In a pandemic dragging into its second year, and with no real end in sight, I’ve still been able to turn to trusted friends, some opf whom are still in great shape, some not so much, to share our thoughts and fears.
One is a delighted first-time grandmother. One struggles with a lot of physical pain. One is single and lives alone and is just very lonely. One recently sold her home and moved into Manhattan, savoring city life.
My husband — we met 21 years ago next month at a midtown Manhattan French bistro for our first date — has been amazing. But I realize he’s not a Swiss Army knife, capable of meeting my every emotional and intellectual need.
I fear we’re going to burn ourselves out if we try to “soldier on” alone.
I fear we’ll burn out our spouses and partners who are by now also feeling claustrophobic and, in a very snowy cold winter, are also succumbing to cabin fever — no cafes or gyms or libraries or restaurants or pals’ homes to flee to.
I had a two-hour conversation last night, so gratefully, with a friend in California who is a long-time pro in the book publishing industry. The latest agent for my book proposal, of course, fell through, and she was both tough and loving in what she suggested should be my next steps.
Tough and loving is pretty much my MO as well.
Who are you turning to these days for comfort and joy?
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.
After we lost touch, she moved to Ireland, then back home to Toronto, then to the U.S. — as I did, and there married and divorced without children (as I did.) Now she’s back in Canada and we caught up on so many stories! It was eerie how much we had in common and so comforting to feel like it had not been so many years; she, too, had DCIS (early stage breast cancer) and reached out to me on Facebook last year when I was diagnosed, then living in New Mexico — my husband’s home state.
On this trip we also caught up with a man I’ve known since my very early 20s, married for years to his husband, now retired to the country. We met their gorgeous Airedale and enjoyed a great meal together. We hadn’t seen them in a few years and look forward to returning. How nice to know we’re welcome again.
We also spent an evening with yet another friend of many, many years — who I met when he was a tenant in an apartment in a house my father owned. It’s lovely when you’re out on the road for three weeks, most of it working, to sit at a friend’s table and savor their hospitality. (We arrived there with a big box of delicious bakery goodies.)
I finally, after many lonely years there, have several good friends in New York, and one who’s known me for about 20 years — but the depth and breadth of my earliest friendships, the ones who knew me before my first husband, (pre-1986), are so precious to me. They knew me “when” — and, still, gratefully, know me now.
On this trip, I’ve also made several new younger friends through Fireside, and I am really enjoying getting to know them better.
For this New York Times story, I spoke to this woman and teachers and volunteers and many middle school students
By Caitlin Kelly
I spend my professional life speaking with strangers, an odd way to describe journalism — since everyone focuses on the (cough) fame, fortune or fake news that’s the written or broadcast end result.
But if I don’t speak to strangers — and those have included Queen Elizabeth, Olympic athletes, convicted felons, a female Admiral and a few celebrities (like Billy Joel at the very start of his career) — I have nothing to work with. Just as every builder needs bricks and mortar and windows and doors and HVAC to create a functional home, I need to assemble quotes, facts and anecdotes to write interesting stories.
People assume that, because it’s a journalist’s job to talk to strangers, we each find it comfortable and easy. But sometimes it’s excruciating, like speaking to the survivors of or witnesses to rape, genocide, war, mass shootings — meeting people in their most vulnerable moments, sensitively (at best!) managing their tender emotions even as we struggle to mask or contain our own.
But it’s also the part of the work I most enjoy. People are so different, and yet we all want to be listened to attentively and respectfully.
We want to be met with interest, empathy, compassion.
It’s good to find common ground.
It’s great to share a laugh!
I also talk to strangers when I’m out and about — at the gym or grocery store or on the train and, especially, when I sit alone at a bar and chat (when welcomed) to the person beside me.
And because I’ve traveled widely and often alone — Istanbul to Fiji, Peru to the Arctic — I’ve also had to rely many times on the advice, kindness and wisdom of strangers. It does require good judgment and the confidence to suss out a baddie from a perfectly kind soul. So far my only misjudgement, of course, happened at home in suburban New York.
This past week was a perfect example of why, (and yes I’m careful)…I sat at the bar, as I usually do when I eat out alone, at a fun restaurant, and the man beside me was heavily tattooed, had a thick, gray lumberjack beard and was on his second or third tequila. His name was Joe and we had a terrific conversation — he’s a tattoo artist and former Marine.
We could not have less in common!
And yet, a lively, friendly chat ensued.
The power of journalism, in forcing its front-line staff to talk to hundreds of strangers every year, is that it shoves us out of any self-defined “comfort zone” — a phrase I truly loathe. No matter how I personally feel about a specific subject (and, as a freelancer I won’t take on something I know will revolt me), I have to remain polite and respectful to my interlocutor.
If only every teen and every adult would make time to civilly engage with people they don’t know, whose politics they haven’t predetermined and admired, whose race and gender and sexual preference and age and clothing and demeanor and house and vehicle don’t signal they’re predictably and cozily “one of us.”
Would the U.S. — or Britain — be any less divided?
Do you speak to strangers beyond necessary commercial or medical interactions?
In 2017, this was part of a fun Montreal afternoon I spent in the company of a young business-owner I met at a NYC conference and stayed in touch with
By Caitlin Kelly
Loved this story from my first employer — The Globe & Mail — about a terrific inter-generational friendship between a Kiana Eastmond, a young black entrepreneur in Toronto and Paul Copeland, her older Jewish landlord, that began thanks to $8,000 in her unpaid rent.
She finally managed to re-pay him, but the relationship was much more than transactional:
Falling $8,000 behind in rent, which seemed to her an insurmountable sum to pay back, she simply avoided him. When she finally ran into Mr. Copeland, who lived in the building, “I almost felt a sense of relief that he was finally going to evict me,” she says. “At least I wasn’t quitting. I’m not a quitter.”
But Mr. Copeland didn’t react the way she expected. “What’s going on?” he asked. She opened up and told him the truth. “I cried,” she says. He didn’t offer advice or a shoulder to cry on. He tossed the ball back in her court. “Figure it out,” he told her. “I want you to do what you told me you were going to do with this space.”…
The two ultimately became friends, hanging out and going to movies and concerts. He enjoyed her youth and energy. “I taught her about music,” he says. They both laugh. “No really,” she says. “He has this insane music collection, with slave hymns and gospel music.” He would drop by the studio and chat easily with whoever happened to be there.
As someone with friends who are decades younger, this doesn’t strike me as odd, but it is for some — why on earth would a 20 or 30-year-old want to hang out with someone “old”?
What would we have in common?
You name it!
Work, music, politics, travel, family issues…all the things that people just talk about. My father, at 89, has friends decades younger as my mother always did. I simply don’t buy the notion that being older or younger eliminates all the other reasons you might enjoy someone’s company.
And some of my much younger friends have already faced some really bad shit — like paternal or maternal health issues, mental and physical — that prematurely forced them into care-giving roles. I faced that myself, so I get it, and the complicated stew of filial duty and resentment it can create.
My younger pals are often those I’ve met through journalism and initially on-line. I make sure to have lunch with them whenever we’re in the same city, delighted they make time for me.
Another is 21 years younger but every time we’re in the same city, we end up talking so long that a lunch date turns into dinner.
I’d never been to the amazing orchid show at the New York Botanical Garden, in the Bronx — until a younger friend took me. So gorgeous!
True friendship is a meeting of minds — and people who are curious, adventurous, smart, kind, fun and resilient are usually someone I want to know.
It’s not just me, of course.
American advice columnist Heather Havrilesky, writing for The Cut, recently described her friendship with a woman who’s 93; she’s 48.
Speaking of which, I went to go visit that 93-year-old woman I met on the plane, the one I wrote about a few weeks ago. She had told me her birthday was coming up, so I brought her a birthday card.
But it was difficult. It made me feel dumb to show up at her house with a card. I felt embarrassed for some reason. I even felt a little stupid calling her earlier today, asking if she needed anything. I don’t have a ton of free time. I have a long list of things I should be doing. It feels dopey to call someone new, someone who is much older and probably has other things to do.
But this woman, I like her a lot. She is extremely interesting. She tells long-winded, wild stories. She plays poker and has a lot of friends. She even sang me a song that she wrote in 1968. She grew up during the Prohibition, motherfuckers. She’s had a lot of experiences and she’s made a lot of mistakes, and she doesn’t mind talking about them. She’s a very honest person.
If you’re going to somehow get through a frightening time in your life — whether it’s health, work, family, marriage, kids’ issues — you need a rock, someone you can turn to who’s as firm and solid as a boulder, something steady and calm to lean against and take shelter behind, a fixed point you know will be there the next day and the next and the next, no matter what happens.
As I got my breast cancer diagnosis — ironically, sitting on rocks at the edge of the Hudson River in the New York town where we live — my husband Jose had just left for work in the city on the commuter train. I sat in the June sunshine alone absorbing this news, delivered by phone by my gynecologist.
Those vows include, for better and for worse, in sickness and in health…Sept. 2011
Since then, as he has been throughout our 18 years together, Jose has been my rock. For which I’m so damn grateful and so damn fortunate. He came with me to every meeting with every doctor, (and there have been five MDs), listening and taking notes as a second set of eyes and ears. I’m not a person who cries easily or often — maybe a few times a year — but in the past five months, have done a lot of that. He’s stayed steady.
There’s an old-fashioned word I really like — character. Jose has it. I’d seen it on multiple occasions as we were dating. I wanted it in my second husband, that’s for damn sure.
So lucky to have had the kindness of this fantastic team!
Then there’s gravel, a poor metaphor perhaps, for the pals and acquaintances whose love and sweet gestures have also proven hugely supportive, through letters, cards, calls, texts, flowers and even gifts. None of which I really expected.
Some live in distant countries. Some are editors I’ve worked with for years and have still never met. Some are women I went to school with decades ago. All of whom stepped up.
There were several putatively close friends I assumed would check in — and who proved wholly absent. That hurt. But it happens, and you have to know, especially with this disease, some people will flee and totally abandon you.
The most depressing thing I heard this summer — and it truly shocked me — is that some cancer patients have no one at all to turn to. No family. No friends. I can’t imagine facing the fears, pain, anxiety and many tests and treatments without someone who loves you sitting in the waiting room with you, driving you to appointments, holding your hand.
I recently got a call from a younger friend facing her own crisis, and was so honored and touched that she called me. I try to be a rock for the people I love. Sometimes I’ll fail them, I know.
Friendship is one of life’s greatest pleasures. It’s also, as we get older and leave behind the built-in possibilities of making friends in high school, university or graduate school, sometimes much harder to grow and sustain.
People become consumed by work, family obligations, long commutes. They move away and change jobs or careers, weakening easy access and shared interests.
But it’s also been medically proven that having a strong network of people who truly care about you improves our health and longevity.
Sometimes all we really need is a safe place to vent our feelings — whether joyful or angry. It takes time and energy to really pay close and undivided attention, but it’s the greatest gift we can offer.
2) Show up in person
Because so much of our lives now are lived on-screen and only through texts and emails, some people think that’s plenty.
People really need us to be there with them in person, for a hug, a smile, a hand to hold. I skipped a friend’s pricey Jamaica destination wedding but went with her for chemo and the day she had her eggs extracted in case they were damaged by her cancer treatment. (She had traveled 40 minutes by train to my town, and trudged up a steep hill in a blizzard at 6:00 a.m. to accompany me to surgery.)
Weddings and parties are fun and easy — hospital bedsides, wakes and funerals less so. Go for the hard times too.
Some people hate and avoid using the telephone. But texts and emojis are useless when someone needs to be heard. We miss a lot if our only communication is through a screen.
4) Send flowers
I know you mustn’t send flowers to a Jewish funeral. Other cultures have issues with the number, type or color of a bouquet. But, if they’re culturally and religiously appropriate, they can be a welcome and cheerful addition to someone’s desk or bedside.
5) Mail a card or letter
On paper, with a stamp. Twenty years from now no one will lovingly cherish an email as much as a beautiful card or a long, chatty letter.
6) Stay in touch
It’s so easy to be “too busy” and, if you’re parenting multiple small children and/or care-giving and/or working, yes. But it’s really not a heavy lift (especially with Skype or FaceTime) to check in with people you care for, even every few weeks or months.
I know some people hate to entertain, and come up with every possible excuse not to do it. You can always do a potluck or order in, but gathering a group of friends is a great way to make introductions, expanding your circle and theirs. I often hear stories in a group that I’d never heard before one-on-one.
This is a biggie for me, and has ended some of my friendships. If your friend(s) are always the first to extend an invitation and you never reciprocate, what’s up with that? A strong friendship is a two-way street.
9) Remember their special occasions
Birthdays and anniversaries are obvious, but we’ve all got others.
Only one friend (and it meant a great deal to me) sent a hand-made condolence card when my dog died. It might be your friend’s wedding anniversary or the anniversary of the death of someone they loved dearly and dread facing every year. Let them know you know and are thinking of them that day.
And if you know someone who’s about to become a published author, find out their publication date — it’s a very big deal and one they’ll remember forever.
10) Be honest
One of my oldest friends said a few difficult words to me recently. I didn’t enjoy hearing them, but we both knew she was right. She said them lovingly, not in anger, and I appreciated that.
Honesty is crucial to any friendship worth keeping. If all you do is tippytoe around someone’s sore spots or are too scared to confront a pattern that’s destroying your love or respect for them, how intimate is the relationship? Why are you hanging onto it? The deepest friendships can not only withstand loving candor, they rely on it.
These few weeks can be a tough time for many people — thanks to social media and the mass media, we’re barraged with endless images of group cheer: parties, family togetherness, piles of presents under a decorated Christmas tree.
My husband and I now work as full-time freelancers, which means no office holiday parties for us, no matter how much profit our skills have added to many others’ bottom line. Even if you actually hate office parties, it’s important to have some social face time with the people you work with to help build those relationships.
The holidays can also be a time of intense loneliness — no matter how many people you know, if there’s no deep, growing intimacy with any of them, you might as well know no one.
For several friends, this year marks their first as a widow, and for one, her first in a nursing home far away from her home city, friends and lovely apartment.
People can feel lonely even when surrounded by lots of people, especially if the relationships are not emotionally rewarding. In fact, Dr. Carla Perissinotto and colleagues at the University of California at San Francisco reported in 2012 that most lonely individuals are married, live with others and are not clinically depressed.
“Being unmarried is a significant risk,” Dr. Holt-Lunstad said, “but not all marriages are happy ones. We have to consider the quality of relationships, not simply their existence or quantity.”
As Dr. Nancy J. Donovan, a geriatric psychiatrist and researcher in neurology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, said in an interview, “There is a correlation between loneliness and social interaction, but not in everyone. It may be simplistic to suggest to people who are lonely that they should try to interact more with others.”
I’ve struggled with loneliness for years since moving to the United States — despite having made good friends quickly in Toronto, Montreal and Paris.
I’m happiest deep in lively, long face to face conversation on a wide range of subjects, not merely texting.
I’m also just not much of a “joiner”, maybe because — being a professional observer as a journalist — I’m more at ease one-on-one, not in a group. And because I have to market my skills all the time to make a living, the effort to get out and forge new friendships just really feels like more work.
I hate that very American thing of “Heyyyyyyy!” that’s outwardly “real friendly” — but often comes with no curiosity to go deeper and to nurture a more solid and enduring emotional and intellectual connection. In a culture focused, it seems, so relentlessly on economic survival, many “friendships” here (certainly in New York) are purely transactional — after you’ve each exhausted one another’s professional or social utility, that’s it.
True friendship can also withstand less-sunny moments.
I recently spent an afternoon with a new-ish friend, (we met in June 2016), and I was snappish that day.
I was in terrible pain, between my arthritic knee and damaged right ankle. A bitterly cold wind whipped through the canyons of downtown New York, where we met near the World Trade Center, a place that brings up too many awful 9/11 memories, so an area I usually avoid.
And the place we chose to meet was costly, noisy — and closed early, ruining our plans for a long, relaxed lunch.
I apologized the next day, fearful my horrible mood had hurt our friendship.
Thankfully, it had not.
Hoping that each of you — wherever you are this holiday season — are enjoying it with loved ones!
And, if you’ve got extra space in your home and at your holiday table, be sure to include someone who might be lonely, but too shy or proud to ask for an invitation.
Today in the U.S. is Thanksgiving, a huge holiday that the fortunate will spend with people they love and who have welcomed them into their homes with food and drink and kindness.
We are in suburban Maryland, just outside D.C., with a dear friend and her husband, a fellow journalist who stood in Toronto in September 2011 as our official wedding witness. We’ve visited them many times, but this year were grateful she was able to also welcome a younger friend of ours, a freelancer in D.C. whose mother died a few years ago and whose father lives far away.
We were also grateful recently in Ontario when our friends there welcomed my former sister-in-law to stay the night and dine with us — we live in a one-bedroom apartment, so we can welcome at most two people, (if Jose sleeps on the floor and I get the sofa and the couple get our bed.)
When people have room to spare, (and we always bring gifts and wine and pay for groceries and write thank-you notes!) it’s a blessing.
The opening of one’s home, heart and table are great gifts.
I’ve recently begun following a smart, tough Christian writer and pastor named John Pavlovitz, and his new book, A Bigger Table, brings the same spirit of generosity and openness in a time of deep and bitter social and political division.
I haven’t yet read his book, but I follow him on Twitter and like his voice and his point of view.
Wherever you are today, I hope you’re safe, solvent, healthy, well-loved and well-fed!