Take good care of yourself

By Caitlin Kelly

Beauty helps!
Beauty helps!

Button up your overcoat, when the wind is free, Oh, take good care of yourself, you belong to me!

— Ray Henderson lyric, 1928

After a few decades of running around — and four orthopedic surgeries within 12 years — I’m finally treating my body with a little more respect.

I grew up in Canada, but now live in the U.S., and near New York City, the epicenter of a workaholic, gogogogogogogogogogo culture, one that solely encourages and rewards “productivity”.

We’re all exhorted daily to move faster, do more, sleep less, earn more money, get the promotion.

Watch a great movie!
Watch a great movie!

Vacation? Hah! Even the few Americans who get paid vacations beyond 10 days a year are too scared to take the time off.

The notion of actually nurturing our souls, bodies and minds is anithetical to the industrial mindset of production. There’s no profit (for anyone else) in it!

Here’s a thought-provoking essay from The New York Times on the subject:

On my last day of work at the American ad agency, something strange happened: I was smiling. A weight had been lifted, and I felt like a prisoner about to be freed. And despite my fear that no one would hire me, I soon found a job in Zurich doing exactly what I had been doing in the United States: copywriting for an ad agency.

My job title was the same, but I worked part time — and for a higher salary than I had received working full time in the United States. When I was politely asked to work additional days beyond the ones specifically mentioned in my contract, the agency paid me for that extra work.

Not only that, but instead of two weeks of vacation, I had five. And I was encouraged to use every single day of it, guilt-free. Once, when I went to Spain for “only” 10 days, my Swiss colleagues chastised me for not going away long enough.

Instead of worrying about working weekends and holidays the way I had in the United States, I planned trips like the rest of my colleagues: Paris. Prague. Zermatt. For the first time in my working life, I was living, too. Because of this, my creativity flourished. I had both time and money, and because I had real time off, I was more productive when I was at work. In my spare time I wrote blogs and essays and I swam in the lake.

I’m firmly and decidedly out of step with American values in this regard.

A bushel of freshly-gathered clams, mid-coast Maine
A bushel of freshly-gathered clams, mid-coast Maine

In 2015, I’ve spent 3 weeks in Europe in January, another three weeks in June in Ireland, 10 days in Maine and 10 days in Ontario.

Because my husband and I are, as of this year, now both full-time freelancers, (he’s a photo editor and photographer, I write for a living), we can work from anywhere there’s wi-fi and can take as much time off as we can afford.

We’re not wealthy and we live a fairly frugal life, with a small apartment and a 14-year-old car. Nor do we have the financial responsibilities of children or other dependents.

We’ve had terrific careers and won awards and the respect of our peers and while we still need to work for income…it’s time for us.

I’m not fond of the word “self-care” but it’s a concept I believe in strongly, especially for women who are socially encouraged to give everyone else their time, energy and attention — but often feel conflicted or guilty when they stop long enough to take equally thoughtful care of themselves.

Stay hydrated!
Stay hydrated!

Self care can take many forms:

— massage, manicures, pedicures, facials

— dressing well

— a barbershop trim or shave

— regular medical and dental checkups

– cooking or baking something delicious, especially “just” for yourself

— a pot of tea in the afternoon, possibly with a biscuit or two (no sad little teabag in a cup!)

— naps!

drawing, painting, taking photos, nurturing your creative self

— doing yoga

— playing music

— singing, alone or with others

— exercise

— dancing (check out this amazing early morning event I go to)

— keeping a calm, clean, lovely home, (or at least a dedicated space within it)

— the company of dear friends

— reading for pure pleasure

— visiting a gallery or museum

— wearing a lovely scent

— gardening

— taking a luxuriously long bath or shower

— spending time in nature

— silent solitude

— listening to music

— candlelight

— unplugging from all devices and social media

— attending a religious service

— volunteer work

coloring (have you seen the latest trend — adult coloring books?)

— cuddling and/or caring for your pet(s)

– handiwork like knitting, crochet, quilting, sewing embroidery — or woodwork

— meditation

— prayer

Making art can be a way to decompress
Making art can be a way to decompress

Do you take good care of yourself?

How?

Would you rather buy more stuff — or have more fun?

By Caitlin Kelly

This piece in The New York Times piqued my interest:

American consumers are putting what little extra money they do have to spend each month into eating out, upgrading their cars or fixing up their homes, as well as spending on sports gear, health and beauty. Spending at restaurants and bars has jumped more than 9 percent this year through July compared with the same period last year, and on autos by more than 7 percent, according to the agency.

Analysts say a wider shift is afoot in the mind of the American consumer, spurred by the popularity of a growing body of scientific studies that appear to show that experiences, not objects, bring the most happiness. The Internet is bursting with the “Buy Experiences, Not Things” type of stories that could give retailing executives nightmares.

Millennials — the 20- and 30-something consumers whom marketers covet — would rather spend their hard-won cash on out-of-town vacations, meals with friends, gym memberships and, of course, their smartphones, many surveys suggest.

More stuff!
More stuff!

I’ve been thinking about this a lot as we’re finally, gratefully, at a point in our lives we need very little additional stuff. We’ve renovated two rooms of our apartment and own an array of sports gear, art supplies, camera equipment, the things we use for pleasure and for work. (We do need to replace our old car.)

It’s a huge relief.

I’ve never been a mall rat, the sort of person whose favorite activity is shopping. I enjoy it and sometimes take an entire day to do it, but rarely come home with more than one or two things, and usually nothing huge or expensive.

Like everyone, I have specific weaknesses — anything seriously antique, jewelry and lovely things for setting a pretty table.

One of the most fun things you can possibly do -- dance at 7am! Daybreaker, in NYC
One of the most fun things you can possibly do — dance at 7am! Daybreaker, in NYC

We’ve also saved really hard for years for our retirement, so can now release a bit more of our income for pleasure; saving 15 per cent a year is no fun, but — yes, really — it adds up.

I’m more eager now to spend what extra money we earn on travel, dining out, enjoying the many plays, concerts, dance performances and conferences available to us in and near New York City. We do not have children or grandchildren, nor, as many of our younger friends do, huge student debts to discharge. Frankly, we feel like outliers — we are very far from 1%ers but we’re not panicked about money the way many people are; the average American has saved stunningly little for retirement.

A ticket to the theater is a joy --- and privilege
A ticket to the theater is a joy — and privilege

In the next few months, we’ll attend a weekend workshop (for business purposes); travel back to Canada (by car), attend a few shows and concerts. We hope to be back in Europe after Christmas for several weeks.

My Dad heads off soon for a month sailing with a friend in Greece; at 86, with a new hip, he’s lucky enough to have the good health, strength and finances to keep enjoying his life. In this regard, he’s very much a role model.

How many things do you want to own? How many experiences would you like to enjoy?

Unless you’re wealthy, every expenditure of money means making a choice — the time needed to invest in earning the taxable income to buy the stuff, store the stuff, clean and polish and upgrade the stuff — or an amazing afternoon/evening/week/month/year creating indelible memories.

photo(49)

We spent a recent Sunday in Manhattan (a 40 minute trip into the city from our home) seeing a show, On The Town, on Broadway, and splurged on box seats, at $101 each. I felt like royalty — they offered amazing sightlines and no squished knees; we sat in comfortable elegant Louis XIV-style armchairs. Before the show, we stopped in at Sardi’s, the classic, old-school bar and restaurant, for a Bloody Mary and a snack.

What a lovely, lovely day, creating memories we’ll cherish for years to come.

I’ve never once regretted any of the money I’ve spent on travel or meals or a day of skiing or a game of golf. But I’ve deeply regretted the money I’ve wasted on a pair of too-high heels (worn once!), clothing that just looked like hell or a really boring book that was, after all, a best-seller.

Sunrise from our friend's bedroom window in Maine
Sunrise from our friend’s bedroom window in Maine

Nothing that arrives in a box or bag is ever as pleasurable and satisfying to me as walking down a Paris street or having tea with a friend in London or catching up face to face with my sister-in-law in Toronto over a very long lunch.

How about you?

What makes you happier — stuff or experiences?

Any good ones you can share?

The allure of learning something difficult

By Caitlin Kelly

Cruitch Island Golf Course, Donegal, Ireland
Cruitch Island Golf Course, Donegal, Ireland

For some, it’s calculus or making a roux or hitting to the outfield or soothing a colicky baby.

It’s been years since I’d had to acquire some new and challenging knowledge. Once you leave the world of formal education, it’s onoing auto-didacticism (love that word!) or slow mental atrophy. I work alone at home, and have since 2006, so unless I make a conscious decision to take a class or attend a conference, no boss (for better or worse) will force me to learn some new skills.

This weekend, my husband and I are taking a workshop in…how to create a workshop. How American is that? I hope to offer one for writers next summer and he hopes to offer one for photographers. (Stay tuned for details!)

But while many of my peers are rushing to learn computer coding, I wanted something different, a new set of skills for my own pleasure.

Time to learn German? It looked really difficult! More practically, when, if ever, would I really use it? I live in New York and getting to Europe is so costly that I usually visit France, (where I already speak the language), England or Ireland.

Fleece came in handy when playing golf in 19 mph winds (yes, I checked!)
Fleece came in handy when playing golf in 19 mph winds (yes, I checked!)

Instead, I’m learning how to play golf.

Mostly because my husband loves it. Like me, he came to it later in life as neither of our families were into the sport when we were growing up. My father, still sailing and cycling in his mid-80s, still shakes his head at my taste for it.

We’re not wealthy and where we live a game of golf can cost up to $100 for a decent course, so it’s not something we can do every week.

But Jose is passionate about it and playing golf also combines the elements that make me happy: his company, being outdoors in a beautiful setting, exercise, socializing.

He gave me a set of older clubs, some great golf shoes and off we went to the driving range. (That’s where you buy a bucket of balls and spend an hour or so practicing your shots with every different club. Large round wooden targets that look a bit like archery targets saying 50, 100 and 200 yards, tell you how far your shots are reaching.)

It’s a very male place.

But on a cool summer’s morning it’s also a great start to the workday; we have a range only 10 minutes drive from our suburban home. Two days after hitting a bucket and a half my arms, chest and oblique muscles are sore!

We were very lucky, on a recent trip to Donegal, Ireland, to be invited out to a links course by the edge of the Atlantic. We played with two women in their 60s, who were terrific golfers and yet very patient with me, playing my fourth or fifth game ever.

The course was crazy! One hole required hitting straight over a cliff to the fairway on the other side. There were no carts on a course so hilly that we felt like sheep clambering up and down, carrying our clubs backpack style. (Links golf comes from the medieval work hlinc, meaning hilly.)

I found it hard to concentrate because the scenery was so stunning: deep blue water, a distant island, seagulls swooping so low we almost hit them. I felt salt spray on my cheeks as a strong wind blew in our faces.

I love that golf is a portable sport — almost anywhere green with some land will have a golf course, or several, and often much more affordably than where we live. We’ve now played in rural Ontario and midcoast Maine, in the crisp air of autumn and on a day so hot I gave up after the fourth hole.

I like how challenging the game is. It forces me to slow down and pay very close attention. It requires a stillness and a shutting out of all distraction. It rewards both power and fine motor control.

I enjoy it. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t — I admit — keep going. But it’s also satisfying to be acquiring new skills later in my life. It’s so easy to stick to what I know and am good at.

The Luas -- which means
The Luas — which means “speed” in Irish

After our three weeks in Ireland, listening to my friend’s voice calling out the official station stops on Dublin’s tramline, the Luas, (she speaks fuent Irish and did the voice-over), I’m debating trying to learn even a bit of Irish.

My great-grandfather was the schoolteacher in the tiny Donegal town of Rathmullan, and we recently revisited his one-room schoolhouse there. I have roots in that world.

But Irish? Now that’s deeply impractical; only two percent of Irish people even speak it anymore, in three areas known as the Gaeltacht.

But it’s gorgeous to listen to.

What new skills are you learning these days?

What made you choose them?

The ability to tolerate discomfort

From The New York Times:

“A lot are coming to school who don’t have the resilience of previous generations,” Dr. Jones said. “They can’t tolerate discomfort or having to struggle. A primary symptom is worrying, and they don’t have the ability to soothe themselves.”

…And so personal setbacks that might once have become “teachable moments” turn into triggers for a mental health diagnosis.

“Students are seeking treatment, saying, ‘I just got the first C in my life, my whole life just got shattered, I wanted to go to medical school and I can’t cope,’” said Micky M. Sharma, president of the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors and head of Ohio State University’s counseling center.

I spent the past year teaching at a private college that charges $60,000 a year. It was an interesting experience to see how fragile and coddled some of these students were.

THAT was difficult
THAT was difficult

My husband and I are career journalists; his website is here; mine is here.

Maybe it’s the careers we chose — if you not debrouillard(e) — resourceful and resilient — you’ll hate the job and quickly leave the industry.

It’s likely the generation we grew up in.

Maybe it’s having survived three recessions in the past 20 years, times that forced many of us to shelve our dreams and say farewell to some others forever as our incomes dropped and good jobs disappeared.

I do know one thing.

If you are unable to tolerate discomfort, your life beyond college — no matter where you live, what you earn, what career you path you choose — you are going to be miserable.

So are your co-workers, bosses, husbands/wives/partners.

Life has sharp edges!

4360

When someone tells you that your work, or skills — social and/or professional — are weak or sub-standard or do not measure up, these are some of your choices:

— Disagree and ignore them

— Disagree but listen to their input for whatever lessons you can learn from it

— Acknowledge that their point of view is fair and listen to it carefully

— Cry

— Quit

— Never try that path of endeavor again

— Complain to a higher authority and push as hard as possible until they take your side

I have several friends who teach college ready to tear out their hair at the behaviors they see from students who refuse to take “no” for an answer when that “no” bumps up against their cherished self-image.

When life feels difficult and unfair and uncomfortable, here are some of your choices:

— Cry

— Yell at someone

— Run away

— Deal with it

— Use drugs or alcohol to numb your unpleasant feelings

— Talk to someone wiser and calmer, whether a friend, relative and/or therapist for their insights

– Change as much of the situation as possible

— Examine how and why your reaction to this challenge is making things even worse; as the Buddhist saying goes “Pain is inevitable but suffering is optional”

As readers of this blog know, I do not have children and never wanted to have children.

Drinks help!
Drinks help!

I do nurture and mentor about a dozen younger writers and photographers, one of whom just arrived in Australia for a two-month assignment there. Jose and I are happy to do it.

But they listen! They also have developed the requisite ego strength, even in their early 20s, to hear tough-if-loving feedback and use some of it without a shrug, hand-flap or quick dismissal of anything that challenges them.

I was still an undergraduate when I began selling my writing to national publications. At one of them, an editor was so harsh I’d end up in tears after a phone session with her.

But I learned a lot from her: how to write better, how to listen to criticism (even painful!), how to maintain a calm and professional demeanor. That growing (up) wasn’t going to be all puppies and rainbows.

Decades later, she’s still reading and admiring my work. That’s hard-won and well-valued in my world.

I wish every new graduate the best of luck as they move into the larger world of commuting, low-level drudgery, long hours, too-little money for too-much work.

More than anything, though, I wish them the resilience they most need — not just a shiny new degree or a stellar GPA — to thrive in the decades ahead.

Discomfort isn’t fatal.

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.

The allure of patina

By Caitlin Kelly

In our time, we try to be a bit slick. I think there’s value in the roughness of things

Marcel Wanders, contemporary Dutch designer

Are you familiar with the Japanese esthetic ideal of wabi-sabi?

Wabi-sabi is flea markets, not warehouse stores; aged wood, not Pergo; rice paper, not glass. It celebrates cracks and crevices and all the other marks that time, weather, and loving use leave behind. It reminds us that we are all but transient beings on this planet-that our bodies as well as the material world around us are in the process of returning to the dust from which we came. Through wabi-sabi, we learn to embrace liver spots, rust, and frayed edges, and the march of time they represent.

Wabi-sabi is underplayed and modest, the kind of quiet, undeclared beauty that waits patiently to be discovered. It’s a fragmentary glimpse: the branch representing the entire tree, shoji screens filtering the sun, the moon 90 percent obscured behind a ribbon of cloud. It’s a richly mellow beauty that’s striking but not obvious, that you can imagine having around you for a long, long time-Katherine Hepburn versus Marilyn Monroe. For the Japanese, it’s the difference between kirei-merely “pretty”-and omoshiroi, the interestingness that kicks something into the realm of beautiful.

An antiques term for the wear and tear you find on old silver or wood is patina.

I love the terms used in the trade for the things that are worn and weathered — pottery is crazed, paintings have craqelure and works on paper end up with foxing.

All these evidences of aging and wear can ruin the monetary value of an object, although — depending on your budget and the item’s rarity — much can be repaired by conservationists.

The Japanese tradition of kintsugi is described well here on this blog, with some lovely photos of cracked pottery repaired with gold.

20131118113704

I found this early 20th-century (late 19th?) jam pot in a small town in France at an antiques shop. Felix Potin still exists today as a major grocery store chain in France.

Everywhere I go, I seek out things with an overlay of use. I find them in thrift and consignment shops, in antique stores and flea markets, at auction and outdoors fairs. I’ll never be the person living in a super-modern, all-glass/plastic/marble/metal home. I want to see and feel the evidence of the people who made things and who owned and enjoyed them before me.

Here are some items I’ve acquired over the years precisely because their patina, roughness or wabi-sabi add to their beauty for me:

20131118102834

This small green-painted chair, with a rush seat, probably mid 19th century, is so cracked the finish is now called “alligatored.” I found it at a country auction in Nova Scotia in the mid 1980s; I bought four of them for $200.

20131118103240

I can’t remember where I found this oval, battered wooden stool, which has three wooden legs. I’m guessing it might have been a milking stool, as it’s so low and very comfortable. We use it as a table in the bathroom.

20131118102956

I found this old mixing bowl at a small-town Ontario auction for about $10. It’s the perfect size for popcorn!

20131118103123

This is the weathered gilt frame for a beveled mirror, itself with some discoloration from age, I found in New York City in an antiques shop for $300.

Do you like or prefer old things?

Why?

That getting old(er) thing

By Caitlin Kelly

Today is my husband’s birthday. Much as we are a bit gobsmacked by the years we’ve now racked up, better than the alternative!

It’s been a fascinating week for discovering some things that are really, really — mind-bogglingly — old.

Memento Mori with 17th Century human skull (2013)
Memento Mori with 17th Century human skull (2013) (Photo credit: failing_angel)

Like this human skull, estimated to be 1.8 million years old, found in Georgia, studied for the past eight years.

Or this meteorite, that streaked through the skies above Russia, and was lifted from the bottom of a lake. It’s said to be 4.5 billion years old, the same age as our solar system.

This week on PBS, I also watched — and loved — the latest instalment, 56 Up, of Michael Apted’s amazing series of documentaries, which began in 1964 with Seven Up, in which he interviewed and filmed 14 London children of varying social and economic backgrounds.

Every seven years, he has re-visited them and filmed them again, to see how they were doing — at 14, 21, 28, 35, 42, 49 and now, at 56.

It’s a compelling examination of how people change, (or don’t), over time.

Today, “reality” television is so normal as to be cliche, an alternate universe in which people seem to think nothing of confiding to millions of strangers while staring straight into a camera lens. It was once quite a radical notion to broadcast people’s everyday lives, and their most intimate feelings.

Who were you at 7, 14, 21, 28, 35, 42, 49 or 56?

I know many readers of this blog are still in their early 20s, so all those decades have yet to arrive.

Me, about age eight
Me, about age eight

I have few photos of myself as a younger person, most of them taken between the ages of six and 14. After that, it’s as though I vanished; my parents divorced and I spent most of my time divided between boarding school and summer camp.

I don’t remember anyone taking my picture between the ages of about 14 and 26, although I have one from my college graduation, which neither parent attended. In it is one of my then best friends, Nancy, whose last name I can’t even remember now.

Which is sad, as my life was a wild adventure in my early 20s — starting my writing career, traveling alone through Europe at 22 for four months, and then winning a life-changing fellowship in Paris at the age of 25. I do have, somewhere, some great photos of my visit to an Arctic village on assignment, being interviewed in a particle-board shack by a man speaking Inuktitut — the local radio station for the community of 500.

By 28 I had achieved my goal of being hired as a writer for The Globe & Mail, Canada’s best newspaper and, restless, would soon jump to Montreal where I met the man I married at 35. By 42, I’d been divorced for five years.

Ironically, my husband Jose is a professional photographer, who has taken many images of me in our 13 years together; the photo on my “about” page here is his. Some are funny, some lovely. With no kids or grand-kids to cherish them, though, it’s only a pile of memories for us.

I wonder how many years I’ll have left, of life, health, relative comfort and how many I’ll have to celebrate with Jose…

Many more, I hope!

Who were you at 7, 14, 21, 28, 35, 42, 49 or 56?

Have you changed much over the years? How?