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Thursday, December 2, 2010

Gift of Reading: The Gift of an Ordinary Day


A few months ago I had one of those wonderful reading experiences, both as a reader for pleasure, and as a writer-reading-as-a-writer: a mixture of admiration for the prose, a deep connection to the story, and a boatload of those head-nodding, tear-wiping moments when I wondered if the author had been stalking my daily life, reading my mind.

The book is The Gift of an Ordinary Day, a memoir by Katrina Kenison, who for seven years edited the Best American Short Stories annual series. When that job ended, coinciding with her family's move to rural New Hampshire, Kenison began writing this deeply felt narrative about the transitions in her life as a mother.

Surely one of the most significant reasons I loved this book so much is that Kenison, like me, is the mother of two sons; hers were born three years apart, mine a little over four. It is her sons' passage from little boys into adolescents and then young adults, which forms the backbone of her generous reflections on what it means, as a parent as a woman, to both hang on and to let go.

Though I wasn't planning to, early in my reading of the book, I grabbed a pad of those page-marking sticky notes. Before long, the edges of the book resembled a fringed throw rug.

One of the first things I marked is this: "Whether we choose change or it chooses us, the only thing we can know for sure is that security of any kind is an illusion. The life we know is always in the process of becoming something else."

There are dozens of others. Some strike me as beautiful examples of lovingly crafted nonfiction, while others speak to me more directly. Like me, Kenison struggles with making choices for one child, whose needs and aspirations are slightly off center, and worrying about how it will affect the other.

Once, distracted by too many mothering demands in one direction, she'd forgotten about the pet hermit crabs. Later, she writes, "And though the shells have been empty now for almost three years, each time I look at them, these humble relics of our former life, my heart clenches a little, with an old sadness that still comes when I wonder if, at a tender and vulnerable time in his life, we let our younger son down by trying so hard to do right by our older one."

Another passage which grabbed me: "And so I gather up the monotonous winter days, the snow days, the mundane weeknights, the hours we spend together watching a silly TV show, and I string them together in my mind like matched pearls on a thread, finding satisfaction in their very sameness. Ordinary days. The days in which nothing momentous happens, no great victories are won, no huge disappointments suffered, no milestones achieved. Most of our lives are made up of days just like this – if we're lucky, that is…"

And finally, my favorite sentence of all in the entire book:

"It would be so easy to forget to love this life, to just go through the motions, doing what needs to be done, as if it's all going to last forever."

I hope you will watch Kenison read from her book to a group of parents gathered in a living room, and/or visit her blog.

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