The power of silence

By Caitlin Kelly

There are only two places I’ve been, so far, where I was surrounded by utter silence — inside the Grand Canyon and on a friend’s ranch in New Mexico, a place so quiet I could hear myself digesting.

Some cultures revere silence and know how much we all need it. The United States isn’t one! People love to talktalktalktalktalktalk and will spill what sound like the most intimate secrets in a quick conversation with a stranger. It’s exhausting and disorienting if you come to the country from a more discreet, reticent culture.

And silence?

Terrifying!

Jose and I did a seven day silent Buddhist retreat in the summer of 2011 a month or so before we married. There were 75 people of all ages and it was fascinating to be surrounded by people with whom not a word was exchanged until the final Saturday evening, when we “broke silence” and found out, verbally, who everyone was.

I admit, we had whispered occasionally in our shared monastic bedroom but mostly relied on Post-It notes to communicate.

I was shocked to see participants walking through the woods — on their cellphones — or leaving in their cars to head into town for…talking?

I blogged about it every day and found the experience healing and insightful. Talking and listening is really really tiring! If you actually pay attention to others, this consumes a lot of energy.

Not talking is very freeing.

Silence imposes discipline.

It forces you into your own head, a place many prefer to avoid.

I was fascinated, when I tell people I did seven days without speaking, (we could ask questions of the teachers once a day), they all said: “I could never do that!”

And I would reply….why not?

Here’s an interesting NYT story about staying silent at breakfast:

Eating in silence is an ancient practice with roots in many monastic communities. “Buddhists, Celtic Mystics, Sufis, Vedic Mystics,” said Ginny Wholley, a teacher at the UMass Memorial Health Care Center for Mindfulness. “Everyone has a component of silence that is an inherent part of the practice.”

Jon Kabat-Zinn founded the center where Ms. Wholley teaches in 1979 as a way to promote and study the benefits of practices like these in a secular setting — in part because it’s challenging. The concept for silent breakfast is simple enough: focus on your food, quietly, and deal with whatever thoughts come up. But it’s more difficult than it seems.

….“One of the funny things about starting a mindfulness practice is that when you quiet the external noise, you start to hear more of the internal noise. If you’re not used to this, it can be incredibly unpleasant,” said Ravi Kudesia, a mindfulness researcher and assistant professor at Temple University’s Fox School of Business. “The key idea here is that it’s better to notice the whispers before they become screams.”

Here’s a list — one of my posts from that 2011 retreat — of all the sounds I heard instead.

Do you read self-help books?

By Caitlin Kelly

The book has sold more than 25 million copies in 40 languages.

It came out in 1989.

It has a really boring title — The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

But I think it’s also smart and worth reading, still.

That year, I had just moved permanently to the United States, a country whose population is 10 times greater than my own, Canada.

I was nervous as hell and felt like a raindrop falling into an ocean.

How could I ever make my mark?

Find my place socially and professionally?

I needed help!

And my family lived in Canada as did all my friends.

I had no American staff experience or any formal American education — as did all my competitors!

The United States is a country of very sharp-elbowed people, taught practically from birth lessons few other nations teach so assiduously — to compete really hard, beat the other guy, it’s all about you and your individual needs.

American success is a zero-sum game, with only one winner.

Covey’s book up-ended some of this.

I especially like the final Habit — Sharpen the Saw — staying mentally and emotionally sharp and refreshed.

You can’t do much when you’re burned out, bitter and exhausted. And, maybe like some of you, I have been at times.

I find some of his advice either banal (start with the end in mind) and some — within an American mindset — less so, that thinking “win-win” is more effective than punching every competitor in the face.

But as I near the end of a long career in an absurdly competitive and insecure industry — journalism — I find sharpening the saw ever more important. I’m now competing with people half my age with possibly three times the basic energy and stamina.

Add this to the general anxiety of self-employment, and we’ve been inundated in 2020 by a global pandemic, fires and floods and hurricanes and racism and violence and, oh yeah, the most important American election in maybe a century.

So staying calm, energized and focused matters more than ever. As I learned as a teenage lifeguard, people don’t always drown because they can’t swim — it’s because they panic.

So how do I stay sharp?

Long conversations with good friends about the joys and pleasures and many interests in our lives, not just work or politics. How are the new grandkids? The dog? (In two separate instances, both in Tennessee, the cow and the hedgehog.)

Naps, daily. I have no embarrassment about this, even though Americans are told ALL THE TIME they must always be more productive. i.e. don’t rest, don’t nap. A federal minimum wage stuck at $7.25 for years is one way to dump millions into a life without leisure and respite.

Exercise. I need to do a lot more, but am swimming 30 minutes three times a week.

Box breathing. I recently discovered this interesting way to reduce stress.

Playing Scrabble on the computer (advanced level.) I usually play 45 to 60 minutes and love how it’s both fun and challenging.

— Playing cards or Bananagrams with my husband. Both require quick thinking, especially Bananagrams, which demands thinking really fast and making/rearranging words you may have already committed to. I really like how that aspect alone forces you to hastily abandon “commitment” to something that isn’t working!

Have you read any self-help books you found truly helpful?

How?

Has COVID changed your priorities?

By Caitlin Kelly

No one would ever dare suggest that a lethal virus is a good thing.

No one could have imagined that more than 200,000 Americans would already have died — and many more now suffer serious long-term effects.

But I’ve started to notice some changes in how we think and behave that, oddly and maybe shockingly, feel better for some of us — while hurting others! — than how we all lived, unquestioningly, before.

Shared and public places are much less crowded

Thousands of small businesses have closed. Disney laid off 28,000 employees and airline staff, from cleaners to veteran pilots, are out of work.

So it’s not kind to be happy about that. But if you, like me, loathe crowds of all sorts, even before they were potentially life-threatening, this is a huge relief. Our town YMCA recently finally re-opened and the pool has four lanes, open now only one swimmer at a time. (Normally, five, which I would find really uncomfortable. Having someone tap my foot to pass? NO.)

Since my beloved spin class is long gone, I’ve started doing three pool visits a week and sometimes have it all to myself. I would never have experienced our old, overcrowded Y as luxurious — but this is.

I miss such fun, silly, spontaneous moments — like meeting Canadian comedian Mike Myers at a Canadian consulate event in Manhattan

We’re being very , very selective about our relationships


In normal life, we tend to include a lot of people — face to face or through social media — who we may not especially like or admire. It’s a sort of social lubrication, necessary to get things done smoothly and efficiently, even when it’s basically pretty insincere.

In a time of terrible political division, with millions refusing to wear masks it’s really not a wise use of our limited energy to argue with anyone anywhere.

We need every ounce of it for ourselves and families and pets and true loved ones. This is a good thing! Conserve energy.

Now, certainly, seeing anyone in person means de facto assuming risk — even if you’re both masked or outdoors and well-spaced. Is this relationship worth it now?

Why?

Fewer relationships can also make for deeper emotional connection

I’ve noticed this. By the time I make a phone date or set aside time to be with someone face to face, why make chitchat? I’ve never been a fan of it, anyway, and now, with COVID’s sudden and invisible lethality/mortality so much closer to all of us, it’s no time for performative intimacy.

We’re being very clear and direct about what we need and expect of one another

I have a friend of many years, a fellow Canadian who runs her own successful business, and who has invited us many times this year to their country house. Much as I appreciate her generosity, I just won’t go and keep saying so.

I finally wrote her a very blunt — not angry — email explaining why: she interacts, for her work, with a lot of people. Many of them are very wealthy and rich New Yorkers (like many wealthy people) do what they please. So I don’t trust their choices, which may affect my friend and me and my husband.

Luckily, Jose and I are fine…This is him earlier in 2020 photographing the Pulitzers at Columbia University in New York City

Lousy relationships and marriages are under an intense new microscope when we have nowhere to flee

There are few experiences more miserable than being confined to (small) quarters for months on end with someone you really don’t like or love.

Here’s a New York Times essay about Coronavirus divorce:

In regular times, we’re always in motion, we’re always hustling, we’re always consuming, striving, climbing, struggling to get from A to B. And if you are unhappy with your relationships or your marriage, there’s a thousand ways to distract yourself: travel, work, socializing. I’m told that some people golf.

Now, all of a sudden, everyone has to be still. There’s no place to go but inward.

We’re all seriously re-examining our choices, whether about where we work, who we work with/for and how (hard) and where we really want to live now

This is huge.

City dwellers are fleeing to suburban or rural areas, desperate for outdoor physical space and the ability to distance from others. On my recent four-day visit to small-town Pennsylvania — about a 90 minute drive from Manhattan — every real estate listing I read said “pending” and a local told me her realtor friend was working 70-hour weeks.

American life — with no unions, low wages and a relentless capitalist drumbeat of DO MORE FASTER NOW — is typically really exhausting. The pandemic is now forcing millions to think, behave, work and relate differently, and for many months yet to come, whether managers or workers or the self-employed.

Some are planning to leave the United States.

Yes, it’s really hurting some people — mothers of small children especially are at their wits’ end, (one crying on-air on a recent national TV show after being fired by a boss who said “Figure it out” while managing a one year old and four year old at home.)

If nothing good comes of this massive upheaval, maybe it’s some long overdue change.

How has the pandemic changed you?

By Caitlin Kelly

I can’t recall a year recently — maybe the crash of 2008, 9/11 — that has so radically and permanently changed our world, and how we experience it.

I was an adult for both of these and both affected me deeply, as it did for millions of others, even those who did not lose a loved one to 9/11. I’ve never gone down to the memorial in Manhattan. I have enough memories of it.

This terrible and relentless year has shifted so much of how we think and behave and what we expect from government and one another.

Here’s some of how it’s changed me:

I’m more fearful.

I hate that! I’ve always prided myself on being bold and up for new adventure. But when everyone around you can be an invisible vector of disease? Not so much.

I have to calculate risk every single day, not just on rare occasions.

We live in New York state, where the current infection rate is a reassuring one percent. But for how long? I have eaten inside a restaurant a few times, with tables far apart and people masked when not eating. But a recent meal, even far from the table of eight, left me worried after they sang Happy Birthday, since singing spreads virus. Now I have to hope their celebration won’t sicken me.

I’m short-tempered and tired

Who isn’t?!

We don’t even have to home school children, but we are two self-employed workers sharing an apartment with no office space. Constant mask-wearing drives me mad, even while I do it and know it’s necessary. I’m sick to death of the political incompetence and lies that has killed 200,000 Americans and the fools who worship the man who made it happen.

If you haven’t read it, this is a smart analysis of how we feel and why.

An excerpt:

It was, as I’d soon describe in an emotional post in a social media group of professional colleagues, an “anxiety-tainted depression mixed with ennui that I can’t kick,” along with a complete inability to concentrate. I spoke with my therapist, tweaked medication dosages, went outside daily for fresh air and sunlight, tried to force myself to do some physical activity, and even gave myself permission to mope for a few weeks. We were in a pandemic, after all, and I had already accepted in March that life would not be “normal” for at least a year or two. But I still couldn’t work, couldn’t focus, hadn’t adjusted. Shouldn’t I be used to this by now?

“Why do you think you should be used to this by now? We’re all beginners at this,” Masten told me. “This is a once in a lifetime experience. It’s expecting a lot to think we’d be managing this really well.”

My social circle has shrunk

It’s minuscule. Gone are the friendly quick moments of banter in our apartment hallways and laundry room, at the grocery store or gym. I speak to a small handful of people by phone and restrict my access to others. We hosted a couple a few weeks ago for the first time in six months — on our balcony, with a breeze. When winter forces us all indoors again, I dread the isolation.

I don’t make plans for the future beyond a week or two

This is deeply unsettling. But who can?

My greatest pleasure is usually travel. Not now.

I went away for four days — planned to be six — to an inn in Pennsylvania but left early, bored and restless and alienated by Trump signs for miles.

When every encounter now carries physical risk, the reward had better be amazing! But because of COVID, so many experiences are smaller or diminished and altered in ways that are just annoying, that, for me, sap the joy and spontaneity out of the whole endeavor.

I’m even more reliant on my husband than ever.

When we’re now able to see so few people, our marriage has to be a source of daily sustenance in ways it never has. We’ve been together 20 years and really enjoy one another’s company. But it’s a lot to expect of one other tired, cranky human being!

Routines matter much more than they once did.

When the world is in such daily and mismanaged chaos — floods, fires, hurricanes, daily political malfeasance, racism, violence — even the simplest routines become deeply grounding and comforting. For me, it’s everything from two newspapers a day, in print, to Netflix binges at night or my 4:00 p.m. pot of tea. This is not a good time to feel untethered.

How has it changed you?

A few days away, alone

By Caitlin Kelly

The last time I was away from home alone was early March, almost seven months.

It’s a real luxury to leave home, to have a working vehicle and the spare time and income to travel, but the challenges of two people working full-time from a one bedroom apartment — as so many are now doing! — are tiring.

I needed some solitude.

I decided to head to small-town Pennsylvania on the recommendation of a friend, staying at a small hotel with a handsome Arts & Crafts design and a large, lovely garden. I had planned to stay seven nights, but decided to leave early, which surprised me.

It was a rougher part of the world than I generally prefer — tattoo parlors and shooting ranges. There just wasn’t much to do, although I loved my morning routine of reading in the garden for a few hours every day, catching up on months of the many unread magazines I lugged with me.

But the main reason?

It’s Trump country.

I did enjoy a break.

The inn was welcoming and their meals delicious.

I drove country roads in warm fall sunshine and enjoyed rolling hills and lush green farms, weathered barns and old mills.

But the vast majority of lawn signs — and signs posted on barns and other buildings — were overwhelmingly for Trump, a man I despise, who has destroyed many of the things I value, including 200,000 American lives lost to COVID.

I despair every day he remains in office.

So every sign I saw supporting him made me feel ill and alien, surrounded by people who don’t care about any of the things I care most about.

I didn’t have conversations about it. I don’t go looking for trouble!

But it’s been a useful and important reminder of the largely Democratic bubble I live in. I knew that before leaving home.

What I didn’t realize is how viscerally sick seeing so much support for him would make me feel.

It’s a constant subject of conversation now — what will we do if he wins again?

I spoke to an immigration attorney recently and learned that I can get a re-entry permit to leave the U.S. for two years and keep my green card. That’s welcome news, but it doesn’t solve the problem of my husband’s work, based physically in New Jersey.

And another four years of Trump?

I don’t think the United States will survive.

The managing of money

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Broadway tickets always a splurge — worth it?

By Caitlin Kelly

Few things are as frightening to some people as managing money.

For many, it’s a question of sheer survival — when the American federal minimum wage, shamefully, hasn’t risen from $7.25/hour in 10 years — while the cost of living now dictates a minimum of $14.84 an hour in Cleveland and $24.30/hour in San Francisco.

For others, it’s the best barometer, literally, of their worth and value to the world, to their family, to their industry — and to themselves.

One freelance writer bragged this week about making $10,000 in a month and how she’s about to hit her $50,000/year income goal.

Which inspired many others but also annoyed me and some other writers I admire. I really tire of money being held up as the sole metric of success.

Income is not one-size-fits-all.

Expenses, as well.

I recently had an interesting conversation on Twitter with a stranger, a mechanic earning $40/hour, about my use of the words “working class” — wondering if that meant him. I suggested “blue collar.”

I’m endlessly fascinated by what we earn, how we earn it, what we spend it on and how much (if any) we save and for what purpose. As subscribers to the Financial Times, we also get its glossy oversize magazine called — no kidding — How to Spend It, which often features $10,000 dresses and $100,000 watches, pocket change to the bankers and other HNW (that’s high net worth) readers it’s aimed at.

I’m fascinated by money partly because my maternal grandmother inherited a lot of money from her father, a Chicago stockbroker and real estate developer — and spent it so fast and so freely you would think it burned her fingers. She lived a life of opulence: homes designed by the city’s top decorators, limousines everywhere, custom-made silk muumuus and matching turbans and enormous jewels. It was quite something!

She also never bothered to pay any taxes to anyone — so when she died there was little left after paying off the Ontario, Canadian and American governments.

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Our weekly indulgence, fresh flowers

So I’ve seen the effects of both privilege and profligacy.

 

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Don’t end up in trouble!

Living in the United States for decades — without doubt the meanest and most punitive developed nation when you are poor, ill, vulnerable and struggling — has also really opened my eyes and taught me to be extra cautious about what I earn and how much to save. It’s not a place you ever want to be in trouble with no lifelines or savings, reliant on charity or the shards of government help potentially available to you.

We were offered a huge break this year, a tax credit that has saved us $1,000/month (!) on our health insurance. But we’re also now required to account for every penny of our income and expenses to bureaucrats who have no understanding that — as full-time freelancers — we do not have an employer, yet keep hounding us for more and more paperwork.

That’s when I get libertarian in a hurry and would rather just pay for things myself.

I’ve stayed put in the same one-bedroom apartment for decades; our housing cost is $2,000 month, (half of it the maintenance fee we owe to the co-op,) fairly cheap for New York (suburbs.)

But we don’t have children or pets or dependent relatives, when so many others bear the costs of all of these. So we’re usually able to save money and that gives us some breathing room — helpful when we lost $27,000 worth of anticipated income overnight thanks to the pandemic.

We were also lucky to each graduate college with no debt, (Jose had full scholarships and I attended university in Canada), another enormous burden for so many Americans, even into their 30s or far beyond.

So much of the money we have access to, and how we manage it, is circumstance and luck: where we were born and raised, what resources were made available to us and when. The job market.

Good health — or its lack.

This year has, oddly, been a busy one for us. We have both had steady work and found new and appreciative repeat clients.

But we both really know how fragile it all is.

My husband grew up in a wholly different way, his father a small-city Baptist minister living in church housing. So Jose tends to be very risk-averse and I tend to be bolder when it comes to spending and investing. It makes for some challenging moments!

We work really hard, splurge when we can, and pray for ongoing good health.

Does handling your finances cause you stress?

Do you enjoy it?

Did anyone teach you money management skills?

A perfect afternoon

By Caitlin Kelly

If there’s one activity I’ve missed more than maybe any other thanks to this pandemic — it’s hosting old friends for a delicious meal and hours of great conversation.

Finally, yesterday, we did, and a married couple — both journalists — came up, and with us outdoors, with lots of breeze, it was pure pleasure!

They live in the city but we hadn’t seen them in six months, and a parent had died in June and we had a lot to catch up on.

We baked a salmon and I tried out two new recipes from my Gordon Ramsay cookbook — a green bean/almond salad with honey/mustard dressing and a fantastic cooked lentil salad with roasted zucchini, red pepper and sun dried tomatoes.

Plus our favorite champagne and a bottle of sauvignon blanc and two gorgeous creamy cheeses and baguette and chocolate cake…

The weather was perfect and, with the change of seasons, the balcony was still in shade by 4:30 as they left…it had been sunny by 2:00 p.m. just a few weeks ago.

Our friend was a Times colleague of Jose’s who since re-trained as a medical yoga instructor. Her husband is mostly retired but does translation work. We’ve all covered major stories, have lived in different countries, have shared memories of work and our families.

A deep friendship takes time.

It takes attention.

It takes remembering.

The fallow field

IMG_5301We all so badly need time to just rest!

 

By Caitlin Kelly

When you work wholly freelance, it tends to be feast or famine — so much work at once you’re pulling 10 to 12+ hour days, working nights and weekends and not taking a vacation — or panicking because the work has dried up but the bills keep coming.

The pandemic has exacerbated this problem.

 

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Thrilled to have won this in an online auction from the NYC auction house Doyle. It’s a vintage kilim, a flat-weave Caucasian wool rug in perfect condition.

 

We are grateful and lucky to both have a lot of work, enough to even finally add some needed, costly and nice things to our home, like a new sofa, a vintage rug scored at auction, and hiring a painter to do a badly needed repair to the (sigh) cracked walls in our living room, an annoying and ongoing feature of living in a 60 year old building.

But we’ve had only taken four days’ vacation in six months and we’re whipped. We usually take a two or even three week break — doing no work at all — and travel back to Canada or overseas to rest and recharge.

Not this year.

The fallow field is one that isn’t being worked, and is being quietly replenished.

It’s resting, as this writer posted in 2017:

 

 

So there are days now I just do…nothing.

It’s not really nothing, because I’m usually reading for hours and hours, trying to wade through piles of magazines and newspapers.

But I’m reading more books for sheer pleasure.

I’m watching movies and bingeing on Netflix.

I’m taking an hour’s nap pretty much every day.

Unlike a farmer with three fields I only have one weary heart, mind, soul and body.

I have no “extra” brain to keep using for work —- while the other one just rests!

And with almost nowhere safe to flee to because of this damn virus, a change of scenery in every way, it’s even more enervating to try and wind down in the same small space you work in.

We’re very lucky in New York as finally, all our museums are re-opening.

I can’t wait to “waste time” looking at old beautiful things again.

 

The hell with excellence

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Worrying doesn’t get you there…

 

By Caitlin Kelly

When Kamala Harris was named as the Democratic nominee for Vice President, a somewhat bitter joke made the rounds of social media — every Indian parent wondering — why not President?!

I realize it’s a mark of real privilege not to strive and struggle to be the best all the time and have done plenty of struggle, thanks — try starting at 30 as a new immigrant to New York City journalism (a cabal of Ivy League graduates) and weathering three recessions in 20 years!

I grew up in Toronto, the media capital of Canada, and competition there has always been extremely fierce, so I’ve always known to bring my A game to work.

But the rest of my life?

Feh!

Our home is lovely and I do brush my hair and we cook some very good meals and I do dress up nicely when I got out and enjoy making that effort.

 

But the endless pursuit of excellence is just too tiring!

 

It feels so American, to constantly be proving you’re better/stronger/faster/cheaper/whatever it takes to be at the top of the heap.

For work, and especially in some fields, of course this is necessary, for years or even decades. There’s no choice.

And I know, firsthand, being married to a Hispanic-American-born man whose own family expected excellence of him, that high parental expectations can be really important.

But the perfection so many people now perform on social media is also so weird to me. I’m so very much imperfect, and I’m fine with it.

There are only two groups of people whose approval I most value —  people I love and respect and people whose good opinion of me as a professional means I can make a living.

So when my poor husband urges me, repeatedly, to improve my golf game — lessons, a special glove, practice — I make a nasty face and shrug because the word amateur means someone who loves….not just someone who’s a REALLY good non-professional.

We recently played one of our county’s most challenging courses, all 18 holes (a first for me) and we did not play slowly (as is deemed extremely rude) and thereby hold up the many players right behind us. So I did fine, even playing poorly compared to many others.

Golf is meant to be fun, but knowing (and seeing!) others right behind you at the last hole is not wildly relaxing at all.

So I need to be good enough to not mess up others’ enjoyment, and I get that. But I don’t feel compelled to get really good at golf or other leisure pursuits.

 

It’s leisure!

 

It rhymes with pleasure.…not work.

This summer I finally started swimming laps in our apartment building pool, building up to 30 laps, about 20 to 25 minutes. I could have pushed much harder but I want to enjoy my life too!

I’ve just never been someone attracted by “perfection” — which is also deeply subjective, as any writer quickly learns. Any creative person learns. What one person adores about you and your ideas another may loathe.

 

So, maybe because of this, you learn to value yourself and your own internal standards.

 

I think this is an overlooked and undervalued superpower.