The deep comfort of seeing old friends

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By Caitlin Kelly

Imagine opening your kitchen door to someone you haven’t seen in 50 years.

That just happened for me and a woman I knew at boarding school in Toronto, with whom — both of us bad girls asked to leave the school at the end of that year — I then, briefly, shared a room there.

She’s an incredibly talented art photographer, with three books to her credit; here’s her website.

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.

 

Friendship sustains me.

Talking to strangers…

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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?

Social triage

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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.)

 

 

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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.

 

 

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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?

A backpack filled with stones

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By Caitlin Kelly

Had a conversation this week with a friend facing some serious health stuff. She’s not getting the support she needs and someone who should be there for her is instead adding to her very considerable stress by not being useful and making needed changes.

No one wants a backpack filled with stones.

I won’t be more specific but it was clear to me — as someone who’s had health issues (that oh-so-American euphemism for cancer) since June 2018 — that the minute you get a shitty diagnosis (or lose your job or face the loss of a loved one), your life is now weighted down in ways that may appear invisible to others but are very, very heavy and something you (mostly) alone are carrying.

Shame — especially in the U.S. where being “unproductive”, ill and needy is somehow taboo — adds yet another damn boulder.

Unless you can drop the backpack — and ask for help and count on getting it — having to listen to anything stupid, thoughtless or callous (and there’s plenty of it out there, from friends, family and medical staff) only adds another few stones.

No one wants that pack.

No one wants to carry it, sometimes for months or even years.

In tough times, their pack is already filled with grief and fear and physical pain and exhaustion and guilt and anxiety.

Carrying it isn’t much of a choice, even as others call you “brave” and “tough” and call out “you can fight this.”

If you know someone facing tough times, please do anything you possibly can to lighten their load.

Diminish that pack.

 

Do not add one more stone.

 

Why it’s great to have friends of all ages

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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.

 

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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.

 

Do you have any friends much older or younger?

 

How did you meet?

What do you enjoy about these relationships?

Amid California’s hellfire, he saved a horse

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Welcome to hell — and Augie, a horse with, for the moment, nowhere safe to go. But read on…

All images in this post — NO REPOSTING! — courtesy of photographer PeterDaSilva.

 

By Caitlin Kelly

As anyone watching the news knows, parts of California have been devastated by wildfires, causing thousands to flee their homes and, so far, 71 to lose their lives — with more than 1,000 people missing —  the state’s deadliest fire in 17 years.

 

Butte County wildfire and evacuations

 

 

Butte County wildfire and evacuations

 

First responders and firefighters are helping residents flee to safety.

Including many pets and animals.

 

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Members of the UC Davis Veterinary Emergency Response Team, Ashley Nola (left) and Catherine McFarren (right), tend to burns on a dog that was brought in to the Butte County Fair Grounds where large animals are being sheltered during the Camp Fire, as it continues to burn through the region, fueled by high winds in Butte County, California.

 

 

Butte County wildfire and evacuations

 

Redding policemen who promise to return, found a trailer to rescue Augie the horse after his owner had to leave him in a shopping center parking lot, as fire grew closer and she had to leave him since she had no way to get him out as the Camp Fire burned out of control through Paradise, California.

 

But so are some amazing journalists, one of them a dear friend, San Francisco-based photographer Peter daSilva, who I first met in 2012 when we worked on a New York Times story about Google together. He is a kind, gentle, meticulous professional.

I’m honored that Peter has allowed me to share his story here of helping a fleeing California woman save her beloved horse —– he’s been inundated with media requests, almost all of which he’s refused — but said I could tell it here, and to include his images, all of which were shot on assignment for the European Press Agency.

With his permission, I’ve reprinted the story (slightly edited) from his own Facebook page:

To Hilary Johnson and Augie of Paradise, Calif.- I just wanted to let you know that the three Redding law enforcement officers and myself kept our promise.

I met Hillary and Augie in a shopping center parking lot on the afternoon of Nov. 8th. She had just escaped the flames of the fire that burned through Paradise, CA with just the clothes on her back, riding Augie to a safe place.

Hillary lost her home and everything to the fire.

As she stood watching the impending movement of the fire with other residents of Paradise, law enforcement were encouraging all of us to leave, as the flames were just burning across the street.

While standing in the lot, Hillary in tears walked passed me. I stopped her to ask what was going on.

She had made the decision to set Augie free since there was no transport for him and she could not just leave him tied up in the lot.

As concern grew, three Redding officers who had rescued dogs left behind in abandoned homes talked her out of this decision. They were not going to let this happen…as instantly a brain storming session started on how to get Augie a ride. Aided with the help of locals, they were directed to a U-Haul location where they might be able to commandeer a trailer.

So off they went, setting off on a quest to save Augie.

So Hillary said her good byes, Can’t tell you how hard it was to watch that.

 

And yes I kept my camera at my side.

 

I promised her that I would stay as long as I could, to then cut Augie loose before the fire took over the area, as she and the other residents prepared to drive off to safety, with Augie tied to a shopping cart cage moved to a opening in the lot.

 

So there we were, Augie and I, standing in a parking lot ALONE with flames visible in the near distance, smoke turning day into night. Hoping for the officers to have found a trailer.

Funny what goes through your mind when you’re standing with a horse with hell surrounding you…

 

I put a blinking red LED light I use during protests on him, so he could be seen in the darkness of the choking smoke, if I did let him run.

Smoke continued to thickened darken the skies, when a truck with a utility trailer drove near — those three Redding officers!

With smiles on their faces, seeing we were still there. They spent no time getting the trailer opened. It took a little bit of coaxing to get him in to the trailer. About 5-10 minutes. Augie was amazingly calm and did what he needed to do.

Now it was time to leave, with three trucks, one with a utility trailer and myself. We convoyed through fire-lined streets of Paradise where I left them to continue to safety as I went back to work.

I have no idea if Hillary was reunited with him.

But I know I did the right thing.

 

Then the great news!

 

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Hillary and Augie have been reunited!

Law enforcement officers from Redding were able to contact Hillary shortly after rescuing Augie, now being cared for at a ranch near Gridley.

Hillary is OK, banged up from a fall she took with Augie as they navigated four miles of fire and others fleeing, which spooked Augie the whole way from their home to the parking lot. She told me that she was sleeping in the back of a pickup truck somewhere in Chico.

First, I want to thank the true heroes…the first responders, firefighters and law enforcement officers from all over the state who put their lives on the line to save the residents, their animals, property and to protect what is left of the greater Paradise area.

I’m honored that you think I’m a hero, but it’s them you should honor.

As a member of the Press, not the “enemy of the people”. I and fellow colleagues  bring you the information of what is happening in and around the fire area, the voices of your community when you are not there to witness it yourselves.

Please remember, we understand your heartbreak and sorrow, sometimes we are victims of these tragic events themselves, and that includes the first responders who are also affected by the loss of homes and lives. And they still have to continue doing our jobs.

We are all human when it comes down to it.

Sorry we ask hard questions and make images in seemingly the worst moments of your lives. We are your eyes and ears when you can’t be there. So please bear with us.

 

I can’t speak for my colleagues, but every time I cover events like this, it changes me. Sometimes for the better and some time for the worst. Just glad I can share my experiences through outlets that inform the world for the better of all mankind.

 

 I just adhered to my personal moral obligation, to comfort a stranded new friend — it was not heroic.

I’m still working, doing 12-14 hour days covering the fire, working in the communication dead zone of the fire area most of the day. And then commuting back and forth to Sacramento for the night since all the available rooms are taken up by the displaced residents.

Augie and other animals are being taken care of, but their loved ones who care for them on a daily bases are VERY much in need too.

If you do care and want to be part of this moment, find an organization and donate to help the survivors of this tragic event.

Here are some places to donate!

Who’s your rock? And gravel…

By Caitlin Kelly

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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

But that’s what we’re all here for.

Be the rock.

 

Or be gravel.

 

But be there!

The power of comfort

By Caitlin Kelly

When we’re feeling anxious, few things are as helpful as comfort.

It can be difficult for some people — private, feisty, super-independent — to open up wide enough to admit: “I need help!”

*cough*

But if you can, and if people respond with love, my oh my…

Self-soothing is also a crucial life skill.

It might be food or drink or a hug or a hand to hold.

 

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My pre-op nerves soothed  by a tiny rhino. (Good band name!) It went well.

 

It might be a stuffed animal, whether you’re six, 16 or 60.

It might be a kind word in the middle of a tough moment or a gentle touch.

It might be a bright bouquet of flowers.

It might be a lovely notecard — on paper, sent with a stamp — that arrives just at the right time.

It might be the loving presence of your dog or cat — or husband/wife/partner.

It might be a view out the window of something lovely that soothes you.

It might be your favorite music.

It might be a familiar poem or prayer.

In a time of some personal anxiety, I have been truly grateful for all of these, arriving from Dublin and Paris and London and Hawaii.

Some of you have commented here and some have emailed me privately.

 

Thank you!

 

Feelings?!

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

Do you start most sentences with “I think” or “I feel”?

Having, managing, expressing (or suppressing) feelings is a big deal in my life.

As someone who faced and had to cope alone with mental illness and alcoholism in one parent and frequent work-related absence in another, I learned early that no one had much interest in hearing how I felt about all of this.

So I learned to bottle it up, or to share only with close friends.

Living in boarding school and summer camp ages eight to 13 (school) and eight to 16 (camp) also meant being surrounded by strangers, some of whom became close friends — but some of whom were bullies.

You learned to keep your counsel.

So a recent workshop at a writers’ conference — where the audience was urged to write “I remember” and dredge up some memories — proved both painful and illuminating for me.

Some of us then read our initial sentences to the room, maybe 150 other professional writers; I did, as well.

I was amazed and moved by what I heard.

It made me much more aware of how limited my ability to express some feelings still is — even later in life.

I’m reluctant to show vulnerability.

I very rarely say “I love you” to someone, even when I feel it.

I’m much more comfortable (which tends to unnerve others) expressing dismay, outrage or frustration — less tender and delicate emotions.

Except — thanks to a diagnosis I received since writing this post (tiny/early/contained breast cancer) — my view has shifted radically and I’ve told a number of friends, neighbors and even professional colleagues.

This is not something to face alone.

It’s also exhausting keeping up a brave face when I don’t feel at all brave or badass but feel worried and tired dealing with six (!) doctors, even if all of them are people I like.

The greatest challenge so far has been managing my anxiety, a battle in itself, while absorbing and making lucid decisions about treatment. It’s a lot to manage.

 

Are you at ease having and expressing your feelings?

 

10 ways to be a great friend

By Caitlin Kelly

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Spend time with them — face to face!

 

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.

 

1) Listen

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.

 

 

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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.

It’s not.

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.

 

3) Call

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.

 

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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.

 

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We love to have dinner on our balcony, a pleasure we eagerly await all year long

7) Entertain

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.

 

8) Reciprocate

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.

What are some other ways to show that we care?