One is the loneliest number (sometimes!)

By Caitlin Kelly

 

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These few weeks can be a tough time for many people — thanks to social media and the mass media, we’re barraged with endless images of group cheer: parties, family togetherness, piles of presents under a decorated Christmas tree.

My husband and I now work as full-time freelancers, which means no office holiday parties for us, no matter how much profit our skills have added to many others’ bottom line. Even if you actually hate office parties, it’s important to have some social face time with the people you work with to help build those relationships.

The holidays can also be a time of intense loneliness — no matter how many people you know, if there’s no deep, growing intimacy with any of them, you might as well know no one.

For several friends, this year marks their first as a widow, and for one, her first in a nursing home far away from her home city, friends and lovely apartment.

From The New York Times:

People can feel lonely even when surrounded by lots of people, especially if the relationships are not emotionally rewarding. In fact, Dr. Carla Perissinotto and colleagues at the University of California at San Francisco reported in 2012 that most lonely individuals are married, live with others and are not clinically depressed.

“Being unmarried is a significant risk,” Dr. Holt-Lunstad said, “but not all marriages are happy ones. We have to consider the quality of relationships, not simply their existence or quantity.”

As Dr. Nancy J. Donovan, a geriatric psychiatrist and researcher in neurology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, said in an interview, “There is a correlation between loneliness and social interaction, but not in everyone. It may be simplistic to suggest to people who are lonely that they should try to interact more with others.”

I’ve struggled with loneliness for years since moving to the United States — despite having made good friends quickly in Toronto, Montreal and Paris.

I’m happiest deep in lively, long face to face conversation on a wide range of subjects, not merely texting.

I’m also just not much of a “joiner”, maybe because — being a professional observer as a journalist — I’m more at ease one-on-one, not in a group. And because I have to market my skills all the time to make a living,  the effort to get out and forge new friendships just really feels like more work.

I hate that very American thing of “Heyyyyyyy!” that’s outwardly “real friendly” — but often comes with no curiosity to go deeper and to nurture a more solid and enduring emotional and intellectual connection. In a culture focused, it seems, so relentlessly on economic survival, many “friendships” here (certainly in New York) are purely transactional — after you’ve each exhausted one another’s professional or social utility, that’s it.

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True friendship can also withstand less-sunny moments.

I recently spent an afternoon with a new-ish friend, (we met in June 2016), and I was snappish that day.

I was in terrible pain, between my arthritic knee and damaged right ankle.  A bitterly cold wind whipped through the canyons of downtown New York, where we met near the World Trade Center, a place that brings up too many awful 9/11 memories, so an area I usually avoid.

And the place we chose to meet was costly, noisy — and closed early, ruining our plans for a long, relaxed lunch.

I apologized the next day, fearful my horrible mood had hurt our friendship.

Thankfully, it had not.

 

Hoping that each of you — wherever you are this holiday season — are enjoying it with loved ones!

 

And, if you’ve got extra space in your home and at your holiday table, be sure to include someone who might be lonely, but too shy or proud to ask for an invitation.

Some of our holiday traditions — yours?

By Caitlin Kelly

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For some people, the holidays are a time of dread and loneliness, for others a riot of celebration.

We’re spending this Christmas at home. My mother and I have no relationship and my father (again) and I are estranged; last year we drove up to Ontario and had a lovely time with him and my half-brother and sister-in-law.

It’s been a difficult year financially — lower income and much higher health insurance costs have made this a low-budget holiday for us.

We might go next door for Christmas dinner to the Castle, (yes, it’s a castle!), a gorgeous hotel. It’s a rare, elegant treat, as cooking a whole turkey only for two seems a bit much.

A few of our holiday traditions:

— sending cards, with a letter, to about 40 friends.

— covering the back of our apartment door with every holiday card as it arrives

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— savoring a fresh-cut pine tree, covered with winking lights and ornaments we’ve enjoyed for years (that smell!)

— scattering fresh pine boughs atop our cupboards and armoires

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— hanging a  wreath on our apartment door

— listening to a holiday mix-tape Jose made a few years ago

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— enjoying these delicious German biscuits, which my late granny introduced me to

— attending a Christmas church service, belting out all my favorite carols

Christmas Eve has been a less-lovely memory for me since I was 14 and had a terrifying experience that night in Mexico. (I’m fine now.)

So Jose re-branded it by proposing after midnight church service, as the snow was hissing all around us.

What are some of the ways you enjoy the holiday season?

11 ways to be a great guest

By Caitlin Kelly

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A shared meal is a gift

With American Thanksgiving looming and the holidays after that, many of us will soon become guests, whether meeting the parents of the one you love, (and maybe hope to marry — no pressure!), reconnecting with friends or with family you might see infrequently and who you don’t know very well.

Being a guest can also mean stepping into a potential minefield of mutually hurt feelings and/or unexpressed frustration.

Some hosts are explicit about their wishes, but many are not.

I’ve stayed with friends many times, some of whom live in fairly tight quarters; no one we know lives in a 4,000 square foot house or a stately mansion.

Fortunately, Jose and I have been invited back many times by the same hosts. (On a blessedly few occasions, it’s been a total shitshow, usually when staying with [sigh] my family.)

 

Here’s to a lovely holiday season!

 

 

Eleven  ways to hasten a return invitation:

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No political arguments!

The reason you’ve been invited into the sanctuary of someone’s home is to enjoy fun, friendship, fellowship not to engage in ferocious battles or shift them, suddenly, to your opposing worldview. (Or vice versa.)

When political conversation becomes (over)heated, contentious and ad hominem insults are flying — slow down long enough to ask yourself, seriously, what’s the upside? How much anger, even estrangement, is worth it?

(If it’s time to torch a bridge or two, have at it, but make sure there’s gas in your car or a taxi nearby and alternate lodging you can afford.)

Bring Scrabble, cards, Bananagrams, a good book, headphones and music you love, a sketchbook.

Head out for a long, head-clearing, blood-pressure-lowering walk.

Or, as some Americans are choosing to do this year after such a contentious election, just stay home, or at a hotel instead.

When asked for your dietary preferences, remember  — it’s not a full-service restaurant

Some people have life-threatening allergies, but others think nothing of imposing their impossibly long list of preferences.

If you insist on ready access to a specific food or drink, bring it with you — rural options can be distant and limited.

Stay quiet until you know your hosts are awake

This seems like basic good manners to me, but friends we recently stayed with at their country house upstate said they’re often awakened with pointedly heavy guests’ foot-steps as early as 8:00 a.m.

This is a couple who work 18-hour days running their own company and I know how weary they are!

Make sure you know how to find and (quietly!) make coffee or tea. Bring your own headphones and reading material.

Be a grown-up and entertain yourself and your kids in (relative) silence until everyone is fully conscious.

Sex? Keep it private and quiet

Ask any host about the worst guests they ever had, and the screamers and moaners will likely top the list. It’s great you’re so deeply in love (or lust), but sharing space with people you might not know very well is neither the time nor place to enjoy a noisy sexual marathon.

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An ex-boyfriend of mine had relative bring a sheep (yes, really) to his suburban home from upstate while visiting for Thanksgiving…

If you’re bringing your children and/or pets, have a full and frank discussion before arriving about what your hosts need and expect from them, and from you

Not everyone is used to plenty of high volume shrieking/barking, especially if they don’t have a child or a pet.

People who’ve chosen to “get away” are actually hoping to flee their everyday stresses, not add new and fresh hells to their time off. Promptly clean up every mess and apologize/offer to replace anything your kids/pet damage or break.

Buy groceries, pay for them or split food/drink costs with your host

Ditto for taking your hosts out for a few good meals. Don’t be a mooch.

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Quiche is a quick, easy and affordable way to feed a few people…

Bring a gift

Don’t arrive empty-handed: offer a great bottle of wine, some beautiful soap, a lovely coffee table book on a topic you know your hosts will enjoy.

On one visit we gave a set of gorgeous Laguiole steak knives; the ones we brought were different colors than these ones, but very welcomed.

On another, we gave our hosts a small handmade pottery serving dish. Most recently, we offered another couple a lovely wooden spoon and a rustic white bowl.

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Detach from, or put away, your electronics

While many of us now spend ours day on social media, time away with friends or relatives means enjoying (or trying to!) actual face to face conversation, in the house, walking through the woods or wandering the beach.

Everyone needs and deserves quiet private time, but focus on the people who’ve invited you, not only your technology and distant amusements. And no phones at the table!

Write a thank-you note, on paper, and send it within a week

Sure, you can email, and most hosts probably expect nothing more. But choose a pretty card or use your personal stationery and highlight the things you most enjoyed.

Help out wherever you can

Wash dishes or cook a meal or walk the dog or baby-sit for a few hours. Maybe you can help mow the lawn or weed the garden. Your hosts will probably say no, but might well appreciate the offer. It’s a home, not a hotel.

Avoid public grooming

I was once hosted by a younger friend who sat on the sofa watching television with his wife  — while both of them flossed their teeth. Not my style.

You may walk around your own home clipping, cleaning or polishing your nails or brushing your teeth in transit, but in someone else’s space please keep all of it within the confines of a bathroom with a closed door.

 

Create lovely shared memories, not regrets you’ll all spend years trying to forget.

 

Do you enjoy being a guest or host?

What other tips would you offer a guest — or host?

The gift of hospitality

By Caitlin Kelly

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A shared meal is a gift

How often — ever? — do you welcome guests into your home?

In some cultures, it’s normal to ask even people you don’t know very well in for a drink or a meal or to spend the night. In others, people can take years before they decide to open the door to you.

As the holiday season starts in the U.S. with Thanksgiving, thousands of people will be visiting friends and family, settling into unfamiliar beds, padding down the hallway to a new bathroom and wondering how best to behave.

I love having people come for dinner and our sofa is well-worn from the many visits we’ve had, sometimes for a week or more, from family and out-of-town friends. (We live and work in a one-bedroom apartment. I’d kill for a proper guest room!)

I love the intimacy of spending time in someone’s home and they in mine. You get to see their family photos (or lack of same), their choices of art and design, their books. Every fridge’s contents is a revelation. (You’ll always find maple syrup, eggs and half-and-half in ours.)

I love the ease of a morning spent in pajamas reading the paper or sitting by the evening fire at my Dad’s house, settling in. There’s no rush to get out of a crowded, noisy cafe or restaurant, no bill, no harried waiter or busboy.

In a few days together, you’ve got time. Time to drop and return to a deeper or more difficult conversation or to discuss things you never get to in all those quick meetings — who they first loved or what they studied in college or why they love Mozart so much.

One of the members of our jazz dance class recently had us over for a post-class hot tub session (bliss!) and lunch.

It was the most fun I’d had in a long time. Seven of us squished into the hot tub, the first time I’d seen any of us not in our workout clothes. Lunch became a hilarious and occasionally R-rated conversation that revealed all sorts of new things about one another.

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Cooking at the house we rented last year in Ireland

It was, I later realized, a true gift.

It takes time, energy, planning and an open heart to welcome people into your home. (Tidying it up can feel like too much of a chore.)

If you’ve got multiple small children, it can simply feel impossible.

But what a pleasure to sit in someone’s home, to see their taste, to enjoy their cooking and conversation.

Now that we all live so virtually most of the time, being in someone else’s space feels more important to me than ever.

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Quiche is a quick, easy and affordable way to feed a few people…

We’ll be driving five hours from New York to suburban D.C. to visit friends there for Thanksgiving. Dear friends, they’ve welcomed us into their home many times before, so we know their enormous dog will be at the door, soon shedding blond fur all over our New York uniform of black clothing. We know their fridge will be full and that it’s OK to raid it.

I look forward to helping my friend prepare the meal for all her family.

And — talk about unlikely! — I recently expressed a vague wish to learn to play the cello. I don’t even know how to read music and the only instrument I played in earlier life was the guitar.

My friend has a cello she’s going to let me try when we’re at her house. What a moment that’s likely to be. (Dog runs away in terror.)

Who will you welcome into your home this season?

Are you looking forward to it, dreading it — or avoiding it altogether?