What’s your legacy?

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By Caitlin Kelly

 

Few events will raise this thorny question as powerfully as a funeral.

 

Who came?

How many?

Who spoke and what did they say about the deceased?

 

I spent an hour Thursday morning at the funeral of the 91-year-old woman who shared a wall with us for 17 years. We didn’t know her well. We knew her name, and that she was a local, and that she had several adult daughters in town.

She was always friendly, but deeply private.

I learned a lot about her and her life — widowed at 44 with four daughters — when I listened to the eulogy.

The pews were filled with friends and neighbors, children and grand-children, including a very small baby.

This time last year, we attended a funeral for a much beloved and eccentric New York Times colleague, who worked, literally, side by side for eight years with my husband Jose. They weathered the storm of the crash of 2008, fought, made up, laughed and became close.

Zvi, who played tennis every week into his 70s and was lean and fit, was hit by a rare and aggressive cancer and dead within months of his diagnosis. Jose was asked to give the eulogy.

When you sit in the pews attending someone’s funeral, it’s natural to wonder what those left behind would say of you and how you chose to live your life.

 

Did you give back?

Were you generous and kind?

Did you laugh often?

Did you mentor?

 

If you don’t have children or close younger relatives — and I do not — this question of legacy is a real and pressing one, and only grows with every year I’m still alive.

 

Am I leaving a good life behind?

Am I doing enough for others?

 

Legacy isn’t only about your family or your work or whatever financial assets are left in your estate.

Nor need you be wealthy enough to be an official philanthropist or have your name on a building, as most of us never will.

Every day we create our legacy.

Yes, including weekends!

Do you ever think about this as well?

 

The altered body

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By Caitlin Kelly

This week, a year ago, a female surgeon — wearing monkey socks she proudly showed me beforehand, sharing a laugh I needed — removed a small growth from my left breast.

Today it’s a thumb-length pale pink scar I see every day. Since the end of 20 days’ radiation treatment in November 2018, my skin there is now brown and freckled, unlikely to change. The skin is also still orange peel-ish in texture, odd and unpleasant to the touch or appearance.

The minuscule black dots on my back and stomach, used to guide the radiation machine, are still there as well.

And there’s nothing to be done but accept it.

Serious illness will knock any vanity out of you, no matter how we hope to remain forever pretty or thin or strong.

If we survive it, we’re forever altered, our bodies a map of our journey.

After a decade or two, our bodies bear witness: scars, wrinkles, a few persistent injuries that twinge us on a rainy day.

My two favorite scars are maybe half an inch in length, almost matching, one on the inside of either wrist — both the result of great adventures I thoroughly enjoyed at the time.

One, falling off a moped in northern Thailand, as I and my first husband rode to the Burmese border. The other, sustained by scraping against a metal cable while crewing aboard a Long Island yacht in a fall race.

I have three little scars on the top of each knee, like the top of a coconut, from meniscus repairs, also the result of a highly active life.

Friends who have faced multiple surgeries know this all too well.

Our bodies demand repair.

If we’re fortunate, we’re treated with skill and kindness and heal.

As long as my body is able to function freely — and thank heaven, for now it still is — I don’t care as much how it looks as what it can do.

Grateful to be here, scars and all.

 

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A fallow field

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By Caitlin Kelly

Two of my favorite journalism assignments in 2018 involved a six-hour drive from my home in New York to farms in Quebec, near Montreal. I worked in French and learned a lot, quickly, about agriculture, thanks to Messieurs Bachand and Bousquet.

A city girl, I’ve never lived on or worked on a farm, but I love one farming concept deeply — the fallow field.

The field left to recharge, empty, after being over-planted.

Welcome to my brain!

I started writing for a living as a full-time undergraduate at a demanding university, juggling term papers and exams with assignments for national magazines and newspapers.

I didn’t take a break until I was 30, completely worn out and — very fortunately — financially able to do so for three blissful summer months while living in a small town in New Hampshire.

I haven’t written much lately.

Many people dream of “being a writer”. The part often overlooked is the tremendous hustle required to sell that work.

I send out pitches for stories to various editors — five last week, three this week — and wait for replies, whether a paid/work/yes or a no…meaning more pitching and still no income.

I look daily for story ideas and, with some, do initial unpaid pre-reporting to see if there is a saleable story; one I’ve been chasing for six months and which (yay!) prompted an immediate “I’m intrigued” reply from an editor I’m dying to write for.

My latest book proposal is now with two editors at major New York City publishers, so I also await their decisions. I may apply for another fellowship, the application due June 26.

 

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It’s been eight years since Malled was published.

 

I’ve recently attended two local networking events, as I’m long overdue getting out to meet local businesses that might be able to use my writing, editing, blogging and coaching skills. I enjoyed both events, but whew! It’s also tiring being charming to strangers.

Instead of writing all the time, I’ve been reading a lot (even fiction! Station Eleven, by fellow Canadian-in-NY Emily St. John Mandel), and going to the gym and shopping for some new summer clothes for a June vacation in Jose’s hometown, Santa Fe, New Mexico.

It’s disorienting to write less, mostly because that’s where the money eventually comes from!

But I’ve also been coaching other writers (details on my Welcome and About pages here), a nice income-producing break from word production.

 

Because one’s brain just gets tired!

 

Rest, recharge, relax…

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One of my addictions — shelter magazines!

 

By Caitlin Kelly

It’s a long weekend here in the U.S., Memorial Day, and that means — for some — a three-day break from work.

Things have been quiet-ish here for me: lots of pitching of story ideas, attending local networking events and following up with the people I’ve met there — and (!) waiting nervously to hear from two editors about my book proposal.

In an economy where so many are self-employed, work can dominate every day of the week unless you set tight boundaries. It’s also tough for many people with high-pressure jobs to slow down and just rest.

I hope you’re making time for this as well!

Here are some of the ways I rest, recharge and relax:

 

Exercise

 

I try to get to spin class three times a week, 45 minutes in the dark with great music. When not being lazy, I also lift weights, skate at a local ice rink and go for walks. I need the social aspect of being around others as much as the cardio and stretching. I may get back to playing softball, even with a runner to fill in for my bad right knee.

 

 

 

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The walkway next to our town reservoir

 

 

Nature

 

We live at treetop level, eye-to-eye with blue jays and with ready access to gorgeous walking trails along the Hudson River or the nearby Rockefeller estate (750 acres that one of the nation’s richest families donated for public use.) I love seeing the world change with the seasons — our local cormorant is back at the reservoir!

 

Friendship

 

Little kids get play dates to look forward to. Adults need them too! I make sure each week to set up at least one face to face meeting with a friend, over coffee or lunch. I’ve been working alone at home, with no kids or pets, since 2006. It gets lonely. I also make time for long catch-up phone calls with old friends in Canada (for whom [?!] long distance rates still somehow apply.)

 

Meditation class

 

This is a new thing for me, held every Wednesday morning at 10:00 a.m. in the chapel of our church and led by our minister’s wife. This all sounds starchy, I’m sure, but it’s a truly powerful place to share ideas and insights, to sit still in silence, to learn and to build community. It’s women only, ranging in age from 40s to 80+, and we usually have eight to 12. It’s good to have a standing date with one’s soul.

 

Therapy

 

After my breast cancer diagnosis last June, even a very good one, anxiety has become an unwelcome new companion. Therapy helps.

 

 

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Found this 1940s diner on a great road-trip last summer, on Long Island’s North Shore

 

Travel

 

Always my favorite! We just took a quick two-day trip to Montreal, a five-hour drive door-to-door from our home, and it was a perfect break. Sometimes a change of scenery is just the ticket.

 

Reading

 

Escaping into a great book is a perfect way to de-compress.

 

Hey, leisure rhymes with pleasure!

 

How about you?

Climate change: what next?

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By Caitlin Kelly

I won’t repeat the endless warnings I read daily.

If you follow the news, you’re also well aware.

We were back up in Montreal last weekend where I was heartened to see this large street protest — calmly protected by multiple police officers — as students took to to the streets for their Friday school strike.

 

 

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“Don’t adapt — act” …

 

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They were inspired by a high school student far away across the ocean, Swedish schoolgirl Greta Thunberg, recently profiled by Time magazine as their cover story, extraordinary in itself.

An excerpt:

Castigating the powerful has become routine for the 16-year-old. In December, she addressed the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Poland; in January she berated billionaires at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Her London speech was the last stop of a tour that included meeting the Pope. (“Continue to work, continue,” he told her, ending with, “Go along, go ahead.” It was an exhortation, not a dismissal.)

Just nine months ago, Thunberg had no such audiences. She was a lone figure sitting outside the Swedish Parliament in Stockholm, carrying a sign emblazoned with Skolstrejk for Klimatet (School Strike for Climate). She was there for a reason that felt primal and personal. While Thunberg was studying climate change in school at the age of 11, she reacted in a surprisingly intense way: she suffered an episode of severe depression. After a time it lifted, only to resurface last spring.

“I felt everything was meaningless and there was no point going to school if there was no future,” Thunberg says. But this time, rather than suffer the pain, she decided to push back at its cause, channeling her sadness into action. “I promised myself I was going to do everything I could do to make a difference,” she says.

 

I confess to feeling daily despair over a changing climate wreaking havoc worldwide: floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, cyclones, droughts, incredible heatwaves, all of which are damaging agriculture and the oceans, drying up crucial sources of water and causing millions of people living in vulnerable areas to wonder where else they might possibly live safely.

Indians recently fled a cyclone thanks to receiving in advance millions of warning text messages —- while Ottawa, Canada’s capital, recently coped with the worst flooding in 25 years.

 

No one is safe.

 

What, if anything, are you doing to deal with climate change?

 

Is it affecting your life?

 

Will it affect how you vote?

 

Niksen, farniente, lassitude. REST!

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I lay for long lazy hours alone on this beach in July 2017 in Croatia. Heaven!

 

By Caitlin Kelly

It’s all sort of sad, really.

In this recent New York Times story — putatively touting the benefits of doing absolutely nothing, aka niksen — the whole reason for doing nothing is…to be more productive:

 

More practically, the idea of niksen is to take conscious, considered time and energy to do activities like gazing out of a window or sitting motionless. The less-enlightened might call such activities “lazy” or “wasteful.” Again: nonsense.

We at Smarter Living have long been fans of taking regular breaks throughout the day, as study after study shows that feeling drowsy, exhausted or otherwise mentally depleted during the workday drastically hinders performance and productivity.

In other words: Whether at home or at work, permission granted to spend the afternoon just hanging out.

 

Insert my very loud scream right here.

 

I did something unthinkable to the old me today.

I skipped the second jam-packed day at an annual writers’ conference: missing appointments and new potential clients, not seeing old friends and basically wasting the money I paid for all of it.

Instead, feeling exhausted and overwhelmed, I stayed home, alone and quiet.

I didn’t do this to become more productive!

I did it because I was tired.

I really needed to rest.

I did this because my body told me to sleep 9.5 hours last night, which I gratefully did.

I did it because I cried to a friend in a NYC tea room, worn out with anxiety.

We live in a time when millions of us are being forced into economic precarity — aka the “gig economy”, a phrase I loathe. Because this kind of work is always somewhat unpredictable (I lost my two anchor clients overnight), and can be poorly paid, one is very reluctant to turn away income, to slow down, to just….be still.

Which makes it even more important to just do that.

Nothing.

And plenty of it, dammit!

 

Do you find it hard to slow down, unplug, unwind and just rest?

 

Coping with fragility

 

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

What a concept.

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

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

Today?

Not so much.

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

But I feel so much more fragile.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Therapy helps.

Telling good friends helps.

But it’s a process.

 

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A backpack filled with stones

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By Caitlin Kelly

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

No one wants a backpack filled with stones.

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

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

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

No one wants that pack.

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

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

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

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

Diminish that pack.

 

Do not add one more stone.

 

Why (worship) work?

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

 

By Caitlin Kelly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How about:

Friendship?

Inspiration?

Connection?

Learning?

Pleasure?

 

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

No economic value!

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

Do you live to work?

Why?

When estrangement feels right

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It’s not an easy decision to make

 

By Caitlin Kelly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Again.

 

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When every encounter feels like incoming warfare, flee!

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Have you ever been estranged from your family?

Did you resolve it?