Life, alone

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By Caitlin Kelly

There’s a lot to unpack in this poignant personal essay,  written by a 36-year-old woman living alone in Brooklyn, NY.

An excerpt:

There are the big things, the Christmases, the New Year’s Eves, the motherfucking Valentine’s Days. We won’t be participating in cultural norms on these holidays, we’ll be MacGyvering the single woman’s version of all of them. And we’re good at it, too! Have you noticed the “Galentine’s” cards section at Target this year? The name is repulsive, but the message is great. We’ve versioned a holiday, you guys — they see us!

Birthdays are another fun one. With the exception of my 30th, I’ve been planning my own birthday celebrations for a decade. Nobody’s ever like, “What should I do for Shani for her birthday? I’ve got it, Kitten Party!!” It doesn’t happen. What typically happens instead is I email 10 people, five of them are available, I make a dinner reservation, the end.

If I’m honest, the big things don’t bother me half as much as the tiny ones…For example, who’s your In Case Of Emergency person? Mine is my mum. She lives 1800 MILES AWAY. And yes, I could list a friend, but I don’t like how that makes me feel. Have you ever really been in an “emergency?” It’s terrifying, and I don’t like assigning that potential imposition to a friend.

And I’m a lucky one, I have my mum. Not everyone does. But at a certain point in life, I developed a need to be number one to someone other than a parent. And I’m not.

This essay hit me hard for a few reasons….mostly what she sees as the high cost of independence — a loss of feeling valued and nurtured.

Like this sentence of hers:

I could list a friend, but I don’t like how that makes me feel. Have you ever really been in an “emergency?” It’s terrifying, and I don’t like assigning that potential imposition to a friend.

But how else can we function, those of us who live alone and may do so for decades, by choice or not?

Many of us now live equally far away from our parents or siblings; I haven’t lived in the same country as my parents for decades and my three half-siblings are not people I rely on for anything. I barely know them.

I lived alone ages 19 to 23, ages 26 to 30, ages 37 to 43, (after my divorce and when I met my second husband), a total of 14 years.

So I’ve had a lot of time alone, solo, single, reliant only on myself and whoever stepped up for me.

 

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In those times, like the essayist, I’ve been really ill — I remember finally sleeping in flu-ish exhaustion at the foot of the stairs in my two-story Toronto apartment, the top two floors of a house, with no room-mates to notice or care. I couldn’t face climbing the stairs up to my bedroom again after one more trip to the second-floor bathroom.

Later, with a bad injury to my left ankle, I had to manage stairs into the apartment on  crutches as well, plus walking my dog. There really wasn’t anyone to call.

But I was also, then, in my mid-20s, and ferociously independent, unwilling or unable to ask others for help; when you come from a family uninterested in your welfare, you make the sad — and erroneous — assumption that since they (your own parents!) don’t care, why on earth would a non-relative?

But in my late 30s, with two knee surgeries to recover from, I had to literally open the door — and my suburban New York church brought me meals on wheels for a few days. I still remember who made soup and who delivered it, one now a very good friend all these years later.

 

Love is action!

 

North American life and culture, whether the shiny faux perfection of social media, the relentless work hours and long commutes that wear us out and steal our time, the competing demands of our own work, studies and/or family, can make it difficult to really be a good friend.

 

To summon the energy and make an effort.

To take the subway or bus crosstown or drive 20 minutes and find parking

To visit the hospital on a bitterly cold winter day.

To pick up a few bags of groceries or some fresh flowers and bring them to a friend.

To plan a party.

To remember a birthday.

Do you live alone?

Do you have people other than family to turn to and rely on?

The lost art of listening

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

Great essay, in The New York Times.

An excerpt:

High schools and colleges have debate teams and courses in rhetoric and persuasion, but rarely, if ever, offer classes or extracurricular activities that teach careful listening. You can get a doctorate in speech communication and join clubs such as Toastmasters to perfect your public speaking, but who strives for excellence in listening? The image of success and power today is someone miked up and prowling around a stage or orating from behind a lectern. Giving a TED talk or delivering a commencement speech is living the dream.

The cacophony of modern life also stops us from listening. The acoustics in restaurants can make it difficult, if not impossible, for diners to clearly hear one another. Offices with an open design ensure every keyboard click, telephone call and after-lunch belch make for constant racket. Traffic noise on city streets, music playing in shops and the bean grinder at your favorite coffeehouse exceed the volume of normal conversation by as much as 30 decibels, and can even cause hearing loss.

This past week was hectic and one day was sunny and clear and I needed some silence! I headed to our local reservoir and went for a walk — the only sounds the distant tapping of a few woodpeckers and the rustle of dry leaves as gray squirrels chased one another.

Bliss!

I really enjoy interviewing people, key to my work as a journalist, but — obviously — it demands close and careful and sustained attention, because I don’t use a tape recorder. I don’t want to waste unpaid hours transcribing or paying $1/minute to have someone else do it nor ever fear that the recording didn’t work.

A pen and notebook are fine with me, and force me to pay very close attention, not only to someone’s words, but their silences, pauses, hesitations, sighs, laughter.

My interviews are usually 30 to 45 to 60 minutes and after an hour, I’m tired! More than that gets really tiring — but it also creates a better bond, deeper conversation and, typically, better results in the form of great quotes or insights.

We’re rarely brilliant from our very first sentence!

A bit more from the essay:

How you listen can work like a self-fulfilling prophecy: If you’re barely listening to someone because you think that person is boring or not worth your time, you could actually make it so. Moreover, listening to other people makes it more likely other people will listen to you. This is partly because it’s human nature to return courtesies, but also because good listening improves your chances of delivering a message that resonates.

Listening is a skill. And as with any skill, it degrades if you don’t do it enough.

I also coach other writers, in 60-minute sessions by phone, Skype or face to face. They, too, are a challenge because my role is to help, quickly! I’m both diagnosing and prescribing solutions on the fly. I love it, but whew! Listening so intently and responding helpfully is serious work.

It’s fair to acknowledge that listening and paying attention are tiring, and so it can be tempting to tune people out, nodding but not really there. I’ve realized that journalism is a good fit for me because so much of it is experiential, and why studying interior design — as I did in the ’90s — was so joyful: it was tactile!

I didn’t have to just sit still and listen.

But I also listen carefully wherever I go, whether to silence in the woods or music on the radio or the distant honking of passing geese.

We’ve also had some recent moments in our 20-year marriage that have revealed how differently each of us listens and hears, and what very different language we choose to express how we see the world.

And, thanks to my recent healthcare story, I’ve received some very long and critical — albeit polite and smart — private emails from a reader, an American living in Canada. I could have dismissed her, or not replied, or been defensive but we actually exchanged several very long and thoughtful emails, even though we’re politically quite different!

 

We chose to listen to one another.

 

In today’s headphones-on, “lalalalala I can’t hear you!” deeply divided culture, that’s now a radical act.

 

Where do you listen most closely — and what do you gain from doing so?

Yes, verbal abuse causes PTSD

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By Caitlin Kelly

 

This is a must-read for anyone who has suffered repeated abuse, verbal or physical, from anyone in their life.

 

 

Abuse doesn’t always manifest as a black eye or a bloody wound. The effects of psychological abuse are just as damaging.

I entered counseling and was diagnosed with depression, anxiety, andPTSD. The psychological abuse kept me fearful, the depression and anxiety left me incapable of taking the steps necessary to get out.

Although I initially thought PTSD was a bit extreme, it’s been almost three years and certain noises or situations still trigger difficult memories for me.

When my male boss was angry and yelling at the staff one day, I became physically sick. I felt like I was right back where I was years ago, sitting and cowering on the garage floor, trying to placate the anger of a man towering over me.

 

It sticks.

It creates PTSD — post-traumatic stress disorder.

It’s real and it’s serious and you don’t have to be a combat soldier or get your nose broken by your partner.

Just getting yelled at a lot is quite sufficient.

It’s not “just words.”

 

I know.

For reasons I will never fathom, my father does this…and I’m no longer a child nor have I lived under his roof since I was 19.

In 2013, prompted by what he felt was my rudeness, (failing to clear the breakfast table), I was subjected to yet another volley of vicious verbal abuse — in front of my husband and my father’s partner.

He has money and health and, to my mind, no reason to ever be that angry with me, ever. This pattern has been going on for decades. I still remember, years later, other altercations with his ego.

I shook all day. I shook for a long time after that.

Last summer — six years later — a brat of an editor for a major magazine decided I was out of line when I dared to disagree with her scathing opinion of my story. She refused to let me even finish my sentences.

I hung up on her.

And shook for hours.

A best-selling author recently emailed me to say he’s included some of my USA Today essay about being bullied when I was 15 at my Toronto high school.

That was an unexpected honor.

But it’s why I took the risk of writing it — in a culture of “suck it up, buttercup”, as though being told what a piece of garbage you are is somehow…useful.

People must understand what effects this has, often for life.

 

I’m a confident, successful woman with a great life in most respects.

But the minute someone starts verbally abusing me now, that’s it.

I’m gone.

 

Isolation is deadly. Ask for help!

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War correspondent, the late Marie Colvin, was a tough nut…she had to be.

By Caitlin Kelly

It has been a brutal year for New York City police officers — two of whom committed suicide this week alone, nine so far this year.

A friend, Tanzina Vega, is rocking it as host of the daily NPR radio show The Takeaway, and they did a great segment on this; link here.

The show dug into why police officers are prone to depression and to making the terrible final decision of suicide.

A key element, not surprisingly, is a professional culture of silence.

If managers and supervisors don’t allow workers to show tender, difficult feelings — of grief, fear, confusion, anger, revulsion — all of which would be normal reactions to the toughest elements of police work, where can those emotions go?

Nowhere.

If fellow professionals sneer at you for being “weak”, you won’t ever show how you really feel, no matter how toxic is it to marinate in misery alone.

A former cop who spoke on the show referred to after-work drinks as “choir practice”, alcohol being one acceptable way to numb one’s feelings after another day dealing with violence, mayhem and death.

 

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This also hit me because journalism offers a very similar culture — long hours, low pay and a lot of stress. It’s hierarchical and macho. The “best” assignments, the ones that win us front page and major awards, are often about witnessing and describing in detail the very worst events — shootings, terrorism, natural disasters.

Some journalists are as exposed to violence and gore as cops, yet we, too, have almost nowhere to let out our feelings of horror and sadness after the story is filed or the broadcast made. And co-workers and managers working on less disturbing material have no idea what it’s like, while those who do can, like cops, often throw up a thick, tight wall of defense, dismissing anyone’s emotions about it as sissy or unprofessional.

When they are human.

In my early 20s, I worked briefly at the Canadian Press, a wire service, and my Sunday night job was “fats” — short for “fatalities”. I had to find the province’s deaths that weekend — like car crashes — and write them into a story.

I began to dread it.

I really hated it when a perky coworker named Judy finally said “It’s just numbers!”

No.

It’s human beings.

The day we ignore, dismiss and bury our grief and rage — whether created by our feelings about work or politics or climate change or family dramas — is the day we turn that violence against ourselves.

 

Everyone needs and deserves a safe space to air these out.

Getting older, becoming invisible

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By Caitlin Kelly

I live in a building dominated by older people.

Here’s my essay published this week about it on nbcnews.com:

If you really want to know what old age looks like and feels like and sounds like — forget playing around with FaceApp, whose AI technology can age your appearance in seconds on your phone. Simply plug in a current photo and the app will generate a falsely wrinkled face, sagging jowls and wispy white hair. But while the app has quickly gone viral, with artificially aged photos of celebrities and friends alike popping up all over social media, such images have almost nothing in common with the true experience of aging in America.

You just can’t imagine old age. You have to live it firsthand.

I was prompted to write it after our next door neighbor, Flo, died last week, at 91, after a final year at home bed-ridden. All we ever saw were visits from her daughters and the Russian woman who was her in-home aide.

Flo was deeply private, with a head of thick white curls and bright eyes. Only at her funeral did I learn she’d been widowed at 44 with three daughters to raise, aided by a large and supportive family.

Living in a place surrounded by seniors — a word I dislike (we don’t call people juniors!) — has shown me what aging really looks like. The same week my first husband walked out, some 25 years ago, was the week L’s husband had a stroke and never spoke again. He later died and she dated a jaunty older man who wore cool sneakers. He died.

She is now so impossibly frail, sitting with her aide.

It’s sobering. It’s instructive.

As someone with no children, I’m acutely aware, should I live into old age, I will need money and physical help to live well, safely and independently, if lucky enough to do so — my 90-year-old father does.

I lost my grandmothers the same year, when I was 18 and never met my grandfathers.

So this is what I know.

But we also have people here in their 80s looking great and living an active life.

You can’t understand what you don’t see.

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?