An Apprenticeship in Contentment (Grand Central, 2013; $24.99), Katrina Kenison describes her experience coming to terms with the new normal of her life in the wake of her youngest son’s departure from home. As she learns to navigate the new rhythm of her days, the quiet of her home, and the shifting dynamic of her marriage, she eloquently describes the process of reimagining a life no longer contingent on the daily rituals of parenting or moored by the practical responsibilities of family life. The honest and moving insight she shares into the bittersweet letting-go and the ultimately joyful embrace of the new is at once a universal and deeply personal tale of midlife. The result is an affirmation that while the empty nest may raise uncomfortable questions, it can also launch us into glorious flight.
Magical Journey: An Apprenticeship in Contentment
Spring is here. There is sweetness in the air, an irresistible invitation to soften and open and welcome new growth. And as I carry screens up from the basement and crank open the windows in the kitchen, the damp, seductive smell of greening earth inspires me to action. I want to do more than my weekly pass through the house with duster and vacuum and mop. Instead, a fresh look at things, through fresh eyes. Ever since we moved in and set up housekeeping four and a half years ago, I’ve been so preoccupied with the daily necessities of life and work and teenagers that I haven’t had time to pause and consider what’s actually working and what’s not.
But things are different now. Instead of organizing my days around the comings and goings of everyone else, I can decide for myself what matters. Instead of making a daily accounting of what we need—juice and eggs; new shoes for one son, a haircut for the other; an oil change for the car—I now find myself wondering what we can do without.
Looking around at these comfortable, cluttered rooms, I see that even in this short space of time, we’ve accumulated things that have outlived their usefulness. But instead of cocooning myself in what’s familiar, I’m ready to change the way we live here, to pare back and get rid of stuff we don’t really use or want, and then to move into those empty spaces. Perhaps we don’t need teenagers upstairs playing music that reverberates the floorboards to make this house feel full after all. We can fill it with light and spirit and newfound purpose.
“Simplification of the outer life is not enough,” Anne Morrow Lindbergh notes in her classic book of midlife reflection, Gift from the Sea, “it is merely the outside.” But simplifying the outer life feels exactly like the next step for me right now, a way of physically and emotionally clearing out what we’re done with and making some space for what’s next.
I start in the small office off the kitchen, with the idea of weeding through all the books. Every single volume comes off the floor‑to‑ceiling shelves; I figure that by the time Steve gets home from work tonight, things will be back in order. But what begins in the morning as a simple bit of spring cleaning leads me straight into a heart‑to‑heart dialogue not only with my books, but with my past and present selves. It’s not a day’s task, after all, this chat, but it’s apparently a conversation we need to have. Which books have gone mute? Which ones are speaking up, demanding to be returned to the shelves?
Long gone are the days when I would sit on my bed surrounded by dictionary, thesaurus, bottles of Wite-Out and Post-its and colored pencils, and first and second drafts of book manuscripts marked up by hand. And so the reference books—my old dictionaries, Roget’s Thesaurus, Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations (well-thumbed in the pre-Internet age, obsolete now), The Chicago Manual of Style, which was my bible during my editing career—all go into a pile by the back door. Remnants of a past I let go of years ago, they have become artifacts. Letting go of them turns out to be easier than I thought.
Paging through the cookbooks, I’m surprised how few I actually use, how often I’ve been seduced by “maybe someday” photos of exotic dishes I can now admit I’ll never take the time to make. When my sons walk through the door these days, they want pancakes, steak dinners, chicken casserole, my apple cake—the same sturdy, familiar meals I’ve always made and that speak to them of home. And I am happy to oblige. The rest of the time, my husband and I are here alone, two growing-older people watching our weight and trying to accommodate our slowing metabolisms. How many risotto recipes do I need? A whole shelf of cookbooks can go, too.
Since the day in 1989 when, thirty minutes after reading the results of my pregnancy test, I raced to the WordsWorth Bookstore in Harvard Square to buy a copy of What to Expect When You’re Expecting, I’ve managed to acquire an entire library of parenting books. From You Are Your Child’s First Teacher to Yes, Your Teen Is Crazy! these books have been guideposts at each step of the way, reminding me I wasn’t the first mother to wonder if it’s okay to let the baby cry or whether a sixteen-year-old is ready to drive alone or why there’s a cigarette butt in the birdhouse. I’m not sure now why I didn’t trust myself more, but I do know I won’t ever open any of these books again.
I’m not done being a mother, of course, nor are my sons so grown‑up that they don’t need parenting. But I’m pretty sure I know what I need to know: take care of our relationships with one another, tell the truth and ask for the truth, solve problems together, love them no matter what. Looking at all these titles, at pages folded over and passages highlighted in pink, I think about how seriously I took on the spiritual and physical work of motherhood. No wonder I felt at a loss when I found myself relieved of the job.
But packing these child-rearing books into a couple of boxes to pass on to another mother feels like a rite of passage I’m ready to embrace—my identity is no longer intertwined with my children, my role no longer defined by their needs.
So much of this last year has been about trying to figure out how to meet this new, unfamiliar responsibility to me,trying to decide what my own priorities actually are, now that I’m finally free to choose.
I still don’t have all the answers, but now, with the room in complete disarray and my books in piles all over the floor, I have an idea. Certificate or not, I don’t feel quite ready to be a yoga teacher, but I am certainly ready to do something. Why not use the skills I learned during my month of training to teach writing instead? I could begin right where I am, teaching what I continue to learn by doing it myself. I could send an e‑mail out to friends, put a press release in the newspaper, and welcome whoever shows up on my doorstep willing to attempt the soul-searching work of transforming the stuff of their lives into narrative. A minute later, I’m standing in the living room, counting possible seats and imagining the room full of women.
One new idea has a way of giving birth to the next one. And from the living room, it’s only three steps into the adjoining nook that we’ve never quite figured out what do with. The space had already been drawn into the house plans as a small office for Steve when we decided that was an extra we didn’t need. But since this oddly shaped little room had to get built anyway, we figured we’d put a small second television in here. We furnished the narrow space with a loveseat and a table, a couple of chairs, and a TV in the bookshelves. But then, except for Jack, who played video games on the screen, we rarely set foot in there again. I wipe a finger across a shelf, leaving a streak through the dust. The Xbox is long gone, the room yet another lifeless, extraneous place that I barely remember to clean, let alone use.
Until now. In a flash of inspiration I see exactly what it needs to be: a sanctuary for yoga and meditation. And so I begin clearing the shelves in there, too—packing up the kids’ old videos and CDs into boxes, carting out all the stuff that’s accumulated on the shelves, and filling them instead with the books I’d stacked on the floor of my office, the ones that I suspect are going to guide me on through the next chapter of my own life: books of poetry, nature writing, spiritual explorations, yoga manuals.
“How would you feel about getting rid of the leather loveseat, and that old table and chairs?” I ask Steve as we sit down to a late dinner that night, in the midst of the mess I’ve created. “We aren’t using that little room at all anyway, so I was thinking about just emptying it out, and turning it into a kind of studio space, for yoga and meditating.”
To my surprise, he doesn’t hesitate. “Let’s do it,” he says, perhaps as relieved as I am to realize that we can ask our house, and the shape of our lives within these walls, to change as we change.
It feels as if we are turning the lights back on around here, reclaiming and reinvesting in a house that hasn’t felt quite as much like a home since both our boys left. And yet there’s no need to keep it as a mausoleum, dedicated to the way things were. We had put years of thought and effort into settling here, creating a home and a life for four. But there is also something to be said for unsettling. If we’re not growing, not changing, but just existing in our own well-worn grooves, then we’re simply putting in time. Now, with the rooms torn apart, books scattered everywhere, and my mind brimming with new ideas, time feels surprisingly expansive again. Suddenly, there’s so much I want to do.
This is an excerpt from Magical Journey: An Apprenticeship in Contentment by Katrina Kenison. Copyright © 2013. Reprinted by permission of Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved.
Katrina Kenison is the author of The Gift of an Ordinary Day and Mitten Strings for God: Reflections for Mothers in a Hurry. She has appeared on Oprah, and her writing has appeared in O, Real Simple, Family Circle, Redbook, and other publications. From 1990 until 2006, Kenison was the series editor of The Best American Short Stories,published annually by Houghton Mifflin.
I don’t think any of us get to midlife without hitting some bumps in the road; it’s a pretty rare life that turns out as planned. And yet we tend to think everyone else must have things all figured out and that if we were only smarter or more competent or luckier, our lives would be tidier and less confusing. I had a feeling I was probably not the only woman asking Now what? after my children grew up and left home; not the only woman grieving the loss of a friend who’d died too soon or confronting health issues of her own; not the only woman experiencing unexpected shifts in her marriage or her career. Midlife seems to be a time in which old dreams and identities fall away and new ones are slow to take shape. I hoped that by telling my story I might remind other women that they aren’t alone after all—that we are all seeking joy and a renewed sense of purpose in the second half of life. And that contentment and meaning are always right within reach—completely intertwined with self-acceptance and compassion and gratitude for things as they are.
Are there any specific experiences from this work—or any knowledge that you’ve come to through this project—that you wish someone had passed to your younger self?
When our children are small and their demands on us seem never-ending, it’s hard to imagine the day when they won’t be there anymore, asking us to read a book or get down on the floor and play a game or watch a movie with them. I was constantly juggling my kids’ needs with my own, wishing for a little more time for me and a little peace and quiet. Well, now I have all the peace and quiet I could want. I would give anything to have some of those days back again and to do them a little differently: to say yes more often, to rush less, to spend less time trying to “get things done” and more time simply enjoying my children as children. Because before you know it, they really are grown and gone. You get to be the center of their universe for only a few short years—why not savor them?
What role, if any, did the process of writing this book—the creative process—have in the personal transformation/evolution that is recorded here?
Writing has always been a way for me to figure out what I know deep inside and to bring form to my feelings. I write down the questions I’m struggling with, and slowly, as I continue to put my thoughts down on the page, something that surprises me arrives on the page as well—some guidance from a deeper, wiser part of me. I wasn’t sure, when I started, where I would end up. I began with questions like What next? and Who am I now that I am not a 24/7 mom anymore? Living and writing my way through those questions brought me closer to a sense of how I want to live now and what matters in my life. It helped me see that I could bring some of the love and attention I’d devoted to my children out into the larger world.
The excerpt we have included here describes your “spring cleaning” effort, when you clear out bookshelves and transform a space in your house into your yoga and meditation nook. How would you say this section fits into the larger narrative or represents the journey the book offers?
Writing this book was a process of letting go of what was over in my life, taking the time to both grieve and honor the passage of time. That slow inner excavation cleared a space for new ideas and visions to begin to take shape. But I found I needed to do some clearing out in the physical realm as well. It’s so easy to let our homes settle into a kind of stagnant utilitarianism. But home is more than a place to land at the end of the day. It is a reflection of the inner life, and it can be a beautiful, welcoming space that breathes and changes right along with the family that lives there. So, yes, there was definitely something symbolic about clearing out old, unused things; consolidating our sons’ belongings; and claiming some space in the house for my own new intentions and new routines. Cleaning and reorganizing is deeply therapeutic and creative. Suddenly, I saw I could create new ways of inhabiting the rooms in our house, just as I was learning to inhabit my own life in a new way. Now, when my sons are home, they like to spend time in the yoga and meditation nook. And this little room that went unused for years has now become my favorite place in the house.