Showing up

By Caitlin Kelly

5th-anniversary

Our wedding, Sept. 18. 2011 — grateful for our friends’ attendance!

It was a cold, gray, rainy morning and the small Tarrytown, NY church — where author Washington Irving once worshipped — was filling up.

The long, dark wooden pews held friends, colleagues, cousins, a brother.

Several neighbors from her apartment building, including me, joined them.

So did one of her physicians, who would speak about her with respect and affection.

Attending a memorial service is — to put it bluntly — rarely fun.

It’s a spine-stiffening reminder of our mortality, no matter our age or health.

But someone has died and we’re there to honor them and their life, no matter how tenuous the thread of connection. To hold up, sometimes literally, their grieving friends and family, to show them that they, too, are loved and valued by a larger community.

It’s the right thing to do.

And, if you deeply knew and loved the person, it’s heartbreaking; even the female minister conducting the service warned us it would be difficult for her as she was a close friend of our neighbor.

One of my favorite writers, Susie Boyt, recently ended her 13-year column in the Financial Times; a great-grand-daughter of Freud, she is so deliciously un-British, all feelings and emotion, a huge breath of fresh air in those po-faced orange pages filled with PLU (people like us), and I will miss her!

She writes, in her farewell column:

I think that celebrating and mourning should be practiced in equal measure, sometimes at the same time.

I also loved this, from her:

You must try to prepare and be ready for the moment that you’re needed for the call could come at any time.

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We now live in increasingly connected but disconnected times.

We check our phones constantly for some amusing text or parade of emojis.

We hang out on Facebook, Reddit, Tumblr, Twitter, “liking” and “friending” — but rarely sitting with someone who is in pain, scared and dying.

That’s the tough part. Showing up.

More than ever, now, we need to show up in one another’s lives: when someone is ill, or injured, or their parents are dying or your favorite teacher or professor is retiring.

Not every event is sad, of course, but we need to be present, to witness, to celebrate and to console.

I’m at an age now (sigh) where funerals and memorials — for friends, for parents, for neighbors — are more prevalent than graduations, weddings and christenings, all events filled with flowers and joy, hope and anticipation.

And few moments are more sobering and searing than a virtually unattended funeral or memorial service.

I’ve been to one of those.

I’ve been to one that was standing room only, for former New York Times photographer (and someone whose life you might know from the film The Killing Fields), Dith Pran.

I’m especially sensitive to unattended milestones; neither parent attended my college graduation. My mother wasn’t there for my second wedding and neither were my husband’s two sisters or their partners. That hurt, a lot.

So I try, (grateful for the freedom as a self-employed person to be able to do so), to attend memorials and funerals for the people I know, even someone like our neighbor A., a single woman, never married, who was ferociously private.

We never socialized and rarely spoke.

ALL IMAGES COPYRIGHT CAITLIN KELLY 2013.

St. Marks in the Bowery, one of Manhattan’s oldest churches

But at her memorial service I learned a great deal about her, and how very deeply her life, and her enthusiasms, had touched so many others.

Until or unless you’re in the room for these intimate, once-in-a-lifetime events, you’re missing a great deal.

We’re all a thread — as one late beau, cut down too soon by cancer, used to joke — in life’s rich tapestry.

He was right.

He is right.

Show up.

Savoring beauty

By Caitlin Kelly

Every day, beauty sustains and replenishes me, whether natural or man-made.

It’s everywhere, every day, just waiting there quietly for us to notice it.

The sky, clouds and ever-shifting light.

The moon, at any hour.

The stars.

Trees, barren or blossoming.

A friend’s loving smile.

Early buildings with carving or terracotta tiles or gargoyles. (Look up!)

Here are a few of the many things I find beautiful — I hope you’ll savor them too!

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I was so inspired by this — Charlotte Bronte’s dress and shoes. What an intimate memory of a fellow woman writer. (thanks to the Morgan Museum.)

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Love discovering and poking around quirky/interesting shops. This one, GoodWood, is in Washington, D.C.

IMG_20160616_133549584_HDRThis is part of the Library of Congress, also in D.C.

IMG_20160412_165237000A reservoir-side walk near our home in Tarrytown, NY. I know it in every season — and see amazing things when I slow down and look closely.

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That same walkway in deepest winter

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Looking down the stairs at Fortnum & Mason, London
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In our rented cottage in Donegal. The essentials of my life: tea, laptop, newspapers and tools with which to create.
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The doorknob of our friend’s home in Maine
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A lamp on the campus of Pratt Institute, Brooklyn

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That reservoir walk — in spring!

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Our view
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A Paris cafe
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Lincoln Center, Koch Theater, one of the great pleasures of living in New York
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7:30 a.m., Lake Massawippi, North Hatley, Quebec

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A Paris door

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Florida
ALL IMAGES COPYRIGHT CAITLIN KELLY 2013.
The Grand Canyon

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A Philadelphia church window

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Dublin

Friendships: some true, some toxic

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THE BREAKFAST CLUB, Judd Nelson, Emilio Estevez, Ally Sheedy, Molly Ringwald, Anthony Michael Hall, 1985. ©Universal Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

From the smart digital publisher Aeon:

But even our easiest and richest friendships can be laced with tensions and conflicts, as are most human relationships. They can lose a bit of their magic and fail to regain it, or even fade out altogether for tragic reasons, or no reason at all. Then there are the not-so-easy friendships; increasingly difficult friendships; and bad, gut-wrenching, toxic friendships. The pleasures and benefits of good friends are abundant, but they come with a price. Friendship, looked at through a clear and wide lens, is far messier and more lopsided than it is often portrayed.

The first cold splash on an idealised notion of friendship is the data showing that only about half of friendships are reciprocal. This is shocking to people, since research confirms that we actually assume nearly all our friendships are reciprocal. Can you guess who on your list of friends wouldn’t list you?

As longtime readers here know, I’ve often blogged about friendship.

Like here, here and and here.

One reason friendship is so compelling to me is coming from a family that’s always riddled with anger and estrangements that go on for years, sometimes permanent. That’s deeply painful.

We all need love. We all need intimacy. We all need people willing to listen to our woes, cheer our triumphs, attend our graduations and bar/bat miztvahs, our kids’ weddings, to visit us in hospital or hospice — and someone, finally, to attend our funeral or memorial service.

A woman in our apartment building, (which is only made up of owners, some here for decades), recently died of cancer. She was prickly and cantankerous and had no family.

A note recently went up from friend of hers in a public space here to thank every single neighbor who showed up for her, took her meals, drove her to medical appointments — proxies for a loving family when she needed it most.

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Jose…

Another reason I so value friendship is having lost a few, and mourning the memories and histories now lost to me, shared with those women, like a New Year’s party in Jamaica with (!) live shots fired into the air around us or the day her friend let me helm his yacht — running it aground in Kingston harbor.

Like you, I treasure my friends and feel bereft when I lose one, although time and hindsight has helped me see that losing three of them has not inflicted long-term damage and, in fact, freed me to find much healthier, more egalitarian relationships.

I discovered that one of them had been lying a lot. That was enough for me.

Some of the friends I’m so grateful for:

Jose. My husband. We’ve been together 16 years and it’s the deepest and best friendship of my life. Even when I’m ready to change the locks, furious, I’ve never lost my respect or admiration for him.

N. She’s been through a hell of a lot, including early widowhood and a trans-national move. Her sweetness and optimism are refreshing, and consistent. My blood pressure drops when I’m around her.

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S. Who else would give me a stuffed octopus?! A fellow journalist and college teacher of journalism, her calm, wise advice helped me through some of my toughest classroom moments.

P. I haven’t had an adult pal-across-the-street since the mid-1980s when I lived on the top two floors of a Toronto house and made a friend living in a communal house across the street. Proximity makes it so fun and easy to meet for a coffee or an adventure shopping for Italian food in the Bronx. She’s got one of the biggest and most generous hearts of anyone I know. Also, funny as hell.

L. One of the very few close friends I’ve made at church, mostly a WASPy, frosty crowd. She’s an amazing mom, an attentive and loving listener, a font of calm wisdom.

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The view from D’s apartment, which she sometimes lends me…

D. Oh, what we’ve seen, and survived! Both of us divorced, both of us career journalists still (!) in the business, both of us who’ve become New Yorkers who came from elsewhere. In a deep, long friendship, there’s so much shared history. She’s my oldest friend in New York.

M. More than family, she took me into her Toronto home year after year, hosting and celebrating birthdays like Jose’s 50th, and nurturing me for three weeks after my terrifying encounter here with a con man. Now she’s recently re-married, at 70. Yay!

MS. Young enough to be my daughter, this talented photographer is beautiful, smart, hard-working, adventurous. I admire her drive and skill, and so enjoy her visits. She’s slept on our sofa many times.

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 A cup of tea at the Ritz in London…where C joined me

C. This astonishing young woman, also half my age, is a treat: whip-smart, emotionally intelligent, resilient as hell. She and I share a global perspective from life lived in various countries and some similar family issues. So happy that she and her fabulous husband are in my life.

PHMT. We met on a rooftop in Cartagena, Colombia when I was in my early 20s. I promptly fell hard! “I’m gay,” he said. Oh. OK. Let’s just be great friends! And we are. He finally stopped being cool to Jose when Jose and I married — knowing, finally, I was back in good hands, as he was so deeply protective of me for years. That’s friendship.

MO. Ohhhhh. We call ourselves the Pasta Twins, a play on each of our names, Marioni and Catellini. We met in freshman English class at University of Toronto, a very serious, very po-faced venue, when we rolled our eyes at one another. College pals know us in ways no one else ever will. We dated the wrong men, (like the gggggorgeous male best friends we met at a party, both of whom shattered our hearts), and fought for our independence from difficult fathers. Our adult lives could not be any more different — she’s the proud mom of three grown daughters and lives very far away now — but our love continues.

Wishing every one of you the blessing of friendship, now and for years to come!

This I believe…

By Caitlin Kelly

I believe that beauty - wherever we find it -- nurtures us deeply
I believe that beauty – wherever we find it — nurtures us deeply

Did you ever hear the NPR radio series of this name?

Here’s a book that collected 80 essays from it.

It’s either (choose one!): pompous, boring, predictable, self-serving, self-promotional, fatally candid to publicly state your principles. Maybe.

Maybe not.

I think action speaks louder than words. (There’s one thing I believe in.)

Having recently been hounded several times on-line, once by a very annoyed reader of this blog who emailed me privately three times to keep making his point — accompanied by personal insults — and within a women’s online group, it might be time to clear things up.

After all, more than 15,600 (!) people are now following this blog, and some may wonder — who is this woman and why should I listen to a thing she says?

Life is short. Use it well
Life is short. Use it well

I believe:

Generosity beats tight-fistedness. Almost every time. Some people will rush to take advantage of your altruism, kindness and goodwill. But if you’re paying attention, you’ll suss them out quick enough.

Generosity is not defined by opening your wallet; some of the wealthiest people, writing enormous checks, are not behaving in a way I’d personally define as generous. You can offer your time, your skills, your wisdom, your advice, your hugs, your careful and undivided attention.

Legendary celebrity biographer Kitty Kelley and I at a recent books festival in Bethesda, Maryland, where we were both speakers. She was so much fun!
Legendary celebrity biographer Kitty Kelley and I at a recent books festival in Bethesda, Maryland, where we were both speakers. She’s the best-selling author!

Success is not a zero-sum game. It sure looks like it, and especially if you live in a society with very limited access to the top rungs of professional or financial accomplishment. Yes, only one author will win the Booker Prize and only a limited few will win Guggenheims and Fulbrights or hit the best-seller list. Helping others achieve their goals, whenever possible, is a decent choice.

Envy will kill you. Stay in your lane. Be(come) the best version of yourself.

Work at it! Those who are truly excellent at their craft have spent years, even decades, perfecting their skills. A blessed few have it all out of the gate. Most of us don’t. Take classes, get coached, find a mentor.

In being strategic about when and how you use your energies. Even the most high-energy among us still need to sleep, rest, exercise, spend time with loved ones, think. If you insist on spreading yourself thin, 24/7, for months, years or decades….what is your strategy? Does everyone love or respect you? Should they?

Like Joan of Arc, you need a vision of your life and your goals
Like Joan of Arc, you need a vision of your life and your goals

Kindness is not to be mistaken for weakness. Some of the toughest and most resilient people I know are also some of the kindest and gentlest.

Persistence beats (lazy, entitled) talent. Every time. One of my favorite indulgences is watching the 14-year-old Lifetime show Project Runway, which chooses 14 fashion designers of varying ages and backgrounds and, each week, dismisses one, finally choosing a winner. In reading the biographies of this season’s designers, I was struck by the fact that one of them had auditioned for every single season and another had auditioned four previous times before being chosen. Giving up is an easy out. Staying in the game, sometimes much longer than you wanted or hoped or can really afford to, can be the way to win it. Eventually.

Keep your promises. Don’t make them if you know you will not honor them. Others are counting on you.

We're not robots. We all need a hand, a hug and some help!
We’re not robots. We all need a hand, a hug and some help!

Intellectual debate is smart and necessary. But do it civilly. I come from a family of finger-pointing, table-pounding arguers. To us, a rousing debate is sport. But for too many people, now it quickly descends into ugly ad hominem attacks substituting for thoughtful comment. Nope. I won’t engage, here or elsewhere.

— We live in a diverse culture and listening to “the other” matters more than ever.

The CBC's logo -- one of the many news sources I follow
The CBC’s logo — one of the many news sources I follow

Women’s bodies are ours, and ours alone. Yes, I believe we have the absolute right to decide if, when and how often we will agree to (or abstain from) sexual activity. We deserve legally-protected access to reproductive care and information. We deserve to be safe on the streets and in public spaces.

Women’s value to the world lies not only, exclusively — ever — in the shape and size of our bodies, but in the width, depth and breadth of our generosity, intelligence and commitment to action.

Being informed is a basic civic duty. It’s naive and disingenuous to say “the news is toooooo depressing!” There are hundreds of news sources, and if you find one (or dozens) of them disappointing, keep looking. Read, watch and listen to a range of opinions and reporting, including some from beyond your political perspective and national/domestic agenda.

Beauty is everywhere -- like this Paris cafe
Beauty is everywhere — like this Paris cafe

Beauty nurtures our souls and spirits. We neglect this at our peril. It might be nature or a painting or your baby’s smile. Savor it daily.

— Silence heals. In a noisy, crowded, distracted world, sitting in silence is essential.

Elegance, in dress, demeanor, grooming and in your home, is a gift to yourself and to others. Style and wit are timeless and can offer great pleasure: a delicious meal beautifully served, a well-cut suit, a silk pocket square, a terrific haircut. It doesn’t need to cost a lot of money, nor snobby brand-name-warfare, but it does require some time and attention.

— Friendship is one of life’s greatest blessings.

A Babar hot water bottle cover!
A Babar hot water bottle cover!

Make time to play! Being an adult is hard work: paying bills, raising children, pleasing a demanding boss, colleagues, clients. Be sure to include playtime in your life as well.

Underpromise and overdeliver. Too many people get that backwards.

Fresh flowers -- a must!
Fresh flowers — a must!

Send flowers. Yes, it’s expensive. Do it anyway.

Write letters. On paper. By hand. Use a stamp. That sort of personal care and style is rare now, ever more appreciated.

The Paris Unity March, Jan. 11, 2015. Faith in action -- that collective community response still matters
The Paris Unity March, Jan. 11, 2015. Faith in action — that collective community response still matters

Showing up matters: at weddings, christenings/brises, bar/bat mitzvahs, graduations, funerals, memorials. The bedsides of the ill and dying. Do not make excuses. Do not abandon people at their hour of greatest need.

Compassion is our greatest source of power. Not corporate or political or religious titles. Not financial wealth. Not piles of stuff and six houses proving how “successful” you are. Without compassion and empathy for those hurting, doing what you can you help, your “riches” look ragged to me.

We’re all hurting in some way. But don’t sit in it forever! Get help. Don’t spend your life wallowing, let alone brutalizing others with your unrecognized and unhealed traumas. Own them and, if at all possible, move forward. Take responsibility for yourself and relieve others of the unwanted burden of rescuing you repeatedly.

Pleasure matters! A cup of tea at the Ritz in London
Pleasure matters! A cup of tea at the Ritz in London

Being blunt/candid/direct is not per se ugly, declasse or shocking when you realize that women’s voices and opinions matter every bit as much as men’s. Punishing women who speak their mind is a nasty and popular habit.

What are some of your principles?

Do any of these resonate with you as well?

Old friends

By Caitlin Kelly

“Old friends cannot be created out of hand. Nothing can match the treasure of common memories, of trials endured together, of quarrels and reconciliations and generous emotions. It is idle, having planted an acorn in the morning, to expect that afternoon to sit in the shade of the oak.”

— Antoine de Saint-Exupery, “Wind, Sand and Stars” (1939)

 

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Every year, at least once and sometimes several times, I head north to Toronto and to a cottage on a lake near Peterborough, Ontario, to visit my friends I’ve known for decades.

I left Toronto in 1986, afire with ambition, ready to marry. I met my first husband, an American, in Montreal and followed him to rural New Hampshire; neither took.

By 1994, I was a divorcee (no children) living in a pretty lonely suburb of New York City. Moving back to Canada felt like a retreat. I liked New York. I had yet to satisfy my professional ambitions.

And so I stayed.

In the decades I’ve lived in the U.S. I’ve made friends.

But they’ve come and gone, sometimes with a stunning rapidity. I arrived in New York at the age of 30 — long past the traditional ages when the powerful emotional glue of shared schools, colleges and/or post-graduate training seem to create lifelong bonds for many Americans, some of whom are still pals with their freshman room-mate.

Many of my friends now live very far away...
Many of my friends now live very far away…

So I’ve found my American friends through other means — a work colleague (briefly), my freelance life, serving on several boards and attending/speaking at conferences, several colleagues of my husband’s from the newspaper he worked at for 31 years and for whom I freelance as well.

Luckily, I have a friend now living directly across the street from me — we met (yes, really) through a local man we both dislike heartily. But, a new pal!

Without children or hobbies or many non-work passions I’ve found it challenging to find people with whom I can create new deep ties. The world is full of friendly acquaintances, “Heyyyyyy!” — but less filled with people with the time, inclination or interest to start a new chapter with a stranger.

One of the best weeks of my life, working in rural Nicaragua -- now still friends with these three
One of the best weeks of my life, working in rural Nicaragua — now still friends with these three

So when I see my long-time friends in Canada, we’re also revisiting our earlier selves:

P., once a curly redhead, is now gray, long-married to his husband. We met on a rooftop in Colombia, and still laugh at the same things but our last conversation also included our spouses’ searches for new employment and the struggle over a parent’s estate.

M., also a decade older than I, has known me since I was in my early 20s. We both visited New York City together when I appeared on stage as an extra in the ballet Sleeping Beauty for a story. I’ve stayed in her home many times since then and belatedly realized she’s more family than much of my own.

Victoria College, University of Toronto, where I met M in freshman English class
Victoria College, University of Toronto, where I met M in freshman English class

M, who I met in freshman English class when we eye-rolled at one another. A teacher and college administrator, she came all the way to N.Y. from the northern wilds of British Columbia for my first wedding to be my maid of honor; (my last, fateful words as I headed down the aisle: “Just be my friend if this doesn’t work out”. Thank heaven she did), and all the way to Toronto for my second. We still talk every few months from her home in B.C. and I still use the battered, stained cookbook she gave me in 1986.

L, a fellow journalist, whose home brims with beauty: hand-made pottery, drawings and oil paintings and colorful rugs. Her cooking, and hospitality, is astounding. We met in the 1980s, covering the same story for competing newspapers and re-met decades later on a fellowship in Florida.

S, 20 years my junior, a fellow ferocious jock and adventurous traveler. We’ve set new records for unbroken conversation — on my most recent trip, last week, we sat down in a restaurant for lunch at noon. We got up again at 5:30.

S, my age, who I’ve known since high school when we were both mad about J. — all of us now long since married. Like me, she’s artistic, creative, a free spirit with no children but who shares a deep love of the natural world and travel.

I learned how to canoe at camp -- useful when we went to Nicaragua
On assignment in rural Nicaragua — we’d never met and had a blast!

I find it comforting to know people over time, to be loved and valued and accepted and forgiven through the jobs, (and losses of same), the husbands, (and loss/gain of same), through illnesses and surgeries.

Fatter, thinner, happier or broken-hearted, lustily single or placidly married, they’ve seen me through it all, and vice versa.

You can safely fight and make up with these emotional distance runners — while others slink away or keep conversations perky, polished and politely, always, distant.

You know these friends’ partners and pets, (including the dead ones), their parents and siblings. Also, perhaps, their children and grand-children.

You know about the grant they didn’t win or the dream they never tried. They know why your brother hates you, and don’t care.

They know what makes you cry, even if they haven’t seen you  — or seen you do it — in years.

They see us through the rapids!
They see us through the rapids!

We hold one another to a high standard, knowing, sometimes far better than a late-arriving partner or spouse, what lies beneath our bravado and bluster.

We are witnesses to one another’s lives.

(Longtime readers of Broadside know that my family is not especially close or loving, so these long-lasting friendships mean the world to me.)

Here’s what I definitely do not want — “ambient intimacy”.

From New York magazine:

The British user-experience researcher Leisa Reichelt coined the term “ambient intimacy” in 2007 to describe the unfocused closeness we maintain by following friends’ day-to-day on platforms like Twitter. Soon, though, the signals that we continuously broadcast to our friends and followers promise to get more … not intimate, perhaps, but certainly creepy by today’s standards.

The Apple Watch’s ability to stream one user’s heartbeat to another through vibrations is one example of this closeness. As is Meerkat, the suddenly popular live-streaming app that lets users send live video to their followers, turning the previously static culture of webcams into a mobile, always-on experience. Soon enough, we’ll be able to live vicariously alongside anyone we choose at any moment of their life — the ultimate future of the selfie stick is a system that can photograph or record you from any angle and any distance at any time.

No, thanks.

I want to sit at a table, or side by side by the fireplace or lazing on the dock, and talk for hours to someone whose face I can see, and vice versa.

Someone I can hug.

Do you have friends you’ve cherished for decades?

 

 

 

Home…family…holidays…

By Caitlin Kelly

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Three little words.

Three loaded words.

Where will you be this holiday?

With (some of [the]) people you (most) love?

Or going solo, no matter the family fallout, avoiding people whose behaviors keep making you miserable — substance abuse, alcoholism, homophobia — maybe a trifecta!

Where is home for you now?

Is it where you grew up, living with your parents?

Or maybe a hotel or apartment on the road, thousands of miles from people who speak your language?

Which holiday, if any, are you celebrating?

Will you attend a Christmas Eve church service?

I know one person spending it on an island deep in the Pacific Ocean, on Tuvalu. (Merry Christmas, Devi!)

Another two women, one from Philadelphia, one from Dublin, are each heading to Chile.

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Christmas, with its rush of sentiment, shopping and song, can be a season of great joy, reuniting with people whose love and acceptance raise us up…or a time of intense loneliness.

At a time when people scurry home to their warm, well-lit refuges, some of us are mourning the loss of a partner, a child, a pet.

Some of us are battling serious illness. Some of us are seeking well-paid work and having little luck.

Anyone facing their first holiday season without a dearly loved one, as one recently widowed friend knows, will need the armor of light, (my favorite phrase), to carry them through.

I remember vividly the very first Christmas after my divorce. I’d been with my first husband for seven years and had left Canada, friends, family and career to follow him to the U.S.

I sat for the gorgeous solstice service offered each year by Paul Winter in the enormous New York City cathedral of St. John the Divine, with a dear friend and new beau beside me — loved, valued and deeply grateful not to be alone in a time that so celebrates togetherness.

Even gift-giving can be laden with emotion and anxiety.

I worked part-time in retail for 2.5 years. One man had no notion what his teenage daughter might enjoy while another practically begged me for help: “I need to find a present for a pain in the ass!

For many years, my family gave me “gifts” that were clearly last-minute afterthoughts or the little free samples that come with cosmetic purchases. Nor were my gifts to them graciously or happily accepted.

The season can so quickly sour!

The first Christmas I introduced my husband Jose to my loud, argumentative family was typical. As usual, we were expounding on politics and economics, each of us thumping the table for emphasis, voices raised and fingers pointed, certainty — as usual — thick in the air. We never discuss emotion or feelings, never simply ask, “How are you?”

Poor Jose!

He finally slapped the table in exasperation: “Everyone take a turn!”

Like fighting dogs sprayed with a garden hose, we paused for a minute — stunned. Then, on we went.

Welcome to the family!

Christmas Eve is also difficult for me, the night that, when I was 14, my mother had a nervous breakdown in the foreign country where we were living, leaving me and a friend in an unfamiliar city at midnight. Within a few weeks, I had left the country and her care, returning to live with my father and his girlfriend; I barely knew her and I hadn’t lived with him since my parents’ divorce seven years earlier.

I never lived with my mother again. We since spent some crazy Christmases — like the one in Cartagena, Colombia, (where the police stopped our cab and asked us to step out to be frisked), and later got sunstroke.

But in the past four years I haven’t seen or spoken to her.

Nor will I see my father and two half-brothers, spending their Christmas together in Canada; one brother nurses a long-held grudge against me so that’s it for family holidays that include me.

So the words family and home don’t make much sense to me in any traditional “home for the holidays” way.

Instead of focusing on lack, I’m choosing joy.

Rue Cler, around the corner from our borrowed apartment
Rue Cler, around the corner from our borrowed apartment

We’re now in Paris, a city filled with sweet memories for me, a city I lived in at 25 for a year while on a journalism fellowship. It was a year that changed my life and my career, and I’m still in touch with some of my fellow fellows decades later.

Paris for me — a Canadian living in New York — still feels like home for that reason, even after years between visits.

Jose is my family now. He proposed to me at midnight on Christmas Eve after church, standing beneath our church’s lych gate as snow hissed around us. He knew how sad that night had been for me and decided to re-brand it with a happier memory.

I hope — wherever you are and whoever you’re with and whatever you celebrate — you have a calm, loving, happy holiday!

Thank you all for the gift of your attention to Broadside. It means a lot!

 

 

 

The power of apology

By Caitlin Kelly

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“I’m sorry.”

Two simple words — but impossible for some people to say.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the power of an apology, and its limitations.

As I head into the home stretch of the fall semester teaching college, a mix of freshmen and seniors, it’s been interesting dealing with a few students whose behaviors, whether selfish, short-sighted or just plain rude, seemed an obvious prelude to their prompt, sincere apology.

Hah!

One keeps wandering into our class late, apparently mistaking it for a 24-hour diner, something she can graze at will; only by informing her I would lock the classroom to the tardy did she get my point to arrive early or on time.

Another took a week to express regret for an outburst in class, after I emailed him and made clear how deeply offended I was.

Who raises these people?

But apologies are merely the opening statement, as some people are skilled at offering pretty, apparently sincere “sorry!” sound like something they actually mean.

Until they do the same thing again. And again. And again.

An apology worth its weight is one followed by the words: “It won’t happen again” — and the active proof of same. As a writer, I earn my living through words, but words impress me little. Action is what counts.

An apology also requires, even demands, the listener’s forgiveness, which itself requires their trust, relying on the very bond that’s been broken by bad behavior, whether the offender’s rudeness, insubordination, incompetence, forgetfulness, abuse, infidelity…

And some people can find offense in the mildest of statements, misreading tone or language as an insult when none was meant, plunging you into an abyss of faux repentance just to keep the peace.

I grew up around people who offered plenty of reasons to apologize for their behavior, but rarely did.

Apologizing isn’t easy, but it’s an essential skill, both personally and professionally. I’m fortunate enough to have been forgiven by most of those to whom I’ve apologized, and grateful when they have.

We all screw up. It’s what happens next that determines the outcome.

Have you ever refused to offer an apology?

Have you ever wanted one that never came?

What will they remember you for?

By Caitlin Kelly

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A few days ago, we attended a memorial service in suburban Maryland for a family friend of my husband’s, a handsome, distinguished architect whose work spanned New York City and Detroit and who helped design JFK Airport.

I never had the pleasure of meeting him, but what a glorious service!

What a powerful reminder of the complicated, messy, loving lives we lead.

How we are often both reticent and expressive, if perhaps not when, where and how others might most have needed or wished for.

How our smallest words and deeds can, unwittingly, leave a lasting mark.

How much we crave connection, even as we blunder and stagger and do it so imperfectly that forgiveness is sometimes the greatest gift we are given.

How, for some fathers, their children are their greatest joy.

What did his friends, children, grandchildren and colleagues remember?

— He baked bread in clay flowerpots

— His amazing home-made pizza

— He loved classical music — and Rodrigo’s exquisite Concierto de Aranjuez was part of the service, played simply and beautifully on a gleaming black grand piano. A lone trumpet also played the Navy Anthem and My Funny Valentine.

— His service in WWII, inspiring a young seaman, a grandson in his medal-beribboned uniform, to tell us that’s what inspired him to join the Navy as well

— His midnight rescue, done calmly and gently, of his niece — out on a first date — who had locked the car keys in his borrowed car, with the engine running

— The day, as a Columbia School of Architecture student, he discovered that Frank Lloyd Wright was visiting New York City, staying at the Plaza Hotel. He jumped into a car, drove downtown to the Plaza — and, with no formal introduction, invited Wright back to campus for their 4:00 ritual tea. Wright, who then was paid $30,000 per lecture and had a New York Times interview scheduled that day, spontaneously agreed. (Now that’s chutzpah!)

— His three marriages; (as one female relative said, to loving laughter, “I kept hoping…”)

My husband clutched the late man’s brother’s hand, our dear friend, while I held Jose’s, knitting a fierce rope of love, something rough and strong to hold fast to.

We exited the church into brilliant fall sunshine to discover a raft of cellphone messages from Texas; my husband’s own half-brother, a man 24 years his senior, had suffered a major stroke and would likely not survive. He died a few hours later.

This, barely three days after Pratt Institute, where I now teach two classes, lost a female student to suicide, on campus.

It has been a week of death, of mourning, of loss, of remembrance.

Of our impossible, inevitable, inescapable fragility.

What will they say of you?

Is it what you hope?

Yup, you’re my friend — how I know it for sure

By Caitlin Kelly

They help push the van in 95 degree heat!
They help push the van in 95 degree heat!

Now that “friend” is a verb — (no, it’s bloody well not!) — how many of us really have people who fit the bill, old-school?

You know, people you sit down with, (or stand up with or run or walk or go fishing with), face to face.

People you actually talk to in the same room whenever possible.

I’ve been thinking about this recently, and have decided there are a few ways you can separate the wheat  from the chaff.

They share a cup of coffee and a great adventure!
They share a cup of coffee and a great adventure!

They’re really your friend if:

— They know your parents, your siblings, your pets and their birthdays

— Your parents ask how they’re doing and vice versa

— They know the exact brand of hard-to-find bubble bath/liquor you love and buy it for you for your birthday

— They pick up the tab

— You each dated two men who were best friends, both of whom broke your hearts

— You each dated two men who were brothers

— They traveled from the furthest reaches of northern British Columbia to your suburban New York wedding,  then came to Toronto for your second one

— They help you pack up your home, load the truck and (yes, I did this once, in summer), drive you from New York City to Washington, D.C.

— They climb a hill in a snowstorm at 6:00 a.m. when the taxi can’t go any further, to accompany you to the hospital for surgery

— They catch you as you fall backwards into the toilet door, woozy from anesthesia, before you concuss yourself after surgery

— They can share a bed with you platonically and don’t find it weird

— They’re the executor/executrix of your will

— You spend Christmas with them, since they’re more family than yours is

— They have keys to your home

— They named one of their children after you (or vice versa)

— They go with you to chemo

— They attend your loved ones’ funerals and wakes

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My best friend, my husband, Jose
My best friend, my husband, Jose

— They never forget your birthday

— They send you a condolence card when your beloved pet dies

— They send you a congratulations card the day your book is published

— They know your — ahem — romantic history before you snagged the husband/wife and will keep your secrets safe

— You might, just possibly, have shared a few of those adventures, and partners

— They remember the night you…possibly in far more detail than you do

— They share your deepest geek/nerd passions

— They know your PIN

— They know your childhood nickname

— They know what you’re allergic to

— They make you laugh so loud people stare at you in public

— They’ll hold you tight if you need a good cry

— You can lend them a bathing suit and it somehow fits, even if they’re a whole lot smaller and younger

— You can ask for/offer explicit sexual advice/instruction and not get get laughed at/grossed out

— You know they’re who they are because they’ve battled mental illness or addiction in their family and they’re a survivor, not damaged

— You know their flawless public appearance is a little more complicated than that

— They remember things from your distant past that you’ve totally forgotten

— They love you, in spite of yourself

— Whenever you see them or talk to them, even after months or years of absence, you pick up as if it were 10 minutes ago

— You’ve traveled together and not killed one another

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— They stood in on your wedding day for your absent mother, helping you with your makeup and keeping you calm

— You’ve helped them survive their divorce/infidelity/a natural disaster/becoming a crime victim — or all of the above

With love and gratitude to some of my many treasured friends: Cadence in London, Marion in Kamloops, Leslie in Toronto, Suzy and Salley in D.C., Jennifer in Maine, Molly, roaming about Laos, Cambodia and Thailand this summer and Pam across the street…

How to snag a husband — really?

By Caitlin Kelly

Our rings
Our rings

If there’s one obsession I will never really fathom, it’s rushing young women posthaste to the altar.

Let alone a long line of people — parents/friends/relatives/room-mates/newspaper columnists — shoving them there.

Can we say “heteronormativity?”

Sure we can!

The latest slugest over how to find a decent husband is “Marry Smart”, written by a female Princeton graduate, advising women to get married while they’re still in college, surrounded by — she insists — their best choices; i.e. smart, driven, likely affluent men, (or women.)

Nor, she asserts, will women ever again be as attractive. Even better, kids, get plastic surgery to fix all those jiggly/weird bits while you’re still (yes, really) in high school.

Here’s feminist blog Jezebel’s take on it:

Marry Smart, the retrograde pile of garbage that the ‘Princeton Mom’ has sandwiched between two pieces of cardboard and called a book, drops today. That means Susan Patton is currently making the media rounds, questioning the notion of date rape and insisting that she is “not a provocative person.”

…all copies of Marry Smart will be banned from our separatist compound, and our turkey baster parties are just lovely.

And from Salon:

just exaggerated parroting of dominant and destructive cultural norms, she has styled herself as a cartoon mouthpiece for these ideas.

For a different perspective, here’s part of the favorable review from the socially conservative Wall Street Journal:

Since men, even young college men, distinguish between the women they want to have casual sex with and the women they want to marry and have children with, Ms. Patton devotes much of her book to telling readers how to fall into the second category. Avoid the campus hookup scene—it’s a waste of precious time. Don’t binge-drink—you will do stupid things. Realistically assess your looks and act accordingly: If you are only a “six,” that handsome “ten” knows he can do better than you and is probably out of your league. Lose excess weight. Act like a lady. Don’t swear like a fishwife. Learn to cook. Don’t be a whiny, moody, spoiled, entitled princess (“hothouse tomato” is Ms. Patton’s term). Cultivate a generous spirit and a readiness to forgive. Don’t chase after “bad boys,” especially if they display traits such as drug abuse and physical violence. Don’t be a gold-digger (“earn your own fortune”).

So bizarre!

— Not every woman wants to marry, ever

— Not every woman wants to have children

— Many women are too busy learning, studying and planning their lives to put a ring on it after four years on campus

— Who’s to say your “best choice” is a fellow student?

I’d love to see a similarly finger-wagging book aimed at men, but I’m not holding my breath.

I had a great time at university, double-majoring in English and boys. It was a lot of fun, certainly for a young woman who had been viciously bullied for 2.5 years of high school, and doubted any man would find her attractive. Many did. That was a pleasant surprise, and I took advantage of it.

One of my beaux, whom I dated in my freshman year after meeting him the very first week of school, was a lovely man five years my senior, a fellow journalist. A decent and well-raised man, he made marital noises, but I was having none of it.

We later married others — both of whom left us when we were living in foreign countries where we’d followed them — and we have since re-married, each very happily, again.

I loved him dearly and we remain friends, decades later. But I knew, even at 20, this was not the man for me.

Yes, some people are delighted to marry very young, and it all works out.

It struck me as terrifyingly claustrophobic, even as I had several proposals from handsome, smart, hardworking men when I was in my 20s. I just didn’t want to get married that young, and married only when I was 35, to a handsome, smart, Ivy-educated, hardworking physician I had already known for five years.

A doct-uh!

Who walked out barely two years later and promptly re-married a co-worker.

Ooops.

It took me a long time to find a man who is an excellent husband.

Would Susan Patton have told me to marry him? Hell, no!

My husband, Jose. photo: Caitlin Kelly
My husband, Jose. photo: Caitlin Kelly

We come from different countries, races, religions and socioeconomic backgrounds. He attended state school on scholarship funds through his father’s church.

He’s a gem. But it took the loupe of mid-life appreciation to see that.

We may not have a clue who’s our best match in our 20s, 30s or even our 40s.

How about you?

What advice — whatever your age — would you offer to a young woman hoping to find a good life partner?