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
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
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.