Working toward compassion

sunriseI try, pretty much every morning, to be present for the dawn, even if it’s only to stand outdoors shivering in my flip flops and pajamas, gazing eastward. Often I snap a photo as the sun makes its entrance, amazed always at the silent miracle: the gift of another day.

Although I tend to wake up with all sorts of emotions already swirling through my consciousness, indifference is never one of them. Instead – and I don’t think I’m alone in this – I’m often as not overcome with a wild brew of feelings as I stand on my small patch of earth and try to contemplate the much larger world out beyond my view and understanding.

Early yesterday morning, unguarded and unsettled, ears attuned to birdsong and wind, watching the sky brighten and the landscape glow with golden light, it was hard to imagine how life can possibly be both so beautiful and so horrific.

How, I wondered, am I to hold in my small, imperfect human heart both the tragedy that unfolded in Boston on Monday and, at the same time, gratitude that no one I know was hurt? How do we process the unimaginable?

On Monday afternoon, I drove a dear friend to the doctor and then we stopped for ice cream downtown. We sat outside in the mild sunshine eating peppermint stick and chocolate, happy in our innocence, our only worry the fact that we were filling our bellies way too close to dinner time. At home a few minutes later, lacing up my sneakers to take a walk, I had no idea what to make of a text that arrived from Jack saying, “I’m safe.” My first, thoughtless response was, “Well of course you are.”

Only when I opened my computer a moment later, and saw the scrolling news on the Boston Globe website, did I realize how lucky I was that the very first news I heard of the bombings came in the form of assurance from my younger son that he was all right. And yet, alongside my own relief was the realization that thousands of others were still awaiting news of loved ones, and that when it finally did come, not all the news would be good. Indeed, for many it would be devastating.

When tragedy strikes, it feels as if the entire world should stop and reassemble itself into some new pattern. Given the way grief, loss, and violence rip through our own precious complacency, we look around for some corresponding external shift, half expecting the moon and sun and stars to change course, too; wanting the entire universe to register and accommodate our human loss and somehow render it fathomable.

It doesn’t happen.

The sun rises in the morning, unperturbed. The sky turns bright and sheer as a veil and slowly, imperceptibly, the last rim of snow vanishes under the eaves on the north side of the house. Out front, as they do each spring, the indefatigable pansies tip their tiny purple faces toward the warmth. The birds take up their song, regardless. Overhead, a pair of great blue herons glide silently toward the pond, reminding me of the steadiness of their return, year after year. The world spins on, abiding.

How we choose to live in it, and where we look for meaning, is up to us. Standing outside in the early morning — open, attentive, reverent – I allow myself to be filled with the solace of nature’s eternal rhythms. Here, in the gentle breeze upon my cheek, in the joy of watching my dog run at full tilt, pouring across the field, in the squish of mud beneath my boots, I am nourished and restored even as the weight of sadness sits heavily in my heart. Reminded that I’m never far removed from the source and mystery of things, I’m reminded, too, of all that is beyond my comprehension and control.

Two days later, as the investigations into who and why and how grind on, the best response to the violence I can come up with is this: to reaffirm my faith in kindness and to commit myself even more deeply to a practice of living and speaking with compassion.

If I can remember that versions of what happened on Boylston Street on Monday afternoon are occurring each day, all over the world, then I’m reminded that we are all connected, and that there will be no lasting peace for me until there is peace for you, too, no matter who you are.

If I stop to consider that the attack that feels singular and incomprehensible to us – an assault on our home, on our Marathon, on our innocent people – is not unique at all, but the opposite, then I remember that until all people are safe, no one is safe.

If I can dissolve my own barriers and assumptions enough to taste the experience of life from inside someone else’s skin, then I take a small step out of the numbness and daze which keeps me separate from the mistakes and miseries of our own messy human creation.

Last night, Jack called and we talked on the phone for a while. “It didn’t really sink in until today,” he said, “how close I was to what happened. How it could so easily have been me, or anyone I know, there at the finish line.”

“Yes,” I said. “It took me a while to grasp that, too.”

Now I’m coming to think it is our task — as citizens of Boston, of America, and of the earth itself — to hold the truth in our hearts and minds: we are all one, and it is only through our willingness to reach out and touch the pain of others that the world will change.

Let’s get together. . .

Appearances

It seems to me that the best book conversations (well, the best conversations in general) are the ones that take place over a good meal. So my writing buddy Margaret Roach and I are both looking forward to reuniting at a luncheon hosted by The Hickory Stick Bookshop in Washington Depot, CT, this Friday, April 19 at noon.  For the price of a book, you will get a catered lunch, a reading, and time to chat with the two of us too! Call the store at (860) 868-0525 for more info and to reserve your place. (And to read a lovely article about this special bookstore, click here.)

I first “met” Priscilla Warner right here last June, when she left a comment on a blog post I’d written.  I immediately read her wonderful memoir Learning to Breathe, she read my manuscript of Magical Journey and encouraged me through every step of the final revision, and pretty soon it felt as if we’d been friends forever — even though we STILL haven’t ever laid eyes on each other.  That will change this weekend, when I go to Larchmont, NY, to speak at the Public Library  on Sunday, April 19, at 3:30 — an event Priscilla helped organize, in part, so we can finally meet in person.

Other spring-time journeys:

Margaret and I are doing our very last bookstore “duet” at the Concord Bookshop on Sunday, April 28, at 3.  (Think daffodils, home made cookies, and wide-ranging conversation– everything from the thorny questions of midlife to composting secrets revealed!)

I’ll be back at Ann Patchett’s beautiful Nashville bookstore Parnassus on Thursday, May 2, at 7 pm.

And from Nashville, I’ll go straight to Minneapolis for my final two readings this spring: The annual Motherhood and Words talk at the Loft Literary Center on Saturday, May 4 and, finally, to cap it all off, a reading at Common Good Books, Garrison Keillor’s beloved bookstore in downtown St. Paul on Monday, May 6.  Minneapolis friends, St. Olaf connections, Twin Cities readers, I want to see you all there! 

                  Housekeeping . . .

MOTHER’S DAY isn’t far off.  I’m happy to sign book plates for your gift books (just send me an email through the Contact link.) Or, you can order any of my books — signed and personalized as per your instructions — directly through my local independent bookstore, The Toadstool, here in Peterborough, NH.  I asked Willard, the owner, if he’d be willing to gift-wrap books as Mother’s Day gifts, and he said “Sure.”  To order, click HERE.   This will bring you to an order form at the Toadstool’s website.  Leave a note with your order, letting us know if you want your books personalized and/or gift-wrapped.  I’ll sign them, we’ll wrap them beautifully, and we’ll get them right off to you or to the special moms in your life.

I’ve loved hearing from so many of you!  Your letters never fail to make my day — they remind me all over again how lucky we all are, to be part of a community of readers, seekers, thinkers, nurturers.  If you feel inclined to write a bit MORE, however, I will say that each and every reader review on  Goodreads and on Amazon is hugely appreciated  and hugely helpful too.  Thank you for spreading the word!

 

 

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.  

Connection

“Tug on anything at all,” naturalist John Muir once wrote, “and you’ll find it connected to everything else in the universe.”

I sit alone at my kitchen table on this April Monday morning, waiting for the sun to slide up and into full view. I watch a pair of chickadees trading places at the feeder. And then I type these five words — “tug on anything at all” — and wonder, is it really that simple, is everything really connected to everything else? Am I but a single strand of thread, inextricably woven into some billowing cosmic fabric?

It is hard, given the pace of our lives, the needs of our loved ones, the demands on our days, to give ourselves the time it takes to sit still and go deep. Carving out even a few moments of such quiet time means attending to our thirst for contemplation, creativity, and solitude — a thirst that is all too easy to ignore when there seem to be so many other more urgent hungers and priorities competing for our time. I’m always amazed at how long it takes me to transform my own mundane, everyday experience into some kind of narrative that makes sense enough for other eyes to read. And not a week goes by that I don’t question the validity of what I do. Is this particular reflection worth sharing with anyone? Why bother? And, really, who cares?

More often than not, when the choice comes down to writing or attending to some necessary, concrete task on my list, I choose to do what seems truly “productive”: pay the bill, vacuum the floor, clean the fridge, check up on a sick friend. But I am learning to heed the quixotic call of quiet. Without much of an agenda or plan (oh, I’d much rather have a plan!), I allow my fingers to begin typing, just to see what I have to say.

Writing, staring out the window, writing some more, as the hours roll by and the dishes sit on the counter and the weeds multiply in the garden. Writing because it is the best, the only, way I know to investigate myself, to figure out what I think and how I feel and what matters right now. Writing because I do need to connect with some inner “me” and, even more, because I also need to reach out a hand and tug at something ineffable, something “out there” beyond my own orbit of thoughts and feelings and perceptions. Writing in order to remember that I’m part of something mysterious and vast and eternal. Writing to remind myself that, yes, I am connected to everything else in the universe.

You and I may not have met face to face, we might not even recognize one another on the street. And yet, I’m convinced that in certain ways that truly matter, we know one another. Our lives are indeed intertwined, our journeys shared, thanks in part to the power of the written word and the wonders of our wired age. Somewhere out there, you sit before your own screen — at a desk in a crowded office, perhaps; or on the sofa while a baby naps nearby; or in an attic room above the fray of family life; or hunched over a table in a coffee shop, waiting till your latte is cool enough to drink; or propped up on bed pillows for a stolen moment before sleep — and you read a few paragraphs on a blog written by a stranger who somehow feels like a friend. You are reminded now, as I am, that we’re all in this together, come what may. And that, much as the details of our everyday lives may differ, when it comes right down to what resides in our hearts, we have so much more in common than not. “We read,” to paraphrase, C. S. Lewis, “to know that we are not alone.” I think I write for exactly the same reason.

This week over a hundred of you answered the question “How do you simplify your life?” Your responses are creative, surprising, moving, and immensely practical. Check out the comments section for inspiration.

Here, just a sampling:

*Make simpler meals
*Adopt a less-is-more attitude
*Listen more
*Say “no” to the things that don’t nourish us
* Say “yes” to opportunities for togetherness
*Walk more and drive less
*Pick your battles and don’t sweat the small stuff
*Mark off calendar time just for family togetherness
*Turn off the TV
*Get rid of smart phones
*Read out loud
*Let the dishes wait
*De-clutter daily
*Savor ordinary moments
*Limit activities to one per child
*Ease up on expectations

I will notify the two winners of the book give-away tomorrow. In the meantime, thank you all for your heartfelt notes, for sharing your lives with me, and for a wealth of wonderful suggestions and insights. As Kelly wrote: “My lesson learned is to embrace the moment and let the little voice inside you guide you. Trust that you really have the answers.” Couldn’t have said it better.

Mother’s Day is May 8. Need a gift for a special mom in your life? I am signing Mitten Strings for God and The Gift of an Ordinary Day for Mother’s Day. Click here to order your personalized, gift-wrapped copies.

The Sisters from Hardscrabble Bay

“You must feel so proud of yourself, to have written a book and had it published,” a reader said last week.  I paused, fork in hand, not sure how to respond.  As the  speaker at an annual library fundraiser, I was surrounded that day by women who love books, avid readers all.  So I was touched by this woman’s well-intentioned words. Good books nourish our souls.  To write one is, perhaps, to offer a kind of sustenance.  But for me, pride is not an emotion that has ever been associated with being an author.

And publishing a book has not felt like an achievement so much as yet another life challenge to be met.  It’s been quite a lesson in, among other things: how to be vulnerable (some of those Amazon reviewers can be cruel), how to let go (there is something on every page that I’d rewrite if I could), how to overcome fear (I am a nervous public speaker, and author appearances are part of the gig), becoming comfortable with  self-promotion (if I don’t sell my book, no one else will), and getting comfortable, too, with admitting how much I don’t know (just because I’ve written about motherhood and mid-life does not mean I am wise about these things).

Publishing a book has also been an incredibly rewarding and humbling experience, thanks to the many readers who have taken the time to respond to my story with heartfelt letters, invitations, and profoundly honest  reflections about their own lives. I feel honored to be the recipient of these stories and  grateful for so many new connections and opportunities.  Without question, my life has been enriched, tenfold, by the readers who have written back.

But pride? Not really, not even for a minute.

Yesterday afternoon, however, standing in my kitchen and holding a brand new, about-to-be-published, hardcover book in my hands, I just about burst with pride.  Here is a publishing story that strengthens my faith in the power of words, the goodness of people, and even the embattled publishing industry itself.

Early in 2003, I got a call from my ex-husband’s twin sister.  Her college room mate had been writing short stories for years, she explained, while raising her two children, but had never tried to publish any of her work. Now Beverly was battling pancreatic cancer and her odds did not look good. Jenny thought that some words of encouragement from an editor might cheer her friend, and she was wondering if I’d be willing to take a look at a manuscript.

I’ve read more manuscripts by friends, and friends of friends, over the years than I can count.  But in all those hours of reading and composing carefully worded letters in response, I don’t think I did myself, or many of those writers, any real favors.  I never “discovered” a great new voice, and I delivered a lot of news that people didn’t want to hear.  Sometimes, that news felt so much like personal rejection that relationships I treasured became frayed, or unraveled altogether.  And so, at some point  when my children were small and it was all I could do to meet my own work deadlines anyway, I decided that the only way to stem the tide and prevent any more friendships from cooling, was to create a simple, across-the-board policy of “no.”  It seemed easier, and kinder, to  say that I had retired from reading unpublished manuscripts altogether, than to spend any more time doing volunteer work that seemed, more often than not, to result in hurt feelings and dashed dreams.

But this request was different. Even an amicable divorce divides a family. In my own case–married too young and divorced within five years–the split was polite, swift, and complete.  I’d always loved my husband’s sister.  I hadn’t spoken to her in years.  And so, when she broke our long silence to ask a favor, I was happy, relieved even, to oblige.  Here was a way to clear the air between us at long last, to catch up on the news of her life, to do a small kindness and to be of some use.

Jenny chose a couple of her friend’s stories and mailed them to me.  By the time I had read the first one, about two young sisters gathering flowers and a mother dying in childbirth, I was in tears.  I also knew:  Here was a real writer.  I read through the rest of the pages in one sitting, marveling at the language, deeply moved by the lives of these two sisters. And for once, I knew exactly what to say to the author.  “Keep writing.” And, “Your stories should absolutely be published.”

A few months later, I heard from Jenny again.  Beverly had died, she told me, but the letter I’d written her had brightened her last weeks.  It had also given her the determination to keep working for as long as she possibly could, writing and revising the stories that she would leave behind, the stories that a stranger had read and deemed “publishable.”

A year or so and several emails and phone calls later, Beverly’s stories returned to me, this time as a complete manuscript, lovingly assembled after her death by her husband Jay and her writing teacher, Jenifer Levin.  Would I read them again, in their entirety?  Might I have some ideas about what to do next?

The stories held up. More than that, they were full of life and detail.  Completely realized, fleshed out and expanded in the months before Beverly died, they contained a whole vanished world, populated by people as real and quirky as any characters I’d ever met.  I loved them. And yet this time there was no letter to write or author to call, no writer to encourage, just a dedicated husband who, in the wake of his wife’s death, wanted to share her literary gifts with the world and carry forward her dream of one day publishing a book.

For weeks the manuscript sat on my desk, as I began packing up our suburban house for a move.  Distracted by the dissembling of my own carefully crafted world of home and garden and friends and neighbors, busy disposing of many of our possessions and packing the rest into storage boxes, I felt the weight of this unfinished, unspoken commitment — a commitment to a woman I’d never met but to whom I now felt intimately connected.  How to help?  I made a call or two, had a copy of Beverly’s manuscript sent to my own agent, and was discouraged to hear exactly what I’d already suspected:  getting a first book of fiction published is hard enough these days.  But without an author to promote it, or the promise of future work and a long career ahead?  Not a chance.

The week before we moved to New Hampshire, I drove into Boston to participate on a literature panel. A group of authors and editors had been charged that day with judging just over a hundred manuscripts and dispensing grant money to a handful of the most promising writers.  Over lunch, I mentioned to Howard Frank Mosher that I had a manuscript at home that struck me as eminently stronger than any of the work we’d spent the morning underwriting.  His response surprised me.  “I would really love to read that manuscript,” he said.

And so it was that this extraordinary writer and energetic champion of writers became Beverly’s next great  fan.  Howard not only read the manuscript, he took it upon himself to write an eloquent introduction to it, a critical response that could pave the way with publishers reluctant to take a flier on a novel-in-stories by a deceased, unknown, unpublished writer.

There are quite a few of us now, midwives to this book that is about to be born at last. Beverly’s family believed all along that her voice would not be silenced by death.  And one by one, those of us who were touched by that singular voice have joined their quiet, determined effort.  An agent friend from my New York publishing days read the manuscript and then wholeheartedly took up the cause.  It took a while, but eventually she found an editor who saw the vision and expanded on it.  And next week, thanks to the efforts of a small group of committed believers, The Sisters from Hardscrabble Bay, by Beverly Jensen will be published by Viking Press.  Beverly will speak at no library luncheons. She will not have the pleasure of hearing from her readers, nor regret an ill-chosen phrase on a page, nor feel the burden of having to earn out her advance or produce a second book.  But I hope that, wherever she is, she is watching, and that she does feel proud.  Proud of her legacy, proud that her work has already inspired such  enthusiasm and  dedication, and proud of her circle of fans and friends, each of whom did his or her own small part to bring her wonderful book into print at last.  It is a group that I am so very proud to be a part of.

Looking back now, to that summer morning seven years ago, when I took a call from my former sister-in-law and agreed to read a few short stories, I am reminded all over again of my favorite quote, the words by Clarissa Pinkola Estes that I do my best to live by:  “You have no idea what the smallest word, the tiniest generosity, can cause to be set in motion. . . Mend the part of the world that is within your reach.”  Small kindnesses ripple outward, sometimes far, far beyond the limits of our own limited knowledge and understanding.  Sometimes, just be saying “yes,” we do set extraordinary events into motion.  Beverly’s book will arrive in the stores next Thursday, graced with advance praise from the likes of Stephen King, Elizabeth Strout, and Howard Frank Mosher.  But the words I like best come from an advance reader on Amazon, a woman from California who received an uncorrected bound galley and wrote in her online review:  “These characters are not archetypes, they are people.  They don’t represent any idea or theory; they are themselves.  Things happen as they do simply because life is wild and unpredictable.”

So it is.

 

Thirtieth Reunion

I suspect we all wanted to be Jill Ker Conway.  Or at least to grow up to be just like her, our much adored and admired college president.  Surely we listened, rapt, as she greeted the Smith College freshman class of 1980. Perhaps we wondered if perhaps just by being there, in her bright orbit for four years, we might somehow come to possess something of her grace and intellect, her clear sense of purpose, her quiet charisma.  It was not lost on anyone that she happened to look really great in her clothes, too. Slender, tidy, a mite Katherine Hepburn-ish–though Jill seemed kinder and more cheerful, elegant without the slightest bit of an edge.

Arriving on campus in the fall of 1976, a slightly pudgy, shy, utterly intimidated freshman from small-town New Hampshire, I had not a clue as to what to wear, let alone what I was meant to do or who I wanted to be. I had never seen a Lanz nightgown, read the New York Times, or heard of Virginia Woolf or Dana Hall.  I didn’t own a pair of sneakers, had never listened to jazz, or heard poetry read aloud. I had never eaten with chopsticks or had a pizza delivered to the door.   There was a lot to learn.  The very first night, over dinner in Martha Wilson house, someone declared that we should all go around the table and say whether we were virgins or not; I remember being enormously grateful that I had at least relieved myself of that burden over the course of the summer.  “I slept with an actor,” I said, feigning nonchalance.  My Smith education had begun.

Saturday night, there were quite a few of us members of the class of 1980 hanging around in the living room of Northrup House, doing what women have done at their college reunions for decades–paging through exhumed yearbooks, drinking wine out of plastic cups, dancing (to “Brick House,” of course, party anthem of my era) chatting with old friends, finding ourselves deep in conversation with strangers who should have been our friends thirty years ago, but who we somehow missed during our four years on campus.

The black and white yearbook pages were a jolt, a layer of the distant past suddenly superimposed upon the present.  Clearly, quite a few of us had resolved our seventies fashion dilemmas easily, if not elegantly, as revealed by the photographic record:  we were either Annie Hall or Dorothy Hamill; we favored long straight hair, mens’ shirts and vests, and baggy pants, or, alternatively, wedge haircuts, turtlenecks, and Fair Isle sweaters.

But answers to the real questions–of identity and ambition and experience–could not be found in the yellowing pages of the Madeleine, any more than they could be revealed as I walked around the idyllic campus, stealing looks at name tags, trying to match fifty-one year old faces with thirty-year old memories.   Who are these women now?  I kept wondering, wanting to know every single life story.  What are my classmates feeling and thinking, as they walk these paths, poke their heads into our former classrooms, brush their teeth at the communal sinks, and turn down the narrow single beds in our old dorm rooms, with their high ceilings and well-worn wooden floors?

“I feel as if I’m finally becoming the person that I used to imagine myself being when I was here,” my friend Wendy said the first afternoon, as we wandered down the hill toward town. I knew what she meant.  Surely every one of us  must have had visions of ourselves back then, of who we aspired to be and what we wanted to do with our lives.  Role models abounded. In my years at Smith, a parade of remarkable women–poets and politicians, businesswomen and activists, professionals and philanthropists–visited campus to tell us their stories and to inspire us to think big as we wrote our own.  Maya Angelou, Jane Pauley, and Chris Williamson all came, spoke, and made lasting impressions;  we walked in the long shadows of our most admired alumnae: Julia Child, Sylvia Plath, Betty Friedan, Madeleine L’Engle, Gloria Steinem.   Anything seemed possible.  “Anything is,” each of these women assured us, whether in person or by example.

Now we were back, a hundred and fifty of us or so, exactly the same age this year that Jill Ker Conway was when she “retired” from  the Smith presidency in order to go make the world a better place for underprivileged women.  “I was always aware,” she said in an address to our class on Saturday afternoon, “that while I was busy raising money for this entitled institution, there were women who could not afford to feed their children, who had no access to health care, who were abused by the their employers.  The longer I stayed, the bigger my debt to those women became.  And so, at fifty, I knew it was time for me to figure out how I could make a difference for them.”

Jill–we always called her Jill–is seventy-six now, and she is still working full time to make the world a better place for women.  She stood before us without so much as a note, smiling warmly, as trim and articulate and lovely as ever, and told us of her work on the Nike board, her years of travel throughout the third world, reforming factories, bringing nutrition and fair wages and improved working conditions to underprivileged women from Cambodia to China.  Currently, she is writing a book about aging, working on various environmental initiatives, and still active on the corporate boards of Nike and Colgate Palmolive, aware that changing corporate culture from the inside is a powerful way to make everyday life better for women everywhere.  At the end of her talk, the standing ovation was immediate and heartfelt, as it always was and is for our cherished mentor.

Next on the agenda was a book group discussion about The Gift of an Ordinary Day.  I left the Campus Center wondering if anyone would come. After all, we had already been so well inspired and filled up.  And there was nothing I could offer that could even begin to compare to the experience we had just had.   It had been a long day, and now it was the end of a beautiful afternoon, far too nice to be inside.

But my classmates showed up, almost all of them it seemed, and crowded into the room.  I was not about to pull out my little stack of carefully written file cards, after  Jill’s flawlessly spontaneous performance.  And so I took a deep breath and just began to talk — about how it feels to be halfway through life, and still figuring things out. How hard it is sometimes, given the culture that we live in, to remember that real happiness doesn’t have much to do with how impressive we appear to everyone else, or how much money we make or how much stuff we have, or even how much we’ve accomplished during our years on the planet.  That the one thing we do learn,  as we bump up against the inevitable losses and challenges and changes of mid-life, is that what really matters is how we feel inside about the person we’ve turned out to be, and how strong our relationships are with the people we care about.  How much we love and are loved in return.  After years of looking ahead, into some unknown future, I admitted that what seems to matter most now is the fleeting, precious present moment, and learning how to live it fully.  Embracing what is, rather than wishing for something different.

Someone asked if I would read from the last chapter of the book. And so I turned to the passage about my neighbor Debbie, and how she has taught me through her own example that my real work, day in and day out, is simply to be kind, to be present, to mend the part of the world that is within my reach.  Tears were flowing by then; the room was full of emotion.  It was time for everyone else to talk.

“I’m not ever going to be Jill Ker Conway,” one woman said.  “But I guess it’s time to let that go anyway.”  And we laughed, nodding our heads, each one of us thinking the same thing: “I’m not, either.”    We are not all meant for boardrooms, and yet our lives do not matter any less for that. We need not do great things, to paraphrase Mother Teresa, but simply small things, with great love. Sometimes the path leads us to quiet searching, to helping a friend in need, preparing a meal, or celebrating a sunrise.  Sometimes our job is simply to make our own peace with the way things are — an illness, a divorce, a loss.

What a relief it was at last, to exhale. To allow ourselves to be seen, and to begin, one after another, to share our real stories with one another.  Stories not of achievements and bottom lines, but of mid-life reckonings and second journeys, of doubts and struggles and disappointments, lessons learned the hard way, changes in direction and hard-won self-acceptance. Of our ongoing quests to become more fully ourselves as we seek–even now, thirty years  after throwing our caps in the air–to discover the lives we are meant to lead.

“I’m fifty-one years old,” one woman said, “and I’m still not sure who I am.”  There was so much pain in her voice, that I’ve been haunted by her words ever since.  And yet this morning, it occurred to me: perhaps not knowing is actually a good thing.  Maybe this is really what it’s all about–continuing to seek, continuing to ask the hard questions, as we confront the challenging, ongoing work of bringing our lives into alignment with our deepest values.  Finding within ourselves the fidelity to be true to ourselves, even as we grow and change and let go of youthful ambitions and dreams that didn’t turn out, in the end, to fit the people we really are after all.

This is what happens when women come together and speak their truths.  We learn from one another and support one another. We are reminded that we aren’t alone, and that no one, not even Jill Ker Conway, has all the answers.  But that we can always, always, reach out a hand and mend the part of the world that is within our reach. For, as Anne Morrow Lindberg, another famous Smith alum once wrote, “To give, without any reward, or notice, has a special quality of its own.”

(With thanks to Marianne Campolongo for the photos!)