That tiny crystal pyramid on the shelf? Jose’s Pulitzer!
By Caitlin Kelly
They came to us in a sad way, one we think about every time we sit in them.
In our co-op apartment building, we have many older folk — in their 80s and 90s — and some are long-married. One of them, always elegant, always together, went out one Friday afternoon for lunch.
On the drive home they were struck by a drunk driver, a woman. The wife was killed and her husband died later at the hospital.
Their children held an apartment sale to dispose of their belongings — so we went downstairs and found a pair of wing chairs, something Jose had wanted for many years. A good quality wing chair is easily $500-1,500+ so this had remained out of reach.
We got both of these for $450.
The upholstery is not 100 percent my taste, but neutral enough to work with our current color scheme. I’d like to change it to something else, but it will be costly.
Jose and I sit there and talk, sometimes for a long time. There’s something lovely and formal and intentional about sitting side by side in an elegant chair.
One of the many challenges of working freelance, as my husband I both do, is having basically no structure at all to many of our days. When he works at The New York Times and United States Golf Association (his two anchor clients), we know what hours and days are committed.
But without setting up planned pleasures for ourselves, we often just end up working too much and even on official holidays.
So for the end of 2019 and heading into 2020 I’m going full steam ahead and making plans for fun, for culture, for travel.
Yes, it’s expensive — but without joyful things to look forward to, it’s just toil and sleep.
Especially after a breast cancer diagnosis, time is more precious to me than ever.
On the 6th, I’m headed to a service of candlelight and carols with a friend, at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, maybe with dinner beforehand at La Bonne Soupe, a terrific French bistro in business since 1977.
On the 13th, at home in Tarrytown, The Hot Sardines are playing — and I’ve been following them since the very beginning, having met their Canadian-French singer at a dinner party years ago when she was still a journalist. They tour globally and have had huge success.
On the 17th., we’re off to hear the New York Philharmonic play my favorite music — Bach’s six Brandenburg Concertos — the greatest hits of 1721!
In January, a friend and I have tickets to Porgy and Bess at the Met Opera.
A new colleague at the Times is a balletomane as well, so we’re planning to see some ballet with him in 2020.
I keep looking at sites for cottage rentals and just need to commit; I have been dying to spend time in Cornwall after the end of my favorite BBC series, Poldark, set there at the end of the 18th. century. I want to spend two weeks there, a week in London and maybe even another week elsewhere in the English countryside and October 2020 is the only time we can do it.
Thanks to my breast cancer diagnosis and treatment, the last six months of 2018 really disappeared into a fog of anxiety, tests, surgery, radiation and fatigue.
In 2020, I’m still tethered to doctor appointments and follow-ups in March and also have to renew my green card (which allows me legal residency in the U.S.), which we are told can take six months, so that also limits any international options until the new one is in my hands.
But the more art and culture I enjoy — whether paintings, drawings, concerts, ballet, opera — the happier I am. It’s why I wanted to live here, close to New York City. Not savoring its cultural riches seems silly to me.
It’s an interesting challenge if you grew up in, or married, or married into, a family that’s heavily invested in a certain kind of person — and you’re not really that person at all.
I’ve seen this firsthand with several women I know and it’s extremely painful to hear and see the tremendous stress it creates. Worse, obviously, to be that person and be told constantly what a disappointment you are.
One chose to leave her faith, to the shock and dismay of her parents. Another is living a deeply conventional life, and is simply not that person.
One of my favorite songs, Once in a Lifetime, by one of my favorite bands, Talking Heads:
You may ask yourself What is that beautiful house? You may ask yourself Where does that highway go to? And you may ask yourself Am I right? Am I wrong? And you may say yourself “My God! What have I done?”
We choose our lives from the best place we know how, at that time. So we sometimes choose the wrong partner, university, job, city or friendships. They feel right then, but as we grow and become more intimate with ourselves, we see how poorly these choices now fit, like a suit of armor that once (likely) protected us — and now constricts our movements in every way.
My first husband, a physician, was “perfect on paper”, a handsome, bright, musical, ambitious man. He was, at first, kind and funny. But he was someone unwilling or unable to do the work of marriage with me, and left me barely two years after we took vows, to remarry. I should have had the guts to not marry him, as I knew it wasn’t a good fit. I did, hoping and determined to “make it work.”
But my second marriage allows me to just be who I am: messy, creative, spontaneous.
In the U.S., the workplace is structured in many ways that insist on denying who we are, whether our sexuality, the fact we are pregnant or soon hope to be (again), the fact we have aging or ill parents or relatives or dear friends who need our caregiving. It’s a country predicated on, and dedicated to, profit and productivity — not human connection or kindness. Work til you drop, dammit!
So if your authentic self more deeply values connection, or creativity, or freedom, or less conventional options, you may find yourself — however authentic — isolated, alone and filled with self-doubt and recrimination.
In your teens, 20s, 30s and 40s, life tends to follow fairly predictable patterns: finish your education, find a partner, marry, have children, buy a home….if you can even afford them, as so many can’t now thanks to crippling student debt and stagnant wages.
If you’re lucky enough to remain healthy and keep finding good jobs, you might be acquiring capital for retirement and watching your income rise. Nothing guaranteed, of course!
But my point is that, for a good long while, the trajectory — traditionally — seems fairly clear, and usually, upward in terms of acquisitions, growth and success.
My old dreams, thankfully, have been realized: to own my own home; to have a happy marriage; generally good health (and access to good care); lasting, deep friendships. I was lucky enough to have three staff jobs at major newspapers, doing work I enjoyed, and several magazine editing jobs, and then published two books to good reviews.
I’ve traveled widely, to 41 countries, including places in Africa and Asia. I love to travel and am debating disappearing into a Paris rental apartment in 2020 for months. I love Paris and I miss hearing and speaking French.
We only get so much time….
The next bit, if I am lucky enough to remain healthy and solvent, is much less clear to me. Many women my age are corporate warriors earning a fortune, too busy for friendship, or doting grandmothers, cooing over their family. I’m in neither category and that is sometimes both disorienting and very lonely.
I still have to bring in money to meet our exorbitant health insurance costs, although I’d happily hang it up now. I still enjoy writing but have been chasing writing income since university and am heartily sick of that.
New dreams include more global travel, possibly writing a few more books, starting a business of PR strategy and another to sell my photos to interior designers.
Will any of these happen? Who knows?
It’s a luxury, I know, to have achieved so many of my younger dreams.
It’s a challenge, now, to think of new ones — and to gin up the requisite enthusiasm and energy for some of them.
She had in her early teens what some would call “a reversal”, my late step-mother, and so, later in life when I knew her, she owned a lot of stuff.
She never talked about her family of origin; in 40 years of knowing her, I only learned the names of her mother, brother and sister — none of whom I ever met — but never that of her father, who had been well-off, then wasn’t.
Never having gone to university, needing to work right away, she later worked as a highly successful writer and editor of TV show scripts and, in good years, made a lot of money, which she spent on expensive shoes and jewelry, amassing garment racks filled with designer clothes, her cupboards bursting with products and cosmetics…all of which proved even more overwhelming to dispose of for my father when she died of lung cancer at 63.
I never understood why having so much stuff — basically, extras of everything — could feel so satisfying.
Now I do.
When Jose and met and started dating 20 years ago, times were tough for me and he was extremely generous, buying me everything from a colander and toaster to new air conditioners. I was living alone, divorced, paying — in the 1990s — $500 a month health insurance as a freelancer. There was very little money left over after paying all the bills.
I certainly had no need for this lovely early 19th. century tea set. But it gives me such pleasure to use.
Now we do have extras: cloth napkins and tablecloths, rolls of toilet paper, candles, rubber gloves, multiple computers. Summer and winter clothing.
We own sports equipment for bourgeois pursuits like skiing and golf.
I feel alternately guilty and weird for having more when so many have less, but I admit it also comforts me.
When you’ve run in survival mode for years, extra is luxury.
3. I speak what I call fluent French, (but don’t try any super-specialized vocabulary!)
4. In March 2014, I shared a dugout canoe with a blogger from Maine in backwoods Nicaragua, on assignment for WaterAid America.
5. I hate hot, humid weather. Give me a good snowstorm any day.
6. My favorite painting at the Met Museum in New York City is this one, an enormous image of Joan of Arc realizing her destiny, from 1879.
7. One of my favorite ways to spend time is rummaging around flea markets, antique shows and consignment shops.
8. In my 30s, for four years, I took up saber fencing, with a two-time Olympian as my coach, and was nationally ranked every year.
9. My first husband walked out after two years of marriage — but my humor essay about the divorce won me a Canadian National Magazine Award. Sweet revenge!
10. I never had children nor wanted to. Being parentified early by a parent who needed too much from me too often left me burned out and unwilling to assume that responsibility. I admire loving parents. It’s hard work!
11. I play softball and hit to the outfield.
12. At 25, I lived for a year in Paris, and traveled across Europe on an EU journalism fellowship. Best year of my life! I went to London, Copenhagen, Sicily and Amsterdam alone on 10-day reporting trips. I was one of 28 journalists from 19 countries — including Sweden, New Zealand, Togo, Japan, China, Brazil, China, Italy and Ireland — and was the youngest one, ages 25 to 35. Still good friends with several of them.
13. My best journey that year was a reporting trip of eight days, from Perpignan to Istanbul, in an 18-wheel truck, (sleeping in it! no showers!) with a French trucker who spoke no English. Lovely man and great adventure!
14. My husband, Jose Lopez, is a super-talented photojournalist and photo editor. He spent 31 years at The New York Times and eight years as a member of the White House Press Corps, including a flight aboard Air Force One. Oh, and a team Pulitzer Prize! Here’s his website.
15. I’ve met Queen Elizabeth aboard her then-yacht Brittania, after two exhausting weeks of 15-hour days following her Royal Tour of Canada as a reporter for the Globe & Mail. She has some amazing jewels!
16. After deciding to leave journalism, I studied interior design seriously at the New York School of Interior Design. But my first husband bailed, and I was fearful of starting over at the bottom at very low wages alone and with a mortgage. I did love my schooling, and it helped me tastefully renovate our apartment.
17. My mother and I are estranged. I’m her only child.
18. I have three half-siblings, including a half-sister I’ve never met and don’t even know where she lives. None of us were raised in the same household and there are four mothers. Yes, it’s complicated.
19. My favorite color is navy blue — a tone I associate with calm authority and competence, (like pilots’ uniforms.)
20. I’ve published two non-fiction books, each of which was rejected by 25 publishers before the 26th said yes.
21. I like to make a pot of tea every day between 4:30 and 5:00 p.m., for a lovely break and some hydration. Favorite teas include PG Tips and Earl Grey.
22. A huge fan of the British paint company Farrow & Ball, (every room in our apartment in their colors), in July 2017 on holiday I made the 2.5 hour one-way journey from London to Dorset, by train and taxi, to visit their factory, get a tour and meet Charlie Cosby, their creative designer. So fun!
23. I listen to TSF Jazz many days, online from Paris. Radio remains my favorite medium: intimate, portable, informative.
24. I miss Mexico! I lived in Cuernavaca with my mother for 6 months at 14 and have gone back many times, but not since our three-week vacation in May 2005.
25. We eat dinner by candlelight and use only cloth napkins. I like a slow and elegant meal.
26. When I was 12 I wrote a fan letter to the legendary writer Ray Bradbury, from my summer camp in northern Ontario to his New York publishers. Within a few weeks, I had a hand-signed postcard from him, with his home address, thanking me.
27. Mad for movies, I usually watch two or more every week, whether on TV, a streaming service on in a theater; this week Booksmart (go!!!) and The Souvenir.
28. My fashion signifier is a scarf/muffler, worn in every season, whether silk, cotton, linen or wool.
29. I love to travel — but am a useless sniveling/weeping weenie if there’s much flight turbulence.
30. My Instagram feed reflects my eclectic tastes: vintage textiles, historic costume, owls, a Danish printmaker, a female NY candlemaker, an Indian woman features her day’s saree, female commercial airline pilots, military aircraft, ceramic artists, photographers, mountain climbers and a UK woman who makes amazing marbled paper, some of which is being showcased in the (fab!) new BBC series Gentleman Jack.
One of the great pleasures of Montreal, the Atwater Market
By Caitlin Kelly
We listen to satellite radio in our nicer car and, I admit it, I listen to the ’80s channel.
Because, yes, it was easily my best and most fun decade, my 20s.
Promptly followed by my worst, the ’90s.
So, my ’80s:
I win an eight-month-long fellowship, based in Paris on Rue du Louvre at the CFPJ, called Journalists in Europe, which chooses 28 men and women 25 to 35 who speak fluent French and English to come and study Europe and write about it, traveling throughout as a group and on solo 10-day reporting trips. There are JEs from Togo, Bangladesh, India, New Zealand, Brazil, China and many others. We form unlikely close friendships, like mine with Yasuro, from Japan, discussing baseball in French. It’s an amazing, exhausting, life-changing year, the happiest of my life, creating friendships that will last for many decades yet to come and giving me a tremendous boost of skills and self-confidence. Plus, getting to live in Paris!
I return to dreary Toronto and finally break up with my live-in boyfriend there who wants to get married. I don’t want to get married so young.
I finally win my dream job, as a reporter for Canada’s best newspaper, The Globe and Mail. I get to cover a Royal Tour, following Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip across Canada for two weeks, a Quebec election and stories from profiling a female prison warden to a series on re-using disposable medical supplies. But it’s a mean, tough, elbows-out newsroom and after 2.5 years I’m burned out and need a break. A friend helps me win my next job.
I move to Montreal to become a feature writer for the Montreal Gazette. I meet my first husband, an American in his final year of medical school at McGill. I love my spectacular top-floor apartment in a gorgeous 1930s downtown building, with two bedrooms, a working fireplace and tall windows. Nicest place I’ve ever lived. But I didn’t love the Gazette and I really hated the ferocity and length of a Montreal winter.
Unbelievable luck — I get an H1-B visa to work for three months in Hanover, NH as an editor, in the exact place my first husband (not yet my fiance) is in his medical residency at Dartmouth. I’m able to get a “green card” to live and work in the U.S, thanks to my mother’s birth in the U.S. and I move to Lebanon, NH. I’ve left behind career, income, friends. But, pre-Internet, locals are so unfriendly I can barely believe it. I usually make friends easily and quickly. We’re broke and my boyfriend is exhausted all the time, if he’s even home. This makes for the roughest experience I’ve had in many years.
We move to New York, to a suburban town where we buy an apartment that needs renovation we can’t afford. It takes me six months of cold calls, and a lucky New York Times’ job ad, to get my first job, as a senior editor at a monthly magazine focused on global news — saved by my ability to speak French and Spanish. We know no one.
I quit that job, and get married, albeit with very serious doubts about whether it will last, no matter how hard I’m willing to work at it. My family wants nothing to do with me and I’ve already had the best jobs in my industry in Toronto and Montreal. Not a lot of options. After barely two years, my husband walks out and re-marries someone from his workplace.
Chaos. I get divorced. I have a few staff jobs, but they don’t last. I had alimony, but it ends. I start online dating and meet a con man through a newspaper ad, who is ruthless and vicious and terrifies me. I waste four months of my life with him, trying to get him arrested and charged, but give up. I am burned out. I am lonely. I am struggling financially. In 1998 I fly, on my dime, all the way to Australia and New Zealand, hoping to write and sell my first book, a narrative of the women’s boat in that year’s round-the-world Whitbread (now Volvo) Yacht Race. But they blow me off when I get there…so I have a great but very expensive and unplanned vacation alone.
Phew. I meet Jose, now my husband, in March. Finally, life starts to become happy again.
Have you had a rough decade?
Or one (maybe several) filled with joy and accomplishment?
I miss these amazing women — the team at my radiation clinic. This was Nov. 15, 2018, my final day of treatment.
By Caitlin Kelly
I’ve written a lot here about trying to find community and loneliness.
But social triage is also — as we say — “a thing.”
Just as ER and conflict medical staff triage patients into: will die, might die, treat first, we tend to decide who’s going to be closest to us and to which friends, or family, we’ll devote the bulk of whatever time and affection we can spare.
I was diagnosed in late May 2018 with very early-stage breast cancer and am, thankfully, fine. But it has, as serious illness tends to do, made much clearer to me who I most want in my life and who, now, I really don’t.
(Others have made the same decision about me — three former friendships died a long time ago. It happens.)
So who are the people I now want closest and treasure most?
— We laugh a lot.
— We make consistent and concerted efforts to see one another face to face, even if only by Skype across an ocean.
— Regular long phone conversations — texts and emojis are just not enough.
— Regular play dates: coffee, lunch, a museum or show.
— Some have accompanied me to medical appointments, their mere presence a tremendous comfort.
— Months may go by without much contact, but we trust one another’s affection and loyalty to know that life gets crazy and we will re-connect.
— We send one another little gifts or cards just because we can.
— They really understand that life can be frightening, and show compassion for fear, anxiety and tears. They don’t flee when times are difficult.
Those left behind?
— It’s always all about them. They don’t even draw breath before launching into a 20-minute monologue.
— They never simply ask “How are you doing?”
— So much drrrrrraaaaaaaama! Exhausting.
— People who radiate haste and anxiety. Much as I have compassion for them, I stay far away. I have enough anxiety of my own.
— People with no sense of perspective, who whine and complain about issues that are for them enormous — but which in the larger scheme of things are minor and easily resolved.
— People who never initiate contact but wait for me to jump-start every meeting.
— People unable to know how much their own challenges are already softened by the privileges of good health and enough income.
Have you become more selective about your friendships?
Life for anyone but the very rich — the physical experience of learning, living and dying — is increasingly mediated by screens.
Not only are screens themselves cheap to make, but they also make things cheaper. Any place that can fit a screen in (classrooms, hospitals, airports, restaurants) can cut costs. And any activity that can happen on a screen becomes cheaper. The texture of life, the tactile experience, is becoming smooth glass.
Which is a terrible paradox.
Without a screen, your phone or computer, I couldn’t be communicating right now with you and with readers arriving at this blog (!) from the most unlikely of places — New Zealand, Nepal, Romania, Zimbabwe, VietNam, Yemen, South Africa.
Without a screen, I wouldn’t be earning our monthly living costs by reading on-line, setting up interviews by email then writing on a laptop and hitting send.
Without a screen, I couldn’t use Skype to chat with friends, and coaching fellow writers and doing PR strategy, with those living outside my town.
And yet…I get lonely and bored if all my interactions are thus mediated.
I get out into nature.
I regularly meet friends for a meal or a coffee.
We throw dinner parties.
A new-to-me weekly meditation group of women.
I host an annual women’s tea party, using an early 19th. century tea-set.
I go to the gym at least three times a week, as much to be social in spin class and afterward as to exercise.
This way of life is often described as “the simple life”. Looking at it head-on, it’s far from simple. This life is actually quite complex, made up of a thousand small, simple things. By comparison, my old urban life was quite simple, made up of a thousand small, complex things. I found industrial life too simple, and thus repetitive and boring. With all of its apps, switches, electronic entertainment, power tools, websites, devices, comforts and conveniences, there was almost nothing left for me to do for myself, except that one thing that earned me the cash to buy my other needs and wants. So as Kirkpatrick Sale once wrote in Human Scale, my wish became “to complexify, not simplify”.
How about you?
Are you trying to lessen your screen time these days?
My visit to Venice (3rd time!) in July 2017…The following July I was in an OR for very early stage (all gone!) breast cancer.
By Caitlin Kelly
So my husband Jose recently won a fantastic award from his peers, The National Press Photographers’ Association — the John Durniak Citation — given annually to the person deemed most giving and nurturing of younger talents, for the best mentor in the business.
And how perfect, then that John himself got Jose his job at The New York Times, where he worked for 31 years and helped the paper win a Pulitzer Prize for photo editing images of 9/11.
It broke my heart, the day before we could announce it publicly, to read that Mrs. Franke, the high school teacher in Santa Fe, NM who first encouraged Jose to get into photography, had just died. I had so wanted to meet her — someday.
For many reasons, we tend to put things off to do “someday”, assuming we have plenty of them left, decades possibly.
But we don’t.
One of my favorite European images, taken in Budapest
The cliche of cancer is how it shakes you very hard by the shoulders, reminding us we have no true idea how many somedays we’ll each enjoy. My breast cancer diagnosis, right before my 2018 birthday, was a wake-up call.
So in 2019, we’re carpe-ing the hell out of every diem!
I’m writing these words from a Montreal hotel room with a fantastic view north to Mt. Royal. on a five-day vacation. We’ve already booked a Paris apartment for my birthday in early June and, (if I get a windfall payment I expect), may take a month off in the fall for England and Scotland.
I hadn’t planned (who does?) to spend $1,300 on co-pays in 2018 (a nice mini-vacation lost) or most of my time in various medical settings or recovering from surgery and treatment.
I’m so glad I was able to take an unprecedented six weeks to visit six European countries in June and July 2017: France, Germany, Hungary, Croatia, Italy and England. It was a birthday gift to myself and thank heaven; if I’d waited til 2018, it would have meant cancelling everything and, without trip insurance, losing a lot of money.
We’re also fortunate enough to have decent retirement savings, so, with our accountant and financial planner’s blessing, we recently took out enough to pay off our apartment mortgage in full, freeing us from monthly anxiety; as two full-time freelancers, our best clients can disappear overnight, while the bills do not.
We’ve seen what can happen to our health, and it’s sobering indeed; Jose began using insulin in 2018 as well.
I’ve always been a saver, typically opting for frugality, so spending money more freely and taking more unpaid time off feels frightening.
The window of when gets narrower with every passing year, until something bad happens and the question has answered itself.
So ask yourself: Do you want to be that person? Who waited until it was too late, and that thing you claimed to want to do you can no longer do because, as Dorothy Parker reminds us “in all history, which has held billions and billions of human beings, not a single one ever had a happy ending.”
If not now, when?
My someday list is is still long, including:
— A visit to Big Bend National Park in Texas
— A visit to Bryce/Zion Parks in Utah
— a horseback/camping vacation
— Visiting Japan, Morocco, Lebanon, South Africa/Namibia/Botswana/Zanzibar/Lamu