I always pause a moment before I use the key-card at the door. Purposefully, I arrange my face into a pleasant, smiling expression. Whatever cares I might have carried here by car or train to school cannot enter with me; my students, many of whom lead very difficult lives of their own, deserve a cheerful smile, a kind word, a warm hug. I know that I need to be a light in their worlds. Spread, as it is, a little happiness.
But I also need to be a light in my own. My Authentic Self is sipping a second cup of tea in my cozy kitchen as I bundle up for my morning commute. It is 20 degrees today, with the wind chill making it feel 11. Layers are a requirement. She watches me struggle with my garments with sympathy. "Keep warm, "she says. "We need you."
It is one of my life's greatest challenges. So many people need me! Students, children, husband. Especially husband. If not for them--and the income from teaching--I could throw off all my layers and sit down for that second cup of tea. I would dream of a little cottage by the ocean, a warm beach, a writing table set up on a porch to overlook the blue expanse.
My Authentic Self begins to tell me of her book--our book--in progress, the first meeting of Max and Emma. It is the beginning of a friendship that spans 50 years. It is not sexual, she is quick to point out. It is deeper, a joining of souls. The story is set in North Philadelphia at the time of the Civil Rights Movement, right after the riots that took place on Columbia, the street where I now teach.
"So soak it all up," she tells me. "I will need details!" It is details, we both know, that makes a story real. Not "It is cold today" but "Ice hangs from the low branches of the tree, snapping off unexpectedly and shattering on the frozen ground." Already, Emma and Max are starting to breathe on their own, as all good characters must.
I nod at my Authentic Self; even as I teach my small students to read, I will tuck snippets of details into my mind. Part of me will remain here, at her table in the corner of the dining room, at the second-hand laptop.
The cold air stabs at my lungs as I hurry to the car, the warmth of my kitchen and the scent of peach tea still filling my senses. It makes me happy, the thought of Emma and Max and their lives spinning out before me.
Yes, I wish I could stay home with my Authentic Self, sipping tea and writing. Writing is hard work, I know. But for now I brave the cold, gathering ideas and details as a squirrel gathers nuts. They will, at some time, be needed.
The rented house on Fairhill where Dennis lived in the first years after college will become the perfect setting for the protagonist, Samantha, a bit lost after the death of her mother, Emma. The playfulness of my own cocker spaniel, Taffy, will be reborn in Sam's dog, Pippa. My friend Bill will see some of himself in Max.
None of it is wasted. Ever. It is what I tell my adult college students when they return for their purloined degrees. Each experience is part of the journey.
For now, my path leads me up I-95 North and into the city while my Authentic Self hovers in the back of my mind, collecting the tidbits that will make a novel. One day soon, though, I will have collected enough.
I can feel my Authentic Self smile.