I wish I had been in LA this weekend where Katrina Kenison sat zazen with Karen Maezen Miller (author of one of my favorite books, Momma Zen) at the Hazy Moon Zen Center and then appeared at Vroman's Bookstore. Instead I satisfied myself with re-reading parts of The Magical Journey and finishing this book review.
Every once in a miraculous-while, writers gift us words that point the way toward wholeness.
"Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth...
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore..."
--Naomi Shihab Nye
The Magical Journey, a memoir written by the author of The Gift of an Ordinary Day, like Nye's poem, does just this.
Kenison's most recent book chronicles a passage in her life in which several aspects of her identity “dissolve in a moment” into her life’s broth.
She loses her long-time job as an editor.
Her second son leaves for a boarding school unexpectedly.
Then one of her best friends dies of cancer.
And in three clean swoops, life swallows her identity nearly whole. The memoir begins as Kenison, already dear to you if you've read The Gift of an Ordinary Day, explores the inner curves of hollowness that remain after her losses.
"Grief and silent bedrooms and the inexorable march of time have all conspired to subtly alter the inner landscape of my being, so that what once was familiar and solid now seems foreign and fragile; days that used to seem rich and full feel drained of life, hard and empty as the winter sky."
From this point, Kenison generously shares her journey of faith and reinvention, carving a well-marked path through the woods for her readers.
"What would it mean if my purpose, my path, from this moment on were really this simple: to be able to look into the eyes of another human being with such compassion, such acceptance, such unconditional tenderness and devotion? To offer as much love to others as my teacher just gave me."
When I was talking with a girlfriend about Kenison's book, her response was, "We really are so untested, aren't we." And it is true, for her and me, at the early mid-point of our lives, loss has appeared only at periphery of our journeys. We have stood at the edge of the woods, while witnessing others being dwarfed by the redwoods, but we have not stood there ourselves.
When we sense the shape of it all, the knee jerk response is a tight braiding of fear and gratitude, that could have the unfortunate result of distancing. But Kenison gently, kindly draws us toward her difficult experience, and shows that the hollowness gives way to a new kind of beauty.
"Yet this is the way healing begins; in fact, it is the only way. One by one, we rouse ourselves. We view the world through gentler eyes. We show up and do what we can, when we can. And so it is that our own small circles of caring begin to grow, and loneliness and grief are transformed into hope, direction and community."
In the end The Magical Journey gifts the readers something special:
"a testament to the fact that meaning and purpose come not from accomplishing great things in the world, but simiply from loving those who are right in front of you, doing all you can with what you have in the time you have, in the place where you are. It's not the doing that makes it special, it's the loving."
A fine set of Cliff Notes for those of us who are humbly young and untested:
focus on the loving,
appreciate what you have,
and take it from others,
even when you doubt,
that it is only kindness that makes sense.