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The Gift of an Ordinary Day
A Mother's Memoir
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This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around September 7, 2009. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.
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This is a story of mid-life longings and discoveries, of lessons learned in the search for home and a new sense of purpose, and the bittersweet intensity of life with teenagers—holding on, letting go.
Poised on the threshold between family life as she's always known it and her older son's departure for college, Kenison is surprised to find that the times she treasures most are the ordinary, unremarkable moments of everyday life, the very moments that she once took for granted, or rushed right through without noticing at all.
The relationships, hopes, and dreams that Kenison illuminates will touch women's hearts, and her words will inspire mothers everywhere as they try to make peace with the inevitable changes in store.
Also by Katrina Kenison
Mitten Strings for God
Copyright © 2009 by Katrina Kenison
All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher.
Hachette Book Group
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First eBook Edition: September 2009
Springboard Press is an imprint of Grand Central Publishing.
The Springboard name and logo are trademarks of Hachette Book Group, Inc.
Grateful acknowledgment is made to the following for permission to reprint previously published material:
Clarissa Pinkola Estés: Excerpt from La Curandera: Healing in Two Worlds, by Clarissa Pinkola Estés. Copyright © 2009, reprinted with kind permission of the author, Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés, and Texas A&M University Press.
HarperCollins: Excerpt from Grasshopper on the Road, by Arnold Lobel. Copyright © 1978 by Arnold Lobel. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins, New York.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company: Excerpt from "St. Francis and the Sow" from Mortal Acts, Mortal Words by Galway Kinnell. Copyright © 1980, renewed 2008 by Galway Kinnell. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing
Company, Boston and New York. All rights reserved.
Paulist Press: Excerpt from Hope for the Flowers, by Trina Paulus. Copyright © 1972 by Trina Paulus. Paulist Press, Inc. New York/Mahwah: NJ. Reprinted by permission of Paulist Press, Inc. www.paulistpress.com.
To exist is to change, to change is to mature, to mature is to go on creating oneself endlessly.
When my children were small, I would sometimes lie in bed in the early morning and try to envision the day ahead. Not the schedule we would keep or the activities in store, but rather the attitude I wanted to bring to these things. Imagining myself being patient, calm, accepting, I would create a picture in my mind of the mother I wanted to be for my two young boys. Of course, at some point the day's challenges would always get the better of me. Jack would stick a bead up his nose and tell me it had magically disappeared. Henry would spill his third glass of orange juice in a row. And I'd catch myself being impatient, critical, brusque—not the kind of mother I'd envisioned at all.
Back then, I took comfort in knowing that when things got tough, we could always regroup and start over. I could take a deep, slow breath, pop my cranky children into a tub full of bubbles, toast bagels, let the storm clouds blow over. (Well, the bead up the nose did require a trip to the ER.) Still, I felt so certain that tomorrow would be just another day, another chance to try to get it right—followed by another, and another after that, and hundreds more, all more or less like the very day I was struggling to get through at that moment.
It seemed to me during those early years of child raising that my sons' childhoods would go on forever. I couldn't imagine any life other than the one that consumed me right then, a life shaped by the joys and demands of raising young children.
From the time my older son was three months old, I had a job I could do from home, editing an annual anthology of short stories. For a former literary editor not quite willing to forgo her publishing career, the setup was ideal—I was getting paid to read. With a little self-discipline, I could easily slip back and forth between work and children. If the boys were occupied, I'd grab a pile of literary magazines and retreat to the couch. When they were small, paid child care bought luxurious stretches of uninterrupted time at my desk. Later, I arranged my schedule around theirs, glad for a workday that ended at three, for our sacred weekday afternoons.
For years, I felt fulfilled in both realms, fortunate to have work I loved and continually challenged by the requirements of motherhood. My life's purpose seemed clear—I could keep a toe in my professional shoes and be a stay-at-home mother at the same time, certain that I could best sustain and nurture our family life simply by being there. My morning meditations among the pillows might set a tone or an intention, but the real practice, I came to see, was in the ritual of starting over, day after day, caring for my husband and children, striving for balance, trying to meet my deadlines and, at the same time, meet our basic needs for rest and laughter and togetherness.
I learned a lot about myself, and many lessons in mindfulness, during those long days. Intense and demanding as they are, the years we spend with our young children can also be deeply, viscerally gratifying. We know exactly where we are needed and what we need to be doing. Immersed in the physical and emotional realm of parenthood, we develop reserves of patience, imagination, and fortitude we never dreamed possible. At times, the hard work of being a mother seems in itself a spiritual practice, an opportunity for growth and self-exploration in an extraordinarily intimate world, a world in which hands are for holding, bodies for snuggling, laps for sitting.
As our sons grew up, my husband and I marked their heights on the side of a pantry cupboard, savored every milestone, and marveled at how well settled we were, completely absorbed in lives that revolved around our children, work and school, and friends with whom to share it all. For a long time, life unfurled predictably, steadily, like fat ribbon from a spool.
The changes, when they began, were subtle at first. Somehow our treasured family ritual of reading together at bedtime slipped away. No one asked for stories anymore. Baths were replaced by showers, long ones, at the oddest times of day. The three-year gap between our sons, insignificant at six and nine, seemed to stretch into a chasm, unbridgeable at eleven and fourteen. Baseballs stopped flying in the backyard. A bedroom door that had always been open, quietly closed. Board games gathered dust on the shelves. And then one day, toward the end of my older son's eighth-grade year, I looked at him over breakfast and realized I had absolutely no idea what he was thinking about. And when, for heaven's sake, had he grown that hair across his upper lip?
Sensing the ground shifting beneath my feet, I resisted this new, unknown territory, already nostalgic for what I'd so recently taken for granted. I missed my old world and its funny little inhabitants, those great big personalities still housed in small, sweet bodies. I missed my sons' kissable cheeks and round bellies, their unanswerable questions, their innocent faith, their sudden tears and wild, infectious giggles, even the smell of their morning breath, when they would leap, upon waking, from their own warm beds directly into ours. I missed the person I had been for them, too—the younger, more capable mother who read aloud for hours, stuck raisin eyes into bear-shaped pancakes, created knight's armor from cardboard and duct tape. Certainly my talents didn't seem quite so impressive anymore, my company not as desirable as it once had been.
If I thought the journey from childhood into teenagehood would be orderly and predictable, the transformations steady and almost imperceptible, I was wrong. Our family did not glide easily from one phase of life into the next, but then, perhaps no family ever does. The confluence of my own midlife and my sons' adolescence hit us like a blast of wind, blowing the front door wide open, hurtling through the house, and rearranging the furniture of our lives. Some of the chaos undoubtedly came with the territory, and some we surely brought upon ourselves; by the time our older son stepped across the stage to receive his eighth-grade diploma, we were rolling up the rugs in the living room.
I am a person who thrives in the familiar comforts of home, a nester, a sanctifier. Since earliest childhood, I have marked and claimed spaces—from the fairy cave beneath a weeping willow tree in my grandmother's backyard, furnished the summer I was four with soft striped blankets, china teacups, and stacks of picture books, to the rambling, green-shingled house on a short cul-de-sac that my husband, sons, and I inhabited so fully and for so long that none of us thought we would ever, could ever, live anywhere else.
In the midst of an upscale, well-groomed suburban neighborhood, ours was the funky house, having been built originally as a barn two hundred years ago. Its history as a home for livestock was still evident in the ancient, oddly stained beams and low ceilings, the vision of the 1920s architect revealed in the leaded glass casement windows, the handmade fireplace tiles, the tiny bedrooms, old-fashioned kitchen, and unlikely floor plan. Idly house hunting and then enchanted by this particular house's eccentricities, my husband and I wondered how we would fill those little upstairs bedrooms. We made an offer anyway—only to learn, the following week, that I was already pregnant with our second child. It seemed like fate. By the time we brought Jack home eight months later, we felt as if we'd always been there.
As our children grew, we created gardens and traditions, laid stone paths through the flowers and installed a swing set under the towering pine, planted trees each Mother's Day, tended to vegetables growing in the backyard and to close, abiding friendships with the neighbors on all sides. Standing outdoors sometimes at night, looking in through the lighted windows at the familiar, cherished rooms, I imagined our house as a living, breathing organism, animated by us and filled to the brim with the stuff of our lives, every moment, memory, word, and gesture of our family's history contained within its embracing walls.
For thirteen years we were held, loving that house so much that it seemed almost to love us back. Until the day when, to my surprise, being held began to feel more like being restrained. Slowly, almost without my knowing it, I had begun to hunger for something, or someplace, else. Someplace wilder and a little rougher around the edges, with a wider sky, perhaps, a longer view from the kitchen window, and a deeper kind of quiet than could be found in any suburban neighborhood.
In my mid-forties, with our children on the brink of adolescence, I longed for something I could scarcely name but that our orderly, well-defined life seemed no longer to provide. 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. It was almost as if, having strived for years for predictable comforts, urban conveniences, and the security of our well-established routines, I was suddenly haunted by all the things I hadn't done, the dreams that might never be realized, the sense that the tidy, civilized life we'd worked so hard to create didn't quite fit the person I really was, or, rather, still thought I might be.
I didn't want to leave my marriage or quit my job. I had no interest in a makeover or a sports car, and we couldn't afford a second home. Yet I was beginning to understand the reckless impulses that drive so many of us at midlife headlong into mysteries and mistakes, new identities and unlikely adventures. If some essential part of me was already disappearing as my children moved into increasingly wider orbits, well then, I wanted to reach out and claim something else to take its place. Freedom was one word for it; I nursed a new, uncharacteristic itch for more space, empty roads, dark night skies.
Who knows, really, where dreams begin? Perhaps they first take shape in the unknown realms of sleep or in the far corners of our consciousness, gaining size and substance off in the distant wings of awareness, until one day, just out of the corner of your eye, you see it—the hazy shape of a new idea that is suddenly too big and insistent to ignore.
Perhaps my own first impulse to pull up stakes and move away had its earliest stirrings in such a dream. Off at the edges of perception, as my husband and I considered high schools for one son and imagined possible futures for the other, arose a disconcerting sense that perhaps the comfortable old shoe of a life that had fit so well for so long wasn't quite the right size anymore.
What began as a fantasy of light and space and room to stretch evolved, without my even realizing it, into yearning—for the opportunity to write a whole new family chapter, in a place where we might expand our understanding of what it means to live well. A place where, despite the challenges of adolescence, our sons might find some kind of counterbalance to the social and academic pressures they had already begun to experience in the well-stratified world beyond our own front door.
Much as I wanted both my children to benefit from whatever material advantages we could offer them, it began to seem even more important that they also come to appreciate the value and the beauty of ordinary things, gifts that come with no price tags attached but that can nevertheless seem increasingly out of reach in our noisy, fast-paced, overcrowded world—the snap of an apple picked from a roadside tree, the silence of deep woods after snow, the majesty of a clear night sky, the solitary bliss of a swim across a lake on a summer afternoon.
Neither my husband nor I was bound to a location for our livelihoods. I could read short stories at a kitchen table. When we first moved to the suburbs, Steve had been a publishing executive, commuting by train each day to the city, earning a salary that could easily support us all. But he had left that career to try his luck with a start-up; when that and then a second venture failed, he'd launched a small business of his own from a corner of our guest bedroom. For a couple of years, life went on as usual—vacations, music lessons, private school. And then, one tax time, we simply added up the money that was coming in, compared it with the money going out, and realized that something would have to change.
Thus began a year of soul-searching deliberation and many, many late night conversations. What holds anyone in place? How do we know where we belong? Could we be just as happy in a smaller house somewhere else, where the cost of living might be lower? Somehow, we needed to learn to live on less, so we asked ourselves if life in a slower, quieter, less populated place might actually suit us better. We could go anywhere. Or not. There was much to be said, as my husband kept insisting, in favor of tightening our belts and staying put, in the only home our two sons had ever known. More than once I wondered if the longings that plagued me were legitimate or whether my midlife crisis was just taking the form of boredom with all that was familiar.
After nearly a year of indecision and uncertainty, of endless house hunting in every corner of the New England countryside, and of countless house showings of our own (flowers on every table! clean towels at every sink! spotless toilets!), we were exhausted and more confused than ever about what we really wanted. In the end, we got ourselves into the regrettable position of having sold our old house without managing to find a new one.
By the time we finally had to confront the painful task of dismantling the home we now regretted selling, our romantic vision of a simpler new life in the country seemed like a pipe dream. We'd lost our zeal and confidence for going forward. After having tried and failed to make a desperate, last-ditch deal to keep our old house, we had to accept that there was no going back.
Shaken, we went on autopilot, filled boxes, and labeled them "Deep Storage" or "Accessible Storage." In fact, almost everything we owned was going into storage of one kind or another—including, or so it seemed at the time, our capacity for rational thinking. Hard-pressed for some kind of plan, and for a roof over our heads, my husband and I arranged to move in with my parents until we sorted things out.
A month before our older son was to start high school, we left our beloved house, gave away many of our possessions, packed the rest, and embarked on what turned out to be a three-year quest for home, roots, and a new life elsewhere.
On the day we locked our back door behind us for the last time, bade our best friends and neighbors good-bye through one last wash of tears, and followed the moving vans north, we were also, without quite realizing it, closing the door for good on our sons' childhoods and bidding farewell to the life we'd so carefully constructed and then so swiftly dismantled. Three and a half years later, when we finally sliced into the boxes of Beanie Babies and baseball cards, these once precious talismen had lost their magic. Both of our sons were full-blown teenagers. We were in new territory altogether.
Over these last difficult, unsettled years, change has seemed to define us, and at times I've wondered if it would, in the end, undo us. Our children have braved new schools, new towns, new lives entirely. After thirteen years in one place, we suddenly found ourselves with claim to no place, unsure about where we would live or even exactly what we were looking for. We were completely in flux. But I've come to see that even though the particular details of this midlife journey may be unique to us, our story of upheaval is not all that unusual. As I look around at the families we know, I realize that almost every one of them has endured transformations of one sort or another as their children moved through adolescence.
The changes are various, some exhilarating, others heartbreaking, some deliberately set in motion, others completely unexpected. It almost seems as if the strict requirements of life with young children tether us for a time, creating limits and enclosures that hold fast through elementary school. We know our children need security, rhythm, and routine in order to thrive, so we sacrifice, perhaps at great cost to ourselves, to provide those things. It's what parents do, if we possibly can. But as high school looms, even the steadiest families begin to rock.
As writer Phyllis Theroux observes, "We set off like captains of clipper ships outfitted with the latest gear and tackle to race across the ocean. Then, somewhere midcrossing, we realize that the expedition is essentially beyond our control. That time coincides with children becoming adolescents. Adolescence is a mutinous, confusing time when everybody is trying to get off the boat."
Not many of us actually jump ship. But the fact is, midlife—which hits most parents just about the time our children are hitting their teens—finds a fair number of restless, graying seekers out charting new courses, often through unexpectedly rough waters. Whether we choose change or it chooses us, the only thing we can know for sure is that security of any kind is an illusion. The life we know is always in the process of becoming something else.
I have friends who, having put careers on the back burner while raising children, are suddenly realizing that it's now or never and are heading back into the workforce as their children spend fewer waking hours at home. Couples we know who have struggled to keep unworkable marriages together for the sake of their children decide, as those children become teenagers, that they have held on long enough. Families that appeared tightly knit seem to unravel overnight. Others find themselves caring for elderly parents who, though vibrant just months ago, suddenly seem astonishingly frail and all too mortal.
A few weeks ago, good neighbors on our street were stunned to lose their house to foreclosure; they aren't sure where they'll go next. On all sides now, people I care about are having heart attacks, losing jobs, starting businesses, moving to follow new dreams or revive old ones, remaking their lives in all kinds of ways and for all kinds of reasons. Most of the changes fall into the realm of challenges, not easy, perhaps, but inevitable bumps on the road of life. Others, however, are simply devastating.
As I look back over the last few years, my mind fills with memories of indelible moments when I've been abruptly, painfully reminded that we can take nothing and no one for granted.
It is early on a March Sunday, my husband and I just waking up to a gray dawn when the phone rings. My husband answers, grabs the back of a chair, and asks in disbelief, "Who's dead?" My best friend's son has been stabbed, killed while trying to stop a fight near his college campus.
It is October, my birthday, and I'm having lunch outside with two dear friends from my old neighborhood, basking in the sunshine of a perfect autumn afternoon. Happy to be reunited, we're eating deli sandwiches and complaining about our crow's-feet and sagging eyelids, wondering if we'd ever have the nerve for face lifts, joking about finding ourselves a group rate somewhere. A week later, one of these friends, just my age and in the bloom of health, is diagnosed with advanced stage four ovarian cancer, enters treatment, and begins fighting for her life. No one is complaining about wrinkles anymore.
My book group has gathered on a February evening to drink wine, catch up with one another, and discuss a recent Oprah selection. We go around the circle, each of us offering a few sentences about what's going on in our lives, what's happened since we last met. There is a pause as a good friend takes a deep breath, looks up, and announces in a voice shaking with pain and determination, "I'm getting a divorce."
At the age of forty-six, my brother has become a dad at last. But his son is born seven weeks early and is fighting for survival in the ICU, a three-pound scrap of humanity not quite ready for life on this earth. I look at my kid brother in his hospital scrubs, his eyes full of tears, his heart bursting with pride and hope, and realize that he's not the same person he was just yesterday; that no matter what happens to that tiny little boy in the incubator, my brother has been forever transformed by fatherhood.
These are just my stories, the ones that happen at this particular moment to be very close to home. But every woman I know has her own ready list of tragedies, trials, wake-up calls, and, yes, opportunities for transformation.
I remember the book my own mother, then on the brink of forty, was reading when I headed off to college in the fall of 1976. In that bicentennial year, Gail Sheehy topped the best-seller list with Passages, suggesting that midlife is no safe harbor after the turmoil of young adulthood, but rather a critical turning point in the life cycle, a time when our heightened vulnerability also offers us unprecedented opportunity for growth. Sheehy struck a huge chord with her reinterpretation of the midlife crisis, or "passage," as a necessary element of the spiritual journey into self-knowledge and renewal. "If you want to grow," she proclaimed, "you must be willing to change." Thirty-plus years and thousands of self-help books later, this is no longer news. Yet, truth be told, I still feel broadsided by the changes that have hit me over the last few years and am deeply sobered by the enormous losses so many close friends have suffered.
Many nights I lie awake, worrying about what's next. Difficult times are inevitable, and I have no doubt that my own losses and disappointments will continue. Somehow, I need to learn to weather them, to strengthen my belief in the rightness of things as they are, even as I transform this deepening awareness of mortality and suffering into a more accepting kind of faith.
Before long, I will turn fifty. Soon, one son, and then the other, will leave home. And I am overcome these days with a new sense of urgency about all of it. For years I have been caught up in the work of raising children, earning a living, turning pages on the calendar, checking items off a list. But time that once seemed to move so slowly has all of a sudden begun to go way too fast. Childhood doesn't last forever after all, nor does any season.
Change, it is said, always goes hand in hand with opportunity. Growing older, I begin to see that finding fulfillment in this next stage of life will demand a kind of surrender that seems beyond me now, a new way of being and caring that I can barely begin to imagine. I suspect I have a lot to learn about letting go.
- This eloquent book is ...about longing and fulfillment , taking stock of failures and achievements, a search for the elusive "something more" of one's existence-and a reminder that life's seemingly mundane moments are often where we find beauty, grace and transformation.—Family Circle Magazine
- "Kenison writes so beautifully and clearly about what is most important in family life."—Jane Hamilton, author of A Map of the World and Laura Rider's Masterpiece
- An honest, graceful book that every parent will appreciate. In the thick of challenging changes, emotional troughs, and tender realizations the reader will find comfort and guidance. Here is a fine writer, a dedicated mother, and a spiritual seeker speaking intimately to parents in search of wisdom."—Thomas Moore, author of Care of the Soul and Writing in the Sand
- How I admire this mid-life mom, who writes with strong contemplative spirit and a heart wide open to change. Her memoir is a courageous and generous contribution to deepening American family life.—Nancy Mellon, author of Body Eloquence
- "The Gift of an Ordinary Day is much more than a memoir of motherhood; it is an inspired and inspiring meditation on midlife. What Katrina Kenison gives mothers-her gift-is the promise of reinventing ourselves as our kids grow up and we grow older, and the assurance of an invitingly abundant landscape on the far side of parenthood."—Lisa Garrigues, author of Writing Motherhood
- On Sale
- Sep 7, 2009
- Page Count
- 320 pages
- Grand Central Publishing