Learning to say no

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By Caitlin Kelly

Anyone poorly parented and/or the victim of bullies and narcissists knows how extremely difficult it can be for their victims to say no.

Ever.

To anyone.

To anything.

To the most absurd and unrelenting demands.

 

Because what happened after I’ve said no is…abandonment. Estrangement. Rejection. Verbal or physical cruelty. Job loss.

I’ve lived in fear for decades — and readers know I express plenty of strong opinions here and in my writing and books and on social media — of these outcomes in my personal and professional life.

My industry, journalism, is in such utter chaos — with the most job cuts in 2019 since 2008 — that those with jobs will do anything to keep them, and the hell with us freelancers, seen by many as disposable commodities, easily and cheaply replaced with someone, always, terrified and docile.

I have never seen such shitty behavior.

The past two weeks made me snap.

First, a baby editor with zero social skills — who I later found out has been this rude and aggressive with other veteran writers. Then, this week, a source decided it was appropriate to throw me and my skills under the bus.

Then stalk me on Twitter.

 

Done.

 

In both instances, their entitled behavior — unprovoked and insistent — left me shaking and shaken.

From now on, I’m just walking.

This is,  a great luxury, and a measure of privilege because it’s possible only with the explicit agreement and financial and moral support of my husband and a bank account plundered to make up the lost $1,050 in anticipated/needed income from these two stories.

Most Americans don’t even have the savings to say…I’m gone. I’m not putting up with this.

Because without savings, and the ability to never engage with them again, we’re all left groveling to bullies.

 

DONE.

A fallow field

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By Caitlin Kelly

Two of my favorite journalism assignments in 2018 involved a six-hour drive from my home in New York to farms in Quebec, near Montreal. I worked in French and learned a lot, quickly, about agriculture, thanks to Messieurs Bachand and Bousquet.

A city girl, I’ve never lived on or worked on a farm, but I love one farming concept deeply — the fallow field.

The field left to recharge, empty, after being over-planted.

Welcome to my brain!

I started writing for a living as a full-time undergraduate at a demanding university, juggling term papers and exams with assignments for national magazines and newspapers.

I didn’t take a break until I was 30, completely worn out and — very fortunately — financially able to do so for three blissful summer months while living in a small town in New Hampshire.

I haven’t written much lately.

Many people dream of “being a writer”. The part often overlooked is the tremendous hustle required to sell that work.

I send out pitches for stories to various editors — five last week, three this week — and wait for replies, whether a paid/work/yes or a no…meaning more pitching and still no income.

I look daily for story ideas and, with some, do initial unpaid pre-reporting to see if there is a saleable story; one I’ve been chasing for six months and which (yay!) prompted an immediate “I’m intrigued” reply from an editor I’m dying to write for.

My latest book proposal is now with two editors at major New York City publishers, so I also await their decisions. I may apply for another fellowship, the application due June 26.

 

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It’s been eight years since Malled was published.

 

I’ve recently attended two local networking events, as I’m long overdue getting out to meet local businesses that might be able to use my writing, editing, blogging and coaching skills. I enjoyed both events, but whew! It’s also tiring being charming to strangers.

Instead of writing all the time, I’ve been reading a lot (even fiction! Station Eleven, by fellow Canadian-in-NY Emily St. John Mandel), and going to the gym and shopping for some new summer clothes for a June vacation in Jose’s hometown, Santa Fe, New Mexico.

It’s disorienting to write less, mostly because that’s where the money eventually comes from!

But I’ve also been coaching other writers (details on my Welcome and About pages here), a nice income-producing break from word production.

 

Because one’s brain just gets tired!

 

Rest, recharge, relax…

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One of my addictions — shelter magazines!

 

By Caitlin Kelly

It’s a long weekend here in the U.S., Memorial Day, and that means — for some — a three-day break from work.

Things have been quiet-ish here for me: lots of pitching of story ideas, attending local networking events and following up with the people I’ve met there — and (!) waiting nervously to hear from two editors about my book proposal.

In an economy where so many are self-employed, work can dominate every day of the week unless you set tight boundaries. It’s also tough for many people with high-pressure jobs to slow down and just rest.

I hope you’re making time for this as well!

Here are some of the ways I rest, recharge and relax:

 

Exercise

 

I try to get to spin class three times a week, 45 minutes in the dark with great music. When not being lazy, I also lift weights, skate at a local ice rink and go for walks. I need the social aspect of being around others as much as the cardio and stretching. I may get back to playing softball, even with a runner to fill in for my bad right knee.

 

 

 

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The walkway next to our town reservoir

 

 

Nature

 

We live at treetop level, eye-to-eye with blue jays and with ready access to gorgeous walking trails along the Hudson River or the nearby Rockefeller estate (750 acres that one of the nation’s richest families donated for public use.) I love seeing the world change with the seasons — our local cormorant is back at the reservoir!

 

Friendship

 

Little kids get play dates to look forward to. Adults need them too! I make sure each week to set up at least one face to face meeting with a friend, over coffee or lunch. I’ve been working alone at home, with no kids or pets, since 2006. It gets lonely. I also make time for long catch-up phone calls with old friends in Canada (for whom [?!] long distance rates still somehow apply.)

 

Meditation class

 

This is a new thing for me, held every Wednesday morning at 10:00 a.m. in the chapel of our church and led by our minister’s wife. This all sounds starchy, I’m sure, but it’s a truly powerful place to share ideas and insights, to sit still in silence, to learn and to build community. It’s women only, ranging in age from 40s to 80+, and we usually have eight to 12. It’s good to have a standing date with one’s soul.

 

Therapy

 

After my breast cancer diagnosis last June, even a very good one, anxiety has become an unwelcome new companion. Therapy helps.

 

 

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Found this 1940s diner on a great road-trip last summer, on Long Island’s North Shore

 

Travel

 

Always my favorite! We just took a quick two-day trip to Montreal, a five-hour drive door-to-door from our home, and it was a perfect break. Sometimes a change of scenery is just the ticket.

 

Reading

 

Escaping into a great book is a perfect way to de-compress.

 

Hey, leisure rhymes with pleasure!

 

How about you?

Niksen, farniente, lassitude. REST!

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I lay for long lazy hours alone on this beach in July 2017 in Croatia. Heaven!

 

By Caitlin Kelly

It’s all sort of sad, really.

In this recent New York Times story — putatively touting the benefits of doing absolutely nothing, aka niksen — the whole reason for doing nothing is…to be more productive:

 

More practically, the idea of niksen is to take conscious, considered time and energy to do activities like gazing out of a window or sitting motionless. The less-enlightened might call such activities “lazy” or “wasteful.” Again: nonsense.

We at Smarter Living have long been fans of taking regular breaks throughout the day, as study after study shows that feeling drowsy, exhausted or otherwise mentally depleted during the workday drastically hinders performance and productivity.

In other words: Whether at home or at work, permission granted to spend the afternoon just hanging out.

 

Insert my very loud scream right here.

 

I did something unthinkable to the old me today.

I skipped the second jam-packed day at an annual writers’ conference: missing appointments and new potential clients, not seeing old friends and basically wasting the money I paid for all of it.

Instead, feeling exhausted and overwhelmed, I stayed home, alone and quiet.

I didn’t do this to become more productive!

I did it because I was tired.

I really needed to rest.

I did this because my body told me to sleep 9.5 hours last night, which I gratefully did.

I did it because I cried to a friend in a NYC tea room, worn out with anxiety.

We live in a time when millions of us are being forced into economic precarity — aka the “gig economy”, a phrase I loathe. Because this kind of work is always somewhat unpredictable (I lost my two anchor clients overnight), and can be poorly paid, one is very reluctant to turn away income, to slow down, to just….be still.

Which makes it even more important to just do that.

Nothing.

And plenty of it, dammit!

 

Do you find it hard to slow down, unplug, unwind and just rest?

 

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!

Taking a break

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

I’m not doing any paid writing this month.

I’m really tired and need to rest and recharge.

While Broadside has more than 20,700 followers, according to WordPress, (which is lovely), the number of readers-per-post remains extremely low — most posts, no matter what the subject, get a maximum of 100 views before I post another one, hoping for more.

I’ve published 2,105, starting on July 1, 2009.

I enjoy blogging and will continue, but I am feeling generally dis-spirited and need a break.

 

If anyone wants to offer suggestions on how to improve readership of Broadside — more/fewer posts? shorter/longer posts? wider variety of subjects?  — feel free to comment here or send me an email; the address is on the welcome and about pages.

 

I appreciate every one who makes time to read, and especially to comment!

I really value those who return year after year (!) and whose insights make writing this stuff more compelling for me and for other readers,

 

But I’m going on hiatus until January, probably the first week.

I hope to meet you back here then.

 

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Have a great holiday!

 

What gives you comfort?

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Photo thanks to Peter DaSilva; taken after the Camp fire in California, 2018.

 

By Caitlin Kelly

Few things are as comforting to some of us as delicious meals, solo or shared, as Jennifer Finney Boylan writes in The New York Times:

 

When the last present has been opened, I will sneak into the kitchen and don a ridiculous chef’s toque. There will be scrambled eggs. There will be hash browns; I like to make these from red potatoes, tossed with olive oil, kosher salt and chopped mint. And there will be a plate of smoked maple bacon, Smithfield ham, hot Tuscan sausages.

Because I am from Pennsylvania, not so far from Amish country, there will also be scrapple…

Christmas morning, my family will gather around the breakfast table: Sean, Deedie, Zai and me. We will have eggs and bacon and hash browns and scrapple. And by the grace of God, we will have one another.

Ranger will look at me with his gray dog face. What did I tell you? Remember the good things. Like this.

American food writer Ruth Reichl titled her 2001 book “Comfort Me With Apples.”

In times of stress, fear, grief — or just everyday life with all its various challenges — we need comfort. We need places, physical, spiritual and emotional to help us patch up the bruised bits of our soul, to feel at ease, to feel safe, to feel enclosed and secure.

 

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I’m sure there’s some Neanderthal DNA in each of us, most dominant in the cold, short, windy days of winter, that says HOMECAVENOW! (One of my favorite boyfriends used to say HOMECRASHNOW! and I like his thinking.)

I’m a big fan of comfort and things that comfort us.

 

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I’ve had this little guy for decades — a great travel companion, this portrait taken in Berlin, 2017.

 

Our apartment isn’t large (one bedroom) but we have lovely throws, in pale gray and soft teal (bought in Paris) we snuggle under on the wide, deep, soft sofa (perfect for napping at seven feet in length), or to slide beneath for an afternoon snooze.

We have many kinds of tea and two teapots and a kettle and real bone china mugs and teacups with saucers with which to enjoy them. Plus a thermos — my favorite thing is to fill it with coffee or tea and get back to bed under the duvet, the most comforting thing ever. Soft, light, warm.

 

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I have no embarrassment about having these guys sitting in an antique toolbox on a bedroom shelf. I love their furry smiling faces, comfort every day.

I loved this piece from The Guardian, in which many adults happily discuss their still-beloved stuffed animals and the tremendous comfort they get from them:

 

The exhibition Good Grief, Charlie Brown!, on display at Somerset House in London until 3 March 2019, shows that Schulz had a profound understanding of loss, childhood and the human condition. His depiction of the attachment Linus feels for his security blanket touched something in his readers – and in Guardian readers, too. When we asked readers about their favourite earliest possession, we received stories and photographs of teddies and blankets that had been literally loved to bits.

Catherine Jones, 45, from Hull, has Teddy, whom she was given in her first year of primary school. Ian Robertson, 50, from Whistable in Kent, clung to Panda “even after my brother chewed one of his eyes out and spat it from the family Vauxhall Viva as we were heading up the M6”; he now occupies the best chair in his house. Rachel, 45, from Farnham in Surrey, was given Dog after her grandmother died, so he reminds her of precious family ties.

 

 

We are, for now, fortunate enough to have some decent retirement savings, which also gives me comfort that I’ll be able to stop working.

Our cars are safe and reliable, comforting knowing we can get where we need to, for work and leisure.

Jose has been a great source of comfort through my new life with DCIS…for some of you, it’s provided by a sibling or child, a loving pet or a community that knows and appreciates you.

It’s tough to soldier on without respite and charm, something soft and warm, delicious and soothing, accepting and nurturing.

 

What gives you comfort?

 

The careless years

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How much time do we really have? How much of our lives do we waste?

 

By Caitlin Kelly

It’s not carefree.

I wish.

It’s “I don’t care.”

It’s a by-product of getting older, having less time to do what I really want to do, not keep meeting endless, endless financial obligations.

It’s getting a crappy diagnosis that instantly — however much a cliche — changes your perspective on life and what matters most.

It’s not rushing to people-please.

It’s cutting out chatter and acquaintances who suck up your energy and return little of value.

It’s avoiding activities that simply don’t offer sufficient pleasure.

It’s adding those that do.

We spend our lives working and working and working and trying our best to please everyone.

Those are noble sentiments and we all have bills to pay.

Nor am I arguing in favor of total disengagement or disinterest in the needs of others.

But, at this point in my life — and that of other women I know who’ve faced recent health issues — we really don’t care about the usual rules anymore.

When you really realize how little time we’re given and how quickly it can all change or disappear, caring about things that actually mean very, very little just….stops.