Kintsugi life

 

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

As a philosophy, it treats breakage and repair as part of the history of an object, rather than something to disguise. — Wikipedia

 

The term is most often used to describe a specific way to repair broken pottery, often Japanese. I think it fits life as well.

By a certain point — for some, their teens, others their 50s or 70s — you’ve quite likely been dropped hard a few times against something unyielding. By this, I mean metaphorically and (I hope!) not the result of assault or physical abuse.

We’re not delicate porcelain or exquisite Ming pottery, but we are all fragile and all end up, inevitably, crazed; a word with two definitions, the second meaning spider-webby fine cracks.

 

In a culture increasingly devoted — paradoxically — to the rustic, artisanal and authentic and the social media offerings of glossy perfection, the notion of being broken and repaired, let alone stronger, more beautiful and more valuable for having been broken, perhaps repeatedly, seems radical and bizarre.

 

I’m into it.

Volumes have been written of late praising grit and resilience, as if — at the end of months or years or decades of being gritty and resilient — we aren’t exhausted and scarred. Maybe wiser. Maybe sadder.

I love early porcelain and china, and use several 18th. century pieces as butter dishes…stupidly undervalued. I want to enjoy them while I can. Unlike Japanese work, with its elegant crack-filling lines of gold, they’re stapled together (!), like recent brain surgery patients.

I don’t love these objects any the less for their war wounds, but am so grateful these little emissaries from the past are still with us….that having graced someone’s table in 1789 or 1832, they’re still here for us to use and share.

I feel this way about people.

The ones I most admire aren’t the shiny folk, all smooth and slippery, glittery, preening  and unscathed, but the ragged and weary survivors of physical, mental, professional, emotional and financial struggle — depending on their age and background, possibly all of these — who somehow remain graceful and fun, able to laugh and savor what’s left of their lives.

 

“Oooh, that sounds hard!”

By Caitlin Kelly

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The two initial (male) designers of the Brooklyn Bridge were both felled by illness — only the fierce determination of Emily Roebling brought this world-famous landmark to completion.

 

I mentioned this intermittent fasting regimen to someone recently, a man my age, a fellow journalist, slim and trim.

I was stunned by his immediate reply: “Oooh, that sounds hard!”

Like “hard” was a bad thing, something to be feared or avoided.

Well…yeah.

It is difficult!

It’s not simple or fun to cut your consumption by 50 percent or more and try to keep going with normal activities.

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The level of poverty in the U.S. is deeply shocking — given the astonishing wealth here

But people cope with much more difficult challenges every single day: serious illness, unemployment and underemployment, debt, family dramas, homelessness — and the kind of hunger no one ever chooses but that poverty imposes.

 

One of the pleasures of doing something difficult, despite initial frustration and weariness with it — whatever it is — is getting past that initial “oh shit!” moment and eventually easing into an ability to handle it, even enjoy it, even do it well.

 

 

It might be the many challenges of immigration, and learning a whole new language and culture.

It might be, and often is, the first year of marriage when you think…who is this person?!

It might be a new job or your first job after college or an internship where they never really tell you what to do but expect you to do it really well anyway.

The sexy new word for surmounting difficult is “grit” and many books are being published praising it and wondering how to inculcate it into privileged people who’ve never had to scrap or scrape — hard — to get what they want or need from life.

But it’s truly enervating and exhausting to live this way for years, even decades.

It can feel overwhelming and impossible to get out of a hard situation, one you didn’t choose, whether an abusive family or origin (or marriage), a lousy job whose income you and your family really need or even a behavioral tic of your own that you now see is causing you problems.

I don’t fear most things that are difficult and generally enjoy a challenge.

I don’t respond well to people who expect life to be a smooth, easy ride, cushioned by wealth and connection and social capital.

Because, for so many people, it’s not.

It’s hard.

(Witness the current U.S. Presidential campaign and the face-palming reaction of those who had no idea life was so difficult for so many fellow Americans.)

And being scared of things that are hard can paralyze you from taking action.

But there’s also a crucial difference between a chosen challenge and one imposed from beyond your control.

Then the real challenge is how to meet it, if possible with grace and courage. (And the biggest posse of support you can muster.)

How about you?

How do you get through difficult situations?

How do you define (or check) privilege?

By Caitlin Kelly

That takes money many people don't have...
Shopping costs money many people don’t have…

When I asked a class of students I taught this year — whose families were paying $60,000 a year so they could study writing — for their least favorite words, one phrase immediately surfaced.

“Check your privilege,” said one.

In a nation where income inequality is growing at the fastest pace since the Gilded Age at the turn of the 20th century, questions of who’s ahead, who’s (usually) getting ahead and, crucially, who’s consistently staying ahead are daily fodder in the American media.

Have you seen this BuzzFeed video?

As I write this post, it’s gotten more than 2 million views. In it, the participants step forward or back with every bit (or loss) of privilege. It’s worth watching, and the comments of those who did it are also interesting.

At least, that as defined by the terms of the questions.

Victoria College, University of Toronto, my alma mater...College costs money, too!
Victoria College, University of Toronto, my alma mater…College costs money, too!

The questions:

1. If your parents worked nights and weekends to support your family, take one step back.
2. If you are able to move through the world without fear of sexual assault, take one step forward.
3. If you can show affection for your romantic partner in public without fear of ridicule or violence, take one step forward.
4. If you have ever been diagnosed as having a physical or mental illness/disability, take one step back.
5. If the primary language spoken in your household growing up was not english, take one step back.
6. If you came from a supportive family environment take one step forward.
7. If you have ever tried to change your accent, mannerisms or name to gain credibility, take one step back.
8. If you can go anywhere in the country, and easily find the kinds of hair products you need and/or cosmetics that match your skin color, take one step forward.
9. If you were deeply embarrassed about your clothes or house while growing up, take one step back.
10. If you can make mistakes and not have people attribute your behavior to flaws in your racial group, take one step forward.
11. If your gender identity or expression matches the assigned gender on your birth certificate or drivers’ license, take one step forward.
12. If you were born in the United States, take one step forward.
13. If you or your parents have ever gone through a divorce, take one step back.
14. If you felt like you had adequate access to healthy food growing up, take one step forward
15. If you are reasonably sure you would be hired for a job based on your ability and qualifications, take one step forward.
16. If you see calling the police trouble occurs as a reasonable choice, take one step forward. If you see calling the police as a potential danger, take one step back.
17. If you can see a doctor whenever you feel the need, take one step forward.
18. If you feel comfortable being emotionally expressive/open, take one step forward.
19. If you have ever been the only person of your race/gender/socio-economic status/ sexual orientation in a classroom or workplace setting, please take one step back.
20. If you took out loans for your education take one step backward.
21. If you can practice your religion or wear religious dress without fear of prejudice or attack, take one step forward.
22. If you had a job during your high school and college years, take one step back.
23. If you feel comfortable taking a walk in your neighborhood at night, take one step forward.
24. If you have ever traveled outside the United States for your own enrichment or leisure, take one step forward. If you have traveled outside the U.S. for military combat, take one step back.
25. If you have ever felt like there was not adequate or accurate representation of your racial group, sexual orientation group, gender group, and/or disability group in the media, take one step back.
26. If you feel confident that your parents would be able to financially help/support you if you were going through a financial hardship, take one step forward.
27. If you have ever been a defendant in court without a paid lawyer, or have spent time in jail or prison, take one step back.
28. If there were more than 50 books in your house growing up, take one step forward.
29. If you studied the culture or the history of your ancestors in elementary school take one step forward.
30. If your parents or guardians attended college, take one step forward.
31. If you ever went on a family vacation, take one step forward.
32. If you can buy new clothes or go out to dinner when you want to, take one step forward.
33. If you were ever offered a job because of your association with a friend or family member, take one step forward.
34. If one of your parents was ever laid off or unemployed not by choice, take one step back.
35. If you were ever upset by a joke or a statement you overheard related to your race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation but felt unsafe to confront the situation, take one step back.

Like every survey, though, this one also contains inherent biases and weaknesses.

Like:

1) If your parents worked nights and weekends (the implicit assumption they were working menial jobs and/or working several jobs at once) they might also have been working freelance or running their own business.

A much smarter question, especially in light of current on-demand scheduling in many food service and retail jobs, which is both disruptive and income-limiting: Did your parents have reliable, steady incomes? And key to that — was this their choice or imposed upon them by their employer(s)?

Many retail workers have completely insecure schedules -- and not nearly enough hours to make a living
Many retail workers have completely insecure schedules — and not nearly enough hours to make a living

2) If you’re legally able to carry a gun, and wish to make that choice, you might no longer live in fear of sexual assault since you have chosen a way to defend yourself. It’s not a PC choice to carry a firearm for many Americans — or even to discuss it as an option — but it is for many others, like some of the women I interviewed for my 2004 book “Blown Away: American Women and Guns.”

4) I relied on crutches for three months in the fall of 2009 due to arthritis. Many of us will move in and out of periods of great(er) or lesser physical privilege as we age or face illness(es.)

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12) Seriously? Talk about cultural bias! The United States ranks shockingly low now on many global measures of quality of life, from infant mortality, paid maternity leave (only one other nation does not offer it), income inequality and the stunning cost of post-secondary education. Having moved to the U.S. at the age of 30 from Canada — a nation with cradle-to-grave free health care — I find this assumption risible.

I paid $660 a year (yes) for my college education at Canada’s top university, a huge privilege I took for granted there; Americans who wish to continue on to college or university can face decades of enormous student debt that they cannot discharge through declaring bankruptcy.

22) What’s wrong with having had a job in high school or college? Yes, if it hindered your studies to the degree you could not graduate. For many people, that’s not the case.

Never enough?
Never enough?

One huge question missing here relates to age:

36) Have you ever lost out on an economic opportunity — an internship, freelance work or — most essential — a full-time job because of your age (i.e. over 40)?

American employers routinely shut out workers over the age of 50 because…they can. There’s no way to prove it and no consequence to their actions; I wrote about this for The New York Times.

Here are a few more I consider “steps back”:

37) Were/are one or both of your parents physically or emotionally abusive?

38) Were/are one or both of your parents alcoholic or addicted?

39) Have you and/or your spouse/partner suffered long-term (6 months+) unemployment?

40) Were/are one or both of your parents mentally ill?

41) Are you now or have you been financially responsible for siblings or other family members?

42) Can you afford to buy a comprehensive health insurance plan?

43) Have you ever had to declare bankruptcy? (Medical debts are the single greatest driver of American personal bankruptcy.)

44) Are you carrying any medical expenses you simply cannot (re) pay?

45) Have you always had ready/easy/affordable access to the technology used by your educational peers and competitors for work/jobs?

In the rush to competitive victimhood (or guilt), it’s rarely simple to determine who’s better off, beyond the 1 percent.

Do you feel privileged?

Have you been told to “check your privilege”?

What else would you add?

Toughen up, buttercup!

By Caitlin Kelly

A French laundromat washing machine...quite incomprehensible.
A French laundromat washing machine…quite incomprehensible.

Have you seen this interesting list of the seven habits of the mentally tough? From Inc. magazine, it includes no whining, acting as if you’re in control (even when you’re not) and refraining from the bad habit of freaking out endlessly over…everything.

It seemed quite a contrast from this post, from a blog about what it felt like for this writer when her agent wasn’t wild about her finished manuscript, from Women Writers, Women’s Books:

The sounds you just heard were my dreams and confidence being blown to bits.

Super Agent’s opinion – and she was right – was that I needed to do a major rewrite. The story concept was strong, but the story structure didn’t work at all. She said that she knew the audiences the editors who are interested in me are selling to, and the manuscript as I wrote it wouldn’t be a good fit. In publishing, not being “a good fit” is a death sentence.

You, shakily: But what about the betas, they liked it a lot. [My note: a “beta” is a “first reader”, someone you’ve asked to read your book before your agent and/or editor do.]

Super Agent, calmly: Betas know writing. Agents know the market.

I’m going to be honest with you. This was a very dark day. My lips and hands trembled. For weeks, my breathing would be shallow and intermittent…

It was a Thursday. By Monday, I had pulled myself together. This is not because I’m some kind of hero. I’m not. But what choice did I have? There are only two: leaving it wrong or making it right.* I love my story and my characters. I have big dreams for my career. Super Agent was right on every count. There was only one thing I could do. Write it again. I wrote her an email thanking her.

Then I dedicated myself to taking my magnum opus apart, scene by scene, word by word. It was excruciating, but that wasn’t the only problem. Firstly, I had no idea how to put it back together any better than before. Cue the panic. Secondly, my heart was still in pieces…

I found myself talking to a writer-friend who happens to be an award-winning, bestselling author..when I abruptly spilled to her what had happened and how I felt…

That is when I heard the words that put me back together. She said to me, “This is how it goes.”

I had a similar moment when I received the notes on my second book. “I really liked Chapters 11 and 12,” said my editor. Um…what about the first 10?

I felt the same panic, that I wouldn’t be able to make it good enough. Like the author above, I called a calm friend who said six fateful words: “You’re the mechanic. Fix the engine.”

So I did.

My husband began his career as a news photographer working for a small town newspaper. He had a mentor, a highly accomplished older professional with national experience to whom Jose would proudly mail copies of his published photos.

A manila envelope would return — filled with confetti. Jose’s work. (He went on to a 31-year career at The New York Times as a photographer and photo editor, and helped them win a team Pulitzer Prize for their coverage of 9/11. Here’s his blog.)

But what if he had given up?

Sugar helps!
Sugar helps!

Maybe journalism self-selects people who can withstand pretty harsh criticism, even if it’s painful.

It certainly comes with the territory — our editors, highly-competitive colleagues, determined competitors from other outlets and readers are all quite delighted to tell us when we’ve screwed up. Our ass-whipping is also relentlessly public, whether in comments on a blog or website, nasty Amazon reviews or letters to the editor.

And newsrooms are rarely warm, nurturing places where someone will hand you a tissue if, ego battered, you start crying. No crying!

One super-talented award-winning friend of mine in his mid-40s recently won a prestigious and well-paid year studying, thanks to a fellowship. It was his third attempt.

My first book -- 25 publishers rejected it before Pocket Books said yes
My first book — 25 publishers rejected it before Pocket Books said yes

He did not give up.

I’ll probably re-apply for a similarly difficult-to-win fellowship this year, for the third or fourth time. It’s annoying to keep putting my hand up and never winning, but them’s the breaks.

As someone who’s competed at a national level as an athlete, I know what mental stamina it takes to just keep going in the face of frustration, exhaustion or disappointment.

So I really find it sad and surprising to see how fragile some young women are in the face of fairly standard forms of bullshit — sexism, chauvinism, rejection.

Criticism.

They freak out when people don’t admire their work or quickly promote them or don’t answer their emails quickly or don’t “like” their posts on social media.

Toughen up, buttercup!

I was sent off to boarding school at the age of eight, surrounded night and day by strangers, a place where comfort was elusive, at best. So maybe this is just a habit learned early.

I’ve been fired from jobs. I’ve been mercilessly bullied, in high school and in several workplaces. I’ve survived divorce, four orthopedic surgeries within a decade, criminal attack.

25 publishers said no to this one, too!
25 publishers said no to this one, too!

Both my books, both well-reviewed, were rejected by 25 publishers apiece before they finally found a home.

Whatev.

To some people, I appear mean and impermeable. I’m neither.

But I do know how to armor up.

How many things can you do well at once?
How many things can you do well at once?

It’s an essential skill for anyone who hopes to thrive professionally, and, often, personally. It’s essential to anyone doing creative work, whose income relies on the subjective opinion of others.

Oh, yeah…like…everything.

Here, from the brilliant blog Brain Pickings, is a post about Henri Rousseau, the French painter who worked as a toll collector, taught himself to paint and was nastily dismissed for decades. Without his persistence, we wouldn’t be able to enjoy his gorgeous, complex and mysterious paintings.

Are you mentally tough?

Is it better to lose (and lose some more) than always “win”?

By Caitlin Kelly

Sport in childhood. Association football, show...
Sport in childhood. Association football, shown above, is a team sport which also provides opportunities to nurture social interaction skills. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

From The New York Times:

Trophies were once rare things — sterling silver loving cups bought from jewelry stores for truly special occasions. But in the 1960s, they began to be mass-produced, marketed in catalogs to teachers and coaches,
and sold in sporting-goods stores.

Today, participation trophies and prizes are almost a given, as children are constantly assured that they are winners. One Maryland summer program gives awards every day — and the “day” is one hour long. In
Southern California, a regional branch of the American Youth Soccer Organization hands out roughly 3,500 awards each season — each player gets one, while around a third get two. Nationally, A.Y.S.O. local
branches typically spend as much as 12 percent of their yearly budgets
on trophies.

It adds up: trophy and award sales are now an estimated $3 billion-a-year industry in the United States and Canada. Po Bronson and I have spent years reporting on the effects of praise and rewards on kids. The science is clear. Awards can be powerful motivators, but nonstop recognition does not inspire children to succeed. Instead, it can cause them to underachieve.

The story had attracted 282 comments within a few hours of its publication…here’s part of one, from a male reader in New York City:

We want fame. We want adoration. We never want to break the from adolescence, no, from infancy, when we were center of the universe and a whimper could get our diaper changed.

And this admission, from a young woman in Chicago:

I’m 24 and a college graduate, and my peers and I were constantly praised from kindergarten through college. Like in the article, we all got trophies and certificates of achievement in grade and middle school, high grades in high school (partially so we could get into good colleges) and good grades for just showing up to class in college.

Competitive skills are not inherently developed; they are learned. What we have now is a group of young people coming out of college and high school who are just discovering that it takes more than showing up to succeed in life, and it is in no small part due to the “everybody is special” culture that we were steeped in as adolescents.

I think there’s a fine line between wanting non-stop attention and false adulation — “Great job!” I hear parents coo when some small child does…anything…these days — and genuine encouragement to persist in the face of disappointment and rejection.

PCHS NJROTC Awards
PCHS NJROTC Awards (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I had an interesting moment about four or five years ago, after a board meeting of fellow journalists for a national group. Three of us were walking to dinner, chatting — we had each applied that year for the same ultra-competitive fellowship, worth $20,000 to $40,000.

None of us won.

We all went back to our busy lives and personal challenges, and we’re all still here, all still in the game. We didn’t curl up in the fetal position, sucking our thumbs and whining to one another about it.

Ever. At all. You lose, pick yourself up and get on with it.

I applied last year again, as one of 278 applicants, and became one of 14 finalists.

I lost again.

I’d planned to re-apply this year but I decided to take a break.  Will I apply yet again? Probably.

Losing is dis-spiriting, indeed, but I think “winning” every time you compete for something is crazy.

English: English Premier League trophy, inscri...
English: English Premier League trophy, inscribed with “The Barclays Premiership” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Life is too difficult!

You’ll never win every date/job/fellowship/grant/award/book contract/raise/promotion you want. No one does. (And if you do, I wonder how far you’re stretching and growing…)

But in a culture that usually only cheers and celebrates heroes and the wealthy, those whose visible proof of success wins them lots of attention and praise and high-fives, (all pleasant, certainly), it’s a challenge to remember — and to teach children — that failure is normal, to be expected and builds tenacity and resilience.

And those are the true building blocks of solid, lasting self-confidence.

In his book about children’s resilience, fellow Canadian Paul Tough argues strongly for the idea of grit.

Here’s an interesting post from the fab Maria Popova, she of BrainPickings fame, on how to hop off the hamster wheel of self-esteem addiction.

What say you?

Have you won awards or accolades you knew were bogus?

How are you teaching your own children to handle disappointment and loss?

Wallowing is never a good idea

Death
Death (Photo credit: tanakawho)

Here’s a recent post chosen for Freshly Pressed that really hit a nerve:

And why does it still have to hurt so much?

When will it stop hurting?

Without question, I am over him. I no longer love him. I haven’t for a long time. I do not hate him. It would not bother me in the least if I never spoke to or saw him again. (Of course, this can’t happen (and I won’t allow it to happen), because we have Z and M.)

What I am not over is how much he hurt me. He’s not only hurt me, he’s hurt me in such a way as to have a long-term impact on any and all relationships I may have. He’s hurt me in such a way as to have a long-term impact on any and all relationships I already have.

When I need to talk to or just be in the presence of someone the most, I can’t bear the thought of it. I can’t bear the thought of confiding in someone else.

The depth of the pain is too much to bear.

The writer is a Canadian, a mother of two small children, whose husband cheated on her.

Keening  for seven years? Maybe she’s “ultra sensitive”, as this blogger describes herself.

And here’s a married, white, employed writer complaining in The New York Times that she is living in a friend’s ratty old house, at no cost:

I remind myself to have faith in something larger than the petty irritations of an old house. It’s been, as Dan has said, an “unconventional” way to take over a house.

That would be rent and mortage free, an opportunity millions of Americans would be happy to tackle.

In contrast, here’s an extraordinary story about a family whose 20-year-old son, Declan Sullivan, was killed at Notre Dame University in an accident. Their gracious response is inspiring, not tiring.

My impatience with whining is colored by my own experiences, and those of friends and family, who have coped from early childhood with serious illness, partners’ or parents’ premature death, mental illness, alcoholism, sexual abuse, repeated job loss, natural disasters.

Coping is a learned skill, as is resilience.

Canadian writer Paul Tough wrote a smart book on this subject:

Character is created by encountering and overcoming failure. In this absorbing and important book, Tough explains why American children from both ends of the socioeconomic spectrum are missing out on these essential experiences. The offspring of affluent parents are insulated from adversity, beginning with their baby-proofed nurseries and continuing well into their parentally financed young adulthoods. And while poor children face no end of challenges — from inadequate nutrition and medical care to dysfunctional schools and neighborhoods — there is often little support to help them turn these omnipresent obstacles into character-enhancing triumphs.

Jose and I, in our professional work as journalists, have witnessed horrific violence, death, war and fear for our own lives. People who choose our field know that working to tight deadlines against ferocious competitors means no one has time to coddle you, and insisting on it is a career-damaging choice.

When New York Times reporter Anthony Shadid died of an asthma attack while covering a story in Syria, his accompanying photographer Tyler Hicks carried his dead body into Turkey. Jose spent Christmas of 1995 in bitterly cold Bosnia, sleeping in an unheated metal cargo container, his holiday meal a packet of chicken soup, all he could find in the post-war madness there while working as a news photographer. He couldn’t shower for five weeks.

I faced my mother’s manic breakdown when I was 14, in Mexico, with very little help, and had to take care of a visiting friend, a girl my age who spoke no Spanish, while we figured it all out.

No one trains or prepares you for such moments. 

I recently had a long conversation with a new friend, a woman whose life has handed her a tremendous amount of personal stress, fear and worry, some of which is out of her control and ongoing. Yet she is chic, funny, smart, tough and resolutely un-whiny.

Clutching and sobbing tends to make me sigh and withdraw.

When the shit hits the fan, do you crumble?

Or deal?