Thursday, January 8, 2015

Collecting Happiness

There is no duty we so much underrate as the duty of being happy. By being happy, we sow anonymous benefits upon the world.  -- Robert Louis Stevenson

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.

Monday, January 5, 2015

In Search of Authentic Self: The Woman You Were Meant to Be!!!!

Every year, I find a "day book" to read each morning, something full of wise thoughts and Bible verses. This year, I've picked up Sarah Ban Breathnach's Simple Abundance: A Daybook of Comfort and Joy. It was a gift from a teacher at Little Flower Girls' School and I have, up until now, pretty much just left it on the shelf.

But today's reading speaks of finding "authentic self", and since I've been on the search for a long time, I thought I could use a road map. I had dreams and plans, I know, but they have been put aside as the incessant demands of work and family intruded. I have lately reconnected with my authentic self. I found her cowering behind a basket of laundry in the basement, practically hidden by a box of Christmas ornaments.

"What are you doing down here?" I demanded as I searched for my winter boots. "Why aren't you at the computer, writing that novel we've always talked about?" I noted that she held a pen in one hand and a sheaf of bills in the other. The sight saddened me. She had shown so much promise! To be reduced to this!

She spread her arms out. "This is the only space you have given me." Her arms knocked over a pile of paint cans. They clattered to the floor one by one and she bent to pick them up.

"Leave them," I said. I recognized that what she said was true. I had relegated her to a very tiny space in my life. There she sat, pen in hand, while I raced about my busy day. I sometimes nodded to her in passing. Once, last summer, I sat and spoke with her for more than an hour, until someone upstairs called my name.

"This isn't right," I said to my authentic self. "You can't grow down here. There is no room. There is no light."

I left the paint cans rolling across the floor and invited my authentic self upstairs. I made her a strong cup of Irish tea and set her up in a corner of the dining room, at a well-lit table with a second-hand laptop.

"It's not much, " I apologized.

She waved my comment aside. "It's enough, " she said. "I just need a little bit of space and light." She sipped at her tea and began bounding on the keys of the laptop.

I walked away, smiling, I intend to visit her everyday to see how she is faring, keeping her supplied with tea and pens. Already, some color has returned to her cheeks and she looks a bit better.

And, while I am getting to know my authentic self, I have to try not to think about those paint cans rolling around in the basement.