Some things worth saying

By Caitlin Kelly

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Thank you!

I really appreciate what you did for me

I admire your strength

I love your sense of humor

I’m not sure how you do it — but good for you!

I don’t know how I’d get all this done without your help

You’re such a terrific friend

I love you

I’m really sorry I hurt your feelings

This is a tough assignment — so we’ll be sure you get the compensation you need for doing it

What can I do to help?

When can we get together?

Your teaching really pushed me — I learned a lot in your class

I enjoyed our time together

I’m so sorry for your loss

I made an error in judgment — I won’t let it happen again

How are you?

This must be a tough time for you

You did an amazing job on this project

What can I bring?

Sure, I can help — what time do you need me there?

You’re going through a rough time right now, but I’m here for you

Let’s meet for lunch tomorrow

Your resilience is an inspiration to me

I’m so glad we met

I’ll drive you to your appointment

I can take care of the kids this weekend

I’ll sit with you during chemo

What have you said recently to lift someone’s spirits?

What do you most need to hear right now?

Pushpushushpush = success! Maybe not…

By Caitlin Kelly

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It’s a deeply American belief that if you never ever ever give up you’ll eventually get what you want.

It’s charming in its meritocratic faith — but it’s also often bullshit.

Some doors, for all sorts of reasons, stay shut, locked and barred to us, whether social or professional.

Maybe not forever, though.

Patience, it turns out, really can be a virtue. (Oh yeah, and tenacity, in it for the long haul.)

I recently broke through to a market I’ve been wanting to write for for, literally, a decade or more. I wanted it soooooo badly, and wrote to the editor in chief several times, even as every new one arrived.

I had all the right experience and credentials.

Crickets.

Then (yay!) someone who works on staff there followed me on Twitter and I asked, nicely, for an introduction to someone higher up the ladder. She did it. Now I have an assignment I’d finally given up ever attaining.

Sometimes it’s best to just lay down your tools and walk away.

We’re taught from childhood that winners never quit and quitters never win.

But sometimes it’s wisest to retreat and re-think strategy, to ask ourselves why we even want this thing we think we need so desperately.

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Patience — such a Victorian ideal in this era of instant everything —  can produce results.

I won a New York Times national exclusive, a story about Google, (and I don’t cover tech nor live anywhere near Silicon Valley), by waiting six months after learning about it. During those months, my contact and I exchanged more than 100 emails, as the negotiations were so delicate and protracted.

Here’s the story.

Sometimes you just have to wait:

— For the right person to get the hiring/budgetary authority to appreciate you and your skills. That might take months, even years.

— To develop the emotional intelligence to handle a situation you’re sure is yours right now. Maybe you’re really not quite ready for it.

— To nurture social capital, and its referrals to the players who can help you achieve your goals. Trust takes time!

— To polish the social skills required to network well with senior people in your field or industry. Not everyone will respond to your texts or emails just because you’re in an unholy rush. Buy and use high-quality personal stationery. (It works, I know.)

— To acquire the requisite technical skills to add real value to whomever you’re approaching. Just because you want it rightnow! doesn’t mean you’re offering what they need. Your urgency is not theirs.

— To realize, by thinking about it calmly for a while, that a golden opportunity is…not so much.

— To accumulate the savings you need to be able to ditch a crappy marriage or live-in relationship, a nasty job, abusive internship or freelance gig. Once you have a financial cushion, (or, as we call it in journalism, a fuck you fund), your choices become true options. You don’t have to rush into a decision, or stay miserably stuck in a bad situation.

— If you’re mired in endless conflict and confrontation with someone, withdrawing for a while, (maybe even years, if social/family),  might be the best option while you decide what’s best for you, not just for them. It takes time to reflect deeply and to process difficult or painful emotions.

What success(es) have you gained by waiting and being patient —  even when you didn’t want to?

 

Caitlin Kelly, an award-winning non-fiction author and frequent contributor to The New York Times, is a New York-based journalist. Her one-on-one webinars and individual coaching, by Skype, phone or in person, have helped writers and bloggers worldwide; details here. Contact: learntowritebetter@gmail.com.

More simple pleasures

By Caitlin Kelly

The comforting, rasping sound of my husband shaving

The insistent ratatatatatatatat of nearby woodpeckers

The first bike ride of spring

Birdsong

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Trees and bushes finally exploding into starbursts of white, pink, yellow and purple blossom

A freshly-painted room

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New buds

Sandals!

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Holding a tea party for female friends, using my new-to-me early 19th. century tea-set

The sun finally hitting our balcony — giving us a much-loved additional outdoor room

This Moomin mug — what a fun way to start  my morning

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This Moomin mug also makes me happy!

Backlit forsythia — everywhere!

Discovering a gruff local businessman has a softer side, meeting him with his two French bulldogs

Gorgeous, enormous canvases by a local artist on display at our local coffee shop

A kid’s lemonade stand at the end of his suburban driveway

Reading on a park bench in warm sunshine

Watching river traffic — boats and barges — on the Hudson River

Putting away heavy, bulky winter clothing and slipping back into cotton and linen

The joys of a small(er) life

By Caitlin Kelly

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I found this essay intriguing, originally published on the blog, A Life in Progress (and which garnered a stunning 499 comments):

The world is such a noisy place. Loud, haranguing voices lecturing me to hustle, to improve, build, strive, yearn, acquire, compete, and grasp for more. For bigger and better. Sacrifice sleep for productivity. Strive for excellence. Go big or go home. Have a huge impact in the world. Make your life count.

But what if I just don’t have it in me. What if all the striving for excellence leaves me sad, worn out, depleted? Drained of joy. Am I simply not enough?

What if I never really amount to anything when I grow up—beyond mom and sister and wife? But these people in my primary circle of impact know they are loved and I would choose them again, given the choice. Can this be enough?

What if I never build an orphanage in Africa but send bags of groceries to people here and there and support a couple of kids through sponsorship? What if I just offer the small gifts I have to the world and let that be enough?

It was a friend of mine, someone I met in freshman English class at University of Toronto decades ago, who posted it on her Facebook page.

She is often wearied by the insane pace others have set for themselves and keep setting.

It can feel like a race.

This always felt like our theme song, from Michelle Shocked:

Leroy got a better job so we moved
Kevin lost a tooth now he’s started school
I got a brand new eight month old baby girl
I sound like a housewife
Hey Shell, I think I’m a housewife

Hey Girl, what’s it like to be in New York?
New York City – imagine that!
Tell me, what’s it like to be a skateboard punk rocker?

I wasn’t exactly a skateboard punk rocker, but I did leave Canada — dear friends, family, thriving career — for New York.

When two paths diverge sharply, one to crazy, restless ambition (mine), one to settled domesticity (hers), raising three daughters, and a steady job in a smaller city, it often breaks a friendship.

One life looks too sharp-elbowed, the other ordinary and mundane (M’s word choice — I showed her this post beforehand.)

Social media can make these comparisons somewhat excruciating, with all the dark/messy bits of either choice edited out.

Life is more complicated than that.

I chose to leave Canada for New York when I was 30.

When people ask why, I answer with one truthful word: ambition.

It hasn’t all turned out as I hoped. The man I moved to be with, my first husband, proved unfaithful and soon walked out on our marriage.

Three recessions severely slowed my career progress.

Jobs came and went.

Friendships I hope would last for decades imploded.

Shit happens!

But I’ll never forget the heart-bursting joy when I exited the Sixth Avenue headquarters of Simon & Shuster clutching the galleys of my first book.

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My first book, published in 2004. As someone who grew up with no exposure to guns, I was deeply intrigued by this most American of obsessions

Or how cool it was to compete for four years in nationals in saber fencing.

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I now have a happy second marriage and a home in a town I love.

I have an agent, and work, and ideas and friends.

No kids. No grand-kids. No family homestead.

Do I regret my ambition, and its costs? No.

Choosing a quieter life limned by one’s own family, town or community is a choice.

Choosing a life of ambition-fueled drive, another.

Each brings its own satisfactions and joys.

Which sort of life have you chosen?

Are you happy with your choice?

It really requires stamina

By Caitlin Kelly

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Everything, really.

Life.

Love.

Work.

Getting and staying in good physical condition.

Retaining resilience in the face of loss, grief, illness.

So much of life comes at us reallyreallyfast, especially in the age of the Internet.

And then we think, I can get whatever I need or want reallyreallyfast as well.

But it just doesn’t work out that way unless you are very lucky.

And so, when things move much more slowly than we want, or need, what’s our choice?

Staying the course.

Stamina.

Someone two decades younger than I has sustained too many losses of late — the death of a parent, the other lost in the mists of dementia, job loss, the end of a long romantic relationship/home and an injury that’s impeded her from her beloved sport.

I want to envelop her in layers of bubble wrap for a while so nothing else can bruise her lovely spirit for a long time to come. It’s hard to keep going, in any direction, when you feel the wind has been knocked out of you.

But I know her, and I know she has stamina. She will, somehow, power through this.

We all must.

Only with hindsight — and surviving some of life’s insanity and unfairness and sadness — can you more deeply appreciate the power of stamina, of staying in the game, (even if you need to withdraw from it for a while.)

To those of you struggling these days, (and who isn’t on some level, daily?), wishing you comfort, strength and the devotion of family and friends to help you through.

Onward!

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Routine vs. novelty

By Caitlin Kelly

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My former employer, The Globe and Mail, an espresso and a yogurt — a typical breakfast!

I love trying new things, and am often easily bored by routine.

It’s why I generally do better being self-employed, as any truly tedious gig is easily-enough ditched, soon to be replaced with something more interesting and challenging.

But, like everyone, I also find real comfort in the familiar, the tried and true, the reliable and known.

It’s one reason, I confess, I return on vacation to places I already know — my hometown, Toronto; Montreal, Mexico, Paris and London (all of which I’ve lived in), D.C. (to visit friends) and New Mexico (where Jose was born and raised.)

My recent week in Toronto offered both; I deliberately chose to stay in a downtown rented flat, the location and the apartment a novel choice for me. Loved it!

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I tried a few new-to-me restaurants and cafes, and also enjoyed a cafe I’ve been eating at since I left the city for good in 1986, The Queen Mother Cafe. I love its booths, its oddly Asian menu and ohhhh, the cakes!

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One afternoon I headed out, looking forward to trying a new-to-me restaurant — only to find it empty and closed. So much for novelty! That’s the challenge of a city with rapidly-accelerating property values and rents. Your beloved whatever may well be gone the next time you visit a favorite city or town.

In daily life, it’s a challenge to keep mixing it up, balancing a thirst for the new with the stability of reliably knowing that some things won’t change, at least for a while.

Between birth and age 30 I changed cities four times, countries four times. I’d attended five schools. I’d lived in 13 different homes, from apartments in Cuernavaca and Montreal to a student dorm in Paris to a stone cottage in Scotland; (this doesn’t include five years in a Toronto boarding school and nine summers spent at four Ontario summer camps.)

I’ve now stayed in the same one bedroom apartment since moving to the U.S. in 1989.

The thought of packing/sorting/moving/adapting again? Brrrrrr!

I was burned out from moving too often too quickly; between 1982 and 1989 I’d moved Toronto-Paris-Toronto-Montreal-NH-NY. I was fried. I wanted roots. I wanted to find and nurture new professional and personal relationships, which I have.

I’m still using the same doctors, hair salon, library since I arrived and am 17 years into my (happier!) second marriage.

But these days, finally,  I’m feeling a bit restless and so I’m actively seeking out some novel experiences.

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A favorite Toronto store. I always visit and always find something fun to buy

This week, (however small it may seem), I’m reading a collection, a best-of 2015’s science fiction and fantasy. Loving it! As someone whose normal media diet is news and non-fiction, reading in this genre is a stretch for me but one that’s really proven pleasurable.

I’m now absorbing less news, unusual for me.

I may (gulp) sign up for a decorative arts course in London this summer, as I’ll be there anyway. It’s not cheap, but it’s focused on two of my passions, combined — antique textiles and Asian art.

I dread intellectual sclerosis!

Here’s a 27 year old woman who set two Guinness World Records for seeing every country in the world, as the fastest female to do so…talk about new adventures! She began in Palau and ended in Yemen. (The video I link to here is 22 minutes long.)

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Riding the Red Rocket, Toronto’s streetcars…this one, the King St. car,  blessedly empty at noon.

Which of the two, novelty or routine, do you prefer?

Why?

Stand down

By Caitlin Kelly

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Much wisdom in this (too-long) blog post, on Medium:

True growth and success is always sustainable. It’s not a short sprint with an inevitable physical, mental, and emotional crash. All goals are means, not ends. Each succeeding stage of your progression should clearly build one-upon-another, leaving you stronger and more able, not weaker and permanently damaged.

In order to do this, you must properly “recover” from the following things on a daily basis:

  1. Work

  2. Technology

  3. People

  4. Food

  5. Fitness

  6. Being awake

This is so damn smart!

This is so utterly counter-cultural.

I make it a point to recover from all six of these, as a matter of course and of self-care and self-preservation.

For numbers 1 through 3, I’m fortunate enough to be self-employed, so setting boundaries, and keeping them, doesn’t mean potentially threatening my livelihood.

For Number four, I eat 750 calories two days a week.

For fitness, I work out/exercise 3-4 days a week, sometimes (sigh) only twice.

Working from home, I nap as needed, sometimes as little as 15 to 20 minutes, sometimes 90 minutes; without dependents, not difficult.

Living in the United States these days, and I live/work near New York City in a thrashing/disrupted industry (journalism), means waking up every single morning in something of a panic.

Not helped by the daily chaos of Trump.

Whose civil rights will disappear tomorrow?

Which new executive order will require more calls and emails to elected representatives or another street protest?

Should we move back to Canada? When? Where?

If I stay — or if we go — would we be able to find work?

 

This is also brilliant, from a writing-focused website called Catapult:

Call it self-care, sure, or call it life, but a soul is a thing that requires tending. The soul is not quite interchangeable with “heart” or “mind,” or any other word we mean to denote only the “spiritual” part of a person. In the words of the philosopher Dallas Willard, the soul is the entire inner person, not detached from bodily life but inclusive of it, as well as heart and mind, thought and motivation, feeling and judgment. An untended soul drifts toward inertia.

But what does my soul benefit from being “productive”? Am I any number of inches closer to God because I wrote an essay that was praised by someone I desperately wanted to impress? What is the moral imperative to produce?

These questions are all tricks to say that I have no idea what the answer is. I know that when I am anxious, I often think I can produce my way out of it. I have an uneasy relationship with productivity, thinking my anxiety will be placated if I just do enough big things.

 

Every day, I see talented, experienced friends losing well-paid jobs in our field, with no certainty of being able to replace them. One pal needed almost an entire year to find his new job, yet another insecure contract position.

We also live in a time and age relentlessly demanding increased productivity.

We’re exhorted constantly to domorebetterfaster!

 

Not to think.

Not to reflect.

Not to sit still, alone, in silence.

 

Not to take good, slow, thoughtful care of our most valuable resource, our health.

And yet, and yet, we’re each of us simply human, de facto limited in some way, whether by lack of time, impaired physical stamina, weakened emotional energy or by restricted access to social capital or financing.

We’re not robots.

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We’re not robots. We need to rest and recharge.

We’re not machines, no matter what laissez-faire capitalism (and stagnant wages) relentlessly demand.

We’re all running too hard, too fast.

As a result, many of us vibrate with anxiety, shoving sweets and fats and pills and liquor down our throats in an attempt to satiate much deeper, more painful sadness and anxiety, whether personal, political or professional.

Sometimes (sigh) all three.

It’s a very wise choice to pay attention, to read the signals, to try our best to stay safe and to protect the rights and needs of others.

But not 24/7.

Here’s a 14-minute story (from one of the best shows I listen to on NPR, the Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC), about how stressed many Americans are feeling since the election of Trump.

Chronic anxiety will kill you.

Even soldiers need sleep, food, companionship.

Stand down!

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A barstool conversation

By Caitlin Kelly

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Grand Central Terminal; the view from Cipriani. What’s not to love?

Sitting at the bar is where I’ve had some of my best conversations — in Corsica, in Atlanta, in San Francisco and last Friday evening in New York City.

It was about 6:30.

Commuters were rushing to their trains north, to Connecticut and to Westchester, tourists, as always, posing on the steps and slowing rushed New Yorkers down as they raced for the 6:47 or whichever train was next.

Never get in the way of a New Yorker in a hurry!

I settled in at Cipriani , an elegant Italian restaurant in a balcony overlooking the station. I had a magazine and a Mr. C, a citrus-based cocktail. The bartender kindly plugged in my cellphone to charge it.

A handsome young man in a navy suit and white shirt, no tie, slid onto the stool to my left; a slightly older man with a head of wild black hair and oversized sunglasses sat to my right.

“How’s your week been?” I asked the man to my left.

He told me he’d just gotten a new job, and we toasted, clinking our cocktail glasses.

He seemed surprised I was happy to toast a stranger’s success. Why not? Who would be too churlish to deny him that pleasure?

It’s a big deal to flee a job that’s a poor fit for one you hope will be a much better one. Been there, done that.

That’s the beauty, I suppose, of being near the tail end of a long career. For someone only a decade in, every decision can still feel problematic because you’ve yet to make that many of them.

An investment banker, he admitted he didn’t much like the field, but — probably like many people, especially those unhappy at work — he had pretty much fallen into it. If you know anything about I-banking, the income is certainly seductive, but golden handcuffs are still handcuffs.

I urged him to start creating an exit strategy. Life is far too short to stay in a field or industry you really don’t enjoy, I said.

He looked surprised by my vehemence, and my insistence one could actually enjoy one’s work life.

We ended up talking for about an hour, sharing stories of family and work, of dating woes and East Coast snobberies, and the classic diss we’d both experienced: “Where’d you go to school?”, a tedious sorting mechanism. (The only correct answer being the coy, “In New Haven” (Yale) or “Providence” (Brown University) or another of the Ivy League.)

“I’m strapping, right?” he asked me, at one point. He was, actually.

It was a bit awkward to be asked, even though the answer was affirmative.

He was a little drunk.

It made me a little sad.

He was single, and just under half my age, a fact he finally realized but managed to handle with grace.

We had a good conversation with lots of laughter, a few of of life’s more painful challenges and a few high fives.

I like how the right bar and a drink or two can connect two strangers companionably for a while.

(Just in case, though:

  1. Make sure you don’t get drunk; stay safe!
  2. Make sure no one has access to your drink except you (beware someone dumping rohypnol; i.e. getting roofied.)
  3. Make sure you feel 100 percent comfortable with the tone and content of any conversation. If not, move or leave.
  4. Make sure you can leave quickly and safely, if necessary; trust your instincts.)

 

Do you ever sit at the bar?

Do you ever talk to strangers there?

A mid-winter walk

By Caitlin Kelly

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We’d endured day after day after day of cold, gray, wet, sunless weather.

Cabin fever was setting in — not to mention Vitamin D deficiency.

Finally (yay!) a January day, unseasonably warm for a downstate New York winter, about 45 degrees F, and it was finally a chance to get out for a walk!

Here are some images I shot with my cellphone, along the pathway near our home I’ve been walking in every season for decades.

It’s nothing fancy. No amazing, jaw-dropping views; it’s a mile in each direction, and there are several benches at the reservoir’s edge so you can sit for a while and savor it.

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brook

leafs

mushrooms

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I love how the light shifts season to season, how the woods, in spring and summer, go from silent to full of animals and birds.

This time of year, the only sounds I heard were dried leaves rustling in the wind, a brook and some cars circling the reservoir.

Winter is a season whose beauty is easily overlooked, subtle and quiet — water reflections, pale leaves, lichen and moss.

There is something so deeply soothing and restorative, for me, walking in nature alone.

No music.

Just air and light and water, trees and rocks and plants and sky.

Do you get out into nature often?

Do you also find it healing?

Light a candle

By Caitlin Kelly

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As I write this post, it’s snowing here in New York.

The world is blessedly silent and softened, flakes swirling in the wind and piling up against our windows and ledges.

Our view of the Hudson River is totally obscured in a blanket of white.

Perfect time for candles!

My vision of candles forever changed about 20 years ago, when I visited Stockholm in late November, when the sun rose at 8:30 a.m. and set around 2:30 p.m.

Darkness arrived so early in the day that it was both unsettling and disorienting.

I’d never before seen businessmen at lunch — dining by candlelight. But it was both a smart way to boost illumination and add to the room’s ambience.

I now start and end my winter days with a bedside scented candle, a gift from a friend.

It’s a soothing start to a dark, cold, windy morning — the scratch of match-head on matchbox, the whoosh and flare of flame, the flicker as it catches the wick and begins to glow.

At night, I breath out, extinguishing it. The day is done.

So much nicer than brilliant, suddenly shocking electric light or, worse, the artificial glow of a tablet, phone, television or computer screen.

(If you ever watched Downtown Abbey on TV, you might recall the Dowager Duchess holding a fan to her face as she confronts the new glare of electric bulbs.)

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Candlelight is silent.

Candlelight is gentle.

Candlelight is timeless.

It reconnects us to the past — from the tallow candles of our ancestors to the elegant tapers of Georgian homes (magnified by enormous mirrors everywhere.)

Try it and see how it alters and softens your mood

As the saying goes — it’s better to light a single candle than curse the darkness.