A Q&A with Noelle Oxenhandler, author of THE WISHING YEAR:
Q. What inspired you to write this book?
A. After fifteen years in the cold, gray Snowbelt of upstate New York, I returned to California, which is where I grew up. Almost immediately, I was struck by how many people around me seemed to have the “create-your-own-reality” approach to life. Among these people was Carole Watanabe, whom I encountered through my first attempt at “putting it out there,” when I was trying to find a studio where I could paint. Carole, it turns out, is the absolute Queen of Putting It Out There–and she became a powerful source of inspiration for the book.
Q. What surprised you most about your experiment in wishing?
A. The intensity of my own resistance! Though I knew that I’d be working against the grain of my own temperament, I really was not prepared for how often my skepticism would reassert itself–like a patch of weeds that sprang up every time I turned my back. This helped me to realize that my skepticism was not as rational as I had always thought it was. To a large degree it was just a kind of default mechanism, a certain habit of pessimism that was its own kind of superstition!
Q. Why do you think you had such resistance to wishing?
A: I think it was largely a matter of temperament–in the way that some people are shy, or afraid of heights. For some reason, I have always had a powerful–and what seems to me now quite primitive–fear of good fortune. It’s not that I haven’t wanted things. It’s rather that I’ve felt the need to be rather hidden about my desires–because to announce them, to “put them out there” would be to attract misfortune. Then, on top of that primitive base, there was my Catholic/Jewish up-bringing, my embrace of Buddhism at age seventeen, and then graduate school in Philosophy. These were all very formative influences–none of which were very conducive to the “just tell the Universe what you want” approach to life!
Q: And what else surprised you about wishing?
A: It was learning just how powerful wishes can be. I actually found that kind of scary….
A. Because it means you don’t have the luxury of complaining anymore. That little burrow of fears, disappointments, and excuses gets blasted open. If there’s something you’re dissatisfied with, well–then try to envision another possibility, and wish and work to bring it about.
Q: You just said “wish and work.” What is the connection between the two?
A: That was another big surprise for me, actually. So many people dismiss wishing as though it were a passive, lazy, infantile approach to trying to fulfill your desires. But actually what I learned is that people who are good at making their wishes come true–people like Carole–are extremely dynamic, hard-working people. As the anthropologist Malinowski says in his book, Magic, Science, and Religion: we moderns tend not to understand the place of magic in traditional cultures. Among the Pacific Islanders that he studied, people called upon magic to help them with those elements of their existence that were beyond human control. But in every other respect, “they never scamped their work.”
Q. Do you think that some people are better at wishing than others?
A. Yes! I’ve come to believe that good “wishers” draw upon a unique combination of qualities. They’re open-minded, but they’re also quite focused and pragmatic. They’re visionary, but they have their feet on the ground. They have a lot of trust in themselves, but they also know how to reach out for support. They’re very receptive to what comes their way, but they also work very hard to make things happen. In short, they embody a very dynamic balance of yin and yang!
Q. Which wish was hardest for you to fulfill?
A: Oddly enough, it was the one wish that I had the least doubt about: the wish for spiritual healing. When it comes to spiritual matters, I have always believed “knock and the door shall be opened.” My skepticism about wishing was much more directed to my tangible wishes: for a house, a man… But those wishes were fulfilled rather quickly, actually–while the spiritual healing is still underway.
Q. What was the hardest thing for you about writing this book?
A: The sense of exposure! Though I tend to write in the first person, I’m not used to revealing quite so much about my own personal life, or about the other people whose lives have been intertwined with mine. Initially I tried writing the book with virtually no background information, but my first readers insisted that–for people who didn’t know me–I needed to provide at least some minimal context for my experiment in desire.
Q. What are you working on now?
A. I’ve started a novel that I’m very excited about. And having worked for several years with Jack Kornfield on his book The Wise Heart, A Buddhist Psychology for the West, I’m very happy to be working on a new book with him, an anthology of modern and contemporary Buddhist teachers.
Q. Have you continued to launch new wishes in your life? If so, what are you wishing for?
A. Well, like most writers with a new book out, I’m wishing that The Wishing Year will do well! I’m wishing for smooth transitions for some of the younger people in my life: my daughter, my sister, my students…Like so many people I know, I’m wishing to be ever freer from the monster of busyness in my life, and ever closer to that elusive state called “balance.” And I’m wishing for a new president of the United States, someone who will spend less money on war and more on the food, housing, education, and healthcare that all people wish for.