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

In aging, behavior, books, domestic life, family, life, love, women on June 30, 2016 at 1:44 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The book’s Canadian cover

 

Tell us a bit about yourself…

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

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

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

 When did the idea for this book come to you?

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

We’ve become a nation of voyeurs

 

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

 

 

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The American cover

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

How did you structure the book and why?

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

What was most challenging about writing it?

 

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

 

The most fun?

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

Any reaction from your family?

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

We all have so much in common

 

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

 

 

 

The joy of rekindled friendship

In behavior, life, love, women on June 28, 2016 at 2:04 am

By Caitlin Kelly

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One of my Twitter friends — an archaeologist in Berlin — and I tweet RHPS lyrics to one another. Because…friendship!

 

Few moments are sadder than a friendship’s abrupt and unforeseeen end — through anger, misunderstanding, a conflict no one is willing or able to resolve, a moment of no return when no one, (as the British say), will grasp the nettle and get through a tough moment to the other side.

A true friendship means creating and nurturing deep intimacy, sharing secrets (and trusting those will be held tightly for decades), daring to reveal your weaknesses and flaws along with your utter fabulousness.

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One of the many lovely people I’ve met through my blog (!) — Mallory Guinee, with me in Paris in January 2015

A true friend — in my world — is someone who knows you really well and loves you anyway.

Some people come from tight, loving, intact families and, as a result, perhaps have much less need of friendship. They know they can count on parents, siblings, grandparents, even cousins, for moral support throughout life’s ups and downs, and sometimes even receive financial help.

If you emerge from a family like mine, poisoned by estrangement, friends are family, the people you learn to turn to first and always.

They’re the ones who walk uphill in a blizzard to get you to the hospital at 6 a.m. for knee surgery and who stop you from falling head-first into the bathroom door as you emerge from  anesthesia.

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The ones who sit with you as you weep through hearing the sound of bagpipes for the first time since they marked your marriage, now ended.

The ones who know your dogs’ names and the man who broke your heart and the woman you dreamed of becoming .

They never forget your birthday.

You know their parents and their siblings and how they’re all doing.

Losing one of these friends is a terrible loss, and one not quickly or easily replaced.

 

Some friendships outgrow their time and not all of them are meant to last.

But I hate it when someone I really enjoy suddenly disappears from my life, which has happened a few times.

After trying to talk through some troubling (to me) behavioral patterns, I lost three friends in rapid succession about a decade ago, all of them women I had hoped would be friends for many years to come, but they’re gone, and they’re gone for good.

I don’t regret it now, although it’s not been quick or easy to replace them.

At a recent wedding of a friend, I knew I would run into a younger woman I’d been close with about a decade ago, and — after a silly falling-out  — we had not spoken since then. We had met through that mutual friend, who kept me up to date for years on K’s progress through life and how, since our fight, she had since found all sorts of happiness.

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My best friend, my husband, Jose

I knew she was now married, with a baby.

And she was there, glowing, with her handsome husband and photos of her lovely new baby on her phone.

I said a nervous hello, and it was, thankfully, an instant of hugs and reconciliation.

And how very glad I was.

 

Have you lost — and later re-made — a friendship?

The true meaning of friendship

In aging, behavior, domestic life, life, love, urban life, women on May 22, 2016 at 2:38 pm

By Caitlin  Kelly

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Two chairs, two friends…

The word “friend”  only became a verb thanks to social media.

One once befriended someone or made a friend; note the verb to make.

 

It takes time, and effort and consistent interest.

 

It also requires a shared sense of values and expectations if it’s to last more than a few days or weeks.

Today it’s become a word with multiple meanings, some of which...don’t mean a thing.

Having just weathered intense cyber-bullying by an online group fellow women writers, (none of whom have ever met or spoken with me), I spent some time culling my “friend” list on Facebook.

More than 200 people are now gone from my list of “friends”, as I realized I’d allowed myself to accept requests from people I didn’t know well, assuming — innocently, hopefully and very stupidly — that everyone who wanted to be my friend also knew, and shared, my values, ethics and/or professional expertise.

Nope.

Several of these women proved to be Trojan horses. Lesson, painfully, learned.

So, back to true friendship.

This week also reminded me what it looks and feels like:

Face to face conversation.

Revelation.

Mutual trust.

Sharing stories.

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One of the best weeks of my life, working in rural Nicaragua in March 2014 — now still friends with these three

On Monday I went for lunch with a woman who lives across the street from us, and who I hadn’t spent time with for at least six months. We’d had a disagreement last fall, and stopped our weekly walks.

I wasn’t sure we would continue our friendship. We seemed, suddenly, just too different.

Then she was felled, (luckily, getting better now), with a challenging acute illness.

I took her flowers, shocked at the trials she was facing and sorry for her difficulties.

This week, I returned to the relationship with a deeper gratitude for her good humor, her sense of perspective and delight in her recovering health.

Like a handful of people, she knows me very well.

There is something so comforting talking to someone who just knows you, loves you and accepts your quirks.

On Wednesday, I met another friend, a newer one, and we went to the Met Museum after having lunch at Cafe Sabarsky at the Neue Galerie, both on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.

We’re still getting to know one another, and she is a working artist and art teacher — we geek out over things like Vikings and monstrances.

On Thursday, I caught up with a woman who was originally a story source, a brilliant (Harvard MBA, ho hum) finance expert.

I feel so lucky when I meet and get to know a woman who’s both wicked smart — and deeply kind. What a pleasure to see her, even once a year when she visits New York.

On Saturday — (this is not a typical week!) — I had breakfast with a fellow writer, a specialist in medical topics, visiting from Toronto, then we both spoke on panels at a writers’ conference.

A woman I’d never met before stayed behind after my panel to talk to me….and we kept talking until midnight when we had to run for our respective trains to get home.

She’s an author from Alabama; here’s her book about a terrifying day when dozens of tornadoes traumatized the U.S.

Whew! What an energizing, delicious gift this week has been.

The gift of friendship.

And how helpful, for all of us, to see the world through others’ eyes and their perspectives. It’s so easy to get caught in your own little worldview, trapped by your own firmly-held opinions.

A key difference I’ve seen here in the U.S. is a discomfort with, (understatement, more like terror of), major differences of opinion, certainly on issues like politics, religion, feminism, the usual flashpoints. If you don’t agree 100 percent on everything, discussion (certainly online) flares into nasty, name-calling argument and boom!

There goes your “friendship.”

ALL IMAGES COPYRIGHT CAITLIN KELLY 2013.

I’m slow to make new friends.

Having been betrayed by a few, I’m now much warier about letting a new person in close.

 

True friendship takes time to grow, to deepen, to broaden.

 

You may have to forgive them, (and they you!)

Intimacy can be challenging.

Some flee at the first sign of friction.

 

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Coming from a family of origin whose typical stance is estrangement or anger, my friends are my family.

Few things are as precious to me as the intimacy of friendship, old and new.

How about you?

Do you make friends quickly and easily?

Have you weathered the sting of deception and betrayal?

 

Why I don’t celebrate Mother’s Day

In aging, behavior, children, domestic life, family, life, love, parenting, women on May 4, 2016 at 12:57 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

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This lovely young girl survived a rough, strange childhood…

 

This week is awash with reminders from every direction to celebrate your mother — to buy her flowers and presents and take her out for dinner.

It’s a time of sentiment and emotion and gratitude for all that nurturing and support,  feelings we’re all meant to share.

Not for some of us.

My mother has one child.

She wants nothing to do with me; the details are too tedious to repeat here, but she can’t be bothered acknowledging my existence.

She lives a six-hour flight away from me in a nursing home.

She has plenty of money to pay for it so needs nothing material.

She has a devoted friend — a woman my age who is rude and nasty and bizarre to me — so she’s all set in that department as well.

She is bipolar and suffers several other conditions.

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My handsome hubby, Jose…who loves my independence and trusts me in the world

I lived with her to the age of eight, when my parents divorced and I was sent to boarding school and summer camp, arguably steeped in the kind of privilege that protected and cherished me and made me feel safe and secure and valued.

Not really.

Boarding school meant sharing a room with two or three or four strangers, most of them young girls like me who didn’t want to be there.

It meant a life regulated by bells — 6:55 wake-up, 7:10 go out for a walk around the block (neighbors set their clocks by us), 7:25 breakfast in the dining hall, seated at a table chosen for you.

We ate when we were told to and ate whatever we were given, whether we liked the food or not.

To make a phone call meant filling out a permission slip detailing the reason you needed to speak to someone.

No one hugged or cuddled or kissed us. That would have been weird.

Boarding school also meant having no privacy, ever — even the toilet stalls and bathtub surrounds didn’t reach the ceiling and girls would throw paper bags of cold water over the walls.

Fun!

So I quickly learned to be private, self-reliant and extremely cautious about opening up to others.

Luckily, I loved summer camp and looked forward to it every year.

But this life meant I spent little time with my mother; I lived with her full-time only in Grades 6 and 7.

She threw great birthday parties and we enjoyed a comfortable life. Over the years, living very far away from her, I saw her once a year or so.

She taught me a variety of skills: how to be frugal, how to travel safely and alone, how to set a pretty table with linen napkins and candles, to read widely and voraciously.

But I’m not sure she really ever wanted to be someone’s mother; her own mother was often a selfish monster to her, although very kind to me.

Then I left her care forever when I was 14 after she had a breakdown in Mexico, where we were living. I couldn’t take how scared this made me feel.

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She inherited money so, in my early 20s, she traveled the world alone for years.

The only time I saw her was flying, at her expense, to wherever she was at the time — Fiji, Colombia, Peru, Costa Rica. Some of the trips were terrific, others less so.

If I didn’t get on a plane and go to her, I would not have seen her.

I learned to do what she wanted.

It all looked so glamorous from the outside.

But she had many breakdowns and hospitalizations, starting when I was 12 and continuing for decades. As her only child, I had to make snap decisions about her care with no outside advice or guidance. It was exhausting and overwhelming.

I rarely told anyone. What would I have said?

She drank. She had multiple health crises. She had no male companions and few close friends interested in helping out.

We later had about a decade where we got along, seeing one another once a year or so while exchanging regular, loving letters and phone calls and birthday cards and Christmas gifts.

For the past six years, we have had no contact and likely never will again.

This makes me sad and angry.

When I see women enjoying their daughters, and vice versa, my heart hurts.

 

If you and your mother love one another, this is a great gift.

Cherish it.

 

If you have children — which I don’t, by choice — cherish their love for you and devotion to you. Savor it and protect it.

Millions of people hate Mother’s Day, for a good reason.

And reasons usually only our very closest friends ever really understand.

It’s socially taboo to not love your mother deeply, these days professing it loudly and repeatedly over social media.

This holiday?

We just want to get through it.

 

 

 

Who should we mourn?

In aging, behavior, family, life, love, news on April 6, 2016 at 12:23 am

By Caitlin Kelly

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In the past few months, three famous people have died, two of whose deaths widely elicited public scorn, derision and relief: Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, former Toronto mayor (and admitted drug user while in office) Rob Ford.

The late Pritzker Award-winning architect Zaha Hadid was by all accounts a brilliant tough cookie — who one acquaintance of mine immediately dismissed as a woman who only created properties for the world’s wealthiest.

I wonder about the wisdom of this.

I asked a friend in her 30s what she thought, a fellow journalist, a thoughtful person.

“They’re celebrities. They don’t feel like real people to us.”

I wonder about this as well.

There are people — serial killers, perpetrators of terrorism and genocide — whose deaths, natural or murdered, we don’t grieve. Those boundaries seem clear enough to me.

There are people within our own families, people who perpetrated sexual, physical and/or emotional abuse, whose deaths we might also greet with a sigh of relief.

Here’s a powerful essay, from Bust, by a 26-year-old woman whose abusive mother died, and how that felt for her.

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I attended a funeral about a decade ago, of a man whose widow and adult daughter share an apartment hallway with us. We have never socialized and likely never will; we’re very different sorts of people. We say hello in the hallway and parking lot.

But when their father and husband was dying a horrible death of cancer, we helped them connect with a hospice and, when he died, we went to his funeral.

I was stunned to see how empty it was. I doubt more than a dozen people were there, and this for a local man.

I wondered, then as now, why so few people cared enough to come and pay their respects; I’ve attended funerals that were practically standing room only, filled with people utterly distraught at their loss.

Why did this man’s death go so un-mourned? What had he said or done (or left unsaid or un-done?)

For public figures like Scalia, Ford and Hadid, we have access to reams of information about them and their work, their public behavior and accomplishments, sometimes their struggles.

Those who knew them best might not feel comfortable sharing more intimate details, so we’re left with broad outlines.

Many people loathed Scalia and Ford for their misogyny and for holding power over so many lives while espousing values they disagreed with.

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They were also human.

They left behind people who loved them deeply and respected them.

Do they, too, deserve to be mourned?

I say yes.

What do you think?

 

Who believed in you?

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

By Caitlin Kelly

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Me, creating…

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

He only graduated last May.

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

His email thanked me for my belief in him.

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

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

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

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

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

A friend of my father

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

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My second book, published in 2011

My editors

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

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

Philippe Viannay

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

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

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

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Reporting in Bilwi, Nicaragua for WaterAid

My clients

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

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

My fencing coach

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

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

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

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

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

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My first book, published in 2004

My first agent

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

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

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

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

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

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My best friend, my husband, Jose

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

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

 

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

What did they say or do that kept you going?

 

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

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

By Caitlin Kelly

 

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

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

Certainly not most of us, right?

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

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

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

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

Neither of us had ever been there or worked together.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is it being used in ways we respect?

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

Here’s my Q and A with her:

What’s your goal with this book?

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

 Tell us a bit about your past:

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

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

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

 


 

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


 

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

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

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

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

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

 


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


 

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

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

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

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

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

How does it feel to become an author?

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

 

 

 

Holiday gifts for 2015 — my 30 suggestions

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

By Caitlin Kelly

Happy holidays!

Happy holidays!

Welcome to my annual gift list!

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

NB: No one has paid me to mention them.

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

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

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

Enjoy!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Please add a charitable donation to your holiday shopping list

Please add a charitable donation to your holiday shopping list

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

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

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

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


A watch? Yes really!


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

This Art Deco style watch is also terrific. $60.00

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

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

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

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

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


Time for tea!


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ALL IMAGES COPYRIGHT CAITLIN KELLY 2013.

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

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


 

Or a mysterious and lovely historic photo…


 

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

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

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

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


 

This one!


 

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

The gift of hospitality

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

By Caitlin Kelly

IMG_20150718_224715941

A shared meal is a gift

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Cooking at the house we rented last year in Ireland

It was, I later realized, a true gift.

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

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

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

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

IMG_20141222_113805190

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

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

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

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

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

Who will you welcome into your home this season?

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

A question of trust

In aging, behavior, business, cars, Crime, culture, design, family, journalism, life, love on June 17, 2015 at 11:38 am

By Caitlin Kelly

trust-torn

We can’t survive without it.

I’m writing this from a friend’s home in Dublin, where we arrived last night from New York.

This week, five broken-hearted sets of Dublin parents will fly to California to collect the bodies of their young adult children, all of whom died when an apartment balcony they were standing on suddenly fell in Berkeley; all five of them were visiting on work visas. A sixth, who lived locally, also died, and seven other students were injured.

It is, of course, front-page news in today’s Irish Times.

I’m a nervous flyer. I love to travel and have been to 39 countries so far; this is my fifth visit to Ireland. But every time I step into an aircraft, I’m fighting anxiety, no matter how annoyed this makes me. When, which is inevitable, we hit turbulence, it’s a battle for me to stay calm — to trust the pillots’ skill and experience, the careful work of the mechanics who maintain aircraft and the plane itself, built to withstand much stronger forces than I’d like to experience.

I've lost my appetite for that area of NYC, and tall buildings

I’ve lost my appetite for that area of NYC, and tall buildings

It’s all based on trust.

Yet, every day, our trust — in authority, in material safety, in the food and drink we consume — is tested:

An enormous recall of Takata-made airbags, whose explosion have killed 3 people and injured 139

— The bridge crossing the Hudson River where I live is so old (now being re-built), it’s been called the “hold your breath” bridge for years

— Those recently killed on a Chinese ferry and the young students lost on a Korean ship

— The disappearance of MH 370 and the deliberate crash of Germanwings flight 9525 by a deranged young pilot who had, somehow, passed multiple medical tests

— Recalls of contaminated food and drink, like the Blue Bell ice cream that killed three people and put seven others into the hospital.

Everything we touch, every interaction, relies on our ability to trust one another to some degree:

That the elevator will ride smoothly and safely; that the meal we order won’t be prepared by contaminated hands; that our surgeon is sober, skilled and well-trained; that our mechanic isn’t lying when he tells us our vehicle needs extensive, expensive repairs.

Friendship relies on honesty and loyalty. So does a healthy marriage; if you can’t trust your own partner or spouse, who can you rely on? Which is why adultery is such a devastating blow — you choose your own family and it falls to pieces.

Teachers trust their students to do the work and not plagiarize or cheat. Students trust their teachers to be fair, smart, helpful and wise. Both of them have to trust in the authority of a system that more often privileges test scores or tuition fees over the needs of either group.

And yet we also bring a widely disparate set of hopes and expectations to the table. Some students lie. Some teachers are incompetent. Some surgeons gown up while drunk or high. Nurses can’t or won’t rat them out — risking patients’ lives. (As someone who’s had four orthopedic surgeries since 2000, it’s an issue I’ve had to consider personally.)

Anyone looking for love, certainly when dating people they don’t know well through mutual friends or family, takes a risk.

I spent a few months in 1998 being wooed fervently by a charming, witty man I met through a personal ad. He kept proposing marriage to me — until the day he opened my mail, activated my credit card, forged signature and started using my cards — i.e. committing multiple felonies. When I confronted him, his three little words shifted from “I love you” to a chilling, well-practiced “It’s not provable.”

That certainly shifted my notions of who looks, sounds and is trustworthy. It also deeply shook my confidence in my own choices about what signals of trustworthiness are real and which are not.

The New York Times newsroom...without trust in its product, we would have no readers

The New York Times newsroom…without trust in its product, we would have no readers

As a career journalist, my entire reputation relies on my editors’ trust in me: to vet the sources I use for their veracity and authority, to meet my deadlines, to produce excellent work, to report accurately, to quote and attribute my sources properly.

When other writers screw up — and it happens a lot — all of us cringe and know we’ve lost even more of the public’s little trust in us.

The law is a blunt instrument when redressing broken trust — no amount of financial compensation will bring back a broken marriage, a dead child, a ruined career.

When, where and how much and in whom should we place our trust?

That’s the question I have yet to answer to my satisfaction.

You?

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