finding goodness

kenesaw walkWhen I was child, my dad’s dental office was attached to our house. On one side of the door was our private, domestic world: home. Pass through the back room with its overflowing bookcases full of dental textbooks and journals, maneuver around the desk piled high with bills and paperwork, step through the small brown door by the laundry room, and you were in the reception area of my parents’ busy practice. Many afternoons I’d forgo the TV reruns my brother was watching in our den and slip into my dad’s quiet waiting room to read magazines. I loved the jokes in the Readers Digest, the photographs in Life, the lavish meals in Gourmet, and, most of all, the hidden pictures in Highlights.

There was a trick to solving those optical illusion puzzles with their lists of random objects hiding in plain sight. At first glance, all you’d see was the scene itself, a complex drawing of animals in the jungle, perhaps, or a crowded playground scene. But squint your eyes just enough to change the focus, and you could begin to discern the outlines of those other things: a slice of bread, a pencil, a teacup, a button. The only way to find the button amidst the tangle of palm fronds and swinging monkeys was to blot out everything else. You had to narrow your gaze and go in search of that one thing you most wanted to see.

My life lately has felt as complex as those multi-layered drawings of my childhood. On the surface, things appear orderly enough. But what I’ve experienced internally is a series of invisible, painful losses — each a challenge to my equanimity, to my sense of the universe as a fair and benign place. Feeling fragile and overwhelmed, I’ve been experimenting with an emotional version of that old eye-squinting thing. I keep thinking I’ll suffer less if I can just look more deeply into the picture. Somewhere, I know, goodness is hiding in plain sight. My task is simply to find it.

And so I repeat these words to myself like a mantra: “Look for the good.” And then I narrow my focus until I begin to see what I’m hunting for: the delicate outline of a blessing, some well-camouflaged scrap of goodness amidst the hurt, something to be grateful for.

“Look for the good,” was the intention I carried with me to Georgia last week, as I flew south to see my son Jack for the first time in six months. Six months! It’s still almost inconceivable to me that I could go so long without seeing one of my children. Since he left New Hampshire in May to change schools and begin working toward a degree in sound engineering in Atlanta, Jack hasn’t slept under this roof for one night. We stay in touch by phone and text, but I’d never seen where he lives, or met his roommates, or ridden in his car. He was about to turn 22. It was time to go.

Jack invited me to stay with him, on the futon in their spare upstairs room. Although I had a plan B in place – the serene guest suite of a young friend of ours who happens to live a mile away — I really did want to be with Jack, to see his life up close. And I was grateful that these three guys (and one nearly live-in girlfriend) were willing to welcome me into their midst for four days.

“I’d love it,” I said. “All I ask is a clean set of sheets and that you wipe down the toilet seat for me.”

photo copy 6I got a quick glimpse of the picture on my first night. Jack seemed too thin to me. I wasn’t crazy about the beard, dark and straggly. Although he’d washed some sheets, they hadn’t actually made it onto the bed. The spare room, my room, was a jumble of cast-off furniture, various cords and cables no one needed, a lamp that didn’t work. The toilet seat had definitely not been wiped. A cockroach skittered across the kitchen counter. There was clutter. A massage table but no sofa. Random piles of clothes in the living room. Dirty spoons and empty glasses.

The fact is, twenty-two-year-old guys don’t set up housekeeping the way fifty-plus-year-old women do. There are different standards for just about everything, but especially for how often a male face needs shaving, or a floor needs washing, or a toilet needs scrubbing.

But I wasn’t there to approve Jack’s facial hair or to pass judgment on his home or to grade the tidying skills of its occupants. I was there to spend time with my son and get to know his friends. My only agenda for the visit:  enjoy Jack’s company for four days and depart with a sense of what his life is like.

I narrowed my focus. “Look for the good.”

And sure enough, goodness was everywhere.

photo copy 4Jack and I made up my bed. We sat in the kitchen with his room mates and drank hibiscus tea. I saw how they were with each other: kind and easy and attentive. There was lots of laughter. It was obvious that Jack was happy and comfortable, that these kids don’t just live together, they care about each other.

I’d worried four days might seem too long for a mother to hang around, but it didn’t turn out that way. The time flew by. We shopped for groceries and cleaning supplies. (I was so happy to buy cleaning supplies!) Jack made me eggs and veggies for breakfast. photo copy 3We hiked up Kennesaw Mountain with their beloved foster dog Clyde, a sweet, well-tempered ten- month-old Lab-Pit Bull mix and we talked and talked.

J with ClydeOn Friday, two days in, I swept the floor, donned a pair of rubber gloves, and scrubbed the bathroom. That night Jack and I made a huge pot of spicy lentil soup and a salad with oranges, grapefruits, avocados, and pomegranate. A couple of friends came over and we had a dinner party. That’s when I “got” the décor: all the other kids are chiropractic graduate students. They don’t sit around after dinner; they work on each other’s bodies and adjust each other’s necks and spines and occiputs. The living room, with its massage table and bongo drums and resistance bands and keyboard, works for all of them — a place to lift weights, exercise, stretch, make music, play with the puppy, and practice the art and craft of healing themselves and each other. The conversation was great – and after the dishes were done, I got my cervical spine adjusted.

photo copyBy then it was apparent to me: the desire to live thoughtfully, healthfully, and well, is what binds this small household together. There isn’t a bag of Doritos or a soda in sight. But there are two refrigerators, and they are full to overflowing with kale, carrots, apples, broccoli and almond milk. There are good knives, good cutting boards, good pans. Two blenders. A compost bin. Purified water on tap. A sign on the wall that says “NO ICE CREAM.”   Jars of coconut oil and bags of raw almonds. Kombucha mushrooms growing on the counter, carefully wrapped in dish towels.

By Saturday morning, as we all piled into two cars to go to the Farmer’s Market, I was feeling like part of the household. Later, as we unpacked our bags, I asked Jack about the cockroaches.

“Yeah, we have a few,” he said. “We ignore them till they get big, then we do catch and release, and put them outside. They’re just trying to survive, like the rest of us.”

photo 2On the last night, Jack’s birthday, I offered to take everyone out to dinner. Jack shaved off his beard. They chose a funky raw/vegan restaurant in midtown Atlanta, their favorite “special occasion” place. There were four of us, me and Jack, his room mate Jules, and Jules’s girlfriend Melanie, who had led us in a “high intensity” interval workout in the park that afternoon. We passed on the “shots” (coconut water), and ordered a raw platter to share, quinoa bowls, salad. The food was fabulous. When the bill came, Jules reached for it. “Actually, we decided we want to take you out to dinner,” he said. “To thank you for cleaning our bathroom. It just feels so nice to walk in there now, I don’t really know why we never did it before. I took a bath this afternoon, and it was so relaxing.”

I told them what a great time I’d had, how grateful I was to them for making me feel so welcome. “You guys have created a really wonderful home together,” I said. They agreed.

“Yeah,” Jules said. “And it’s even better when there’s a mom around.”

Goodness in plain sight.

 sharing Lisa’s journey

To my dear readers,

I wanted to answer every single one of the kind, thoughtful comments on my last blog, but the time slipped away and pretty soon I was on an airplane to Georgia. And so, I hope this general “thank-you” will suffice. Thank you for reading and for writing and for being here. Your words validated mine. So often the conversation we most need to have is the one in which we all remind each other that we aren’t alone, that everyone struggles, that life is easier and more beautiful and more fun when we share our vulnerabilities and move forward arm in arm.

So many of you have written me expressing care and concern for my friend Lisa, that I want to share her story with you here, and the fundraiser I’ve launched to help ease her path going forward.

If you click the link below, you’ll see that this effort has become about much more than the money being raised to help support Lisa and her husband. It’s also an outpouring of love and appreciation for all the lives she’s touched, the difference she’s made for so many over the years. The decision to reach out and ask for help is never comfortable for anyone, but I’m reminded again and again these days that this is what we’re here to do: make the way a little easier for someone else. Every little bit helps, every kind gesture makes the world a better place, every loving word nourishes a heart.

Click here to find Lisa’s story.

Gratefully, Katrina

for my reflections & inspiration

your comments

  1. Katrina, Loved your story of your “all good” visit with your son. We are blessed when we find our young adult children well situated and productive, with loving and caring friends in their lives. I know you felt so satisfied by the time spent together, across the generations.

  2. “Feel the good” has been my mantra lately, in the face of some hair-raising (for me) conditions. That, and “I am basically fine, right now.” I so understand that sense of layering and the corresponding focus, that squinting to see what’s right there. Your story about visiting Jack and being welcomed into his world was so moving to me. Thank you for sharing it here.

  3. Vesta Brown says:

    I just love reading you. Our lives continue to parallel each other and I feel like you’re writing my story, my heart. Visiting my own grown children is always such an upside down experience. Almost like a weird dream to be the guest in their make believe world of playing house. I’m intrigued with every nook and cranny of their new playhouses and their grown up lives.

  4. Sandy Edelstein says:

    loved every bit of your visit with Jack, I bet it was so wonderful to be a part of that world for a few days. It’s pretty cool to watch our children grow into people who can inspire us.

  5. Katrina – I loved reading this. It evoked some wonderful memories for me. When you arrived to find the sheets not quite on the bed, I thought of the time I arrived to find the sheets on the bed but occupied by a dog. That night, I was roused from sleep when what I thought was a pile of laundry turned out to be two more dogs yawning their way out of a deep sleep. I always LOVED cleaning and shopping there much more than I ever did at home… how fun for you and how wonderful each of those four days must have been. May you have many more.

  6. “Surely goodness and mercy will follow you all the days of your life” – sometimes it’s just not in the way we expected.

  7. I love this, for all the ways you clearly respect and adore your son and he does you. It’s inspiring and comforting to me, because I know that I will blink and that will be Whit. I just hope he’s as thoughtful and marvelous as Jack is. And that he invites me in and wants to share his world with me. That is so, so powerful. xox

  8. A plain, simple and profound Thank you for sharing this with us.

  9. It sounds like time to re-read Broken Open….there is always something there to help us remember the things we sometimes forget!

  10. In my first home in college, I had a situation like Jack’s. We never cleaned (I don’t think ever???) but I remember how much love was in our house and how much I wanted my parents and family to see that. How wonderful that not only did you share in the experience but that you were able to see the beauty in it and let them all know that. Do we ever stop hoping for validation from our parents? Those 3 boys really are beautiful and I am so inspired by how they live and what they are committed to. True healers in the world!

  11. Katrina,
    I read your blog regularly and your book is on my desk always. I just tend to be a “stalker,” not a commenter! I’m a step behind you with 1 college sophomore daughter and one a senior in HS, with a 12 yo son tagging behind. 🙂 I benefit from your experiences!

    Anyway… I live in a suburb of Atlanta and Kennesaw Mtn is our stomping ground. It’s so strange to know you were so close and I didn’t know it! Time flies, and visits go by too quickly with loved ones. But I would love to meet you if there ever comes a day when it feels possible. Spontaneity works best sometimes! Lol Ya never know! 🙂

    Just loved this post, btw. Life is so unexpected and we learn and grow so much through our children. It’s a hopeful thing. I’m learning…

  12. Katrina,
    How much I enjoy your posts! I am in a similar situation with my daughter. She is divorced, mother of two and working full time. She lives in a nice but large home with a pool and big yard full of leaves. Feeling overwhelmed, she called last week I jumped on a plane and here I am taking a break from washing windows and reading your post…and smiling! I now understand that I am here to “look for the good” ! Under the pile of laundry, there is a caring loving heart. In the middle of the dishes is a giggling happy child. Under the dust is a happy home. So I help and look for the good and am thankful that I am blessed with such a strong, loving daughter who is doing the best she can and doing it well. Thank you so much for your insight!

  13. Linda Rosenfeld says:

    Oh how glorious it is when your adult child wants you be a part of his world, to get to know and participate in his life. I am at the stage you are at right now. I, too, have a son out on his own in the world. I am always eager to be a part of things and he is eager to share. I consider it a true blessing. I also have a daughter who is living at home(almost two years now). We have come to terms, that finding a job in her field has not been easy, so we have made adjustments. I am thankful that I am still sane and have learned to occasionally turn a blind eye to some things. I choose my battles wisely. As you have, I, too, have learned a thing or two about expectations in life. I think we have taught our children well. We can be proud of the young adults they have become.

  14. “I can, with one eye squinted, take it all as a blessing.”
    – Flannery O’Connor

  15. Fabulous! My son just passed his chiropractic boards and I can relate to every word you stated. Thanks for sharing.

  16. “And so I repeat these words to myself like a mantra: “Look for the good.” And then I narrow my focus until I begin to see what I’m hunting for: the delicate outline of a blessing, some well-camouflaged scrap of goodness amidst the hurt, something to be grateful for.”-Katrina Kenison. A true gift to our ordinary days! Thank you for being our teacher, mentor and friend. Thank you for sharing! XO
    Keep on squinting and focusing on the good, I will be doing the same, Blessings.

  17. This was wonderful! Thanks for sharing! I hope my kids invite me to be a guest in their home and in their world when they are grown.

  18. Lisa Hannah says:

    Ah, Katrina, once again your post has arrived at just the right time for me. Thank you. What a beautiful experience for you AND your son to share. As I watch my youngest become more of a guy and less of a boy this fall, I feel the need to savor every second. He’s only 11 so I have a few more years until I can hope to be his houseguest. But when that time comes, I hope I find him in such a warm and happy community of friends.

  19. not too many weeks ago, i had a similar moment of slipping into the life of my senior in college for a few short days. i marveled at so much of it, and felt at such a distance for some of it. he made his own curtains? excuse me, while i flop in a faint on the crisply made bed. he cooks all his own food — and keeps track of micronutrients. he’s become the gentle-souled man i long imagined, but breathing it in is a whole different something. and then, when the parents of his roommates walked in (it was parents weekend, and most of the parents live much closer than i do, so they see the boys/men far more often), they embraced him, and turned to me and said, “we love him like a second son.” i’d be lying if i didn’t say i felt a bit lost, unmoored. who were these people i’d never before seen, yet knew my own son enough to swap inside jokes, and turn to me to tell me how close they are to him? slipping into the full-grown life of our grown sons can take a bit of deep slow breathing. it’s hard to stop the frames from long ago, the ones that play silently in our mind’s eye, as we try to rearrange the synapses, wrap our heads and our hearts around this life we’re only just grasping. they’ve grown and become the men we prayed they would become. and there, beneath the beards and the manly ways, we still can see the essence — the great and glorious goodness — of those precious little ones we once took by the hand and led out the door, determined to teach them to find their way. what a marvel to step into their life — when so much of it is unfolding beyond our reach — to see that, indeed, they’re making their way. and it is good. so good.

  20. I am a bit away from this stage and frankly hoping the days go slow as nothing makes me happier than all 3 tucked in their beds under our roof….but this gives me such hope that bumpy roads can smooth out and relationships evolve into something different but equally as wonderful if we let them unfold. The picture you drew us of your son’s life is wonderful and how fortunate you both are that you embraced it.

  21. Thank you, dear Katrina, for offering me a glimpse into my not so distant future. My girl comes home in four days after her first semester at college, and your words have helped me through this journey of the last few years. I’m savoring “magical journey’ – I wouldn’t let myself start it until she was well established and I knew it was the right time. Thank you for offering your words and goodness to me; they mean more than you can know.

  22. I just wanted to let you know how much I enjoyed this story. I read it last week, just before a whirlwind visit with our son, now in his second year of university and living with friends. Your story resonated so much as I thought of my own appreciation of the wonderful lives all three of our young adult children are living. They are making their way beautifully in the world, looking for ways to make it better, and surrounding themselves with good, caring people in the process. Your words moved me deeply as I think of my own family with tremendous gratitude. Thank you for sharing your wonderful gift with words, and to your family for their willingness to have their stories touch the lives of others. Now I think it is time for me to start reading “Magical Journey”!

  23. This post made tears come to my eyes. I have a daughter in college, in the process of growing up and eventually away to her own adult life. Your story reminded me of the importance of accepting that her lifestyle choices may not always mirror mine exactly, but if I look for the good, I know I will always be proud of her, and excited for her journey. Thank you!

  24. It’s good to know there is “good” to be found amidst our kids growing up and moving on with their lives. I have two boys on the cusp of doing just that and I cringe at the thought of them moving on but at the same time I hold them in awe and reverence for the men they are becoming. Thank you for sharing your family’s story. It means so much to me. Thank you!

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