“When we lose anything we cherish — a way of life, a loved one, a dream, a belief, even the day-in-day-out presence of a child at home–a space that was filled in our lives, and in our hearts, is suddenly empty. Sorrow, then, is surely a human, natural response. And yet how reluctant we are in this noisy, busy, get-over-it-and-move-on culture to give grief its due.”
I am so excited to share this interview with Katrina Kenison, author of the new memoir, Magical Journey: An Apprenticeship in Contentment. Whereas my other interviews deal with specific challenges or adversity, this one speaks to adjusting and re-adjusting ourselves to the natural transitions of life, to those unavoidable parts of life known as change and loss. There are feelings of loss simply by virtue of having our precious moments fade away into memories, by not being able to hold onto those cherished times in our lives. The old saying, ‘life goes on’ is much more than a flippant concept to which we must acclimate ourselves. We yearn for what used to be. We mourn the passing of time. And we must be constantly re-calibrating ourselves to what is, dropping off what used to be into our bin of stored treasures, and moving into new phases of unknown and unsettled terrain.
How do we reconcile and integrate life’s natural ups and downs so that we can continue living in an engaged, meaningful and positive way?
- What personal qualities have helped you carry on and move forward?
Perhaps the personal quality that I’m most grateful for is curiosity. Curiosity moves me forward, as there is always something new to notice and wonder about—whether I’m taking a walk in the woods or browsing in a book store or having a conversation with a family member or someone I’ve just met. And perhaps the quality that goes hand-in-hand with curiosity is openness. If we are open to what life has to offer us, we tend to notice opportunities, small blessings, beauty and the simple pleasures of ordinary life. A gift cannot be placed into a closed fist, and not much can enter a closed heart or a mind that’s turned in upon itself. So I try to cultivate these qualities, reminding myself to focus outward, to welcome each new day and whatever it has in store for me.
That is not to say I don’t feel loss—no one gets to mid-life without being touched my grief, disappointment, illness, endings. And it’s important to give those feelings their due, to allow time and space for mourning what’s over. I do think that fully acknowledging and feeling our feelings is an important part of the process of moving on. But often those feelings are so uncomfortable that we try to stuff them down, to fill our bodies and our souls with food or distractions or medications, rather than honoring our very real need to grieve. Grief, fully felt, then begins to transform into something else—gratitude for all that is still good, still here, still worthy of our love and attention. It is said that grief and gratitude go hand-in-hand. Certainly learning to accommodate both is a universal spiritual challenge. I love that line from Dr. Seuss: “Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.”
- Was there a specific moment, thought or epiphany that helped guide you to a new place mentally and psychologically, or was it (and continues to be) an evolving process?
It is an evolving process, for sure. I don’t think anyone ever gets ‘life’ nailed down and figured out once and for all; we are always learning how to negotiate its challenges with more skill and grace. But there was a moment that stopped me in my tracks and made me realize that what I have to offer the world is enough. It happened during a month I spent away from home, doing a yoga teacher training. One night, in a special ceremony, our teacher was moving around the circle of students, handing each of us a string of mala beads (beads used for meditation practice). As he placed my beads into my palm, he looked into my eyes with such pure loving acceptance and acknowledgement that my own eyes immediately filled with tears. It is a powerful experience, to be seen and loved in that way. And in that moment I realized that perhaps I could make that kind of love my own offering in the world as well. It was definitely an “ah-ha” moment, because it made me see that life didn’t have to be as complicated as I made it out to be; that in any given moment, or whenever I felt confused or unsure, I could just choose the loving gesture, the loving word, the loving path.
This is hard to explain in just a few words, but I will say, learning to pause and ask myself the question, “What is the loving thing to do here?” has given me a new assurance. It helps me to see when I’m reacting out of fear, and to choose love instead. It has made me at once more courageous and softer, more confident and less attached to being right. I don’t have to be right; it is enough to be loving.
- What were/are your day-to-day coping skills that keep you afloat?
Being in nature and my yoga practice. I came late to yoga, and I’ve never been athletic at all. When I began, I couldn’t even bend over or do a single pose. But I realized right away that if I was going to age healthfully, it was time to l learn how to really live in my body—a whole new concept for me, who had spent an entire childhood avoiding gym class.
There is so much about growing older that we can’t avoid—wrinkles, thinning hair, age spots, eyeglasses…But we can certainly take care of our bodies. Yoga keeps the aches and pains away. It keeps me in close touch with my physical body, and instead of getting progressively weaker and less flexible, I am stronger now than I was at thirty. But there are emotional and spiritual benefits as well—I come to my yoga mat to learn to work with things as they are: the body I have today, the emotions I’m feeling, the sore throat or the tender knee, the thirty minutes I have between appointments. It’s not about making things perfect, it’s about being fully present to what IS. And of course learning to be present and non-judgmental on a yoga is very good practice for being present and non-judgmental as we meet the challenges of normal, everyday life.
I also make a point of going out for a walk just about every day. Often my husband and I will go out right at dawn, a forty-five minute loop that gives us time to talk and reconnect with each other. It’s the same loop, day after day, but even that routine has become something to cherish. We note where the sun comes up in the sky, watch the seasons change, enjoy our dog’s happiness at being out with us. It’s a wonderful way to begin the day, a little outdoor playtime before breakfast. And my favorite way of socializing with a friend is to take a walk—there’s something about being together side-by-side and moving through the world by foot that releases us, and that makes for wonderful open-hearted conversation.
- What thoughts propel you forward?
Having watched a beloved friend take her last breath, I am more aware than ever before of just how precious life is, and how fleeting. For now, my family and friends are well, and I am in good health, but I don’t take any of this for granted. And so what propels me forward is really my own awareness that it’s up to me to make my own life matter, while I still can. Meaning is where we find it, and in how we choose to spend our days. I’m not talking about grand things here, but about the small things we tend to overlook in our constant rush to do more or have more or accomplish more.
I want to make sure my loved ones know how much I love them, and I want to acknowledge the great gift that is this life. Perhaps it is also this quiet sense of duty that propels me forward: having been given life, it is my challenge to recognize and appreciate its beauty. And I can do that simply by choosing the attitude I bring to even the smallest tasks. I can look at a pile of laundry to fold as an intrusion on my day, something to resent; or I can be grateful that my life at this moment is still so simple and ordinary. I can see the blessings in that pile of laundry. We don’t always appreciate just how wonderful it is to be able to walk into our own kitchens and make dinner, until the day arrives when we can’t do that anymore.
- In general, how have you managed to recreate your life through this transitional course?
Although my book is called Magical Journey, there is a bit of irony in that title. I didn’t really go anywhere much at all. Writing a book requires one to sit very still for a very long time. But of course, not all journeys require airplane tickets and extra shoes. Sometimes the most significant journeys we can take are the ones that lead us inward, to discover something new within ourselves. I began writing without answers to any of my “what now?” questions. I had no idea “what now.” All I knew was that much I had cherished was over—my time as a mother with children at home, my friend’s life, my youth, my editing career, even a certain stage of my marriage, which, after twenty-five years was in need of new energy and attention. But what I found in the process of writing was that I was slowly learning to let go of what was, even without knowing what might yet be.
And letting go cleared a space in which new life could begin to grow. Having finished the hard work of writing, I stepped out of that room and began to say “yes” to whatever life offered up: new friendships, invitations to speak, new relationships with my young adult sons, a trip with my husband that was just for the two of us. I realized that I don’t have to get everything figured out, that the path is simply the one that appears at my feet, and I can trust it to lead me where I’m meant to go.
- What advice can you offer those going through life transitions and changes?
Assess everything. Take a look at your old dreams; if they don’t still make your heart soar, let them go and clear space for new dreams. Let go of old, out-worn ideas about the way things “ought” to be, and take a good hard look at things as they are. Change what you can change, and learn to accept and work with what can’t be changed. There is a relief in surrender, a beauty in acknowledging that our white-knuckled grip on life isn’t serving us or anyone else. Opening to change, welcoming it rather than resisting it, is part of the dance of life. Whenever the choice is between dancing or sitting it out, dance. When the choice is between love and fear, choose love. The rest will take care of itself.
Katrina has graciously offered to give away a copy of Magical Journey. To have a chance at winning this deeply touching and gorgeously written book, please leave a comment below and one winner will be drawn on Tues. March 5th at 10 PM (EST). Update: Wylie has won a copy of Magical Journey. Yay!!
Thanks to the rest of you who commented in the hopes of winning the book. If this interview has piqued your interest, I do hope you’ll read the book. It speaks to the core of ourselves in all phases of life. I hope you’ll come back and share your thoughts on the book or anything else you find here that speaks to you.