Being contrary by nature and buddhist by training, I have to say that joy is within us—there’s no real “finding” to it. The penalties of daily life which seem to hamper joy, the continuous compounding setbacks, will send us directly home. Home being joy. As long as we take the long view, take the long way home.
Eight years ago, I bought a house in Portland, Oregon—a beloved funky old farmhouse on nearly half an acre of weeds. After I’d painted the inside and snugged all my furniture in, admired the views and pulled a few dandelions, the postal carrier paused in his rounds to talk. He told me that Virginia, the former owner, had committed suicide there. She’d killed herself in what I’d taken to be paradise in the rough.
My mail carrier said Virginia was so well-read and so talkative, she would follow him down and back up our long country street talking non-stop until he had to round the corner. He missed her. He hoped he had not failed her. As did all of the other neighbors who came to tell me tales of Virginia, and to leave the burden of their unrequited sadness at my feet.
I am well-read and talkative. I wondered where she did it. I hoped it wasn’t in a bedroom. This spooked me most of all. My neighbor to the east said no, he’d found her in her pickup truck in the garage, with a hose from the tailpipe hanging in the driver’s side window.
I drove around misty Portland all afternoon asking what to do with this terrible news. Then I drove home, parked my car and, staring at the garage, I swore to Virginia that I would make her house a house of joy. She hadn’t been able to do it, but I would, for her and for myself.
I wrote my novel “Guest House” in the attic bedroom. I loved that old farmhouse for giving me the first draft. Yet here’s where the compounding setbacks come in. I renovated the house, built the garden and struggled with a failing romance for three years. When the break up came, I left paradise and moved to Salt Lake City to be near family. I gave up everything to start over again. Everything but the manuscript.
In Salt Lake, I wrote several more drafts. I found a publisher. When I actually saw the heart-red farmhouse cover photo and the title “Guest House” on my own book, something shifted in my heart.
I cried in gratitude for three days. Five years from start to finish, through all of the exhausting trials, remodeling, writing, the break-up, letting go of my business, rewriting, buying a new house, remodeling it alone, seeking and finding a publisher—the road seemed tortuous and worth it.
One night shortly after this, I sank my head below the waters of a nice hot bathtub and Virginia returned to me, Virginia and my promise to her. I knew instantly that I had turned her house into a house of joy. Though I’d failed to do this in the physical world, “Guest House” had fulfilled the promise. The novel centers on Melba Burns, a single well-read, not-so-chatty woman living in a funky old farmhouse in Portland, Oregon, who dares to intervene in a stranger’s suffering. That stranger is a ten-year-old boy whose life is in jeopardy. Their hearts are strangely similar. They will not let each others' lives go down.
P.S. My buddhist refuge name is Donma Tsering.
A longer version of this blog first appeared in "Personal Excellence," on June 3, 2010.
Cover images thanks to Jeff Fuller of Crescent Moon Communications.
Made in Oregon photo thanks to flickr.