Are you “authentic”?

IMG_4597

Climate change marchers in Montreal.

 

By Caitlin Kelly

It’s a word much used these days.

Being true to oneself.

Being yourself.

It’s an interesting challenge if you grew up in, or married, or married into, a family that’s heavily invested in a certain kind of person — and you’re not really that person at all.

I’ve seen this firsthand with several women I know and it’s extremely painful to hear and see the tremendous stress it creates. Worse, obviously, to be that person and be told constantly what a disappointment you are.

One chose to leave her faith, to the shock and dismay of her parents. Another is living a deeply conventional life, and is simply not that person.

One of my favorite songs, Once in a Lifetime, by one of my favorite bands, Talking Heads:

 

You may ask yourself
What is that beautiful house?
You may ask yourself
Where does that highway go to?
And you may ask yourself
Am I right? Am I wrong?
And you may say yourself
“My God! What have I done?”

We choose our lives from the best place we know how, at that time. So we sometimes choose the wrong partner, university, job, city or friendships. They feel right then, but as we grow and become more intimate with ourselves, we see how poorly these choices now fit, like a suit of armor that once (likely) protected us — and now constricts our movements in every way.

My first husband, a physician, was “perfect on paper”, a handsome, bright, musical, ambitious man. He was, at first, kind and funny. But he was someone unwilling or unable to do the work of marriage with me, and left me barely two years after we took vows, to remarry. I should have had the guts to not marry him, as I knew it wasn’t a good fit. I did, hoping and determined to “make it work.”

But my second marriage allows me to just be who I am: messy, creative, spontaneous.

In the U.S., the workplace is structured in many ways that insist on denying who we are, whether our sexuality, the fact we are pregnant or soon hope to be (again), the fact we have aging or ill parents or relatives or dear friends who need our caregiving. It’s a country predicated on, and dedicated to, profit and productivity — not human connection or kindness. Work til you drop, dammit!

So if your authentic self more deeply values connection, or creativity, or freedom, or less conventional options, you may find yourself — however authentic — isolated, alone and filled with self-doubt and recrimination.

If only I were…not myself.

Be yourself.

 

Be your blessed, unique self.

The week I learned some family secrets

IMG_1352

 

By Caitlin Kelly

Intimacy isn’t easy.

A new friend — of about a year, someone a decade younger than I but the mother of teenagers — recently told me I had disappointed her. She took the risk I wouldn’t listen or that I would get angry or get defensive. I didn’t. It wasn’t a huge thing (to me) and I apologized for disappointing her and she seemed mollified and relieved we had discussed it calmly.

I am glad she took that risk because a friendship soured by unspoken disappointment can’t last.

But on reflection I wrote her an email to explain why, in some ways, I’ve hurt and disappointed people I care for unintentionally. I’ve done a lot of therapy so at least I have a clearer understanding why.

Intimacy with oneself is often a work in progress.

When you come from a family where everyone’s feelings were routinely ignored or dismissed, taking others’ seriously and responding to them quickly, just isn’t how you behave.

I really hate unpacking my family history, since it’s weird and painful and the polar opposite of the Hallmark card closeness, trust and kindness that is soon about to be celebrated again in the U.S. with Thanksgiving and then Christmas and Hanukah.

 

The very word “family” is used in much American advertising as a proxy for close, loving stability — when for many people it’s just not that at all.

 

A total stranger who writes a blog about crime fiction has been researching my American maternal grandmother, great grand-mother and grandfather — whose marriages were legion and some deemed so scandalous, (thanks to their wealth and social prominence), they made the newspapers.

He recently emailed me to share his findings. They were…enlightening. But also unsettling to read about people I knew as entries in public documents.

My grandfather, an author, who my mother only met twice and I never met, (long since divorced anyway), apparently added a “von” and the letter “H” to create the name von Rhau — which sounds pretty Euro-aristocratic, as he hoped.

He was actually Henry Rau from Staten Island.

I knew none of this until last week.

If of interest, here are his blog posts; first part, second part.

My maternal great-grandmother ended up as the Countess Casagrande on Park Avenue in New York City, (yes, really), while her daughter kept marrying and re-marrying at dizzying speed.

I knew my mother had a very rough emotional childhood, despite plenty of material wealth.

 

IMG_7776

An extraordinary story of survival

 

So when it comes to “normal” behavior, our family is not the place to look for role models or sterling behaviors.

My late paternal grandfather, a self-made millionaire in Vancouver, had an affair with his sister-in-law and kept the boy with his own family; my father has four adult children, two by wives (divorced, dead) and two women he did not marry. I haven’t even met one of them.

Why tell you any of this?

Because when you meet someone new, as my friend did when she met me  — and they might be fun and funny and charming — and I am all of these things, they might also be carrying some tough history as well.

And when you hit those spots,  which I call emotional bone bruises because they’re not visible, it can be difficult to open up or to explain.

No wonder I married a small-city preacher’s kid whose emotional life and financial history could not be any more different than my own.

I also find it ironic that I come from a family that so resolutely avoided discussing our tangled histories — while I have made my living persuading total strangers to share some of their toughest moments with me for my two books and decades of journalism.

Do you carry some difficult stuff from your own family of origin?

Do your intimates know about it?

 

How does it affect you and your life today as an adult?

 

The deep comfort of seeing old friends

IMG_2082

 

By Caitlin Kelly

Imagine opening your kitchen door to someone you haven’t seen in 50 years.

That just happened for me and a woman I knew at boarding school in Toronto, with whom — both of us bad girls asked to leave the school at the end of that year — I then, briefly, shared a room there.

She’s an incredibly talented art photographer, with three books to her credit; here’s her website.

After we lost touch, she moved to Ireland, then back home to Toronto, then to the U.S. — as I did, and there married and divorced without children (as I did.) Now she’s back in Canada and we caught up on so many stories! It was eerie how much we had in common and so comforting to feel like it had not been so many years; she, too, had DCIS (early stage breast cancer) and reached out to me on Facebook last year when I was diagnosed, then living in New Mexico — my husband’s home state.

On this trip we also caught up with a man I’ve known since my very early 20s, married for years to his husband, now retired to the country. We met their gorgeous Airedale and enjoyed a great meal together. We hadn’t seen them in a few years and look forward to returning. How nice to know we’re welcome again.

We also spent an evening with yet another friend of many, many years — who I met when he was a tenant in an apartment in a house my father owned. It’s lovely when you’re out on the road for three weeks, most of it working, to sit at a friend’s table and savor their hospitality. (We arrived there with a big box of delicious bakery goodies.)

I finally, after many lonely years there, have several good friends in New York, and one who’s known me for about 20 years — but the depth and breadth of my earliest friendships, the ones who knew me before my first husband, (pre-1986), are so precious to me. They knew me “when” — and, still, gratefully, know me now.

On this trip, I’ve also made several new younger friends through Fireside, and I am really enjoying getting to know them better.

 

Friendship sustains me.

A must-see film: Capernaum

By Caitlin Kelly

Sometimes you watch a film that feels like a punch to the solar plexus.

In a good way.

I was bored and channel-surfing this week on yet another stiflingly hot evening when, at 10:00 pm, I found a film I had really wanted to see in 2018 when it came out. It received rapturous reviews, including a 15 minute standing ovation when screened at the Cannes Film Festival.

Capernaum — also named Chaos — was filmed in a dusty, crowded Beirut for $4 million, starring a 12 year old Syrian refugee named Zain who’d already survived eight years in that city’s slums. The stars of the film include the most gorgeous baby — not more than a year old — and an Ethiopian woman, his mother, living and working there in menial jobs illegally.

If there is a film that more powerfully shows what it’s like to scrape every single day for food, water, income and dignity, I don’t know what it is.

The child who plays Zain is also named Zain, and was 12 at the time of filming, then illiterate. He is so tiny he looks like he might be eight or ten. (He now lives in Norway.)

Every element of this film is searing: the fate of his sister Sahar, a child bride; his abusive parents unable to care for him in any way; his resilience; the empathy and compassion Rahil shows for him (the mother of the baby) and his, in turn, for her toddler.

There’s a kind of intimacy and immediacy to this film that renders everything more slick and produced meaningless in comparison. It is in Arabic and Amharic with subtitles.

Slumdog Millionaire made in 2008 for $15 million — and which made $377.89 million — is the only other film that comes to mind like this, and Capernaum is much better.

Like Slumdog, it was made on  a small budget of $4 million (thanks to a producer who mortgaged his home), and has so far earned $68.6 million becoming a huge and unexpected hit in China.

Ironic that two films about desperately impoverished street children have proven so popular and lucrative.

I sure hope these child actors have also enjoyed some of that wealth!

Here’s the film’s trailer.

Find it. 

Watch it.

Extraordinary.

The challenge of finding love

jose at pulitzer01

My sweetie, making photo history by photographing the Pulitzer Prize journalism judging — his idea!

 

By Caitlin Kelly

In the romantic sense, anyway.

I see a lot of anguish among my friends who are single, no matter their age. One is desperate to have children but has no partner. Another has had her heart broken a few too many times.

Another already knows men her age insist on dating women decades younger.

One of my Sunday morning pleasures is reading The New York Times wedding announcements, aka the social box scores. I admit it — my mother’s wedding and both of mine made the cut. And, for every kindergarten teacher marrying an investment banker, or a Harvard-educated physicist marrying a former White House speechwriter, there are a few fun couples you just want to cheer for, like the 71-year-old therapist and mandolin player who married an 80-year-old — and met him while sharing their love of vintage Porsches.

I married for the first time at 35 and he bailed after barely two years, re-married to a colleague within a year. He was “perfect on paper” — a tall, handsome, medical student who played clarinet and guitar and also loved to travel. But it was not to be.

Divorced (no kids) for six years, I had plenty of time to re-think who or what I most wanted — as I missed being married. One of my hopes (realized!) was to find a partner who was interesting, well-traveled, accomplished yet also modest. In New York, that’s almost impossible; I was way out of most leagues, not having an Ivy degree, let alone several.

In those years I dated a computer geek of Greek origin, a ship’s engineer and a Jewish man whose parents’ first question to me was: “Are you Catholic?” (No.)

I met a few charming liars, as anyone does when meeting people on-line. Even a convicted con man. Terrifying!

Then I wrote about online dating — still a novelty then — for Mademoiselle, a now-defunct national women’s magazine. My profile headline read, truthfully: Catch Me If You Can. Jose, now my husband, liked the challenge and we met and…that was it!

 

rhiney

In sickness, surgery and in health…

 

We would never have met any other way, as he lived 30 miles south of me in Brooklyn and worked full-time, an odd schedule, at The New York Times. The day he was to have moved in with me was 9/11.

Yes, the 9/11.

Our first few years weren’t smooth. We loved one another, but were tough, prickly, set in our ways and, typical of successful journalists, extremely competitive. Whew!

But we’ve also always been quick to laugh, to hug, to forgive. We share a ferocious work ethic. We love to mentor and entertain, to share what we have with those we love. Our sofa is well-used by visiting younger pals.

We love to travel, whether in a tent (rarely!) or an elegant city hotel. We both have spiritual practices — mine, Episcopal church, his Dzogchen Buddhism; you can see his mala beads on his left wrist below and the stained glass of the tiny wooden church on Toronto’s Centre Island.

 

5th-anniversary

September 2011

 

It’s never easy or simple to find a great match, especially later in life as career and education and children enter the picture and each of which can make a commitment more challenging.

I was unhappily single for years in Toronto because I knew I really wanted to move to New York — and who would move with me, legally? It all worked out (moved here with first husband who I met in Montreal), but who knew at the time?

I’m so grateful for how it worked out.

How have you found romantic love?

What’s your legacy?

IMG_3916

 

By Caitlin Kelly

 

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

 

Who came?

How many?

Who spoke and what did they say about the deceased?

 

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

She was always friendly, but deeply private.

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

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

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

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

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

 

Did you give back?

Were you generous and kind?

Did you laugh often?

Did you mentor?

 

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

 

Am I leaving a good life behind?

Am I doing enough for others?

 

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

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

Every day we create our legacy.

Yes, including weekends!

Do you ever think about this as well?

 

Which was your best decade? Worst?

L1010282

One of the great pleasures of Montreal, the Atwater Market

 

By Caitlin Kelly

We listen to satellite radio in our nicer car and, I admit it, I listen to the ’80s channel.

Why?

Because, yes, it was easily my best and most fun decade, my 20s.

Promptly followed by my worst, the ’90s.

So, my ’80s:

 

1982-3

I win an eight-month-long fellowship, based in Paris on Rue du Louvre at the CFPJ, called Journalists in Europe, which chooses 28 men and women 25 to 35 who speak fluent French and English to come and study Europe and write about it, traveling throughout as a group and on solo 10-day reporting trips. There are JEs from Togo, Bangladesh, India, New Zealand, Brazil, China and many others. We form unlikely close friendships, like mine with Yasuro,  from Japan, discussing baseball in French. It’s an amazing, exhausting, life-changing year, the happiest of my life, creating friendships that will last for many decades yet to come and giving me a tremendous boost of skills and self-confidence. Plus, getting to live in Paris!

1983-84

I return to dreary Toronto and finally break up with my live-in boyfriend there who wants to get married. I don’t want to get married so young.

1984-1986

I finally win my dream job, as a reporter for Canada’s best newspaper, The Globe and Mail. I get to cover a Royal Tour, following Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip across Canada for two weeks, a Quebec election and stories from profiling a female prison warden to a series on re-using disposable medical supplies. But it’s a mean, tough, elbows-out newsroom and after 2.5 years I’m burned out and need a break. A friend helps me win my next job.

1986-1988

I move to Montreal to become a feature writer for the Montreal Gazette. I meet my first husband, an American in his final year of medical school at McGill. I love my spectacular top-floor apartment in a gorgeous 1930s downtown building, with two bedrooms, a working fireplace and tall windows. Nicest place I’ve ever lived. But I didn’t love the Gazette and I really hated the ferocity and length of a Montreal winter.

1988-1989

Unbelievable luck — I get an H1-B visa to work for three months in Hanover, NH as an editor, in the exact place my first husband (not yet my fiance) is in his medical residency at Dartmouth. I’m able to get a “green card” to live and work in the U.S, thanks to my mother’s birth in the U.S. and I move to Lebanon, NH. I’ve left behind career, income, friends. But, pre-Internet, locals are so unfriendly I can barely believe it. I usually make friends easily and quickly. We’re broke and my boyfriend is exhausted all the time, if he’s even home. This makes for the roughest experience I’ve had in many years.

1990

We move to New York, to a suburban town where we buy an apartment that needs renovation we can’t afford. It takes me six months of cold calls, and a lucky New York Times’ job ad, to get my first job, as a senior editor at a monthly magazine focused on global news — saved by my ability to speak French and Spanish. We know no one.

1992-1994

I quit that job, and get married, albeit with very serious doubts about whether it will last, no matter how hard I’m willing to work at it. My family wants nothing to do with me and I’ve already had the best jobs in my industry in Toronto and Montreal. Not a lot of options. After barely two years, my husband walks out and re-marries someone from his workplace.

1995-1999

Chaos. I get divorced. I have a few staff jobs, but they don’t last. I had alimony, but it ends. I start online dating and meet a con man through a newspaper ad, who is ruthless and vicious and terrifies me. I waste four months of my life with him, trying to get him arrested and charged, but give up. I am burned out. I am lonely. I am struggling financially.  In 1998 I fly, on my dime, all the way to Australia and New Zealand, hoping to write and sell my first book, a narrative of the women’s boat in that year’s round-the-world Whitbread (now Volvo) Yacht Race. But they blow me off when I get there…so I have a great but very expensive and unplanned vacation alone.

2000

Phew. I meet Jose, now my husband, in March. Finally, life starts to become happy again.

 

Have you had a rough decade?

Or one (maybe several) filled with joy and accomplishment?

Social triage

caitlin team

I miss these amazing women — the team at my radiation clinic. This was Nov. 15, 2018, my final day of treatment.

 

By Caitlin Kelly

I’ve written a lot here about trying to find community and loneliness.

But social triage is also  — as we say — “a thing.”

Just as ER and conflict medical staff triage patients into: will die, might die, treat first, we tend to decide who’s going to be closest to us and to which friends, or family, we’ll devote the bulk of whatever time and affection we can spare.

I was diagnosed in late May 2018 with very early-stage breast cancer and am, thankfully, fine. But it has, as serious illness tends to do, made much clearer to me who I most want in my life and who, now, I really don’t.

(Others have made the same decision about me — three former friendships died a long time ago. It happens.)

 

 

IMG_1486

So who are the people I now want closest and treasure most?

 

— We laugh a lot.

— We make consistent and concerted efforts to see one another face to face, even if only by Skype across an ocean.

— Regular long phone conversations — texts and emojis are just not enough.

— Regular play dates: coffee, lunch, a museum or show.

— Some have accompanied me to medical appointments, their mere presence a tremendous comfort.

— Months may go by without much contact, but we trust one another’s affection and loyalty to know that life gets crazy and we will re-connect.

— We send one another little gifts or cards just because we can.

— They really understand that life can be frightening, and show compassion for fear, anxiety and tears. They don’t flee when times are difficult.

 

 

market 04

Those left behind?

 

— It’s always all about them. They don’t even draw breath before launching into a 20-minute monologue.

— They never simply ask “How are you doing?”

— So much drrrrrraaaaaaaama! Exhausting.

— People who radiate haste and anxiety. Much as I have compassion for them, I stay far away. I have enough anxiety of my own.

— People with no sense of perspective, who whine and complain about issues that are for them enormous — but which in the larger scheme of things are minor and easily resolved.

— People who never initiate contact but wait for me to jump-start every meeting.

— People unable to know how much their own challenges are already softened by the privileges of good health and enough income.

 

Have you become more selective about your friendships?

Where will love take you?

 

L1010282

Atwater Market, in Montreal, where I met my first husband

 

 

By Caitlin Kelly

My mother was 17 — a headstrong American beauty freshly graduated from her prep school. My father was then 23, a handsome sailor from Vancouver painting in the south of France, supported by his father.

They met, bien sur!, in a little village on the Cote d’Azur at a party and that was that. My mother, desperate to flee life with her wealthy mother who kept marrying and divorcing (six times, maybe eight?), returned to New York City and married my father at the enormous Romanesque Park Avenue cathedral of St. Bartholomew. I used to walk past it on the way to one of my Manhattan journalism jobs, aware it was partially responsible for my even being in New York.

They moved back to Vancouver — a provincial backwater in the early 50s —  but they had fun: he opened an art gallery and she modeled. They moved to London for three years after I was born; (he made films for the BBC) then to Toronto, finally divorcing there, where I grew up.

I wanted to get to New York and I also wanted to marry, but I couldn’t quite imagine how either of those things would happen. I couldn’t picture a Canadian man willing and legally able to move to New York.

 

L1010197

Montreal

 

Living in Montreal in the 1980s, working as a reporter for the Montreal Gazette, I met my first husband — also a party guest at my housewarming. He was an American from New Jersey, in his final year of medical school at McGill.

We spent seven years together in New Hampshire and New York; I followed him to the U.S. in 1988, legally able to do so thanks to my mother’s citizenship.

My mother and I basically switched lives — I to live in a town 25 miles north of her birthplace, New York City, and she living 25 miles north of Vancouver, my birthplace.

I also longed to better understand the American side of my family, which included a rancher, an ambassador, a bullfighter and an archeologist, and the drive and ambition that led my paternal great-grandfather to develop a Chicago landmark, still there, the North American Building. Thanks to him, I knew the names of downtown Chicago streets as well as those of my native Toronto.

 

IMG_0873

The Met Opera. New York City. I do love the elegance!

 

My mother, politically liberal, was much happier in Canada than in the sharp-elbowed U.S. Without a college degree, she also couldn’t compete effectively for good jobs; luckily for her, she inherited enough money she never had to.

Jose, my second/current husband, and I met in the year 2000 — when I wrote a story for a women’s magazine about a then new trend called on-line dating; my profile placed on aol.com drew 200+ replies from around the world but he lived within the desired radius of 35 miles.

We were wondering the other day how our lives would have turned out had we never met, which seems happily unimaginable to us now, all these years later.

What if he’d gone back to Denver, a city he loved?

What if I’d returned after my divorce to Canada or to France?

What if?

What if?

 

IMG_2952

Northern Ontario, a landscape I love and miss

 

I’m always intrigued by people who move very far from their homes for love.

It is a huge leap of faith — as getting divorced in another country can be really expensive and lonely and confusing.

It seems normal in our circles, peripatetic journalists and photographers. One friend became the “trailing spouse” and follows his wife to every State Department posting. I have a friend in London, recently widowed, who met her American husband while reporting in Israel. A couple we know — he’s French, she’s American — met (of course) while both were were working as journalists in Tokyo.

 

Have you ever moved a long distance, even to another country, for love?

Did it end happily?

 

Coping with fragility

 

 

IMG_2217

 

By Caitlin Kelly

What a concept.

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

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

Today?

Not so much.

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

But I feel so much more fragile.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Therapy helps.

Telling good friends helps.

But it’s a process.

 

L1000742