Magic

Katrina Kenison & Magical Journey book signing at Parnassus Books, NashvilleJust over a year ago, I hit the wall. I’d been writing for months, throwing away more pages than I kept, feeling less sure of myself and what I was doing with every passing day. I had a deadline, the end of March. But I wasn’t at all sure I had a book.

Two days after New Years, with both sons back at school, I flew to Florida and set up camp in the guest bedroom of my parents’ house. My mom, keeping her promise not to tempt me with distractions, went about her carefree retiree’s life. Meanwhile, I holed up in my self-created bunker, sitting cross-legged on the bed for hours on end, bent over my laptop, pretending no one would ever read what I was writing. My immediate goal was not to send words out into the world, but to be quiet and disciplined and attentive enough to find out if I actually had anything to say.

Now, twelve months later, the book that finally began to take shape during those weeks is in the bookstores. The irony of the title Magical Journey, of course, is that I didn’t actually go much of anywhere, except in search of a bit of solitude and silence. Sometimes the most challenging journeys aren’t the ones that require backpacks and sturdy shoes, but rather a willingness to turn inward, to seek something deep and as yet unformed within ourselves. And sometimes, as the last two weeks have revealed to me, it is the work done in lonely isolation that ultimately forges and affirms our most essential human connections out in the world.

This morning, home again after a flurry of nonstop travel and bookstore appearances, I paged through the journal I kept last winter. Every day, I attempted to clear my mind and face my fears by writing longhand in a notebook before turning on my laptop and confronting my manuscript. A few excerpts from those arduous, uncertain days exactly a year ago:

“I am so slow. What I’ve written is probably not terrible. I’m trying to convince myself that it is at least good enough. Yet moving forward feels really hard. What is the right attitude? Maybe just to try to keep on writing without judging, to think my thoughts and feel my feelings, and get something down on the page, and then decide later whether it’s any good or not.”

And this:

“The slowness, the uncertainty. What am I learning from this process? That in my writing, first and foremost, I must put my faith in the truth. That the truth is mundane, embarrassing at times, difficult to distill clearly, yet still worth reaching for. That the only way through is through. That it doesn’t get easier. That living wholeheartedly can mean going within, rather than without. Not fun, exactly, but wholehearted nonetheless.”

And also:

“So strange to be in a time of life, a place, where Steve and Henry and Jack can all be living separate lives in different places. They are doing just fine away from me; I’m the one who feels the loss of all that used to be. All I used to be. Guess that’s what it’s been like for my own mom for years now. Perhaps I’ll get used to it. I feel alive in different ways – alive when I’m needed at the center of my family, making dinner or having a heart-to-heart with one of the boys, keeping all the balls in the air. And alive in a totally different way now, in solitude, when all the structure and to-dos fall away, and I’m left with my own thoughts, my own demons and dreams, my own inner landscape. Time slows. There is nothing to do but honor my commitment to keep at this, uncomfortable and hard as it is. But I wonder: to write from this vulnerable place, to be who I really am on the page – is this in itself some kind of path or calling? Perhaps, for now anyway, it is. And perhaps, if I can just stick it out, it will even lead to joy. Or at least lead me back out of myself, with some sense of where I’m meant to go next.”

Yesterday, my friend Dani Shapiro, wrote a thoughtful, lovely post about the difference between taking risks in life and on the page. Most of us, as she points out, will go to any length to keep our loved ones safe. Learning how to assess risk is part of growing up; making prudent calls, at the heart of every mother’s job description. And yet, says Dani, “When it comes to the writer’s life, risk is what it’s all about.”

She’s right, of course. We have to step out on that high wire again and again, even though we teeter with every step, even though we’re dogged by insecurity: “Maybe it won’t work. . . . Maybe it will suck. Maybe I’ll waste my time and precious energy on a piece of prose that will be dead on arrival.”

I don’t suppose there’s any way to avoid the inexorable loneliness of the process, the feelings of frustration and powerlessness that come at the end of a day in which the only thing you really accomplished was staying put in your chair. Still, I wish that when I was sitting alone with myself in that Florida bedroom, I could have flashed forward a year, to the joyous scene last week in a hotel room in Nashville.

Every single woman from my book group had flown in earlier in the afternoon to celebrate the launch of Magical Journey with me and to attend my reading at Ann Patchett’s beautiful bookstore, Parnassus. On that first evening, we were all gathered together, toasting our trip, our thirteen years of books and lives shared, and the publication of this new memoir of mine (despite the fact that the work of writing it had kept me from attending a single meeting last year.)

The conversation soon turned to vulnerability, and risk, and the importance of sharing our stories, even the painful ones. After all these years together, we trust one another completely, hold little back, know that we can close the door and bare our souls in safety. And yet, as my friends began to share their first reactions to my book, we found ourselves talking as well about taking risks in public and on the page. And how, perhaps, in taking some risks myself, I’ve cleared a space in which other women might be more willing to share their own stories, or at least come to feel a little less alone.

This, it seems to me, is the reason any writer undertakes the speculative work of memoir. Not so much to tell “what happened,” as to illuminate the slow, halting process by which we learn to make our peace with what is. And in that vulnerable revealing, in the stumbling, wayward truth of that story, lies something that is worth offering: not the gift of what we have accomplished but rather the gift of who we really are.

To be vulnerable on the page is indeed a risk – hang yourself out on the line, and anyone can come along and take a swing at you. Yet my own experience over these last two weeks has been the opposite. People are kind, and words build bridges. As I’ve met and talked with readers in Connecticut and Nashville and Washington, DC, and as I’ve read and responded to the letters and Facebook messages and emails from strangers, I’ve been moved deeply by the stories women have shared with me, joyful stories of change and growth, but also intimate stories of loss and hardship, suffering and grief. Stories told in confidence within this safe space, a space created by kinship and kindness and courage. Publishing a book, any book, is an act of faith – in oneself of course, but in one’s readers even more. How humbling and gratifying it is to have that faith returned a thousandfold.

I would not want to relive last January, all those days spent, as Dani says, “in the teeming, writhing darkness,” trying to beat back my own self-doubt long enough to make something lasting and sturdy out of words. But I’m glad now that I did it. What I’m learning, I think, is something one of my most admired writers, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, knew all too well.

“I do not believe that sheer suffering teaches,” she writes in Gift from the Sea. “If suffering alone taught, all the world would be wise, since everyone suffers. To suffering must be added mourning, understanding, patience, love, openness, and the willingness to remain vulnerable.” This, it seems to me, is the work of the writer: finding something of value to add to the suffering. Sometimes, yes, it is isolating, to dwell in that place of risk and revelation. And yet what we find on the other side is so worth the effort: community, connection, kinship, healing. Nothing less than the road back to grace.

To all of you who are supporting the birth of this book with your heartfelt letters, your messages, your words of encouragement, your online reviews and your real live attendance at my readings, a most heartfelt thank you. I am honored to be a part of this ongoing conversation, to meet you and to share the path with you, to be reminded that none of us journeys alone, that we are all connected, that my story is your story — and vice versa.

News from the road. . .

Building an audience is the writer’s job once the book is published — and that’s what I’m up to now.  (A far cry from that writerly solitude of a year ago.)  Want to help me spread the word?

Here are three things you can do:

1. Write a brief review on Amazon.

2.  Like my page on Facebook and share posts with your friends.

3. Share the book!  (One of my favorite stories: A reader wrote to tell me she was ordering five copies for friends for Valentines Day.  No sooner had she placed her order than an Amazon rep called to ask if there had been some mistake.  “No,” she replied, “I loved this book, so I’m buying more for my friends.”  The Amazon clerk read the description and said, “It does sound good.  I’m going to buy it too!”  Talk about word of mouth!)

Also, check my Events page to see if I’m coming to a bookstore near you. I’m visiting lots of independent bookstores — we need these stores in our towns, and they need our business to survive.  (This week I’ll be in:  Concord, NH; Portsmouth, NH; Manchester, VT; and Cohasset, MA.)

If you haven’t read Priscilla Gilman’s probing interview with me, Click Here.

A nice review from the Chicago Tribune (Editor’s Choice).

Finally, a word about The View from My Window, the collection of blog posts my husband gave me for Christmas.  Your comments — all 264 of them!–stunned me.  I read each one of them with gratitude.  And then I wished I could send every single one of you a copy of the book.  Which of course made me think:  there has to be a way.  For now, all I can say is, stay tuned. (This sounds like a project to take up a bit later, after Magical Journey is well on its way.)  Meanwhile, congratulations to winners Ann Laurence and Louise Olmstead, whose names were drawn at random on my pub. date.  

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your comments

  1. Katrina: You rock my world! I am LOVING your new book! Congratulations on all your success, what a lovely group of women! I have liked you and commented everywhere…hope it helps!

  2. I love this notion deeply that art is not borne of suffering itself, but what flows out of the suffering. I know that’s certainly been true in my life.

    I also love that your long-time bookclub was there to support you in such a tangible way. What an act of love, to travel to a bookstore in another state to hear you read.

    Congrats, again, as you birth your book into the world.

  3. That slow halting process of making sense of our lives. Oh, yes. You know how essential, important you and Dani are to me, what guides you are as I begin down the road of that process. Thank you, thank you. A million times. I can’t wait to see you in Boston! xox

  4. What an honor it was to travel with you to Nashville, Katrina and be “roomies” again after our Mexican yoga retreat many years ago! It was a wonderful way to celebrate the Magical Journey we are all on and deepen our friendship at the same time. I keep getting thank yous from all my family and friends reading your book. As always, thank you for sharing yourself so openly with all of us.

  5. I am so grateful that you have made the effort to put into words all of the feelings that pervade your thoughts as you wrestle with the changes in your life. Your comments have made me laugh, shake my head knowingly in agreement, and cry my eyes out. What a joy to know that we are truly not alone in our journey. Thank you for the courage to put it down on paper to remind us of that! Congratulations on the book – looking forward to meeting you in Larchmont, NY in April!

  6. Katrina

    I am so glad to hear that you are finally learning, after all these years of stringing exquisitely beautiful words together to share with all of us, that you have a God-given gift to share with the world. And when you write from your heart, you will never go wrong. We all love what you write. It inspires and moves us. I know your writing has made more of an impact on me than any other writer ever. And I have read tons of books!

    Also, it was a pleasure meeting you at Lil Omm in Washington last week. I still can’t wipe the smile off my face:)

  7. Your words came into my life over a year ago. You will never know how meaningful they have been to me although we are on different journeys.

    We are both mothers with adult children. I lost my daughter almost two years ago to an accidental overdose. I have struggled with my loss, sorrow, and so many other emotions. I am entering my “season of grief” this next month where she would have been 33 years old, but instead, it will be her 2nd heavenly birthday. Her name is Megan Lauren. She entered this world 2/23/1980. She entered eternity 2 weeks after her 31st birthday on 3/8/2011. I am grateful for my faith in God, which is getting me through this period of mourning.

    Like many others, I have felt a connection to your writing as a mother, as a woman dealing with loss, walking my path of discovery, trying to make sense of my life. It is difficult to turn inward and apply self-examination without beating myself up.

    You Katrina, have inspired me…to write in my journal, reflect on my life and who I am and where I am going. I am considering sharing mine and my daughters story. I believe there are no coincidences in life, that our paths crossed for a reason.

    I recently moved to Northern California, but am originally from Laguna Beach/Dana Point area. Will be down there on business when you are at LB bookstore. I am thrilled that I will be able to come and meet you!! Can not wait to read your book. Congratulations! Warm regards, Sharon ‘Sam’ Randlett Major

  8. Thank you for this, and especially for this reminder: “Sometimes… it is the work done in lonely isolation that ultimately forges and affirms our most essential human connections out in the world.”

  9. “And alive in a totally different way now, in solitude, when all the structure and to-dos fall away, and I’m left with my own thoughts, my own demons and dreams, my own inner landscape.”

    That’s exactly where I am. Your words inspire me to be a little less harsh with myself and just try to open myself to what comes. It’s hard work!

  10. What a wonderful way to honor the launch of your book with a gathering of soul-friends. It occurs to me today reading this post what a remarkable friend you must be to have the rich, textured friendships you describe in your writing. I strive in my own life to follow your example: not only by capturing the beauty of the everyday in my writing, but by being the kind of friend to others than I wish to have. Thank you, as always, for lighting the way ahead. xo

  11. I am so looking forward to seeing you tomorrow night at Gibson’s in Concord, NH. I’ve invited my book club and several other friends to join me. Considering I haven’t made it through one chapter of your book (almost done) without crying, I may sit in the back as not to make a scene. :)
    Your words ring so true sometimes it makes my heart ache…and my tears start.
    Thank you for always being able to put such deep emotions many of us share into words that help many of us understand.

  12. I have come to you Katrina by way of Lindsey Mead, Elizabeth Grant Thomas, Kristen of Motherese, and the incomparable Dani Shapiro. These messages and words attract me. They hum from my insides as Truth. Seekers on the same journey, writers making meaning out of suffering… That is what this thing is about, meaning. Sitting cross-legged in doubt and coming out with acceptance of ourselves and, most importantly, connection with other seekers on the same journey toward Truth. Thank you.

  13. I so love that you are able to enjoy this time after “hairshirt writing.” You so deserve all of this joy. I really love that you printed your journal entries here. They are beautiful. Thank you for being so vulnerable on the page – you are echoing our universal vulnerabilities.

  14. Now I’m really kicking myself for not making the drive down from Kentucky to meet you in Nashville. Then again, that was the night of the storm and would have been a big risk.

    Thanks for sharing your story through your writing. It inspires me and I can relate to much of what you say.

    Jodi

  15. Thanking you for your authenticity, honesty, and transparency, in telling us your own personal hard places. I am inspired to resolve all my issues regarding my very own personal grief journey, the death of my husband of 46 years, a ‘sudden death heart attack’. So quick, he expired I. Less than two seconds while I watched gasping, “honey, stay with me, the ambulance is coming”. But I really don’t think he heard me at all. It was a moment, just a moment, when Jesus came, and he went. Exactly as he desired. He had said “Sweetheart, if you see Jesus coming for me, let me go….no heroics!” Can you imagine how hard this was to watch? Now, almost 4 years later, I still replay this moment. Your wonderful book is helping me see how my own Magical Journey into acceptance might come about. I need to pick up my pen, seek solitude, seek prayer, seek aloneness, and just pour out my soul to God.

  16. “That living wholeheartedly can mean going within, rather than without.” This is manna for me today. I have a hungry book beckoning for my attention. I’ve put it off, and off.

    “People need me,” I say to those words.

    But what I need is to surrender to the going within. I am hungry for the life that lives within me. I need me. Thank you for making that seem more than OK.

  17. Dear Katrina—Thank you for your book “Magical Journey”. I was looking for a new book to read at the local library (and it looks like I will have to now purchase your book–:-))I am at page 91 and I am totally loving it and I understand completely what you are saying…..about pretty much all of it. :-) I am 55 and a half. Kids grown, great marriage (adjusting to new stuff), new career as life coach (the inner-life coach)……40 years of meditation under my belt (Kundalini teacher/practitioner). Oh my gosh…..loved loved loved what you say about BEING. Listening. BEING with self.

    I have been on a path of passionate, unconditional self love for awhile now. It came to me clearly that we cannot love our neighbor as our self because most folks don’t love themselves!

    I cannot even begin to write here what I feel; I just would love to chat with you about all of it.

    Love and light and healing laughter to you!

    Elizabeth

  18. You’re amazing. This post is a gift to my charred soul. I’m actually sitting in my bed, journaling about how hard it is to deal with change, loss, an old life I loved, and grapple towards something new. Eight months ago, my family moved to Chile. We sold our house is the suburbs of Seattle, filled a container with all my favorite furniture and shipped it to Temuco – a small city in southern Chile to start a new life – such an adventure.

    Adventures are hard. They’re filled with unmet expectations and real life – we bought 27 acres and are going to live off our land. Something I’ve always wanted to do. I’ve come to realize, ever so staggeringly that it’s the doing, the leaving, the letting go, the starting over, all of it that I find difficult. I’m not so excited about adventure anymore – I just want Starbucks and central heating, my dishwasher back. I know it’s right to be here and it is in the deep places exactly where i want to be, exactly what I believe is good for my family, for my children, but it’s hard. Anyways, thank you for your blog and I will buy your book. I think it quite fitting.

    Gratefully,

    Tina

  19. Katrina, my blog friend Becca sent me a copy of your book and it arrived yesterday — autographed, no less! Thank you! I’m just into the fourth chapter but already so much of this is resonating with me — I think particularly in the event of two deaths of good friends within two weeks of one another (and another who is far away and we’re not sure it will make it.) That, combined with a serious health scare myself last year followed by retirement has really made me shift my perspective on life and all it’s beauty, bounty and challenges. Becca couldn’t have sent this at a time that was more significant or meant more to me personally. That it came from a blog friend, one I have been lucky enough to meet in person, makes it all the more special.

    I send you many good wishes on the success of the book and look forward to sharing about it eventually on The Marmelade Gypsy (my blog). — and certainly like your FB page. Sending joyful wishes for Valentine’s Day and a year of love and joy.

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