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Launch Day

June 5, 2017

Dear Reva,

It was so great to see you at my book launch last week, however briefly. Those events are so challenging in a way – the room is full of people you love, and there is barely enough time to say hello to everyone, let alone have a real conversation.

The end of the school year is always distracting, and launching a book at the same time is positively head-spinning. I’m travelling here and there, and doing school events and exams with my kids, and I’m on the brink of a major professional or maternal failure at all times. In July, I’ll disappear up north with my kids and try to get a handle on my next book. But in the meantime, I feel like a madcap rom-com heroine without the love interest. That’s probably even less charming than it sounds.

Book launches have a This Is Your Life quality, too, and (at least for me) they provoke a strong emotional reaction. When I think about the period in which I imagined and wrote Just Like Family, I’m overwhelmed by the tremendous changes in my life in a relatively short time. While writing this novel, I got divorced, moved, quit my job, had a bestseller, sold another two books, started dating again, fell in love, broke up, got interviewed on radio and television, saw a lot of the country I’d never seen before, got really ill and ended up in hospital, got a sports injury that needed months of rehab, lost some good friends, and made spectacular new ones. So I guess that’s why it took me three years to publish it.

You were racing to get to the launch the other night, and I think you missed the speeches. I’m sorry, only because I wanted you to get your shout-out. There was a time when writing was almost impossible because it required a level of concentration that I simply couldn’t muster with everything else going on around me. And during that time, these letters kept steering me back, ever so gently, to my desk and to writing sentences. And after a few months, I found that I was able to write chapters again, and then a book. So I owe you, and the Pen Pal Project, a lot. Which is why, even though they are intermittent, I’d never want to stop writing you letters.

I give a lot of speeches, sometimes in hard situations, and I invariably hold it together. But this time was different. This time, I started crying. I said: “There are many people in this room who walked in when others walked out, and sat patiently beside me while I put the pieces of my life and self back together. If there’s a better definition of friendship, (*weeping begins*) I don’t know what it is. Every one of you is just like family to me, and I thank you for it.” (This last bit may have been drowned out by a sustained period of sobbing. Happy sobbing, but still.)

I was more than a little mortified, but my friends (they are nice friends, as you know first-hand) said it was more than fine. They said it was real. And it was.

With love,

Kate

Follow the Pen Pal Project here.

Pen Pal Project, Recent News

What Matters?

March 26, 2017

Dear Reva,

I went to a friend’s funeral today. An older friend, but not much older. Young enough, let’s say, for his death to come as a major shock.

This particular friend lived well, in every sense of the word. He travelled the world, had a huge circle of friends, loved his family, and did incredibly important work that changed lives. He burned brilliantly, if for far too short a time. He left behind him a legacy of activism, fellowship, and love.

The older I get, the more I appreciate how little we control in this life, including when we leave it. That realization has made me more mindful about my priorities. In fact, I’ve begun to think about my life in much the same way that I think about the programs of the various boards I sit on. What’s the overall mission? What are the strategic priorities? And how does any given activity align with them?

If this sounds hilariously corporate, I won’t disagree, even though my professional life has moved into a non-, even anti-corporate, phase. But successful boards, and businesses, are focused on where they want to invest their time, and they reject any project that falls outside their priorities. And I want to do the same, because that’s how you create a meaningful life and, dare I say it, legacy.

A dear friend of mine says that he no longer reads books to the end if he isn’t enjoying them. Why? Because he’s past middle age and he knows that he has a finite number of books left to read. And he won’t waste a minute on one that doesn’t excite him.

All of this is a roundabout way of saying that my priorities right now are, broadly speaking, my children, my family (including my beautiful new dog), my friends, my own health and wellness, and my writing. And anything that falls outside of those priorities has to be extremely compelling to get my attention these days.

In that vein, it feels great to say that my novel – the product of two years of work – is coming out on May 30. It wasn’t easy to write, but it was worth the struggle. Writers I respect are saying very generous things about it, my publisher is thrilled, and perhaps most importantly, I’m really, really proud of it.

Lots of love,

Kate

Pen Pal Project, Recent News

Next step

feet-ppp

January 8, 2017

Dear Reva,

What a year 2016 was. And I don’t mean that in a good way.

I started writing to you several times, most recently the day after the US election. Like so many women I know, I sat glued to the television, elation fading to faint hope fading to despair. Where women are concerned, it turns out, it’s not enough to be smarter, more prepared, more principled, or – let’s just say it – better in every conceivable way. But I guess we knew that already. We were hoping it wasn’t true, but we knew.

And so many people died! So many touchstones of our generation lost. It made me feel old. But then, so did the plantar fasciitis and the adhesive capsulitis, and the other itises that denote a body in middle-aged decline.

I wanted to write about all kinds of things that were happening this year – relationships and divorce and parenting teenagers in particular – but all of the issues I wanted to tell you about were private, not just to me, but to other people, and that’s one of the lines I try not to cross. And so I thought about you, but I didn’t write.

I measure out my life in to-do lists, which I keep. They end up providing an extremely granular picture of my life, from the small (‘pick up prescription’) to the large (‘finish book edits’). I leafed through my 2016 daybook this morning. And I could see that even when I was in survival mode, putting one foot in front of the other day after day after day, I was still making progress. I didn’t finish where I began. I grew.

Someone said to me recently, “You’re lucky to be such a kind person. That’s a nice way to be in the world.” And I said, “I work at it. It’s a choice.”

We don’t get to choose everything. But we choose more than we think. We choose our intentions. We choose our behaviour. We choose our priorities. And with these choices, we guide the direction of our incremental, daily steps, however heavy they may be at any given time. There is freedom in that.

Happy New Year, darling.

Love,

Kate

Follow the Pen Pal Project here.

Pen Pal Project, Recent News

High School, Revisited

May 31, 2016

Dear Reva,

I love, selfishly, that we’ve moved to a more organic structure for our letters in Year 2 (meaning that we write when we feel like it, and not on a weekly schedule), but I am conscious of how much time passes between letters when I’m not working to a deadline.

I’ve been thinking of you often, and am looking forward to seeing you in person next week. But I had to write and tell you about a fascinating milestone: my 25th high school reunion.

To be clear, I hated high school. It was a low point. I moved on. I grew out my perm.  I was glad to do so.

graduation photo copy

When I published my book, though, a couple of things happened. The first was that I ended up, somewhat against my will, on social media, where I reconnected with a network of women from high school. The second was that this network of women went all out to support my new career. They read my book, they recommended it, they invited me to their book clubs, they bought it for friends. It was beyond touching, and so unexpected. And so I agreed to help organize my reunion when the school asked.

In the lead-up to the big day, I began to receive messages from women who were anxious about attending. These messages all had one feature in common: the women felt that some aspect of themselves — their careers, or their life choices, or even their bodies — wouldn’t measure up, and that they would feel ashamed. I encouraged them to come anyway. Some did, and some didn’t.

Being a writer, I’ve realized, is a bit like being a priest, or a psychiatrist. People share things with you. Private things. Painful things. And this is a real gift, actually, because it allows you to understand that everyone is performing to some extent.

At the reunion itself, there were laughs and warm memories and much pleasure in the discovery of each other as adults. There was bracing honesty too. Women talked to me about years lost to health issues or childrearing, about career disappointments, and about marital failures. “I’m so glad that you wrote about your divorce,” said one woman. “I felt so much shame about mine that I barely spoke of it for a year.”

They talked about how challenging their own high school years had been. “I cried every other day for years,” said one woman. “I never I fit in,” said another. “If someone treated my daughter the way I was treated, I don’t know what I’d do,” said a third. And these were people who had appeared, to my teenaged eye, to enjoy high school immensely.

It was, for me, a startling insight into the fun-house mirror of identity that is female adolescence: we are surrounded and trapped by distorted images of ourselves. (This is not a problem that is getting better for girls as the world evolves; there have been a few interesting articles recently about teenaged girls in the digital age, trapped in a constant cycle of judgment that reinforces their desperate insecurities.) And it was an insight, too, into my own distorted self-image.

At one point in the evening, someone put a picture of my high school self in front of me. I recoiled. “God,” I said. “Look at my skin! Horrible!” Two women looked at me with genuine puzzlement. “I understand that’s what you see,” said one of them, gently. “But honestly? I can’t see what you’re talking about.”

Lots of love,

Kate

Read Reva’s last letter here.

Follow The Pen Pal Project here.

Pen Pal Project, Recent News

Say please

September 9, 2015

My office

please like me

Dear Reva,

Someone recently described these letters as ‘earnest’ in conversation. The conversation was, in fact, about something else, but I can’t remember anything about it other than this one comment. I don’t think he meant it as a criticism, even. But I am not very good with criticism, which is a huge problem if you tend to see it everywhere.

(To my friend, who reads my letters, and innocently chose the word ‘earnest’ to describe them: THIS IS NOT ABOUT YOU. Although one of the great differences between this friend and me is that he wouldn’t actually think it was about him, first because he knows me; and second, because he is a man; and third, because he is not a pleaser, which I most assuredly am.)

The point of this story is mysterious, I know. Maybe I just wanted to warn people off referring to me as earnest in the future. But because I’m an English major, I’m good at pretending to have a point, so here goes: at the halfway mark of our Pen Pal Project, I wonder if I have fallen into the trap of trying to make everyone like me in what was supposed to be a really honest conversation.

Don’t get me wrong. I am, in person, extremely likeable. You know that, because you’ve met me, but it’s important to me that other people, the ones who read these letters but haven’t met me, think so too.

There, you see? It’s like a tic.

For me, September has always felt like the start of a new year. It’s a time for resolutions and promises of self-improvement. And this year, I’m going to become less concerned with pleasing others, and more concerned with pleasing myself.

Is that okay?

Love,

Kate

P.S. It’s odd how often our minds are on the same topics, however scattered they may be (not adult colouring books, necessarily, but refugees and Ashley Madison for sure).  Thanks for your last letter. And for your piece in the Huffington Post today on how communities can start to shake off the sense of helplessness and rage that we all feel about the refugee crisis, and channel it into positive action. Well done.

P.P.S. Okay, that was earnest.  But it’s in a post-script, so it doesn’t really count.

Read Reva’s last letter here.

Follow the ongoing correspondence here.

Pen Pal Project, Recent News

I Am Titanium.

July 28, 2015, my office

Water gun of choice for young pirates
Water gun of choice for young pirates

Dear Reva,

Your last letter got me thinking (again) about emotional health, and specifically about resilience.

I am, as it turns out, a remarkably resilient person. I suspected this, but hadn’t really been tested until this past year. And in fact, one of the true benefits of surviving an emotional trauma is discovering that you can.

A divorce, I appreciate, is a garden-variety trauma in the big scheme of things. But, for example, I know a person whose daughter was abducted, raped and murdered, and who then had to relive the experience in court ten years later when the murderer was finally identified and prosecuted. Without question, she has survived one of the worst things, if not the worst thing, that could possibly happen to a person. And yet, she is one of the most inspiring, joyful and interesting women I have ever met.

What do we make of this? Why is it that some people who experience negative, even horrific, life events manage to bounce back from them, while others never do?

My own view about the past is that it is not something we ‘get over’, but something we integrate, and in that sense it is always with us. Resilient people seem to be able to integrate past experiences into their present sense of self in a healthy way.

To some degree resilience seems to be innate, but research suggests that it can also be learned and nurtured. The Canadian Mental Health Association has a list of 11 mental fitness tips that boost resilience: daydream, ‘collect’ positive emotional moments, learn ways to cope with negative thoughts, do one thing at a time, exercise, enjoy hobbies, set personal goals, keep a journal, share humour, volunteer, treat yourself well.

Do you know what struck me about this list the first time I read it? How many of the tips I would have thought were ‘flaky’ five years ago (everything except exercising, setting personal goals, volunteering and sharing humour), how many of these strategies I now use regularly (all of them except keeping a journal, although an argument could be made that this correspondence is a form of journal-keeping), and how well they work (incredibly well).

(It is interesting here to note in passing that the study of positive psychology – focused on human strengths such as resilience – is a relatively new field. Apparently, up until twenty years or so ago, psychology was entirely focused on human dysfunction, an admittedly large tent. All of which is to say that even psychologists themselves have struggled with the notion of taking positive mental health seriously.)

Coincidentally, when I found this list, I had just started ‘collecting’ happiest moments of the day, inspired by this Elizabeth Gilbert clip. I wondered what my collection would reveal over the course of a week, and if it would square with my beliefs about what makes me happy. And you know what? It did. Here’s my week:

  1. Cuddling my kid while watching Green Lantern cartoons.
  2. Watching my kid open his birthday present and knowing I got it absolutely right.
  3. Laughing with my mom and my sister.
  4. The satisfying mental ‘pop’ of figuring out a plot problem with my book.
  5. Watching my kids play pirates with water guns and inflatable boats.
  6. Listening to my kid read a bedtime story to his little cousin.
  7. Having a long conversation with a girlfriend over dinner.

What’s the source of my resilience? It’s all right there on the list: family, friends, creativity, connection and belonging.  Good to know.

Yours,

Kate

Read the Pen Pal archive here.

 

 

Pen Pal Project, Recent News

My Midlife Reading List

July 14, 2015

My office

Dear Reva,

You made my week by asking me for a midlife crisis reading list. It has been a pure pleasure to spend time thinking about the books that have helped me navigate this life stage.

Kate's bookshelfAs an aside, I would add that part of the challenge of these years seems to be the struggle to chart your course while being battered by external storms that rise unexpectedly. Take my tennis group, for example. I play tennis with a small, much-loved group of friends every week. All of us, of course, are grappling in various ways with professional ambitions, and often we talk about our work and the manifold frustrations inherent in it. But over the past six months, personal events have overshadowed professional concerns: my husband left me, R’s mother had a stroke, M’s sister fell into a coma from a brain tumour, and K had to stop playing for a few months to do intensive physio on her shoulder.

All of that to say that while planning is essential for all kinds of professional and personal achievement, my own midlife experience has forced me to grapple with the problem of how to carry on when life refuses to conform to any plan you’ve ever made. At this stage, my midlife journey is primarily an interior one, about letting go of perfectionism, and accepting impermanence, and being in the here and now, and looking within for support and validation, and knowing that the only thing I actually control is my own behaviour. All of which is, for me, really, really hard.

There are a few approaches to reading as a cure, or bibliotherapy as some call it. One approach is to read fiction about people going through their own midlife crises, which will either cause you to nod in recognition, or feel better about your life in comparison to the lives on the page. Some books in this vein that I deeply love include Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From The Goon Squad, Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, Lionel Shriver’s The Post-Birthday World, Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections and Jonathan Tropper’s This Is Where I Leave You.

Another approach is to read memoirs by people who have soldiered through midlife and emerged as stronger, wiser and more authentic humans. I spend an entire week on vacation last year reading nothing but memoirs by funny women. It did more good than the sun and margaritas. Here I recommend Nora Ephron’s I Feel Bad About My Neck (and also Heartburn, which is supposed to be fiction but isn’t), Tina Fey’s Bossypants, Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love, and Amy Poehler’s Yes, Please.

And lastly, there is the nakedly self-help category. I was never a big fan of self-help books, but have read more of them in the past year than ever before. I still wouldn’t describe myself as a self-help convert, but I have huge admiration for Pema Chodron and Brené Brown. In particular, Chodron’s The Places That Scare You and When Things Fall Apart, and Brown’s Daring Greatly have prompted me to have some useful and enlightening conversations with myself.  And I love Brown’s famous TED talk, which describes her own midlife crisis.

While you are loading up on reading material, don’t forget that every midlife crisis needs a playlist. I – surprise! – favour power songs by women. Try Sara Bareilles’ Brave, Natasha Bedingfield’s Unwritten, Alanis Morissette’s You Learn, Katy Perry’s Roar and Rachel Platten’s Fight Song for starters. With the right soundtrack, anything is possible.

Yours,

Kate

Follow the Pen Pal Project here.

Read Reva’s last letter here.

Pen Pal Project, Recent News

Woman’s Work

June 17, 2015

New office in new house

Dear Reva,

A day late again, with my apologies. Moving is woman’s work, at least the tedious parts of it (the packing of the innumerable Lego pieces, as opposed to the negotiation of the mortgage), and this woman has been working. Of course, this move was different from past ones, as I did the man’s work too: the mortgage and the lawyers and the insurance and the barbecue hook up.

It turns out that you don’t need a Y-chromosome for those. It also turns out that the woman’s work is harder and takes much longer.

Moving is stressful, but also boring, both to do and to talk about. Stories about moving don’t generate conversation, just other war stories: “You think YOUR handyman took a long time? Mine took four months to assemble an IKEA unit!” As I said, not interesting.

But all of this (Water in the basement! Raccoons on the roof! Wall unit too tall! Furniture too big!) got me thinking about a woman’s work in the context of the modern working couple. I ran into a friend from law school the other day, a litigator at a prestigious firm, who said: “I had to take a week off to attend all of the end of year events for my second grader! Write about that!” Her husband – and perhaps this goes without saying – had not missed an hour at the office.

It is, obviously, the end of the school year, that time when the organizational zeal has leached out of every cell of every mother, and all that is left is a hollow shell of a person who drives up to the front door of the school each morning after the bell, rolling down her window long enough to shout at her child, “RUN!”

When was the last time you checked the homework folder? Or tried to make your kids try a new food for dinner? Or wondered whether or not their shoes still fit? Does your child still have homework, even? Who knows? Who cares? You’ll deal with it when you pack them for camp. After you deal with the raccoons.

And in the meantime, if you a cogent thought in your head, you might wonder why you are the one forgetting to remember all of these womanly tasks. Or remembering to forget them.

Yours,

Kate

Read Reva’s last letter here.

Follow the Pen Pal archive hereRaccoon.

Pen Pal Project, Recent News

Feeling like a ‘natural’ mother

 

May 20, 2015

My office

Dear Reva,

Happy Birthday!

I’m so sorry to be a day late with my letter this week, though it does give me the opportunity to wish you well on your big 3-9. I hope you got everything you wanted, including some time to reflect on your plans for the year ahead. The year before I turned 40 was a completely transformative one for me. I wouldn’t wish everyone the same experience – transformation is not for the faint of heart – but I know from your letters that you are ready for a new adventure. I’m looking forward to coming along on it.

Given that your last two letters have been about parenting, I think you will understand the reason for my tardiness: I took the boys to NYC for a long weekend, my first trip with them alone. It was a good moment to reflect on my own parenting style, and some of the questions that you ask about how and if mothering comes ‘naturally’ to women.

I’m not a fan of boxes and categories (I nearly listed ‘cages’ here, which tells you something about my approach to boxes and categories), and this is particularly true of mothering. I also get suspicious when the word ‘natural’ is applied to women as mothers. Good, natural mothers, it seems, opt willingly for whatever choice is the hardest, most painful and most self-denying; bad, unnatural mothers are those who opt on Day One for the epidural and continue, at every opportunity, to choose the path that preserves their sanity and a sense of themselves as distinct from their offspring. Selfish, really.

Of course I have times when I feel like a fraud as a mother (who doesn’t?) but for the most part, imposter syndrome takes hold when I am forced into a model of mothering that isn’t, well, natural for me.

For example, here is my personal word association for maternal failure: holiday meals. Getting my children dressed up against their will for a ‘festive’ meal and watching them struggle to use cutlery and eat food they dislike, while other family members watch in judgment is a special kind of torture for me. I am also bad at the following:

Playing, or feigning interest in, video games
Doing activities that involve being cold
Sports
Discipline
Sitting around and doing nothing
Going to the playground (see above)

But I am very good at:

Reading and instilling a love of words
Cuddles
Listening to what is said, and what is not
Adventures and special events
Creative solutions to any problem

And I find that when I parent with an emphasis on my strengths, I feel quite comfortable in the role; whereas, when I try to be a different kind of parent, a more authoritarian one, or a sporty one, or a chilled out one, for example, I feel like an imposter.

I was thinking of the event we did together the other night, where we got into a conversation about what we do for fun. One of the women in the audience said that she didn’t do much for fun, other than hang out with her children, and I said, “I don’t think parenting is fun.” It’s true. There are many things that I like to do for fun, and parenting isn’t on the list. Tennis is fun. Dinner out with friends is fun. Reading is fun. Talking about books and writing with other writers is fun. I could go on. I take delight in many things.

Parenting is work. Of course it is. Parenting is an ongoing act of love. And ongoing acts of love (as opposed to falling in love which takes little thought or effort, or even sense), are, as we know but don’t like to admit, work. Rewarding work. Meaningful work. Even joyous work. But not effortless. Not without struggle. Not without worry and frustration. Not ‘natural’.

And this is all good news, my Reva, because if we let go of the idea that there is one successful way to parent, we’ll be freer to find a way that works for us, either inside or outside the box.

Yours,

Kate

Read Reva’s last letter here: http://www.revaseth.com/penpalproject/real-mothers-day/

Read the Pen Pal archive here: https://www.facebook.com/ourpenpalproject?ref=hl