Tag Archives: stories

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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Merry Solstice! Hellboy: Winter Special 2018

I enjoy the Hellboy Winter Specials, particularly because I like winter ghost tales, and the Specials usually contain several stand-alone vignettes that make for a fun read. This issue has three stories. The first two I liked; the third, not so much. But I wanted to share a passage from the second vignette entitled “Lost Ones” which I liked.

“We are gathered here, in the core of the woods, in the dead silence of the coldest night of winter… to guarantee the fertilizing of Nature and the birth of new life… and to protect our land from the evil spirits that might come to possess and poison our crops. The winter has been long and harsh, but with our help it will give place to the abundance of spring.”

I liked this passage because it draws on the imagery of the Solstice. On the longest night of the year, I like to shift my spiritual focus to the coming of spring, to the shift from darkness to light, and from death to regeneration. It marks a somber time of the year, but one that holds the seeds of promise.

May you have a blessed holiday in whatever tradition you embrace.

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The Sandman Universe: The Dreaming – Issue 04

I have not felt the need to write about the previous issues in this arc, but this one has a section I found very interesting and thought it worth sharing.

In this book, Cain is the archetype of the first murderer. He is, essentially, murder itself. But Cain is transported to another dimension of existence where an unformed entity informs Cain that he is not, in fact, the archetype of the first murder, but something else, instigating an existential crisis on a cosmic level.

Unformed: … There is a scenario. It begins with two brothers. Two holy gifts. One sacrifice is deemed superior, and so–

Cain: — So I killed him. I am murder! I’m the patron saint of killers!

Unformed: No. That is a flawed understanding of the metaphor. Your brother remembered it more accurately.

Cain: That bumbler! That sweat-bladder! That craven! the first victim–that’s his role! He’ll never be any more than–

Unformed: What gifts did you offer, Cain…? In the classic paradigm.

Cain: W-we… we were farmers. I offered the fruits of the land. I…I toiled and worked my fingers to the bone! While he–he–

Unformed: He was a raiser of stock. He slaughtered the first beast, Cain. Does that sound like the act of a coward?

Cain: I… B-but…

Unformed: His hands were red long before yours. You must undress yourself of false positives if you are to find favor in the new realm. You must reassess all your muddled mysteries before the chrysalis opens. You are not the first killer, Cain of the mark, Cain the wanderer, Cain the lost. You are merely the first to resent. But you are far from the last.

I found this an amazing interpretation of the Biblical tale. And it makes a lot of sense. Cain was not the first to take a life. Abel was, being the first to kill an animal, one of God’s living creations. And Cain resented Abel’s favor, and resentment breeds anger, envy, jealousy, rage… an entire Pandora’s Box of social ills. How many of our problems stem from resentment? Especially resentment that is kept hidden, which grows in the darker recesses of the mind. Resentment is so toxic, it can ultimately destroy almost anything.

I confess I was ready to give up on this series, but this last installment has rekindled my interest again. Hence, I will read on! Thanks for stopping by and sharing in my musings. Have an inspirational day.

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“The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” by Alan Moore

I watched the film adaptation of this graphic novel many years ago, before I even knew about the graphic novel. I liked the film a lot. It spoke to my interest in science fiction, adventure tales, and 19th century literature. All of these things are brilliantly blended together in this book, which is lavishly illustrated by Kevin O’Neill.

This omnibus edition includes two full volumes, as well as a wealth of supplemental material that is all worth exploring. There are coloring pages, games, instructions for crafts, everything that an intrepid nerd could ask for.

In addition to all the fun material and the brilliant artwork, there is Moore’s incredible writing, which flows effortlessly while focusing a lens on human nature, and also touching on the mystical and unusual in experience.

Moore uses the character of Miss Mina Murray as a voice of criticism against the male-dominated society of the 19th century.

Mina Murray: “Why are men so obsessed with mechanisms that further nothing but destruction?”

Here she is not only speaking out against patriarchy, but she is also making a bold comment on the industrial revolution, and the negative impacts that it had on society. She then goes on to express how challenging it can be for women in positions of authority.

Mina Murray: “The point is that I’m supposed to be the person organizing this… this menagerie! But that will never do, will it? Because I’m a woman! They constantly undermine my authority, him and that Quatermain…”

Shifting the focus away from social criticism, I want to share a well-written passage describing Allan Quatermain’s drug-induced altered state of consciousness.

Quatermain had felt the consciousness torn from his body, gripped by the drug’s phantasmal diamond fist. He’d heard Marisa scream and then the awareness was dashed from him by a cold, obliterating light. Now he was lost. As sensibility returned, he found himself afloat, a ghostly form amidst a shimmering violet limbo. What had happened? This was not the breathtaking immersion in past incarnation that the drug had hitherto provided. All about him dream-like forms congealed from viscous twilight, half-materialized before once more dissolving into opalescent nothing. Smoldering ferns and mollusk spirals, scintillating on the brink of substance.

Describing the experience of a shift in consciousness is not an easy task for a writer, since the nature of this experience is generally beyond words. But Moore does a great job is conveying the experience.

One of the characters in this book is Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde. As the tale progresses, Jekyll fades out of the story and Hyde becomes the dominant character. This symbolizes what happens when the dualistic nature of humans gets out of balance. As Hyde points out, there has to be a balance. If the light becomes too strong, or the dark becomes too strong, then there are negative effects on the individual.

Hyde: “Anyway, what that silly bastard did , he thought is he quarantined all these bad parts, what was left would be a ****ing angel. huh-huh.”

Driver: “Hang on. If you’re this chap’s sins, how did you end up so bloody big?”

Hyde: “Good point [chlop]. That’f a very goob poimp. I mean, when I started out, good God, I was practically a ****ing dwarf. Jekyll, on the other hand, a great big strapping fellow. Since then, though, my growth’s been unrestricted, while he’s wasted away to nothing. Obvious, really. Without me, you see, Jekyll has no drives…and without him, I have no restraints.”

Overall, I really enjoyed this book. I will say, though, that the last section is very long, comprised entirely of small-type text and is intended to mimic a travel almanac. While you may be tempted to skip over this somewhat tedious part of the book, I found it worthwhile to read through it. It is brimming with literary and pop-culture references to fictional locations, and is done so in a very creative way. It is not easy to read, but I think it’s worth it. I found lots and lots of subtle allusions to books I had read in the past, which stirred some good memories for me.

Thanks for stopping by, and keep reading stuff.

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The Sandman Universe: Books of Magic – Issue 01

Even though Neil Gaiman is not writing the several offshoot arcs in the Sandman saga, I figured I would read them. So far, they are holding my interest, but still not up to Gaiman’s caliber. I haven’t felt the need to write about the other arcs/issues I have read, but there was a quote in this one that I felt was worth sharing.

Magic is neither good nor bad. Only its use determines its character. There are always consequences for its use.

The quote echoes Hamlet: “Why, then, ’tis none to you, for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” It also hints toward the concept of karma, where all our thoughts and actions—good, bad, or indifferent—have an effect on our selves and the universe around us. Nothing that we do happens within a vacuum. There are consequences for every action we take, regardless of how trivial it may appear to be at the time. It’s the butterfly effect.

So far, the jury is still out regarding these offshoot comics. I’ll keep reading them for now and see where they go. Cheers!

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