full-service restaurant

Some people have life-threatening allergies, but others think nothing of imposing their impossibly long list of preferences.

If you insist on ready access to a specific food or drink, bring it with you — rural options can be distant and limited.

Stay quiet until you know your hosts are awake

This seems like basic good manners to me, but friends we recently stayed with at their country house upstate said they’re often awakened with pointedly heavy guests’ foot-steps as early as 8:00 a.m.

This is a couple who work 18-hour days running their own company and I know how weary they are!

Make sure you know how to find and (quietly!) make coffee or tea. Bring your own headphones and reading material.

Be a grown-up and entertain yourself and your kids in (relative) silence until everyone is fully conscious.

Sex? Keep it private and quiet

Ask any host about the worst guests they ever had, and the screamers and moaners will likely top the list. It’s great you’re so deeply in love (or lust), but sharing space with people you might not know very well is neither the time nor place to enjoy a noisy sexual marathon.

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An ex-boyfriend of mine had relative bring a sheep (yes, really) to his suburban home from upstate while visiting for Thanksgiving…

If you’re bringing your children and/or pets, have a full and frank discussion before arriving about what your hosts need and expect from them, and from you

Not everyone is used to plenty of high volume shrieking/barking, especially if they don’t have a child or a pet.

People who’ve chosen to “get away” are actually hoping to flee their everyday stresses, not add new and fresh hells to their time off. Promptly clean up every mess and apologize/offer to replace anything your kids/pet damage or break.

Buy groceries, pay for them or split food/drink costs with your host

Ditto for taking your hosts out for a few good meals. Don’t be a mooch.

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

Bring a gift

Don’t arrive empty-handed: offer a great bottle of wine, some beautiful soap, a lovely coffee table book on a topic you know your hosts will enjoy.

On one visit we gave a set of gorgeous Laguiole steak knives; the ones we brought were different colors than these ones, but very welcomed.

On another, we gave our hosts a small handmade pottery serving dish. Most recently, we offered another couple a lovely wooden spoon and a rustic white bowl.

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Detach from, or put away, your electronics

While many of us now spend ours day on social media, time away with friends or relatives means enjoying (or trying to!) actual face to face conversation, in the house, walking through the woods or wandering the beach.

Everyone needs and deserves quiet private time, but focus on the people who’ve invited you, not only your technology and distant amusements. And no phones at the table!

Write a thank-you note, on paper, and send it within a week

Sure, you can email, and most hosts probably expect nothing more. But choose a pretty card or use your personal stationery and highlight the things you most enjoyed.

Help out wherever you can

Wash dishes or cook a meal or walk the dog or baby-sit for a few hours. Maybe you can help mow the lawn or weed the garden. Your hosts will probably say no, but might well appreciate the offer. It’s a home, not a hotel.

Avoid public grooming

I was once hosted by a younger friend who sat on the sofa watching television with his wife  — while both of them flossed their teeth. Not my style.

You may walk around your own home clipping, cleaning or polishing your nails or brushing your teeth in transit, but in someone else’s space please keep all of it within the confines of a bathroom with a closed door.

 

Create lovely shared memories, not regrets you’ll all spend years trying to forget.

 

Do you enjoy being a guest or host?

What other tips would you offer a guest — or host?

How much do our parents shape us?

By Caitlin Kelly

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Two recent films have me thinking, long and hard, about the effects our parents, and their behaviors and values, exert on us, whether we’re young or adult — American Pastoral, from the book by Philip Roth, and Captain Fantastic, starring Viggo Mortensen.

One reviewer says Captain Fantastic is “the best movie about parenting I’ve ever seen.”

This Guardian reviewer calls it “strange and wonderful.”

The reviews of American Pastoral aren’t terrific, but I found much in it to think about — a solid citizen, owner of a Newark, NJ glove factory inherited from his father, ends up losing his rebellious daughter to an underground movement devoted to blowing up buildings and sowing social unrest.

It encapsulates the schism of the 1960s between the “squares” and the hippies, between those committed to the way things were and those determined to rend the social fabric edge to edge.

Dakota Fanning plays the daughter, moving from a stuttering teen simmering with suburban rage to a mentally fragile adult. Her father never gives up his search for her, a heart-rending theme for me, who has had many estrangements from my own.

The father in Captain Fantastic is a divisive figure, an authoritarian raising his six children in a teepee in the woods of Oregon, home schooling them and subjecting them to intense physical training. The breathtaking beauty of their surroundings is in contrast to their total social and cultural isolation — I thought, the whole way through it, of Cea Person, whose searing memoir of a similar childhood in the woods of Canada, North of Normal, is unforgettable.

Here’s my blog post about it, including an interview with Cea.

I’m fascinated by these two films for the questions they raise about how much we want to become our parents — or rush to flee their influence.

I never had children, but am always intrigued by how people choose to raise them and to impart their values, whether social, intellectual, creative or religious. I’ve seen a few adults I know work hard to break free of their family, often with painful consequences, and others still in thrall to patterns that make them unhappy but can’t find a way out.

I’m always in awe (yes, and envious) of happy, emotionally close families, the kind where an adult daughter and her mother remain best friends, and Sunday dinners en famille go on for decades.

Not us.

Both of my parents are free spirits, both of whom — not surprisingly — came from wealthy but emotionally difficult families. Neither of them ever talks about their childhood.

My father was raised in Vancouver, his father, (an Irish immigrant from a small town in Co. Donegal), founded and ran a successful trucking company there; my mother, born in New York City, was raised by a wealthy mother from Chicago who had multiple husbands, divorcing the ones who annoyed her most.

Headstrong ‘r us.

My mother, who never attended college but married at 17, lived life on her own terms, whether wearing a sari, (her best friend for decades was East Indian), a different wig for every day of the week or moving us to Mexico when I was 14. That ended badly when she had a nervous breakdown on Christmas Eve, stranding me and a friend on our own for a few weeks there.

My father, a successful and multiple award-winning filmmaker of features and documentaries, never met a cage he didn’t want to rattle, hard. Both are still alive, long divorced.

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My mother and I have no relationship at this point.

Even this late in life, I’m still their child in some ways — stubborn, creative, a world traveler, intellectually curious, with friends ranging in age from the 20s to 80s.

My tastes in art and music and food are both developed and wildly catholic, as theirs are, a gift I appreciate.

Both are smart as hell and super-competitive — family Scrabble games can get a little feral!

My father is ferociously agnostic, my mother for years a devoted Catholic; I occasionally attend Episcopal services. (My husband, a devoted Buddhist, was raised by a strict Baptist minister.)

In other ways, I’m quite different.

My mother has lived in such disparate spots as Lima, Peru, Bath, Roswell, New Mexico and B.C.’s Sunshine Coast; I’ve now lived in the same apartment for more than 20 years, am much less successful professionally and financially than my father was and, in some ways, more disciplined in my choices than either have been.

I’m also a product of my times, my adolescence in the hippie-ish late 1960s and 1970s and my native country, Canada, which remains socially liberal.

Which parent do you most resemble?

Or have you chosen to reject their values?

How much do you wish your children will be (are they?) like you?

It’s a question of character

By Caitlin Kelly

“Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.” “The true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is watching.” — coach John Wooden

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Exactly.

This week, thanks to the media, (yes, of which I’m still a member), I saw two powerful examples of character in action.

The first, which I won’t belabor, was that of Presidential candidate Donald Trump, mocking and dismissing the 14 women who have come forward to share publicly a private and humiliating and angering moment they say happened to them in his presence when he groped them.

We weren’t there, so only he and they know what happened.

But it’s how someone behaves in private — and behaves consistently — that defines the essence of their character.

It’s what you do and say to people, usually people with much less power than you have, (i.e. you can lose your job, your home, your friendship, your marriage if you fight back or tell anyone what shit they’ve subjected you to).

Some people wield that power like a billy club, swinging it with a smirk — over and over and over.

We also live in an unprecedented era of personality, where The Famous boast of, and monetize, their millions of followers on Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, as proof of their popularity.

Oh, how we rush to buy their music and books and line up to vote for them, cheering til we’re hoarse.

We literally idolize them, projecting onto them every possible good quality we so long to see and feel in our broken world.

Yet we have no idea whatsoever who they really are.

I watch a show called Project Runway on Lifetime, a cable channel here, and have for years. It begins every season with a group of 12 or more ambitious fashion designers — some of whom have auditioned repeatedly for years to get on the show — who will be whittled down week after week by competing in a variety of difficult challenges.

Last night’s episode was an astonishing and moving reminder of character, that quaint, old-fashioned, Victorian notion of behaving with integrity and honor.

When it came time for the losing team to name one of their fellow team members to send home for good, four of the six said something unlikely and unprecedented: Send me. I screwed up.

I’ve never seen the show’s host and mentor ,Tim Gunn, so moved and so impressed with the behavior of the man chosen to leave, who had also volunteered to take one for his team.

If you’ve watched previous seasons, (yes, I’m a serious fan!), you’ll recall moments when there was a virtual stampede, (remember Ashley Nell Tipton?), to toss someone else under the bus.

It was ugly to see and, yes, revealed character.

I’ve now been with my husband for 16 years, married for five.

The decisive moment for me was a revelation of his character, in a time of fear, unplanned expense and chaos, when so many other men, no matter how handsome or charming,  would have wobbled or slithered away from the challenge or left me, once more, to pick up the pieces as her only, overwhelmed child.

My mother, living alone in a small town, had been been found — the door broken in by police after worried neighbors called them — lying in bed for days, unable to move.

A stroke? We had no idea. She lived, as she still does, a six-hour flight plus two-hour drive from us.

I called Jose, then working in one of the most senior and responsible photo editing jobs at The New York Times, and said, “We have to go. Tomorrow.”

He told his bosses and we went.

His decision to be a mensch was instant.

And invisible to everyone but me and his bosses.

It cost a fortune I didn’t have that he paid for — last-minute airfare, meals, car rental.

When we got to my mother’s house, he took her stained mattress to the balcony to scrub it clean. Not a word. No complaints. No whining.

Just — help, support, strength.

Character.

 

Bullies and their victims

By Caitlin Kelly

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It’s been quite a week for those of us who live in the United States and who watched the second Presidential debate on Sunday night.

Like many of my friends, male and female, gay and straight, I slept very badly that night and have been exhausted ever since.

The thought of Donald Trump with access to nuclear codes?

One of the elements of the debate that horrified so many women I know was Trump’s persistent moving around the small stage throughout, his scowling and his bizarre need to stay physically very close to Hillary Clinton throughout 90 minutes.

Defenders said he simply wanted to make sure he was always in the line of the camera’s gaze, even when she was speaking.

Asked about it later, she gamely laughed and admitted she felt his presence.

If you’ve ever been physically and/or emotionally bullied by a man who is relentless in his determination to scare the shit out of you, it leaves scars.

Most of us are physically smaller and less muscular than men, so they know they can “get away with it.”

Most of us are heavily socialized to make nice and stay calm, to laugh off, dismiss or ignore the appalling things some men say and do to us, at school, at work, on public transportation, in a bar or restaurant.

Very few of us have the appetite to lash back, fearful of physical harm, even death, if we retaliate with the full strength of the rage and disgust we really feel.

From The New York Times:

to many victims of sexual assault, Mr. Trump’s words struck a particular nerve. It was not simply that he is the Republican presidential nominee, and that a hot microphone had captured him speaking unguardedly. It was his casual tone, the manner in which he and the television personality Billy Bush appeared to be speaking a common language, many women said, that gave Mr. Trump’s boasts a special resonance.

What he said and how he said it seemed to say as much about the broader environment toward women — an environment that had kept many of these women silent for so long — as they did about the candidate. And Mr. Trump’s dismissal of his actions as “locker room talk” only underscored the point.

It creates a kind of PTSD that is very real — like many women, I was shaking with rage throughout his attacks.

My social media contacts blew up with women furious and terrified.

Canadian author Kelly Oxford asked women on Twitter to share stories of their own experiences.

From Vogue:

Less than half an hour later, Oxford tweeted: “I am currently receiving 2 sex assault stories per second. Anyone denying rape culture, please look at my timeline now.”

Like millions of other women, no matter our age or income level or education or where we live, I’ve been bullied emotionally and threatened physically by men.

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I don’t want a President of the United States who uses every tactic imaginable — economic, emotional, physical, legal — to punish and humiliate others.

 

Especially women.

 

 

Need an affordable EpiPen?

By Caitlin Kelly

BUSINESS OF FREELANCING

Here’s how to find one, my story yesterday from Forbes.

The backstory, for those of you who don’t use or need one, is the staggering price increase for the EpiPen, an injectable device that pumps epinephrine into your system to address anaphylactic shock, an allergic reaction to nuts, shellfish, fish or any number of substances.

If someone goes into that shock, they need the injection within 30 minutes or they can die.

In the U.S. — whose entire healthcare “system” is run to wring the maximum profit from our inevitable physical needs — there’s only one company making them right now, Mylan, whose female CEO, Heather Bresch, the daughter of a Senator, no less, might be the most loathed individual in the country right now.

Knowing she has the market cornered, (as other competitors left the field), she spiked the price of EpiPens to $600 — a huge jump, and one that makes a lifesaving device unaffordable to many people.

(The company, now under tremendous public fire, is offering a $300 coupon.)

Imagine needing, (as some people do), three sets for each child: school, home and your vehicle, a cool $1,800 to start.

Oh, and Bresch earns $19 million for her.…ethics.

 

I’ve been following this story, not because anyone I know uses an EpiPen but because I’m so sickened by corporate greed.

 

I also grew up, to the age of 30, in a nation with strict government oversight and regulation of drugs, medications and device prices — so no one gets gouged.

That’s Canada.

I decided to pursue this story on Friday morning, and started at 10:00 a.m.

I put out calls and urgent emails to sources in the U.S. and Canada, racing the clock to get the story reported and written quickly; as a “trending topic”, I needed to get it posted as soon as I could, yet make sure I was producing a smart, well-written and well-sourced piece.

Social media saved my bacon — a request to a writers’ group I belong to on Facebook prompted a fast reply from someone who knew a physicians (!) who personally relies on EpiPens and who emailed me back quickly and in detail.

Score!

Working behind the scenes with my editor who, as usual and of course, I haven’t met, we discussed how to best present the story, an angle I hadn’t read anywhere else — yet.

We posted the finished story, about 1,200 words, by 5pm. (Good thing I’ve worked as a daily newspaper reporter. That kind of speed is normal for me.)

 

If you have time to read it, please share it widely; Forbes is a pay per view model, and this story offers an important way for people who need affordable access to get it.

Self-preservation

By Caitlin Kelly

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Setting a pretty table to share with friends? That’s a soothing activity for me…

 

There’s a phrase I see and hear a lot, and one I never heard decades ago — self-care.

It’s often aimed at women, especially mothers of small/multiple children, typically run off their feet caring for everyone but themselves.

The simplest of pleasures, reading a book or magazine uninterrupted, owning lovely clothing not covered with various bodily excretions, disappear in a whirlwind of attending to everyone else’s needs all the time.

It also happens when you’re overwhelmed by anything: a crazily demanding job and/or boss; trying to juggle work/school/family; wearyingly long commutes that consume hours; a medical crisis; care-giving someone ill and/or elderly.

Your own needs come second or third or fourth.

Or, it seems, never.

It becomes a matter of survival, of self-preservation.

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Music, art, culture…feed your soul!

 

Of preserving, even a little, your identity, your hunger for silence and solitude, for time spent with friends or your pet or in nature.

It’s often reduced, for women, to consumptive choices like getting a manicure or massage, (and I do enjoy both, while some women loathe being touched by a stranger.)

 

But our needs are deeper, subtler and more complicated.

 

Caring for yourself isn’t always something you just buy, a product or service that keeps the economy humming — and can make you feel passive, resentful, a chump.

There’s no price tag on staring at a sunset or admiring the night sky or listening to your cat purr nearby.

There’s no “value” to sitting still, phone off, computer off, to say a silent prayer.

It’s one reason women who choose not to have children — as I did and millions do — are so often labeled “selfish”, as if caring for a spouse or friends or the world or, (gasp) your own needs, is lesser than, shameful, worthy of disapproval.

When it’s no one’s business.

We all need to preserve:

Our souls, whether through prayer or meditation or labyrinth walking or a long hike or canoe paddle.

Our bodies, which shrink and soften, literally, as we age, so we need to keep them strong and fit and flexible, not just thin and pretty.

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Our finances. Women, especially, can face a terrifyingly impoverished old age, thanks to earning less for fewer years, and/or putting others’ needs first, (those of children, aging parents, spouse, siblings), and hence a reduced payout from Social Security. It’s a really ugly payback for years of being emotionally generous.

Our solitude. Yes, we each need daily time alone in silence, uninterrupted by the phone or texts or just the incessant demands of anyone else. We all need time to think, ponder, muse, reflect. Silence is deeply healing.

— Our mental health. That can mean severing toxic relationships with family, neighbors, bosses, clients or friends who drain us dry with their neediness, rage or anxiety. It might mean committing the time and money needed to do therapy, often not fun at all. It might mean using anti-depression or anti-anxiety medication. 

— Our friendships. These are the people we often neglect in our rush to make money or attain some higher form of social status. It can take time, energy and commitment to keep a friendship thriving.

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— Our planet. Crucial. Without clean air and water, without a way to flee flood, famine, war and fire — or prevent them — we’re all at risk.

Our sexuality. At any age, in whatever physical condition we find ourselves in.

Our rightful gender. I recently met someone now transitioning from being born into a female body into the male one he now prefers. What an extraordinary decision and journey he’s now on. For some, it’s a matter of the most primal preservation.

Our identities. Whatever yours is focused on, it’s possibly, if you live in North America, primarily centered on your work and the status and income it provides. Which is fine, until you’re fired or laid off. Then what?

Or on your role as wife/husband (divorce can really shatter that one into minuscule shards, as this blogger, a divorcee and single mother, often reflects.)

Or on that of being a parent, (the empty nest can feel very disorienting.)

I think it’s essential to claim, and nurture, and savor lifelong multiple strong identities, whether athletic, artistic, a spirit of generosity or philanthropy, creative pleasures. You can be a cellist and a great cook and a loving son/daughter and love mystery novels and love playing hockey and love singing hymns.

 

We’re all diamonds, with multiple gleaming facets.

 

Take good care of yourself!

 

The joy (?!) of housework

By Caitlin Kelly

OK, you think, she’s lost her marbles — for good this time.

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The ikat is for our headboard, the check for side tables

How can anyone enjoy housework?

 

I do.

Here are 10 reasons I enjoy cleaning our home:

  1. Jose — my husband, a photo editor and photographer — and I are now both full-time freelance. That means spending a lot more time, together, in a one-bedroom apartment. It’s not only our home, but on many days also our shared work space.  If it’s not tidy, clean and organized, we’re toast. Where’s that check? Where’s my invoice? Have you seen my notes?! Not an option.

Housework also offers me a quick, physically-active break from the computer.

Because I lose no time to commuting, I don’t resent spending 20 minutes a day making sure our home is in good order.

 

People who spend hours just getting to and from work every day — and/or caring for/ferrying multiple children to multiple activities — have much less time available to do anything, let alone clean the bathtub.

 

2.    We live in a small apartment.

There’s no extra wing — or bedroom or bathroom or unfilled closet (I wish!) in which to stash all the junk. If it’s out, we see it. So we spend a lot of time putting stuff away.

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3. Jose does all the laundry.

Every bit of it, every single time. I loathe doing laundry, (machines in our apartment building basement), and am grateful he actually enjoys doing it. Plus he gets to hear all the building gossip.

And I (yes) really enjoy ironing.

 

4. I spent my childhood in institutional settings — alternating between boarding school and summer camp, ages 8 through 16.

That meant sharing space with two to four other girls, stuck with ugly, uncomfortable iron beds at school and plain wooden bunks at camp. School offered basic cotton coverlets and faded paper wallpaper.

Always someone else’s tastes and rules.

I’m so fortunate now to own our home, one in which we’ve invested care, sweat and two major renovations.

In world where so many people are homeless — the indigent, refugees living in tents for years — to have a home that is clean, safe, private and ours?

I treasure it.

5. In boarding school we were graded daily — with a sheet of paper taped to the bedroom entrance — on our neatness. I always got terrible marks which meant I had to stay in at weekends and/or (yes, really) memorize Bible verses as punishment. I can think of fewer more effective ways to make someone hate being tidy.

Today it’s wholly my choice, freely made.

Yay, autonomy!

 

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A table set for one of our dinner parties

6. We own lovely things, many of them old.

It’s my joy and pleasure to take good care of them for whoever gets them next time around. We have no kids, so who knows…A friend? An auction house?

Whether the 18th century oak dining table or valuable original signed photographs, it’s a privilege to own them. Why not take good care of them?

7. I don’t consider it housework but home care.

There’s a very real difference for me.

8. We have no pets or children  and we’re both pretty tidy.

Without mud, dander, fur and jammy hand-prints appearing every day everywhere, caring for a small apartment just isn’t a big deal — two to three hours’ work does the whole place.

It’s not a huge house filled with stuff and/or being endlessly re-shuffled and messed by others, some them breathtakingly oblivious to how much time and work it takes to keep a home looking its best.

I’m amazed, (and appalled), by people whose children and husbands or male partners (typically) just don’t do their fair share of laundry and cleaning up.

It’s a huge burden on women who already have plenty on our plates as it is.

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I designed our (only) bathroom and never mind cleaning it.

9. My parents’ homes were/are poorly cared for.

They had plenty of money and each owned some very nice things, so, in my view, had no excuse for neglecting these gifts. I hated seeing dust everywhere and finding a fridge either empty of any food or full of rotting vegetables.

10. Our home nurtures us deeply.

As highly visual people, we’ve chosen every element of it carefully — from wall colors to cust0m-made lined curtains, antique rugs and original photographs, silver and silver-plate cutlery, linen and cotton napkins.

 

We’ve created a home that demands some real attention: dusting, polishing, shining, washing — but that also rewards us handsomely with beauty, warmth, comfort and a place to recharge.

 

We also love to entertain, often holding long, lazy Sunday lunches for our friends or welcoming young journalists to crash on our sofa.

Keeping the place guest-ready means we’re happy to host without panicking.

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$31. Score!

 

 Is housework something you dread and avoid — or does doing it give you some pleasure as well?

Taking comfort in…

By Caitlin Kelly

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Reliving happy memories helps — my wedding day in 2011.

 

When life gets ugly and out of control, as it inevitably does for everyone at some point, we  need to rest, recharge, maybe withdraw and definitely seek comfort.

It’s a deep hunger and one we dismiss or ignore at our peril.

Many Americans turned to their faith communities last week, with churches in many cities welcoming people who are angry, confused, grieving and needing solace.

The entire country feels wounded and wary.

Things aren’t much happier in Britain, with political leaders lying and quitting at a rapid rate.

It’s also been a rough time for me personally; nothing life-threatening, but I’m weary.

So I seek comfort in several ways:

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– A walk in nature

— Hugs from my husband

— Reading for pure pleasure (not the usual glut of must-read news and non-fiction)

— Bubble baths

— A cold beer (weekends only)

— Classical music

— Playing my 80s vinyl

— Rice pudding

Freshly-ironed pillowcases

— Flowers, everywhere

Cooking a favorite recipe (this week, tomato/leek quiche)

— Entertaining dear friends; six coming for Sunday lunch this week

— Sitting a cafe with a pal, the kind who knows you really well and is OK if you start crying in public

 

When things go south, how do you comfort yourself?

 

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Q and A with Plum Johnson: her new memoir: “They Left Us Everything”

By Caitlin Kelly

 

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I recently read a lovely new memoir by a fellow Canadian and she was kind enough — thank you, Plum! — to agree to a question and answer interview with me for Broadside.

As regular readers here know, I love to find and feature talented writers and photographers whose work I hope will be valuable to my blog readers as well.

One great joy of the creative life is celebrating talent and sharing it.

Her book resonated strongly with me, as it’s set in the town of Oakville, near Toronto where I grew up and return often to visit.

I haven’t had to clear out a huge family home, as she did, but I totally related to much of her story. It’s fun, funny, poignant.

Certainly anyone faced with the daunting and often emotionally overwhelming challenge of sorting through decades of their parents’ belongings, let alone selling the family home, with all its attendant memories, will enjoy her book.

I also love that one of Plum’s role models for memoir is one of my favorite writers, Alexandra Fuller, a British woman (now living in the U.S.) whose two memoirs of growing up in Zimbabwe were best-sellers. When I teach writing, I always use some passages from her books.

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The book’s Canadian cover

 

Tell us a bit about yourself…

My first book, (written when I was five), was called ‘The Mouse and the Hat.’ My mother saved it and it surfaced when I was clearing out her house. Writing came easily to me, but Dad said, “Life isn’t meant to be easy!” So I figured I should do something harder. Many of us ignore out childhood passions, don’t you think?

When I was six years old, a friend of my mother’s published a satirical romantic novel in which the feisty heroine was loosely based on Mum. That book sat on a shelf in my bedroom for years. Each night I’d stare at it, secretly dreaming that one day my own name might replace the author’s on the spine. I’m sure a therapist could infer all sorts of things from that early obsession, but I still treasure that book. It reminds me that my dream was there from childhood.

After college, I taught high school for a year and then switched to advertising. I got a job as a copywriter for Sears – in their catalog division. It was wonderful training! Copywriters spend all their time ‘killing their darlings’ – madly cutting until their copy achieves pure essence, using as few words as possible.

 When did the idea for this book come to you?

The light-bulb moment came when I was taking Mum’s stuff to the thrift store. I noticed three things: the store was piled high with identical stuff from the fifties; adult children were dropping it off by the truckload in a big hurry; and it had all lost its value – nobody wanted it.

I stood back and thought, Wow – look at this big picture!

 

Why isn’t anybody writing about this? I wonder if there’s a book here?

 

What did your agent think of it initially? Was it an easy sale, as there are so many memoirs now?

Memoirs used to be a hard sell, but I think that’s changing – especially with the success years ago of The Glass Castle. The popularity of reality TV has changed readers’ appetites.

 

We’ve become a nation of voyeurs

 

If ‘truth is stranger than fiction,’ why read a novel? My original pitch was that I’d write a “Goodnight Moon” for adults. (It’s got good “buzz” – right?) My agent liked the idea. I planned a lighthearted book about “saying goodbye to stuff.” But the more I wrote, the more the book changed. Suddenly the “old lady whispering hush” emerged: a strong mother-daughter theme that caused me to look deeper.

 

 

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The American cover

 

Did you have any concerns (as many people do when writing about their family)?

 

Sure. When I began looking deeper I was terrified. Not terrified of what my family would think, but what readers might think once the book was published. I was confessing so many private thoughts about my relationship with Mum – and I wasn’t proud of them.

 

Did you have any role model/memoirs whose tone or structure inspired yours?

 

I’ve always loved reading memoir, so I have lots of favorite books. I was reading Rick Bragg’s memoir about his mother, All Over but the Shoutin’, Susan Cheever’s Treetops, Alexandra Fuller’s Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness, and also rereading essays by Nora Ephron.

 

How did you structure the book and why?

 

My first attempt was strictly chronological. I happen to like chronological order – it’s a pure form and leaves no place to hide. But as different readers and editors offered opinions, the structure began to change.

One reader had marked a big red arrow about twenty pages in with the words: YOUR BOOK STARTS HERE.

 

Then my agent (who also happens to be a great editor) took all the chapters, shuffled them like a deck of cards, handed them back, and said, “What about this?”

 

We lived with that for a while until, at the eleventh hour, another editor gave me a thoughtful ten-page critique that was exactly right. It was like eureka! I spent a frenzied weekend putting yellow sticky notes all over my kitchen wall and changing the order of a few key things.

 

What was most challenging about writing it?

 

The editing of any book is the hardest part, but also the most satisfying. It took me about nine months to write and almost two years to edit. Of course, now I can’t remember what we left in or what got cut.

 

The most fun?

 

Trying to find my book in the bookstores. It was usually shelved under “Grief and Bereavement.” I had no idea it was about grieving.

 

Did you take notes as you were emptying the house or did you have to rely on memory?

 

Yes – notes! Remember – I was living in Mum’s house for more than a year. I knew very few people in town, so I had no social life.

After sorting all day, I’d collapse into bed and write down memories triggered by the things I was finding

 

Memories were in no particular order. Just a jumble of thoughts. But I ended up with a collection of “scenes” that I used later in my manuscript.

 

Any reaction from your family?

 

My family read the manuscript before it ever went to a publisher. I wasn’t prepared to sacrifice any relationships, so I promised to remove anything they found hurtful. Thankfully, nothing got removed – except later by the editors!

 

What sorts of emails/reaction have you gotten from readers — it’s so much a generational rite of passage for so many people now!

 

That’s the thing about memoir: you think you’re writing about your own life but it turns out you’re writing about everyone else’s as well.

 

We all have so much in common

 

I wish I could thank the stranger who came up to me outside an elevator shortly after my book came out. She recognized me from the book jacket and did a double-take. “Are you Plum Johnson?” she said. I started backing away, thinking: uh-oh, here comes the criticism. “May I give you a hug?” she said. “Because I had a mother just like yours!”