Catherine Burns
50 (as of just a few weeks ago! Thrilled to be in the club),  NYC

What do you do for work?
I am the Artistic Director of the storytelling organization The Moth; one of the hosts of The Moth Radio Hour; and the editor of The Moth’s three story collections — the latest of which, Occasional Magic, came out last month. Proud that, with the recent exception of our fabulous new Director of Marketing, our entire senior staff is made up of brilliant women of Woolfer age!

What’s the history behind the name of the book?
Occasional Magic refers to those times in life when, if we just slow down for a second, we can sometimes find moments of clarity. It’s in the midst of the most impossible situations that the beauty and wonder of the world can, at times, really shine through. The book features stories by many fabulous honorary Woolfers, including a mother of triplets trekking to the North Pole, Rosanne Cash getting her ass handed to her when she first moved to New York City, and Wang Ping rebelling against book burning in Mao’s China. And, the introduction was written by Meg Wolitzer!

last google search?
I just lost my 48-year-old step-sister to cancer, and I was looking up a quote from my friend and frequent Moth storyteller, Kate Braestrup: “Walk fearlessly into the house of mourning, for grief is only love squaring up to its oldest enemy. And after all these mortal human years, love is up to the challenge.” Kate is the Chaplain for the Maine Game Wardens. She wrote a gorgeous memoir called Here If You Need Me, which is about how to hold space for people during times of difficulty. I’ve been thinking about the book a lot as I move through my own grief. Kate’s not afraid of darkness, but she’s also hilarious, so the book is a joy to read. 

Greatest new discovery?
Besides the Woolfer podcast Raging Gracefully (which, as you know, I adore), Audre Lorde. She was a poet, activist, and essayist. She died of cancer in 1992, but was a fierce warrior throughout her life. She has so many quotes that wow me: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare” (from her book, A Burst of Light). Or this gem, which really speaks to 50 year-old me: “When we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard or welcomed. But when we are silent, we are still afraid. So it is better to speak.” And one more: “In becoming forcibly and essentially aware of my own mortality, and of what I wished and wanted for in my life, however short it might be, priorities and omissions became strongly etched in a merciless light and what I most regretted were my silences. Of what had I ever been afraid?” I have been asking myself the same questions lately, even though I’m grateful that I still have my health. 

Tell us something surprising about yourself.
I was well into my 40’s before I realized that I’m a closet introvert. I present as someone who is very extroverted, so this came as a huge shock to me. But in my mid 40’s I finally did a Meyers Briggs test and I’m an INFJ, where the #1 quality is that you are an introvert who seems extroverted. It turns out that introvert v. extrovert isn’t about how big your personality is, or your conversation skills, it’s based on whether you get more energy from people or more energy from solitude. I get most of my energy from being alone. My job is very social, so before I realized this I was constantly drained. Now I know that I need a certain amount of alone time to stay sane. I adore my family, friends and colleagues, but every now and then I’ll find a way to spend a few days alone and it’s heaven. I always come back recharged and excited to see all the people I love again.

Xanax? Weed? Tequila? What’s your vice?
Good bourbon. My favorite is Bookers, but it’s not for the faint of heart. I am actually a founding member of a joke Burning Man sorority called The Whiskey Girls. It started at my first burn in 2002, when my friend Robin and I bought a big bottle of whiskey to share. We’d carry it around the festival with us, and offer a sip to both friends and random strangers. We noticed that some people would smile and take a drink out of the bottle while others looked vaguely horrified. We started referring to the people who would drink as Whiskey Girls. Men can be Whiskey Girls, but they have to agree to be Whiskey Girls; there are no Whiskey Boys. My husband would want me to point out that he was the very first male Whiskey Girl (even though he doesn’t even really like whiskey that much). 

Last song you sang out loud, just for you?
This is cheesy, but I always have a theme song at any given time. I have a new one as of just a few weeks ago, Snow Patrol’s “Life on Earth.” I had gone away by myself for my 50th birthday, and was listening to music while running. I was frustrated with myself because I was upset about a bunch of stuff that didn’t seem like something a 50 year-old would worry herself with. I was feeling let down by some of my friends and was questioning some relationships that I’d assumed were going to be lifelong. I wanted to just snap out of it, figure it out, get over it and be wise, whatever that means. I couldn’t figure out why it was all so hard. Then I heard the lyrics –

This shouldn’t need to be so fucking hard
This is life on earth
It’s just life on earth
It doesn’t need to be the end of you, or me
This is life on earth
It’s just life on earth.

I read somewhere that the song was written after their lead singer had a baby and felt like, as a new father, he should have a few more things figured out at this point. That really resonated with me.
Worst dating story?
I met a guy at a bar who I’d met on Friendster (for those of you younger Woolfers, it was a prequel to Facebook). It was a pretty desperate time in my life. The date started with him making fun of my drink order, but I ignored that because he had seemed so funny and kind online. He then suggested we go to another party which turned out to be. . . a singles event! I guess he wanted to hedge his bets in case things didn’t work out. I’d love to say I told him off and went home, but sadly I didn’t. We kept seeing each other on and off for a few months. He was quite hot and cold, sweet one minute then distant the next. The long story short is I eventually Googled him (this was right at the beginning of Google) and found his blog. And there it all was: him bragging about leading me on, referring to me as “not-for-profit girl.” Ugh. But I turned the tables. I called him. I didn’t admit to my discovery, but I broke up with him using the reasons he sited on his blog for not liking me. He had the nerve to act hurt.

Biggest parenting fail?
The Christmas my now 9-year-old was 3, we took a 6am flight home on Christmas Day. I was marching through the airport at 5am, dragging suitcases and a big car seat on a trolly, and was so exhausted and “eyes on the prize” focused on getting to security that I failed to notice my little son was puking his guts up. One of the security guards said “Ma’am, ma’am, your son!” and I turned back to see him projectile vomiting. I had been actually been holding him by the hand, dragging him along as the poor thing threw up. To their enormous credit, the airport employees were incredibly kind. They swept in with paper towels and mops and didn’t treat me like a monster. I was so grateful to them. To add to the absurdity, because it was Christmas Day, they were all wearing Santa hats with their uniforms. I firmly believe in the basic goodness and kindness of strangers and that morning was proof.

Favorite thread from the group?
There was a mother posting about how she had just learned that her child is transgender and transitioning from female to male. The mother wanted to support her child and asked for advice and help. The group was just incredible jumping in with all sorts of support. I was so deeply moved by it. Made me a loyal Woolfer!

Favorite Game?
My Woolfer-aged sister and her husband throw these warm dinner parties in their backyard in San Antonio, Texas. They have Bluetooth speakers and pass an iPhone around all night. Each person plays one song they love, sometimes commenting on why. I always end up finding tons of new songs to love, and the stories that emerge are things that probably wouldn’t come up otherwise. At a party earlier this month, my friend Jodi played the Delta Rae song “Bottom of the River” and talked about how it reminded her of the joyful songs that are played at funerals in Jodi’s native Jamaica. So moving.

Tags : WOW
The Woolfer Newsletter Team
Stephanie Staal and Nina Collins have worked together and adored each other since 1994 when they were both babies in the world of book publishing. Stephanie is a lawyer, journalist, & author of READING WOMEN, and Nina is the founder of "What Would Virginia Woolf Do?" Hillary Richard is also a lawyer and co-host of the Raging Gracefully podcast. Sidney Morss is a recent NYU grad and the youngest member of our team.

Leave a Comment