A few months ago, I did something I almost never do: I wrote a fan letter to an author I greatly admire.  I sent a message to Katrina Kenison, author of the much-loved parenting memoirs Mitten Strings for God and The Gift of An Ordinary Day, via her website, and to my astonishment, she responded almost immediately.  Her warmth, thoughtfulness, and generosity of spirit were evident in this first letter, and we’ve since become great email friends, discovering numerous points of connection between us from our mutual love of the Betsy-Tacy series to our predilection for Steely Dan.  I’m honored that Katrina agreed to answer questions I posed to her and share her hard-won wisdom, compassion, and luminous spirit with my readers here.  This interview appears the same week that Katrina’s new book arrives in bookstores.  Magical Journey: An Apprenticeship in Contentment is my favorite of Katrina’s three books.  It’s a remarkably honest, searching, poignant, and impassioned meditation on the challenges of mid-life and a testament to the subtlety and grace of its radiant author.

1) Tell me about the title of your new book: Magical Journey: An Apprenticeship in Contentment.  How did you arrive at this title and subtitle?  Why call the story “an apprenticeship”?

I kept running across quotes by Joseph Campbell about “the hero’s journey.” Campbell suggests that all the world’s great stories and myths are essentially tales of transformation. The hero is called to change, to undertake some kind of journey which requires him to leave what he knows behind and venture into new territory.  He resists, but eventually must summon his courage, accept the challenge and go, or else risk a kind of spiritual death.  As soon as the hero commits to the quest, magical helpers or guides appear to assist him.  There are numerous stages to the journey, hard lessons along the way, and eventually a return to the starting place, older and wiser, and now with some gift to share with others.

All of this resonated with me.  I wanted my life to continue as it had always been, yet the more I tried to hold on, the more it seemed that everything I cherished was slipping away.  My children grew up and left home, one of my dearest friends died, my marriage was shifting, I doubted my work, even my face in the mirror startled me:  how could I look so old on the outside, when inside I still felt like a young me?

I wondered if there was a way to absorb all these changes with grace, to see them not as losses but perhaps as necessary challenges on the path.  Campbell’s work, especially his book The Hero With A Thousand Faces, seemed to point the way.  But Campbell is writing about male heroes, male archetypes, male journeys.  It seemed to me that women at midlife are called to embark on journeys too, and that perhaps by accepting rather than resisting the call to change, we have an opportunity to discover unknown parts of ourselves, to let go of what is outlived and explore new roles in our lives, reach toward new dreams.  Not all journeys require suitcases and tickets.  Sometimes the most significant journeys are the ones that lead us inward, to our own true selves.

I struggled for a long time with a subtitle.  Anything that suggested that this was a book of answers, or that I had things all figured out, made me very uncomfortable! Anything that invoked age or, God forbid, menopause, made my publisher uncomfortable (seems there are still taboos, especially among marketing folk, about admitting that yes, we all do grow old).  And then, like a gift from one of those magical helpers, the subtitle came to me and I knew it was exactly right.  Every day we are lucky enough to be alive is an apprenticeship; the lesson, always, is contentment.  Does anyone ever nail it, once and for all?  I doubt it.  I hope not.  I aspire to nothing more than a good, long apprenticeship in contentment.

2) Your book begins with an initially sunny but ultimately difficult, painful, wrenching scene about the fragile peace and tenuous intimacy between you and your son as you drive him to look at boarding schools following his dreadfully difficult sophomore year in high school.  What advice would you give to parents of a child who, like yours, is at an especially “vulnerable moment in his [or her] young life”?

Such a good, hard question. I hesitate to give advice to anyone about parenting.  I can say I’ve come to believe that the greatest gift I can give my own children is my faith in them and in their journeys, difficult as those paths may be.  I want my sons to know that I believe in them, in their resilience and their ability to create their own good lives.

Yet as the parents of a teenager who was clearly struggling, my husband and I also had to acknowledge that despite our best efforts, what we were doing wasn’t working, and that we needed help.  Sometimes the most loving thing we can do for our children is to widen the circle, bring others in close, explore paths we’ve never considered walking before.  To do that openly and without shame or recrimination is in itself a gift; it’s an acknowledgment that to be human is to struggle.  Humility, vulnerability, compassion – it seems to me that this is the AP Curriculum for life, lessons as essential as any taught in a high school classroom.   Lessons parents and children are sometimes assigned to learn hand in hand, as we move together into uncharted territory.

3) I still have three kids at home (two boys, ages 13 and 10, and a new stepdaughter, also 10), but I felt so keenly your anguish at being ” a mother without a child” as you became an empty nester three years before you were expecting to.   I, like you, love being at the center of a bustling and loving family and sometimes wonder “if I will ever again experience the passionate aliveness I felt as the center of the universe for two little boys.”  How did your apprenticeship in contentment involve not only discovering new interests and forging new relationships but also finding new outlets for your maternal energies and instincts, skills and passions?  In other words, it seems that it wasn’t just about turning your attention away from motherhood or about shutting down the maternal force in you but rather about tapping into that maternal energy and redirecting it.

That’s absolutely right.  For years, I felt certain that my calling was right at hand, the work of balancing career and family life and making choices that supported my primary commitment to my children.  As a mother, writer, and editor working from home, I was happily rooted in one place, fulfilled and challenged without ever having to leave the house.  But when the house was suddenly empty, and I could sit at my desk all day long, or not at all, and no one cared, I felt unmoored.  For the first time in my life, I was lost and a little lonely, without purpose or even a shape to my days.

My first impulse was to throw myself into whatever activity presented itself, to get out of the house and stay busy and keep all my uncomfortable emotions at bay.  The apprenticeship really began when I decided to stop moving.  To sit still, and actually feel my feelings – discomfort, sadness, fear, and pain –and see what happened next.

4)  My memoir, The Anti-Romantic Child: A Story of Unexpected Joy, is, as you describe yours, about “letting go of my own cherished vision of the way our family life ought to be”.   How do you think parents can learn to let go, in small ways and large? 

Accepting that things as they are is the way they are meant to be is an enormous spiritual challenge.  Somehow we must find the faith to let go.  Instead of our white-knuckled grip and our belief that if we just work hard enough we can shape life to our specifications, we are asked to surrender. To accept that perhaps there are forces at work in our lives that are larger than we are.  For me, this seems to be the assignment of a lifetime.  Surrender doesn’t come naturally to a nose-to-the-grindstone girl like me.  One thing that helps is to pause and ask myself the question, “What is the loving thing to do here?”  And usually the answer I come up with is not about bearing down harder.  Usually it is about finding a way to let go a little more.

5) A large part of the book describes your month-long stay at Kripalu in order to become a certified yoga teacher; towards the end of the book, you also get certified in Reiki!  I must confess that I’m not a yoga person, but I have a daily meditation practice, was a certified aerobics instructor in my early 20s (in part to get out of my head and teach/heal people via their bodies), and I’m a passionate believer in the healing power of touch.   I love your courage, grit, and pliancy of spirit (not just body!) in becoming a certified yoga teacher and a Reiki master in your 50s!  What emboldened you to try?  What appeals to you about teaching yoga or doing bodywork?  What can you do, achieve, enact via these modalities that you can’t via the written word?  And how can your story inspire other women at mid-life to stretch beyond what they thought their profession, career, or life path would be and find new roles for themselves that not only nourish them but also contribute mightily to the well-being of others?

Going to Kripalu for a month was, first and foremost, about honoring a small voice inside me that I was more accustomed to ignoring.  Yoga makes me happy, it is really that simple.  And yet, because I’m not very athletic or flexible, and because I came to yoga very late in life and I’m not in any way a “natural” at it, I’d never allowed myself to really “go all the way,” to take it seriously.

The truth was, there was nothing I could think of that I wanted more than a chance to completely immerse myself in yoga, to be a student and study what I loved. Every time I’d ever entertained the notion, my inner critic had always been quick to say, “You don’t deserve this, you aren’t good enough.”  The courage was really about listening, for once, to the other voice, the voice that said, “This is what I want.”

I am an introvert, very inclined and content to spend all day alone.  Being in front of a group, working on a committee, speaking in public – these are huge challenges for me.  I would rather be curled up on the couch, in front of my computer. But as I get older, and especially now that my children are no longer within arms’ reach, I am increasingly aware of the importance of physical touch.  Connection that happens face to face and body to body to body and heart to heart, rather than through the ether.  Reiki is a way to step out of the “thinking” brain and into the universal life force.  I don’t “do” it; rather, I clear a quiet space and simply allow the energy to flow.  Putting my hands on another human being, or even doing absent Reiki, which is kind of like praying, is a gift both to myself and to the other person, a way of opening to compassion and connection.

What I’m learning is that there are many ways to heal, many ways to touch, many ways to bring more love into the world.  If my story inspires another woman to simply listen to her own quiet inner voice and pay it heed — whether that voice is urging her to write or to paint or to run for town office or to climb a mountain — than another worthy connection will have been made.  Of course, we are all connected.  And my story is your story, and vice versa.  As we begin to recognize that, things get simpler:  we see that our work, whatever it is, is love made manifest.  And we begin to understand that anything, anything at all, done from the heart, makes the world a better place.

6) You describe conceiving of and teaching a memoir-writing workshop for local women in your home.  For those of us not fortunate enough to be able to actually study with you, what words of wisdom can you share about how to “attempt the soul-searching work of transforming the stuff of [our] . . .  lives into narrative”?

I think the first step is invisible, and perhaps the hardest of all.  We must take that step even before the pen hits the page.  And it’s really where the soul-searching begins – with the work of coming to believe, “My story matters.”  I wrestled with these words for a long time, wondering if they were true.  For months, I didn’t write anything.  Then I finally went to a friend’s cabin in the woods, where there was no internet connection and nothing to do but sit with myself.  I realized that finding a way to honor my friend who had died, by writing about what she’d taught me, did matter to me, very much.  So I started there, by writing about her.  And so it was that she gave me yet another gift: a doorway into the rest of the story.

7) Your account of your beloved friend’s struggle with and death from cancer is so poignant and powerful, as is your account of your and your father’s treatments for skin cancer.   As someone who’s lost numerous loved ones to and has two close family members currently battling this insidious disease, I have a passionate interest in improving treatments and support for both patients and care-givers.  What advice would you give to the family members or friends of someone who’s been diagnosed with cancer about how best to support their loved one?  What do you think health care providers can learn from your and your friend’s experience?  How can we as individuals and as a culture make what you call “the bustling, overpopulated country of illness, affliction, and surgical repair” a less harried, sterile, and tragic place?

My own brief day in the hospital for out-patient surgery was nothing, a mere blip on the screen.  What it gave me though, as a visitor, was a fleeting glimpse of the territory that my friend, with her devastating illness, had inhabited without complaint for years.  And what touched me, of course, even during my limited experience, were the moments of pure human kindness extended toward me in that busy, subterranean operating facility.   Even there, with hundreds of patients being moved in and out, there were nurses and doctors who took the time to look into my eyes, to connect, to see me as a human being rather than as a patient in the 9 a.m. time slot.  And still, it was a humbling, difficult day.  It was also a reminder that we are all mortal, we are all vulnerable, and we need one another.

The best thing we can offer a loved one?  Presence.  Our own pure, compassionate, fearless BEING.  There’s a difference between compassion and pity.  Pity is all tangled up with fear and separation, the unspoken idea that “I’m just glad it’s not me.” As Stephen Levine says, “When your fear touches someone’s pain it becomes pity; when your love touches someone’s pain, it becomes compassion.”

When the diagnosis is not good, fear is our first, most human response.  Our challenge, then, is to begin transforming that fear into compassion –  both for ourselves and for our loved one.  And as we grow in compassion, we find that our ability to stay, to be with what is, deepens.  And that’s what anyone who is ill needs from us: to know there’s no place on earth we’d rather be than right there with them; that we choose to stay, come what may.

8) With remarkable honesty, you describe the challenges your marriage faced when the children had moved out of the family home and you and your husband were compelled to reinvent your home life and to confront the ways you both had changed in the years since becoming parents.  What is the best thing your husband did for you or said to you during this difficult period of readjustment and rediscovery.  Why do you think your marriage survived when so many others founder?

It took a while for me to understand that I wasn’t the only one grieving what was over, not the only one who felt an emptiness after our sons were gone.  My husband had lost something, too.  And while I was looking outward, toward my own personal new horizon, he was assuming that finally the two of us would have more time for each other.

It should have been obvious, then, why we ran into some trouble:  we were seeing two completely different movies.  But it actually took a good bit of untangling.  The best thing Steve did for me was let me leave home for a month with his blessing, even though he didn’t really understand why it was so important for me to go.  And even though I also knew he was a little bit afraid – worried I’d go off and have some transformative experience that he wasn’t part of, and that it would change me, and create even more space between us.  What happened was the opposite.  Knowing he loved me enough to let me go made me more eager to come home and embrace what I already had.  I think we both became more fearless, more willing to explore ways we can be together even when we’re apart.

9) At various points in the book, you mention favorite books and poets and thinkers, but rarely by name.  Who are some of your favorite authors and thinkers?  What are some of your favorite books?  and can you name a few poems that especially speak to you?

In the early draft of the manuscript, I had many more quotes from authors I love and consider my guides.  My friend Maude, who is in the book and also one of my most trusted early readers, said, “Take them out.”  She was right; I thought I needed to include the words of everyone who’s helped me along the way, when in fact all I really needed to do was tell a story.

The work of Thomas Moore (who I do quote in the book) has been the single biggest influence on me.  I don’t think I would ever have written a book at all if not for reading The Re-Enchantment of Everyday Life when my sons were very young.  Moore suggests that, in order to “re-enchant” our ordinary, mundane adult lives, we need to reconnect with the magical, enchanted world of childhood: secret places, nature, rituals, stories, the night sky, spirits and ghosts, silliness, wonder.  It all made sense to me.  But I suddenly wondered if my own sons, reading this book at age 40, would have any idea what he was talking about.  It seemed possible that, without some clear intention on my part, and a willingness to move against the cultural current, my children would grow up with no enchantment in their lives whatsoever.

Suddenly I had a mission:  to nurture my children’s inner lives as well as their physical beings.  And then, I realized, I also had something to say:  that we don’t have to be swept along by the pressure to do more, have more, achieve more; that early competence is not an insurance policy for happiness, that there are lots of different ways to define success.

I began to write, and we began to explore different ways of living, and the writing and the living fed one another.  I wanted to ensure that our sons had time to just be children, to play and explore and get bored with themselves, to star-gaze and wool-gather, to wander and wonder.  That meant taking some drastic steps and being somewhat counter-cultural – slowing down, saying no to organized soccer and birthday parties and TV and video games, creating rituals, preserving empty time, stretching myself, trusting myself, changing my priorities about what was important in our family life.  Today, if you were to ask my sons what they cherish about their childhoods, I think they would talk about sleeping outside in the back yard on a blow up mattress with their dad under the stars, listening to Red Sox games on the radio, playing baseball in the back yard, exploring the creek in the woods.

And oddly enough, they have Thomas Moore to thank for that.  He made me see that my real work as a mother was to care for the souls of my children, and that in order to do that, I’d need to care for my own as well.

Other guides: Mary Oliver, Joseph Campbell, Pema Chodron, and Ann Hillman, whose book Awakening the Energies of Love is something of a bible to me, a profound, demanding, multi-faceted book that I will never be finished with.

10) What quotation would you use to summarize you and/or your approach to life?

“The purpose of the journey is compassion.”  Joseph Campbell

Learn More About Magical Journey by watching this video:

KATRINA KENISON is a wife, the mother of two, a life-long reader, wanderer, and daydreamer. She is the author of The Gift of an Ordinary Day: A Mother’s Memoir, and Mitten Strings for God: Reflections for Mothers in a Hurry.

A former editor at Houghton Mifflin Company in New Haven, New York, and Boston, Katrina became the series editor for The Best American Short Stories in 1990, a post she held for sixteen years. She also co-edited, with John Updike, The Best American Short Stories of the Century. With her yoga teacher, Rolf Gates, she wrote Meditations from the Mat: Reflections on the Path of Yoga. Katrina has been a featured guest on Oprah and her essays have appeared in O The Oprah Magazine, Real Simple, Family Circle, Woman’s Day, and many other publications.

Katrina lives in the New Hampshire countryside with her husband and sons and their border collie, Gracie.