Noelle Oxenhandler’s funny, lyrical, generous and informative new book begins with her intention: “I openly declare three desires—to heal my soul, buy a house and find a man—and am initiated into the art of wishing.”
The Wishing Year is generous because Oxenhandler is generous. She opens her life to us down to her bones, including her longtime Buddhist practice, giving her readers an inside look at her gracious process in a yearlong experiment in “desire.”
Oxenhandler confesses up front that in her life she often faces darkness, fear and loneliness. She struggles with what sometimes feel like contradictions when she mingles her aims to find love, honor desire and heal her spiritual life with her wish for money. She tells us that in the past her rigid sense of hierarchy limited her from using sacred forms such as prayer, shrines and candlelit ceremonies and from expressing her profane desires. On top of that, her Buddhist practice told her that desire is the root of suffering, thus limiting her willingness to pursue her desires. As a reader, I felt a kind of relief as Oxenhandler revealed these dilemmas, since so much of what she describes is similar to what my friends and I are dealing with in our own lives.
Despite these “limiters,” Oxenhandler admits she has always loved magic, “things that were hidden, buried, folded up and tucked away; the message in the bottle, the face inside a locket, the secret door.” She makes a strong case for the combination in one’s life of the magical with the mundane, and as she is convincing herself, she is also convincing us. In looking for further evidence, she finds a dog-eared textbook from her college days. “In magic, if the right procedure is followed, the desired result will occur,” says Richard Cavendish, who in the mid-twentieth century wrote extensively about the Black Arts, witchcraft, astrology and mystical practices. It seems that in the magical view everything is interrelated and that a wish can set off a chain of consequences within this interrelated universe.
Another of Oxenhandler’s citations comes from writer and psychologist Dr. Paul Pearsall, who counsels that “the first wish on the star should be for serenity,” a kind of protection against the scattering of a wide range of unseen, negative consequences or possibilities. Oxenhandler’s really good news is that “in every culture the act of wishing invokes a retinue of helpers, a kind of cottage industry, a hive of industrious workers whose function is to make wishes come true.” So we are not going this alone.
Sure enough, as we follow each step along Oxenhandler’s yearlong journey of wishing, or “putting it out there,” we are introduced to an interesting array of characters who mirror her needs and desires, giving her the examples of how to live her own dreams. We meet Carole, who has no fear about searching out houses in her favorite faraway country of France, buying them, renovating them and then letting each house go when it has fulfilled her emotional and financial needs. We meet Nicolas, who is the man who comes to her door offering friendship and love. And finally, we see firsthand the opening of Oxenhandler’s heart and, because of that, the healing of an intense disappointment that has for many years kept her separate from her spiritual practice.
Oxenhandler inspires her readers to take a chance on wishing:
When we permit ourselves to believe that our wishes have a certain power, then we maintain a more receptive and optimistic attitude. That receptivity and optimism provide us with a kind of fuel, a form of renewable energy. They make us more resilient in the face of setbacks and disappointments. And they also make it more likely that others will be drawn to us, that they will wish to help us along in our quest.
It sounds so enticing, why not give it a try?
The Wishing Year is one of those rare adventures in reading that, without telling us exactly how to do it—because each of us must discover “the way” for ourselves—lays bare the bones and muscle that will support us on our own quests. If there is a “gap between what we wished for and what we thought we wanted, [it] is a kind of window, an opening where what is unconscious can flow through, taking us to a deeper level of self-knowledge.” And, of course, with that deeper self-knowledge comes a real chance for a broader appreciation of everything, where perhaps the best news might be that three carefully drawn wishes actually have an opportunity to play out for a lifetime.