The new COVID-era etiquette

Only solitude is 100 percent safe

By Caitlin Kelly

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

Not us.

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

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

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

The grilling!

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

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

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

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

It’s wearying.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Needs must.

On not wanting to have children

 

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I do love this photo of my late mother and me. I always found her glamorous. In this photo she’s probably 28 or 29, as she left my father when she was 30.

 

By Caitlin Kelly

The Guardian has been running a fascinating series recently, of essays by women who don’t want to have children, and it includes a 6:57 video with five interviews of women ages 22 to 45, explaining their feelings as well.

Here’s an excerpt from the essay by American novelist R.O. Kwon:

 Throughout history, people without children – women, especially – have often been persecuted, mistreated, pitied, and killed for their perceived lack. In ancient Rome, a woman who hadn’t borne children could legally be divorced, and her infertility was grounds for letting a priest hit her with a piece of goat skin. (The blows were thought to help women bear children.) In Tang Dynasty China, not having a child was once again grounds for divorce. In the Middle Ages, infertility was believed to be caused by witches or Satan; worse yet, an infertile woman could be accused of being, herself, a witch. In Puritan America, it wasn’t just having no children that was suspect. Giving birth to too many children could be perilous, too, and grounds, yet again, for being condemned for a witch.

Also in the US, enslaved women were expected to have babies, and were routinely raped, their potential future children considered a slaveholder’s property. Some of the only times women without offspring have garnered respect might be when they have formally devoted their lives to a god, and to celibacy: nuns, vestal virgins.

Which brings us to a word I haven’t yet used, but which often is levied against childfree women like me: selfish. Despite everything, it’s still common to view parenting as a moral imperative, to such an extent that voluntarily childfree people can be viewed with such outsize emotions as anger and disgust

The series is interesting, with reasons from not making enough money or not wishing to pass on a genetic disposition to addiction to having watched their own mother really resent having had children.

I knew from childhood I didn’t want kids, for several reasons:

— My mother started having manic breakdowns when I was 12, several times when I was alone with her and with no one to turn to for help or advice. It was terrifying and overwhelming. I felt burdened too young with too much responsibility, “parentified.”

— I wanted to become a journalist, especially (initially) a foreign correspondent, a job that makes parenthood pretty much impossible since you live out of a suitcase, travel constantly and have to be ready 24/7 to go where the news is happening, often with little or no notice.

— Journalism. It pays badly compared to many other industries, is very insecure (much worse now), offers a lot of obstacles to making better wages. Without money, raising a child, I knew, would be really stressful. And the hours can be terrible; news happens 24/7 and night, weekend and overnight shifts, if you even have a job now, are real at every stage of one’s career.

— My parents didn’t care. Neither pressed me hard to have kids and neither ever showed interest in doing what many grandparents do — move in or move closer to help out, offer financial aid for a nanny or helping me acquire better/larger housing to make parenthood more comfortable.

— Bodily autonomy. While I know some women absolutely adore being pregnant and breastfeeding, I had heard too many horror stories. The idea of carrying someone inside me for nine months, then being put through the agony of labor, then 20+ years of someone relying on me utterly? Not a chance.

— Freedom. As some of the women in the Guardian series say plainly — this has offered me tremendous freedom, in work,  in partners, in where I live, in how I work.

— Weird parenting. Having done a lot of therapy, I had to be persuaded that my childhood was in some ways deeply neglectful, because it was materially privileged but, often, handed off to others. I spent ages 8 to 16 at boarding school (8 to 13) and summer camp, all summer, every summer. My parents, it seemed, just didn’t want me around. So why would I choose to have kids when they found it so…unappealing?

I know,  everyone thinks we’re selfish. Because women without children have chosen a life that’s not spent, de facto, in service of others for decades — breast-feeding, changing diapers, rushing to the ER for the latest bleeding wound, doctor and dentist and teachers’ appointments.

It also makes clear that a woman who is not subservient to the needs of others ahead of her own, always, is deeply suspect.

Why not, missy?

Some people make a lot of rude and unfounded assumptions about us:

that we hate kids (I don’t); that we are incapable of sustained sacrifice (hello, work?!); that we shun intimacy (ask our husbands, partners and friends); that no one will care for us in old age (hah! as someone often estranged from my own parents, this is a fantasy.)

 

I’m in awe of the time, energy and attention it takes to be a good and loving mother!

 

I just didn’t want the job.

 

Do you have children?

Or not?

Have you enjoyed it?

How it happens…

 

IMG_5790By Caitlin Kelly

This isn’t a cheery holiday post, but a bit of personal history that the arrest of Ghislaine Maxwell has brought back up for me…

The authorities had been tracking Ms. Maxwell’s movements and had recently learned about her relocation to the New Hampshire home, an F.B.I. official said.

The indictment charged Ms. Maxwell with six counts, including transportation of a minor with intent to engage in criminal sexual activity. She also faces perjury charges for statements she made during a deposition in 2016 about her role in Mr. Epstein’s alleged sex trafficking operation.

“Maxwell enticed minor girls, got them to trust her, then delivered them into the trap that she and Epstein had set for them,” Audrey Strauss, the acting U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, said at a news conference on Thursday.

 

 

I was never — thank heaven — sexually groomed and victimized.

But I absolutely understand how it happens, and have written here before about this, so I won’t get back into all the grim details.

In 1998, I was a lonely, worried, isolated new divorcee, with no children, living in the suburbs of New York — an affluent place full of people with kids. This was back when we had and read weekly alternative newspapers, whose personal ads were still a thing, when the Internet was newer as a way to meet potential partners.

I answered an ad placed, it said, by a lawyer who liked to play tennis. “Integrity and honesty paramount,” it said.

But of course it did — placed by a convicted con man who had already victimized many people in Chicago, done time and moved to New York to start again.

He was, oddly, extremely kind and apparently generous, bringing me a pot of home-made soup when I was ill, “paying” for a plane ticket to Australia after I missed my flight (part of his set-up since he made me late), quickly cooing at me (which I found creepy and weird) how much he loved me.

It took me four long crazy months, and hiring a former NYPD detective turned private investigator to finally smoke the guy out, to realize what I had allowed to enter my life and terrorize me.

By then, he’d committed at least six more felonies, including opening my mail, activating a credit card in my name, using that card and forging my signature — in front of me.

And the police and district attorney laughed it all off, because it was “only” fraud.

My point?

Predators choose their victims carefully.

Maxwell, allegedly,  did her grooming very skilfully — finding young, vulnerable women who found her attention thrilling, at first.

What I learned very painfully, as an adult in 1998, is that being vulnerable and alone can leave one very easy pickings for people with nefarious purposes.

Nice isn’t always that at all.

After I recovered from my own experience, I joined a church, shored up my friendships and took a long time to trust again.

The book every girl must read is The Gift of Fear, by Gavin deBecker.

It is a brilliant analysis of all the many powerful ways girls and women are socialized to be delighted by attention and what appears to be affection.

To let a kindly stranger “help” us when we’re lonely and broke and scared.

Being vulnerable means being too open, too trusting, too quick to set aside our intuition that it’s time to flee.

From Wikipedia, and from the book, his useful warning signs that someone is grooming you:

  • Forced Teaming. This is when a person implies that they have something in common with their chosen victim, acting as if they have a shared predicament when that isn’t really true. Speaking in “we” terms is a mark of this, i.e. “We don’t need to talk outside… Let’s go in.”
  • Charm and Niceness. This is being polite and friendly to a chosen victim in order to manipulate him or her by disarming their mistrust.
  • Too many details. If a person is lying they will add excessive details to make themselves sound more credible to their chosen victim.
  • Typecasting. An insult is used to get a chosen victim who would otherwise ignore one to engage in conversation to counteract the insult. For example: “Oh, I bet you’re too stuck-up to talk to a guy like me.” The tendency is for the chosen victim to want to prove the insult untrue.
  • Loan Sharking. Giving unsolicited help to the chosen victim and anticipating they’ll feel obliged to extend some reciprocal openness in return.
  • The Unsolicited Promise. A promise to do (or not do) something when no such promise is asked for; this usually means that such a promise will be broken. For example: an unsolicited, “I promise I’ll leave you alone after this,” usually means the chosen victim will not be left alone. Similarly, an unsolicited “I promise I won’t hurt you” usually means the person intends to hurt their chosen victim.
  • Discounting the Word “No”. Refusing to accept rejection.

I admit it — I fell prey to numbers 4, 5 and 6.

 

I hope this is never your fate.

 

Listening well

 

Caitlin Kelly Health Care Story
Interviewing GP Dr. Margaret Tromp, President of the Society of Rural Physicians of Canada, in Picton, Ontario, Sept. 2019.

 

By Caitlin Kelly

I listen for a living.

Most people think I write for a living, and, yes, the product I sell is an article or story or blog post for publication, for a company or for a journalism outlet.

But before I have anything to write about, I’ve listened carefully to strangers who have to place their trust in me to get it right, make their views known without distortion and communicate it all compellingly to even more strangers.

It’s a challenge!

I really enjoy it, but it can be difficult. My current project means speaking to a source in Europe and using a video interface, which can freeze or drop words or whole sentences. Add to that an accent and a complex topic, and away we go!

My interviews have sometimes been extremely delicate, like the young black women I spoke with for my first book about American women and gun use. Each had been arrested for a gun-related crime (not murder) and each had her own reasons for owning and using one.

My job was simply to listen quietly, non-reactively, kindly, without judgment.

I suspect it may have been a rare occasion for them to simply tell their story and just be listened to — not to a cop or a judge or a social worker, let alone a middle-aged, white stranger.

The photo above is fairly typical of me when I’m really focusing hard; I’m not looking at the speaker (not to be rude!) but really thinking.

 

An interview, journalistically, is a terrific experience but it’s not conversation in any conventional sense. It has elements of that — nods, laughter, echoing back what someone just said, asking a clarifying question, even swearing — but it’s also a controlled interaction where the writer must stay in the driver’s seat, even if done delicately and invisibly.

 

I recently did my first transcription for a fellow journalist, whose interview was with a major pop musician. Oh, I felt for them! The replies were often mumbled or mono-syllabic. I was as tired at the end of making sense of it as they probably were as well.

To conduct a really good interview requires both intellectual acuity (make it interesting for them! ask smart and incisive questions and follow-ups) and emotional sensitivity (don’t rush them!) 

 

 

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I did a series of interviews in Edmonton, Winnipeg and Toronto, years ago, for Chatelaine, a national women’s magazine, which meant asking sources — all women — to revisit an extremely painful experience, a side effect of a drug, Mirapex, all had taken for their Parkinson’s disease or for restless leg syndrome.

The side effect was an excess of dopamine over-stimulating the brain’s pleasure centers, and the women had unwittingly become compulsive gamblers, terrifying their families and confounding their physicians.

Between their emotion and the disease, they shook and/or cried through the interviews and one’s family raged about her behavior — without really understanding, medically, what was even happening or why. It was one of the most difficult stories I’ve ever reported and I apologized to each beforehand and thanked them afterward for how exhausting it was for them to share their stories.

Sometimes, I feel more like a therapist than a journalist.

 

When I listen for work, I bring tools to the table with me:

 

empathy

compassion

curiosity

cultural sensitivity (what’s taboo, what’s likely to elicit passion or emotion or silence)

prior research (to know what to ask)

patience (not every word or sentence is riveting)

editing as we go (see above!)

attentiveness to their pauses, hesitations, laughter, emphasis, repetition

Here’s a recent and interesting New York Times piece about how to listen well:

 

Start out by talking about something the other person likes, or maybe doesn’t like, and finding out why that is. It could be music, art, books, films, food, favorite childhood toys or even other people. The point is to explore one another’s affinities, attitudes, beliefs and opinions — but never argue about them. As the Polish-born social psychologist Robert Zajonc wrote, “We are never wrong about what we like or dislike.”

Likes and dislikes develop through experiences, and those back stories are willingly told if you ask questions and listen carefully to the answers. These don’t necessarily have to be long, drawn-out conversations.

 

Even when I interview super-smart eminent scientists, as I did for a recent story, I make time for some casual personal conversation as well. I discovered that one of the leaders in water treatment shared my experiences of flying Nicaragua’s domestic airline — and eating at a great Indian restaurant in Montreal (where he attended McGill, across the street.)

Those fun, personal, quirky moments make even the most serious interview more human and playful.

We talk most easily to other human beings, not robots.

Jose and I talk to one another a lot.

It’s one of my favorite elements of our marriage — because really listening to someone is an active form of love.

The pain of Mother’s Day — not what you think

jose 4

By Caitlin Kelly

Tomorrow in North America, the annual paeans to great mothers begins again.

It doesn’t resonate the same way for others, like me.

I wrote about this once in detail, here, and it spurred one of my most valued friendships, since that person and I finally saw the effect of having really difficult mothers on our lives and life choices.

It does change you.

It’s also deeply taboo to not like your mother — and it’s extremely painful to have your mother not like you, especially if you’re their only child.

So, at the request of an editor, I wrote this essay about how my mother and I became estranged, and still were when she died this February, in a nursing home very far away from me.

I hadn’t seen her or spoken to her in a decade.

I did love my mother, even as I was fed up with how she chose to squander every gift life can offer: physical beauty, Mensa level intelligence, curiosity, open-mindedness, inherited wealth, deep and abiding friendships.

Between her bipolar illness and alcoholism, her behavior was often erratic and selfish. It deeply hurt and really scared me, as my visits to her were usually alone, with no one to turn to for moral support or help. I had no siblings to commiserate with — or strategize.

I couldn’t turn to one of her friends. She was someone who eschewed close relationships unless with very old friends, most of whom lived in other countries. She didn’t know her neighbors, so neither did I. When she attended church, she never went to coffee hour and,  when I forced her to on one of my annual visits (selfishly desperate for someone else to know her), she was furious with me.

When she left my father, and she was 30, she had plenty of suitors, and one was very kind to me — oddly, decades later, that man’s daughter, living in England, contacted me (or vice versa) and we renewed a friendship we’d had at 12 in Toronto.

So I miss the best of her, as it was lovely.

But I don’t miss the worst.

Here’s some of the essay:

 

I hadn’t seen her in years nor tried to re-connect. I knew better, even though others repeatedly urged me to, including my father, 50 years divorced from her but lately back in touch.

“You’ll regret it!”

“What if she dies?”

“Just go!”

“You never know…”

But they didn’t know the full story.

Every year I sent her a Christmas card filled with the past year’s news, but never received a reply, not even in 2018, the year of my early-stage breast cancer, surgery and radiation. When she had had a mastectomy decades before, I’d flown from New York to Vancouver to get her back home and re-settled.

A few years ago, she told my best friend, a local who went to visit, to tell me to stay away.

How does one end up so estranged?

More easily than you’d think.

I hope you’ll read the rest — and if you, or someone you know, is also estranged from a parent, this may comfort them.

It’s an oddly secret society.

Headwinds, tailwinds

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

As an official #avgeek, who thrills to the sight of any aircraft and loves the smell of JP4, aka jet fuel, I often think in/use aviation metaphors.

Last week I had a long heart-to-heart with a dear friend, a much younger woman still in her 20s. She’s feeling stuck and frustrated, and has had a family tragedy hit her as well. It’s a lot!

When all those around you look like they’re making much faster progress towards personal and professional goals — marriage, kids, buying a home, getting a job or a promotion — it’s so easy and so demoralizing to feel left behind. Even at my age, decades into a good journalism career, I still gnash my teeth and rend my garments when I see other writers winning big awards and fellowships and fancy book and movie and TV deals.

Envy is also a fairly human emotion.

But…

I also subscribe to the belief that, just as some flights go much more quickly thanks to a tailwind and some more slowly thanks to a headwind, so do our lives.

And many of the obstacles and many of the privileges (head/tailwinds) also remain invisible. 

And in American can-do, individual, no-social-safety-net culture, it’s completely normal — and really bad for your psyche — to blame only yourself. If only you had done X! Or didn’t do Y! So and so did Z and look at their success!

But…

We just don’t know, unless someone is completely candid with us, what tremendous advantages or disadvantages they have had to overcome or enjoy. It’s rare that we compete on a level playing field.

 

Headwinds can include:

 

Chronic illness

Mental illness

Serious illness

Acute illness/recovery — or any of these for a loved one

Disability

Caregiving

Grief

Miscarriage

Infertility

Unemployment

Underemployment

Lack of skills

Lack of access/income for training

Solo parenting

Poverty

Poor access, or none,  to transit/transportation

No medical care

Hunger

Lack of education and access to same

Race, gender, ethnicity, religious prejudice

Misogyny/chauvinism

Becoming a crime victim

Emotional or physical or sexual abuse

 

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Luxury itself is a tailwind

Tailwinds:

 

Inherited money

A high-earning spouse or partner

A safe, green and attractive home and neighborhood

Wealthy parents or grandparents offering money

Excellent health

Excellent education

Fluent English

Excellent work skills

Successful legal role models

Wise, kind, reliable people to turn to for help and advice

Secure housing

Secure employment

Secure non-work income, like a pension or other solid investments

Social capital, i.e. knowing people with power who will help you

A sense of self-confidence

A safe and reliable vehicle or ready access to safe, affordable, reliable public transit

People who actively love and check in on you

Solid, strong friendships

 

So I told my younger friend it was necessary to see her life differently, even though the tragedy is permanent and life-altering and no one seems to understand its effects, which also leaves her isolated.

I know the choices she’s made were risky and unconventional — and I admire all of them, for her guts and sense of adventure and all the skill and wisdom they have brought her.

And I told her how much I admire her.

 

 

malled cover LOW

 

I worked retail for 2.5 years, a day a week for The North Face, and made $11/hour, from 2007 to 2009. It was a tiring, poorly-paid, emotionally-taxing and unrewarding job in most ways.

We needed cash. It offered steady, reliable cash. And I was not a teenager, far from it — in fact the oldest person of our 15-member staff.

How I felt about it was irrelevant to getting the damn job done.

It ended up becoming my second book, but none of that appeared likely to me until September 9, 2009 when we had a major publisher committed.

The 2008 crash was very much a headwind, and a shared one.

Now, 12 years later, we’re all screwed thanks to the pandemic — with only the wealthiest and healthiest feeling no/few headwinds.

 

The rest of us will have to fly onwards as best we can.

 

 

And now, who are we?

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This changed my life, October-November 2018

 

By Caitlin Kelly

Interesting essay in The Globe and Mail:

I’m not going to suggest this crisis has a silver lining, not when medical workers and shop staff and home-care assistants are out there putting their lives on the line, and people with the virus are dying afraid and alone. There is no silver lining, but there is a rare opportunity to see how behaviour changes when it is challenged by a new and terrifying threat. It seems to me that we’ve quickly – but perhaps only temporarily – lost our appetite to strive for perfection.

It’s been astonishing to see human fragility on display on a mass scale, with no shame or scorn. Vulnerability isn’t generally the mode that is most welcome in this world, and even people who say they love Leonard Cohen’s line, “There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in,” tend to spend most of their time furiously hiding their own cracks from public display.

But now it’s all cracks. Firefighters break down during interviews, nurses sob on their Facebook pages, broadcast anchors reach for the Kleenex. Cory Deburghgraeve, an anesthesiologist who volunteered to do intubations at his Chicago hospital because he’s young and childless, talked about treating people who are isolated and in distress: “I have to find a way to hold it together in order to do this job. I tear up sometimes, and if I do, it can fog up my face shield.”

 

No question, social media is typically shiny and performative, certainly for “influencers” and anyone who needs to maintain a veneer of fabulousness to keep their credibility.

This blog is one social media spot where I tend to loosen my stays, as it were, revealing some truths about myself — attractive or not! — in the knowledge many of you (despite 22,000 followers) aren’t actually listening.

The ones who are (thank you!) tend to be kind.

My shell really cracked wide open in June 2018 with a diagnosis of small, early-stage breast cancer, surgery and radiation.

I’m not someone who cries easily or often, but I cried at the dinner table. I cried in our shared hallways.

I asked others for help and succor; two friends were amazing and came with me to the hospital for moral support for tests —- three in one day.

It changed me in some powerful ways, how I see my life and how I want to relate to other people. Cancer does that to its survivors.

Normal life, certainly in the land of “rugged individualism”, the United States, usually means asking for help is somehow considered shameful, a moral weakness, hence conservatives’ blasé brutality toward the poor and needy.

How dare they!

I found this essay, by a former New York Times colleague of Jose’s, really sad.

As the host of The Takeaway, a national daily NPR talk show, Tanzina enjoys a well-paid, challenging dream job many of us would kill for, yet…

 

When I gave birth to my son at the end of January, an unexpected miracle to me at the age of 45, I never could have imagined spending my maternity leave in the middle of a pandemic.

But by the time I brought my son home to my apartment in Queens, the coronavirus had already landed in the United States. Soon, the borough would become the epicenter of the virus, nearly collapsing the emergency medical services of nearby Elmhurst hospital.

Single parenthood is certainly tough. Raising a newborn is already isolating; now leaving the house may be dangerous. But the pandemic has highlighted just how fragile my social networks really are, which, as a public figure and radio host who’s had her name and face splashed across billboards and tote bags, is something that’s hard to admit.

 

This global scourge is certainly forcing millions of us to reconsider our choices, whether work, family, friendship, where we live, what we buy, what we deem essential and what, we suddenly see, is real, shallow, silly bullshit.

 

So, what next?

 

trump-tv

 

Social and economic differences, something we used to politely ignore socially and politically ignore when useful to our needs, are suddenly glaringly obvious — as African-Americans and Latino and lower-wage workers are dying from COVID-19 in disproportionate numbers.

 

 

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What’s the path ahead?

 

Will this all somehow change for the better?

When and how?

I wish.

some thoughts from The New York Times:

 

A crisis on its own has not been enough to start a labor movement, but if a movement has been simmering, a crisis can make it boil over, said Nelson Lichtenstein, a labor historian at the University of California, Santa Barbara. For example, he said, the conditions weren’t right for workers to revolt during the 2008 recession, but this time they might be.

“We have had a decade and more of agitation, planning, think-tanking on the need to solve problems of inequality and capitalist dysfunction, and so these ideas are more prominently on the agenda, and not only of liberals,” he said.

During this pandemic, workers in the United States have organized strikes at Whole Foods, Instacart and other companies, asking for protections like hazard pay, gloves and sick leave. Congress has passed policies, albeit temporary ones, that would have been politically unthinkable before now, including paid leave and direct payments to individuals. Democrats have introduced bills to make some of the benefits permanent.

 

 

Has this pandemic changed you?

 

How?

 

Do you think, if/when this ends, you will revert to your “old” self?

 

Will society?

20 years together — how we do it

 

lopez in Bosnia

Jose on assignment in Bosnia for The New York Times, December 1995

 

By Caitlin Kelly

He was a staff photo editor at The New York Times, living in Brooklyn, long divorced, with no kids.

I was a freelance writer living in a New York suburb, divorced with no kids.

Online dating was still new and weird and no one was really admitting they needed it, but I did. Even after years living in New York, I had a small social circle and wanted to find a new partner — so it was really my only way to do so.

I pitched a story about this to Mademoiselle, a women’s magazine, and they agreed. My online profile headline, truthfully, read Catch Me If You Can.

Even though Jose and I actually knew a Times sports editor in common, we would never otherwise have met, between his grueling work schedule and physical distance from my home.

 

jose at pulitzer01

Jose shooting the judging of the Pulitzer Prizes at Columbia University  — his idea!

 

Our first date was in March 2000 at Le Madeleine, a midtown French bistro in the west 40s. He arrived wearing a bright red silk Buddhist prayer shawl as a muffler. Of course!

And that was it…

He moved north into my apartment in 2001 — his original moving day (no joke) was 9/11, for which the Times would win a Pulitzer for team photo editing.

 

caitlin team

My final day of radiation, November 2015.

 

In the 20 years since, we’ve been through quite a bit, including:

2 knee surgeries, a shoulder surgery and left hip replacement for me in 2012; his Times buyout in 2015, propelling him into a wholly new world of freelance work; the death of several friends and colleagues; my mother’s recent, sudden death; the work and publishing of my two books and his diabetes diagnosis and mine for early stage breast cancer — both in June 2018.

 

5th-anniversary

Toronto, September 2011

What works?

 

Laughter, lots of it!

Mutual respect

Shared goals and values

History — what we’ve already successfully survived

Optimism, always much more his than mine

A shared passion for producing great journalism

A shared skill of taking terrific photos, mine more art-y, his more news-y

A sense of perspective — if we’re vertical and breathing, that’s a good day

A home we’ve worked hard to make beautiful and welcoming, safe and tidy

We each bring a serious work ethic

A love of luxury — a great bottle of wine, a visit to Paris

Understanding (finally) that two bossy, determined, competitive career journalists will have some conflicts

Knowing that some conflict, unless chronic, is normal

Endless curiosity about the world and how it works

A wide global network of people who value us, personally and professionally

Staying as calm as possible through scary times

 

As we all muddle our way through the current global crisis of COVID-19, I’m grateful as hell to have his comfort and companionship.

I hope you, too, have someone as loving and reliable to help you through this terrible moment.

 

Taking a break

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By Caitlin Kelly

I leave this week for a week away from home, alone, and am ready for it.

I drive to Virginia — about six hours (not a fan of flying) — and have two small-town days at an inn, all to myself.

Then to a conference, the Northern Short Course, which is an annual event for photojournalists, some freelance, some working for news organizations. It’s the second year I’ve been invited to speak, and I’ll talk about the many challenges of pitching ideas and projects to would-be clients. I began my career in Toronto as a teenager selling my photos to newspapers and magazines, so I have some street cred as a photographer as well as writer.

A dear friend of Jose’s, and a lifelong mentor, will be flying in from New Mexico, so I am looking forward to dinner with him and his wife; we stayed with them in June.

 

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Then two days’ playtime in D.C., catching up with friends there.

Then home and diving into three successive freelance projects: for The New York Times, my second story for Mechanical Engineering (!) and a story for a Canadian business magazine.

I’ve done very little work over the past two weeks since my mother’s sudden death.

It’s been the usual and expected flurry of phone calls: her nursing home, the funeral home, her executor and the law firm handling her estate and will.

I’m really really tired.

Despite our last decade of estrangement, I’m still struck by/with grief, grateful for Jose’s support and the cards, emails, calls and flowers from loving friends.

I wish — however retro and weird this sounds — we still wore black to signify mourning (instead of what all New Yorkers wear all the time!) or even a black armband on the left sleeve. I Googled it and it appears to be wholly out of fashion and would not be understood.

It would be a powerful and effective way to signal mourning — without having to discuss, explain, react. The conference organizer is losing her mother right before the event, so she will be so exhausted. While others’ love and consolation and condolences are very welcome, they’re also tiring to acknowledge and respond to, especially in person. Some (luckily, only a few) will try to share their story of loss.

You just can’t. You’re too tired.

While I’ve shared quite a bit of my feelings on social media, I also have many, many more and need to process them slowly, quietly and without the energy drain of being social.

Now that coronavirus is making public gatherings suspect, this will be easier.

So I may post later this week — or not.

Thank you for all your comments and kindness!

 

 

How to thrive unmothered

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By Caitlin Kelly

The word mother, like the word  husband, is a noun and a verb.

Some are better being a noun.

Some aren’t given the tools to do that job well.

Some are distracted by mental illness or  addiction.

Some end up incarcerated.

Some lose their children because the children, or the state, removes them.

Many people learn to thrive unmothered.

I left my mother’s care at 14 and moved in with my father and his girlfriend, later wife, who was 13 years older. I was 14 and she was 27.

Neither of us were equipped for this.

So, what happens when you’re not classically nurtured by another woman related to you?

 

You figure stuff out on your own

You read magazines and watch TV and listen to the radio and to podcasts. You talk to other adults.  I was a teen and young adult long before the Internet or YouTube. But opening myself early to the world meant learning to pay attention and deciding what was important.

 

You learn to ask others for help  — and know when you need it most

No crying wolf! When you know your requests are falling into the ears of people with their own lives and jobs and families, you know not to be a whiny pest but ask when you need them most. If you’re healthy and solvent (and if not, it’s much harder), you can manage a lot by yourself and grow massively in self-confidence as you do.

 

You’re fine challenging authority — because classic maternal authority isn’t there

Many people live in fear of what their mothers will say or do if…they say or do something that might offend or scare or anger her. When  your mother isn’t around and your stepmother isn’t very interested, you get on with it, unimpeded.

 

 

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You have to suss out what it means to be pretty or attractive or well-dressed

This was a big challenge, since I was taken shopping twice (both times with great success) between the ages of 14 and 20, once for a prom dress and once for a winter coat. But no one ever showed me how to wear makeup or what to do with my eyebrows or what stockings went with which shoes. It just wasn’t in the cards. So I learned to develop and trust my own taste, and work within a budget.

 

And how to cook!

My stepmother was an amazing cook but never taught me. I have a pile of well-used cookbooks, and recipes. I entertain often and  make very good meals. I take a lot of pride in this.

 

Managing money well is essential

I had money from my maternal grandmother, which for four years of university was all I had to live on  — $350 a month when my rent was $160 and annual tuition $660. It took me a few months to save the $30 I needed to buy a leotard, tights and slippers to take a ballet class. Wants had to wait behind needs. No one was there to bail me out and I knew it.

 

You learn to stand up — and fight for — your own needs

There’s no one calling ahead to smooth  your path or help you battle whatever shows up. I learned very young to figure out what I need and to ask other adults for it — whether professional, medical, financial. That would be my job as an adult anyway. It just started early.

 

The world is full of “other mothers”

From Guillemette in Paris to Marcia in Toronto to Salley in D.C., I’ve found deeply loving women friends whose kindness and affection and loyalty have felt maternal to me. Salley was the witness for my second wedding, which my mother did not attend. Barbara sat with me for a whole day’s worth of hospital tests and Catherine, in Dublin, sent flowers after my breast cancer surgery.

 

When you can’t rely on your mom, you rely on  yourself

Most things are quite manageable on your own. Many skills can be learned or, if  you have the money, hired.

 

 

caitlin team

The terrific team at radiation, Phelps Hospital, November 2018, at the end of my treatment

 

The kindness of strangers is astounding

I’m always amazed and grateful at the kindness I’ve experienced, especially when traveling alone. When  you haven’t been nurtured much, you forget — or never know — that many others have been well-loved by their mothers, and are happy to share their love with you as well. That generosity and acceptance, let alone affection, always surprises me and always  delights me.

 

Friends are family

The truest lesson of all. If you can open your heart and arms — and without a loving mother you have to — there are so many people happy to take pride in you and your work and your character, to laugh and cry with you, to take you to the hospital, to visit you after surgery, to send you flowers and cards and remember your birthday.

It doesn’t have to be your mother.