If you have moved around a lot, it can be hard to decide where your heart truly lies — where “home” is.
I’ve lived in six cities and two towns in five countries — my native Canada, England (ages 2-5), Mexico (age 14), France (ages 25-26), the United States (age 30 on.)
I always felt too American for Canada — too bossy, too direct, too ambitious, too much in a hurry.
Now I feel too European for the U.S. — I savor time off. I don’t flagellate myself hourly for being less “productive” than my many peers and competitors, many half my age. I like long vacations and two-hour lunches. I take naps.
So while home again in Canada for the first time in two full years, the eternal question arises again: where’s home?
While I spent decades in Toronto, and have many many memories there, is it home?
Home, to me, means a place I feel truly welcome, and while we have lifelong friends there, Toronto housing is absurdly overpriced — nasty little houses an arm’s length apart are $1 million and condo boxes $600,000. No thanks!
Then…maybe a house in the Ontario countryside? Same problem. The cost of housing is inflated by demand, beyond what is workable for us.
Or another country?
Tempted by Montreal’s many charms…
I follow several Facebook pages now on living in France and look at a lot of French real estate online. Because of COVID, I don’t see spending the requisite time and money to search more seriously.
I lived there for a year at 25 and have been back many times. I know a few areas a bit: Paris, Normandy, Brittany, the Camargue, the Cote d’Azur, Corsica. I speak fluent French. I love the way of life and physical beauty and ease of getting around thanks to the TGV network. But if we moved there full-time would any of our North American friends ever come to visit?
Would we easily make new deep friendships?
My mother died in a nursing home in 2020, her apartment sold a decade earlier to pay its costs.
My father buys and sells houses, forever restless. So there’s no family homestead to attach to emotionally…I left one of his houses at 19 and never again lived with either parent.
So, for now, my heart remains in Tarrytown, a small town north of Manhattan on the Hudson, a town so pretty we are constantly seeing film and TV crews arriving to set up on our main street. I landed there when my first husband found a psych residency nearby and we bought a one-bedroom apartment. I had never been there nor ever lived outside a major city. It’s dull and hard to make friends, but we enjoy a great quality of life with Manhattan only 45 minutes south and gorgeous scenery for walks and bike rides and a lot of history.
With 45 gone for now (but who knows?) life feels so much calmer and less terrifying than it did between 2016 and 2020 when, like many others, thoughts of fleeing were a daily part of our life, however impractical.
I also wrote for, of all places, Mechanical Engineering magazine, on STEM education and on water treatment. Both were challenging, fascinating stories to produce and — of course! — my editor then left the magazine. So we’ll see if there’s more work from them for 2021.
Thanks to Twitter, I was hired by the Lustgarten Foundation to blog about their work funding pancreatic cancer research. I’m not a science writer, so I was happily surprised to be invited to do this. It’s been quite extraordinary interviewing some of the world’s best scientists.
I also Zoomed into eight classes around the U.S. — undergrad college classes in Utah, Philadelphia and Florida and high school journalism classes in Florida, Michigan, California. Ohio and Pennsylvania. I really enjoyed it and the students were engaged and lively. It’s the only bright spot of this isolation — that there’s a need and a hunger for voices like mine in the classroom and there’s a technology that makes it quick and easy.
The year started with the best piece of work I’ve produced since my books — a 5,000 word examination for The American Prospect of how Canadians experience their single-payer healthcare systems. I grew up there and was a medical reporter so this was a perfect fit for me. Jose, my husband, accompanied me for two weeks’ travel around Ontario and shot the images, the first time we had ever worked on a project together.
Personally, it was a year — as it was for many of us — of social isolation, fear of getting COVID, of not seeing friends or family. Visits with several physicians made clear the urgency of my really losing a lot of weight — 30 to 50 pounds — which basically feels impossible. I started 16/8 intermittent fasting November 1 and plan to keep it up indefinitely. I swim laps for 30 minutes three times a week and am trying (ugh) to add even more exercise.
I don’t mind exercising, per se, but I really hate doing all of it alone.
Probably like many of you, because seeing people face to face is so complicated now, I’ve massively boosted my phone, email and Skype visits with friends — four in one recent week with pals in London, Oregon, California and Missouri. This pandemic-imposed isolation and loneliness is very tough and I’m sure even the strongest and happiest partnerships and marriages are, like ours, feeling claustrophobic by now.
I took a chance and joined something called Lunchclub.ai — which matches you with strangers who share your professional interests for a 45 minute video conversation. My first was with a woman in another state who was half my age — but lively, fun and down to earth. Despite my initial doubts, I enjoyed it. You can sign up for two a week and at times that suit you best, between 9 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. ET.
In a time of such relentless isolation, why not?
Stuck safely at home, I’ve watched a lot of TV and movies. Favorites, many of which I’ve blogged here, include Borgen, Call My Agent, I May Destroy You, The Undoing, Trapped, Bordertown and DCI Banks.
My mother died in a nursing home in British Columbia — very far from us in New York — on Feb. 15, my best friend’s birthday. She was cremated and at some point I will go up there to spread her ashes and claim two enormous pieces of art she left me. We hadn’t been in touch in a decade, even though I was her only child.
My half-brother who lives in D.C., a five-four drive south, had twins in May, (the only grandchildren my father will ever have from his four children), a boy and girl, but he refuses to accept my overtures to rekindle a relationship — having decided in 2007 he was too angry with me. I was not invited to his wedding and have never met his wife. Estrangement is very familiar within our family.
On a happier note, thanks to a much better year for work, we were able to spark up our apartment a bit — adding a new silver velvet sofa and throw cushions from Svensk Tenn, a vintage kilim bought at auction, new lampshades and framing some art. When you spend 95 percent of your life at home, keeping it tidy and lovely helps a lot with the inevitable cabin fever. The money we’ve saved on not going to ballet/’opera/concerts, let alone commuting (a 10 trip train ticket into Manhattan is $95) or parking in the city (easily $30 to $50 for the day) has been substantial.
We’ve bought almost no clothes or shoes — why?!
We have eaten out, usually once a week locally, and if the restaurant is large and empty, will do so indoors.
We only took two very brief breaks: in July two nights at a friend’s home in upstate New York and two nights’ hotel in Woodstock, NY. It was very much appreciated!
I tried in late October to take a solo respite at a small inn in rural Pennsylvania — and ended up deep in Trump country. It wasn’t my style at all and I left two days earlier than planned.
I’ve tried to read more books, not very successfully.
Here are two I did read and really enjoyed.
And I started re-reading my own work, my first book, Blown Away, published in 2004. It holds up! Now a 2021 goal is finding a new publisher to re-issue it and financing the time it will take me to update and revise it.
How was your 2020?
What are some of your goals, hopes and dreams for 2021?
Baby Elephant was a gift after my tonsils were removed — age five or six. Sawgy is a stuffed green crocodile my husband brought back from a golf tournament.
By Caitlin Kelly
The ability to moderate one’s emotions — especially sadness, fear, anxiety — is one of the skills we all learn to acquire. It’s essential to our mental health, especially in times of trouble, like right now!
It’s called self-soothing.
When we’re little, we might have a favorite blanket or stuffed animal. We might also (as I did for many years) suck our thumb or obsessively twirl a lock of our hair, as I once saw a Big Name writer do in the audience of a writing conference.
The reason this interests me is that what we choose is so individual — and this recent story for HuffPost by writer Aileen Weintraub about sleeping with a stuffed animal very quickly drew negative comments:
I can’t remember the magic age when I felt it became taboo to sleep with a soft toy. It may have been after college or perhaps when I landed a job on Wall Street and began wearing business suits. When I ask close friends if they sleep with a stuffy, they scoff, wondering if I’m serious. So I open up the conversation to find out how they self-soothe when they can’t sleep. One confesses to sneaking down to the fridge and eating ice cream out of the container, another obsessively reads medical mysteries, and another says she pets her real dog more than she feels is normal by other people’s standards, whatever those are.
Stuffed toys are “transitional objects,” meaning they provide stability and comfort for children when their caregivers aren’t there. But maybe we are always transitioning. Becoming a parent is a transition. Heading into middle age is a transition. Right now, we are collectively transitioning through a pandemic. Admitting this can be hard. We keep these secrets to ourselves, letting only a select few witness our vulnerabilities. It goes against every cultural norm we have learned to honestly discuss our need for softness and comfort because perhaps by acknowledging it, we are acknowledging our deepest insecurities.
In the light of day, I might consider myself a confident, successful woman, but at night I’m reminded that I run on anxiety and self-doubt, and George makes it better. Sometimes I sleep with him on top of my chest like a weighted blanket.
I’ve long had a collection of stuffed animals and have no shame or embarrassment about it as an adult.
I don’t use drugs — while others do.
I don’t drink a lot of alcohol — as others do.
Both are perfectly acceptable ways, publicly, to self-soothe as an adult.
Not a stuffy!
I want to wake up and go to sleep feeling calm and happy — and if the faces of a collection of small furry friends is helpful — who is there to criticize that choice?
This little guy traveled across six European countries with me in the summer of 2017, no doubt amusing many hotel chambermaids.
Like some others I know, this recent New York Times story, about people toughing out their pandemic in their second home, left me annoyed with its timing…with millions of other scared and broke Americans now facing eviction.
As they say — read the room!
Yes, I know there are rich people!
I know many of them read the Times.
While living full-time in places that usually get much less wear and tear, these homeowners share many of the same difficulties as anyone dealing with the coronavirus lockdown — working in communal spaces where their children now are present 24-7, discovering items in their homes that need updating, and then renovating a home while they are living in it. In addition, these homeowners must adjust to living in relatively unfamiliar towns, often far from friends, family, or creature comforts like a favorite bagel shop or longtime barber.
People assumed this must be a parody.
If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s how much we can — and now must — forego.
Any form of amusement in a shared interior space? Gone!
Worshiping en masse indoors or not socially distanced outdoors? Gone!
Haircut and color? Gone, still, for many.
Massages, tattoos, other forms of out-sourced grooming? Gone!
Libraries? Gone! A few have gone to interesting lengths, from curbside delivery in brown paper shopping bags to home delivery by drone.
Oh, and travel? Forget it. In-state only, and even then only if you live in a state (only 16 left now in the U.S.) not devastated by huge numbers of COVID cases. New York lost more than 20,000 people to this virus, but thanks to millions of others who dismissed all those morgue trucks as a fantasy — we’re all now shut inside the borders of a nation in economic ruin. Awesome!
So it’s been a powerful lesson, beyond food and shelter, in what we once might have considered necessities — and know now for sure are luxuries.
A while back, I gave some insider advice about writing a book to an MD I follow on Twitter, something I normally charge for. I didn’t. A bit later, he dropped a really nice gift into my PayPal account and I splurged for these!
A few luxuries I appreciate have remained possible: fresh flowers (now often from our small balcony garden), perfume and some new clothes and sandals, ordered by mail and a few bought in-store, and a quick four-day trip upstate to visit a friend and two nights’ hotel.
I treated myself to a subscription, in print, (which I keep for years!) this magazine that’s hard to find here, and am in heaven swooning over 16th century cottages and gorgeous gardens, a happy substitute until, someday, I can get back there.
All of it wonderful.
For parents, certainly of multiple small children, not being able to rely on out-of-home childcare or schooling is a huge stressor with no calm, competent leadership anywhere on this in sight. STILL.
How absurd that education and childcare — both absolute necessities for a functioning economy while also safeguarding health — have suddenly become luxuries, with the most privileged snapping up teachers to teach locally-formed pods.
We’ve been very lucky to have steady work, bizarre in a time of such privation, but very aware of how lucky we are, especially as two full-time freelancers.
Age six or seven, in our former Toronto back yard, with one of our two Siamese cats, Mitzpah and Horowitz
By Caitlin Kelly
I’m very lucky to live with a skilled photo editor and archivist for the United States Golf Association — whose ability to rescue faded, torn, wrinkled images is amazing.
I’d lost hope for this photo, which is in color and was so so faded! But he brought it back.
This photo means a lot to me, because it’s the only image I have of the last home I shared with both parents, on Castlefrank Road in Rosedale, a lovely neighborhood of Toronto. It would prove to be the last time I lived in a house until I was 15, as my now single mother and I lived in different apartments in Toronto and Montreal.
Bored by isolation during this pandemic, I’ve recently returned to two activities I haven’t done in decades and used to really enjoy —- swimming and playing the guitar.
In my teens, I was a skilled swimmer and used to compete, do synchronized swimming and worked part-time through high school as a lifeguard. But I’ve never enjoyed swimming at the Y — the pool is enormous and even one length daunting.
Luckily, our apartment building pool is open this summer, even if only for two months, and I’m trying to do multiple lengths every afternoon. To my surprise and joy, I’m finding it really relaxing, and a great time to stretch out muscles cramped from too much sitting.
I used to play guitar and write songs and haven’t even touched it in 20 years. But it’s time! I’m excited and nervous to start building up the calluses needed to play without pain. I love singing and really miss it.
Have you taken up new skills or activities in the pandemic?
At 25, I won a fellowship based in Paris that had 28 journalists from 19 countries, ages 25 to 35. People came from Bangladesh, Togo, New Zealand, Ireland, North America, Brazil, China, Japan. It was absolutely fantastic. We each did four 10-day solo reporting trips; I went to Amsterdam and London to write about squatting (taking over abandoned properties); went to small-town Sicily to write about Cruise missiles; went to Copenhagen to write about the Royal Danish Ballet and took an 8-day truck trip from Perpignan to Istanbul to write about the trucking industry. We also went on group trips to Munich and Siena and forged, en deux langues, deep friendships lasting to this day. My love for Paris and France runs very deep with gratitude for this life-changing experience.
A toss-up between 1983 when I saw my mother in a locked psychiatric ward in London; 1994 when my first husband walked out for good; 1998 when I dated a con man and 2018 with a (not bad) breast cancer diagnosis. At least I had time to recover from each before the next one hit.
Tea or coffee?
The best place you’ve ever visited (outside your home country?)
A three-way tie between Corsica, Thailand and Ireland. I cried when I left all of these.
Best book(s) you ever read?
Whew. Too many. I loved The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachmann and My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell, Cutting For Stone. Random Family (non-fiction) is astounding, as is Skyfaring.
So so so many! Casablanca. All the Ocean’s movies. All the Bourne movies. Michael Clayton. Dr. Zhivago. The Devil Wears Prada. For documentaries, Capernaum is a powerful, unforgettable must-see.
A you a nervous flyer?
Regretfully, yes. I love to travel and am not good with turbulence.
I can whistle really loudly with two fingers, grind jib really fast at the start of a sailboat race, have an excellent color sense and almost always know — within 20-30 minutes, day or night — what time it is.
Activity you most dread?
Seeing a doctor. Too many visits for too many reasons.
Most look forward to?
Hmmmm. Landing/arriving somewhere distant at the start of a long vacation.
How do your weekend mornings typically start?
The New York Times and Financial Times, in print. Coffee. Probably toast and an omelette and fresh orange juice. More coffee!
Do (did) your parents approve of/support your career choice?
Absolutely. My father made films and my mother worked as a writer and magazine editor.
What do you most admire in others?
A passion for, and commitment to, social justice. Honesty tempered by kindness, tact and thoughtful timing. Deep loyalty to friends. Skills I lack — musical ability, gardening. A massive work ethic (not to be confused with workaholism.) I really enjoy people who are deeply curious and have an appreciation for beauty and elegance.
I love making soup, roast chicken, a good salad and vinaigrette.
This is easy and so good!
Hmmmm. So many things! Rice pudding and flan. Strawberries. Oysters with mignonette sauce. Branzino. Baguette with brie.
Do you have a pet?
No. We keep discussing getting a dog but have not yet.
Is/was your family of origin a happy one?
No. Have mentioned this here many times.
What’s your favorite thing to wear (clothing, shoes, accessories)?
I’m mad for scarves of all kinds: linen, silk (two Hermès), cotton, cashmere, wool. It’s really my signature. Rings and earrings — Jose has given me some lovely ones. Also very fond of quality footwear, like the low black suede boots I bought in Canada last year.
With so much more time at home to reflect, it’s been interesting to flip through old photos, enjoying happy memories.
A few of these:
Jose and I, now together 20 years, married in 2011, met through an online dating site, which I was writing about for a magazine story. His was one of (!) 200 replies to my profile, whose candid headline was Catch Me If You Can. He did!
Not one to hesitate, he pulled out the big guns and, within two months of meeting me, invited me to the White House News Photographers annual dinner, a black tie affair in D.C. seated with senior photo editors of his employer, The New York Times.No pressure!
And, showing off his extraordinary access as a former NYT White House Press Corps photographer, we were allowed into the Oval Office.
Two of my proudest moments: Malled (2011) and Blown Away (2004.) I loved writing both books and have two proposals I’m slowly working on. Journalism has been so decimated in the past decade and there are very few places that still offer room to tell a story in depth — and pay enough to make it worth doing.
September 2019, Ontario, doing one of the 30 interviews for my story on Canadian healthcare, interviewing a physician. Jose and I traveled around rural Ontario for three weeks that month and had a fantastic time — I interviewed plenty of people but we also stayed with old friends, like a woman I hadn’t seen in 50 years (!) I went to private school with. So fun!
Jose thought it would be a good idea to photograph the judging of the Pulitzers, so he did! When you work 100 percent freelance, as we both do, you’re constantly drumming up ideas to sell. No ideas, no income!
The fab team of radiologists and physicians my on my final day of radiation for early stage breast cancer, November 15, 2018. They were so kind and compassionate.
We love visiting Montreal. Such charm! It’s about a 6.5 hour drive from our home in New York. I love speaking and hearing French encore une fois and we have some friends there to catch up with. We even now have a favorite room at the hotel we like, the Omni Mount Royal — which overlooks the exact site of the (torn down) brownstone I lived in at 12 with my mother. We used to fly kites on Mount Royal — and when I met my first husband in his final year of med school at McGill, took him up there on a ffffffrrrezzzing caleche ride. So many memories!
Summer 2017, a glorious Budapest cafe. I treated myself to an unprecedented six weeks’ travel through six countries: France, Germany, Hungary, Croatia, Italy, England. It was worth every penny. Dying to travel again! Unlikely — I met up there with my best friend from university, who lives in Kamloops, B.C., whose daughter had been studying in Eastern Europe.
Yup, that’s fellow Canadian, actor Mike Myers, who I met at Fleet Week in NYC a few years ago, at a Canadian consulate event. He was a lot of fun.
Our wedding, September 2011, on an island in Toronto. A tiny church, with 25 friends/family in attendance. It was a perfect fall afternoon.
This would have been pre-1994, when I was competing as a sabre fencer at nationals.
June 2015, Co. Donegal, where we rented a cottage
I’ve been so fortunate to have paid adventures like this one! March 2014. My first ride in a dug-out canoe.
I had planned to leave journalism and become an interior designer so I studied here in the 1990s — and loved it! Then I taught writing there for years.
I’ve been twice. What an amazing place! This is from 2013
What a hoot! This would have been 2011 or earlier, before my hip replacement. They gave me the clothes to keep! And the photographer (small world!) came from Atlanta to New York, the husband of an old friend.
This is probably my proudest writing moment — a National Magazine Award for an essay (humor!) about my divorce. I wrote it and sent to a national Canadian women’s magazine who sat on it for a few years (I got divorced in 1995), but they did a great edit — and voila!
As an official #avgeek, who thrills to the sight of any aircraft and loves the smell of JP4, aka jet fuel, I often think in/use aviation metaphors.
Last week I had a long heart-to-heart with a dear friend, a much younger woman still in her 20s. She’s feeling stuck and frustrated, and has had a family tragedy hit her as well. It’s a lot!
When all those around you look like they’re making much faster progress towards personal and professional goals — marriage, kids, buying a home, getting a job or a promotion — it’s so easy and so demoralizing to feel left behind. Even at my age, decades into a good journalism career, I still gnash my teeth and rend my garments when I see other writers winning big awards and fellowships and fancy book and movie and TV deals.
Envy is also a fairly human emotion.
I also subscribe to the belief that, just as some flights go much more quickly thanks to a tailwind and some more slowly thanks to a headwind, so do our lives.
And many of the obstacles and many of the privileges (head/tailwinds) also remain invisible.
And in American can-do, individual, no-social-safety-net culture, it’s completely normal — and really bad for your psyche — to blame only yourself. If only you had done X! Or didn’t do Y! So and so did Z and look at their success!
We just don’t know, unless someone is completely candid with us, what tremendous advantages or disadvantages they have had to overcome or enjoy. It’s rare that we compete on a level playing field.
Headwinds can include:
Acute illness/recovery — or any of these for a loved one
Lack of skills
Lack of access/income for training
Poor access, or none, to transit/transportation
No medical care
Lack of education and access to same
Race, gender, ethnicity, religious prejudice
Becoming a crime victim
Emotional or physical or sexual abuse
Luxury itself is a tailwind
A high-earning spouse or partner
A safe, green and attractive home and neighborhood
Wealthy parents or grandparents offering money
Excellent work skills
Successful legal role models
Wise, kind, reliable people to turn to for help and advice
Secure non-work income, like a pension or other solid investments
Social capital, i.e. knowing people with power who will help you
A sense of self-confidence
A safe and reliable vehicle or ready access to safe, affordable, reliable public transit
People who actively love and check in on you
Solid, strong friendships
So I told my younger friend it was necessary to see her life differently, even though the tragedy is permanent and life-altering and no one seems to understand its effects, which also leaves her isolated.
I know the choices she’s made were risky and unconventional — and I admire all of them, for her guts and sense of adventure and all the skill and wisdom they have brought her.
And I told her how much I admire her.
I worked retail for 2.5 years, a day a week for The North Face, and made $11/hour, from 2007 to 2009. It was a tiring, poorly-paid, emotionally-taxing and unrewarding job in most ways.
We needed cash. It offered steady, reliable cash. And I was not a teenager, far from it — in fact the oldest person of our 15-member staff.
How I felt about it was irrelevant to getting the damn job done.
It ended up becoming my second book, but none of that appeared likely to me until September 9, 2009 when we had a major publisher committed.
The 2008 crash was very much a headwind, and a shared one.
Now, 12 years later, we’re all screwed thanks to the pandemic — with only the wealthiest and healthiest feeling no/few headwinds.
The rest of us will have to fly onwards as best we can.