Today is not a good day. My sister agreed to watch my kids while I do this interview, but she made it clear that it was putting her out. I’m exhausted from being up all night with the baby. My teenage son is depressed, my novel has stalled, and I’m wondering if I’m really obeying the gods in doing these interviews, or if it’s just a distraction from the real work of my life.
There’s no use turning around now, though. My doppelganger drives silently, lost in her own world. We pull up a long drive flanked by a colonnade of cypress, and stop at the gates of a walled compound, the home of the woman pictured in the Four of Wands. The gates are golden, as are the domes and spires of the house beyond. What a waste, I think. When there are starving people everywhere, gold on the outside of your house is just ostentation. I swallow my bitterness, get out of the car and slam the door, as my doppelganger slowly pulls away. She’s probably regretting her commitment to me. We could have been great friends, but now she’ll leave when the assignment is over, and never come back. No one comes to open the gate. The smell of roasting chicken hits me, and I realize I never ate breakfast. I wrap my fingers around the curls of plated iron. Music, in the distance, weaves in and out with laughter.
“Hello?” My voice sounds irritable and whiny, even to me.
There is no response.
And then, suddenly, a little man comes bustling around the corner, good cheer smeared all over his expression.
“Come in, come in! Come, and be welcome!” He opens the gate wide. I realize that it was never locked, and I could have just walked in. What an idiot I am. He takes my arm anyway, a white-gloved hand wrapped around my denim jacket.
“I will show you where the festivities are. Oh, heavens, is that your stomach? Or are you carrying a lion in your belly?” He laughs. It is not funny. I am beyond hangry; I am hirrational. He pats my arm. “We’ll head right to the table. There is plenty for everyone. You can eat and drink to your heart’s content; and if you need to sleep afterward, there are soft couches and blankets nearby.”
It is at that moment that I feel the first stirrings of a feeling I haven’t touched for a while: gratitude. How did he know exactly what I needed? I grit my teeth and blink away tears. Kindness is sometimes an armor-piercing knife.
“Come, come. Here you are.” He hands me a plate, and loads it with the chicken I smelled, and grapes, and fresh honey rolls, and butter, and blackberry jam, and tangy coleslaw. All around me under the white tent are friends and families, kids, ancient relatives, people feeding each other, people dancing.
“Where is the couple?” I ask the man. “The couple featured on the card, the ones whose celebration this is.”
“Ah. They are busy.” He winks at me. “Occupied. Don’t you worry about them. Take your time here, enjoy the abundance.”
There’s too much waiting for me to do at home. I really don’t have time for this. But the little man persuades me, the plate of food speaking persuades me more, and I find a seat, fill my belly, and immediately fall asleep with my head on the table.
I wake with a start. The noise is gone. The people are gone. I missed my opportunity. All was for nothing; of course this is how it ends. I look to my right, and there she is, sitting in the folding chair beside me, smiling roguishly – the lady of the Four of Wands, still in her party gown. She could have left me here, but she didn’t. Gratitude runs like a river through me. I will make the most of this, I swear.
“Do you have time for an interview?” My voice is rough and groggy.
But she holds up a hand. “First, let me show you something,” she says. “Follow me.”
In the mansion, gold and marble and rich fabrics and sweet-smelling oils saturate my senses. She leads me down halls, past larger-than-life paintings, past doors, past rooms of people relaxing, winding down after the party. Up in a little tower, the setting sun and rising moon both hang in the windows. She lights a lamp. “Here,” she says. She opens the wire door of a roomy birdcage, and lifts out a cooing bird. A ring-necked dove. She holds out her hand to me, the bird perched on her finger.
“Do you know what this is?” Her voice is steady but soft.
I reach out. I am afraid. I don’t deserve to hold this bird, but I do – I place my finger next to hers, callous against callous, and the dove uncurls its feet from her finger and wraps them around mine. I am suddenly overwhelmed by the light but definite weight of this living creature resting entirely on my hand, the knowledge that it trusts me, chose me, gave itself into my power. I know what this is.
“It is my inspiration,” I whisper.
We talk for a long time in that tower, the lady and I, and the sun sets, and the moon rises. There is so much to enjoy in life. As writers, we get stuck desperately trying to accomplish, to get it all done. We feel the stress, the weight. We lose our way. We wonder why we ever picked up this unrewarding burden, and yet we can’t put it down; it always comes back to us, a bad penny, and we feel trapped. That’s when it’s time to stop working and just be grateful for all that we have. To celebrate. Why are we always surprised to find that, in celebration, the muse is fed?
I am still holding the dove. The lady strokes its back with her finger. “She likes you,” she says. “She likes you because you see her, and you appreciate her.” Her words are framed by the sounds of guests making the next meal for the night, laughing and clattering. “Like all things we love, the muse likes to be appreciated. Honor the moments of beauty you have created. Take time to celebrate them. Read back over the moments of brilliance she gave you. Dwell on the honors or words of praise that came to you because the muse chose to speak through you. Feed the muse this way, always grateful that she has decided to alight on your hand.
“Beyond that, enjoy the life you have. Be grateful that you have this chance to collect experience in a full spectrum of feeling. That is how you feed your inspiration, your muse. That is how you keep it coming back.”
Stephen King said as much, in the earthy wisdom of On Writing. “It starts with this. Put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle of the room. Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.”
She gives me a big hug. I feel nothing but love for this place. This is the house of Gratitude, this opulent mansion where everyone is welcome, and yet there is no sorrow in returning to our lives. As soon as I can, I’m going to take my son to see a new movie. I’m going to take the time to bake a cherry-cardamom pie for my sister, just as an expression of thanks. I’m going to sit and rock the baby as long as the baby will let me rock him. I might be past deadlines but this is the only life I have right now, and enjoying it, and being with people I love, matters more than getting things done. Magic happens with gratitude. My doppelganger is waiting outside, happy; she found an Irish pub and managed to get herself kicked out, and I don’t even want to know how. I drive us both home. Today is a good day.