Soldiering on

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By Caitlin Kelly

One of my favorite films is Dr. Zhivago, with an unforgettable scene of a long line of exhausted, worn-out soldiers trudging forward.

To “soldier on” means to keep going, doing something that’s difficult, not giving up when you’re tired and discouraged and just fed up.

(It’s also a non-profit group dedicated to ending homelessness for veterans.)

It’s now been five months since COVID began to dominate our lives — with more than 137,000 Americans dead, thousands more soon to join them.

It’s been a long time to readjust, albeit immediately, to a world we never wanted: terrified of catching a disease that, if it doesn’t kill you, can radically damage your health for years to come. A world where parents, somehow, have had to school their own children or supervise their online learning in addition to earning an income in a full-time job.

And there’s no end in sight.

I live in New York, now one of the few states that flattened the curve because we listened early to the directions of Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Is it fun to isolate?

To stay home most of the time?

To avoid all social gatherings?

To postpone medical, dental and grooming appointments?

Let alone to miss culture-in-person — dance,  music, museums theater, movies.

Hell, no!

And the single greatest problem with being a soldier right now is the stunning lack of leadership, of a general with a clue, with a strategy and tactics. We’re fighting the virus with very few weapons — masks, social distancing, ventilators, proning, remdesivir — and losing what feels like an endless battle.

Still.

I often deeply wish that the veterans of WWII were not so old, the few left alive, to share more widely and consistently the shared sense of sacrifice and solidarity that somehow got them through it all.

The enemy, Nazism and genocide, was clear(er) then and the fight, however long and expensive and bloody, was one most people agreed was essential to win, no matter the personal sacrifices. It was a matter of pride, then, to share the sacrifice, to know what you were doing to help really mattered and your colleagues, friends, family and neighbors largely agreed.

Not to whine that a mask contravenes your liberty — just like blackout curtains or rationing once did as well.

Today, somehow, a lethal virus is still not as clear an enemy — and thousands refuse to believe it even exists, like the 30-year-old whose last regretful words were: “I thought it was a hoax.”

 

But soldier on we must.

Resilience is a learned skill

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

In my last blog post, I named some of the worst experiences I’d faced in earlier years, and several people commented on how tough they were.

Or how tough I must be to have weathered them.

I later realized there were two more years that were also very difficult, one when I was 14 and another right around my 20th birthday.

What I also realize, looking back now, is what made the first one excruciating and the second one less so, was having emotional support, people who love me who really stood by me through it all.

When I got a diagnosis of early stage breast cancer, right at my birthday in 2018, I was floored and deeply surprised by the flood of love and support and good wishes, cards and gifts and flowers, that people sent to me. One woman I know really only professionally, who lives far away from me, sent me a bracelet with the word I chose — onward. Even though I did a lot of crying and was very scared, knowing how many people were with me in spirit was incredibly helpful.

My late mother suffered a tremendous amount of health problems — multiple cancers (which she survived), COPD, a late-life colostomy — but she, until that point, was relentlessly determined to just get on with it.

Her expression, whenever face with yet another crisis: “What should I do? Jump out of my skin?”

I agree.

 

Life is rarely smooth and easy!

 

We get sick and injured and people we love get sick and injured and get dementia and fade in front of our eyes. We don’t get the dream job — or we do, and get fired or laid off. We may face (as I did, even at 30, when I arrived in New York seeking a journalism job) a six month job search. Or a search that never produces a job we want.

Or any job.

So the things I’ve faced and overcome are nothing compared to what others face — a drug-addicted or incarcerated parent; having to care for younger siblings; not being able to afford any sort of education with which to escape poverty.

Chronic poverty. Disability or chronic illness. Food or housing insecurity.

Or racism and daily microaggressions, as so many BIPOC are describing now. Police brutality and mass incarceration.

 

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Sometimes it’s all just a hopeless mess!

 

My experiences, for sure, have been much eased by my race, decent health, the skills to make a living, an excellent university education with no debt (Canadian) and the financial help of a relative.

But I also take pride in my acquired resilience when the shit — again!! — hits the fan, in not lying in bed in the fetal position weeping for days, escaping into drugs or alcohol. I’m not judging people who do.  People do what they can with what they have.

Surviving hardships creates resilience. It’s a muscle we only develop by using it, probably repeatedly.

 

You don’t know how strong you can be until you’re sorely tested.

 

Right now, thanks to the news and social media, I see a tremendous amount of whining and complaining, mostly by Americans, some who just can’t tolerate the slightest discomfort (wearing a mask, staying out of crowded places indoors) and whose selfishness is lethal as it continues to spread COVID-19.

This behavior sickens me. It’s stunningly immature.

Ironically, I gained a new client this year who is Finnish.

And Finns take pride in a national culture with a name — sisu. It means grit, determination, the willingness and ability — and pride in so doing — to tough things out.

 

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Getting through this

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We need this tree’s determination to thrive. Split rock, as needed.

 

By Caitlin Kelly

It’s not a joke or a hoax.

It’s forcing everyone to re-think every element of our lives: work, relationships, employment, money, access to government aid, education, worship, mourning, celebrations, trust in government, the safety and reliability of medical and hospital care.

Many people have died. Some are very ill. Some wonder — without easy access to testing — if they’ve even been infected with COVID-19, its now official name.

 

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It’s forcing Americans, especially, to behave in ways that run counter to how they’ve been socialized for decades — i.e. to behave as individuals, to behave as they please, free of most government interference, (but also government aid.)

Writing in this week’s New York Times, Donald McNeil says:

Is that what some countries are missing? This sense of collective action and selflessness?

That is absolutely what many Americans are missing — that it’s not about you right now. My parents were in the World War II generation and there was more of a sense of, “Hey, we did something amazing; we ramped up this gigantic societal effort.” It was this sense of we’re all in this together.

We’ve got to realize that we’re all in this together and save each other’s lives. That has not penetrated yet and it needs to penetrate because we all have to cooperate.

 

 

When you grow up not giving a damn about “the other” — people unrelated to you or you’ve never met and why would you even consider universal healthcare for the “undeserving”? — a pandemic throws this thinking out the window.

The nation’s addiction to capitalism and for-profit healthcare and limited government has also led to this crisis — you can’t keep an economy centered on consumer spending alive when no one is shopping or traveling or buying a house or a car.

The wealthy? They’ve already hopped aboard their private jets, and are safely ensconced in their third or fifth home, like the guy writing to The New York Times who fled New York for his house in Rhode Island.

In a time when Americans have never been more divided racially and economically and politically, this virus doesn’t care.

 

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Like it or not, ready or not, we’re all intertwined now

 

People may look, sound, earn and vote just as you do — and still be carrying and widely spreading this lethal virus.

I finally went out for a walk yesterday on our town reservoir path — lots of people (safely distant!) walking, running, biking. It felt great to be out of the apartment and moving.

It’s no fun being stuck indoors all the time.

It’s really hard not to get irritable and snappish if you share a small space with others.

Yes, people are really disappointed by cancelled parties and weddings and kids’ sports and graduations.

But seriously?

Stay home and be responsible.

We have to buck up.

 

I wish,  more than anything, we could still hear the wise and seasoned voices of those who survived WWII, who knew the kind of shared terror we’re only now beginning to feel — and who can share the mental strength and stamina they all needed to get through it.

 

Here’s my new theme song, from one of my favorite bands, The Talking Heads:

 

 

Adjusting to the Covid-19 pandemic

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By Caitlin Kelly

I won’t belabor you with the endless details of the coronavirus pandemic — trusting that you’re paying attention to reliable sources of news like the World Health Organization.

If you live in the United States, where millions — like my husband and I — have no sick pay or access to unemployment benefits since we are self-employed, this is very worrying.

Thanks directly to the coronoavirus, we’ve just suddenly lost a very large piece of paid work  — with no access to unemployment benefits — that we’ve been counting on for months; unlike many Americans we do have savings.

The only people I know who aren’t panicking right now have significant savings or the ability to move back home with their parents to cut their living costs.

That’s a small percentage of Americans.

What worries me most isn’t just the lack of preparedness by the American government and the lying grifter in the White House “leading” it all — but the bedrock of traditional American values.

 

Individualism.

 

The “I”ll do whatever I want and screw you” behaviors I’ve seen for years.

Only now, they’re lethal.

If you’re on Twitter, as I am, you might have seen the hashtag #CoronaKatie, a young woman who tweeted:

 

I just went to a Red Robin [a fast casual restaurant chain] and I’m 30 [a very high risk group for spreading the virus.]

It was delicious and I took my sweet time eating my meal. Because this is America and I’ll do what I want.

 

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Get used to being alone!

 

I can’t adequately express how angry this selfishness makes me.

I fully expect many of us, unwittingly, may have already infected others while we remained without active symptoms. I feel guilty and worried, and don’t even know if I should.

As one brilliant UK physician Graham Medley, a professor of infectious disease modelling, has said — stop behaving as though you hope to avoid the virus.

Behave as though you already have it and do everything in your power to not infect others!

I moved to the United States when I was 30 — but was born, raised and socialized in a country with two attitudes profoundly different from the United States, to this day, both affect how I think and how I behave:

 

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a national, equally bedrock concern for the common good, which this public policy makes abundantly clear.

 

Everyone matters.

 

Anyone who still insists on going out into crowded, shared public spaces — unless medically or legally necessary — is a fool and possibly risking others’ deaths.

If you’re OK with this, please stop reading and following this blog at once.

As you likely know by now, anyone over 60 — with a weaker immune system than those younger — is more vulnerable. Those with underlying conditions, especially respiratory, are very much at risk; my late mother, who died in a Canadian nursing home February 15, had COPD and other health issues. It may have been a blessing she died before this, as nursing homes are a petri dish for this disease.

I am scared.

Even though we have savings, we’re wholly self-employed and if our work dries up, we’re screwed. Whatever the U.S. government offers as help, it never — as usual — affects anyone self-employed.

For now, Jose’s two anchor clients are still going and he is able to work from home for one of them. I have work through mid-May, but nothing after that.

We will figure it out. We have to!

 

I pray that you and your loved ones stay safe and healthy.

 

Taking a break

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By Caitlin Kelly

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

I’m really really tired.

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

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

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

You just can’t. You’re too tired.

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

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

So I may post later this week — or not.

Thank you for all your comments and kindness!

 

 

Sudden death — my mother

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A long ago image, one of my favorites

By Caitlin Kelly

I found out Sunday and immediately knew, seeing the nursing home’s name on caller ID, what this was.

A call I dreaded, but knew was inevitable at some point.

She had not been ill, although she had many health issues — COPD, a colostomy, survivor of multiple cancers. She was 85.  I am her only child and we had been estranged, again, since 2010, for many reasons. Her alcoholism was a major one for me. I was worn out competing with it.

She was also bipolar and her manic episodes, certainly when I was in my teens and 20s,  were terrifying, often resulting in hospital stays around the world as she traveled. I was 19, living alone and attending university, and would find calls on my answering machine from consular officials, from the Americans (she was) and Canadians (I am) asking me what to do.

I knew?

It was a lot.

She had been in a nursing home since 2011 when she became too ill to live independently. She lived, at the end, in Victoria, B.C. as far as one can get from my home in N.Y., another obstacle to visits, even if wanted.

Which we often didn’t want.

She had previously lived in many places, including Roswell, NM, Woods Hole, MA, Toronto, Montreal, Bath and Gibsons. B.C. where she joined the volunteer sea rescue crew, bouncing around in a Zodiac and tending her garden.

In Victoria, she had a dear friend locally who will  take her things for now, and who is executor of her will. She will be cremated and I’ll likely go out in a few months to take her ashes back to the part of mainland B.C. she wants them shared. Sadly, there are not enough people to make a funeral or memorial.

I am a stew of emotions, as anyone who’s read this blog for a while knows.

Cynthia had, in many ways, an amazing life, blessed with Mensa-level intelligence, beauty and enough inherited money she didn’t have to work after her 40s.

She traveled the world alone, even to remote Pacific Islands, and made friends in Australia, England and in Canada, where she moved from New York when she married my Canadian father — at 17. They met in Eze-en-Haut, France at a party, and barely knew one another before marrying at St. Bartholomew Cathedral on Park Avenue in New York City — two wealthy, charming, strong-headed people…who made me!

They were quite the pair and we moved to London from Vancouver while my father worked for the BBC making films. She was adventurous all her life.

She never attended university but worked as a radio reporter, TV talk show host and magazine editor and writer.

She met her lifelong best friend, an East Indian travel agency owner in Toronto, Molly, when she interviewed her for a story.

She had a wardrobe of wigs, sometimes changing her hair color several times a week.

Her black mink had a brilliant emerald green silk lining.

She was glamorous as hell — and also fiercely independent and private.

I knew very little of her.

I was sent to boarding school at eight and summer camps ages 8-14 when I left her care to live with my father. We had lived in Toronto, Montreal and Cuernavaca together.

I never lived with her again after that.

Because she always lived so far away, or vice versa, we saw one another maybe once a year. As she traveled, she would import me once a year to wherever she was at the time: Peru, Colombia, Costa Rica, Fiji.

Some years went by with no visits, due to rancor.

The closest we were, emotionally and physically, was the year I was 25 and living in Paris on a journalism fellowship and she was living, as always alone, in Bath. We saw one another more often then.

 

She taught me to play gin rummy.

To travel safely as a woman alone.

To set a pretty dining table.

To fight hard for what you believe in.

To talk to anyone interesting, anywhere.

We played ferocious games of jacks — her long fingernails, she knew, a competitive advantage

Some photos:

 

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Ooohhhhh, we were competitive!

 

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Love this one

 

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That’s me, maybe age five or six, in Toronto.

Life, alone

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By Caitlin Kelly

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

An excerpt:

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

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

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

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

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

Like this sentence of hers:

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

Love is action!

 

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

 

To summon the energy and make an effort.

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

To visit the hospital on a bitterly cold winter day.

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

To plan a party.

To remember a birthday.

Do you live alone?

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

Another widow

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By Caitlin Kelly

He’d come through heart surgery and we were all relieved.

Then he died.

Sadly, his widow lives very far away from us and we’re not close enough friends that we would fly cross-country.

But our hearts ache for her, a funny and kind woman who helped me through some very tough times, long-distance, in 2014-2015.

This is the sixth woman I know who has been widowed in recent years — all of them younger than 70, many in their 40s or early 50s, with or without children.

Two died of that brute, pancreatic cancer. Two of heart attacks. One was a 40+ year relationship that began in high school, another a happy second marriage.

It’s the moment every happily married woman (and her children) dreads. We think it will happen, hope it will only happen, when we, or they, are old and wrinkled and have enjoyed decades together.

But sometimes we are robbed.

I’ve now been with Jose, my second husband, since we met through an online dating service in March 2000. We married in September 2011.

I cannot imagine my life without him.

Yet one has to.

So he created what we call the “red binder” — which I wrote about this year for the website considerable.com. It describes how to create this binder, which is meant to ease in all practical aspects, what to do after your partner or spouse dies: passwords, PINs, pensions, bank accounts, car leases and loans, mortgage details.

All of it.

Much as I know a lot about our finances and the details of our shared life, like many couples we also divvy some stuff up, so he handles some and I handle some.

Here’s the story.

 

Have you been widowed or become a widower?

How did you cope?

 

Are you “authentic”?

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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.

Old dreams, new dreams

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Where to? Tokyo has long been on my list…

 

By Caitlin Kelly

In your teens, 20s, 30s and 40s, life tends to follow fairly predictable patterns: finish your education, find a partner, marry, have children, buy a home….if you can even afford them, as so many can’t now thanks to crippling student debt and stagnant wages.

If you’re lucky enough to remain healthy and keep finding good jobs, you might be acquiring capital for retirement and watching your income rise. Nothing guaranteed, of course!

But my point is that, for a good long while, the trajectory — traditionally — seems fairly clear, and usually, upward in terms of acquisitions, growth and success.

Then what?

My old dreams, thankfully, have been realized: to own my own home; to have a happy marriage; generally good health (and access to good care); lasting, deep friendships. I was lucky enough to have three staff jobs at major newspapers, doing work I enjoyed, and several magazine editing jobs, and then published two books to good reviews.

I’ve traveled widely, to 41 countries, including places in Africa and Asia. I love to travel and am debating disappearing into a Paris rental apartment in 2020 for months. I love Paris and I miss hearing and speaking French.

 

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We only get so much time….

 

The next bit, if I am lucky enough to remain healthy and solvent, is much less clear to me. Many women my age are corporate warriors earning a fortune, too busy for friendship, or doting grandmothers, cooing over their family. I’m in neither category and that is sometimes both disorienting and very lonely.

I still have to bring in money to meet our exorbitant health insurance costs, although I’d happily hang it up now. I still enjoy writing but have been chasing writing income since university and am heartily sick of that.

New dreams include more global travel, possibly writing a few more books, starting a business of PR strategy and another to sell my photos to interior designers.

Will any of these happen? Who knows?

It’s a luxury, I know, to have achieved so many of my younger dreams.

It’s a challenge, now, to think of new ones — and to gin up the requisite enthusiasm and energy for some of them.

 

Nap time!