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Mr. Duffy

Mr Duffy lived a short distance from his body.

James Joyce - Dubliners



I have an addictive personality. Looking back on my life I see that it has always been there. The minute I find something that makes me “feel better” I want more of it. More more more. Just like every good addict who came before me - from the time mankind first slithered out of the primordial ooze and began wreaking havoc on what I am sure had been, before our arrival, a pretty nice place to live.


Not all of my addictions are detrimental. Yes, there were the drug and alcohol-fueled years of my teens and twenties, but I have always had healthy addictions as well. Walking is one. And work, and yoga, and swimming in the ocean. But my earliest and longest-lasting healthy addiction is reading. Since the time I learned how to read, I’ve been happily and thoroughly addicted to books. There has never been a time that I can remember when I have not been absorbed in at least one, and usually more than one book. As long as the writing is good I will read about absolutely anything. 


Lately I have been consumed with the lives of the romantic poets. Huge, five hundred page biographies of Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, Oscar Wilde and Mary Shelley jostle against each other and fight for dominance on my (about ready to crumble under the weight) bedside table. 


Artificial intelligence is amazing and terrifying, and lately (I can only assume from the book reviews I have been scanning online trying to find the best book on Oscar Wilde) I’ve been besieged by suggestions of other Irish bards, novelists and playwrights. William Butler Yeats has been offered up as someone I might enjoy, as have Bram Stoker and George Bernard Shaw. But the Irish writer who all the robots insist I must read and read now is James Joyce. I have stayed away from Joyce and his classics, as I was told ages ago when I was a college student that he was “much too depressing…even for someone like you”.


But now some pesky algorithm, having obviously gotten my number, has insisted that finally, after decades of stalling, I read Dubliners. So I took it off my bookshelf, where it’s been sitting for years, waiting for me to pluck up the courage to crack the spine. And one of the stories opens with this line: “Mr. Duffy lived a short distance from his body.”


It stopped me cold.


Because I am Mr. Duffy. I, too, live a short distance from my body. As soon as I wake up I am thinking about what needs to be done next. And that is how my days go from the second I open my eyes to the second I close them and fall gratefully into the sweet arms of sleep. I do whatever it is I’m doing while focusing intently on whatever it is that I will be doing next, or what I should have done yesterday, or what I should have done five years ago, or when I was a small child or what I should do when I am a creaky old lady of eighty. All day, every day. I am lost in the past and the future, and very rarely do I find myself in the present moment. That is one of the reasons I love to read so much. It allows me to live in someone else's story. It allows me an escape from reality.


Another healthy addiction is my end of day wind-down, a period right before bed when I meditate or listen to a podcast about meditation or Buddhism for 45 minutes. I do this every day and I have for about three years now. One of my favorite spiritual teachers, Michael Singer, author of The Untethered Soul, often discusses the teachings of the Harvard-educated spiritual teacher Ram Dass. In his groundbreaking book “Be Here Now”, Ram Dass implored us all to seek the present moment and get comfortable living within it. 


Michael Singer will often refer to this book as a seminal read on staying in the moment. “Wake up people”, he will repeat in his bi-weekly lectures. “Remember that the title of the book is Be Here Now! It is not Be There Then.


I seem to exist in the Be There Then, rarely finding myself smack dab in the present moment. But in reality, that is all I have and all I will ever have.


A popular rehashing of this idea was penned by Eckhart Tolle in his best-selling book “The Power of Now”. One of his quotes reminds me of poor Mr. Duffy (or poor Mrs. Duffy as I often view myself). “It is not uncommon for people to spend their whole life waiting to start living.”


I imagine myself at the gates of heaven trying to get in. “Did you have a good time?” the gatekeeper will ask me, and I imagine myself suddenly realizing where I am. I look around, frantically searching for a ladder to take me up or down, and yelling at whoever will listen. “No! It can’t be over! I didn't spend enough time there,” I  wail plaintively as I search the vast space, desperate to locate a way out. “Well, sorry Sweetie, but time’s up,” the gatekeeper (whose name I have learned from his name tag is Lenny) informs me, nervously scanning the long line that is forming behind me.


“But it can’t be over,” I protest vehemently, tears springing to my eyes. “I’m afraid it is,” Lenny the celestial bouncer tells me. “But don’t worry,” he assures me, “you’ll be going back to earth soon enough. You’ll have another chance. I’m curious,” he says, suddenly adopting a gentler tone. “What will you do differently next time around?”


“I’ll be present!” I say. “I promise I’ll be more present in my life while it is actually happening!”


“And how do you expect to achieve that?” he asks me cheekily, clearly doubtful.


“Well…I picked up some tools this time around. Maybe I can use them in my next go-round to be more present. While I am actually in the the now…and not dead, talking to you.”


Lenny smiles at me, a bit condescending now but also curious, and he motions to another bouncer for backup. “Do tell,” he says, crossing his arms over his clipboard.


“Well. There are several things I found in this past life that keep me firmly riveted in the present moment. For starters, in my next life I won’t drink and drug myself into oblivion. I’ll be sober. And I’ll do a lot of yoga. And I’ll find a career that I enjoy, and when I am there I will be so firmly planted in the present moment that I will actually feel it, the NOW, vibrating through my entire body. And I will find a man to love and we will have a beautiful family and I will be present when I am with them. And I will garden and care for my house and play with my dog and cat and I’ll take long walks and read voraciously and swim in wild and frothy oceans and…”


“Hey, wait a minute. That sounds like the life you just lived,” Lenny tells me.


“It does? Really? My life?”


“Yeah, it does. Where have you been?” Lenny asks me, perplexed.


“I guess I’m like Mr. Duffy,” I tell him, looking down in shame. “I’m afraid I’ve been living a short distance from my body.”


“Aha! James Joyce. A bit bleak but I do love him,” Lenny says reverentially.


I’m suddenly frantic. “Can I have a do-over?” I say. “I promise I’ll be more present if you let me go back.”


Lenny gazes at me. He is silent, obviously lost in thought. Then he asks me to “wait a sec” as he picks up his cellphone and drifts a few feet away from where I am floating.


I say a small prayer and when he gets back he is smiling. “The boss says you can go back,” Lenny tells me, “but you have to promise to be where your feet are. If we let you return you need to practice, on a daily basis, the art of being present. Do you think you can do that?” Lenny asks me.


“I can,” I tell him. “I don't want to end up like Mr. Duffy.”


“Well if you keep your promise, you won’t.”


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