In May I was feeling the loss of an old friend very deeply. It was his birthday month and a year since the last time I’d seen him. May was the time he’d normally be wrapping up his training for the Mount Washington Road Race in New Hampshire’s Presidential Range. Unable to run last year, he and I made breakfast for his fellow runners after their training run. He died of cancer last November.
His absence was palpable, like a deep bruise that throbbed every day. I was conscious that my grief was not only for my friend but for myself. This appalled me. Here I was, surrounded by more love than I ever thought would be mine, a family that is large, multi-faceted and very much alive, and a chance to do what I’ve always dreamed of doing. I was, and remain, grateful for all of it.
But struggle and confusion persisted. How is it possible to hold loss and grief and joy and gratitude in one heart all at the same time?
Around this time, I started to read Katrina Kenison’s memoir, “Magical Journey”, one of two books I’d given myself for Mother’s Day. Within, I found a fellow traveler grieving for her own old friend. “She’s been gone three months and I’m still not used to the world without Marie in it.” A few pages later I realized I had tears in my eyes as I read about Katrina’s loss as if I were reading about my own.
“The stark, absolute absence of her— of her life, her face, her hello on the other end of the phone, her name popping up in my e-mail box, her presence here on earth— has begun to grow, as Sylvia Plath put it, “beside me like a tree.” I live in the dark shadow of that loss, the shape and color of my own life changed by the too-early end of hers. And I know now, in a way I never quite did before, that time is contingent and that anything can happen.”
I lost myself for a few days in the story of Katrina’s journey. It was triggered by a convergence of events that unfold for all of us in one form or another: the unexpectedly premature flight of her youngest son from the nest, the loss of her friend, the end of a job she had loved, the approach of menopause, and the impending arrival of her 50th birthday. Among other things.
When these events are listed like this, it is perhaps tempting to say, “that’s life isn’t it?” Children grow, friends die or leave, our bodies change, and we get older. I’ve said this to myself, usually when I am feeling anxious or worried or unbearably sad. I see it now as an attempt to sidestep the emotions that come with loss and the unrelenting reminders that nothing, absolutely nothing, is permanent. I am learning the long, slow, hard way that the key to growth and peace lies in how I respond to that single, incontrovertible fact.
In “Magical Journey,” Kenison is a pilgrim in the land of impermanence. As I read her book, I felt as though I were taking each step with her, sometimes forward, sometimes back, and sometimes into familiar territory. When she described finding herself suddenly untethered to the daily routines of childcare, I remembered the first year after my son went away to school. when coming home from work meant coming home to a lonely silence and a strange, unsettling feeling that I often tried to ignore by throwing myself into work or hitting the gym. Like Katrina, I came to understand that the crack in what she calls the container we’ve built for ourselves represents both an ending and the beginning of whatever is next.
“Sitting here alone in my slowly brightening kitchen, I wonder if my early-morning restlessness could be preparing me for an awakening of my own. And if perhaps what has felt so much like an ending might also be a beginning.”
What I came to appreciate most about “Magical Journey,” however, is that there were no discussions of “bucket lists” or developing action plans and strategies for the second half of life. In fact, Katrina spends a lot of time being still and grappling with not knowing exactly what is coming.
“Instead of continually wondering, “What’s next?” we can bring a spirit of inquiry into the present moment. We can be still, and more considerate toward ourselves. When it is too dark to see, we can listen instead. We can ask, “What is my experience of this moment?”
In the stark new silence of dawn in her once-noisy home, she writes her way to understanding and starts to pay attention to her inner guide. Her journey takes her from that kitchen, to immersing herself in yoga and learning to teach it, to a marriage counselor with her husband, to old friends, new friends, and then to helping others through healing practices and leading memoir workshops. Those are the stops that are easy to describe and are, indeed, rich and very powerful experiences but she didn’t get to them though by following her old expectations or the expectations of others.
“It seems that an honest answer to “What now?” isn’t going to have much to do with my youthful aspirations or definitions of success. It will rise from deep within, … My real task is not to try to reinvent myself or to transcend my life after all, but to inhabit it more fully, to appreciate it, and to thoughtfully tend what’s already here.”
We learn from each other’s stories. This is one of the oldest ways that humans have helped each other navigate the years between birth and death. Mothers, sisters, fathers, brothers, friends, perfect strangers – they can come along at exactly the right moment with the right words or just the simple companionship that makes you realize you while you must make your own journey through life, you are not alone.
In writing about this stage of her life, Katrina touches on the changes that come to all of us. Loss. Love. Children. Letting Go. Hanging on. Not knowing. Learning to trust and live in a world where nothing is permanent and time seems short. Reading “Magical Journey” helped me to remember that ultimately the place we’ve been headed all our lives, the place we must truly learn to inhabit, is now.
One final note. As I sat down to write this, I visited Katrina Kenison’s blog only to find that she has encountered yet another reminder of life’s fragility and the need to let the current moment guide our actions. She had been planning to write many blog posts and ask that readers consider buying a hard copy in the books stores while they remain. The death of a young friend has led to a period of silence and I would like, because I feel so strongly about this book and know many of you will find it a beautiful piece of writing, to ask you to consider buying a copy if you do not win the copy signed by Katrina Kenison that I have waiting for the winner of my drawing on August 8. See below for more details on that. And thank you.
With this post, I wrapped up a month-long celebration of journeys and books. Each post focused on a particular journey and the book that either took me or came along for the ride. Because this month also encompassed my birthday, always a milestone in life’s journey, I wanted to celebrate by sharing the books I mentioned here. Beth of I Didn’t Have My Glasses On won a SIGNED copy of “Magical Journey” by Katrina Kenison, by being among those who left her thoughts or “Liked” this post. Congratulations! By the way, the winner of the drawing for “Stranger in a Strange Land” is “Fat Bottom Girl Said What?.” Her blog is lively and sometimes heartbreaking. Check it out at http://fatbottomgirlsaidwhat.wordpress.com.