My review of Paulo Coehlo’s The Alchemist is one of my most popular posts. The Alchemist is one of my favorite books; I connect deeply with the message. I feel that it was introduced to me at a pivotal moment in my life — the message appeared exactly when I needed to hear it.
Last summer, a good friend’s long-term girlfriend handed me a copy of The Alchemist. They’re both engineers, based in Seattle. They were making great money, lived in a modern apartment with a magnificent view, and seemed to be doing great. “It’s my favorite book,” the girlfriend told me as she handed me the book. She longed for travel, like I had done.
Mt. Rainer loomed in the distance, visible from their apartment window. The boyfriend spoke of climbing it next summer. I thought that sounded fun. But you could tell, it wasn’t the girlfriend’s dream.
I was just back from extended travel in Asia. I was unemployed, emotionally devastated, and unsure of what to do with my life. I had been home for two months, floating around from friend to friend, spending my days mostly sleeping and trying to make sense of everything I had learned from breaking up with my girlfriend in the Hong Kong airport, and going on to Nepal. I was spending money recklessly, including coming out to Seattle for just a weekend. Chasing my dreams had, in a very real way, destroyed my life.
If there is a better time to be handed a book about the power and importance of following your dreams, I don’t know when it would be.
Now, nine months after posting my initial review to this blog, I find myself revisiting the book. This time, I’m reading it in Spanish.
This would have been impossible nine months ago, when I first met The Alchemist. Truthfully, this would have been impossible three months ago, before I came to Colombia. My Spanish, despite five years in school, was pretty mierda. But as I laid on the beach in Taganga, Colombia, I found I had little trouble comprehending the story in a second language.
How cool is this? I found myself thinking. Here I am, on the beach in Colombia, traveling the world, spending about $14 a day, and actually, honestly, learning a new language.
It was one of those moments of realization — it felt like a literal dream come true.
In that moment, my Personal Legend felt fulfilled.
As I lay there and tried to read, I found I couldn’t keep my mind from wandering back to Seattle, where this book was first handed to me.
Between here and there, for me, have passed some 20 countries; an incalculable number of people, pictures, places, climbs, and languages. My stories span a lot of places, now. I notice this as I write new entries for the blog, and find I can hyperlink to my existing content more, and more, and more.
Este es una buena cosa.
I am stitching a common thread through my life.
When I left the ski town, it was because I did not feel that presence in my life. The only common thread in my life was my girlfriend — a thin and wavering connection, which even then, didn’t feel quite right.
My heart whispered to me of more.
Encountering an old friend or emotionally charged object can cause a person to change their behavior to more appropriately match the period in their life associated with that object. Scientists call this phenomenon ‘associative regression.’ If you’re more of a pop culture scholar, you might know it as ‘revertigo,’ a term coined by the TV show “How I Met Your Mother.”
Whatever you call it, we all know the feeling of meeting an old friend and acting different; the gut punch of finding an unexpected photograph of a person long dead; the strange emotional charge that comes from watching a movie you once saw on a particularly affecting date.
Rereading the Alchemist, I found this sensation inescapable.
“Amor jamás separará un hombre de su Leyenda Personal.”
(Love will never separate a man from his Personal Legend.)
When I first read the book, I was reeling from the end of a love affair. The only common thread in my life had been sawed through — partly by me, partly by fate, and partly by her. The reverberations were still being felt in all of our lives.
They took a while to stabilize, for me. Writing a book about the experience probably didn’t help that — but I believe the work has been worthwhile.
Nine months and ninety chapters later, it was easier for me to understand what The Alchemist was trying to say.
Just as the end of the book finds Santiago back in the same place he began, I found myself in the same place as I was nine months ago. Alone, in the pages of a book, considering the price of my dreams.
This is a theme in the book: Santiago gains something worthwhile, then loses it totally, all in his search for a greater, more abstract “treasure.” Many times he comes onto a treasure of great worth: a beautiful woman, a position of respect, golden coins… but he always loses it, or trades it to further his quest for his dream.
If Santiago were to cease his journey at any of those intermediate points, as he considers… he would be a successful man. Society would validate him.
But what keeps him going every time: the knowledge that he has not achieved his Personal Legend. And when his journey, at long last, returns Santiago to the place he began, he laments that he needed not travel anywhere at all to acquire his treasure. He complains to the wind, which answers:
“Si te lo hubiese dicho, no habrías visto las Pirámides. Son muy bonitas, no crees?”
(“If I had told you that, you wouldn’t have seen the Pyramids. They’re beautiful, don’t you think?”)
Santiago finds himself in the same spot, but he is not the same person.
From Seattle to Santa Marta, I had traced the same arc.
The Alchemist spoke of following dreams, but at the time I first read it, it seemed like following my dreams had cost me everything.
On that beach in Taganga, I realized that following your dreams does, sometimes, cost you everything.
I had paid a high price to get here. I had turned down opportunities: a family with a woman who would have done her best to love me; offers with a few organizations which would have given me a career; a regular group of friends who could count on my presence and proximity for the important moments — and the not-so-important ones; a life spent in the mountains doing what I loved on my days off…
There was much I’d left behind.
Nine months ago that had seemed catastrophic. Today, it was tranquilo.
I was on the road. Un viajero en el camino. And although I found myself back between the pages of the same book, thinking the same sort of thoughts… I had seen the Pyramids.
That meant everything.