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Nancy Mairs Changed My Life

By Andrew Hrycyna 

Nancy Mairs
Photo credit: Jeff Smith

I was an editorial assistant in 1989. My boss was leaving the company soon. Glumly reading unsolicited manuscripts one evening, I opened a proposal from an unfamiliar agent, addressed just to Beacon Press, for a book of personal essays. 

I still remember the excitement of reading those pages, alone in the building, after so many slush pile manuscripts. Almost any paragraph of Nancy Mairs’s prose puts you in the presence of a remarkable voice. This proposal promised an exploration of spirituality from a convert to Catholicism in the Arizona desert who happened to be living with multiple sclerosis.

I had found something remarkable. I biked that night to New Words Bookstore in Cambridge, bought Nancy’s previous books, started reading. It turns out I should have known her name before. But I thrilled at getting introduced.

The next day I reported to my director, Wendy Strothman. Instead of assigning this book to another editor, which would have been easy to do, she generously let me take it on. Stars aligned: Nancy’s commercial publisher hadn’t been interested in this brilliant, if quieter book. Nancy wanted a smaller press.

Ultimately the book, which became Ordinary Time, got an ecstatic review in the New York Times Book Review by Kathleen Norris. Wendy said, “Some editors wait their whole careers for a review like that.” I was humbly elated. I was—almost by accident—the editor of a brilliant writer.

But this story of discovery and publication is mainly shoptalk. It doesn’t get to the heart of how Nancy changed my life.

She became my inspiring friend. She made the ordinary seem utterly important and articulated its meaning, even in casual conversation. Our relationship—I was twenty years younger—was warm and intellectual and filled with letters and phone calls, about books, about illness, about births. The culture of Beacon Press gave space for Nancy to develop the kind of close relationship with a publisher, across several books, that she said she’d always wanted, even needed.

I was a former philosophy student, not a natural literary editor. Nancy wrote about ideas in ways no philosophers do, entwined with story, the particulars of one woman’s life. But she made me feel I could be helpful to her as an editor. I would say, “Something’s missing here, a step in the argument: here, let me write it out.” What invariably came back were not my words, but an unbelievably elegant solution, completely in her voice, to the problem my square prose identified. This happened so often. I still tell people about it. She was an editor’s dream. 

Nancy was born Congregationalist and embraced Catholicism, albeit a radical form, rooted in community, opposed to hierarchies, with her dear husband George and their friends, living a life of service and sharing and commitment to others.  When she and George visited Beacon Press and Unitarian Universalist Association offices one year, she said, “I could have been a UU! But I chose a parallel path.” 

I was born Catholic and fell away. I almost feel I could have been a Nancy Mairs-style Catholic. I chose a different path. But to this day I feel inspired by her grace and humility and bravery and fierce intellectual passion and humor and love of life and others. 


Editor’s note: The following passage in which Nancy Mairs is speaking with her daughter, Anne, comes from her autobiography Ordinary Time.

Ordinary Time“I’m not sure”—I’ve been thinking out loud about suicide to Anne, who was present for my neurologist’s life sentence—“but I think maybe I’m supposed to see this through to the end.”

“Are you saying,” she asks with the little grimace, part perplexity, part disapproval, with which she greets my more metaphysical maunderings, “that you’re supposed to suffer?” The body on the cross in most Catholic churches is the crucified rather than the risen Christ, and Catholic iconography throughout history has displayed a morbid relish for lacerated brows, bloody hearts, flayed skins, and weeping mothers with dead bodies draped across their laps. An outsider could easily conclude that suffering is a desirable and meritorious state, especially since plenty of insiders make the same mistake.

“No, I don’t. I may suffer, probably I will, but I don’t think I’m supposed to. I’m just saying maybe I need to have the whole experience, not cut it off. Of course, if I did cut it off, then that would become the whole experience. But I’m not sure it would mean the same.”

I very nearly did cut it off, as Anne painfully knows, and if I had, I’d have missed many of the most satisfying bits. I would never have seen her graduate from high school and then from Smith, watched her bound down a forest path to keep up with the group of Zairian fish farmers whose pond she had come to inspect, gazed enraptured as she marched herself down the brick walk of the Tucson Botanical Gardens, pausing to kiss her father and me, straight into marriage with Eric. I also wouldn’t have won the Western States Book Award and published In All the Rooms of the Yellow House, gotten my doctorate, taught at UCLA, written Plaintext and Remembering the Bone House and Carnal Acts and (yes, it’s almost done) Ordinary Time, turned into a shameless Anglophile the instant the British Airways DC-10 dropped out of the clouds directly above an estate that could have been Brideshead. I would never have tasted scones with clotted cream. I would never have tasted bat.

Although the world would hardly be a poorer place without these ordinary events, I feed on their memory gratefully now that my revels are, if not quite ended, at least winding down. Realistically speaking, the future promises more afflictions than delights, less clotted cream than bat, you might say, though actually bat wasn’t so bad. I am as afraid as ever of loss and pain. Still, something tells me—I don’t know what, I can’t explain what, it’s just a feeling I have in my bones—that I’m supposed to stay for it all.


About the Author 

Andrew Hrycyna worked as an editor at Beacon Press for many years. He now works in environmental science and advocacy in the Boston area.