In pursuing our passions, following our hearts, and believing that life, and the people in the world, are mostly good, choosing gratitude and joy can become second nature to us.
As a part of my series about how to live with Joie De Vivre, I I had the pleasure of interviewing Mary Potter Kenyon.
Mary Potter Kenyon, graduate of the University of Northern Iowa and a certified grief counselor, works as Program Coordinator at the Shalom Spirituality Center in Dubuque, Iowa. Mary’s writing is widely published in newspapers, magazines and anthologies, including ten Chicken Soup books. She is a popular speaker and workshop presenter on the topics of grief, creativity and writing. An author of seven non-fiction books, her “Called to Be Creative: A Guide to Reigniting Your Creativity” will be released by Familius Publishing September 1. Find out more about Mary at www.marypotterkenyon.com
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
I was the mother of two children when I graduated from the University of Northern Iowa with a B.A. in Psychology in 1985. Though I started taking classes towards a Masters in Family Services, the arrival of two more children led me to quit school and become a stay-at-home mom. To maintain a semblance of my creative self, I began writing freelance articles and conducted various home businesses. I gave birth to four more children and hundreds of published articles and essays in the next twenty years.
By 2011, I’d completed an ethnographic history on the cultural phenomenon of extreme couponing, a topic I’d lived and breathed for most of my married life as I struggled to make ends meet. As part of a platform to sell the book, I also designed a two-hour couponing workshop I began teaching at community colleges and libraries, discovering a new passion in public speaking. Those workshops led to a weekly column with a tri-state newspaper. My husband David reveled in seeing me come alive with the workshops and speaking, offering to drive me to events just to watch me in action. I was certain I couldn’t have done any of it without his encouragement and support.
Then in March 2012, I had to. David, a five-year cancer survivor, died three days after coming home from the hospital following a heart stent surgery. I was 52-years old. Four of our eight children still lived at home, the youngest just eight years old. That first year, I immersed myself in grieving, giving myself permission to do only those things that brought me joy and allowed time with my children. I spent hours writing every day and conducted couponing workshops at libraries all over Iowa. Seven months after my husband’s death, I signed a contract for the book that had been his idea in the first place. I went on to sign five more book contracts with the same company in the ensuing years.
My first job after my husband’s death was Director of a small-town library where I was permitted to bring my youngest daughter with me to work. Two years later, I worked full-time for the local newspaper, until I realized the job was killing my creativity and I’d abandoned the writing and public speaking that brought me joy. I returned to library work, working both sides of the desk as an adult programming coordinator and conducting workshops on writing and creativity for other libraries and community colleges along with public speaking for grief groups, churches, and women’s groups. I founded an annual grief retreat and took online courses to become a certified grief counselor. By late 2017, I’d organized a lifelong learners creativity group at my library and begun writing a book that would incorporate some of the lessons learned in the activities we were pursuing.
When my current job was advertised, I realized that all my life experiences; caring for a husband with cancer, losing mother, husband and grandson in the space of three years, the freelance writing, workshops and public speaking, grief certification and organizing an annual grief retreat, along with my work experience, had prepared me for this one perfect job. Two years ago, I sold my house and half my possessions, and moved with my youngest daughter to a 760-square-foot house in the town where I now work as a program coordinator for a spirituality center, facilitating and planning programs. Not only do I have ample time for my own workshops and writing, the grief retreat is now an annual event at the center and I’ve added a winter writer’s conference to their roster of programs.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
I was sent home to work when the doors of our building were closed to the public on March 18, 2020 because of the pandemic. With all upcoming events cancelled, I initially feared for my job. After all, what use is a program coordinator without any programs? Once I was assigned the task of discovering what it would take to pivot programming to online, I hit the ground running, learning about Zoom and searching for programs that would be conducive to virtual meetings. I also began writing and recording Monday morning meditations to encourage and inspire our audience. There was a learning curve, certainly, but I have embraced the technology that allows people that might not otherwise set foot in our building to attend our programs, and I intend to continue doing some online programming post-pandemic.
Can you share a story with us about the most humorous mistake you made when you were first starting? What lesson or take-away did you learn from that?
I began training for my current position during the month of May, and despite the open window and a ceiling fan overhead, I was uncomfortably warm as my predecessor attempted to teach me the basics of the job over a period of several days. Whenever I set foot in the office of my new boss it was hot in there, too. Because both my boss and the woman whose position I was acquiring were Franscican sisters, I assumed that as nuns, they were used to “suffering” through the heat, and I’d need to get used to it too. I purchased a desk fan and brought it with me when I took over the position in June, pointing it directly toward my face as I worked. My second week on the job, as outdoor temps reached ninety degrees, my boss stopped in my office to ask why I hadn’t turned on the air conditioner.
“What air conditioner?” I asked, and she pointed to the window behind me. Only then did I see a unit partially obscured by the blinds.
I learned a valuable lesson that day, one I thought I’d taken to heart a long time ago. After all, I’ve always taken umbrage at the generalizations people attribute to an ambiguous “they” or “them” when labeling a group of people by a narrow category because of belief or behavior. I had little exposure to nuns outside of the two who taught in my elementary parochial school back in the day when nuns still wore the habits that indicated to my childhood self a lifestyle of self-sacrifice and suffering. I learned not to make assumptions about the behavior of an entire community of sisters based on a childhood notion, or as if they are a homogenous group.
I also learned to take better notice of my surroundings!
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
While I do have mentors in the publishing industry who have given me direction in my writing, it is my mother and husband who saw something in me I didn’t see in myself during all those years I was frantically attempting to maintain some semblance of self while raising young children. They saw me as a writer. My husband had also recognized my gift for public discourse, something I hadn’t yet realized. I’ll never forget the day I sat on the couch with my husband watching some powerful female speaker on television. It was just weeks before he unexpectedly died. When this speaker mentioned how often she went to her hairdresser to keep her hair looking nice, my husband turned to me and said “You’re going to be like her someday. I want you to feel free to get your hair done whenever you need to, for your public.” I was flabbergasted. I’d just begun doing couponing and writing workshops and my husband saw me that way? As a powerful speaker? With a public? To this day, some eight years later, thanks to his words, I have no qualms about getting my hair done before a speaking event.
I don’t know where I’d be without their encouragement and support. Even now, when they aren’t here to give it, I carry their encouragement within me.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The United States is currently rated at #18 in the World Happiness Report. Can you share a few reasons why you think the ranking is so low?
We should be one of the happiest countries in the world, but I think we’ve lost sight of what is really important, and it isn’t a what, but a who. It’s all about our family and friends, not things. Maybe I’m more aware of that since I’ve lost so many important people in my life. I’d trade all of my success as a writer just to have one more day with my husband.
Also, as long as we equate financial gain with success we’ll have people going into careers they aren’t really suited for, just for the money. That means a lot of unhappy people in the workplace.
Americans are too busy and over-scheduled. Our calendars are so packed that if a friend wants to visit over a cup of coffee, we have a difficult time finding an empty space on our calendars. Even our children get stressed from being in so many activities, there isn’t any down time.
Can you share with our readers your 5 strategies to live with more Joie De Vivre?
#1) Learn to play again. I was never bored as a child. Once I learned to read, I could spend hours poring over books. When I wasn’t reading, I was drawing or making up stories and poems. As adults, we sometimes forget what it was we were naturally drawn to as children , whether that was spending time in nature or fingerpainting. As we grow older, we get so busy with school, jobs, paying bills, raising children or caring for elderly parents we lose that. We think of creating or playing as a waste of time. But working creative endeavors back into our lives has been proven to lead to a more positive state of mind. When researchers at the University of Otago constructed a study to understand if creativity impacted emotional well-being, they discovered a positive connection between the two. I never feel like I am working when I am writing or conducting workshops. In fact, I can’t believe I am paid to do either, when I enjoy them so much.
When I organized a lifelong learner’s group it was with the intention of trying new things, like painting or playing a ukulele. Not because I had some secret desire to become an artist or musician, but because I knew it would be fun, as long as we didn’t take failure too seriously. There were only three rules for members to follow: #1) Try new things. #2) Have fun. #3) Allow for failure.
#2) Get lost in the flow. There are mornings when I wake up, make a cup of coffee, and begin writing. Hours later, my daughter will interrupt me to ask about lunch and I’ll glance at the clock and see that it is afternoon and I’m still in my pajamas. A similar thing happens when I’m teaching or speaking on subjects I’m passionate about (minus the pajamas, of course). I can hardly believe I’m getting paid to do something I enjoy so much. I’ve left a class on such a high, I barely remember the drive home. That feeling can last for hours, even days. Researchers call this joyful state “Flow,” the loss of self-consciousness that happens when we’re completely absorbed in an activity, whether it’s intellectual, professional, or physical.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a pioneer in the scientific study of happiness, and a founding figure of positive psychology, insists happiness does not simply happen, but must be prepared for and cultivated by each person. He discovered that people find genuine satisfaction during the flow state of consciousness, particularly with activities that involve their creative abilities. The main thesis of his work is that happiness is not a fixed state, but one that can be developed as we learn to achieve flow in our lives.
#3) Make a space, and then give yourself space. It boggles my mind now, looking back on the early years of marriage that it didn’t matter how small our home was, how many children we had, or how little money, I always managed to create a writing space for myself, whether it was a desk in the corner of the living room or an entire room devoted to my home business and writing. I also managed to pay for at least one, and usually more, subscriptions to writer’s magazines. Some years, my writing income didn’t even pay for the subscription, but that wasn’t the point. The point was I took writing, and learning about writing and publishing, seriously. If I didn’t take it seriously, why would anyone else?
Once I created a space in my home, I had to make space in my day for practicing my craft. Admittedly, that was more difficult when my children were little, but I did manage to, even if it meant getting up an hour before the children were up or writing by the light of a nightlight as I sat next to a child’s bed while they fell asleep. Now, with a full-time job, I find I am happiest when I allow at least fifteen minutes first thing in the morning to journal, write a quick letter, or work on an article or essay.
#4) Find a tribe. In their book, The Start Up of You, Reid Hoffman and Ben Casnocha talk about how the best way to improve qualities in yourself is to spend time with people who are already like that. Entrepreneur and motivational speaker Jim Rohn said, “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” That could be good news, or sobering, depending on who those five people are.
So, if you want to be more creative, hang out with creative people. If you desire a stronger faith, spend time with faith-filled people. If you truly want to be happy, what better way than to surround yourself with uplifting and encouraging friends?
I didn’t form many friendships when my children were younger. I was too busy with homeschooling and running a home business. In fact, it was only when I began taking my writing seriously that I began attending writers conferences, where I developed several lifelong friends. The creative energy I experienced in a room full of people interested in the same thing was so powerful, I wanted more of it, which is why I eventually formed a writer’s group and began hosting a conference at my workplace.
The first “tribe” I formed on my own was a Bible study I conducted at church for two years before moving it into my home; a group of people with the common desire to connect with God. The initial group at the church included fifty participants. Five years later, seven of us continued to meet. The lifelong learners group at my library was the second of my own making, an attempt to gather like-minded individuals who wanted to imbibe in creative endeavors. When I began working at a spirituality center in mid-2018, I immediately began a similar “Artisans Soul” club, all in the name of finding my tribe, choosing to spend time with people I wanted to be more like.
Practice gratitude. An attitude of gratitude does take practice. It doesn’t come naturally for most of us. During stressful times, our go-to response might be to complain or feel sorry for ourselves. We can choose, instead, to look at the good in our lives. In his book,Thanks! How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier, Dr. Robert Emmons, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis, looks at gratitude as “receiving and accepting all of life as a gift.”
“Without gratitude, life can be lonely, depressing and impoverished,” Emmons says. “Gratitude enriches human life. It elevates, energizes, inspires and transforms. People are moved, opened and humbled through expressions of gratitude.”
In pursuing our passions, following our hearts, and believing that life, and the people in the world, are mostly good, choosing gratitude and joy can become second nature to us.
Do you have any favorite books, podcasts, or resources that most inspired you to live with a thirst for life?
Lightposts for Living: The Art of Choosing a Joyful Life by Thomas Kinkade
Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative by Austin Kleon
Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art by Madeleine L’Engle
The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin
You’re Made for a God-Sized Dream by Holley Gerth
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote” that relates to having a Joie De Vivre? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I love this quote by Bob Goff, founder of Restore International and author of the recently released book, Dream Big: “Every day God invites us to go on the same kind of adventure. It’s not a trip where He sends us a rigid itinerary, He simply invites us. God asks what it is He’s made us to love, what it is that captures our attention, what feeds that deep indescribable need of our souls to experience the richness of the world He made. And then, leaning over us, He whispers, ‘Let’s go do that together.’”
For me, creativity and faith are intertwined. I truly believe God has a plan for me. Anyone who knew me as a mostly stay-at-home mom just ten years ago wouldn’t have imagined me as a workshop presenter or public speaker, when my interactions with adults mainly consisted of choosing cuts of meat with the butcher at the grocery store and collecting stacks of letters from our mailman. A whole new world opened up to me after my husband’s death, and I began doing things that David and I had only dreamed about experiencing after our children were raised. I traveled by airplane for the first time and attended my first concert. I was chosen as keynote speaker for several events. I obtained certification as a grief counselor and founded an annual grief retreat and writer’s conference.
“Are you happy?” one of my sons asked recently, surprising me with the seriousness of his question. My sons tend to joke about everything. Looking deep inside myself for the answer, I realized that despite missing his father and experiencing my share of daily stressors, I am. In the last few years, I’ve discovered a real sense of purpose in helping others navigate the dark path of grief. I love encouraging and educating beginning writers and conducting workshops. Doing presentations and speaking on topics I’m passionate about brings me immense joy. I’m not just happy, I’ve found eudaimonia. Loosely translated, the ancient Greek word means figuring out one’s purpose in life, given their unique set of talents and capabilities, and pursuing goals that give their life meaning.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I truly believe we are all here to help each other Home, and for me, that means using our own experiences and taking what we’ve learned and helping others. I want people who are grieving to find grace and hope in their painful journey, because I did. We are built to withstand loss but sometimes need help in finding the tools of healing that will work for us. I founded an annual grief retreat to bring hope and healing to others.
Ditto on the writer’s conference I founded. I attribute my own writing success to what I learned from all those years of reading writing magazines, making mistakes in my own writing journey, and from mentors who took the time to help me along the way. In turn, I want to help aspiring writers find their way to publication.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
I’m very excited about my book coming out in September. Called to Be Creative was ten years in the making. I put together an outline for it in late 2010, shortly after my mother’s death. It was obvious from the notebooks she left behind that she believed every single one of her ten children was born with an inherent talent. My hope is that the book helps readers realize that’s true for them too, and that it’s never too late to reignite our creative passions.
I’m also planning this year’s Hope & Healing grief retreat around the theme of creativity, incorporating music, art, expressive writing, and nature into a day of healing.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I’d love to see a random acts of kindness movement. I’ve been doing small acts of kindness regularly since my eight-year old grandson Jacob died in 2013. Jacob had spent a great deal of his time in the hospital during the nearly three years he’d battled cancer. A dedicated band of Child Life Committee volunteers at the University of Iowa hospital visited his room, bringing toys, and involving him in activities designed to entertain young patients. Jacob, who sorely missed his siblings while he and his mom were in the hospital, would save the cupcakes he made with the volunteers to share with siblings back home. He’d raid his own piggy bank to purchase gifts for his big sister Becca at the hospital gift shop. And during a brief period of remission, he collected toys to take to other children in the hospital.
The best way we could honor such a precious child was to be more like him, to become better people because of him. We designed cards that included information about him, and began doing random acts of kindness in his memory. I’d pay for the person behind me in the drive-up line, or offer to buy pie for someone sitting alone at a cafe. My granddaughter Becca came up with the simple but brilliant ideas of putting a dollar bill in a baggie with one of the cards and taping it to a pop machine or leaving quarters by the vacuum cleaner at the car wash. No matter how bad my day is going, performing one small act of kindness in Jacob’s name can brighten it.
Thank you for these excellent insights!