Social triage

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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.)

 

 

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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.

 

 

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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?

Too many screens?

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At least these screens were used at a recent photo conference — in a room filled with other people!

 

By Caitlin Kelly

And yet, here we are again!

A recent New York Times piece on how the wealthy eschew screen time while the rest of us poor suckers spend all our time on them:

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.

Church, occasionally.

A new-to-me weekly meditation group of women.

 

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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.

 

Here’s a new book I’m eager to read, written by Mark Boyle,  a British man who has gone back to living alone an 18th century rural life there since 2016, eschewing all technology.

Here’s a recent piece by him in The Guardian:

 

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?

Never enough “somedays”

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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.

 

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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.

Here’s a beautiful essay from a website I write for regularly, considerable.com, on seizing the day:

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

— Studying film more seriously

— Studying floral design

 

How about you?

Are you getting to your somedays?

 

 

I made an unprecedented move. Scary!

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Being ferocious? For others, yes…

 

By Caitlin Kelly

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

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

How can this be?

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

It was tough.

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

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

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

New to him.

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

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

It’s a real privilege and one I value.

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

But standing up for myself?

Hard as hell.

 

How about you?

 

Cleaning house

 

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

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

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

 

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

 

Ditching worn-out friendships

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

 

Seeking newer, better clients for my skills

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

 

Setting tighter boundaries around my time, attention and energy

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

When does ambition fade?

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By Caitlin Kelly

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

What ambitions do you still hold?

 

Do you have a timeline for achieving them?

“You’re normal”

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Fragility is humbling and frightening

 

By Caitlin Kelly

It’s been a rough week, slowly recovering from my last radiation treatment — October 15 — and still fighting its cumulative fatigue and insane itchiness on my left breast. I was at my wits’ end, crying in public, (I almost never cry anywhere), just done.

I had a follow-up meeting with the radiation doctor, to be told I’d gained (!?) 10 pounds in six weeks and now needed blood tests to see why. This despite seeing my clothes fit more loosely and gaining compliments on my apparent weight loss.

Our GP, thankfully, saw us an hour later and did the tests; (I’m fine.)

But I started crying in his office, weary of all of it.

I apologized for being a big blubbering baby, ashamed and embarrassed by my inability to control my emotions.

“You’re normal,” he said, calmly and compassionately.

Jose, my husband, sat in the room with us, listening as I absorbed this pretty basic fact.

What, I’m not made of steel?

I’m…vulnerable?

Human?!

Kelly’s tend to be (cough) ambitious and driven; three of us won major national awards in the same month, when I was 41, my younger half-brothers then 31 and 18; I for my writing, they for business skills and for a key scientific discovery, (yes, the youngest!)

We tend to aim high, compete ferociously for as long as it takes, (each of my books, later published by major NYC houses, were rejected 25 times), and usually win, dammit!

We keep our emotions very close to the vest and keep small, tight circles of intimates. I don’t really do acquaintance.

 

Being weak, scared, in pain, exhausted and, even worse, letting others see us in this condition?

 

Terrifying.

I’m slowly getting used to it.

Compassion for my fragility is my new oxygen, as much for myself as the gratitude I feel for that shown to me.

 

 

Why we need more apologies

By Caitlin Kelly

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

 

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

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

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

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

How rare it is to receive an apology!

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

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

I just never believed I deserved to demand one.

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

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

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

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

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

 

Too stunned to say “Excuse me?!!!”

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

Have you ever demanded an apology?

Did you receive it?

Was it sincere?

A summer of reckoning

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

 

I’m so ready for this summer to end!

 

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

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

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

— My breast cancer diagnosis right around my June 6 birthday

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

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

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

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

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

— Far too many days with torrential rain

OK, what’s been good?!

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

How’s your summer been?

Highs?

Lows?

Who’s ruling you?

 

 

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

 

By Caitlin Kelly

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Some of the “rules” I live by:

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

What are some of the rules you live by?