The bitter cold works its way in through my coat and scarf, and the sharpness in the air hurts my lungs with every breath. Night has fallen, and the frosty air carries the sounds of bells. I’m on my way to interview the character in the Five of Pentacles, and I’ve been looking forward to this for months. I needed the affirmation of acceptance. The reviews of my latest novel were dreadful, the novel I’m trying to sell right now is not getting any interest at all, and I have been feeling like a failure. The Temple in the Woods is one of the most sought-after destinations in the world. Only a lucky few ever get to visit. Now, with my feet wet and my teeth chattering, I can only think about how good it will feel to warm my hands on one of the temple’s famous cups of lamb broth.
A wooden door on the far side of the temple is the only entrance. I knock, and it opens wide, showing a monk in a silver robe, his face hidden by a heavy hood.
“Good evening,” I stammer. “I have an appointment…” I squint to check the name on the card.
But the monk nods and beckons me inside. Once the door closes, he throws back the hood. He’s a young man; he must have done things right from the start, to be living here already. “Welcome,” he says, and beams. The golden light reflects from mirrors and crystals everywhere. The temple must house thousands of candles. I have to force my mouth to close against the awe.
“I will fetch you a cup of our broth,” he says, “and then we can talk.”
“Thank you, Brother Long.”
He turns back around. “Brother Long?”
That was the name they gave me. “You’re not him?”
The hood goes back up. He jerks open the front door, gesturing for me to leave.
“But the interview,” I begin.
“He is not here.” His voice is now harsh. “Brother Long was an impostor.” He pushes my shoulder so that I am forced out of the door.
My feet slide on the thin layer of snow over stone. I have to grab the icy rail. The monk slams the door closed. The lock snaps. The bells continue, playing the same melody that drew me here.
Was I supposed to interview this guy, instead? Does the role change? I sit on the steps, and soon the cold and wet seep through my jeans.
A shadow moves in the woods, through the thickening snowfall. It is him, the picture they showed me. The old man.
“Wait!” I’m out of breath when I catch up to him. “Brother Long?”
He turns to smile at me.
“What happened?” I ask.
“Come,” he says, his voice a raspy croak. “Walk with me, and I will tell you.”
So we make our way through the snow, farther and farther away from the warmth and light and holiness of the temple. “Do you know what that temple is?” he asks. “It is the home of Conventional Success. It really is a delightful place, warm and comfortable and all the hot broth you could ever dream of.”
My teeth chatter. “And you were kicked out?”
He nods, and grins.
“But you seem happy about that.”
He takes my arm and guides me forward. “Let me tell you a story. Once, a fox saw a bunch of luscious grapes hanging from a branch, just out of reach. I want them, he thought. I must have them. He leaped. He snapped his jaws. He came down with nothing but a chipped tooth.” The old man shakes his head sadly. “A crow saw this, and came to taunt the fox. Mmm, so tasty, said the wicked crow. Juicy, sweet. I have a book I can sell you that will teach you how to reach the grapes. The fox, eager and hungry, bought the book and read it that very night. The next day, he followed the instructions to the letter. He ran, he closed his eyes, he leaped and snapped — and still, came away with nothing.”
We’re far enough away from the temple that the only light comes from the moon. The old man doesn’t slow down.
“The poor fox! He was depressed. He sat on the ground with his head hung low, like this.” He shows me the face of a despondent fox. “A squirrel saw him and scampered down to sit next to the fox. My cousin, said the squirrel, teaches a class on how to reach the grapes. You really must take it. It’s the only way to taste them.
“So, with great hope, the fox signed up for the class, spending money he didn’t have, because of course he believed in himself and in his ability to reach the grapes. He took the course, he did all the exercises, and when he was ready, he faced that grapevine once again. He leaped, he snapped, and bit his own tongue so hard that the blood filled his mouth. The fox then said some words I won’t repeat. He retreated into the woods and thought a while. Then he called up the crow and the squirrel. I need more help, he said. Come teach me what you know, and you will never have a better pupil than I. Eager for the fox’s money, the crow and the squirrel followed him into the shadows of the woods.”
He stops talking. The trees thin, and the moonlight surrounds us.
“Is that the end?”
“The end of what?”
“What happened to the crow and the squirrel?”
“Well, the fox ate them, of course. Foxes don’t eat grapes. Grapes are toxic to canines.”
He turns a corner in the path, and brightens. “Ah, here we are.”
We have reached a cave with a roaring fire inside. A pot on a hook over the fire has something bubbling in it, and a heavenly smell fills the air. The old man nods to several others who sit around the cave walls, cups of soup steaming in their hands. “This is our temple,” he says to me, handing me a cup. “We built it ourselves, so no one can kick us out. This is our broth. It isn’t lamb, but it’s made with roots and beans that we can always grow more of. And it’s truly satisfying.” I sit back against the cave wall and enjoy myself with this humble company.
“You see,” says the old man, “if you define success as something based entirely on your actions and yours alone, then you will always have the power to succeed.” He pats my arm. “About that novel you are querying, know this: Success is that you have finished it, and done all you can to get it out into the world. Anyone else’s reaction is, whether professional or reviewer, immaterial. Further, there is no way to know this until you have faced failure. This is the gift of failure, whenever it comes: freedom from emotional dependence on the actions of anyone but ourselves.”
An hour later, the monk who was rude to me in the temple shows up. He is shivering and looks worried.
“What happened, friend?” asks the old man. “Did they kick you out?”
The young man nods.
“Popularity rarely lasts forever,” says the old man. “Sooner or later, you’ll fail, you’ll flop, you’ll sell below expectations. Some critic will say things about you that shatter your reputation, and they’ll kick you out of the temple. But this is a good thing! Welcome! Now you can sit with us and define your own success.”