Original Short Story: "Sylvia's Sister Mule"
Lucille Keith with midget mule, 1939, Department of Conservation
This story is fiction.
It does not depict any real person or actual event.
You Terrible, Plathian Fish
Each morning it is her face that replaces the darkness.
In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman
Rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish. —Sylvia Plath's "Mirror"
Sylvia Branch washed her face, looked up at the mirror, as was her custom every morning, and noted, "Yes, there you are, you terrible Plathian fish, rising and rising." Next, she dressed, had her breakfast and ventured forth to work.
"Hey, Suzette, any new arrivals?" Sylvia asked her boss and owner as she removed her gloves, coat and scarf, preparing for her day at Ye Old Book Shack, where she had spent the last ten years of her life. After leaving graduate school at Ball State University, where she had attempted to acquire a PhD in English, Sylvia found herself adrift but then became securely anchored in acquiring and selling used books to the other college students who frequented the local bookstores looking for the best deal on the material that would eventually lead to their own BAs, MAs, and PhDs from the fastidious English Department.
"Oh, yes, today was quite a haul!" responded Suzette, with her usual spiritedness when at least seven students had dropped off books that Suzette could acquire for less than a dollar, or three at the most, a piece. "You’ll be inspired to find that there is an edition of Yeats poetry. You’ll have to tell me how valuable it is. Can we sell it for five or six dollars?" Suzette relied on Sylvia’s expertise in poetry, especially Yeats, for determining how useful the books might be for the illustrious students who sat for the equally illustrious classes at Ball State. This scene played out every day at the bookstore. Sylvia determined the price they could ask for poetry books, in addition to shelving books and running the cash register.
But Sylvia was on an adventure and she knew it. During her lunch period, which had increased from a mere 20 minutes to a whole hour, thanks to the recent employment of a second and third cashier and bookshelver, Sylvia with her ten years seniority, not to mention her friendship with Suzette, now was afforded a whole hour for lunch. In fact, she was free to expand or shrink that hour in either direction she found fit. So if she felt she wanted to go back to work after only half an hour, she could, and sometimes two hours would work out quite nicely.
On an especially inauspicious day, Sylvia was looking through a "haul" of books supplied by the university students and found one that looked totally out of place. It had a picture of a long haired man with piercing eyes. The book was orange and the publisher was Self-Realization Fellowship. This Self-Realization Fellowship was founded in 1920 in Los Angeles. At first Sylvia’s inclination was to toss the book as a self-published piece with no hope of resale. But for some vague strange reason, she decided to place it in the spirituality section and price it at three dollars—the lowest price of books deemed unsalable. Sylvia then returned to her work for the day.
The next day, Sylvia, out of a strange unexplainable curiosity went looking for the book. It was still there. Also unexplainably, she looked for that book for the next month. It was always there, predictably and assuring Sylvia of her first impression that the book was unsalable. What Sylvia could not understand was why she cared. Hundreds of books sat on the shelves of Ye Old Book Shack never selling. And Sylvia never checked on any of them, even the Yeats books that sat longer then expected.
But for some vague reason, day after day, she was drawn to check to see if Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda had sold. The title of the book and its author's name had become almost a mantra in her brain. So Sylvia found herself repeating the title and its author's name, between working with other books. And like clockwork, every morning as she trotted into the spirituality section, she would be chanting, "So, Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda, have you sold yet?" And invariably it was there. And Sylvia found a strange sense of relief always finding it there. Then one day the unthinkable happened. Happily chanting, "Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda," Sylvia bursts into the spirituality section to assure herself of the non-salability of the book and discovers to her horror that it is not there.
George Harrison Celebrating His 30th Birthday
Where is Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda?
"I looked at the cover and Yogananda just zapped me with his eyes, and that was it–it was all over!" —George Harrison
"Suzette! Where is Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda?" Sylvia seemed flustered as she queried her boss about her loss.
"What are you talking about?" Suzette asked.
"That orange book with the cleared-eye master on the cover, in the spirituality section! What happened to it? Did you sell it? It’s been there for at least a month. I didn’t think it was possible to sell a book like that here! What’s going on?" Sylvia seemed to be losing her composure, and Suzette was shocked that Sylvia would care so much about a book not poetry or English literature.
"I don’t know, Sylvia. I didn’t see any book by that name, but let me look at the book log." Suzette found that Nancy Forman has sold that book last night just before closing.
All that day, Sylvia seemed off her stride. Between books, as she chanted the name of the lost book in her mind, she realized that she would no longer be seeing it standing there loyally every morning as she lovingly approached it chanting, "Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda."
After three days of missing that book that become her morning inspiration by just standing there on the shelf, Sylvia decides she had to have that book. Then after three nights of dreaming about the book, she decided to search out a copy for herself. She found it at Amazon on line and purchased her own copy.
When the book finally arrived after what seemed a century, Sylvia asked Suzette if she could take two weeks off. She told Suzette that she needed to do some thinking about whether to return to graduate school; she needed some time to make up her mind. Suzette agreed, and Sylvia was free to read her cherished book without interruption.
After the two weeks of immersion in the book, Sylvia returned to work with what can be described only as a whole new world view. Her failed marriage, her inability to finish graduate degrees, her total lack of self-confidence, and nagging negative body image had shrunk in importance. She had something that was quite new to her; she had faith.
From that strange, orange book that stood on the shelf for a month without interest to anyone but Sylvia, Sylvia learned that she was responsible for everything that had happened to her. Her husband, who had mercilessly beaten her physically and mentally, had done so because the experience taught her a lesson. Every lousy experience she had formerly suffered had pointed her toward this book. This amazing book that taught her to understand that life is a play and human beings are only players here to play roles.
A great Divine Spirit has concocted this playhouse for entertainment, and thus it is necessary to have good guys and bad guys to fight it out. Does that make Divine Reality evil? Hardly. That Great Spirit created the evil as well as the good. The point is that each individual has the responsibility as well as the opportunity of making his/her own heaven: that is, finding that Ultimate Reality through uniting his/her own soul with It. That Divine Reality (God) is like the ocean and His human children are like the waves of the ocean. Sylvia was astonished that the twin concepts of reincarnation and karma rendered what seemed unfair in human affairs quite "fair" indeed.
Sylvia’s birthday was approaching. January 1, the first day of the year. Suzette planned an elaborate dinner for Sylvia’s fortieth birthday and her 10th year at Ye Old Book Shack. Suzette planned to hold the dinner on the Ball State campus in the ballroom of the Pittenger Student Center.
Sylvia had been musing what to do with the rest of her life. At forty, she had finally found a spirituality that she could follow, that answered many of her questions about life, and that even offered lessons with techniques for meditation and prayer that was slowly but surely leading Sylvia to a calm place within herself where she knew she could live.
But still the physical world is real—even though an ultimate spiritual delusion—and has to be dealt with. Sylvia decided that, indeed, she should return to graduate school and finish her PhD. Still she was quite comfortable in her job at the bookstore, but through an arrangement with Suzette, she realized that she could do both—work at the bookstore, while pursuing her PhD in English literature.
Still the most important part of Sylvia’s life whirled around her lessons from Self-Realization Fellowship. Learning about reincarnation and karma gave Sylvia a freedom she didn’t know was possible. Blaming others for her own predicament had become a staple in her life in the form of a heavy burden. After all, if someone else is to blame for your problems, there is little you can do to change the other person; however, if you alone are responsible for your situation, you are free to change it. These thoughts freed Sylvia from victim status to potential victor, and she breathed easier for that knowledge.
Saint Francis of Assisi used to call his body brother donkey because the body is very stubborn.
Sylvia had always hated her body. She chafed when people would make jokes about her looking like a skeleton. So many of her friends had complained about their inability to lose weight, but Sylvia had the opposite problem; no matter what she ate, she could not seem to put on enough flesh. She had begun to wear two or three layers of clothing to try to hide her physical sparseness.
Now, through the SRF lessons and the wise words of her Guru, Paramahansa Yogananda, she finally realized that the physical body is just vehicle for the soul. Ceasing to obsess about her physical appearance, Sylvia could concentrate on higher endeavors.
Besides, Saint Francis had called his own body, "Brother Donkey." Sylvia decided that she would call her body, "Sister Mule." The body is stubborn; it likes to have its own way. Like a mule, it will not budge if it chooses not to budge. She decided that no matter how thin she had to be, it was only the body, "Sister Mule," who was thin; her soul was wider as the sky and deeper than any ocean. She knew that way of looking at her thin body gave freedom from striving to increase her body flesh. Instead she would seek her immoral, eternal, vast soul.
Sylvia settled into the routine of grad school and work and after two years found herself a newly minted PhD in English. Now, what do do with such an illustrious degree. Suzette encouraged Sylvia to apply for tenure track teaching positions at colleges near and far, but Sylvia balked at the idea of teaching.
"You might like it, Sylvia. Think of it, talking about poetry and literature all day, everyday with students, and helping them understand literary concepts," persuaded Suzette. "Not that I want to lose you, but you’re a PhD now, and surely you’d like to make more money."
"I'm just not sure. I’ve never done any teaching. I’ve never even served as a grad assistant or doctoral fellow. I still worked here while I got my degree. And I’m not sure I want to move away from Muncie and my friends here," said Sylvia.
"I have an idea. Why don’t you just apply to teach a couple of classes at Ball State just to see if you’d like it; they always need people to teach their comp courses, and you could do that easily," suggested Suzette.
"Ummm, I guess I could give it try, and I could still work here probably, just teach a couple of night courses," responded Sylvia.
"Seeds of past karma cannot germinate if they are roasted in the fires of divine wisdom." ―Paramahansa Yogananda, Autobiography of a Yogi
Two years later, after her teaching experiment, Sylvia had another epiphany. The teaching experience had shown Sylvia that she was right: she did not want to spend her life in that profession. Suzette then tried to persuade Sylvia that she really needed a real, tenure line job that would require more of her. Sylvia was doubtful. She cried. She prayed. She meditated. And then decided to attend a Self-Realization Fellowship World Convocation.
Ever since she joined SRF as a student member, she had been receiving announcements about the yearly convocation the organization held in Los Angeles. She had never thought of attending until now. She needed something in her life, but she didn’t know what it was.
She kept kicking Sister Mule for being such a stubborn vessel, and Sister Mule of the mind that seemed to be keeping her in chaos. She studied her SRF lessons, she meditated regularly, but she felt that something was missing. Maybe convocation could help her.
At convocation, Sylvia met with a nun to discuss her situation. The nun exhibited such an aura of peace. Sylvia decided she wanted that more than anything she had ever wanted, so she decided to apply to become a nun of the SRF order.
"Maybe I should read that book"
“If you don’t invite God to be your summer Guest, He won’t come in the winter of your life.” ―Paramahansa Yogananda, Autobiography of a Yogi
After five years of living and serving as a nun at SRF's Encinitas ashram, Sylvia makes a trip back to Muncie to visit friends and attend a reunion of Ye Old Book Shack workers. Her friends were astonished that Sylvia looked years younger, more robust, and decidedly calmer than they had ever seen her. Sylvia was not shy in explaining her outer and inn glow.
"Suzette, from the moment I applied to the moment took my first vows, I have never looked back," Sylvia explained to Suzette. "I love every minute of every day. I know I am heading in the right direction. I never felt that way doing anything else I’ve done in my life."
"I’m just so happy for you, Sylvia," replied Suzette. "Maybe I should read that book."
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© 2019 Linda Sue Grimes