The challenge of intimacy

By Caitlin Kelly

If there ever was a time challenging our traditional ways to be intimate with others — from hugging a friend to cheek-kissing a new acquaintance to long conversations face to face, let alone sex with someone new — this pandemic is it.

It’s really difficult to eschew all emotional, physical, sexual contacts for months in person, soon to be years, even when we know it’s the only safe option.

And, odd as it may sound, reporting and journalism can be very intimate emotionally as people share stories, sometimes things they’ve never told anyone else. Face to face is much better for this — body language, sighs, eye-rolls…harder to parse otherwise.

Of course medicine and therapy are very different without in-person contact.

I had lunch this past weekend with a dear friend who lives in the next town; we met in the large, airy parish hall of the church where we first met and where she does volunteer work, so she had a key!

She sat very far away and I sat on a sofa and we caught up. And it was so so good to see her. She is always so elegant! I show up in matching olive green leggings and a fleece and she’s in palest cashmere.

I’ve been working hard since November 1 to lose weight through intermittent fasting 16/8 and it was nice to see her agree there’s a difference in my size and shape — she knows what I normally look like.

That’s intimacy — the trust it takes to be vulnerable and to share our weakest and most scared moments, not just the performative WOOHOO of social media.

But another friend, a much newer one, has withdrawn and I admit I’ve struggled with that. I miss her friendship, even though we only met two years ago. She has two teenagers and works, so she is busier than I, I know. But the few times we’ve gotten together recently, with our husbands, were enjoyable.

I finally told her I was pretty much giving up — having tried repeatedly to make contact. Her reply was a terse and impersonal two sentences that she has had some health issues.

The only way to grow a friendship is to share, good and bad.

So I’m sorry this one seems to have withered, temporarily or permanently. But I’ve really learned the hard way that true intimacy means both people have to want it.

I enjoy much of my life in suburban New York, but, as I’ve blogged many times, it is lonely as hell.

I work alone at home and now, thanks to COVID, all social activities and events are verboten.

I have no kids or grandkids, the two obsessions of almost every woman I’ve met here, over decades. Or work. Or both.

Friendship, here, feels very low on people’s list of priorities. I just don’t spend much time trying now.

So I’m even more grateful for those who do connect now by phone and Skype and Zoom — like C in London and my college bestie, Marion, in Kamloops, BC or Leslie in Toronto, or Melinda and Alec in San Francisco.

It’s ironic, and sad, that the people with whom I share the closest emotional intimacies live so far away.

One of my Twitter followers said it perfectly:

Burdens shared makes for lighter burdens and deepened trust.

My 2020 year-end review

Our new/vintage rug — a happy part of this year!

By Caitlin Kelly

As we end 2020 — so glad to see the end of it! — we are still healthy, working and solvent.

We have food and housing and savings.

That is a tremendous amount in a year of unprecedented death, illness, job loss, housing loss.

It’s a powerful reminder that “enough” can be a lot.

It’s been a year of some gains — new clients and appreciative editors.

The bulk of my income came from two sources, a website called the Conversationalist, (there are several, confusing!) created and financed by a single individual, which is both odd and charming. I bumped into it by lucky accident in May and have been writing regularly for them since — essays about each of my parents and reported stories like this one, about fed-up Americans fleeing their home country to live abroad.

I also wrote for, of all places, Mechanical Engineering magazine, on STEM education and on water treatment. Both were challenging, fascinating stories to produce and — of course! — my editor then left the magazine. So we’ll see if there’s more work from them for 2021.

I wrote for The New York Times, with this fun story about listening to non-American radio.

Thanks to Twitter, I was hired by the Lustgarten Foundation to blog about their work funding pancreatic cancer research. I’m not a science writer, so I was happily surprised to be invited to do this. It’s been quite extraordinary interviewing some of the world’s best scientists.

I also Zoomed into eight classes around the U.S. — undergrad college classes in Utah, Philadelphia and Florida and high school journalism classes in Florida, Michigan, California. Ohio and Pennsylvania. I really enjoyed it and the students were engaged and lively. It’s the only bright spot of this isolation — that there’s a need and a hunger for voices like mine in the classroom and there’s a technology that makes it quick and easy.

The year started with the best piece of work I’ve produced since my books — a 5,000 word examination for The American Prospect of how Canadians experience their single-payer healthcare systems. I grew up there and was a medical reporter so this was a perfect fit for me. Jose, my husband, accompanied me for two weeks’ travel around Ontario and shot the images, the first time we had ever worked on a project together.

Here it is.

I plan to submit it to two major awards contests.

Personally, it was a year — as it was for many of us — of social isolation, fear of getting COVID, of not seeing friends or family. Visits with several physicians made clear the urgency of my really losing a lot of weight — 30 to 50 pounds — which basically feels impossible. I started 16/8 intermittent fasting November 1 and plan to keep it up indefinitely. I swim laps for 30 minutes three times a week and am trying (ugh) to add even more exercise.

I don’t mind exercising, per se, but I really hate doing all of it alone.

Probably like many of you, because seeing people face to face is so complicated now, I’ve massively boosted my phone, email and Skype visits with friends — four in one recent week with pals in London, Oregon, California and Missouri. This pandemic-imposed isolation and loneliness is very tough and I’m sure even the strongest and happiest partnerships and marriages are, like ours, feeling claustrophobic by now.

I took a chance and joined something called Lunchclub.ai — which matches you with strangers who share your professional interests for a 45 minute video conversation. My first was with a woman in another state who was half my age — but lively, fun and down to earth. Despite my initial doubts, I enjoyed it. You can sign up for two a week and at times that suit you best, between 9 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. ET.

In a time of such relentless isolation, why not?

Stuck safely at home, I’ve watched a lot of TV and movies. Favorites, many of which I’ve blogged here, include Borgen, Call My Agent, I May Destroy You, The Undoing, Trapped, Bordertown and DCI Banks.

My mother died in a nursing home in British Columbia — very far from us in New York — on Feb. 15, my best friend’s birthday. She was cremated and at some point I will go up there to spread her ashes and claim two enormous pieces of art she left me. We hadn’t been in touch in a decade, even though I was her only child.

My half-brother who lives in D.C., a five-four drive south, had twins in May, (the only grandchildren my father will ever have from his four children), a boy and girl, but he refuses to accept my overtures to rekindle a relationship — having decided in 2007 he was too angry with me. I was not invited to his wedding and have never met his wife. Estrangement is very familiar within our family.

On a happier note, thanks to a much better year for work, we were able to spark up our apartment a bit — adding a new silver velvet sofa and throw cushions from Svensk Tenn, a vintage kilim bought at auction, new lampshades and framing some art. When you spend 95 percent of your life at home, keeping it tidy and lovely helps a lot with the inevitable cabin fever. The money we’ve saved on not going to ballet/’opera/concerts, let alone commuting (a 10 trip train ticket into Manhattan is $95) or parking in the city (easily $30 to $50 for the day) has been substantial.

We’ve bought almost no clothes or shoes — why?!

We have eaten out, usually once a week locally, and if the restaurant is large and empty, will do so indoors.

We only took two very brief breaks: in July two nights at a friend’s home in upstate New York and two nights’ hotel in Woodstock, NY. It was very much appreciated!

I tried in late October to take a solo respite at a small inn in rural Pennsylvania — and ended up deep in Trump country. It wasn’t my style at all and I left two days earlier than planned.

I’ve tried to read more books, not very successfully.

Here are two I did read and really enjoyed.

And I started re-reading my own work, my first book, Blown Away, published in 2004. It holds up! Now a 2021 goal is finding a new publisher to re-issue it and financing the time it will take me to update and revise it.

How was your 2020?

What are some of your goals, hopes and dreams for 2021?

Have you seen “Borgen”?

By Caitlin Kelly

I know, I’m very late to this party!

This 30-episode, three-season series, was released in 2010 and so many people had recommended it, I finally bit.

Loved it!

Certainly in a time of relentlessly restricted travel — when the very idea of getting on a plane, let alone crossing the Atlantic — is impossible, it’s been a real treat to visually re-visit Copenhagen with each episode. So many cyclists (none wearing helmets?!) Canals. The fluttering Danish flag.

I was there once, for 10 days, on my amazing European journalism fellowship. I loved it, even though it was so expensive I could barely afford to eat, given the small size of our travel budget and the very high costs of everything.

The series — which sounds dull as dishwater — revolves around two worlds, Christiansborg Palace, or Borgen (The Castle), seat of all Danish politics, and TVI and Expressen, a TV station and a “red-top” (tabloid) newspaper. The key characters include Birgitta Nyborg, who becomes prime minister in the first season; Kasper Juul, a troubled press secretary — which they, without irony, call “spin doctor”, Katrine Fonsmark, a tall, blond TV reporter turned spin doctor, other politicians and Birgitta’s husband and two children.

As a journalist, I sure enjoyed the many newsroom scenes and the bossy news director, Torben Friis. As someone who grew up in Canada, a multi-party political system, I enjoyed the endless horse-trading in an eight-party system to gain and hold power.

The show covers a wide range of political and personal issues — the massive invasion of privacy Birgitta’s teenage daughter faces when she goes away for in-patient psychiatric treatment or Birgitta’s breast cancer/radiation (the exact same as mine), the back-and-forth affair between Kasper and Katrina, and so on. There’s an episode about prostitution and one about pig farming. It’s also, if politics or journalism interest you, an pretty good look behind the scenes of how each product is actually made — lots of arguments!

Have you watched it?

What did you think?

Women and money

One place I do love to splurge — Via Carota in NYC

By Caitlin Kelly

This story surprised me, that millennial women are less likely to handle their own finances than us Boomers:

A study published in June by the Swiss banking group UBS underscored that point. It found that even the most educated and high-achieving millennial women were not as involved as their husbands in long-term financial decision making.

In fact, millennial women — part of a generation thought to have pushed for open-mindedness about gender roles — exhibited less financial independence than boomer women did. Among millennial women living with male partners, 54 percent said they deferred to their partners for long-term financial planning rather than sharing that responsibility or taking the lead themselves, compared with 39 percent of boomer women, according to the study, which surveyed 1,320 women with at least $250,000 in investable assets.

This — initially — made sense to me:

Sallie Krawcheck, chief executive and co-founder of Ellevest, an investment platform for women, said millennials might not have realized that if they do not have financial equality, they do not have independence.

“Younger women haven’t had as many hard-won lessons,” she said.

But I know several millennial women (ages 23 to 28 in 2019) and they’ve faced a difficult economy and massive student debt, both of which can make anyone fearful of money matters.

The reason the women surveyed for not handling more of the money offered was their assumption that their husbands knew more.

This is madness!

The ability to manage money well — whether debt or investments — isn’t a male skill. I’ve seen this in my marriage with Jose, who did not grow up in a wealthy family, while my family of origin (at the grandparents’ level) had some serious money.

So I was fortunate at 19 to have a fat $350/month (thanks to my maternal grandmother) I had to make sense of and, throughout three years of full-time university, use for all my costs, including living alone in a major city.

Living on $350 a month was hardly luxury — my rent consumed 50 percent of it.

So I learned young to hustle hard for more income, through freelance writing and photography assignments.

I still remember what clothes I owned then, bought new, but very few of them and nothing as shiny as my live-at-home fellow students.

Jose and I have been able, without the additional costs of raising children or carrying student debt, to accumulate a decent amount of savings, enough that we really do have to pay attention.

He got a buyout package when he left The New York Times in 2015 and it’s our job to keep it safe and grow it when possible as we’re not going to get hired into another well-paid full-time job again, and never again enjoy job-subsidized health insurance — thanks to age discrimination.

So the pressure’s on to be smart and savvy.

I read the Financial Times every day. It’s really written for the professional experts who work in capital markets in London, New York, Hong Kong — not for me! But I learn a lot and keep an eye on companies worth investing in. If you refuse to pay attention to the global economy you’ll always be surprised by what happens.

I’ve read a few financial self-help books — the best takeaway? Don’t put your money anywhere that you just don’t understand! For me, that’s ETFs. They’ve been explained to me several times but my brain just freezes so I stick to what I know — a wide variety of mutual funds and a few individual equities (i.e. stocks.) We have no bonds at the moment.

If you’re willing and able to invest you do need to learn some lingo:

— asset allocation (where you invest)

— diversification (making a range of different investment choices to balance out the risk of individual ones failing)

— capital (i.e. money!)

That’s just a super bare bones start!

The level of poverty in the U.S. is deeply shocking — given the astonishing wealth here

Even if you’ve got some savings in a mutual fund, have you checked how it’s doing? Do you know the top 10 holdings? I was stunned — a few years ago — to see how dominant China was even then.

Do you know what a fiduciary is? They’re the only people whose financial advice you should heed.

I also learned the hard way never to play ostrich with how your money is doing — and lost about $11,000 that way on an investment my first husband made. I was an utter fool, too scared to open the envelopes they sent, and discovered that my own money (already saved) had been used to keep paying the company every month after I lost my full-time job and could not get another.

Back when, like these women, I assumed he knew better than I.


He didn’t.

What do you want them to see?

By Caitlin Kelly

So, finally, I have a new headshot, thanks to a sunny fall day and our balcony and a good salon and Jose’s talent.

I’m really happy with it, as my previous ones were, to my critical eye, all too casual or too formal or just out of date.

My favorite one until now was a quick snap Jose took on our balcony in March 2014 (!) just before I flew to rural Nicaragua with WaterAid for a fantastic week of work with them. I’m always my happiest when challenged, facing a trip or some sort of new adventure and it showed!

I’m very much my parents’ child in this respect — my mother traveled much of the world alone for years on end, and lived in places like New Mexico, Bath, Toronto, Montreal and Gibsons, B.C., a pretty coastal town. My father traveled the world for his work as a film-maker and, at 91, is considering trading the solitary boredom of rural Ontario for….Marrakesh.

I’m in!

Because I live on social media, on here and Twitter and Facebook and (ugh, rarely) on LinkedIn, I always need a fresh, appealing headshot. I do a lot of interviews for my work, and I always look online for any images of the people I’ll be speaking with — seems only fair to let them see who I am as well.

But my image needs to be:

not stuffy

not boring

friendly and approachable but also professional

When you’re in the public eye — and these days if you’re self-employed you really have to be — you need a terrific headshot!

So why does this one work?

— fresh from the hair salon! I can never do this so well myself.

— subtle make-up, but strong enough it reads well in black and white.

— very simple clothing, which is very much my style.

— Simple gold earrings for a hint of shine.

— a lovely background.

— no direct sunlight! We, both being photographers, know this. I see a lot of not-great headshots, often a selfie. I’ve tried, many many times, to snap a selfie that works as a headshot and, occasionally, have done well.

— obviously, very fortunate to have a talented professional as my photographer, my husband Jose Lopez! For The New York Times and others, he has photographed three Presidents and thousands of images, from the Bosnian war to pro football to cowboys.

Taking my photo is never that easy!

I have versions of this high and low-res and both in black and white as well.

It makes me feel more confident to be seen as I am now — but cleaned up!

Caitlin Kelly headshots, October 2020

How to be a successful writer: my video

By Caitlin Kelly

Here’s a new video, thanks to Abby Lee Hood, who generously included me in her ongoing series of writer interviews.

It’s 1:08 and we talk about how to (re) define success in a world that too often equates making a LOT of money with being “successful”. I argue there are other metrics, as writers and as human beings.

Hope you enjoy!

The value of solitude

By Caitlin Kelly


“Loneliness creates sadness, but solitude is quite lovely because you really start to think of — and take care of — yourself.” artist Marina Abramovic, quoted in How To Spend It magazine in the FT

If there’s one thing the pandemic has imposed on us, it’s either way too much solitude — those living alone, isolated, shut-in, vulnerable to the virus — or far too little, for people living with lots of children and/or parents or in-laws.

I really value solitude.

If I go too long without it, I feel ill and angry and resentful of having to constantly be social. I find it tiring.

So my recent four days away, even in a place I didn’t love — small-town Pennsylvania — reminded me how much I need it.

The very best moments were an hour or so at a nature sanctuary, filled with old, very tall pine trees and total silence. No one else around.

It is so rare now, anywhere, to just be totally free of people and their noises!

I lay down on my back and stared up into the trees, their glossy green branches glistening in the sun, waving in the breeze.

I watched a Daddy-Long-Legs amble past.

I got pine sap on my arms and sneakers.

Then, to my surprise, I started to cry, hard.

Months of anxiety and grief and frustration had piled up, unacknowledged and unprocessed.

My mother died February 15 — on my best friend’s birthday — and even though she and I were estranged for a decade, I grieve all the losses we sustained because of that.

I grieve the deaths of 200,000 Americans from COVID.

I grieve the loss of the hopes so many of us had for 2020, let alone 2021 and beyond.

It felt good to let it all out, alone and in private, surrounded by beauty.

Even driving the two hours home again, alone, singing along to my favorite music, was replenishing.

I really enjoy others’ company and my 20 years, so far, with Jose, my husband.

But time alone is as necessary to my happiness as time with others.

Women, especially, often have to fight hard for time alone, tending only to their own needs. We’re expected to keep everyone else happy, and it’s depleting when you have no equal time to just be quiet and by ourselves.

And there’s a big difference between precious privacy — which usually implies others, and their noises and their needs, nearby — and solitude.

Do you need and value solitude?

Who’s buying clothes now anyway?

IMG_3811

I miss retail style! I miss shopping in person! These two stunning oversized pillows are on a bench in the Brown’s shoe store in Montreal.

 

By Caitlin Kelly

A recent story in The New York Times magazine asks if we’ll ever go back to buying fashion. With a global pandemic forcing us all (OK, those unselfish enough to stay out of crowded places full of other people) to stay home and work at home and look decent from the waist up for Zoom meetings, why on earth would anyone put on proper clothes not made of loose cotton or spandex?

Who’s even wearing a bra these days?

No high heels.

No pocket squares.

No suits.

No style?

Here’s a brand making clothes for people with no need to dress to impress:

On an average day, the brand — still in its nascent stage — sells 46 sweats. That day they sold more than 1,000. When they ran out of sweatsuits, shoppers moved through the T-shirts, socks and underwear. By month’s end, the brand’s sales were up 662 percent over March the previous year.

The day we met, April 24, was the highest-grossing day in the company’s history. A new shipment came in that morning and promptly sold out again. Entireworld had now grossed more in two months than in its entire first year in business.

 

Since early March, I’ve bought:

 

IMG_6857

 

— a pair of pale pink Birkenstocks and two other pairs of shoes

— five simple cotton T-shirts

— four bras and seven pairs of panties (most on sale)

— one vaguely dressy shirt

— a long navy blue shift dress (on sale!)

— a bathing suit (on sale)

— two scarves (my weakness!)

 

I actually bought everything but the underwear and bathing suit in a store, while masked, moving quickly, and with very few other shoppers in the store.

Like many others, I soon weary of online shopping.

From the Times story, and designer Marc Jacobs:

 

When asked about online shopping, Jacobs told Business of Fashion: “I love to go to a shop. I like to see everything. I like to touch it. I like to try it on. I like to have a coffee. I like to have a bottle of water. I like to get dressed up.” He raised his eyebrows for emphasis. “But ordering online, in a pair of grubby sweats, is not my idea of living life.”

 

Team Jacobs!

I’ve never been a big shopper but I miss the hunt, especially browsing through small/indie shops, the kind that line some streets in lower Manhattan.

I love to chat with the store staff, often the owner, enjoying their taste and editing.

Or did.

So many small businesses are going to die, or already have, so who knows who will make the cut?

Big/chain stores just exhaust me — too much merch, often badly made, standing in line (!) to pay. Not fun.

I also enjoy consignment and thrift shops, but in those places I really want to see and touch the quality.

I follow a few very well-dressed men on Instagram and really savor their sartorial choices.

I’ve always loved elegance and style: a well-cut piece of clothing, a gorgeous print, an interesting color. I lived for many years in Toronto, Montreal, Paris, cities with plenty of style, and pre-pandemic, was in Manhattan usually once a week —  and haven’t been there in seven months.

I really miss seeing other people well-dressed as well, gaining pleasure and inspiration from their choices — the suburbs offer very few of these, like the 50-ish woman I saw  recently wearing a white linen dress and carrying a brightly colored woven ethnic bag. That was a treat!

 

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I love the colors in this

 

So when I recently met a pal for coffee I made sure to wear some pretty clothes and the drop earrings Jose bought me in Santa Fe, coral and silver, and my yellow sandals and the brightly colored embroidered bag a friend brought me from Mexico.

It’s just too sad and too grim to never celebrate beauty!

With nowhere to go now, have you given up on fashion and new clothes?

 

 

 

On not wanting to have children

 

jose 4

I do love this photo of my late mother and me. I always found her glamorous. In this photo she’s probably 28 or 29, as she left my father when she was 30.

 

By Caitlin Kelly

The Guardian has been running a fascinating series recently, of essays by women who don’t want to have children, and it includes a 6:57 video with five interviews of women ages 22 to 45, explaining their feelings as well.

Here’s an excerpt from the essay by American novelist R.O. Kwon:

 Throughout history, people without children – women, especially – have often been persecuted, mistreated, pitied, and killed for their perceived lack. In ancient Rome, a woman who hadn’t borne children could legally be divorced, and her infertility was grounds for letting a priest hit her with a piece of goat skin. (The blows were thought to help women bear children.) In Tang Dynasty China, not having a child was once again grounds for divorce. In the Middle Ages, infertility was believed to be caused by witches or Satan; worse yet, an infertile woman could be accused of being, herself, a witch. In Puritan America, it wasn’t just having no children that was suspect. Giving birth to too many children could be perilous, too, and grounds, yet again, for being condemned for a witch.

Also in the US, enslaved women were expected to have babies, and were routinely raped, their potential future children considered a slaveholder’s property. Some of the only times women without offspring have garnered respect might be when they have formally devoted their lives to a god, and to celibacy: nuns, vestal virgins.

Which brings us to a word I haven’t yet used, but which often is levied against childfree women like me: selfish. Despite everything, it’s still common to view parenting as a moral imperative, to such an extent that voluntarily childfree people can be viewed with such outsize emotions as anger and disgust

The series is interesting, with reasons from not making enough money or not wishing to pass on a genetic disposition to addiction to having watched their own mother really resent having had children.

I knew from childhood I didn’t want kids, for several reasons:

— My mother started having manic breakdowns when I was 12, several times when I was alone with her and with no one to turn to for help or advice. It was terrifying and overwhelming. I felt burdened too young with too much responsibility, “parentified.”

— I wanted to become a journalist, especially (initially) a foreign correspondent, a job that makes parenthood pretty much impossible since you live out of a suitcase, travel constantly and have to be ready 24/7 to go where the news is happening, often with little or no notice.

— Journalism. It pays badly compared to many other industries, is very insecure (much worse now), offers a lot of obstacles to making better wages. Without money, raising a child, I knew, would be really stressful. And the hours can be terrible; news happens 24/7 and night, weekend and overnight shifts, if you even have a job now, are real at every stage of one’s career.

— My parents didn’t care. Neither pressed me hard to have kids and neither ever showed interest in doing what many grandparents do — move in or move closer to help out, offer financial aid for a nanny or helping me acquire better/larger housing to make parenthood more comfortable.

— Bodily autonomy. While I know some women absolutely adore being pregnant and breastfeeding, I had heard too many horror stories. The idea of carrying someone inside me for nine months, then being put through the agony of labor, then 20+ years of someone relying on me utterly? Not a chance.

— Freedom. As some of the women in the Guardian series say plainly — this has offered me tremendous freedom, in work,  in partners, in where I live, in how I work.

— Weird parenting. Having done a lot of therapy, I had to be persuaded that my childhood was in some ways deeply neglectful, because it was materially privileged but, often, handed off to others. I spent ages 8 to 16 at boarding school (8 to 13) and summer camp, all summer, every summer. My parents, it seemed, just didn’t want me around. So why would I choose to have kids when they found it so…unappealing?

I know,  everyone thinks we’re selfish. Because women without children have chosen a life that’s not spent, de facto, in service of others for decades — breast-feeding, changing diapers, rushing to the ER for the latest bleeding wound, doctor and dentist and teachers’ appointments.

It also makes clear that a woman who is not subservient to the needs of others ahead of her own, always, is deeply suspect.

Why not, missy?

Some people make a lot of rude and unfounded assumptions about us:

that we hate kids (I don’t); that we are incapable of sustained sacrifice (hello, work?!); that we shun intimacy (ask our husbands, partners and friends); that no one will care for us in old age (hah! as someone often estranged from my own parents, this is a fantasy.)

 

I’m in awe of the time, energy and attention it takes to be a good and loving mother!

 

I just didn’t want the job.

 

Do you have children?

Or not?

Have you enjoyed it?