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Thoughts on “The Alchemist” by Paulo Coelho

I had always heard good things about this book, so when I saw it on sale at the bookstore, I grabbed a copy and moved it up to the top of the pile. I actually read most of it while traveling to California. On one of the flights, a woman next to me commented that this was her favorite book of all time. As Coelho would say, “It was an omen.”

The book is short, and a deceptively easy read. While it is not a difficult text, it is rich in imagery and spiritual insight. So my problem is, there is so much here, I’m not sure what to write about in a short blog post. I guess I’ll offer a couple examples that illustrate some of the central themes in the book.

Early in the story, the importance of dreams is established.

“You came so that you could learn about your dreams,” said the old woman. “And dreams are the language of God. When he speaks in our language, I can interpret what he has said. But when he speaks the language of the soul, it is only you who can understand. But, whichever it is, I’m going to charge you for the consultation.”

(p. 15)

If dreams are the language of God and the soul, then that is the way that the human psyche can communicate with the ineffable. Interpreting the messages that come in the form of dreams is always a challenge, because of the symbolic nature of the communication. But through contemplation and deep meditation, we can get a sense of what the dreams are trying to convey to us.

Another theme that stood out for me is how the divine is manifest in the material world.

“The wise men understood that this natural world is only an image and a copy of paradise. The existence of this world is simply a guarantee that there exists a world that is perfect. God created the world so that, through the visible objects, men could understand his spiritual teachings and the marvels of his wisdom. That’s what I mean by action.”

(p. 131)

When I am out in nature, that is the time I am most aware of the divine presence in the world. On my recent trip to California, as I stood among the redwoods and gazed at their magnificence, I was overcome with awe at the grandeur of God in nature. Even a blade of grass, when you slow down and look at it closely, you can see perfection and beauty within. For me, that is my strongest connection with the divine.

One of my favorite archetypal symbols is the quest, which is presented nicely in this book.

“Every second of the search is an encounter with God,” the boy told his heart. “When I have been truly searching for my treasure, every day has been luminous, because I’ve know that every hour was a part was a part of the dream that I would find it. When I have been truly searching for my treasure, I’ve discovered things along the way that I never would have seen had I not had the courage to try things that seemed impossible for a shepherd to achieve.”

(p. 135)

For me, this conveys the most important truth about a quest: It is not the achievement of a goal that is important, it is what you learn and experience along the way. The joy and wonder is in the journey, not in the acquisition.

This post truly only scratches the surface of this book. There are so many wonderful passages and ideas and insights to explore and contemplate. This book has earned its place beside The Prophet on my shelf, as one of those books that I will read again and again.

Thanks for stopping by, and if you have read this book, feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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Thoughts on “Strangers Drowning” by Larissa MacFarquhar

This is the latest book that I read for the book club to which I belong. It’s a look at people who dedicate themselves to doing the most good that they can possibly do, often sacrificing their own happiness and well-being, as well as that of their families, for the sake of assisting complete strangers. MacFarquhar refers to this type of people as do-gooders.

She begins the book with her definition of a do-gooder.

This book is about a human character who arouses conflicting emotions: the do-gooder. I don’t mean a part-time, normal do-gooder—someone who has a worthy job, or volunteers at a charity, and returns to an ordinary family life in the evenings. I mean a person who sets out to live as ethical a life as possible. I mean a person who’s drawn to moral goodness for its own sake. I mean someone who pushes himself to moral extremity, who commits himself wholly, beyond what seems reasonable. I mean the kind of do-gooder who makes people uneasy.

(p. 3)

So why would a person who wants only to do good in the world make others uncomfortable? That’s a legitimate question, which MacFarquhar also addresses early in the book.

One reason may be guilt: nobody likes to be reminded, even implicitly, of his own selfishness. Another is irritation: nobody likes to be told, even implicitly, how he should live his life, or be reproached for how he is living it. And nobody likes to be the recipient of charity. But that’s not the whole story.

(p. 6)

The rest of the book explores the personal stories of various altruistic do-gooders—their motivations, challenges, and so forth. They are all really interesting, and many are inspiring, but when MacFarquhar examined social workers, it hit a little close to home for me.

At first the social worker may become too emotionally involved with his clients, so that when they fail he suffers, both because they are unhappy and because their failure is his failure, too. It’s hard to spend his days confronting devastating problems that he cannot fix—the misery and helplessness rub off on him.

Gradually, he learns to be more detached. He realizes that he needs to be tough, and to develop a thick skin. But if he becomes too detached, he stops caring about his clients at all.

(p. 163)

Many years ago, when I decided to go to college in my late 20s as a non-traditional student, I intended to go into counseling. As I started taking my basic required classes, I also took on a part-time job as a mental health technician in the chemical dependency ward at a local hospital. I had a strong desire to help people, and the primary residents in this program were pregnant teenage girls addicted to crack cocaine, so there was no shortage of suffering individuals to whom I could offer help. But the turning point for me was when one young woman completed the 28-day program, was released, went to a crack house, and got shot in the stomach. Her baby died inside of her. I had gotten to know this person fairly well during her four weeks there, and I was devastated. The pain and sadness were so intense, I realized that I could not do this job with the level of detachment needed to be effective, and maintain my levels of compassion and empathy for others. I decided then and there that I would need to pursue a different career path.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book. Not only is it thought provoking, it is very well written. It challenged me to look at how much I am doing for the overall good of the world, and how much more I could possibly do.

Thanks for stopping by, and keep reading challenging stuff.

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Thoughts on “There There” by Tommy Orange

This was the latest selection for the book club to which I belong. It’s a novel written by a Native American author that explores what it is like to be a Native American living in an urban environment. The book is set in Oakland, and follows the paths of multiple characters leading up to a big pow wow.

For me, the strength of this book is in the way Orange uses different voices and narrative styles for each of the characters’ stories. He does manage to give each one a unique voice, which is tough to pull off well, especially with the number of threads and stories that are woven together into the larger tale.

The structure of this book reminds me of a Quentin Tarantino film. There are all these story lines that wind together, bringing the characters together in unexpected ways. Maybe a better analogy would be that the story resembles a Native American dream catcher, with all the stories knotted together; and yet somehow the nightmare is not caught, but slips through, a symbol of how the American Dream just doesn’t exist for so many people of indigenous cultures.

While the title of the book seems conciliatory, it is actually a reference to a Gertrude Stein quote, about how the lives and places we knew from our pasts are no longer there.

“Do you know what Gertrude Stein said about Oakland?” Rob says.

Dene shakes his head no but actually he knows, actually googled quotes about Oakland when researching for his project. He knows exactly what the guy is about to say.

“There is no there there,” he says in a kind of a whisper, with this goofy openmouthed smile Dene wants to punch. Dene wants to tell him he’d looked up the quote in its original context, in her Everybody’s Autobiography, and found that she was talking about how the place where she’d grown up in Oakland had changed so much, that so much development had happened there, that the there of her childhood, the there there, was gone, there was no there there anymore.

(pp. 38 – 39)

I think of the various times and places of my past, and those are just snapshots in time. They no longer exist. On a recent trip back to a city where I had lived for over 20 years, it was almost unrecognizable from what I remembered. There were shadows of what once was, almost like a distant echo that sparks a nostalgic memory, but the place itself is gone, changed beyond recognition. I can only imagine that this feeling must be magnified 100 fold for Native Americans, who were displaced and stripped of their homes.

The book is unsettling, and might be disturbing for some readers. But it is worth reading. We should not avoid reading about topics because they make us uncomfortable.

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Thoughts on “The Underground Railroad” by Colson Whitehead

This is a book that was selected to read for the book club to which I belong. Because it’s a book that deals with slavery, the subject matter is disturbing, as well it should be. It is a disturbing topic and demands a brutality in language in order to capture the horrors of slavery.

She had seen men hung from trees and left for buzzards and crows. Women carved open to the bones with the cat-o’-nine-tails. Bodies alive and dead roasted on pyres. Feet cut off to prevent escape and hands cut off to stop theft. She had seen boys and girls younger than this beaten and had done nothing.

(p. 34)

At one point in the book, Cora, a runaway slave, is hidden by a couple in their attic. The scene reminded me of Anne Frank. But the internment in the attic space is used to  explore the question of what constitutes freedom.

What a world it is, Cora thought, that makes a living prison into your only haven. Was she out of bondage or in its web: how to describe the status of a runaway? Freedom was a thing that shifted as you looked at it, the way a forest is dense with trees up close but from the outside, from the empty meadow, you see its true limits. Being free had nothing to do with chains or how much space you had. On the plantation, she was not free, but she moved unrestricted on its acres, tasting the air and tracing the summer stars. The place was big in its smallness. Here, she was free of her master but slunk around a warren so tiny she couldn’t stand.

(p. 183)

Shortly afterwards, Cora considers the Declaration of Independence, and how it relates to her concept of freedom. She comes to the conclusion that freedom in America is an illusion, based upon the shadow of an idea that existed in the past.

… the Declaration of Independence was an echo of something that existed elsewhere. Now that she had run away and seen a bit of the country, Cora wasn’t sure the document described anything real at all. America was a ghost in the darkness, like her.

(p. 184)

The last thing I want to mention regarding this book is the symbolism of the underground railroad. On the surface, it represents the possibility of freedom from bondage; but it also symbolizes something deeper. The underground railroad is a metaphor for the private self, the deeply personal aspects of your story that remains hidden from view. Additionally, it symbolizes the black collective consciousness, a collective story of a people forged from the individual stories of those who struggled from their freedom.

“We’re not supposed to talk about what we do down here,” Royal said. “And our passengers aren’t supposed to talk about how the railroad operates—it’d put a lot of good people in danger. They could talk if they wanted to, but they don’t”

It was true. When she told of her escape, she omitted the tunnels and kept to the main contours. It was private, a secret about yourself it never occurred to you to share. Not a bad secret, but an intimacy so much a part of who you were that it could not be made separate. It would die in the sharing.

(p. 272)

Overall, I really liked this book. It was disturbing, thought-provoking, and inspiring. While I sadly considered how much has remained the same, I also had to acknowledge that much has changed too, which provided me with hope. We still have a lot of healing to do as a society, and that healing has to start by honestly looking at the problems we face and not forgetting the darker aspects of our collective past.

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Symbolism in “The Buried Giant” by Kazuo Ishiguro

This book was a selection for the book club to which I belong. The friend who suggested the book only said it was about collective memory. Since that is a subject I find interesting, I was eager to read it.

The tale is set in post-Arthurian Britain and depicts a country suffering from a form of mass amnesia, where a strange mist has caused everyone to forget much of their collective past. The story follows the quest of five individuals seeking to restore memory by slaying a dragon responsible for causing the collective forgetting.

What I love the most about this book is the abundance of symbols that Ishiguro uses to explore memory. Hence, I figured I would focus this post on some of the more prominent symbolic representations of memory.

The first memory symbol I would like to explore is a village. The specific village is described as labyrinthine, and reminded me of the city of Siena in Italy, which had strange streets that were confusing to walk.

Axl was puzzled that a village which from a distance looked to be two orderly rings of houses could turn out to be such a chaotic labyrinth now they were walking through its narrow lanes. Admittedly the light was fading, but as he followed Beatrice, he could discern no logic or pattern to the place. Buildings would loom unexpectedly in front of them, blocking their way and forcing them down baffling side alleys. They were obliged, moreover, to walk with even more caution than out on the roads: not only was the ground pitted and full of puddles from the earlier storm, the Saxons seemed to find it acceptable to leave random objects, even pieces of rubble, lying in the middle of the path.

(pp. 49 – 50)

In this passage, the city represents the way memories are stored in the mind and how one struggles in the search for forgotten memories. When trying to remember something that has been forgotten, it feels like you are wandering aimlessly through streets, trying to recognize patterns which will spark and illuminate the fragment of memory which the mind is trying to bring to the surface. As is often the case, the longer we wander the streets of the mind, the more difficult it becomes to find the lost fragment of memory. Other fragments seem to jut out from nowhere, adding to the frustration.

Trees are often used as symbols for memory, and Ishiguro makes use of that symbol also.

For a moment Wistan appeared lost in thought, following with his eyes one of the gnarled roots stretching from the oak’s trunk and past where he stood, before burrowing itself into the earth.

(p. 110)

Here, the oak tree represents the conscious mind, the part of the psyche that is readily accessible. But below the earth lies the subconscious mind, and the collective consciousness. The roots represent the mind’s attempt to reach into the subconscious and tap into the hidden regions of memory.

The tree symbol segues nicely into the next symbol, which is that of tunnels underground.

They all paused to recover their breaths and look around at their new surroundings. After the long walk with the earth brushing their heads, it was a relief to see the ceiling not only so high above them, but composed of more solid material. Once Sir Gawain had lit the candle again, Axl realised they were in some sort of mausoleum, surrounded by walls bearing traces of murals and Roman letters. Before them a pair of substantial pillars formed a gateway into a further chamber of comparable proportions, and falling across the threshold was an intense pool of moonlight. Its source was not so obvious: perhaps somewhere behind the high arch crossing the two pillars there was an opening which at the moment, by sheer chance, was aligned to receive the moon. The light illuminated much of the moss and fungus on the pillars, as well as a section of the next chamber, whose floor appeared to be covered in rubble, but which Axl soon realised was comprised of a vast layer of bones. Only then did it occur to him that under his feet were more broken skeletons, and that this strange floor extended for the entirety of both chambers.

(p. 170)

The tunnels and underground chambers symbolize the portals into the subconscious. Additionally, the bone fragments represent fragments of memory, pieces of ourselves and of those who lived before us that comprise the collective consciousness. I also interpret the moonbeams entering the chamber as an individual’s glimpse into the hidden regions of the psyche.

The last memory symbol I want to mention is the river.

It was bitingly cold on the river. Broken ice drifted here and there in sheets, but their baskets moved past them with ease, sometimes bumping gently one against the other. The baskets were shaped almost like boats, with a low bow and stern, but had a tendency to rotate, so at times Axl found himself gazing back up the river to the boathouse still visible on the bank.

(p. 226)

The river, or stream, is a common metaphor for consciousness and memory, but what I like about Ishguro’s use here is his inclusion of ice fragments, which conjures similar symbolism from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner. These ice fragments are shards of memory that are formed from the collective consciousness, yet also melt back into the collective stream of memory and thought. It is the fluid made solid. The random bumping into the fragments suggest that the memories that move into our conscious mind are also random. We really do not have control over the memories which come to the surface. We move along the stream of consciousness, occasionally coming into contact with the shards of memory that also float along the surface.

There is a wealth of other symbols in this book, all woven together in a beautifully written and engaging story. I don’t want to give too much away. I highly recommend this book. It’s both thought provoking and a pleasurable read.

Cheers!

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“Fear: Essential Wisdom for Getting Through the Storm” by Thich Nhat Hanh

So I finished reading this book about a week ago, and today, the day I am writing my draft post, is the day after the shooting at the synagogue in Pittsburgh. I had picked this book for a book club which I started, for which tonight is the first gathering and we will be discussing this book. Anyway, I selected this book because it seemed important and relevant to the current paradigm, which is a fear-focused society. When I read the blurb from the back cover, I knew that this was a timely book to read.

Fear has countless faces: from the fear of failure to worries about everyday life, from financial or environmental uncertainties to the universal despair we all experience when faced by the loss of a friend or loved one. Even when surrounded by all the conditions for happiness, life can feel incomplete when fear keeps us focused on the past and worried about the future. While we all experience fear, it is possible to learn how to avoid having our lives shaped and driven by it. In these pages, Thich Nhat Hanh offers us a timeless path for living fearlessly.

There is such a wealth of wisdom in this short book. I took a lot of notes when I was reading through it. While I can’t cover everything here, I will share some of the passages that stood out for me.

We all experience fear, but if we can look deeply into our fear, we will be able to free ourselves from its grip and touch joy. Fear keeps us focused on the past or worried about the future. If we can acknowledge our fear, we can realize that right now we are okay.

(p. 4)

This is so true. Fear is essentially the disease of “what if.” We look at our past and see what went wrong, and then we look to the future and worry about whether these things will happen again, or if something worse will occur. Our obsession with the past and future causes us to lose touch with the present, which is truly all we really have. The past is gone, and the future is uncertain. Therefore, being present in the now is the best way to avoid becoming overwhelmed by fear.

If we allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by our fears, we will suffer, and the seed of fear in us will grow stronger. But when we are mindful, we use the energy of mindfulness to embrace our fear. Every time fear is embraced by mindfulness, the energy of fear decreases before going back down to the depths of our consciousness as a seed.

(p. 38)

As with everything, if you feed it and nurture it, it will grow. This is also true with fear. The more we feed our fears, the more fearful we become. It is really simple, but unfortunately not that easy. When in the grip of fear, it is difficult to step back, take a breath, accept that you are fearful, and then shift focus to the present, recognizing that at this moment, that which we fear is not an actuality. Something else to keep in mind, prolonged fear often leads to anger and/or despair, both of which are very dangerous mental states. For that reason, it is really important to address fear when it arises, and to do so in a healthy and positive way.

Everyone feels very much the same. Our planet is beset by so much danger. There’s so much violence and suffering in the world. If you allow the plague of helplessness to overwhelm you, you’ll go insane. You want to do something—first of all to survive, and then to help reduce the suffering. And we’ve seen, just as the Buddha saw, that is we don’t have a sangha, we can’t do very much. So we come together and we stick to the sangha through thick and thin, because we know that there is no way out of this situation except with a sangha.

(p. 122)

A sangha is, for all intents and purposes, a community. So what Thich Nhat Hanh is saying here is that being involved in community is the best way for us to deal with our collective fear and suffering. Isolation only breeds more fear. When we separate ourselves from our neighbors and our communities, we begin to look at people as “others,” and become suspicious of them. This leads to fear, which only deepens our isolation. It is a vicious cycle that can only be broken by open communication, acceptance, and community.

This book is a quick read (only 164 pages). I highly recommend reading it. Even if the ideas are already familiar to you, it is good to reinforce them.

Thanks for stopping by, and keep on reading!

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Announcing New Read-Along: Homer’s “Odyssey”

Odyssey

I’ve been considering re-reading The Odyssey again for a while now. This will be my third time reading it. For this reading, I wanted a translation that was true to the poetic feel of Homer’s original. I reached out to Symbol Reader, a friend and fellow blogger, to get her recommendation. She suggested Robert Fitzgerald’s translation.

(If you are not familiar with her site, I highly recommend you visit. Her blog is one of my favorites: symbolreader.net)

My plan is to read through the text and post my thoughts and analysis for each of the twenty-four books contained in the epic. If you are interested in reading along and using the comments section to share your thoughts, questions, impressions, you are encouraged to do so. I will be sharing my first post on “Book I” soon.

“Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story…”

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