I miss these amazing women — the team at my radiation clinic. This was Nov. 15, 2018, my final day of treatment.
By Caitlin Kelly
I’ve written a lot here about trying to find community and loneliness.
But social triage is also — as we say — “a thing.”
Just as ER and conflict medical staff triage patients into: will die, might die, treat first, we tend to decide who’s going to be closest to us and to which friends, or family, we’ll devote the bulk of whatever time and affection we can spare.
I was diagnosed in late May 2018 with very early-stage breast cancer and am, thankfully, fine. But it has, as serious illness tends to do, made much clearer to me who I most want in my life and who, now, I really don’t.
(Others have made the same decision about me — three former friendships died a long time ago. It happens.)
So who are the people I now want closest and treasure most?
— We laugh a lot.
— We make consistent and concerted efforts to see one another face to face, even if only by Skype across an ocean.
— Regular long phone conversations — texts and emojis are just not enough.
— Regular play dates: coffee, lunch, a museum or show.
— Some have accompanied me to medical appointments, their mere presence a tremendous comfort.
— Months may go by without much contact, but we trust one another’s affection and loyalty to know that life gets crazy and we will re-connect.
— We send one another little gifts or cards just because we can.
— They really understand that life can be frightening, and show compassion for fear, anxiety and tears. They don’t flee when times are difficult.
Those left behind?
— It’s always all about them. They don’t even draw breath before launching into a 20-minute monologue.
— They never simply ask “How are you doing?”
— So much drrrrrraaaaaaaama! Exhausting.
— People who radiate haste and anxiety. Much as I have compassion for them, I stay far away. I have enough anxiety of my own.
— People with no sense of perspective, who whine and complain about issues that are for them enormous — but which in the larger scheme of things are minor and easily resolved.
— People who never initiate contact but wait for me to jump-start every meeting.
— People unable to know how much their own challenges are already softened by the privileges of good health and enough income.
Have you become more selective about your friendships?
When the last present has been opened, I will sneak into the kitchen and don a ridiculous chef’s toque. There will be scrambled eggs. There will be hash browns; I like to make these from red potatoes, tossed with olive oil, kosher salt and chopped mint. And there will be a plate of smoked maple bacon, Smithfield ham, hot Tuscan sausages.
Because I am from Pennsylvania, not so far from Amish country, there will also be scrapple…
Christmas morning, my family will gather around the breakfast table: Sean, Deedie, Zai and me. We will have eggs and bacon and hash browns and scrapple. And by the grace of God, we will have one another.
Ranger will look at me with his gray dog face. What did I tell you? Remember the good things. Like this.
In times of stress, fear, grief — or just everyday life with all its various challenges — we need comfort. We need places, physical, spiritual and emotional to help us patch up the bruised bits of our soul, to feel at ease, to feel safe, to feel enclosed and secure.
I’m sure there’s some Neanderthal DNA in each of us, most dominant in the cold, short, windy days of winter, that says HOMECAVENOW! (One of my favorite boyfriends used to say HOMECRASHNOW! and I like his thinking.)
I’m a big fan of comfort and things that comfort us.
I’ve had this little guy for decades — a great travel companion, this portrait taken in Berlin, 2017.
Our apartment isn’t large (one bedroom) but we have lovely throws, in pale gray and soft teal (bought in Paris) we snuggle under on the wide, deep, soft sofa (perfect for napping at seven feet in length), or to slide beneath for an afternoon snooze.
We have many kinds of tea and two teapots and a kettle and real bone china mugs and teacups with saucers with which to enjoy them. Plus a thermos — my favorite thing is to fill it with coffee or tea and get back to bed under the duvet, the most comforting thing ever. Soft, light, warm.
I have no embarrassment about having these guys sitting in an antique toolbox on a bedroom shelf. I love their furry smiling faces, comfort every day.
I loved this piece from The Guardian, in which many adults happily discuss their still-beloved stuffed animals and the tremendous comfort they get from them:
The exhibition Good Grief, Charlie Brown!, on display at Somerset House in London until 3 March 2019, shows that Schulz had a profound understanding of loss, childhood and the human condition. His depiction of the attachment Linus feels for his security blanket touched something in his readers – and in Guardian readers, too. When we asked readers about their favourite earliest possession, we received stories and photographs of teddies and blankets that had been literally loved to bits.
Catherine Jones, 45, from Hull, has Teddy, whom she was given in her first year of primary school. Ian Robertson, 50, from Whistable in Kent, clung to Panda “even after my brother chewed one of his eyes out and spat it from the family Vauxhall Viva as we were heading up the M6”; he now occupies the best chair in his house. Rachel, 45, from Farnham in Surrey, was given Dog after her grandmother died, so he reminds her of precious family ties.
We are, for now, fortunate enough to have some decent retirement savings, which also gives me comfort that I’ll be able to stop working.
Our cars are safe and reliable, comforting knowing we can get where we need to, for work and leisure.
Jose has been a great source of comfort through my new life with DCIS…for some of you, it’s provided by a sibling or child, a loving pet or a community that knows and appreciates you.
It’s tough to soldier on without respite and charm, something soft and warm, delicious and soothing, accepting and nurturing.
Touch can be soothing or frightening, a source of comfort or terror.
The past few weeks have made clearer — personally and politically — the importance of touch, physical and emotional.
Since telling people about my DCIS diagnosis, Jose and I have been deeply moved and touched by so many people, worldwide, young and old, friends, neighbors and colleagues, who have called and emailed to share their love and concern.
It’s been surprising to us — tough old boots of journalists that we are, working for decades in a fact-based business — to feel such a powerful wave of love and emotion.
We are very grateful.
The business of diagnosing breast cancer, (like other forms, perhaps), also means your body gets touched by many strangers, compressed repeatedly, punctured with needles and having markers inserted and written on your skin. By the time of my surgery, July 6, I will have had seven different medical appointments and five different pre-op tests.
When a medical professional, who does this job every day, is kind and compassionate, communicating it through their gentle touch — the nurse who held my hand through my biopsy, the phlebotomist so skilled I didn’t feel a thing as she took my blood, the radiologist who stroked my other wrist even as he guided the needle — it is deeply moving and so comforting.
As someone who has always really lived in her head — a thinker, not a feeler — and a lifelong athlete who sees (and appreciates!) her body not for its size or shape or putative beauty — but instead for its strength, flexibility and resilience, this is all disorienting in the extreme.
Of course, grateful for a medical team we like, but it is so odd to suddenly be — as of course we all are, every day (even as we may deny it) — so corporeally vulnerable and now so…handled.
The larger political current context — of tiny children being taken from their parents and shut into cages by American officials — is so grotesque it would be a parody, if it were not.
From Arizona Family:
Dr. Colleen Kraft, the head of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said that she visited a small shelter in Texas recently, which she declined to identity. A toddler inside the 60-bed facility caught her eye — she was crying uncontrollably and pounding her little fists on mat.
Staff members tried to console the child, who looked to be about 2 years old, Kraft said. She had been taken from her mother the night before and brought to the shelter.
The staff gave her books and toys — but they weren’t allowed to pick her up, to hold her or hug her to try to calm her. As a rule, staff aren’t allowed to touch the children there, she said. [italics mine]
“The stress is overwhelming,” she said. “The focus needs to be on the welfare of these children, absent of politics.”
From Texas Monthly:
Sometimes mothers—I was talking to one mother, and she said, “Don’t take my child away,” and the child started screaming and vomiting and crying hysterically, and she asked the officers, “Can I at least have five minutes to console her?” They said no. In another case, the father said, “Can I comfort my child? Can I hold him for a few minutes?” The officer said, “You must let them go, and if you don’t let them go, I will write you up for an altercation, which will mean that you are the one that had the additional charges charged against you.” So, threats. So the father just let the child go.
Our view of the Hudson River with its newly-opened bridge
By Caitlin Kelly
It’s hard for me to believe, but this June will mark the 29th. year I’ve lived in the same apartment, by far the longest I’ve ever lived anywhere.
Born in Vancouver, Canada, I lived in London ages two to five, in Toronto ages five to 30 (in 10 different homes, one for a few months, eight of them rented apartments.) Since then I’ve lived in:
Paris (8 months in student housing)
Montreal (stunning top-floor 2-bedoom rental apartment, 18 months — miss it still!)
New Hampshire (18 months in a farmhouse apartment) and…here.
Home is a suburban New York one-bedroom apartment, a co-op, top-floor (6th) with stunning and unchanged views northwest, atop a high hill, of the Hudson River and lots of trees. It’s about 1,000 square feet, plus a 72 square foot balcony which we can’t wait to use every summer and reluctantly leave in October or so.
I bought it with my first husband, and it was then a stinking mess, literally — the floors were covered with dirty beige-wall-to-wall carpeting and cat urine had saturated it so badly even the nasty real estate agent stood outside on the balcony while we looked at it.
Nothing a little paint and renovation couldn’t fix!
I blogged here about transforming our kitchen to my design, as I also did with our one tiny (5 by 7 foot) bathroom.
Staying put in a small-ish space has allowed me, and now Jose, to meet other goals, like saving for retirement and traveling frequently for pleasure. (We have no children.)
The building itself is nothing special, a generic mid-60s red brick thing, but it’s part of a much older former estate, so it’s surrounded by lovely low stone walls, which, when snow-covered look like teeth. The land has many trees, from towering pines to my beloved red Japanese maple. (And a pool!)
Our narrow, sidewalk-free street is both very hilly and very curvy, so we don’t have racing cars or noisy trucks.
Our summer balcony banquette, (the fabric, a bedspread), covers an ugly glass divider; the bench beneath holds our tools and gardening equipment
But we’ve made it a lovely place, and one that welcomes guests — for a night or several, (on our comfy sofa) for meals, for tea — as often as we can afford. Few things make me happier than sharing our space and preparing good food for people we enjoy.
For me, staying so long in this home means many things:
assured physical comfort and safety; a lovely environment beyond our front doors (nature, silence); kind and quiet neighbors (many of them in their 70s and beyond.)
We found this great Mideastern mirror in the antique shop in one of our favorite vacation spots, North Hatley, Quebec. The carved black horse is from an antique store in Port Hope, Ontario and the silver-plate teapot I bought there at auction. The black and white photo in the reflection of a table is an image of former First Lady Betty Ford standing on the Cabinet Room table. Our gallery wall is all photos by us or other photographers.
It’s also been a place of comfort and refuge during times of turmoil: a sudden divorce, the loss of several good jobs, friendships that have disappeared, family dramas.
It’s good to have a place you can just rely on.
Since I spent my years ages eight-13 in boarding school and ages eight-16 at summer camp, creating a place to our exact desires is huge for me — years of drab bedspreads and metal beds will do that! Our greatest splurges are often for our home: original art and photos, linens, custom-made pillows and curtains, antiques and pretty tableware.
Our home also reflects our travels: our bed’s teal headboard fabric is from The Cloth Shop, an amazing find on London’s Portobello Road, (which sold many items to the Harry Potter films’ costume designers). Even some of the bathroom tile I found in Paris and had shipped to New York.
I hate to admit it, and being self-employed allows for this, but I’ve been falling back into bed almost daily at 3:30 for at least an hour. I feel slothful, but my body tells me this is a good choice, so I’m going with it. Hey, animals hibernate!
Fresh flowers and plants
Little hits of color, shape, texture and scent — at bedside, in the living room, at the front door as we enter the apartment.
When all the sky offers, from dawn to dusk, is gray, we need life and color!
Tea and coffee
Moroccan mint tea to Constant Comment to Earl Grey to Irish Breakfast to fruit-y stuff that comes out bright pink. (Did I mention color?) I love the ritual of putting on the kettle and filling a china teapot, then choosing a mug or a teacup and sitting with a steaming little bit of pleasure. No-calorie rehydration is also healthy!
Living in New York, I enjoy WFUV, the station for Fordham University and WKCR, of Columbia University, which plays reggae on Saturday mornings. I love many NPR shows, like This American Life and The Moth; you can hear them all on-line. We also enjoy TSF Jazz, a fantastic station in Paris.
Vigorous exercise — away from home!
I know, some people loathe spin class — which is basically riding fast on a stationary bike for 45 minutes while listening to music. But I really enjoy it. It burns plenty of calories. It’s social. I love the music. It makes me leave the apartment! Thanks to a screwed-up right knee and torn tendon in my right foot, I can’t do a treadmill or elliptical so all I have left for aerobic work is spin and swimming (which I don’t enjoy.)
Go for a walk and get as much sunlight as possible. Our bodies need fresh air and Vitamin D too.
We’ve still got another two to three months swathed in layers of wool and leather (or pleather) and rubber to stay warm and dry. Strip down and sweat for a while.
I just read —- oh, is it possible?! — that a long bath actually burns calories. See y’all later!
Moisturize everything all the time
Hair, nails, skin, hands. Repeat.
Winter air, both outdoors cold and indoor heat, is dehydrating in the extreme. I keep tubes of cream and lotion in every room and apply multiple times a day. I fill the tub and add plenty of Neutrogena Body Oil and scented essences like lavender, peppermint or eucalyptus.
I saw this first in Stockholm in late November — when it was dark by 2:30 p.m. and the sun didn’t reappear until 8:30 a.m. Even at lunchtime, candles flickered on every restaurant tabletop and their effect was soothing, lovely and intimate. At home, I light candles in the morning to wake up slowly and gently, and sometimes as my last illumination.
So much nicer than the cold blue light of a screen!
Add something new, gorgeous — and permanent — to your home
When last winter’s endlessly gray skies made us miserable, we repainted our small sitting room from soft warm gray to pale, subtle lavender, the color of clouds just tinged at sunset; (Peignoir by Farrow & Ball, my favorite brand. I even visited their Dorset factory last summer!)
When you’re stuck indoors day after day, week after week, month after month you really need some color, comfort and beauty!
For us, that’s framed art in every room, well-chosen colors for walls and floors and rugs and furniture, and plenty of comfort — a teal waffle cotton throw we bought in Paris at BHV, a paisley duvet cover and shams, a soft sheepskin rug bedside.
A couple of patterned throw pillows, a set of lacy pillowcases or shams, a bright tablecloth or fresh hand towels or a lovely mug don’t have to cost a lot and can add a cheering jolt of pretty. If money is super-tight, thrift and consignment shops can offer great stuff at very low prices.
I love this blog post about true hygge — the newly trendy Danish word meaning cosy and charming. It includes some of my suggestions, (candles, plants, art) but is really a wise life philosophy:
That’s what real hygge is – a simple moment that feels so special, cosy, relaxing, loving or happy that you just need to call it out. It’s not about being fancy, or styled, or being in the best circumstances, or having the right things. It’s literally about being present enough to see how great a moment is, and give that moment a name – hygge.
I’m not against beautiful images and styled things at all. I love to both see these and take them but I am against all the sites, articles and posts selling the concept of hygge as if it’s something you can just buy and do and you’re done. It’s not a “lifestyle” as so many non-Danish posts try to make it out to be. It’s not one thing you can check off your list and your life is better. And it’s not always picture perfect.
Hygge in its simplest form is really about being present.It can happen several times a day, anywhere, anytime – all it takes is you. Nothing else.
Every month, Elle Decor magazine asks a designer about his or her must-haves. For some, it’s a name-brand pen or vehicle, or a luxury brand.
Here are (some of!) mine:
Newspapers and magazines, in print
Every weekend, I read four newspapers, all in print: The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times. I love taking an afternoon on the sofa to leaf through them, clipping books I want to read or shows I want to see. (I also look at the Guardian and Globe and Mail online.) By subscription, we receive about 20 magazines, from Wired and BloombergBusinesweek and Foreign Policy to lighter fare like Monocle, House Beautiful and Vogue. Yes, there are stacks everywhere. Otherwise, I’d never remember to read them!
No matter what the season, our apartment always has fresh flowers. For about $20 a week, I get enough beauty to make multiple arrangements for the living room, bedroom, dining room — even a few blooms in the bathroom! As we head into cold, dreary winter, even more essential.
A mixture of scents, including L’eau de l”Artisan, Bulgari’s The Vert, Opium and Prada Iris.
My 21-inch-deep bathtub
Bliss! With scented bubble bath (love Algemarin!) or oils, no better place to relax in solitude.
8-10+ hours’ sleep every night
Can’t run at my usual pace without it. If I skimp, it’s naptime.
My passport (and green card)
I treasure my Canadian citizenship, but am grateful for the legal right to live and work in the U.S.
The view from our top-floor apartment of the Hudson River
It hasn’t changed in decades. On July 4, we can even enjoy fireworks from five towns at once!
A ready stash of quality stationery
Nothing nicer than a thick, heavy piece of elegance with which to write a thank-you or condolence note; personalized is even better.
Earl Grey tea, poured into a bone-china cup with a saucer
Everyone knows about Tom Coughlin’s intensity. Everyone knows about Eli Manning’s arm. But, several Giants players say, a little-known key to the team’s success in recent years stands about two feet high. It is covered in fur, pleasant but not precocious, and goes by the endearingly simple name Little Bear.
Eric Gay/Associated Press
James Brewer, a rookie last season, was Little Bear’s custodian when the Giants won the Super Bowl in Indianapolis.
His value cannot be overstated, they say. Yes, preparation matters to the Giants. So do practice repetitions, strength training and film study. But along with other mainstays, like Manning, one of the few constants in the Giants’ run to two Super Bowl titles in the past five years has been the presence of Little Bear, the offensive line’s prized stuffed animal.
“Let’s be honest,” guard Chris Snee said, gesturing reverently in Little Bear’s direction. “He’s critical to what we do. He’s an inspiration.”
Here’s a photo of my own line-up, who hang out atop the shelf beside my bed, yes, the one I share with my husband.
Left to right, a monkey Jose bought for me, who makes a shrieking monkey noise. The brown bear was a post-surgical gift from Jose. The small white bear I’ve had since I was very small, probably given to me when we lived in England, ages two to five. He’s been all over the world with me, from Ireland to Vegas. The bunny was a gift after one of my four orthopedic surgeries, from Jose. He, too, travels well and is often in my suitcase or carry-on. In the closet, in such tatters I can’t reconstitute him is Bunny, given to me one Easter by my maternal grandmother, who carried me through my roughest moments of childhood into my late 20s.
And here is Jose’s line-up, some less cuddly than others.
Left to right: The lovely wool Arctic hare was a Christmas present to me from Jose, a Canadian icon. The whalebone Inuit sculpture was a gift from me to him; ditto. The wooden walrus, which opens up to offer a hiding spot, was a gift from him to me. The loon, which emits one of my favorite and most Canadian of sounds — a loon call — was bought on one of our many cross-border gift shop stops on a trip north to Canada.
And I’m fine with it.
My husband, Jose, a career news photographer and editor, has photographed war and riots and dead bodies. In my work as a journalist, I’ve seen car windows sheeted with blood, confronted extreme poverty and listened carefully to tales of rape and nightmarish violence.
When I wrote my first book about women and guns, in which I heard extremely upsetting and graphic stories of homicide, suicide and life-altering injury, I ended with up with secondary trauma, a normal consequence of immersing oneself in dark and frightening material, as happens to journalists and photographers. Jose and I each have enough darkness and misery jammed into our heads from decades in news journalism that some friendly, inanimate and portable pals are a very welcome addition to our world.
(And, with no kids or young nieces or nephews, the only way we get near toys is if we buy them ourselves!)
I was in boarding school at eight, and summer camp for eight weeks at the same age. I had no brothers and sisters growing up, so my stuffed animals were often my playmates. I hated dolls — hard, stiff, unyielding — but treasured my cuddly menagerie.
Had a rough day? Reach for Teddy! A survey of 6,000 Britons finds that many still do.
From The Telegraph:
The survey also found that 25 per cent of men said they even took their teddy away with them on business because it reminded them of home.
Travelodge said that in the past year staff have reunited more than 75,000 teddies and their owners.
Spokesman Shakila Ahmed said: “Interestingly the owners have not just been children, we have had a large number of frantic businessmen and women call us regarding their forgotten teddy bear.”
Corrine Sweet, a psychologist, said cuddling a teddy bear was an ‘important part of our national psyche’.
She said: “It evokes a sense of peace, security and comfort. It’s human nature to crave these feelings from childhood to adult life.
I get it.
Alone, ill, in Venice 30 years ago, my only comfort was a small, furry bear I’d packed in my duffel for my four-month solo journey. Neither of us spoke Italian, so I was lucky to have some company.
I still sometimes pack a bear, even when traveling with my sweetie. He’s cool with it.
My battered little white bear has been all over the world with me, amusing chambermaids from Ireland to Quebec. I’ve had him since I was maybe three or four — that sort of loyalty is rare and sweet. He tucks easily into the smallest corner of my smallest suitcase and doesn’t even protest when I jam him into the outside pockets. Wherever I go, he’s happy to follow.
We should all be so blessed with soft, portable comfort.