How resilient are you?

By Caitlin Kelly

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I found this recent New York Times story interesting, which offers several specific tips on how to build your resilience:

Much of the scientific research on resilience — our ability to bounce back from adversity — has focused on how to build resilience in children. But what about the grown-ups?

While resilience is an essential skill for healthy childhood development, science shows that adults also can take steps to boost resilience in middle age, which is often the time we need it most. Midlife can bring all kinds of stressors, including divorce, the death of a parent, career setbacks and retirement worries, yet many of us don’t build the coping skills we need to meet these challenges.

I’ve long been interested in, and I most admire, people who are resilient — partly because if you’re not, life can end up morass of poor-me-why-me? misery.

Having said that, if you’re struggling with chronic illness and/or persistent poverty, let alone both, it’s damn hard to get out of bed in the morning with optimism.

I found this more recent NYT op-ed more interesting:

 

But a strong filter also creates real problems, because it effectively lies about reality to both the healthy and the sick. It lies to the healthy about the likelihood that they will one day suffer, hiding the fact that even in modernity the Book of Ecclesiastes still applies. It lies to the sick about how alone they really are, because when they were healthy that seemed like perfect normalcy, so they must now be outliers, failures, freaks.

And this deception is amplified now that so much social interaction takes place between disembodied avatars and curated selves, in a realm of Instagrammed hyper-positivity that makes suffering even more isolating than it is in the real world.

And here’s a new, great list of helpful tips on how to build resilience from my friend and colleague Gwen Moran, writing in Fast Company magazine.

I have friends and family who’ve survived sexual abuse and assault, negligence, brutal and costly divorces, serious illnesses…It’s not just a matter of surviving, (which can be difficult and isolating enough!) but coming out the other side with some hope or optimism intact.

You have to somehow believe it’s going to get better, even with much current evidence to the contrary.

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I’ve written here a few times about some of the challenges I’ve faced, even as a relatively privileged white woman: mental illness and alcoholism in my family of origin, multiple family estrangements, job losses and protracted job searches, three recessions, multiple surgeries, divorce, criminal victimization.

But…it could always be worse.

I was struck, limping for a month through multiple European cities wearing a large and very visible brace on my right leg after re-injuring it on a bike ride in Berlin, how many people sympathized: “Oh, poor you!” or “You’re so brave!”

My choices? Stay and continue on, and limp, or leave in the middle of a cherished and otherwise wonderful vacation; popping painkillers and wearing my brace were not a big deal, and probably looked worse to others than it felt to me.

But bravery to me is a much deeper, and stronger quality.

 

You can only know really know how much you can handle once it’s thrown into your lap  — often without warning.

 

If you have health, friends and some savings, tough times are more bearable than if you’re ill, broke and lonely, when it can feel like the whole world is aligned against you.

I decided to marry my husband after he responded with grace, speed, decisiveness and generosity to a crisis within my family. His resilient and optimistic character revealed itself in ways that no movie date or romantic holiday could ever have shown me.

His resilience was one of — and still is — his most attractive qualities.

I value resilience highly, wary of people who spend their lives throwing pity parties, especially the otherwise privileged who are shocked! when difficulty strikes.

We have an example of resilience in our home, a weary little geranium plant who I’m always sure is about to kick the bucket at any minute. Instead it keeps on blossoming and blooming, even on its two scrawny stems.

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Do you value resilience in yourself and others?

 

How did you develop it?

Who’s your “missing person”?

By Caitlin Kelly

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There are a few people I always want to find again, to know how their lives turned out and if they’re happy and where they live and if they had kids or grandkids.

But two of them have — bizarrely in an age of media saturation — no digital footprints at all. One is a physician, so I guess I could track her down through a medical society but the other…no idea.

The former is someone I knew from our shared years at a Toronto boarding school, where we were both nerdy, although she was much more serious and quiet than I. The latter is a man I knew (and had a huge crush on) through high school, also in Toronto, who was extremely talented as an artist. We were, for a few years, close friends, but lost touch when we graduated.

A third person is a former journalism colleague who became a crusading lawyer, but, to my shock and dismay when I last searched for him on-line, had died prematurely.

They’re like ghosts for me, visions from my childhood, adolescence and 20s I’d like to reconnect with now.

Thanks to social media, some people I’d lost touch with have found me again and reconnected, like a childhood best friend and her two brothers, the eldest of whom took me to my first formal dance — where my cool vintage blue crochet dress split right down the back when the zipper broke halfway through the evening. He was a perfect gentleman and loaned me his jacket. But it was not the elegant impression I’d hoped to leave on him.

One of the reasons I hope to find some people from my past, selfishly,  is also to reconnect with our shared memories, those unique to us. And, as someone not close to my family, my friends really are much more the repository of my memories. Too often, they know me much better than my own mother, (whose care I left at 14, for good) and father, (whose care I left at 19, for good.) I have 3 step-siblings, but we never lived together and are not close.

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Half my life was spent in Canada and the second half in the United States, making me more eager to seek out those who “knew me when” — when I was young(er) and with whom I share specific memories no American has or could understand.

In London this past summer I met up again with a man I’d traveled with in Spain decades ago for two weeks after we met on a train station platform there. On that journey, I was 22, alone for four months moving across Europe, and already weary of fending off male advances.

I craved companionship and, bluntly, a male foil to keep the rest at bay.

He was smart, funny, good company. He was also handsome, with brilliant blue eyes, a student at Cambridge four years my junior. Much later he became a friend on Facebook, albeit one who never posted anything.

He asked me to go to lunch on this London visit, and I agreed, both curious and a little nervous; we’re both happily married so I knew this was innocent.

Like me, he is long partnered, had traveled widely and had no children.

 

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We went to the Hokusai exhibition at the British Museum, (which we loved), and our afternoon was easy and comfortable and as though no time at all had passed since we’d seen one another.

It was lovely.

I’m glad we found one another again.

 

Do you seek out people from your past with whom you’ve lost touch?

Do they seek you out?

 

Then what happened?

How do you feel about aging?

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I met this guy — fellow Canadian, actor/comedian Mike Myers — recently at a party in Manhattan. We’re near the same age, still working, still laughing!

 

This is a powerful video, and one worth watching — 11 minutes of a recent TED talk in Vancouver by activist Ashton Applewhite.

In it, she raises the essential unfairness of treating people who are older — whether they’re in their 40s, 50s — or 80s — as “other” and as lesser, people with less economic, physical, emotional and spiritual value to the larger culture.

And, as many women know, or soon learn, getting older is often a disaster in North America. If you’re still working, you’re supposed to pretend to be much younger and get every bit of cosmetic/surgical aid possible to make sure you appear that way.

I work in a field dominated by people in their 20s and 30s, eager to make their name, get ahead and claim a spot.

I also work in an industry — journalism — divided against itself in some deeply unhelpful ways. Digital media have claimed the lion’s share of audience and ad dollars, leaving “legacy media” (i.e. newspapers and magazines) with shrinking staff and budgets.

That also means many newsrooms and offices are hemorrhaging people like me and my husband, professionals with decades of experience and insight into how to do these jobs with excellence, integrity and efficiency.

Yet, now hundreds of newbies are also crying out for mentors, and finding none.

Because those of us who would have become their mentors by working together have been bought out or fired, blocked by age discrimination from acquiring the new jobs we need, dismissed as being “digital immigrants”, both illegal and unfair.

It’s a pervasive prejudice that weakens every workplace that indulges in it; diversity of age, wisdom, skills and experience also matters.

And I hate the word “seniors”, as if an entire group of people were an undifferentiated mass of old. We don’t call younger people “intermediates” and, usually only within an athletic context, do we call them juniors.

Enough!

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I also live in an apartment building where everyone owns their home, and a building dominated by people in their 70s, 80s and 90s. It’s always been like this, even when I was 30 and moved in there.

Some people would hate this and flee as soon as possible — all those walkers and canes and even, very occasionally, wheelchairs. All that white hair! All that…age.

It’s not an unusual sight to have an ambulance pull up or to get to know someone’s aide.

It’s never really bothered me.

Consider the alternative!

I lost both grandmothers the year I was 18 and never even met either of my grandfathers so I enjoy talking to people a few decades further along than I am, seeing how they cope and enioy life, whether off on a cruise to Alaska or just sitting with me beside our shared swimming pool in the sunshine.

Several are still working.

They know my name. They commiserate when my arthritic knee puts me back in a brace or physical therapy.

As I’ve said here, I have no close relatives and poor relationships with my own parents.

As I age, I have slightly less energy than a decade ago, but it means I’m more thoughtful about when, how and for whom I work.

Drama is something I eschew.

I go to spin class and lift weights. I pray, daily, for continued good health.

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Love this Swedish TV show about a cop who’s definitely not young

 

Jose and I are also very lucky to have friends in their 20s and 30s, people whose company we really enjoy and who seem to genuinely enjoy ours as well.

They don’t just pump us for contacts and job help, but we talk about politics and travel and books and music and money — all the things friends talk about.

It’s a great pleasure to watch our younger friends navigate life and, when asked, (and sometimes when not!), we’ll share our own experiences and strategies. Since we have no children or grandchildren, we really value this emotional connection with those younger than us.

It’s also a benefit of older age  to have left much of early adulthood’s angst and anxiety behind.

We’ve been lucky and careful, and have saved enough to retire. I just pray for a few more decades to enjoy it all.

Here’s a lovely “Vows” column from The New York Times, about a couple who recently married at 98 and 94.

They met at the gym:

“Age doesn’t mean a damn thing to me or to Gert,” he said. “We don’t see it as a barrier. We still do what we want to do in life.”

 

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Remember this famous image? President Kennedy in the Oval Office…

Aging is a great privilege denied to so many!

 

Do you feel uncomfortable around people much older or younger than you?

Do you work with people much younger or older than you? How is it?

 

 

 

Do we need role models?

By Caitlin Kelly

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A favorite TV series, about an older Swedish detective

Once you become an adult, certainly if you’re female and choose an unconventional life — maybe not marrying or not having children or working in a creative field — you might crave a role model.

Someone who took the path less traveled by, and thrived.

As American poet Robert Frost wrote, in 1916:

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Mainstream, mass market American women’s magazines are too generic, hence unhelpful.

Impossible to relate to corporate warriors like Sheryl Sandberg or Arianna Huffington in their $4,000 sheath dresses and multi-million-dollar lives.

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I hope to keep traveling!

In North America, older women are typically offered a depressingly bifurcated path — turn dumpy and invisible or spend every penny on Botox, fillers and plastic surgery. Look younger, or else!

Neither appeals to me, so I’m forever in search of inspiration, i.e. role models.

In June — where I’ll be celebrating in Paris — I’ll hit a milestone  birthday.

Since my mother and I don’t speak and my stepmother died nine years ago, I don’t have many older women to talk to intimately about what lies ahead.

So it was a great pleasure recently to run into a friend from my dance classes — I was out walking in our small town in the sunshine — and catch up with her, a woman about to hit her next milestone birthday, a decade beyond mine.

She really is an inspiration to me, about to fly to Japan, again, where she’ll be teaching writing and staying with her partner, who has a home there. Last time we met up, she was off to Barcelona to visit one of her daughters.

She always looks terrific, trim and fit, wearing flattering colors and — most importantly — has a real infectious joy and spirit of adventure.

I lost both my grandmothers the year I turned 18, so it’s been a long, long time without a much older woman in my life to talk to.

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Members of  my team, Softball Lite taking a CPR class, March 4, 2017 in Hastings, NY.

But our apartment building is pretty much an old age home, the sort of place people move into at 65 or 75 or 85 after they’ve sold the family house.

So I watch people decades older than I navigate their lives, whether romantic, professional or personal. We don’t hang out, but we do socialize and chat in the hallways or lobby or driveway, our shared spaces.

One woman — in her late 80s, maybe older — on our floor, has a fab new Barbour tweed jacket and looks amazing, even with her walker. I told her so, and as I walked away, heard her say, happily: “That made my day!”

Older people get ignored.  They aren’t listened to. Their needs and desires get dismissed.

That’s not what I want! That’s not what anyone wants.

My father, at 88, is still blessed with enough income and health to be traveling internationally and deciding where to live, still on his own. In his own way, he’s a role model — my husband, a late-life surprise baby, lost both his parents when he was still in his 20s.

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Fleece came in handy when playing golf in 19 mph winds; Cruit Island, Donegal, Ireland

I know the elements of a happy later life, especially after retirement, will be many of the same things as today:

good health, enough money to enjoy some pleasures, intimate friendships, a strong sense of community, a well-tended marriage.

I’m also deliberately trying new-to-me things and learning new skills, like CPR and how to play golf. I debated trying to learn German, but I admit it — I wimped out!

Like both of my parents, I enjoy knowing several much younger friends — people in their 20s, 30s and 40s, each of us at a different stage of life, perhaps, but often struggling with similar, life-long issues, whether intimacy, work or how to handle money well.

We don’t have children or grand-children, (putting us very much out of step with our peers.) So we enjoy others’ when we can.

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I like having chosen the road less traveled, with its many twists and turns.

But a compass and a guide are helpful.

Do you have role models to help you figure out your life?

Who, and how?

Caitlin Kelly, an award-winning non-fiction author and frequent contributor to The New York Times, is a New York-based journalist. Her practical tips, offered through one-on-one webinars and individual coaching, have helped many other writers and bloggers worldwide, quickly increasing their sales, reader engagement and followers; details here.

Contact: learntowritebetter@gmail.com.

A life, saved

By Caitlin Kelly

CPR CLASS

Jeff is the man wearing the blue checked shirt and vest.

It happened on a suburban September Saturday afternoon.

Our co-ed softball team, who’ve been playing together for 16 years, was in the middle of a game when Jeff, a 61-year-old teacher, ran to first base — and collapsed.

“Don’t be so dramatic!” scoffed Paul, the first-base coach.

He wasn’t.

He was having a heart attack, in the middle of a ball field.

Luckily, one of our team-mates, a physician, was there and immediately knew — and knew how — to start chest compressions.

Police came, and EMTs and a paramedic and took Jeff to a local hospital, where he was placed in a medically induced coma.

He’s fine now.

He’s back to teaching.

He’s back to playing softball.

I wasn’t there that day, but it terrified everyone who witnessed it, helplessly, fearful that our friend would die in front of them.

He could have.

It happens.

So, wanting to be sure we’re prepared should it ever happen again, 28 of us paid $35 apiece to take a two-hour Saturday morning class last weekend to learn how we, too, might be able to save a life if needed.

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(Here’s a link to a video about how to do it.)

It was deeply sobering — you have barely four to six minutes to get someone’s heart pumping again before their brain is damaged.

There’s no time to waste!

You can’t panic.

You can’t want someone else to fix it.

You have to do it, and do it quickly and do it with strength and speed — 120 compressions per minute. You’re mimicking a heartbeat for someone who doesn’t have one.

We each practiced on plastic dummies, both child and adult-sized.

We also learned how to do the Heimlich maneuver, on adults, children, infants and (worst case) even ourselves if we’re ever alone and choking. (Lean hard against a chair back and push down on your diaphragm.)

We also learned how to use and apply the two pads of a defibrillator and how to do so safely.

It was a lot to absorb, physically, intellectually and emotionally.

“No matter what happens, you tried your best,” the instructor cautioned.

Not everyone will survive even the best rescue attempt — unlike a recent local save who needed 25 minutes of CPR to return, literally, from the dead.

After the class, there was a lovely, moving ceremony in the town’s volunteer ambulance garage, with the town mayor and the nine people: EMTs, two police officers and a paramedic whose quick action and excellent skills saved our friend’s life.

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Jeff gave a quick, graceful speech and served us a lemon cake at lunch to celebrate his second life.

If you’ve never learned CPR, I’d urge you to consider doing so.

It’s not as complicated as you’d think and there’s nothing worse than feeling helpless in a life-threatening situation.

(story told with Jeff’s permission!)

Showing up

By Caitlin Kelly

5th-anniversary

Our wedding, Sept. 18. 2011 — grateful for our friends’ attendance!

It was a cold, gray, rainy morning and the small Tarrytown, NY church — where author Washington Irving once worshipped — was filling up.

The long, dark wooden pews held friends, colleagues, cousins, a brother.

Several neighbors from her apartment building, including me, joined them.

So did one of her physicians, who would speak about her with respect and affection.

Attending a memorial service is — to put it bluntly — rarely fun.

It’s a spine-stiffening reminder of our mortality, no matter our age or health.

But someone has died and we’re there to honor them and their life, no matter how tenuous the thread of connection. To hold up, sometimes literally, their grieving friends and family, to show them that they, too, are loved and valued by a larger community.

It’s the right thing to do.

And, if you deeply knew and loved the person, it’s heartbreaking; even the female minister conducting the service warned us it would be difficult for her as she was a close friend of our neighbor.

One of my favorite writers, Susie Boyt, recently ended her 13-year column in the Financial Times; a great-grand-daughter of Freud, she is so deliciously un-British, all feelings and emotion, a huge breath of fresh air in those po-faced orange pages filled with PLU (people like us), and I will miss her!

She writes, in her farewell column:

I think that celebrating and mourning should be practiced in equal measure, sometimes at the same time.

I also loved this, from her:

You must try to prepare and be ready for the moment that you’re needed for the call could come at any time.

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We now live in increasingly connected but disconnected times.

We check our phones constantly for some amusing text or parade of emojis.

We hang out on Facebook, Reddit, Tumblr, Twitter, “liking” and “friending” — but rarely sitting with someone who is in pain, scared and dying.

That’s the tough part. Showing up.

More than ever, now, we need to show up in one another’s lives: when someone is ill, or injured, or their parents are dying or your favorite teacher or professor is retiring.

Not every event is sad, of course, but we need to be present, to witness, to celebrate and to console.

I’m at an age now (sigh) where funerals and memorials — for friends, for parents, for neighbors — are more prevalent than graduations, weddings and christenings, all events filled with flowers and joy, hope and anticipation.

And few moments are more sobering and searing than a virtually unattended funeral or memorial service.

I’ve been to one of those.

I’ve been to one that was standing room only, for former New York Times photographer (and someone whose life you might know from the film The Killing Fields), Dith Pran.

I’m especially sensitive to unattended milestones; neither parent attended my college graduation. My mother wasn’t there for my second wedding and neither were my husband’s two sisters or their partners. That hurt, a lot.

So I try, (grateful for the freedom as a self-employed person to be able to do so), to attend memorials and funerals for the people I know, even someone like our neighbor A., a single woman, never married, who was ferociously private.

We never socialized and rarely spoke.

ALL IMAGES COPYRIGHT CAITLIN KELLY 2013.

St. Marks in the Bowery, one of Manhattan’s oldest churches

But at her memorial service I learned a great deal about her, and how very deeply her life, and her enthusiasms, had touched so many others.

Until or unless you’re in the room for these intimate, once-in-a-lifetime events, you’re missing a great deal.

We’re all a thread — as one late beau, cut down too soon by cancer, used to joke — in life’s rich tapestry.

He was right.

He is right.

Show up.

Vanquishing the body

By Caitlin Kelly

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There’s a woman in my spin class — our spin class — who rarely smiles. Her face is usually set in a mien of unsettling intensity, her eyes always agog at..something.

She is as lean as a whippet, her muscles shorn of all excess fat, all softening curves. She carries a large bottle water with ice cubes in it.

She’s in her 50s, maybe retired or self-employed or doesn’t have to work. She appears to live at the gym, working out for hours.

Culturally, as someone who needs to shed at least 30 pounds, if not more, I should envy her, despising my own excess adipose tissue — a tummy whose additional flesh I can still grab (OMG!), despite three months now of two-day-a-week calorie restriction (750 per day), no alcohol until Friday evening and two to three spin classes a week plus lifting weights.

(I do see a difference in my shape and size now, as do my husband and friends. It’s just sloooooow. This morning in the mirror I saw…shadows in my cheeks. Definition?!)

I’m working it.

She’s working it.

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The day after my left hip replacement….Feb. 2012

Another friend of the blog, a fellow journalist named Caitlin, writes Fit and Feminist — and is now doing (gulp) triathlons.

We’re all headed to the same place eventually, some much faster and more heart-breakingly so, than others.

I live in an apartment building where we own our homes, so I’ve stayed for decades and have gotten to know our neighbors.

It’s also a building with many — most — residents in their 70s, 80s and 90s.

Death stalks our hallways.

But in the past decade, we’ve also lost two lovely men, both mid-life, to brain tumors. One man on our floor died of cancer, at least three women in our building, (those that I know personally), are dealing with it.

It’s deeply sobering — (a fact I spend a lot of time denying!) — to stop and realize how fragile our bodies are, prey to genetic shit-shows we didn’t choose and must face nonetheless; my mother has survived at least four forms of cancer so I’m hyper-vigilant with mammograms, skin checks, Pap smears. I smoked once, for about four months, when I was 14 and am very careful about much alcohol I consume.

The weight I’m working so hard to shed is less for cosmetic reasons than for health.

And yet, life also offers tremendous sensual, shared pleasure in the form of delicious foods and drinks, which (yes, I admit) also include alcohol and sweets.

Some people dismiss this idea — sucking back juice or Soylent — treating food as mere fuel.

Not I. Not ever.

I was in great shape in fall 2014…then spent three weeks in Paris. Ooooohlala.

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I look at young women, and men, in shorts and tank tops on the summer streets, carelessly luxuriating in their unlined, unscathed beauty, and wonder if they’ll look back in a few decades with rue or remorse, or happy memories of having savored it all while it was theirs to savor.

It’s a fine balance, this, between the mortification of the flesh, the discipline and self-denial to keep (or regain) a lean physique — and the slothful joys of long naps, a slice of chocolate cake or pie, hours on the sofa watching terrible television or playing video games instead of lifting weights or running or yoga.

Having worked non-stop to meet a magazine deadline, (the story for Chatelaine, a major Canadian magazine, which I’m really proud of, a medical one of course, is here), I ended up in the hospital, in March 2007, with pneumonia, and spent three days there on an IV, coughing so hard I could barely sleep. Drenched with fever sweat, I staggered into the ward shower, and — out loud, alone — apologized to my poor, aching, weary, worn-out body.

It was not, I finally and belatedly realized, a machine to be run until it smoked for lack of grease in the wheels.

 

Our bodies are the greatest of gifts, to be cherished and held and adored.

 

Until it’s time to leave them behind.

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Having friends decades younger/older

By Caitlin Kelly

I'm young enough at heart to really want this Babar hot water bottle cover!
I’m young enough at heart to really want this Babar hot water bottle cover!

Is it possible? It is for Jose and I. Maybe because we have no children, nor even nieces or nephews to enjoy and hang out with. If we want to savor the company of people decades our junior, in a purely social setting, how does that happen?

For me, it’s been finally meeting a few blogging friends, women whose work I’ve known for years, and vice versa, but who’ve never met face to face.

Blogging blind date!

What if — we both feared — the other person was actually awful IRL? Had bad breath or terrible manners or was a nasty snob who edits her work so carefully that none of that shit leaked out into their blog posts?

I had followed Cadence Woodland, who writes Small Dog Syndrome, since she was writing it from a police department (what?!) of a “religious university” she discreetly refused to name in some far-off American state. I had no inherent interest in that sort of work, but her voice, then as now, was witty, funny, observant.

A good blog lets you feel the personality of its writer; if you like them on-line, then, it seems logical you’d enjoy one another’s company just as much in person. She and I then worked together for a year when I needed help with my freelancing business and she needed some extra income — and we got to know one another better, by phone, email and Skype.

But we still hadn’t met, until I asked if I might stay with them in London in their small flat.

For a week.

(Would that wreck it all?)She and her husband Jeff have moved permanently to London, so our first meeting was at St. Pancras train station, as I came off the Eurostar from Paris. Wearing, natch, a brown fedora. She flew at me with a ferocious hug. It was adorable. We sat down for a coffee and talked for so long that Jeff called to ask: “Where are you? Are you OK?” And we were.

She was all I’d expected, and more, moving at the speed of sound through London’s crowded Underground, touring me to all her favorite spots, from Borough Market to Portobello to Spitalfields. We had a blast.

This Moomin mug also makes me happy!
This Moomin mug also makes me happy!

I can’t decide if you have to be an “old soul” in your 20s — or someone with a very young spirit in your 50s — to have such a friendship. I’m not sure it really matters why it works, as long as both people enjoy it. It’s also, like any friendship, reliant on shared values, interests and tastes, whether medieval history, where to find a great lipstick or how to navigate ex-pat life.

For me, these transcend age or life experience.

Same with Mallory Guinee, a recent Carleton College grad teaching high school English in Paris and who blogs at May Meander. She impulsively invited me out for coffee while I was there, then thought “Oh…what if….?” We, too, had a terrific time, so much so that we spent my last night in Paris having dinner together again. She’s only 23, but has traveled to Mali, plays the harp and has a sense of the world that is far beyond that of many people decades older.

Blurry pic from the Cafe St. Regis, Ile St. Louis, Paris
Blurry pic from the Cafe St. Regis, Ile St. Louis, Paris

The other way Jose and I have made several friends in their 20s is through his mentoring of young photojournalists through The New York Times Student Journalism Institute, an annual event open to anyone who’s a student member of NABJ or NAHJ.

While we’ve remained close to many of our “kids”, two of them — Alex and Molly — feel like our own in some ways. Both have spent many nights on our sofa, (we live in a one-bedroom apartment), and we’re in touch with them via Facebook, Twitter, phone and email. Alex just moved to Istanbul for his final semester of college and I’m hoping we can visit him there. Here’s his portfolio and hers; Molly spent all last summer traveling SouthEast Asia as a working photographer. Not bad for someone who is barely halfway through her 20s!

I feel lucky to know these people, for a few reasons. Selfishly, they’re just great fun! Like Jose and I, they, too are bright, ambitious and fairly driven, determined to carve out creative success in a difficult world. We’re happy to mentor them as well.

But, I admit, I feel out of step with my 50-ish female peers. We live in an affluent suburban New York county and women there have mostly followed predictable paths: early marriage, motherhood and stay-at-home life supported by high-earning husbands or their own corporate incomes. They live in big houses, drive new cars and dote on their kids and grandchildren. Few have traveled widely, beyond luxury resorts, or have taken the financial and social risks of ex-patriate life.

None of which I can relate to.

It’s lonely!

And, by my age, you have (ideally!) some life wisdom to share, about work, love, friendship. If you have no younger relatives, no one wants to hear it. But our younger friends are often hungry for advice and insight from a loving adult who’s not their parent or boss.

It’s an interesting relationship in other respects — we’re looking at (we hope!) retirement within the decade and our younger friends are still seeking their first or better jobs. I watch their anxiety and excitement over this with relief that I’m mostly done with that part of my life; they can see, looking at us, what decades of hard word and frugality can bring: a nice home, retirement savings, a good partner to share it with. I’ve also seen my parents’ lifelong enjoyment of younger friends, so this just seems normal to me.

How about you?

Do you have enjoy friendships with anyone decades older or younger than you?  

What will they remember you for?

By Caitlin Kelly

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A few days ago, we attended a memorial service in suburban Maryland for a family friend of my husband’s, a handsome, distinguished architect whose work spanned New York City and Detroit and who helped design JFK Airport.

I never had the pleasure of meeting him, but what a glorious service!

What a powerful reminder of the complicated, messy, loving lives we lead.

How we are often both reticent and expressive, if perhaps not when, where and how others might most have needed or wished for.

How our smallest words and deeds can, unwittingly, leave a lasting mark.

How much we crave connection, even as we blunder and stagger and do it so imperfectly that forgiveness is sometimes the greatest gift we are given.

How, for some fathers, their children are their greatest joy.

What did his friends, children, grandchildren and colleagues remember?

— He baked bread in clay flowerpots

— His amazing home-made pizza

— He loved classical music — and Rodrigo’s exquisite Concierto de Aranjuez was part of the service, played simply and beautifully on a gleaming black grand piano. A lone trumpet also played the Navy Anthem and My Funny Valentine.

— His service in WWII, inspiring a young seaman, a grandson in his medal-beribboned uniform, to tell us that’s what inspired him to join the Navy as well

— His midnight rescue, done calmly and gently, of his niece — out on a first date — who had locked the car keys in his borrowed car, with the engine running

— The day, as a Columbia School of Architecture student, he discovered that Frank Lloyd Wright was visiting New York City, staying at the Plaza Hotel. He jumped into a car, drove downtown to the Plaza — and, with no formal introduction, invited Wright back to campus for their 4:00 ritual tea. Wright, who then was paid $30,000 per lecture and had a New York Times interview scheduled that day, spontaneously agreed. (Now that’s chutzpah!)

— His three marriages; (as one female relative said, to loving laughter, “I kept hoping…”)

My husband clutched the late man’s brother’s hand, our dear friend, while I held Jose’s, knitting a fierce rope of love, something rough and strong to hold fast to.

We exited the church into brilliant fall sunshine to discover a raft of cellphone messages from Texas; my husband’s own half-brother, a man 24 years his senior, had suffered a major stroke and would likely not survive. He died a few hours later.

This, barely three days after Pratt Institute, where I now teach two classes, lost a female student to suicide, on campus.

It has been a week of death, of mourning, of loss, of remembrance.

Of our impossible, inevitable, inescapable fragility.

What will they say of you?

Is it what you hope?

A sudden chill

By Caitlin Kelly

His bicep still feels like a wall, solid and strong.

His energy and curiosity have long since out-paced that of his peers.

He just spent a month sailing in Greece with a friend.

That's him, helping me into my heels before my second wedding
That’s him, helping me into my heels before my second wedding

But, for the first time, during a recent visit, my 85-year-old father finally, suddenly, felt old to me. And, to his clear dismay and surprise, to himself.

We’ve never had a smooth, easy relationship. He’s missed many of my birthdays and we rarely do Christmas together. He made it to both my weddings and walked me down the aisle.

We’ve had arguments so loud and ferocious I debated cutting off all contact with him.

But he’s my only father.

And I am, in many ways — competitive, stubborn, voraciously curious, a world traveler with a host of interests, artistic — very much like him.

A film-maker and director of television documentaries, he rarely hesitated to piss people off, preferably on their dime, a trait I’ve also inherited in my work as a journalist. Gone for months working while I was growing up, he’d bring home the world — literally: a caribou skin rug and elbow length sealskin gloves from the Arctic, Olympic badges from Japan, a woven Afghani rifle case, a hammered metal bowl from Jerusalem.

In the 60s, when I was at boarding school, his gold Jaguar XKE would pull into the parking lot and whisk me away for a day of fun., often a long walk through the countryside.

We’ve since driven through Mexico and Ireland, shared a tent while driving across Canada the summer I was 15  and drove from Montreal to Savannah, admiring the Great Dismal Swamp in the rain. Much of our time has been spent in motion.

We rarely, if ever, discuss feelings. It’s just not something we do.

But it’s sad, frightening, disorienting — inevitable — to suddenly see him tired, limping, sobered and chastened by mortality after a lifetime of tremendous health, good luck and international adventure.

I’m not used to him being human.