Headwinds, tailwinds

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

As an official #avgeek, who thrills to the sight of any aircraft and loves the smell of JP4, aka jet fuel, I often think in/use aviation metaphors.

Last week I had a long heart-to-heart with a dear friend, a much younger woman still in her 20s. She’s feeling stuck and frustrated, and has had a family tragedy hit her as well. It’s a lot!

When all those around you look like they’re making much faster progress towards personal and professional goals — marriage, kids, buying a home, getting a job or a promotion — it’s so easy and so demoralizing to feel left behind. Even at my age, decades into a good journalism career, I still gnash my teeth and rend my garments when I see other writers winning big awards and fellowships and fancy book and movie and TV deals.

Envy is also a fairly human emotion.

But…

I also subscribe to the belief that, just as some flights go much more quickly thanks to a tailwind and some more slowly thanks to a headwind, so do our lives.

And many of the obstacles and many of the privileges (head/tailwinds) also remain invisible. 

And in American can-do, individual, no-social-safety-net culture, it’s completely normal — and really bad for your psyche — to blame only yourself. If only you had done X! Or didn’t do Y! So and so did Z and look at their success!

But…

We just don’t know, unless someone is completely candid with us, what tremendous advantages or disadvantages they have had to overcome or enjoy. It’s rare that we compete on a level playing field.

 

Headwinds can include:

 

Chronic illness

Mental illness

Serious illness

Acute illness/recovery — or any of these for a loved one

Disability

Caregiving

Grief

Miscarriage

Infertility

Unemployment

Underemployment

Lack of skills

Lack of access/income for training

Solo parenting

Poverty

Poor access, or none,  to transit/transportation

No medical care

Hunger

Lack of education and access to same

Race, gender, ethnicity, religious prejudice

Misogyny/chauvinism

Becoming a crime victim

Emotional or physical or sexual abuse

 

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Luxury itself is a tailwind

Tailwinds:

 

Inherited money

A high-earning spouse or partner

A safe, green and attractive home and neighborhood

Wealthy parents or grandparents offering money

Excellent health

Excellent education

Fluent English

Excellent work skills

Successful legal role models

Wise, kind, reliable people to turn to for help and advice

Secure housing

Secure employment

Secure non-work income, like a pension or other solid investments

Social capital, i.e. knowing people with power who will help you

A sense of self-confidence

A safe and reliable vehicle or ready access to safe, affordable, reliable public transit

People who actively love and check in on you

Solid, strong friendships

 

So I told my younger friend it was necessary to see her life differently, even though the tragedy is permanent and life-altering and no one seems to understand its effects, which also leaves her isolated.

I know the choices she’s made were risky and unconventional — and I admire all of them, for her guts and sense of adventure and all the skill and wisdom they have brought her.

And I told her how much I admire her.

 

 

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I worked retail for 2.5 years, a day a week for The North Face, and made $11/hour, from 2007 to 2009. It was a tiring, poorly-paid, emotionally-taxing and unrewarding job in most ways.

We needed cash. It offered steady, reliable cash. And I was not a teenager, far from it — in fact the oldest person of our 15-member staff.

How I felt about it was irrelevant to getting the damn job done.

It ended up becoming my second book, but none of that appeared likely to me until September 9, 2009 when we had a major publisher committed.

The 2008 crash was very much a headwind, and a shared one.

Now, 12 years later, we’re all screwed thanks to the pandemic — with only the wealthiest and healthiest feeling no/few headwinds.

 

The rest of us will have to fly onwards as best we can.

 

 

How to thrive unmothered

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By Caitlin Kelly

The word mother, like the word  husband, is a noun and a verb.

Some are better being a noun.

Some aren’t given the tools to do that job well.

Some are distracted by mental illness or  addiction.

Some end up incarcerated.

Some lose their children because the children, or the state, removes them.

Many people learn to thrive unmothered.

I left my mother’s care at 14 and moved in with my father and his girlfriend, later wife, who was 13 years older. I was 14 and she was 27.

Neither of us were equipped for this.

So, what happens when you’re not classically nurtured by another woman related to you?

 

You figure stuff out on your own

You read magazines and watch TV and listen to the radio and to podcasts. You talk to other adults.  I was a teen and young adult long before the Internet or YouTube. But opening myself early to the world meant learning to pay attention and deciding what was important.

 

You learn to ask others for help  — and know when you need it most

No crying wolf! When you know your requests are falling into the ears of people with their own lives and jobs and families, you know not to be a whiny pest but ask when you need them most. If you’re healthy and solvent (and if not, it’s much harder), you can manage a lot by yourself and grow massively in self-confidence as you do.

 

You’re fine challenging authority — because classic maternal authority isn’t there

Many people live in fear of what their mothers will say or do if…they say or do something that might offend or scare or anger her. When  your mother isn’t around and your stepmother isn’t very interested, you get on with it, unimpeded.

 

 

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You have to suss out what it means to be pretty or attractive or well-dressed

This was a big challenge, since I was taken shopping twice (both times with great success) between the ages of 14 and 20, once for a prom dress and once for a winter coat. But no one ever showed me how to wear makeup or what to do with my eyebrows or what stockings went with which shoes. It just wasn’t in the cards. So I learned to develop and trust my own taste, and work within a budget.

 

And how to cook!

My stepmother was an amazing cook but never taught me. I have a pile of well-used cookbooks, and recipes. I entertain often and  make very good meals. I take a lot of pride in this.

 

Managing money well is essential

I had money from my maternal grandmother, which for four years of university was all I had to live on  — $350 a month when my rent was $160 and annual tuition $660. It took me a few months to save the $30 I needed to buy a leotard, tights and slippers to take a ballet class. Wants had to wait behind needs. No one was there to bail me out and I knew it.

 

You learn to stand up — and fight for — your own needs

There’s no one calling ahead to smooth  your path or help you battle whatever shows up. I learned very young to figure out what I need and to ask other adults for it — whether professional, medical, financial. That would be my job as an adult anyway. It just started early.

 

The world is full of “other mothers”

From Guillemette in Paris to Marcia in Toronto to Salley in D.C., I’ve found deeply loving women friends whose kindness and affection and loyalty have felt maternal to me. Salley was the witness for my second wedding, which my mother did not attend. Barbara sat with me for a whole day’s worth of hospital tests and Catherine, in Dublin, sent flowers after my breast cancer surgery.

 

When you can’t rely on your mom, you rely on  yourself

Most things are quite manageable on your own. Many skills can be learned or, if  you have the money, hired.

 

 

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The terrific team at radiation, Phelps Hospital, November 2018, at the end of my treatment

 

The kindness of strangers is astounding

I’m always amazed and grateful at the kindness I’ve experienced, especially when traveling alone. When  you haven’t been nurtured much, you forget — or never know — that many others have been well-loved by their mothers, and are happy to share their love with you as well. That generosity and acceptance, let alone affection, always surprises me and always  delights me.

 

Friends are family

The truest lesson of all. If you can open your heart and arms — and without a loving mother you have to — there are so many people happy to take pride in you and your work and your character, to laugh and cry with you, to take you to the hospital, to visit you after surgery, to send you flowers and cards and remember your birthday.

It doesn’t have to be your mother.

Money, money, money

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Storms can descend any time — without warning

 

 

By Caitlin Kelly

There’s an American expression I’d never heard before I moved to the U.S., a “come to Jesus” meeting, defined by one online dictionary as:

 

Any meeting in which a frank, often unpleasant, conversation is held so as to bring to light and/or resolve some issue at hand

 

Few subjects are as fraught with emotion, for many of us anyway, as money.

Here’s a great/long/helpful New York Times column on when, how and why to discuss money effectively.

My husband and I recently had yet another CTJ meeting about our finances, our budget and how — again — we might try to trim our expenses and boost our earnings. We both work full-time freelance, I as a journalist, writing coach and editor, and he as a photographer and photo editor.

And we’re both at an age when no one is likely to offer us a well-paid, full-time job in our industry and we do apply.

Survival is wholly on us.

 

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I love living on the Hudson River

 

Money is a proxy for power, influence, access, status.

It’s how many people — especially in the United States — measure success. If you aren’t flaunting your wealth, you must not have any. Loser!

It also buys food and gas and housing and medical care and clothes and shoes and school tuition and books and music and beer and trips to visit people we love.

We live (in a one bedroom apartment) in a very wealthy area, wealth-adjacent as it were — one man in our small church wrote a personal check for $250,000 to buy the new organ. The women here who stay at home full-time focusing all their Ivy educated energy on their children chirp at me: “Are you still writing?” as if my life’s work, albeit in a poorly-paid creative field, were a hobby, like macrame or raising chickens.

I grew up in a family that had a lot of money, at times. My father and his second wife worked in film and TV, the household income dictated by the whims of whoever they were trying to sell their talents to. We had, as I’ve blogged here before, cotton years and cashmere years.

My maternal grandmother, whose father was a Chicago real estate developer and investor, inherited a massive sum in the 1960s — and spent it as if it were something radioactive to be gotten rid of as fast as possible. Hence, I witnessed, with a mixture of awe and envy, an extraordinary solo life of gold-topped canes, lush furs, raw silk custom-made muumuus with matching turbans, enormous jewels and limousines everywhere. When she died, in 1975, my mother had to sell everything to pay off death duties to the Ontario government and decades of unpaid income tax to the Canadian and U.S. government.

I own only two objects that were Granny’s — a 60’s-era gold ring and an antique pocket watch. Interestingly, Jose’s only family object is also a pocket watch, and a small black native American piece of pottery.

Jose grew up the son of a Baptist minister in Santa Fe, NM, in church housing, and attended four years of state university on a church-supplied scholarship.

I was lucky enough to have a monthly income at 18, thanks to that grandmother, just enough to live alone and pay my own way through four years of university, (plus a lot of freelance work.) I’ve had decades thinking/worrying about money every day and how best to manage it.

I’ve had staff jobs, two of them well-paid,  but knew they would never last. They just don’t, in our industry, especially if you don’t schmooze or flatter those in power.

 

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A cafe table in Montreal, one of our many pleasures…

 

For me, money is a tool: when there’s enough left over, you travel and renovate and buy a decent used car for cash and buy the best clothes and shoes and household goods possible because it can, and will, disappear overnight, and often without warning.

 

So you also save and save and save and save and save!

 

I lost income in 2018 producing two (unsold) non-fiction book proposals, then six months’ dealing with breast cancer diagnosis and treatment.

We do have decent savings, some of which — again — we’re going to have to access to survive 2019.

Our single greatest cost?

No surprise here for any American reader: $1,700 a month for our health insurance plus another $2,000 in co-pays (out of pocket payments) for specific medical visits.

It is more than our monthly mortgage payment —- and is non-negotiable. Even if we lived in a hut in the woods, we’d still need it.

 

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Both my parents grew up rich, and each promised to eventually leave me some of their money but one lied for decades and spent every dime on herself.

 

How does money — or the lack of it — play out in your life?

 

 

 

Kintsugi life

 

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

As a philosophy, it treats breakage and repair as part of the history of an object, rather than something to disguise. — Wikipedia

 

The term is most often used to describe a specific way to repair broken pottery, often Japanese. I think it fits life as well.

By a certain point — for some, their teens, others their 50s or 70s — you’ve quite likely been dropped hard a few times against something unyielding. By this, I mean metaphorically and (I hope!) not the result of assault or physical abuse.

We’re not delicate porcelain or exquisite Ming pottery, but we are all fragile and all end up, inevitably, crazed; a word with two definitions, the second meaning spider-webby fine cracks.

 

In a culture increasingly devoted — paradoxically — to the rustic, artisanal and authentic and the social media offerings of glossy perfection, the notion of being broken and repaired, let alone stronger, more beautiful and more valuable for having been broken, perhaps repeatedly, seems radical and bizarre.

 

I’m into it.

Volumes have been written of late praising grit and resilience, as if — at the end of months or years or decades of being gritty and resilient — we aren’t exhausted and scarred. Maybe wiser. Maybe sadder.

I love early porcelain and china, and use several 18th. century pieces as butter dishes…stupidly undervalued. I want to enjoy them while I can. Unlike Japanese work, with its elegant crack-filling lines of gold, they’re stapled together (!), like recent brain surgery patients.

I don’t love these objects any the less for their war wounds, but am so grateful these little emissaries from the past are still with us….that having graced someone’s table in 1789 or 1832, they’re still here for us to use and share.

I feel this way about people.

The ones I most admire aren’t the shiny folk, all smooth and slippery, glittery, preening  and unscathed, but the ragged and weary survivors of physical, mental, professional, emotional and financial struggle — depending on their age and background, possibly all of these — who somehow remain graceful and fun, able to laugh and savor what’s left of their lives.

 

Feelings — and what to do with them

By Caitlin Kelly

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A box full of comforts…

Having them, acknowledging having them, processing them, talking about them, reflecting on them.

Sharing them.

Brrrrrr!

Several bloggers who reveal their painful and difficult emotions, (without becoming maudlin), are Anne Theriault, a Toronto mother of one who has written eloquently about her struggles with depression and anxiety at The Belle Jar and Gabe Burkhardt, whose new blog has described his battles with PTSD.

Ashana M. also blogs lucidly about hers, as does CandidKay, a single mother in Chicago.

Here’s a gorgeous essay about coming to terms with yourself.

It takes guts to face your feelings and try to work through them, certainly when they’re painful or confusing. I’ve found it simpler to just ignore and/or bury them.

Writing publicly about your most private emotions? I’m still deciding how much of it I want to do.

I’ve not struggled with panic attacks or severe anxiety, occasionally with depression. I haven’t been sexually abused or attacked. Therapists — starting in my teens when I was bullied in high school for three years — have helped.

I grew up in a family most comfortable expressing a limited set of emotions, often anger. There was usually plenty of money, and good health and interesting work, so there was no obvious source for it. Material wealth and a sort of emotional poverty are a challenging combination.

No one got hit, but verbal attacks weren’t unusual.

My mother is bi-polar and hated how her medication tamped down her energy and creativity — so her terrifying and out-of-the-blue manic episodes were a part of my life, beginning at age 12 and continuing into my 30s. These included police, consular officials in three foreign countries and multiple hospitalizations, including a locked ward in London.

As an only child, my father (then divorced) usually off traveling for work, I had no backup.

She also drank a lot, and smoked, both of which eventually have ruined her health. No one seemed to care very much, which was both understandable and heartbreaking. She was Mensa smart, beautiful, funny.

We gave up on our relationship in 2011; I live a six-hour international flight away from her.

It’s a source of deep and un-resolvable pain. I don’t write about it because…what good would it possibly do?

I have three half-siblings, each from different mothers; we’re not close.

When people rave about how awesome their family is, I feel like a Martian; I left my mother’s care at 14, my father’s at 19, to live alone.

I hate explaining this. It feels like telling tales out of school, or people react with pity or they just can’t relate to it at all.

Which stops me from writing about it, except for here, something, I suppose, of a trial balloon. I still don’t have the distance, or skill, to make it all beautiful, an amuse-bouche presented prettily for others’ enjoyment.

I wonder if I ever will.

My parents divorced when I was 7, and I spent my childhood, ages eight to 14, shuttling between boarding school and three summer camps. Camp saved me. There, at least, I felt wholly loved: as a talented actress and singer, an athlete, a friend and an admired leader of my peers.

But you quickly learn, when you share your bedroom with strangers, none of whom you chose, to keep your mouth shut. Guarded = safe. There’s almost nowhere completely private to cry, or comfort yourself.

At my private school, no one ever just asked: “How are you? Are you OK?”

The ability to be emotionally intimate is very much a learned, practiced skill.

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Not surprising, then, that I became a nationally-ranked saber fencer!

I also work in a highly competitive field — journalism — where emotional vulnerability can provoke (and has) attack, ridicule, gossip and bullying. A friend in India once defended me there against a lie that took root in Toronto, where I worked, carried overseas by someone who thought this was a cool tidbit to share.

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 Jose

Luckily, later in life, I met and married Jose, a man fully at ease with having and expressing his feelings and hearing mine, a deeply loving person. He was the much- cherished youngest child of his parents, a small-town preacher and a kindergarten teacher. He was a late-life surprise baby, born after the stillbirth of a brother.

A fellow career journalist, working at The New York Times for 31 years in photography, he’s also quite private and cautious about who he lets in close.

I’m so grateful every day for his love and support.

How do you cope with your difficult feelings, of sadness or anger or loneliness?

Do you share them and/or blog or write publicly about them?

“Oooh, that sounds hard!”

By Caitlin Kelly

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The two initial (male) designers of the Brooklyn Bridge were both felled by illness — only the fierce determination of Emily Roebling brought this world-famous landmark to completion.

 

I mentioned this intermittent fasting regimen to someone recently, a man my age, a fellow journalist, slim and trim.

I was stunned by his immediate reply: “Oooh, that sounds hard!”

Like “hard” was a bad thing, something to be feared or avoided.

Well…yeah.

It is difficult!

It’s not simple or fun to cut your consumption by 50 percent or more and try to keep going with normal activities.

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The level of poverty in the U.S. is deeply shocking — given the astonishing wealth here

But people cope with much more difficult challenges every single day: serious illness, unemployment and underemployment, debt, family dramas, homelessness — and the kind of hunger no one ever chooses but that poverty imposes.

 

One of the pleasures of doing something difficult, despite initial frustration and weariness with it — whatever it is — is getting past that initial “oh shit!” moment and eventually easing into an ability to handle it, even enjoy it, even do it well.

 

 

It might be the many challenges of immigration, and learning a whole new language and culture.

It might be, and often is, the first year of marriage when you think…who is this person?!

It might be a new job or your first job after college or an internship where they never really tell you what to do but expect you to do it really well anyway.

The sexy new word for surmounting difficult is “grit” and many books are being published praising it and wondering how to inculcate it into privileged people who’ve never had to scrap or scrape — hard — to get what they want or need from life.

But it’s truly enervating and exhausting to live this way for years, even decades.

It can feel overwhelming and impossible to get out of a hard situation, one you didn’t choose, whether an abusive family or origin (or marriage), a lousy job whose income you and your family really need or even a behavioral tic of your own that you now see is causing you problems.

I don’t fear most things that are difficult and generally enjoy a challenge.

I don’t respond well to people who expect life to be a smooth, easy ride, cushioned by wealth and connection and social capital.

Because, for so many people, it’s not.

It’s hard.

(Witness the current U.S. Presidential campaign and the face-palming reaction of those who had no idea life was so difficult for so many fellow Americans.)

And being scared of things that are hard can paralyze you from taking action.

But there’s also a crucial difference between a chosen challenge and one imposed from beyond your control.

Then the real challenge is how to meet it, if possible with grace and courage. (And the biggest posse of support you can muster.)

How about you?

How do you get through difficult situations?

Got mad skillz?

Logs for use as firewood, stacked to dry.
Logs for use as firewood, stacked to dry. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some people possess certain skills that leave me gobsmacked, thinking they’re simply not possible — when, clearly, they are.

Just not by me. 

While house-sitting, I  needed firewood. I didn’t dare try splitting logs without supervision, so asked my friend Sally’s husband Rick to do it. Which he did. (They live at the edge of a lake, in the woods, year-round, and have for many years.)

Sally designed (!) their house and adjacent studio and Rick, a professional carpenter, built it. Every time I step foot in their cosy, lovely, light-filled home I’m in awe of this fact. How pioneer-esuqe to be able to design and build your own home!

In my Dad’s fridge were some gorgeous jams and jellies made by his 80-year-old neighbor.

Being surrounded by all this self-sufficiency made me think about my own skills, few of which would allow me to survive without electricity, running water or heat — all things that many of us in the more developed world take totally for granted.

The new American television season offers the weekly drama post-apocalyptic Revolution,  set 15 years into the future after every form of technology has died, shoving the world back into an eat-or-be-eaten set of warring tribes. It’s a popular fantasy and one I think about as something quite likely to happen. People know how to use axes and arrows, a skill set fairly unusual in suburban New York where I live.

The city-dwellers I know consider “skills” as being able to steal a cab from someone at rush hour on 42d. Street or snagging a reservation at the hot new bistro or making sure your new book gets a decent review in the right places.

Not exactly life-saving.

I took a class last year, and wrote about it for The New York Times, that was — like my silent retreat a few months earlier — life-changing, this one in how it made me relate to the natural world and wonder much more deeply about my place in it. It’s taught by Shane Hobel, whose skills left me open-mouthed:

The day’s class began with a lesson in cordage: turning virtually anything, from a cocktail napkin to the soft and pliable inner bark of some trees, into a length of rope useful for lashing branches together to build a shelter, to make a fishing line, or to string a bow. Mr. Hobel patiently showed everyone how to make cord by twisting raffia that he brought in lieu of cutting open a tree, and how to double or triple it in strength and length.

Within minutes his students happily saw the fruits of their labor. “This feels familiar,” said Ms. Browning, a knitter.

“These are time-tested skills,” Mr. Hobel said. “Many years ago we all used to know them, and now we’re bringing them back.”

The key to surviving in the wilderness, he explained, is conserving precious time and energy by remaining calm and aware. “The more skills we have, the more capable we are,” he said.

Spending a few hours in the woods reminds me that I’m simply one species among many, and one extremely ill-equipped to survive, or thrive, without the trappings of domesticity. In the woods, I observe more carefully. I can usually tell the time within 20 to 30 minutes by the quality of the sunlight. I notice things like mushrooms, and if I really knew my stuff, I’d be able to forage some safely for dinner.

I wish!

Some of the things I know how to do well, some well enough I’ve been paid for:

Teach writing

Edit others’ writing

Translate French

Shoot a gun, whether rifle, shotgun or handgun (best with a Glock 9mm); yes, I’ve had professional training while writing my first book, about women and guns

Sell on a retail floor, the subject of my second book

Translate and interpret Spanish

Take photographs

Draw and paint

Cook

Design an interior

Trim a jib for a sailboat race

Build a fire

Sail, canoe, row, kayak

Ride a horse

Buy 20th, 19th and 18th century antiques fairly knowledgably, having studied the field

Ski, downhill and cross-country

Ice skate, (fast and backwards)

Play acoustic guitar

Orient myself quickly in unfamiliar territory

Speak publicly

Organize a public event

Some I long to acquire:

More sophisticated cooking

Making pottery

Speaking a new language, or several — (but which ones?!)

Use a sewing machine

Knit

What sorts of mad skillz do you, or people you know personally, have?

Which ones would you like to acquire?