A beloved blog reader sent me the YouTube video of Katrina Kenison reading from her book, The Gift of an Ordinary Day. Predictably, the video made me cry, hard. I ordered the book immediately and it sat on my bedside table for a few days before I picked it up. And then. I read it, in a couple of long sittings, underlining and nodding vigorously as I went. In the simplest terms, this is the poetry of midlife, and a heartfelt exploration of loss. Kenison describes a vague but growing sense of unease in her comfortable suburban life that reminded me of both Dani Shapiro’s description in Devotion of being pushed from behind and my own deep, restless discomfort.
Kenison describes this feeling beautifully: “Watching my sons growing and changing so visibly, almost from one day to the next, I sensed something inside me breaking loose and changing as well, something no less powerful for being invisible.” She and her husband make a decision to leave their familiar town without being entirely sure where they are going. They move in with her parents and eventually buy a small and falling-down house on a hilltop in rural New Hampshire.
The book traces a summer spent in the cabin on the hill, the decision to raze it and the process of building a new home in the same location. Kenison is a gifted chronicler of the everyday: under her steady gaze the most mundane moments become luminous pearls. She describes a late-in-the-day snowshoe with her son and the way that a sunset brings meaning and color to an entire day, the lessons learned in the careful, rote stripping of years and years of paint from their cottage’s old doors, intended for reuse, and the heartbreaking mix of pride and sadness in watching her older son across a college cafeteria, chatting with sophomores and seemingly already right at home.
The book is suffused with loss. Kenison explores the very same themes that preoccupy me every single day. She wrestles with the impermanence of life, the inevitability of time’s moving forward, and the profound desire to recognize the beauty right in front of her. The project of building a house and of falling in love with a specific landscape becomes a metaphor for finally putting down roots, literal and symbolic. This, of course, entails closing doors and accepting what will never be, which Kenison acknowledges and mourns.
Being alive, it seems, means learning to bear the weight of the passing of all things. It means finding a way to lightly hold all the places we’ve loved and left anyway, all the moments and days and years that have already been lived and lost to memory, even as we live on in the here and now, knowing full well that this moment, too, is already gone. It means, always, allowing for the hard truth of endings. It means, too, keeping faith in beginnings.
Another theme that Kenison speaks about is the importance of making space for her sons to simply be. She describes the difficulty of ignoring the culture’s “siren call” but is delighted about the summer in the cabin when the family does nothing. She is passionate about giving her sons the space to daydream and to become themselves. This is so resonant for me, and of course I am reassured to have such an eloquent and intelligent person advocating the view I share.
As Kenison unpacks boxes in her new home she stumbles upon a pile of old journals. In their pages she rediscovers her old self, from 10 and 15 years ago. She realizes that her desire to live in the moments of her life, to really see the peace and the beauty that she knows is heaped in front of her has always been there.
This, I realize, is what I’ve wanted all along: to be more attentive, to honor the flow of days, the passing of time, the richness of everyday life. Some part of me has always known it, known it well enough, apparently, to write it down, over and over again, year after year. Finally, there is another part of me that’s ready to stop and listen to what I’ve been telling myself, ready to pay attention to what I know.
She knows that she already knows the answers, such as they are. Perhaps, really, there is no single answer, but only more questions. Still, to sit with oneself and to learn what we already know: this is no small feat, no simple task. It takes maturity and wisdom and peace. To be quiet enough to trust what our body, and our spirit, is telling us. Kenison etches this journey in gorgeous, simple words: the faint markings of the first frost on a window come to mind, lit to sparkling brilliance by the sun coming up. Her search is both blindingly simple and the most complicated thing in the world: to know who she is, out beyond the traditional markers of identity (“mother,” “wife,” “publisher,” “writer”) and to recognize that much life’s task is to say goodbye. To those we love, to places that have held us, to versions of ourselves we may have been very invested in.
In the keen awareness of her son’s movement away from her, Kenison hears the call to grow herself. This, of course, takes faith: in the face of fear and change, it would be easy to instead cling to the familiar, to make a shrine of that which has always been known, always worked. But no.
I know I can’t make time slow down, can’t hold our life as it is in a freeze frame or slow my children’s inexorable journeys into adulthood and lives of their own. But I can celebrate those journeys by bearing witness to them, by paying attention, and, perhaps most of all, by carrying on with my own growth and becoming.
That is what this book is. It is a beautiful witnessing of Kenison’s ordinary family life and of her growing sons. It is a record of three unsettled years of moving towards a new definition of home. And it is the commitment of a woman at midlife to continuing to grow, which means letting go of old identifiers and, ultimately, coming home to herself. In moving foward we circle back, we women do, to something that has always been true but that has required a certain amount of life experience for us to be able to see. Doors open and doors close, we move resolutely forward, yet we also dance back to something primal and primitive. We must accept that every single moment is limned with loss.
The transience of life breaks our hearts and also gives them back to us. In letting go of our attachment to the now we are pierced with loss, but we also know something new will come. Kenison quotes Jack Kornfield, “To live is to die to how we wanted it to be,” expressing the interconnectedness of true awareness and painful loss. It is in trusting the journey that peace comes. My favorite line from the book is this one, towards the end:
The future is never ours to call anyway. No matter how carefully we may try to orchestrate or foretell outcomes, there are forces at work in this universe that are far more powerful than any of our human machinations. So be it. We all learn by going where we need to go. Let us welcome the mystery then, and trust that what is meant to be, will be.
Read this book. It will sweep over you like a wave of truth, like the soft morning air at the ocean, like the smile of a good friend. If you are interested in what it means to be a mother, a woman, a seeker of peace and contentedness, you will find much here to love. This is a much, much more beautiful rendering of many of the thoughts and fears that are dearest to my heart. Thank you, Katrina Kenison. Thank you.