The challenge of making adult friends

By Caitlin Kelly

I learned how to canoe at camp -- useful when we went to Nicaragua
On assignment in Nicaragua for WaterAid — Jen in the bow of a dugout canoe. Probably the most unusual shared experience!

I recently came across this fascinating series of interviews on the website of The Atlantic, The Friendship Files.

Each is a meditation on an aspect of friendship, a subject often overlooked for focus on family, marriage, dating and children.

This one, on the tight bonds between expats, struck me, as some of my closest friends have been expats or have moved to a country (or several) far from their country of origin. I was born in Canada, but have lived in England (ages 2-5), Mexico (14), France (25) and the U.S. (30 to the present), which really makes me an immigrant to the U.S., not an expat (short for ex-patriate, not patriot!)

So while I have met a few fellow Canadians over the years, and am soon having coffee with a film-maker from Calgary, and presenting May 1 at a journalism conference with another ex-Calgary resident who lives here, I don’t have a lot of Canadian friends here. Many of the Canadians in or near NY are wealthy bankers or lawyers or corporate types, so our paths just wouldn’t cross socially or professionally. I’ve attended a few alumni events (very rare for my alma mater, University of Toronto, sorry to say) but have never met anyone I wanted to follow up with.

But some of my friends are people who do live far away from their homelands, like the author of the blog Small Dog Syndrome, an American long happiest in London, my neighbor across the street who spent a year in high schol in New Zealand, my Canadian best friend from university who went to British boarding school and lived for a while in Tanzania and our neighbor across the hall here in New York who has moved permanently to Holland, to marry her British partner. My sister-in-law and her husband, now back in the U.S., lived for many years working in international schools in China, Malaysia, the Netherlands.

So there’s a lot we don’t have to explain to one another, even from the start. That helps a friendship.

For me friendship is a delicate stew of shared interests and experiences, and being an expat or immigrant living far from your home country, culture and language (no matter where) — tends to create very relatable moments, whether a nervous visit to the doctor (fumbling for medical terms) or post office or choosing a word with a dirty meaning by mistake — damn you, baiser!

The French have a great phrase, “coup de foudre“, basically love at first sight, and I tend to be like this with a potential new friend. I tend to feel an attraction — style, intellect, history, cultural interests, sense of humor, the sort of work they do and value — right away.

But there are so many tricky elements to finding and nurturing a new adult friend, and year after year of COVID fear and social avoidance have made this more difficult. You can’t hug someone on Zoom!

I’m happiest with someone who has also traveled widely — and even many of the richest Americans don’t. They work all the time or choose luxury spots not my style or budget. Nor do I have children, a typical glue for many adult friendships. So this is difficult in a country and culture where even taking two weeks off in a row is seen as lazy and weird — I prefer three to six weeks when possible, more European than workaholic American.

But finding a new friend — and continuing and deepening the relationship — takes more than shared interests. It takes time, energy, honesty and vulnerability.

It also means having the strength to work through conflict because it can happen; I lost three women friends who had been very close when I dared to ask them to look at a behavior that was hurting me. They refused and ended the friendship; I mourned one of them for many years. But I don’t regret it, either.

I’ve started to get to know two or three people from my spin class…because I go two or three times a week and show up consistently. It takes time! One was a speechwriter for a former NY governor and journalist, and one is a lawyer with a major local firm who does a lot of coaching and mentoring. Both are super-smart but also friendly.

My two closest friends in New York came through journalism and a church we attended for a long time. I’ve recently seen two women at the gym who seem cool, so I may ask them for coffee.

The pandemic has really changed — and ended — many friendships, as we’ve faced different challenges (we have been very very lucky to not have COVID or lose a loved one to it, for example) and the basic proximity of meeting for a coffee has become a risk for so many.

We’re super excited to welcome a younger pal visiting next week from Oregon and, the following week, a friend I knew at boarding school when I was 12…and haven’t seen since!

How are your friendships these days?

Have you been able to find and make new friends as an adult — how?

And what do we really know about one another?

By Caitlin Kelly

I found this recent piece by New York Times writer Frank Bruni, about losing some of his sight, moving:

And that truth helped me reframe the silly question “Why me?” into the smarter “Why not me?” It was a guard against anger, an antidote to self-pity, so much of which hinges on the conviction, usually a delusion, that you’re grinding out your days while the people around you glide through theirs, that you’ve landed in the bramble to their clover. To feel sorry for yourself is to ignore that everyone is vulnerable to intense pain and that almost everyone has worked or is working through some version of it.

Imagine that our hardships, our hurdles, our demons were spelled out for everyone around us to see. Imagine that each of us donned a sandwich board that itemized them.

“Single parent, child with special needs, nowhere near enough help.” A woman I know would be wearing that, and her acquaintances would rightly find her ability to hold down a full-time job and her unflagging professionalism in it not just admirable but heroic. They’d instantly forgive her any tiny lapses of memory, any fleeting impatience, because they’d understand what a miracle it was that the lapses were only tiny and the impatience merely fleeting.

In a world that glamorizes money and power and objects, it’s easy to assume someone with more of these than you is gliding through life. Not true, not true at all.

One of the wealthiest people I know manages multiple chronic illnesses, runs her own business, raises two teenagers and faced cancer when I did, which is how we met. (We’re both fine!)

Only through true intimacy can we finally find out what others are facing, or have survived and somehow kept on going — terrible accidents, unemployment, being a refugee (even surviving torture and imprisonment), losing a child, or several.

While Americans often tell total strangers a lot about themselves — which more reticent cultures find weird and uncomfortable — it can take years for some people to share their darkest moments with us. Maybe it’s shame. Maybe it’s fear we’ll reject them or dismiss their trauma. Or, worst of all, try to best it.

One of my closest friends, after a truly terrible multi-year wait of endless surgeries and medical and legal appointments, finally won a major lawsuit against the company whose negligence damaged her body and altered her life for good.

I despaired of her getting what she so badly deserved, but she did. No one would know this to see her, smiling and well-groomed and well-dressed and calm.

But she somehow soldiered on.

Many of us do.

What friendship really looks like

Friends show up at their friends’ funerals — and to support their family

By Caitlin Kelly

The spread of social media — “friends” on Facebook you’ve never met, “likes” that mean nothing when the chips are really down — has done little to define true friendship.

Like this horrifying story from The New York Times:

In early 2020, after Ava noticed Mr. Justin angling for her attention on TikTok, she learned that friends in New Jersey and Florida were selling him photos of her as well as her personal information, including her cellphone number, which Mr. Justin used to call and text her. In another instance, Mr. Justin logged onto a classmate’s school account and did math homework in exchange for information about Ava, her family said.

In what world do your friends sell your image and personal information to a stranger?

The 15-year-old girl ended up with a dead teenager on her lawn after he fired a shotgun through her front door. Awesome.

This recently hit home for me, in a less physically violent way, after — one more time! — a bitter envious stranger decided to badmouth me and try to hurt me professionally.

Using social media, of course.

Last year a “friend” on Facebook took a screenshot of something I said on my private page in real anger about an editor — and sent it to the editor, costing me a professional relationship.

I cut 200 “friends” and won’t accept any more.

There are too many days now it’s really toxic media, destructive media and why-do-we-even-bother media.

It’s sort of funny, sort of disgusting.

Only those whose own lives are small and shitty and disappointing feel the need to take down people who are visibly happy and successful, as I am.

So this latest attack, a fellow writer I even worked with years ago on a story, came after a friend of mine to discredit me by making false accusations, which I won’t detail or dignify here.

Nice try.

A true friend defends us, and they did.

What a coward this attacker is…and so charming to assume I couldn’t possibly have a good friend ready to stand their ground.

As I’ve said here before, I come from a family typically unable to express love, affection, support and belief in my value — as a daughter, cousin, professional. There’s been a lot of anger and name-calling and bitterness, ironic from people with a lot of their own success and a lot of money.

But the blessing it gave me?

One — self-respect!

I don’t give a shit what they think of me because they’re a dry well.

And I have tremendously loving and loyal friends, in Canada, in Europe, in Australia and New Zealand.

They have my back, if not literally, emotionally.

Because, being an ambitious and successful woman of strong opinions (OH NO!), I’ve been pissing people off since my teens.

Not with the explicit goal to piss them off, but not kowtowing to their disapproval or envy or attacks.

Women are trained from earliest childhood to smile, be nice, don’t argue, don’t bite back, suck it up, it’s “just a joke.”

So those of us who shrug and laugh at this bullshit are even more scary.

Why aren’t we scared?????

Because we have pals, and allies, who know us and love us.

I try hard to be a loyal, loving friend — sending cards and flowers and gifts, making regular phone calls, showing up when times are shitty, not just celebrating a win.

I admit, I am shaken when someone tries to take me down. Who wouldn’t be?

But, really, the best revenge is to laugh, call a true friend, and enjoy a good old chinwag.

Who are you turning to?

Jose, 2020, photographing the judging of the Pulitzer Prizes, Columbia University, New York

By Caitlin Kelly

I’m really lucky.

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?

Who’s turning to you?

The challenge of intimacy

By Caitlin Kelly

If there ever was a time challenging our traditional ways to be intimate with others — from hugging a friend to cheek-kissing a new acquaintance to long conversations face to face, let alone sex with someone new — this pandemic is it.

It’s really difficult to eschew all emotional, physical, sexual contacts for months in person, soon to be years, even when we know it’s the only safe option.

And, odd as it may sound, reporting and journalism can be very intimate emotionally as people share stories, sometimes things they’ve never told anyone else. Face to face is much better for this — body language, sighs, eye-rolls…harder to parse otherwise.

Of course medicine and therapy are very different without in-person contact.

I had lunch this past weekend with a dear friend who lives in the next town; we met in the large, airy parish hall of the church where we first met and where she does volunteer work, so she had a key!

She sat very far away and I sat on a sofa and we caught up. And it was so so good to see her. She is always so elegant! I show up in matching olive green leggings and a fleece and she’s in palest cashmere.

I’ve been working hard since November 1 to lose weight through intermittent fasting 16/8 and it was nice to see her agree there’s a difference in my size and shape — she knows what I normally look like.

That’s intimacy — the trust it takes to be vulnerable and to share our weakest and most scared moments, not just the performative WOOHOO of social media.

But another friend, a much newer one, has withdrawn and I admit I’ve struggled with that. I miss her friendship, even though we only met two years ago. She has two teenagers and works, so she is busier than I, I know. But the few times we’ve gotten together recently, with our husbands, were enjoyable.

I finally told her I was pretty much giving up — having tried repeatedly to make contact. Her reply was a terse and impersonal two sentences that she has had some health issues.

The only way to grow a friendship is to share, good and bad.

So I’m sorry this one seems to have withered, temporarily or permanently. But I’ve really learned the hard way that true intimacy means both people have to want it.

I enjoy much of my life in suburban New York, but, as I’ve blogged many times, it is lonely as hell.

I work alone at home and now, thanks to COVID, all social activities and events are verboten.

I have no kids or grandkids, the two obsessions of almost every woman I’ve met here, over decades. Or work. Or both.

Friendship, here, feels very low on people’s list of priorities. I just don’t spend much time trying now.

So I’m even more grateful for those who do connect now by phone and Skype and Zoom — like C in London and my college bestie, Marion, in Kamloops, BC or Leslie in Toronto, or Melinda and Alec in San Francisco.

It’s ironic, and sad, that the people with whom I share the closest emotional intimacies live so far away.

One of my Twitter followers said it perfectly:

Burdens shared makes for lighter burdens and deepened trust.

A perfect afternoon

By Caitlin Kelly

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.

A deep friendship takes time.

It takes attention.

It takes remembering.

The week I learned some family secrets

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By Caitlin Kelly

Intimacy isn’t easy.

A new friend — of about a year, someone a decade younger than I but the mother of teenagers — recently told me I had disappointed her. She took the risk I wouldn’t listen or that I would get angry or get defensive. I didn’t. It wasn’t a huge thing (to me) and I apologized for disappointing her and she seemed mollified and relieved we had discussed it calmly.

I am glad she took that risk because a friendship soured by unspoken disappointment can’t last.

But on reflection I wrote her an email to explain why, in some ways, I’ve hurt and disappointed people I care for unintentionally. I’ve done a lot of therapy so at least I have a clearer understanding why.

Intimacy with oneself is often a work in progress.

When you come from a family where everyone’s feelings were routinely ignored or dismissed, taking others’ seriously and responding to them quickly, just isn’t how you behave.

I really hate unpacking my family history, since it’s weird and painful and the polar opposite of the Hallmark card closeness, trust and kindness that is soon about to be celebrated again in the U.S. with Thanksgiving and then Christmas and Hanukah.

 

The very word “family” is used in much American advertising as a proxy for close, loving stability — when for many people it’s just not that at all.

 

A total stranger who writes a blog about crime fiction has been researching my American maternal grandmother, great grand-mother and grandfather — whose marriages were legion and some deemed so scandalous, (thanks to their wealth and social prominence), they made the newspapers.

He recently emailed me to share his findings. They were…enlightening. But also unsettling to read about people I knew as entries in public documents.

My grandfather, an author, who my mother only met twice and I never met, (long since divorced anyway), apparently added a “von” and the letter “H” to create the name von Rhau — which sounds pretty Euro-aristocratic, as he hoped.

He was actually Henry Rau from Staten Island.

I knew none of this until last week.

If of interest, here are his blog posts; first part, second part.

My maternal great-grandmother ended up as the Countess Casagrande on Park Avenue in New York City, (yes, really), while her daughter kept marrying and re-marrying at dizzying speed.

I knew my mother had a very rough emotional childhood, despite plenty of material wealth.

 

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An extraordinary story of survival

 

So when it comes to “normal” behavior, our family is not the place to look for role models or sterling behaviors.

My late paternal grandfather, a self-made millionaire in Vancouver, had an affair with his sister-in-law and kept the boy with his own family; my father has four adult children, two by wives (divorced, dead) and two women he did not marry. I haven’t even met one of them.

Why tell you any of this?

Because when you meet someone new, as my friend did when she met me  — and they might be fun and funny and charming — and I am all of these things, they might also be carrying some tough history as well.

And when you hit those spots,  which I call emotional bone bruises because they’re not visible, it can be difficult to open up or to explain.

No wonder I married a small-city preacher’s kid whose emotional life and financial history could not be any more different than my own.

I also find it ironic that I come from a family that so resolutely avoided discussing our tangled histories — while I have made my living persuading total strangers to share some of their toughest moments with me for my two books and decades of journalism.

Do you carry some difficult stuff from your own family of origin?

Do your intimates know about it?

 

How does it affect you and your life today as an adult?

 

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

caitlin team

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?