I made an unprecedented move. Scary!

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Being ferocious? For others, yes…

 

By Caitlin Kelly

Yes, I’m bold and direct and outspoken and have plenty of opinions.

But they’re usually in defense of an abstract idea, or a principle or a policy. Rarely, if at all, in defense of myself and my behaviors and choices.

How can this be?

I grew up in a weird way — sent to boarding school at the age of eight, where I was often in trouble and shunned and punished for it — with only 2.5 years living at home with my mother. Then ages 14 to 19 with my father and his girlfriend (later wife) who was 13 years my senior, too old to be a loving sister and too young to be a nurturing mother.

It was tough.

So I learned to get on with it, to not show or share my true feelings, and — when I did — to be very careful. If I dared to disagree with these people, I could be met with rage or estrangement, sometimes both.

I was never abused physically, but verbal abuse can really leave deep scars. I still remember an argument with my father I had at the age of 20, another from six years ago, in which I was utterly excoriated.

This week, in a rare and very scary moment for me, I wrote a long email to an editor — obviously someone I hoped to work with — challenging his knee-jerk suspiciousness of me as  a “new” freelancer.

New to him.

I know, thanks to lots of therapy, that when I start to shake, (let alone cry), something is hitting me really hard and in a very deep place that has never healed — the automatic assumption I’m shitty, stupid, incompetent, wrong. That my opinion, however valid or well-argued, is going to just be ignored in favor of theirs.

Standing up for others’ needs and concerns? I do it all the time, happily and ferociously. It’s one of the reasons I still love being a journalist. I thrive on finding and telling stories that show social justice and offer some sort of hope to readers.

It’s a real privilege and one I value.

When it comes to the people I love — look out! If they’re dissed or dismissed, I’m a momma bear.

But standing up for myself?

Hard as hell.

 

How about you?

 

Cleaning house

 

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

It’s what I do when I’m angry, bored or stressed — and boy, does the apartment look great!

Silverplate polished, windows washed, rugs vacuumed, counters scrubbed, stove-top gleaming…

 

But this is also a time in my life, long overdue, of cleaning house in the rest of my life:

 

Ditching worn-out friendships

Time to lose people with whom I have little in common now beyond some shared history but little joy and pleasure in their company — and likely, theirs in mine. I’ve allowed too many unsatisfying relationships to masquerade as friendship. And my cancer diagnosis and treatment, inevitably, quickly thinned the herd of people I once considered friends, but who couldn’t spare a minute for a call, email, card or visit. Here’s a powerful essay on the subject from Thought Catalog.

 

Seeking newer, better clients for my skills

That might mean negotiating for more money or less onerous demands from the people I choose to work with. It will definitely mean dropping those who drive me nuts with their disorganization while being more selective upfront about to whom I sell my labor.

 

Setting tighter boundaries around my time, attention and energy

Yes, I’ll still dick around on Twitter  and Insta, (one of the joys of self-employment is the need to remain visible on social media, as well as interesting and credible.) But spending more time reading books, visiting museums, galleries and shows will serve me much better than sitting alone in the apartment to save money. That which brings joy and inspiration — yes! That which enervates and sparks envy, begone!

 

Tossing out stained, worn-out clothing, shoes, towels, linens and all other items I just don’t like, never use and want gone!

 

I recently took a stack of good, thick (unused) towels to our local dog shelter, which they use to keep the animals warm and dry. I’ve clung for too many years to too many items for fear I won’t be able to afford to replace them. Fear is not a great place to live.

 

Upgrading the quality of what I buy, see, eat and experience

The obvious cliche of getting older — (and a scary diagnosis) — is valuing what we have and making  sure to savor the best of what we can afford. Cheaping out and defaulting, always, to frugality has helped me to save a significant amount for retirement — but it’s come at the cost of constant self-denial and deprivation. Enough!

When does ambition fade?

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By Caitlin Kelly

I recently had lunch with a friend my age — a former executive at National Public Radio — who now travels the country with his very cool project, getting people into working for public radio, called NextGenRadio. I love his ambition and passion, at an age when many are thinking about retirement.

One of my spin teachers, in her early 40s, is doing the work for pre-med, and is 18 months away from taking the MCAT, the med school admission test. Another friend, a former New York Times editor, is now enrolled in a program to re-train doing yoga therapy in medical settings.

Here’s a very long piece about re-inventing your life after 50, from a new website I’m writing for, considerable.com.

I’m slowly working on two new ways to earn an income, with no expectation that either will fully sustain me financially, but each of which makes me happier than journalism does at this point. I started writing for a living at the age of 19, while also attending university full-time. I enjoyed it, but it was also really stressful. Now the industry is in such a mess — and with pay rates, literally, back to 1970s and ’80s lows, (then a very good rate!), I’m ready to flee.

 

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The two things I hope to do a lot more of are coaching — both writing and PR strategy (details are on my website) and selling my images to interior designers. I’ve been coaching now for several years and really enjoy it; my students get instant ROI and lots of practical advice, not the generic “You go, girl!” bullshit I so often see being touted by “experts” on social media.

My husband is a professional photo editor, who worked for The New York Times for 31 years and helped them win a Pulitzer Prize for 9/11 images, so we’re also culling thousands of my images to select the initial few hundred and set up a website. I began my career as a photographer, selling three magazine cover images while still in high school and later, to Time, The Washington Post, Toronto Star, The New York Times and others.

I do, still, hope to publish a few more books.

 

What ambitions do you still hold?

 

Do you have a timeline for achieving them?

“You’re normal”

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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.

 

 

Why we need more apologies

By Caitlin Kelly

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Time doesn’t heal all wounds. A sincere apology is a lot better!

 

Years ago, I had a job that was, to put it plainly, a brutal experience — alternating between being bullied and ignored by bosses and colleagues alike. It was at a Big American Newspaper, one now half its size, but then a very big deal and a well-paid job in a dying industry.

But I wasn’t about to quit, no matter how terrible it was to survive.

Then, years after I left, I met one of those former bosses again in another situation, and was quite nervous about how he might behave.

To my shock — and gratitude — he apologized if he’d made things worse for me.

How rare it is to receive an apology!

Here’s a great piece on the subject from Elle magazine, which I found thanks to this blog:

I have never spoken this phrase. To anyone. Not a lover, not a friend. Not a bad boss or a vindictive colleague. This is not for lack of opportunity. I’m a black woman in America. I have been owed plenty of apologies.

I just never believed I deserved to demand one.

In the instant that I watched Serena’s firm command, I anxiously searched my consciousness to determine why, in my 33 years of living, I had never demanded an apology I believed I was owed. I have certainly expressed personal and professional grievances; I have given voice to hurt feelings and frustrated moments with greater intention as I’ve grown in confidence—a confidence which is hard earned.

But the idea that someone would need to affirm responsibility for their actions and impact on me had just never occurred to me. I have quietly carried the scars of apologies desired but never received, seething with resentment but never questioning why I didn’t demand an apology in the first place. I have always known, as seemingly all Black mothers say, that “closed mouths don’t get fed,” and that it is rare that anyone receives that which they do not ask for. Still, I had not formed my lips to utter the words: you owe me an apology.

How many times in your life have you just sat there, seething, when we should have demanded an immediate apology for someone else’s shitty behavior?

Most recently, I sat beside a woman at someone’s landmark birthday party (hardly the time for a confrontation!) who scared the hell out of me about the upcoming radiation for my DCIS.

I was a bit shell-shocked by her attitude (she’s a naturopath); we’re often slow and deeply reluctant to demand an apology since we don’t want to make a scene in public (oh, how bullies count on this!) and react like deer in the headlights, inwardly appalled, but passive and stunned in the moment.

 

Too stunned to say “Excuse me?!!!”

 

Not to mention all the powerful people, usually male, who set and enforce the rules. It’s damn near impossible to “demand” anything when your survival depends on shutting up and putting up with appalling behavior.

There’s a lot of Internet conversation right now about the many men — shunned for harassing women sexually at work — now crawling back demanding our forgiveness and more of our attention, like Canadian former broadcaster Jian Ghomeshi, American comedian Louis C.K. .and American broadcaster John Hockenberry.

I don’t really care for excuses, like “I don’t remember” because, unfortunately, I can’t forget some of the worst moments from my own life.

You can wait a long time, maybe forever, for some people to apologize, but it doesn’t mean giving other miscreants a pass just because it’s become your default.

 

Here’s a recent piece from The Atlantic about having a high school friend-turned-would-be-rapist eventually apologize:

 

A few minutes later, I saw him coming back; it was the boy who’d tried to rape me. He had tears in his eyes, and he seemed almost overwrought. And right there—in the A&S department store in the Smith Haven Mall—he apologized profusely.

“It’s okay, it’s okay,” I kept saying to him. “I forgive you, don’t worry.” It was a weird ambush of intense guilt and apology, and it was the wrong place and time—but the thing was, I really did forgive him. My life had moved on, and things were better. It felt good to get the apology and—as it always does—even better to forgive him. He’d done a terrible thing, but he’d done what he could to make it right.

 

Have you ever demanded an apology?

Did you receive it?

Was it sincere?

A summer of reckoning

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

 

I’m so ready for this summer to end!

 

Not being a beach person, I don’t spend the year eagerly awaiting summer, as many of our friends do.

And this summer has felt like a series of waves smashing us both in the face:

— Husband now using insulin and adjusting to all that it entails

— My breast cancer diagnosis right around my June 6 birthday

— The ensuing tests, procedures and appointments that have consumed precious days of lost work/income since my husband and I are both wholly freelance, with no paid time off that we don’t fund ourselves. (Thank God for savings.)

— Multiple $100 co-pays to have some of these tests and procedures.

— An infection in my breast, six weeks post-op. Extremely painful, but resolved. Breasts are such sensitive things!

— Two friends widowed the same week, a friend’s young adult daughter dying and the sudden and shocking death of a former colleague and friend.

— Far too many days shuttered indoors with AC blasting, curtains drawn, escaping 90+ degree heat

— Far too many days with torrential rain

OK, what’s been good?!

 

— Meeting a new Canadian-in-the-States friend, a fellow writer living in Oakland, CA and his husband who came to NYC and joined us for dinner.

— The thoughtful gift of a classic Hermes silk scarf from a friend; it belonged to her mother, who died last year and was a dear friend of ours.

— So many loving cards, emails, flowers and phone calls from friends worldwide as I adjust to a new reality.

— Blowing insane money on a designer handbag, (on sale, dammit!) after my diagnosis

 

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— Jose made us gorgeous new wooden planters and the brilliant orange marigolds and fragrant lavender have been amazing. I love watching bees dive into the salvia each morning.

— Discovering how multi-talented my friends are, both journalists like me, one of whom made us home-made soap, the other really delicious home-made bread. I love all things artisanal and am in awe of such colonial skill.

— Snagging a potentially very good new freelance opportunity after seeing an editor participating in a Twitter chat. We met in NYC for lemonade and hit it off.

 

How’s your summer been?

Highs?

Lows?

Who’s ruling you?

 

 

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MUST BE PRODUCTIVE — ALL THE TIME!!!! (not!)

 

By Caitlin Kelly

Love this piece by friend, former coaching client, author, Viv Groskop — a UK comedian and journalist who’s (natch) a Cambridge graduate who also speaks fluent Russian, from UK website The Pool:

Although it sounds like you need to say it in Jonathan’s voice in your head (“Yas, queen, brules!”), brules are genius. They are the “bullshit rules” you’re living by without knowing it. They’re another term for “limiting beliefs”, a popular expression that describes unnecessary myths and outdated values that not only don’t serve you any more but may even never have been true in the first place. If you can identify your “bullshit rules”, you can see clearly where you’re holding yourself back.

I see so many people making themselves unhappy living by other people’s rules — those of their parents, their peers, their neighbors, their friends, their co-workers.

And I hear so many (broke, resentful, frustrated) Americans say: “But I played by the rules!” As if the people who make the rules (banks, insurance companies, government) actually have to abide by them.

Life is short and living by other peoples’ rules that make you miserable can feel safe and secure — everyone else is OK, right? — but can be a real waste of time.

I was lucky enough to grow up in a family of creatives — my father made films and my mother and late step-mother were writers — so the notion I had to get a “real job” sitting in an office wasn’t ever one of our rules. (Be charming! Compete hard! Keep going! were more like it.)

 

Some of the “rules” I live by:

 

— Make as little money as possible in the least amount of time. Every day I see fellow writers crowing about their six-figure incomes — i.e. making $100,000 a year — a sum I never attained, even in my best-paid NYC journalism staff jobs. We have decent retirement savings now, so the pressure to make bank is lower than it was, and is, for many. I’ve never measured my human or professional value based on my income. I’m most proud of our savings, a more valuable figure because they give us freedom.

Sleep a lot. I typically sleep 8-10 hours every night, counter to the I’m-so-busy draaaaaaaama proving how “productive” some are. I also take naps, as needed. I’m not ashamed of my need to rest and recharge.

I’d rather be creative than productive.  I make much less money than some others, but I’m also not cranking out shit I find silly or stupid. People do what they have to financially, but after decades working as a writer, if a story doesn’t engage me intellectually or emotionally, no thanks.

— I enjoy cooking and cleaning. Our marriage is pretty retro in that regard and I do almost all the housework since my husband is earning the bulk of our income right now. Working at home makes this much easier for me, not losing hours every day commuting to an office.

— Travel as often and far away as possible. This definitely affects my thinking on everything — if something costs the same as a plane ticket or a week spent abroad, travel always wins! I just had lunch with a friend this week who’ll soon be teaching in Hong Kong for four months, a place I’ve never been. Hmmmmm. Time for a visit?

 

What are some of the rules you live by?

 

 

A few more thoughts about feelings

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

 

It’s been quite the rollercoaster, kids!

First off — very good news! My surgery July 6 went great and I’m free of disease.

What a blessed relief. I start radiation treatment in September.

But…what a disorienting time it’s been.

Jose, my husband, and I are career journalists — who, since the age of 19 when we began working for national publications even as college undergrads — learned early that having, let alone expressing, our feelings was an impediment to just getting shit done.

When you’re on deadline, no matter how stressed/tired/hungry/thirsty/in pain you might actually be, you have to get the bloody story done.

Jose, working as a New York Times photographer, once stepped on a nail so long it punctured his boot and his foot while covering the aftermath of a hurricane in Florida. He’d flown down — yes, really — aboard Air Force One, as he’d been in Connecticut covering Bush. He got a tetanus shot as the jet took off to head back to New York.

But this has meant, for decades, whatever we truly felt in a difficult situation — also listening to and photographing war, trauma, crime victims, fires — we suppressed our fear, grief, sadness. It might have popped out later, privately, or not.

Ours is not a business that welcomes signs of “weakness” — you can lose the respect of peers and editors, losing out on the major assignments that boost our careers if you admit to the PTSD that can affect us — even if it privately stains our souls with trauma for years.

This cancer diagnosis, and the sudden and reluctant admission of my own very real vulnerability, blew my self-protective walls to smithereens.

I’ve never cried as much in my entire life, (I never was one to cry), even in the toughest situations, as I have in the past month.

Tears of fear and anxiety.

Tears of gratitude for friends’ kindness.

Tears of pain. It’s a much rougher recovery than four previous surgeries on my knees, shoulder and hip.

Tears of pure exhaustion from being medically probed and punctured for weeks on end.

Tears of worry I won’t get back to being wry, wise-cracking me. (If not, who will I be?)

I feel like a lobster cracked open.

I’ve spent my life being private, guarded and wary of revealing weakness, vulnerability or need.

My late step-mother loved to taunt me as being “needy.” That did it.

I was bullied in high school which taught me that authority figures who did nothing to stop it didn’t care about me as a person, just a number in a chair.

But this has been life-changing — not only in the rush of so many negative emotions — but the kindness, gentleness and compassion I’ve also felt with every single medical intervention. Ten minutes before being wheeled in the OR, I was laughing with my surgeon and her nurses. That’s a rare gift.

I also feel some shame at how infantile one becomes — focused with ferocious selfishness  — memememememememe! — when in pain and fear. Two dear friends were widowed and another’s adult daughter died of cancer within the same month as all of this, and it’s taken a lot of energy to offer them the attention and love they so need.

People have offered to talk to me about their experiences of breast cancer. I can’t. Too often, they plunge into detail and I can’t listen, process and empathize. It’s too much.

That may be my own weakness, because feelings can feel so overwhelming.

Interesting times….

 

The power of comfort

By Caitlin Kelly

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

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

*cough*

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

Self-soothing is also a crucial life skill.

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

 

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

 

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

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

It might be a bright bouquet of flowers.

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

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

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

It might be your favorite music.

It might be a familiar poem or prayer.

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

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

 

Thank you!

 

Carpe the damn diem!

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All the time in the world? Maybe not…

 

By Caitlin Kelly

 

You know how this goes.

I’ll do it: tomorrow, next week, next month, next year.

Sometime.

But not right now.

I’m too: busy, tired, broke, otherwise committed, ambivalent, not sure it’s going to work out perfectly.

It might be trying for a dream job.

It might be repairing a broken relationship — or starting a tender new one, romantic or platonic.

It might committing to a course of study.

It might mean selling everything you own and/or disappearing for a while (not abandoning your loved ones.)

 

Whatever it is, I urge you to get on with it.

 

It’s the worst cliche, but a cancer diagnosis — even one as incredibly hopeful as mine is — will instantly alter how you perceive time and its brevity and its value.

I’ve cut off useless drama. I’ve turned down invitations. I’m avoiding situations I know will stress me further.

But I’m also making and planting gorgeous new wooden planters for our balcony and accepting assignments for later this summer and planning a trip, possibly to Cornwall, in the late fall.

Two dear friends — one in London, one in California — were widowed in the same week. Both were, sadly, expected but still.

Now another friend’s husband is newly diagnosed.

 

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This time last year I was carefree, solo, sunning myself in a tiny, beautiful Croatian town on the Adriatic, Rovinj. I stayed in, and loved, a boutique hotel made up of two buildings from the 18th and 17th century, walking down smooth cobble-stoned streets.

If this had happened last year, I would have lost a ton of money on prepaid flights, tickets and hotels and had to cancel a trip that was absolute heaven.

This year I’m walking down hospital corridors and consulting with six physicians, submitting to seven presurgical tests and procedures — slightly less amusing!

I am so glad I was able, financially and physically, to make that journey as a birthday gift to myself.

To take it for myself.

To give it to myself without reservation or guilt or remorse for that “wasted” time or mis-spent savings.

 

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Whatever brings you joy, get out there and claim it.

 

Today!