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Mary Potter Kenyon: “Be kind to yourself”

This pandemic has shown us what is really important in life, and it isn’t things. It’s people. The first time I got together with my adult children, their spouses and my grandchildren, we were wary of getting too close to each other. And while it was wonderful to see them after two months apart, it […]

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This pandemic has shown us what is really important in life, and it isn’t things. It’s people. The first time I got together with my adult children, their spouses and my grandchildren, we were wary of getting too close to each other. And while it was wonderful to see them after two months apart, it was one of the hardest things I ever did to say goodbye and not hug them! The next time we attempted an outdoor get-together, I brought my mask and wore it while I “safely” hugged each of my children, my face turned away from theirs, and washing my hands well afterwards. When a much-loved sister and brother-in-law visited from Florida, we did the same thing. I don’t know how much risk I was taking with my behavior, but I do know I was taking a risk with my mental and emotional health not hugging.


The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. Many of us now have new challenges that come with working from home, homeschooling, and sheltering in place.

As a part of our series about how busy women leaders are addressing these new needs, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mary Potter Kenyon.

A graduate of the University of Northern Iowa, Mary Potter Kenyon is a certified grief counselor and Program Coordinator at the Shalom Spirituality Center in Dubuque, Iowa. Mary is the author of seven books, including the newly released “Called to Be Creative: A Guide to Reigniting Your Creativity.”


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, 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’ve worked both sides of the desk, as a librarian planning programs and as an author and public speaker conducting programs and workshops since 2011. I’ve been a stay-at-home mom juggling a home business, homeschooling and freelance writing. After I was widowed in 2012, I worked as a newspaper reporter, and a librarian, but it wasn’t until 2018 that everything came together; my education, life experiences, and previous jobs qualified me for my current position as a Program Coordinator. I basically have two jobs; my day job and the writing and public speaking that is my passion.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

In conjunction with my book release, I’ve designed a power point presentation that encourages and inspires other women (and men) to enrich their lives with creative endeavors. I’m convinced we all have it in us to be creative in some way, and scientific research supports that. I love being a part of someone discovering what it I that makes them come alive.

I also incorporate creativity as a healing tool in the annual grief retreat I founded. This will be our fifth year hosting the Hope & Healing grief retreat, but the first time it will be held online.

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?

I credit the encouragement of my husband for much of my success, but he’s been gone for eight years now. My mother was the inspiration for the creativity book as she was one of the most creative people I’ve ever met. I also have good friends and mentors that have encouraged my writing. I met widely published Christian author Cecil Murphey at a writer’s conference in 2012, and we’ve stayed in touch ever since. He was one of my first writing mentors, but he’s become much more than that. We are “soul friends.” I send him handwritten letters divulging my secret desires and ambitions and he e-mails in return, always saying exactly what I need to hear. I trust his fatherly advice.

The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. Can you articulate to our readers what are the biggest family related challenges you are facing as a woman business leader during this pandemic?

I live with my 17-year-old daughter. When I initially came home to work in mid-March, she didn’t want to discuss the virus or what was happening. She also isn’t a hugger and spends most of her time in her room with the door closed, reading, doing schoolwork, listening to music and painting. It seemed like everyone I knew had a spouse to hug and talk to, so this pandemic has really exacerbated my loneliness.

I’ve also discovered that working from home means my workday seeps into my “free” time, especially when we moved to online programming on Sunday afternoons and Wednesday evenings. For a while, I was working every day except Saturday.

Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?

If my daughter wants to watch a movie in the evening or go shopping during the day and she asks me to join her, I do. Now she’s talking a little about the virus and the limitations it has put on our life. We also enjoy a hike now and then. We’ve joined my older children and grandchildren for socially distanced outdoor picnics, which also helps, but nothing really alleviates the feeling of loneliness that is a result of losing my spouse, though I did briefly try a dating site, to no avail, though I’m not sure what I expected with social distancing in place.

As for the work life seeping into the rest of my day, four months in, I adjusted my work schedule to make sure I have two days free, even if I’m filling those days up with my other work; the passion work.

Can you share the biggest work-related challenges you are facing as a woman in business during this pandemic?

I’m a program coordinator whose scheduled programs were cancelled, leaving me wondering if I even had a job anymore. When we decided to move some of our programming online, it was a real learning curve to figure out Zoom meetings and the logistics of virtual programs. It’s still a challenge to pivot existing programming to online, but I’ve enjoyed coming up with new programs. Our Zoom programs have become so popular, we’ve decided we’ll continue doing virtual programming even after we’re conducting in-person programming.

Another challenge has been the lack of human connection. Much of what I do involves physical contact; the hand holding and hugs in the grief programs, for instance. How do I translate that comfort through a computer screen? Or the connections and creative energy that happens in a room full of people interested in the same thing? The screen stops some of that. It’s better than the alternative, which is to not meet at all.

Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?

I do breakout rooms in Zoom programs for more intimate sharing. I allow attendees to “hang out” in a Zoom room after the program is completed, in case they need to talk.

As for the lack of human connection, I’ve learned that reaching out to others through letter-writing helps me as well as the recipient.

Can you share your advice about how to best work from home, while balancing the needs of homeschooling or the needs of a family?

I’ve been homeschooling since 1992, so it is more of a lifestyle than an educational choice at this point. My daughter learns from life, from following her interests, and with as few textbooks as possible. I feel sorry for any parent trying to “do school” at home and work. I think it’s a mistake for anyone to assume they can find balance during this pandemic. Nothing is “normal” about my current job. Some days it’s as if I have a new job.

I don’t remember where I heard this, but it has helped me. “You aren’t just working from home. You’re trying to work at home during a pandemic.” Parents who have school-age children should remind themselves of the same thing: “You’re not just homeschooling. You’re trying to teach your kids at home during a pandemic.”

My advice? Be kind to yourself. Do the best you can with the situation. Lighten up a little with your expectations. Your children are not going to fail life if they spend a few months learning in a different way.

Can you share your strategies about how to stay sane and serene while sheltering in place, or simply staying inside, for long periods with your family?

Don’t stay inside if you can safely go outside! By that, I mean you might go stir crazy if you never get any fresh air or sunshine. If you are lucky enough to live where you have a yard or sidewalk. At the very least, open your windows and sing to your neighbors like they did in Italy.

I’ll never understand why books were deemed non-essentials at the beginning of the pandemic. Good books, board games, jigsaw puzzles, arts and crafts; these are all essentials when we need to shelter in place.

I stay sane by journaling. I’ve filled two journals and begun another one in the last five months. You don’t have to be a writer to garner the benefits of expressive writing your way through troubled times.

Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. From your perspective can you help our readers to see the “Light at the End of the Tunnel”? Can you share your “5 Reasons To Be Hopeful During this Corona Crisis”? If you can, please share a story or example for each.

  1. This pandemic has shown us what is really important in life, and it isn’t things. It’s people. The first time I got together with my adult children, their spouses and my grandchildren, we were wary of getting too close to each other. And while it was wonderful to see them after two months apart, it was one of the hardest things I ever did to say goodbye and not hug them! The next time we attempted an outdoor get-together, I brought my mask and wore it while I “safely” hugged each of my children, my face turned away from theirs, and washing my hands well afterwards. When a much-loved sister and brother-in-law visited from Florida, we did the same thing. I don’t know how much risk I was taking with my behavior, but I do know I was taking a risk with my mental and emotional health not hugging.
  2. Practice gratitude. And, it does take practice. We don’t naturally think of all the things we are grateful for when under duress. We have to remind ourselves, daily, of things we are thankful for, even if it is as simple as the stranger who smiled from six feet away on your daily walk. Our go-to response is negativity and complaining when we are stressed. I try to write something I am grateful for in my journal each day, or simply remind myself of the blessings I have. I even did this 48 hours after my husband died, filling three pages with things I was thankful for. It helped then, and it helps now.
  3. Watch the helpers. Isn’t that what Mister Rogers said? “Look for the helpers” in times of tragedy. We see it in our medical professionals who are dealing with this virus daily. In the women, including my sister Joan, who tirelessly sewed cloth masks. The grocery store workers who fill online orders and take them to the cars, or those who continued working despite the danger of exposure to them. There’s a lot of people out there putting in extra hours and not enjoying the extra “free time” others talk about.
  4. Good can come out of bad. I saw it happen in 2006, after my husband was diagnosed with cancer. Our marriage was revitalized through his cancer experience and the next five and a half years, before he died of a heart attack, were the best years of our marriage. And as much as it pains me to admit it, I’m a much better person than I was before I lost several important people in my life. I’m more empathetic, understanding, and caring than I ever was before. I was truly refined by those losses.
  5. Go ahead and grieve. It’s okay to grieve the losses inherent in this pandemic; the loss of jobs for some, the loss of routine and daily schedules. Some of us have lost our support systems. Missing hugs and human contact. Others are grieving the loss of a loved one to COVID. It’s necessary and healthy to grieve. The important thing to remember is that this won’t last forever, and neither will the grieving.

From your experience, what are a few ideas that one can use to effectively offer support to their family and loved ones who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?

When I was feeling anxious and panicky early on during the pandemic, my son drove an hour to just be with me, six feet away. That’s all I needed; a calming voice and to not be alone. It helps to have someone to talk to, or to turn to.

Transparency helps. If you have struggled with anxiety, share what has helped you, Just knowing they are not alone in their feelings can help.

Prayer helps me, even when I’m praying for others. Not everyone is comfortable being prayed for, but if you are dealing with a faith-filled person, ask them if you can pray for them, and if the answer is yes, do it right then, out loud. Hearing someone lift them in pray can help.

Don’t hesitate to encourage a loved one to go to the doctor if the anxiety seems out of control. Situational depression and anxiety is not uncommon during stressful times.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Hugh MacLeod said “Everyone is born creative; everyone is given a box of crayons in kindergarten. Then when you hit puberty they take the crayons away and replace them with dry, uninspiring books on algebra, history, etc. Being suddenly hit years later with the ‘creative bug’ is just a wee voice telling you, ‘I’d like my crayons back, please.”

This is the whole premise of my book, Called to Be Creative. I’m convinced we all have it in us to be creative in some way. Every child is both with some inherent talent. We go to school and are told to color inside the lines or to put the book away so we can do math. We grow up and get jobs to make a living, raise families… what happens to that creative bent we were born with? I think the pandemic has made it clear how important creativity is. I see families playing board games, adults decorating sidewalks, people baking and gardening. I can hardly wait to see what kind of art and writing comes out of this time.

How can our readers follow you online?

www.marypotterkenyon

Facebook: Mary Potter Kenyon

Instagram: Mary Potter Kenyon

Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!


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