Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Katrina Kenison

Katrina Kenison is the author of The Gift of an Ordinary Day: A Mother's Memoir, and Mitten Strings for God: Reflections for Mothers in a Hurry.

From 1990 through 2006 she was the annual editor of The Best American Short Stories series, and she co-edited, with John Updike, The Best American Short Stories of the Century.

Her work has appeared in O: The Oprah Winfrey Magazine, Real Simple, Family Circle, and many other publications.

A couple of weeks ago I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
The books are:

Open by Andre Agassi, Knopf, 2009

The Wishing Year by Noelle Oxenhandler, Random House 2008, paperback 2009

Payne Hollow Journal by Harlan Hubbard, University Press of Kentucky 1996

Having recently published a memoir of my own, I’m reading about other people’s lives these days with an even greater sense of urgency than usual. I’ve always been fascinated by the true stories of real people; now, I’m equally fascinated by the process by which a private life is experienced, edited, shaped, and offered up for public consumption. In order to finish writing my own book, I had to pretend that no one would ever actually read it. When it was finally published, the feeling was akin to running around in my pajamas--not totally naked, but weirdly exposed and vulnerable. So, I have even greater respect now for anyone willing to expose themselves to such judgment and scrutiny.

This week, I bought Andre Agassi’s autobiography, Open, for my 17-year-old son’s birthday, and got completely hooked myself. Ghosted by Pulitzer Prize-winner J.R. Moehringer (author of The Tender Bar), Agassi’s book grabs you on the first page -- “I play tennis for a living, even though I hate tennis, hate it with a dark and secret passion, and always have” -- and doesn’t let go. My husband and son are both tennis fanatics; I don’t even play the game and I never read sports books. Yet Agassi’s penchant for self-destruction, vying with his absolute perfectionism, makes for a very dramatic, readable book. With unflinching honesty, he describes his inner conflicts, his tyrannical father, his crushing depression, his drug use and love life, and his decision to seize a second chance when it came and turn his life around. Even his accounts of his most memorable tennis matches are compelling. Moehringer is a fantastic writer, and he has clearly wormed his way so deeply into Agassi’s tormented psyche that there is no telling where Agassi’s voice ends and Moehringer’s begins. The book is intense, painfully raw at times, fast-paced, and ultimately a moving cautionary tale. My guess is that my teenaged son will find it as riveting as I did.

A few years ago, Noelle Oxenhandler found herself newly single after a long marriage, without a home of her own, and estranged from the spiritual community she’d been a part of for years. Her memoir The Wishing Year is a beautifully written, candid account of a skeptical, sophisticated woman who doesn’t believe in “putting it out there,” who dismisses The Secret as a lot of New Age baloney, and who feels more comfortable talking about Buddhism than owning up to her own fierce desires for a nice piece of real estate, a man, and spiritual redemption.

I love this book. Some have called it the thinking person’s version of The Secret. Certainly, the message is the same: thoughts are things. And yet, Noelle Oxenhandler is a reluctant paradigm shifter, and she is most certainly not one to jump up on a soapbox and start espousing the Law of Attraction. Instead, she asks herself, “Who knows what might emerge from the huge box marked ‘Don’t Dare!’ if I managed to open it more than a crack? There really is such a thing as fear of success. Who would I be if I stepped out of my doubts and deferrals, my carefully budgeted sense of possibility?”

Haven’t we all wondered the same thing? Here is a glimpse of a life transformed by desire, a case study in what can happen when doubt and fear are replaced by a willingness to simply expand one’s own idea of what is possible. Noelle Oxenhandler is a serious person who has somehow managed to write quite a magical book with a simple, inspiring message: Dare to dream.

Speaking of dreams ... one of mine has always been to live more simply, to strike a healthier daily balance between doing and being. And so I am forever looking to be inspired by those who manage to create rich, full lives that are off the beaten track, and in close harmony with nature. Having read quotes by Harlan Hubbard for years, I recently tracked down his now out-of-print diary, Payne Hollow Journal. Hubbard was Kentucky’s Thoreau, an eccentric artist, writer and homesteader who lived off the land for nearly fifty years, recording his daily activities in simple, vivid prose. He is also a born poet, a naturalist whose brief journal entries celebrate the beauty of a sunrise, the call of a whip-poor-will, a gentle spring rain.

Reading Hubbard's reflective, day-to-day observations of life on a remote riverbank, of the pleasure he derived from tending the garden, chopping wood, listening to his wife play her piano, I am reminded to savor the ordinary pleasures of my own life, so different in time and place from his. This little known book is worth seeking out, a poetic evocation of one man’s very deliberate choice to live with utter simplicity and clear purpose.

It just occurred to me that this is a very odd trio of authors -- a glitzy, multimillionaire tennis star, a divorced middle-aged housewife, and an eccentric Southern hermit who died over twenty years ago. So, I had to ask myself, What on earth do these wildly different books have in common? It took me a minute, but I did figure it out -- each of them is a story about finding the courage to live authentically. In their own very different ways, these three writers choose to take care of their own souls, no matter what the consequences. Guess that’s why they all inspire me, and why it’s a pleasure to recommend them....
Visit Katrina Kenison's website and blog.

--Marshal Zeringue