Why I’m grateful that Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist left me wanting more

I first read the Alchemist 20 or so years ago, and I was captivated. A story, which is really a parable/fable, about a young boy, who is actually a shepherd, who is searching—for an ineffable something. What’s not to love? A quest story woven through with innocence.

I just reread the Alchemist. And I have to say, it wasn’t all I remembered it to be, mostly because of the ending. Santiago, the young shepherd, wanted to travel, to have an interesting life, and to find a treasure near the Egyptian pyramids. The story follows the classic Joseph Campbell hero’s journey. Santiago meets an old woman who he thinks is probably a Gypsy, and she reads his palm. He meets a wise old man, the King of Salem, who warns Santiago of the world’s greatest lie, “at a certain point in our lives, we lose control of what’s happening to us, and our lives become controlled by fate. That’s the world’s greatest lie.” From the King, Santiago learns about Personal Legends, what you always wanted to accomplish; the Soul of the World, which is nourished by people’s happiness; he learns about the language of omens; and the importance of following your Personal Legend through to its conclusion. The last piece of advice the King of Salem shares with Santiago is that the secret of happiness is to see all the marvels of the world, and to never forget to care for the drops of oil on the spoon he carried.

Santiago earns money to fund his journey, and he foolishly loses it. He earns some more money to fund his journey and is robbed. He works for a crystal merchant from whom he learns about the principle of favorability. The merchant dreams about making a pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca (or perhaps his dream is to dream about the dream of going to Mecca).

Finally, Santiago prepares to join a caravan on its way through the desert to Egypt. He meets an English man rich in books and book learning who is searching for a famous alchemist. From the English man, Santiago learns about the Soul of the World—the principle that governs all things. At an oasis, Santiago meets Fatima, and together they learn the meaning of love without ownership. Yes, Santiago meets the Alchemist. There are warring chieftains, there are trials and challenges for Santiago to confront and overcome and from which he learns.

There are no spoilers here. You will have to read the book to learn the ending. But I will say this. I wanted a different ending. Paulo Coelho is a master of the craft of storytelling. The Alchemist is an engaging fable. It made me think. It opened my heart and mind in some ways. And it left me wondering, what if a woman had written it? What if Santiago was a girl? What if the story was Fatima’s story? Ah, the joy of what ifs. Thank you Paulo Coelho. Maybe I’m not so disappointed after all.


How Pema Chodron’s The Wisdom of No Escape helped me to understand that silence can be golden

I went to the first meeting of a mindfulness book club last night. The book to be discussed was Pema Chodron’s “The Wisdom of No Escape.”  It was an interesting experience for me. I loved reading the book. I was really looking forward to being part of a book club. And I sat there for the entire hour and a half and said nothing. Sweet Mother of Graciousness, I am 70 years old. As my sister says, I’m as old as people who are old (and that thought is indeed weird). How can I still act like a shy introvert? I truly need to get over myself.

The group leader started with a couple of ground rules: After someone speaks, don’t say, ‘Oh but I’ . . . be respectful of other people’s thoughts and feelings. And, keep your comments short so there is enough air space for everyone (there were about 30 people there).

The leader started by saying the book is a collection of talks Pema Chodron gave at a retreat at Gampo Abbey.  The leader shared with us that while she never met Pema Chodron, she had been to Gampo Abbey. A few years ago, she was in Cape Breton and drove by the abbey, but didn’t get out of the car. I sat there with a handful of pictures of Gampo Abbey tucked inside my copy of the book—I too had been to Cape Breton and drove by Gampo Abbey in the fall of 2019. But we did get out of the car and walked around a little. There are some trails that meander along a stream and wind their way to a Stupa of Enlightenment. It is a lovely setting farm like setting with breathtaking views of the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Then the first question for the group to discuss: what passages in the book spoke to you in particular? Sweet Mother of the Goddess! I read the book focusing on theory and guidelines for practice. I was so not ready for that kind of question. So I sat and listened. Then I thought, well, there is this part where Pema is talking about the lineage of her teachers. By way of showing how even flawed human beings have become venerated teachers she lists off how one was a madman; one was completely conceptual and intellectual and incapable of applying and embodying the teachings for 12 years; one was famous for his intensely bad temper and was also a drunk; and my personal favorite, Milarepa, was a murderer; another one was supremely arrogant, and a final one was just butt ugly. She offers all of that up so that we can take heart that the wise ones were a bunch of neurotics, just like us. I read those lines, I knew that even I could find a place in a community like that. I took comforted in reading it, it opened a space where I felt like maybe there could indeed be a place for me in that tradition. But I said nothing, because. . . because why? It just didn’t seem like what she was asking—until the leader discussed that very same passage.

Then someone talked a bit about the breathing practice Pema Chodron describes—following the out-breath—and how, for her, it felt more meaningful to follow the in-breath. And I wanted to say that when I follow the out-breath, it opens my heart and mind to a kind of letting go and a sense of greater openness. But I said nothing because I didn’t want to be disrespectful of the other woman’s comment.

Then a guy talked about a story Pema tells in the book. It is one of my favorite stories:

A woman running away from tigers, keeps running and running. The tigers are getting closer and closer. She comes to the edge of a cliff, sees some vines there, climbs down and holds onto the vines. She looks down and sees there are tigers below as well. Then she notices a mouse gnawing on the vine to which she is clinging. She also notices a beautiful little bunch of strawberries close by. She looks up, looks down, looks at the mouse, reaches out, takes a strawberry, puts it in her mouth and thoroughly enjoys it.

The guy highlighted the woman eating the strawberry, and the simplicity and joy of being in and enjoying the present moment.

And I thought, yes, be in the present moment and also employ skillful means to ensure that you have done your best. Before she ate the strawberry, she ran, she climbed, she did all she could to ensure her safety and well-being—then she surrendered. But those thoughts felt too much like a ‘yes, but’ to what the guy said, so I said nothing.

            As the conversation continued, I kept thinking I should say something. But whatever came into my head was a beat too late and in my heart of hearts I wondered if the stuff I was thinking wasn’t just a bit of one upping. And all the while, I kept hearing Elsa, from Frozen, singing ‘Let it Go’ even as I kept obsessing about not talking.

            Maybe next month I will just say something!

And, maybe for now, I will focus more on the section of the book where Pema talks about Kintsugi—the Japanese practice of repairing broken pottery with lacquer mixed with gold dust. Yes, I am the same age as old people, and yes I am still broken in ways that surprise me. But a broken heart is an open heart. And so today I will cherish and celebrate my new awareness of my openness.