I've been a fan of Katrina Kenison's work ever since I read her first book of reflections for mothers with young children, Mitten Strings for God. At that time, I was busy meeting the needs of three little ones and took comfort in her gentle reminder to slow down and be present. Since then, the former literary agent and series editor for the best-selling The Best American Short Stories anthology has written three additional books that trace the seasons of a woman's life.
Her most recent book, Moments of Seeing: Reflections from an Ordinary Life, is a collection of 145 short essays from her blog that she describes as "a string of days, a random collection of memories that surely would have vanished if not for the hours I spent on that kitchen stool, searching for words with which to hold them."
Kenison wrote her first blog entry in September, 2009 as she and her husband were coming to terms with their empty nest and she was in the beginning stages of promoting her memoir about midlife transitions, The Gift of an Ordinary Day. That first post—"Book Happiness"—is also the opening selection in Moments of Seeing. By the end of the book (and seven years of blog posts organized in chronological order) readers have met two of her close friends and borne witness to the holes their deaths left in her heart, grieved the death of a beloved family pet, celebrated the son who earned his 30-day sobriety chip and the son who directed a college musical, admired the perseverance of completing an intensive month-long yoga camp for instructors, and empathized with the pain of arthritis and aging hips.
Her long, sometimes meandering, sentences create long, sometimes meandering, paragraphs but each word carries its weight and each paragraph builds thoughtfully on the previous one. Many of the 800- to 1,000-word essays have a bit of a melancholic feel to them, yet there's a warmth and sincerity that emerges and invites readers to walk beside her. In "Playing Hooky," for example, Kenison writes about an October afternoon that was too beautiful to spend on "things that need doing:"
This life. There's always something that needs doing. But there are never enough days like yesterday, days when the trees don brilliant robes and stand tall, rustling softly in their finery. When the sky melts into azure infinity, when the air is as soft as breath and nasturtiums bloom like crown jewels scattered upon a tumbled carpet of fallen leaves. The oscillation of insects, the call of a crow, the gossamer light, the almost voluptuous warmth—it was too fine an October afternoon to miss. It was a day that whispered "Play hooky."
She goes on to describe an afternoon hike that ended as an overnight campout filled with memories and a self-inventory that empty-nester readers, like me, will recognize:
My greatest joy as a mother was to introduce my children to the world, to lead them gently into wonder, to provide an abundant harvest of experiences that would stir their senses and quicken their imaginations—walks in the woods, nights under the stars, stories told by firelight, hushed sunrises, and barefoot walks through dew-soaked grass.
Now that they're grown, I miss those times more than I like to admit. I miss my sons as the little boys they were, much as I love the young men they've become. And I miss the joy of our shared play, the small adventures woven through our days and nights, the fun of dragging air mattresses and sleeping bags out into the backyard on a moment's notice and cuddling up together beneath a canopy of stars. I miss seeing the world through a child's eyes.
I'm also realizing that herein lies one of the challenges of this new phase of my life as a person whose child-raising days have ended. I need to learn all over again to see the world through my own eyes. I want to look and feel as deeply now as I did as a child—not for my sons' sake any longer, but for myself. For isn't this our task as adults, too? To stand still in the middle of this unexplained, inexplicable world, breathing in and out, quietly listening to whatever is just beyond the field of our knowing, calling us to wonder, to devotion?
The warm, trustworthy voice in Moments of Seeing is not only a comfort to those adjusting to a new family structure but to writers as well. In "Magic," she acknowledges the difficulty, the solo-ness, the loneliness, and the frustration that is part of the writing process. She "hits the wall" just as many (most?) writers do at some time in their careers. She deletes more words than she keeps, questions the viability of her project, and laments about her slow pace yet celebrates the process and revels in the healing. Her words are a gentle reminder that writing memoir isn't just about documenting what happened; it is "to illuminate the slow, halting process by which we learn to make our peace with what happened. And in that vulnerable revealing, in the stumbling, wayward truth of that story, lies something worth offering: not the gift of what we've accomplished or survived or learned, but rather the gift of who we really are."
"Writing the Truth" is another piece writers are sure to appreciate. Before Kenison sent the final draft of Gift to the publisher, she invited her husband and her two sons to read it. She wasn't surprised that the memories her husband had of their decision to sell the house in the suburbs and move to the country were vividly different from what she'd experienced. And her reaction to the discrepancies her sons found–she wrote that she'd used chocolate chips to create the eyes of the bear-shaped pancakes that became a Saturday morning tradition; her sons insisted they were raisins—will have writers smiling in recognition of similar comments made by their own children. Responding to the concerns a close friend voiced about one of the essays, however, required she take a risk:
Writing about my own life means that I must also write about the people who are in my life, the very people I love most in the world—my family, my neighbors, my friends. Every memoir is, to some degree, a story of relationships. But to write memoir is also to stand alone, shouldering the burden of truth. Truth not arrived at by consensus, but truth as I know it and experience it myself. . . . I write what's true for me in a way I hope also honors the experience of those I'm writing about. When in doubt, I err on the side of kindness.
Kindness may surely be the overarching theme behind Kenison's words. Extending it. Modeling it. Being it. Readers who follow her blog have known this for eight years. Thanks to their encouragement, those who prefer to hold a book in their hands will too.