Quite a title, I know.
And not for any particular reason, other than I was paging through an old book I bought while in graduate school (Positive Thinking Every Day, by Norman Vincent Peale), and this was the inspiration of the day. The book is old now, water-damaged, the spine breaking in places. And still…
Once upon a time, I was a poor graduate student in a tiny studio apartment in Times Square, New York. I was twenty-three. I had so much still to learn about love and life and the way of the world.
And I was so afraid. Of everything. The subway frightened me so much that I walked everywhere, for miles and miles and miles. I would leave my apartment on 44th Street and 6th Avenue, and walk to graduate school down on 18th Street and Park. I would only walk on Broadway, because I knew the way. In the evening, before dark, I would walk back.
Afraid of being robbed (that was a valid fear in New York City in 1990), I didn’t carry a purse. Instead, I wore a thick winter jacket with a zipper pocket high on the sleeve. I placed my student ID and the little cash I had in that pocket, and felt safe. No one would think of finding my money there.
In the pocket of this decidedly unfashionable olive-green ski jacket, I carried a small Walkman. Cassettes were the thing in those days. And batteries. The music comforted me as I walked those lonely streets, searching for my path. Mariah Carey: Hero. Garth Brooks: Maverick. Songs long-forgotten that, when I hear them, can make me tear up in memory.
Back then, I had lots of textbooks. Enough to fill quite a few bookshelves. But my furnished student housing didn’t contain bookshelves, just a bed, a desk, a broken wooden chair, and the industrial kind of grey carpeting that hurt the soles of your feet if you were brave enough to take your shoes off.
And wildlife. It contained wildlife in the form of gigantic, New-York-oversized waterbugs. Picture a cockroach on steroids that’s been pumping iron and you’ll get the idea. My apartment wasn’t dirty; this was simply the way of things in New York, Times Square.
Once, in my tub, I found a small mouse. It must have come up from the drain. It couldn’t get out of the tub. It would jump and slide; jump and slide. It broke my heart. That mouse reminded me of me. Small and alone, and not really getting anywhere fast. Instinct said to kill it, but I can’t kill anything without great regret. I pondered that mouse and what to do.
I remembered how my Dad used to capture spiders and set them free. A container on top; then a thick piece of cardboard gently slid under to lift them into the container; then flip it over (and make sure the make-shift lid didn’t slip off in the process or all hell would break loose). Presto – a captured spider that could be set free in the garden.
So that’s what I did with the mouse. Trouble was, I was twelve stories up in an apartment building. I had no garden. There was no way to release this little, scared mouse. I sat down with the container and thought about it.
Then I left the apartment, took the elevator downstairs, holding my mouse-containing container, walked down 44th Street to 6th Avenue, crossed a few streets and entered Bryant Park, a small oasis in mid-town full of trees and gardens (and, in those days, drug users and thieves).
Carefully, I knelt down, placed the container on the ground and took the lid off. The little mouse was huddled at the bottom. I stared at its little pink paws; it stared back at me for a moment. Then it scurried out into the park, disappearing into the bushes. It was September, still warm enough for that mouse to be okay for several months before it had to find a new indoor hide-away. I went back upstairs to study.
That was my home: mice and waterbugs and a bookshelf made from six yellow milk-crates stacked one-upon the other, because the $129 the real bookshelf cost was an impossible, laughable figure for me.
This small book I have just re-discovered – in 1990, it cost $9.00; back then, I could afford this. I needed those affirmations. Much time has passed since those days. I’ve married, lived in many homes and several countries, published two books, adopted two children, numerous cats and a dog.
Then, seven years ago, we moved into our wonderful home in Australia. The first home we ever owned. I chose this room at the front of the house for my home office. I had bookshelves; we’d bought IKEA ones years ago, and the movers shoved them into the wardrobe and filled them, as quickly as possible, and that was it.
For seven long years, I planned to fix it, to re-arrange my precious things, to paint the room something other than the mustard yellow that hurt my eyes and my heart.
For years, when I opened the wardrobe doors, I would gaze in despair at the mess of who I had been – all that schooling and work and writing and life – all mixed up together, all lost in the chaos of mothering young children and just keeping life going.
Once, during a writing group, I invited another author into the office to show her where I worked. She looked; she pronounced judgment: “You don’t take your work seriously, do you?”
She was right. But that comment hurt.
I couldn’t back. Not back then. It was impossible, just as, in 1990, buying a real bookshelf in Times Square was impossible.
But in 2015, this year, I was ready. I was ripe for change. Like that mouse in my long-ago tub in New York City, I was going to set myself free. After seven long years, I got the guts up to renovate my home office, to make those hopes and expectations of so, so long ago come true.
It took six months. Several quotes. Some standing up for myself. I hired a man to come tear out the wardrobe, chose a new color scheme, and found a wonderful bookshelf designer. In its way, this was all as scary to me now as the subway was when I was 23.
And now it is done.
This little book that I bought so long ago (in a day when all I could do was dream of the day I could be who I am now) holds a place of honour on my new shelves. It reminds me of where I came from, how far I had to travel to get to where I am now.
Way back then, I had great hopes and tremendous expectations, kind of like that little mouse I set free.
Today, in this moment, I sit in gratitude for all the blessings that life has delivered me.