For true believers who wish confidently upon stars and blow out their birthday candles with sure expectation, Noelle Oxenhandler's new memoir will surely please – while perhaps winning over a nay-saying wish skeptic or two. The Wishing Year: A House, A Man, My Soul follows a year in the author's life as she decides to try "Putting It Out There." An essayist and Buddhist practitioner, Oxenhandler is facing 50, with a painful divorce and spiritual upheaval behind her, when she finds herself ready for change. She openly, though doubtfully, plunges into "wishcraft" and declares three desires: to purchase a house, find a new man and heal her soul. With honesty, humor and soulfulness, the author chronicles her year-long effort to "desire, ask, believe, receive," exploring the ancient mysteries of wishing, facing her ambivalence about desire and negotiating the intricacies of focus and receptivity. Wishes can come true, she tells BookPage, with a bit of "vision, hope and hard work."
As an essayist who loves logic and rigorous argument, what led you to try your hand at the uncertain mysteries of wishing?
After having lived in the cold, gray snowbelt of upstate New York for 15 years, when I returned to California – which is where I grew up – it felt already as though a great wish had come true. It seemed natural, then, to reclaim other lost loves – like painting – and that led to my first real experiment in wishing.
How did you reconcile your spiritual background with your desire for material things?
I think there actually was a kind of conversion experience that happened for me in the course of my experiment. In various ways I was led to shed my previous incarnation as a "wish snob" and to open myself to the touching humanness of wishing for things – not just spiritual things, but very concrete and tangible things too. Now I've come to feel that so long as we stay aware of the relative importance of things, there's really no contradiction between wanting "a happy death" and wanting a puppy dog (to use an example from John F. Kennedy's childhood).
Though your three heartfelt wishes came true, you still take wishing with "a grain of salt." What is "the grain of salt that hasn't dissolved" for you?
I think the grain of salt is more temperamental than anything. I simply do have a skeptical nature, and I'm superstitious about courting too much earthly happiness! And then I really do believe that the greatest happiness of all comes when we are able to wish for what is. One of the supreme experiences in my life occurred years ago during a 100-day training period in a Zen monastery in northern California. One extremely hot day I was assigned to the utterly disgusting job of feeding rotting garbage into a compost machine, which then sent this stinking splatter all over me! For the first three hours, I thought I was in hell. It was so bad that at some point, something inside me shifted and I let go of all resistance. After the noon break, I found myself rushing back to the garbage heap as though I was going to meet a lover! I couldn't wait to get back there because I had discovered the incredible sense of freedom that comes when we realize that we can be happy no matter what our circumstances.
The Wishing Year could very well kick off a national wishing movement. Do you believe that, employed collectively, wishing could have greater positive impacts and benefits for humankind?
Yes, I really do believe that. In my now 50-plus years of existence, I feel that I personally have never witnessed such a globally dark and dangerous time – a time when the very fate of the earth is in question. The temptation to despair is so very great – and the act of wishing is a very powerful antidote to despair. But not passive wishing. What's needed is that good old-fashioned combination of forward-looking vision, hope and hard work.
Do you plan to continue practicing "wishcraft"? If so, what will you wish for when you blow candles out on your birthday cake?
Well, I really don't want to sound like a "wish snob," but right now – and to a large extent thanks to my wishing year – I'm feeling as though most of my significant personal desires have been met. So, apart from my wishes from this fragile planet of ours, I'm wishing that those who are younger than me and facing big transitions – in my own life, that would be my daughter, my sister and my students – will find happiness in their unfolding paths. As to my own more tangible desires for myself: I confess that when I blew out the candles on my last birthday cake, I wished that The Wishing Year would do well!