“You’re normal”

IMG_2217

Fragility is humbling and frightening

 

By Caitlin Kelly

It’s been a rough week, slowly recovering from my last radiation treatment — October 15 — and still fighting its cumulative fatigue and insane itchiness on my left breast. I was at my wits’ end, crying in public, (I almost never cry anywhere), just done.

I had a follow-up meeting with the radiation doctor, to be told I’d gained (!?) 10 pounds in six weeks and now needed blood tests to see why. This despite seeing my clothes fit more loosely and gaining compliments on my apparent weight loss.

Our GP, thankfully, saw us an hour later and did the tests; (I’m fine.)

But I started crying in his office, weary of all of it.

I apologized for being a big blubbering baby, ashamed and embarrassed by my inability to control my emotions.

“You’re normal,” he said, calmly and compassionately.

Jose, my husband, sat in the room with us, listening as I absorbed this pretty basic fact.

What, I’m not made of steel?

I’m…vulnerable?

Human?!

Kelly’s tend to be (cough) ambitious and driven; three of us won major national awards in the same month, when I was 41, my younger half-brothers then 31 and 18; I for my writing, they for business skills and for a key scientific discovery, (yes, the youngest!)

We tend to aim high, compete ferociously for as long as it takes, (each of my books, later published by major NYC houses, were rejected 25 times), and usually win, dammit!

We keep our emotions very close to the vest and keep small, tight circles of intimates. I don’t really do acquaintance.

 

Being weak, scared, in pain, exhausted and, even worse, letting others see us in this condition?

 

Terrifying.

I’m slowly getting used to it.

Compassion for my fragility is my new oxygen, as much for myself as the gratitude I feel for that shown to me.

 

 

Amid California’s hellfire, he saved a horse

Augie & Hillary_08

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.

 

Butte County wildfire and evacuations

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!

 

_2DS5256

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.

 

5th-anniversary

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.

 

caitlin team

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!

Some things worth saying

By Caitlin Kelly

IMG_20140919_170342451_HDR

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?

Is compassion a limited resource?

By Caitlin Kelly

prince

Have you reached your limit?

 

Some people I know — usually smart, curious, globally engaged — are shutting off the news, signing off of social media.

They’re exhausted and overwhelmed.

They just can’t listen to one more killing, whether of an unarmed black American man, or a police officer, (armed but unprepared for ambush), or of people gathered to watch  fireworks in Nice or music at Bataclan or shopping in a Munich mall or in a cafe in Kabul…

They can’t hear another video of despair, of crying, moaning, screams of terror.

It’s not, I think, that we don’t care.

At least, I truly hope that’s not why.

For some, it’s caring too much.

It’s also a feeling of powerlessness and, with it, a growing loss of hope.

What will change?

How and when?

What will make a difference?

It feels too grim, too unrelenting, too much to process or comprehend.

Compassion fatigue is real.

shadow

Here’s a poem that might resonate, written by a man fed up with the materialism he saw around himself…

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon,
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers,
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. –Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.

That’s a sonnet by William Wordsworth, written in 1802.

We live in divided times.

We live in increasing fear of ‘the other’, the people who dress, behave, worship and vote differently than we do.

Is it safe now (where? at what time? for how long?) to board a train (axe attack in Germany. head-on collision in Italy) or airplane (they’re about to give up looking for MH 370)…

Who can we trust, and should we?

It becomes easier and easier to mute, block, unfriend, ignore, turn off and turn away and turn inward, abandoning our best selves, our impulse to compassion.

That’s what scares me most…

I loved this story from my native Canada, a place where individual families (including one I know) are sponsoring entire refugee families from Syria, people as different from them in some ways as can be.

It’s worth reading the link, in its entirety — a bunch of strangers determined to help.

Compassion in action:

 

When Valerie Taylor spotted a family of newcomers looking lost in the hustle and bustle of rush hour at Toronto’s main Union Station on Wednesday, she offered to help them find their train. What she didn’t know was that some 50 people would do the same, on a day that would turn out to be one of her most memorable trips home ever.

Taylor, a psychiatrist at Toronto’s Women’s College Hospital, said she was heading home on Wednesday after what had been a hectic few days. The heat was blazing, she was tired and looking forward to getting home, when she spotted a family of seven with two baby strollers and several heavy bags.

They looked confused, she said, and a young woman was trying to help them.

Taylor went over to see if she could lend a hand.

“Are you new here?” she asked. Only one of the children, who said he was 11, could speak English.

“Yes,” he said. They had just arrived from Syria four months ago, he told her, and were looking to get to Ancaster, about 85 kilometres southwest of Toronto, to spend a few days with family there.

‘People started trying to problem-solve’

Taylor was headed in the same direction and offered to take them to the right train. To their surprise, strangers began to take notice and to help carry the family’s bags up the stairs and onto the train, some riders even making room to give the family a place to sit, Taylor said.

 

 

 

How to be an everyday philanthropist — Jennifer Iacovelli’s new book

By Caitlin Kelly

 

Simple Giving_mech_v4 flaps.indd

The word “philanthropist”, for me anyway, conjures up an image of someone with huge wealth, multiple mansions, a private jet. Someone who has so much money they don’t know what to do with it all.

The sort of people whose names cross PBS’ screen when they highlight the network’s biggest donors.

Certainly not most of us, right?

A new book, Simple Giving, Easy Ways to Give Every Day, written by Jennifer Iacovelli, a mother of two in Brunswick, Maine, working in the non-profit world for years — and a longtime devoted philanthropist — offers a new and different perspective.

Many people in New York working low-wage jobs need a food bank to help feed their family
Many people in New York working low-wage jobs need a food bank to help feed their family

I met her for the first time, in March 2014, in the Atlanta airport, when we joined a multi-national, intergenerational, multi-media team heading to rural Nicaragua, to the poorest part of the second-poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. We were going there to help tell stories about their work for WaterAid, a global charity whose sole North American project is in Nicaragua.

Neither of us had ever been there or worked together.

We hit it off immediately, which was lucky, since we spent 12-hour days for the next week working in 95-degree heat and traveling in a cramped van we often had to start with a good hard shove.

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

She was fun, down-to-earth and someone whose passion for giving back really inspired me, and still does.

As she writes: “A small contribution can make a big difference in someone’s life.”

I read her book carefully and dog-eared dozens of pages in it. It offers six different “giving models”, from everyday acts of kindness, taking action on your passion to giving as a business model. “People often don’t know where or how to give.”

Yes, we all know the big charities, the ones with big advertising budgets…but where does our money go?

Is it being used in ways we respect?

Jen urges you to consider getting the most our of your giving by considering choice, connection and impact. (Do you all know about Guidestar? It is an extensive online database with every possible bit of information about a charity you might be giving to. Check it out first!)

Here’s my Q and A with her:

What’s your goal with this book?

My main goal with the book is to inspire people to think about giving in a different way. I hope it empowers people to recognize their own meaningful ways to give on a regular basis.

 Tell us a bit about your past:

I was born and raised in Massachusetts. I went to college at Syracuse University and graduated with a dual degree in Advertising and Psychology. Those majors blended my love for writing, creativity and fascination of human behavior.

I lived in Denver for a short period after graduating college and driving the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile for a summer. Made my way to Maine in 2000 and haven’t had the desire to live anywhere else since! (though I do love to travel!)
Was there any emphasis in your family of origin on giving?

Not necessarily. I saw my parents donate money to nonprofits here and there, but there wasn’t a big emphasis on giving or volunteering. I did volunteer a lot while in school. I was always helping out with class events, the yearbook, etc. My parents encouraged me to get involved.

 


 

“There are so many more ways to give than just blindly sending a check in the mail”


 

What prompted you to start giving…was there a precipitating event?

I started working in the nonprofit sector in 2005 because I was looking for more meaning in my work. I guess you could say I’ve always had the pull to give more but didn’t know what to do with it. That’s where I realized that there were so many more ways to give than just blindly sending a check in the mail. I also saw that many people didn’t quite know how to give in the most meaningful way. I would (and still do in my current position) re-direct people and educate them on how they could best help our mission.
What sort of reaction did you get when you told people you were making a public commitment on your blog about giving?

People were supportive, of course. But most encouraged me and didn’t necessarily join me. I did it, of course, to show my process and share what I learned. Hopefully it inspired others along the way. It was a great experience

Do your friends and family have the same passion for this as you?

Yes and no. I do have some very inspiring and giving friends who are featured in the book or on my blog. Others are simply soaking it in, which is great too. I’ve met so many passionate people through writing this book. It’s been amazing!

 


“It’s often those who have the least that give the biggest percentage of their income”


 

In your experience, has the recession affected Americans’ willingness or ability to give — either time or money?

I believe giving has gone down a bit, as has funding for nonprofits. People still give though. And it’s often those who has the least that give the biggest percentage of their income.

What was the most difficult/challenging part of writing the book?

Finding the time to put it all together! I had so many thoughts, ideas, interviews, stories, research, etc to weave together while going on with regular life as a mom, writer and entrepreneur. I also went through a divorce during the process. I would just find ways to disappear for a few days to concentrate only on the book. It’s was a challenging process but I can’t wait to do it again.
The most fun?

Seeing the final product! It honestly didn’t seem real until I could hold the book in my hands. What an amazing feeling.

How does it feel to become an author?

Indescribable. I accomplished a major life goal when I signed my book contract. I am proud to have a published book before I turn 40. It’s about the only thing that has left me speechless!

 

 

 

The little thing someone said that meant the world to you

By Caitlin Kelly

IMG_20140508_093747431

I was flying home from Paris to New York on a wide-body 777.

The turbulence wasn’t, objectively, that bad at all and, really, could have been much worse. But I really dislike turbulence, especially at the start of a 7.5 hour trans-oceanic flight with Godknowshowmuch more of it ahead.

Even while mortified by my babyishness, I cried. Not a lot and not loudly.

A man sitting in the seat in front of me, an Indian man in his 60s or beyond, was gentle and kind.

“It’s all right. We’re all here with you,” he said.

His very simple words meant a lot to me, as someone who’s been through way too much emotional turbulence in my past life, which I sometimes think is why physical turbulence undoes me somehow. Nor did I grow up in  family who did a lot of comforting or cuddling if/when I was scared. That was my job.

I was so touched by his words and later wanted to thank him, but he was too quickly gone.

Maybe he’s just that kind to everyone.

I’m forever amazed at the things we say to one another, whether strangers on an airplane or teacher to student (or vice versa), that can leave such a positive effect on us, years, even decades later.

Sometimes it’s like a stone whose initial plunk into the water ripples outward in many circles, having a much deeper and profound effect on you than the person speaking could possibly know or understand.

It seems such a little thing…

Maybe not everyone is as open or susceptible to these things as I seem to be, but I try to say nice things whenever and wherever I can; readers of this blog know I can be very tough indeed. I’m no Pollyanna, but it’s been so powerful in my life when someone has offered a nugget of passing wisdom.

What could you say today to change someone's life for the better?
What could you say today to change someone’s life for the better?

Like the woman I met socially just as my now-husband and I had started dating. We were serious about one another from the start, but we argued a lot and were stubborn and hot-headed. Not a pretty combination.

“You can give this man his happiest years or his worst years,” she said. I knew her very briefly and maybe saw her once or twice after that.

That made clear to me what my wisest choice would be and, 15 years later, we are happily married.

I didn’t come from a family filled with cute, cosy homilies, so I learned to find much of my wisdom and comfort from people beyond that circle.

In my mid-20s, on a journalism fellowship in Paris, a perceptive friend about 15 years my senior noticed my obsession with antiques, one that continues today.

Probably 200 years old, found at a country auction in Nova Scotia
Probably 200 years old, found at a country auction in Nova Scotia

“You don’t have to buy other people’s histories,” she said.

That same year, back in the days before (yes, really!) the Internet and the cloud, I was shooting a lot of film and slides, and had hundreds of them, going back years and much global travel, in a big black portfolio I used to show editors to win work.

It was stolen and I was devastated. How could I possibly persuade people to trust me and invest their time and money in my skills?

“Nope,” said a fellow fellow, a woman a bit older than me, also from Toronto, said firmly. “Everything inside that portfolio is already inside you. You don’t need it.”

She was right.

What has someone said to you that changed your life for the better?

What have you said?

The kindness of strangers

By Caitlin Kelly

An offering in rural Nicaragua -- fresh from the tree!
An offering in rural Nicaragua — fresh from the tree!

Without which, most of us can’t survive.

I know one reason travel moves me emotionally, and why I so enjoy it, is that — 99 percent of the time — it has rewarded my (cautious) trust in the kindness of strangers with what I hoped for. Not robbery or rape or someone out to do me harm, but someone funny and generous and smart who is willing to open their heart and home to me.

Ironically, I’ve only become a crime victim — twice in Canadian cities (break-in, assault) and twice here in suburban New York (auto theft, fraud) — when supposedly safely “at home.”

Many people fear venturing beyond their safe and familiar world, certain that terror and mayhem will ensue.

Not for me and not for my mother, who traveled the world alone in her 40s.

Not for the many women I know who have ventured forth to places like Uganda and Haiti and Nicaragua, alone or with company, for work or for pleasure.

Not for for my many colleagues, male and female, working worldwide in journalism, who often have to rely on local interpreters and fixers and drivers, any one of whom might, in fact, prove to be a kidnaper. Using your smarts, network and instincts, you learn to be discerning.

Not for my young friend, 22-year-old recent Harvard graduate Devi Lockwood, now traveling the globe alone on a post-grad fellowship studying climate change, spending her year surrounded by strangers very, very far away from her Connecticut home; her blog is here.

Here’s a tiny excerpt from her journey:

Sharon retrieves an orange, plastic dreidel from the inside the pocket of her sweater. “With a dreidel, like in life, you have no control. You have to enter into the mystery and take your chances.”

I can’t help but smile at the gesture, the tears of upstairs now dried on my cheeks. Sharon closes her eyes for a moment to bless the object before she passes it into my hands. It is small but larger than itself. She could not have known that orange is my favorite color. I press the object into my own pocket.

It takes an interesting blend of courage, resilience, stamina, self-confidence,  and the humility to know and respect local customs of dress and behavior to trust yourself amongst strangers. You need self-reliance and gumption. You need to know how to read a map, (apps don’t always do the trick),  and manage in metric and Celsius and other languages.

And — of course — you don’t have to any sort of exotic foreign travel to have this experience. Try a neighborhood in your city you’ve never visited!

I’m in awe at my freshmen writing students’ bravery as so many of them have come from very distant parts of the world, and the U.S., to live, work and study among strangers. I’ve had students from Rome, France, Guam, Hawaii, Mississippi; Canadian college students, in distinct contrast, tend to attend their local universities (partly because there are many fewer of them to choose from and the quality is generally very high.)

How far would you go and feel safe?
How far would you go and feel safe?

You need, in my favorite French verb, to se debrouiller — figure shit out.

My blog posts about how to travel alone as a woman continue to be my best-read.

I’ve finally realized why this sort of unexpected kindness matters so much to me and why it touches me so deeply. Sometimes I’m so thankful it seems overdone, but it’s heartfelt.

I come from a family with plenty of money but one with little time or aptitude for emotional attentiveness. I left my mother’s care at 14 and my father’s home at 19, so have long been accustomed to fending for myself.

As an only child for decades, (step-siblings came later), I simply had to rely on the kindness of strangers in many instances because my own family was nowhere to be found — off traveling the world, long before the Internet or cell phones. Even when they lived nearby, I couldn’t rely on them for emotional or financial support and never, once, had the option of “moving home” back into their houses.

My solo week in Corsica, July 1995, was one of the best of my life!
My solo week in Corsica, July 1995, was one of the best of my life!

So I discovered that people I had never met before could overwhelm me with their kindness and generosity.

— Gudrun, the wife of a sporting goods executive living in Barcelona, who was then a stringer for Reuters. She welcomed me into her home, left me alone while they went out to dinner, and immediately trusted me. As I did with them. She later let me stay again and even lent me her weekend home.

— Tala, who, hearing we were planning to visit Paris at Christmas, immediately offered us her apartment there.

— Gillian, who invited me to her suburban home there and cooked a lovely meal.

— The young Portuguese couple I met on a train as they headed home to Lisbon to marry. They invited me into their apartment for that week and I ended up becoming their wedding photographer.

It’s instructive to see, also, how sometimes the people with the least to offer materially are so open.

We stayed in this house in a village with no electricity, indoor plumbing or running water.
We stayed in this house in a village with no electricity, indoor plumbing or running water

When I visited Nicaragua for work in March 2014 with WaterAid, the second-poorest Western Hemisphere nation after Haiti, I was struck by how genuinely welcoming people were. Yes, we were introduced by locals they know and respect, but I expected little beyond civility. Warmth and genuine connection were a joy, whether in Miskitu through a translator or Spanish, which I speak.

I sat one afternoon, lazing in the blistering heat on a shady verandah chatting with a woman. Marly, a little girl of five, came and sat with me, and let me braid her hair, a sort of easy intimacy I can’t imagine any American child allowing with a stranger, or their fearful parents allowing.

Here’s a sobering/sad New York Times story about Lenore Skenazy, a former colleague of mine at the New York Daily News, who has become (!?) an expert in telling terrified Americans that it’s OK to let their children play outside alone:

A second result is the Free Range Kids Project and a 13-part series, starting Thursday on Discovery Life Channel, called “World’s Worst Mom.” In it, Ms. Skenazy intervenes to rescue bubble-wrapped kids from their overprotective parents by guiding the children safely through a sequence of once-forbidden activities and showing their anxious parents how well the children perform and how proud they are of what they accomplished.

The term “helicopter parents” applies to far more than those who hover relentlessly over their children’s academic and musical development. As depicted in the first episode of the series, it applies to 10-year-old Sam’s very loving mother who wouldn’t let him ride a bike (“she’s afraid I’ll fall and get hurt”), cut up his own meat (“Mom thinks I’ll cut my fingers off”), or play “rough sports” like skating. The plea from a stressed-out, thwarted Sam: “I just want to do things by myself.”

In an interview, Ms. Skenazy said, “Having been brainwashed by all the stories we hear, there’s a prevailing fear that any time you’re not directly supervising your child, you’re putting the child in danger.” The widespread publicity now given to crimes has created an exaggerated fear of the dangers children face if left to navigate and play on their own.

I’m simply sad for these children and the cringing, world-fearing adults they might become.

How will they successfully navigate the many steps toward full economic and emotional independence?

The only way to discover the potential kindness of strangers is to allow for its very real possibility.

A homeless man went to church, and this is what happened next…

By Caitlin Kelly

This is an extraordinary story, from a place that normally wouldn’t make the national news, and from the Mormon church, a faith that usually also receives little mainstream press.

English: Homeless man, Tokyo. Français : Un sa...
English: Homeless man, Tokyo. Français : Un sans abri à Tokyo. Español: Persona sin hogar, en las calles de Tokio. Türkçe: Evsiz adam, Tokyo. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

From NPR:

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Finally, this hour, a Mormon bishop in
Taylorsville, Utah, went to great lengths last Sunday to teach his
congregation a lesson. David Musselman disguised himself as a homeless
person with the help of a professional makeup artist friend. After
getting mutton-chops, a ski hat and thick glasses, the bishop waited
outside his church and wished congregants a happy Thanksgiving. To
describe what happened next, I’m joined by Bishop Musselman, welcome to
the program.

BISHOP DAVID MUSSELMAN: Glad to be here. Thanks, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Describe the response you got.

MUSSELMAN:
Well, I got several types of responses. I had some people that went out
of their way to let me know that this was not a place to ask for
charity and that I was not welcome and that I needed to leave the
property. I should also state that I had a number of people come and
were very kind to me. But I was most impressed with the children. The
children definitely were very eager to want to reach out and try to help
me in some way

From the AP:

Musselman, who told only his second counselor that he would be
disguised as a homeless man, walked to the pulpit during the service. He
finally revealed his true identity and took off his wig, fake beard and
glasses.

“It had a shock value that I did not anticipate,” he said. “I really
did not have any idea that the members of my ward would gasp as big as
they did.”

Ward member Jaimi Larsen was among those surprised it was her bishop.
“I started feeling ashamed because I didn’t say hello to this man …
He was dirty. He was crippled. He was old. He was mumbling to himself,”
she said.

It wasn’t Musselman’s goal to embarrass ward members or make them
feel ashamed, he said. Instead, he wanted to remind them to be kind to
people from all walks of life not just at the holidays, but all year
long, he said.

“To be Christ-like, just acknowledge them,” he said

Musselman made the invisible visble.

Here is a powerful blog, written by a television cameraman who himself was once homeless, his effort to make this population of the poor, struggling and suffering visible and audible.

The population of homeless has risen by 65 percent in the eight years of New York City’s billionaire mayor, Michael Bloomberg; 21,000 New York City children have no home to go to beyond a shelter or whatever space they can beg from a friend or relative.

Here is one Manhattan shelter I’ve contributed to.

As we gather with friends, family and loved ones to celebrate the holidays — those of us fortunate enough to have a warm, clean, dry place in which to safely sleep — remember those who don’t. They can be, for some people, a terrifying sight, slumped on the pavement or dragging enormous overstuffed metal carts. Their utter desperation reminds us what the bottom of the ladder looks like — that there very much is a bottom — the place we work so hard and save so hard and cling to our jobs to stay clear of.

We could never ever become them.

Could we?

So much easier, then, to avoid their gaze or studiously ignore their outstretched hands or cups or their signs, scrawled on cardboard.

I have, and it shames me when I make that choice.

Please don’t.

ONLY TWO WEBINARS REMAINING:

WRITING FOR A-LIST CLIENTS, DEC. 7, 4;00 P.M EST. AND YOU, INC: THE BUSINESS OF FREELANCING, DEC. 14 AT 4:00 P.M. EST

DETAILS AND REGISTRATION HERE.

The comfort of community

English: Luncheon of the Boating Party (1881, ...
English: Luncheon of the Boating Party (1881, Pierre-Auguste Renoir) housed in The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., United States. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This past weekend, shaken by the hurricane and our renewed sense of vulnerability — knowing the next power outage is inevitable — Jose and I instinctively went to be, in person and face to face, hug to reaffirming hug, with two of our long-time communities.

They are certainly distinctly American: softball and church.

I started playing co-ed softball about a decade ago, on a suburban park field in Hastings-on-Hudson, NY, joining a group of men and women, ranging from their 20s to over 70. It was founded by Jon, who then worked for the commuter railroad, and who soon adopted two small children, a Chinese girl and a tow-headed boy named Dakota, who used to sit in their strollers behind the batting cage.

The years since then have been a parade of deepening friendships. When Ed’s Dad died, we drove into the city to attend his wake, much of it in Spanish. When CJ fell and shattered his leg, Marty, an orthopedic surgeon who also plays with us, was able to do a quick, if sobering on-field diagnosis. When I went onto the DL list in November 2009, unable to play for the next three years with a damaged left hip (fully replaced Feb. 6, 2012), I kept coming out for after-game lunches to stay in touch with this group I love so well.

At lunch last week, as one of only two women among 20+ men, I felt — as I always do — completely at home, teasing Sky, the handsome young man sitting to my left who’s become a personal trainer, with his Mom, a newly retired teacher, sitting to my right. We now feel like family, laughing and teasing and hugging. Ed, a tall, thin lawyer my age, has the same last name as Jose, so I call him “el otro Lopez.”

In an era of almost constant job and financial insecurity, some of us shifting careers in our 50s or beyond, having a group of people who love you, sweaty and dirty, injured or healthy, employed or not, is a wonderful thing.

Here’s part of an essay I wrote about them for The New York Times:

One unspoken rule of Softball Lite is that men don’t help the women — who usually make up roughly a third of about 20 players each time — or tell them what to do. We know what to do, and after a few games, our teammates know and trust our skills as well. If we goof up, well, it’s not fatal and we’re quite aware that we goofed. I usually play second base, and I didn’t appreciate one new male player who marked a spot in the dust and told me where to stand.

Off the field, too, we cherish our longstanding ties. When one player had a multiple organ transplant and spent many long months in the hospital, teammates went to visit. (He’s now back to running the bases full tilt.) We’ve attended friends’ parents’ wakes, celebrated their engagements and weddings, applauded their concerts.

And, after every game, a group heads to a cafe where — like some sweaty version of Renoir’s “Luncheon of the Boating Party” — we gather green metal tables in the shade of a spreading tree, with stunning views of the Hudson River, and settle in for lunch.

We’ve watched Jon’s kids grow from toddlers to grade schoolers and cheered when Joe’s author made the best-seller list.

Jobs and homes and friendships have come and gone.

It’s said that diamonds are a girl’s best friend. This dusty little one is mine.

The other place we went back to, after about a six month absence, is our church, St. Barnabas in Irvington, NY

I rarely blog about religion because it can be such a divisive issue; I’m Episcopalian (Anglican) but not super-religious, another reason I don’t blog about it. I began going there in 1998 after I became the unwitting victim of a con artist, a man I dated, a convicted felon whose predatory behavior terrified me.

His ability to so effectively dominate me psychologically proved to me how terribly lonely, isolated and lacking in self-confidence I had become, allowing him access to me, my home and my property. He stole a credit card of mine, forged my signature and committed other crimes — but the police and district attorney were derisive and dismissive, making me feel even more alone and scared.

I needed to repair my fully broken spirit. Two of the women I met my first week at church, Niki and Barbara, married women a bit older than I, are still friends. We’re still in touch, years after they have moved away, with our former minister and one of his assistants.

On our visit back this week, I was worried we might be snubbed for having been away for so long, but people were lovely. One older man, much more hunched over his cane than we had ever seen him, stopped me to say, with joy: “You’re walking so well!” They had seen me suffer 24/7 pain for 3 years with my damaged hip, on crutches for three months to relieve it, seen me through three prior surgeries.

I congratulated one woman on a 60-pound weight loss, saw another get baptized and heard about a friend’s move.

They knew me single, knew me when dating and living with Jose, and know and value us now as a married couple. We were asked to carry the elements — the Communion wine and wafers — down the aisle in their gleaming silver containers, cold to the touch. I feel deeply honored to be, however briefly, a part of the service, and in such an essential way.

Jose and I are not much like our fellow parishioners, many of whom are wealthy and live in large houses, the women staying home to raise multiple children, when we have none. But his parents are decades in their graves; his two sisters live far away and my father is a 10-hour drive north in Canada.

Like all of us, we need to know we are appreciated!

And, while I obviously value on-line connections, I most crave being in a room with people I know.

It is deeply comforting, especially in times of such fear and insecurity, to be known, loved and accepted by community.

Where  — in person — are you finding this sort of community in your life now?