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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

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Love, Unexpectedly

August 1, 2016

Dear Reva,

I have so many conversations with you in my head that don’t make it onto paper.

Sometimes it’s because life intervenes, and intervenes again. But recently it’s been for a different reason entirely. I’ve been feeling shy. Our letters are public, and while there are conversations I might have with you privately, I’m not always willing to have them publicly.

Which is why I haven’t told you that I’m in love.

love-600x450

This is wonderful, obviously. It is a sensation I never imagined experiencing again and it is glorious.

It is also terrifying.

For starters, I’m out of practice. The last time I fell in love was close to twenty years ago, and we all know how that worked out. And then there are all the complications. Logistical ones: Dependents, responsibilities, schedules. Emotional ones: My shit. His shit. New shit that we are creating by combining all of our old shit together.

Here are some of the things you don’t do when you fall in love at our stage: stay up all night talking about the relationship (nothing is improved by losing a night of sleep); express every feeling you have every moment that you have it (no one at our age needs this kind of drama); make elaborate plans about the future (because you never know, do you?); overlook the other person’s flaws (they aren’t going anywhere); avoid hard conversations (they aren’t going anywhere); and imagine that you and he are going to change substantially from the people you are today (you made that mistake once, and the results were disappointing).

On the other hand, here are some of the things you do when you fall in love at our stage: have excellent sex as often as possible (because life is short and everything still works); get a nice boost from seeing yourself through the eyes of your new partner (interesting! funny! sexy!); talk about yourself as a person with individual preferences and interests, just like you did when you dated in your twenties (and discover that many of those preferences and interests remain the same, which is oddly comforting); and learn a staggering amount about all of your aforementioned shit.

I know what you’re thinking. That doesn’t sound very romantic, does it?

But strangely, it is. It’s about seeing past the fantasy to what is real. It’s about being equally present in Italian hotel rooms and in hospital rooms. It’s about knowing that there are no guarantees, and this might not work, and you might be humiliated, and still deciding that you’re all in. And it’s about being loved for who you are, with all the cracks and dents and imperfections that you would change if you could, but can’t.

It’s not a Disney romance, for certain. But what is it? I’ll have to keep you posted.

Lots of love,

Kate

 

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.

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When Moms Get Sick

April 21, 2016

Dear Reva,

Things at my end have been quite dramatic lately.

We’ve said many times that moms can’t get sick.  But I did.  I’ve been ill with an infection – so ill that I ended up in hospital. And while in hospital, I caught another infection (the kind that kills the old and frail, and knocks the rest of us off our feet). And three weeks later, I’m still shuffling around like a very old person (which, happily, I’m not, or I wouldn’t be shuffling anywhere), and relying on other people for things like groceries and childcare, and not able to work.

My hospital cocktail hour
My hospital cocktail hour

I should note that I will be absolutely fine, and I’m extremely grateful for this. Grateful too, beyond words, for the family and friends (my mother, in particular) who looked after me when I couldn’t look after myself.

Becoming very ill has been enlightening, as it often is when your deepest fears are realized. Since becoming a single person, I’ve woken up in the middle of the night countless times wondering what would happen if I got sick and couldn’t look after my kids. And now I know the answer: I’d move into my parents’ house, for as long as I needed to be there, and my sisters and my friends and the nice man in my life would come and visit and help my parents out, and my dear agent would tell me not to worry about my deadline, and we’d all be okay.

And even though I still feel lousy, this knowledge comes as a massive relief to me.

And now I have to practice being a good patient, and not coming back to work too quickly, and pacing myself, and cutting myself some slack, and taking it easy, and … well, you get the idea. Suffice it to say that these are all things that I am really, really unqualified to do.

Pushing myself as hard as I can is what I do. It’s what I’ve always done. It’s yielded terrific professional and other accomplishments along the way. But I’m discovering, as my body ages (speaking of turning 40), that it isn’t a sustainable life strategy. And so I need to recalibrate (slightly?). I need to figure out how to be ambitious without running myself down. I need to stop equating rest with weakness. I need to stop gutting it out. I need to stop proving myself, over and over again.

So that’s this year’s goal. Chances are, I’ll be back on my feet in a week or so, and racing around as fast as ever. But I’m going to try to remember that this body of mine puts up with a lot from me. And that I’m going to need it for a long time. And that it deserves a rest every now and again. And that it’s better for everyone if the rest is voluntary.

Love,

Kate

Read Reva’s last letter here.

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Enjoy the ride

March 22, 2016

horizon

Dear Reva,

Between your travels and mine, it has been a month since you had a letter from me. It reminds me that the weekly back and forth is better, because there is too much to cover!

I loved your glam photos from Washington. Actually, I love everything about this new Canadian government. Watching the US political scene only intensifies my love of country. It is trite to say it, but entirely true: we are lucky here.

Speaking of the US, I’ve been travelling to promote my book, and was in NYC at the end of February. I was racing to catch a train to Greenwich from Grand Central Station, on my way to give a lecture at the Greenwich YWCA on the topic of midlife creativity, and it occurred to me that I was doing exactly what I had always dreamed of doing.

This gave me pause. I don’t make a lot of money, and I still have all kinds of day to day stress, and there aren’t enough hours in the day, and my editor doesn’t always give me a gold star, and I have more domestic responsibilities than I ever did, but I’m doing exactly what I’ve always dreamed of doing.

Do you remember your letter about celebrating our achievements instead of moving the goalposts with every success? I am a chronic goalpost-mover. Every new skill I master, in every period of growth, makes me hungry for a fresh adventure. I get restless. When it’s time to celebrate, I’m usually too busy working on my next project.

I often think of Tennyson’s wonderful poem Ulysses. I learned it as a teenager, and these lines still resonate for me:

I am part of all that I have met; 

Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough 

Gleams that untraveled world whose margin fades 

Forever and forever when I move. 

That day in New York I was worried – worried about the lecture I was about to give and for which I felt unprepared, worried about the next day’s meeting with my American editor, worried about making the train. I was worried about everything that lay out on the horizon in front of me.

And then I remembered a convocation address by Neil Gaiman, in which he describes the best advice he ever received and never took. It was from Stephen King, who said: “This is really great. You should enjoy it.”

But he couldn’t. He ignored the advice.

Instead, he says, he worried about it: “I worried about the next deadline, the next idea, the next story. There wasn’t a moment for the next fourteen or fifteen years that I wasn’t writing something in my head, or wondering about it. And I didn’t stop and look around and go, this is really fun. I wish I’d enjoyed it more. It’s been an amazing ride. But there were parts of the ride I missed, because I was too worried about things going wrong, about what came next, to enjoy the bit I was on. That was the hardest lesson for me, I think: to let go and enjoy the ride, because the ride takes you to some remarkable and unexpected places.”

I’m not Neil Gaiman, of course. Not even close. But that’s the point, really. You just never know. And the horizon will keep moving as you do. And you have to figure out how to enjoy the ride.

Love,

Kate

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Read Reva’s last letter here.

 

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Inside my brain at 2 a.m.

February 16, 2016

Dear Reva,

I’m sitting in a waiting room and composing this letter on my phone while simultaneously texting with you! A Pen Pal Project first. (We are trying, via text, to arrange a time to see each other, or at least to speak on the phone. We have been trying, and failing, to do this for several weeks now. It reminds me why we decided to write letters in the first place, and it makes me glad that we did.)

So, I’ve had a wild few weeks, at least professionally speaking. The Hole in the Middle came out in the US at the beginning of January, and the publicity has occupied a large portion of my addled brain. The rest of it has been dedicated to completing the initial edits on my second book and submitting them to both Canada and the US (I have different publishers in the two countries). And then, because I’m incorrigible when it comes to overloading my plate, I’m involved in a few volunteer projects that are taking more time than expected. All of which is to say that you can take the girl out of the full time job, and she will still work full time (although she will earn less money, which we knew). You may have written some essays on that topic, come to think of it.

Some nice news here is that I’ve signed a two-book contract for Book 2 (now written) and Book 3 (only barely imagined). I’m thrilled, not at least because it makes me feel like a REAL writer. I wonder if we ever escape imposter syndrome? Here is a picture of me signing the contract. Can you see the hint of disbelief in my expression?

signing contract

A funny story for you: I was up half the night last night in a pool of sweat, absolutely convinced that I was hitting early menopause and having my first serious hot flash. As I lay awake, I thought of every possible reason in support of my hypothesis. The women in my family hit menopause early. Now in my mid-forties, I see my body changing in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. Hadn’t I read something about stress triggering menopause? And hadn’t I been through two of the three most stressful life events in the past eighteen months (divorce and moving)?

It was obvious. I tossed and turned, fretting about osteoporosis and sex appeal and general decline. And then I finally got out of bed, hours later, to discover that my son had turned up the heat in the late evening and the system hadn’t reset as it normally does – and that my two boys, who are obviously not menopausal, had been sweltering as well.

And from this I learned that I am more than a little terrified of menopause. And more than capable of leaping to dire conclusions in the middle of the night. But again, we knew that.

So many things to discuss! I hope we can schedule that chat soon.

Lots of love,

Kate

Pen Pal Project

A Dream Worth Failing For

January 17, 2016

Dear Reva,

I loved your letter last week about your intention to make 2016 a Year of Deliberate Living.  In fact, re-reading it made me smile a second time, because (obviously) my response is late. At some point last week, I realized that I simply wouldn’t get it done on time. I rarely miss deadlines, and never without a good reason.

But I didn’t have a good reason. So much for Deliberate Living!  Sure, my book had just launched in the US, and I was fielding a lot of unexpected email traffic (I’m talking hours of email). A volunteer project got out of hand. My ex was away, and I was doing a huge amount of driving (we normally split the school drop off and pick up, an hour each way). My mom was also away, and she usually fills in for me if life gets particularly chaotic.

But really, I got overwhelmed. And eventually, I surrendered. And I’ve decided that I’m going to forgive myself for missing a deadline, because life is short, and my failure to meet a Pen Pal Project deadline isn’t the end of the world.

And life is so short! Two hugely influential artists (David Bowie and Alan Rickman) died last week, both of cancer, and both at the shockingly young age of 69. My friends were all talking about it. They were all doing the math: sixty-nine minus forty-something equals…way too soon. And these were men who, by anyone’s estimation, achieved great things with the time they had on this Earth. What about the rest of us?

Well, the rest of us need to learn how to take a few risks, and I’m not talking about the occasional missed deadline. We need to be willing to put ourselves out there, to step into the arena, and to court non-catastrophic failure. We need to do it in art, in work, in parenting, in friendship, and in love.

Yes, you heard me correctly. There is such a thing as non-catastrophic failure. In fact, most failure is not catastrophic. Most failure will neither ruin our lives nor kill us with shame. It won’t feel nice, but it will teach us things that success can’t. Believe me.

falling on face

One of the lovely parts of my new career as a writer is that it connects me with all kinds of people I wouldn’t otherwise meet. Many of them want to ask me a question, and it is almost always the same one: What’s your secret?

I’m fortunate enough to have the kind of career that many people dream about. I feel grateful every day to be able to do the work I do. And I’m happy to share my secret, such as it is. Are you ready?  Because this is going to come in handy as you rocket towards that big birthday in a few months.

I’M PREPARED TO GO ALL IN, KNOWING THAT I COULD FAIL.

That’s it, really. I want to be a writer so much that I’m willing to fail at it.

When people ask me this question, I can see how reluctant they are to step into the void. There must be a safer path, they think. After all, what dream could be worth the risk of total, abject, humiliating failure?

And I would answer: Any dream worth having.

Yours,

Kate

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Pen Pal Project

Out with the old, in with the new

December 29, 2015

happy-new-year-2015

My office

Dear Reva,

I’ve just come in from shovelling the slush after the first winter storm in my new house. It took me about 45 minutes, and I am overjoyed.

Why? Because last year, living alone in my former matrimonial home, I had an incredibly long driveway, and nowhere to put the snow, and a series of colossal storms, and I found myself, on two occasions, physically incapable of clearing the snow in time to get my kids to school, even for part of the day. It was one of the very few times over the past twelve months when I felt completely helpless.

I was remembering that feeling as I cleared the walkway today, and I experienced a corresponding joy: the knowledge that a memory has lost its power to hurt you, because you have moved past the pain that gripped you in that moment.

I’ve had a few of these joyous realizations lately, the most profound from an unexpected source. Facebook, as you may know, generates a year-in-review montage for its users, providing a kind of highlight reel of life. I love this sort of thing, so I clicked eagerly on the link. And what I discovered, which will come as no surprise to you, or to anyone who follows the Pen Pal Project, is this: 2015 was a big year. Here’s a snapshot:

January: I ring in the New Year crying at a Mexican resort, where I have gone, by myself, to reflect on my recent separation, and a devastating first Christmas as a broken family. My nephew, Sam, is born. I don’t write a word.

February: We launch the Pen Pal Project. It is the only writing I feel capable of doing, but it gets me back into the habit.

March: My entire family (10 Hiltons, aged 7 weeks to 70) goes to Orlando, so that my kids can have a memorable March Break. I buy a new house.

April: I negotiate my separation agreement and sell my old house. I wonder if I will ever write anything except Pen Pal letters ever again.

May: I take my kids to New York for my son’s 12th birthday. It is the first time I have travelled alone with them. It is fabulous, and a major turning point for me.   I meet my NY editor and ask for an extension on my book. She graciously agrees.

June: I move. I love my new house. I set up my office and vow to get back to business as soon as the handymen leave.

July: I start writing on a serious schedule: one chapter every week with no exceptions. I do this for the next five months, with almost no exceptions.

August: I spend time at the family cottage with my kids and my parents. I plan some chapters for my new book, set at a family cottage.

September: I meet with a matchmaker. She tells me that I need to go online. I am completely freaked out by this idea. Anyway, I’m too busy writing.

October: I go online. I keep writing.

November: I start dating. I get my first U.S. review for The Hole in the Middle, and it is really good. I bawl my eyes out.

December: My first copy of the U.S. edition of The Hole in the Middle arrives in the mail. It is beautiful. I finish the first draft of my second novel, Just Like Family. My agent, my editor, and my trusted beta readers love it.

The other night, I had dinner with a new friend (a product of my online dating experiment), and told him about my highlight reel. “What an amazing year,” he said.

I had to think about this for a second. Because if you’d asked me in January, February, March, April, or even May, I would not have said that it was an amazing year at all. I would, in fact, have said that it was the worst year of my life.

In December, though, I smiled. And I said: “Yes. It really was.”

Happy New Year.

Love,

Kate

Pen Pal Project

Repeat after me: Change is not a crisis

December 15, 2015

My desk, 7 a.m.

Dear Reva,

I’m getting an early start this morning, and because it is so dark outside, and because I’m tired, I am completely disoriented. I have to keep reminding myself that I have already slept, had breakfast, packed one child (the one who isn’t sick) off to school and settled into my work day. The fact that I have to do this – remind myself of something so simple and obvious – is one of many examples in everyday life of how much of our behaviour is patterned and based on familiar external cues.

And this, in turn, is one of the answers to your question last week about why midlife changes are perceived as a crisis. I like this question, and have thought about it a lot in my own context. I used to describe my shift into a writing career as the result of a midlife crisis, partly because it got a laugh from the audience, and partly because I thought of it that way myself. But I’ve stopped doing that. I’ve decided that it is too reductive, dismissive, and even pejorative a phrase to describe what has been, in fact, a period of transformative growth and creative flourishing.

Having said all of that, change scares us at a fundamental level. We don’t think that we are good at it. We cling to the (misguided) idea that people don’t really change, and it comforts us, giving us a sense of control and stability. And, of course, change invites failure, which we fear most of all.

Small changes can throw us off for months or even years. Think about how long it takes to settle into a new house, for example, or a new route to work. Long after we should have rewired our brains, we still find ourselves looking for the forks in the wrong drawer, or getting off at the wrong subway stop. And it makes us tired, because every time we have to substitute a real decision, one that requires our attention and consideration instead of allowing us to operate on autopilot, it takes energy.

But here’s the good news. According to Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, “Routine basically gives us the mental freedom to think about what’s actually important…Almost every single species that has survived has the ability to take routines and make them automatic. That way you have cognitive power to invent spears and fire and video games.”

In other words, all of those routines are liberating space in our brains that could and should be used to contemplate change.

My own view is that we are far too wedded to the notion that change is threatening, and that it prevents many of us from reaching our full potential. There is no question that change is difficult (we will all spend a lot of time looking for forks and getting off at the wrong stop, no matter how adaptive we are), but it is also extraordinarily energizing.

This is not to say that I wake up every day and think, “Excellent! Another day of adapting to unfamiliar experiences!” I find change tiring too, even though I have come to appreciate and even seek it. But the rewards of change are as large as your own imagination.

This week, the first copy of the US edition of The Hole in the Middle rolled off the presses and arrived in the mail. Here is a picture of me, right after I opened the envelope. Do you see the same thing that I see? Wonder, astonishment, joy, and more than a little disbelief?

 

us edition copy

That’s what change looks like.

Love,

Kate

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