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?

One is the loneliest number (sometimes!)

By Caitlin Kelly

 

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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.

From The New York Times:

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.

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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.

Making a larger table

By Caitlin Kelly

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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.

 

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Wherever you are today, I hope you’re safe, solvent, healthy, well-loved and well-fed!

 

Who’s your “missing person”?

By Caitlin Kelly

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There are a few people I always want to find again, to know how their lives turned out and if they’re happy and where they live and if they had kids or grandkids.

But two of them have — bizarrely in an age of media saturation — no digital footprints at all. One is a physician, so I guess I could track her down through a medical society but the other…no idea.

The former is someone I knew from our shared years at a Toronto boarding school, where we were both nerdy, although she was much more serious and quiet than I. The latter is a man I knew (and had a huge crush on) through high school, also in Toronto, who was extremely talented as an artist. We were, for a few years, close friends, but lost touch when we graduated.

A third person is a former journalism colleague who became a crusading lawyer, but, to my shock and dismay when I last searched for him on-line, had died prematurely.

They’re like ghosts for me, visions from my childhood, adolescence and 20s I’d like to reconnect with now.

Thanks to social media, some people I’d lost touch with have found me again and reconnected, like a childhood best friend and her two brothers, the eldest of whom took me to my first formal dance — where my cool vintage blue crochet dress split right down the back when the zipper broke halfway through the evening. He was a perfect gentleman and loaned me his jacket. But it was not the elegant impression I’d hoped to leave on him.

One of the reasons I hope to find some people from my past, selfishly,  is also to reconnect with our shared memories, those unique to us. And, as someone not close to my family, my friends really are much more the repository of my memories. Too often, they know me much better than my own mother, (whose care I left at 14, for good) and father, (whose care I left at 19, for good.) I have 3 step-siblings, but we never lived together and are not close.

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Half my life was spent in Canada and the second half in the United States, making me more eager to seek out those who “knew me when” — when I was young(er) and with whom I share specific memories no American has or could understand.

In London this past summer I met up again with a man I’d traveled with in Spain decades ago for two weeks after we met on a train station platform there. On that journey, I was 22, alone for four months moving across Europe, and already weary of fending off male advances.

I craved companionship and, bluntly, a male foil to keep the rest at bay.

He was smart, funny, good company. He was also handsome, with brilliant blue eyes, a student at Cambridge four years my junior. Much later he became a friend on Facebook, albeit one who never posted anything.

He asked me to go to lunch on this London visit, and I agreed, both curious and a little nervous; we’re both happily married so I knew this was innocent.

Like me, he is long partnered, had traveled widely and had no children.

 

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We went to the Hokusai exhibition at the British Museum, (which we loved), and our afternoon was easy and comfortable and as though no time at all had passed since we’d seen one another.

It was lovely.

I’m glad we found one another again.

 

Do you seek out people from your past with whom you’ve lost touch?

Do they seek you out?

 

Then what happened?

The challenge of making new friends

By Caitlin Kelly

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THE BREAKFAST CLUB, Judd Nelson, Emilio Estevez, Ally Sheedy, Molly Ringwald, Anthony Michael Hall, 1985. ©Universal Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

This story hit home for me, recently reprinted:

After 30, people often experience internal shifts in how they approach friendship. Self-discovery gives way to self-knowledge, so you become pickier about whom you surround yourself with, said Marla Paul, the author of the 2004 book “The Friendship Crisis: Finding, Making, and Keeping Friends When You’re Not a Kid Anymore.” “The bar is higher than when we were younger and were willing to meet almost anyone for a margarita,” she said.

Manipulators, drama queens, egomaniacs: a lot of them just no longer make the cut.

Thayer Prime, a 32-year-old strategy consultant who lives in London, has even developed a playful 100-point scale (100 being “best friend forever”). In her mind, she starts to dock new friend candidates as they begin to display annoying or disloyal behavior. Nine times out of 10, she said, her new friends end up from 30 to 60, or little more than an acquaintance.

I like living in New York, and our town’s proximity to one of the world’s liveliest and more interesting cities.

But it’s one of the loneliest places I’ve ever lived.

I’ve found it tougher than I expected to find and keep friends here, maybe because…

 

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One of the best weeks of my life, working in rural Nicaragua — now still friends with these three

Not enough time together

New Yorkers face the longest commutes of anyone in the U.S., robbing them of leisurely moments for friendship. It takes time to get to know another person well.

Not enough spontaneous time together

Between work, family and commuting, all of which have rigid schedules, “Hey, let’s meet for a drink!” can take weeks, even months to plan.

– Few shared memories

I arrived in New York at 30, with my deepest ties back in Canada, to friends from childhood, high school, university, a newspaper job, freelancing. They remain, decades later, my most intimate friendships.

— Unresolved conflict

I lost three close New York friends within a few years. That still hurts. In contrast, I’ve had full and frank conversations with my Canadian pals — and they with me — and remained friends.

Here’s a list of 23 reasons (!) women can break off a friendship, from the parenting website Cafe Mom.

No wonder it can feel so tenuous!

 

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— Money differences

Journalists don’t earn much!

One casual friend finally told us his annual income was $500,000 and I was stunned; thanks to his humble style I had no idea. We live (modestly) in a very affluent region, and many people out-earn us by enormous sums. When one person, or couple, has to keep choosing pizza or ramen and the other can drop $200 a night on cocktails, how much can you enjoy together?

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— Political differences

Since the election of President Trump, many American relationships have been torn asunder.

— Professional differences

I’m nearing the end of a long and successful career, in a competitive industry, like my husband; I’m a writer and he’s a photographer and photo editor. Professional envy and competitiveness can, and do, make us cautious about what we share about our current clients and projects.

— Children

We have none. At our age, younger friends are obsessed with child-rearing and our peers with their grand-children, We’re never invited to join child-related events, even if we’d enjoy it. That cuts out a lot of socializing.

 

I do very much value my pals in far-flung places — L.A., London, Berlin, British Columbia, Seattle, Oregon, Alabama, Maine, rural Ontario. I just wish we could hang out more often!

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Are you finding it more difficult as you age to find and enjoy new friendships?

 

Remember unmediated life?

By Caitlin Kelly

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If my European journey taught me anything — or reminded me more powerfully than ever before — it’s to live, and savor, an unmediated life.

By which I mean, one experienced firsthand, feet-first, immersed in all of it.

Not, as has become normal/affordable/easy for me — and so many of us — a world and its wonders seen and heard only through a screen or scrim, whether social media or explained by the traditional mass media of newspapers, magazines, radio and television.

The soft, smooth cobblestones of Rovinj — a small seaside town in Croatia — were silky beneath my bare feet, the light snaking around corners as the sun moved through the sky, every hour offering a different tableau.

I’d have known none of this without my (grateful!) physical presence.

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Ironically, I follow several cool, adventurous people on Twitter whose lives are devoted to professional exploration, including aviation and wildlife photographers and three archeologists.

I love seeing what they find, but this is also, I realize, a little weird.

I need to go find this stuff myself!

Sadly, it’s now considered normal — starting in infancy — to spend hours consuming others’ visions and impressions and analysis of the world, instead of gathering every sense impression ourselves. (As I write this on our balcony in the early morning, I hear traffic on the bridge, a passing train and birds in the trees. The air is fresh and cool, the sun gilding the balcony’s outer edge.)

Plato’s cave, and our addiction to shadows, pales in the face of this.

I work alone at home in the suburbs of New York, with no kids or pets to distract me. I  work full-time freelance, which means I have no boss or coworkers with whom to share ideas or jokes or talk about our weekends.

Most of my friends here are too busy to actually get together in person, which all combines to create isolation, and so I’ve slipped into the tempting bad habit of feeling connected to the world through consuming social media — instead of socializing face to face.

If I want to actually be with someone, it takes me an hour each way, and up to $25 in train fare or parking fees, to go into Manhattan.

But if I don’t, I’m essentially a self-imposed shut-in, which is  — my six supersocial weeks in Europe reminded me  — a terrible choice for mental health.

My time in Europe, literally, exposed me to hundreds of strangers, some of whom became new friends, like an archeologist and travel blogger and translator, all of whom live in Berlin, all of whom had only been Twitter and blog pals before they became real, corporeal human beings sharing space with me, laughing and joking and hugging hello.

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I was also struck by people’s gentleness with me, like the man on the busy, crowded Tube stairs in London, watching me slowly and painfully climb beside him, who asked: “Are you OK?”

People can be perfectly nice on social media, but they’re not beside you.

They’re not — as two young men did — ready to carry your heavy suitcase up (!) three flights of stairs.

In Croatia, I sat for hours in a cafe with three new friends, talking and talking and talking.

 

No one stared into their phones.

No one stared into their laptop.

No one was rushing off to something more important.

 

What we were doing — just being together, enjoying one another’s company and conversation — was more important.

 

 

Are you living life firsthand?

 

 

 

Meeting Twitter/blog pals IRL

By Caitlin Kelly

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I began blogging because my then-agent insisted I create a social media presence to help sell my second book. I never wanted to tweet, but thought I’d better get with the program. Ditto for Instagram.

But I now enjoy them all.

I use social media, more than anything, to connect professionally and personally with people I find smart, interesting and civil.

 

The photo above was taken at a favorite Toronto cafe where, in March 2017, I finally met another writer, someone super-creative I’d admired from a distance, and who knew some people in common.

I only “knew” her from her Facebook posts and blog, but we had a great time. I later hired and paid her to coach me on how to better use social media for work, which she teaches at my alma mater, the University of Toronto.

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A blog meeting in Paris, January 2015. We had a great time!

This trip — most of it solo through seven European cities and six countries — has also finally given me a chance to meet some people I’ve only known through social media.

Several years ago, I started reading Small Dog Syndrome, intrigued by the worldly young woman who wrote it. We began by reading one another’s blogs, worked together (virtually) for a year, and finally met face to face only in January 2015 when I stepped off the Eurostar from Paris.

We sat and talked for so long at the train station her worried husband called to see if we were OK. We were indeed!

They generously hosted me — having just met — for a week(!) in their teeny London flat, and this month I was able to return the favor by hosting them for several nights at the Paris apartment we rented this trip.

It’s been a huge pleasure to get to know them both.

Now in Berlin, I’ve met three more social media pals, all of whom I’ve gotten to know through their blogs, some private emails and weekly Twitterchats focused on travel, like #trlt, #culturetrav and #travelskills.

One is an Irish woman who also works in journalism; here’s her blog. 

I met Kate and her fiance, and we spent the day talking and walking through a flea market and through Tiergarten, one of Berlin’s huge and fantastic parks, filled with brown bunnies, lakes with rowboats, beer gardens and lots of benches.

It felt immediately comfortable, as if we weren’t meeting face to face for the first time.

The other two people I met,  through weekly travel Twitterchats, are a travel blogger and — of all things — an archaeologist who works primarily on a Neolithic site in Turkey; I knew he and I were sympatico when we started (!) tweeting Rocky Horror Picture Show lyrics at one another across the Atlantic.

We all went out for lunch and had a fantastic time. Finally meeting someone face to face is always a bit of a blind date, so it requires optimism and openness. But, really, it’s just lunch!

I’ve done this now in several cities, and enjoyed every meeting.

 

Have you met some of your blog or Twitter followers in person?

 

How did it turn out?

 

Some things worth saying

By Caitlin Kelly

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Thank you!

I really appreciate what you did for me

I admire your strength

I love your sense of humor

I’m not sure how you do it — but good for you!

I don’t know how I’d get all this done without your help

You’re such a terrific friend

I love you

I’m really sorry I hurt your feelings

This is a tough assignment — so we’ll be sure you get the compensation you need for doing it

What can I do to help?

When can we get together?

Your teaching really pushed me — I learned a lot in your class

I enjoyed our time together

I’m so sorry for your loss

I made an error in judgment — I won’t let it happen again

How are you?

This must be a tough time for you

You did an amazing job on this project

What can I bring?

Sure, I can help — what time do you need me there?

You’re going through a rough time right now, but I’m here for you

Let’s meet for lunch tomorrow

Your resilience is an inspiration to me

I’m so glad we met

I’ll drive you to your appointment

I can take care of the kids this weekend

I’ll sit with you during chemo

What have you said recently to lift someone’s spirits?

What do you most need to hear right now?