When a Book Changes Your Life

“I don’t want to change anything, because I don’t know how to deal with change. I’m used to the way I am.”

From Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist

The Alchemist How often does a book change  your life? I’m not talking about books you love so much you read them again and again. I’m not even talking about books that prompt you to think differently. I’m talking about books that cause you to do something, to take action. Just because I’ve loved a book doesn’t mean I make any changes in my day-to-day life after reading it. When I’m reading the book I’m engrossed in it, but then I close the covers and go back to my life, doing the same thing at the same time most days of the week, most weeks of the year.

About a year ago I read The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho when it was one of the books available for a literature class I was teaching. The books in the textbook room were brand new, as in no one else had used them. The pages were crisp, the covers unmarked, but that didn’t deter me. When I read the book I fell in love with the simple yet profound message of finding the power of dreams and staying true to your destiny. The Alchemist is a parable about how what you’re looking for is already within you (think Glinda the Good Witch telling Dorothy she’s always had the power within her—only without the sparkly red slippers). It’s the story of Santiago, the young Andalusian shepherd who has always wanted to travel and ends up on a journey of self-discovery:

“My heart is afraid that it will have to suffer,” the boy (Santiago) told the Alchemist one night as they looked up at the moonless sky.

“Tell your heart that the fear of suffering is worse than the suffering itself. And that no heart has ever suffered when it goes in search of its dreams.”

Of all the characters in The Alchemist, the one I most related to (as I would guess most people do) is the crystal merchant. Santiago is stranded after his money is stolen, and he goes to work for the crystal merchant, who treats Santiago with kindness. Though the merchant is afraid of change, he takes Santiago’s advice and makes changes to his crystal shop. Because of Santiago’s ideas, the crystal shop thrives. The crystal merchant has dreams of travel like Santiago, but he’s full of excuses. He reminds me of that complaining relative everyone has—I can’t do this because… I can’t do that since… You think you’re not feeling well? Let me tell you about not feeling well… Like many of us, the merchant hides his heart’s desire behind worries. He can’t go to Mecca because… It’s not a good idea since… The crystal merchant fears that if he does finally go to Mecca he’ll have nothing else to look forward to.

The view from the Globe Theater in London.

I wasn’t dreaming of Mecca, but I had been wanting to visit London for more than a decade. As a student of English literature, a trip to England seemed somehow necessary. But, like the crystal merchant, I made excuses. England, especially London, is too expensive. It’s too far. I don’t like flying. England is an entirely different country! How would I know what to do or where to go in another country? I didn’t have a passport. Don’t they use different money there? Oh, did I mention how expensive England, especially London, is? But after reading about Santiago’s journey of self-discovery—how he achieved his dreams despite the obstacles—I realized how flimsy a lot of the crystal merchant’s excuses sounded. And if the crystal merchant’s excuses were flimsy, and I made the same excuses, then I’m not any better than the crystal merchant.

I began examining my excuses about not visiting England one by one to see what, if any, validity they had. Here’s what I found:

1. England, especially London, is definitely expensive, but the truth is I had the money. I’ve been fortunate enough to have sold a fair number of books and I had money set aside. When I looked into airfare, hotel, and the cost of meals and attractions, I had to cross too expensive off my list because it wasn’t true—I could afford it.

Haymarket in London

2. London is far from Las Vegas, Nevada, 5235 miles to be exact, which is ten hours airplane time. True, I don’t like to fly, but I had already discovered that just because I don’t like to fly doesn’t mean I can’t. Whenever I do travel by plane I get an aisle seat and pretend I’m on a bus or a train. And it’s not like I have to know how to work the controls in the cockpit. I just have to sit there. I didn’t want to be one of those people who are so afraid of flying they never go anywhere. I had been that way for a while, but there are places I want to go so I had to get over my fears. Not wanting to fly ten hours was no longer an excuse.

3. It’s true that England is a different country thanks to that little squabble called the American Revolution circa 1776. I often think of that quote from George Bernard Shaw: “England and America are two countries separated by a common language.” But they do speak English in England, English an American can understand, even, and from reading so much British literature and watching so much British television I like to think I speak conversational British English. So yes, England is a different country, but since I wouldn’t have trouble communicating with anyone that wasn’t an excuse—at least not a good one.

4. No passport? Seriously? Two filled-out forms, two hours in the post office, one bad photograph, and $150 later the lack of a passport was no longer an issue. They do use different money in England, but a trip to the ATM gave me a few hundred dollars, which the nice man at my bank exchanged for ten British pounds (that’s an exaggeration, but not by much).

Regent Street in London

Regent Street in London

I realized I didn’t want to look back and know I missed my chance to go to London. I booked my flight and hotel room, I bought a few tourist guides, signed up on Rick Steves’ travel website, and a few months later I was there, in London, seeing places I had dreamed of for years. I wasn’t disappointed when I got there the way the crystal merchant expected he would be disappointed. I loved being in London. It’s a truly international city and an easy place to visit for tourists who haven’t been there before. I even went to Paris. Despite my French surname, I don’t speak a word of French (American English and conversational British English are as far as I go), but I managed to get around and back to the airport on time and in one piece. In other words, my trip wasn’t a colossal failure as the crystal merchant thought his journey would be. It was a joy, and I’m already making plans to visit again next summer.

I wouldn’t have visited London if I hadn’t read The Alchemist. Goes to show how inspiration to follow your dreams can come from anywhere—even an unused stack of books in the textbook room.

The Courage To Let Our Light Shine

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

                        ~Marianne Williamson

I’m watching Super Soul Sunday, which is how I’ve been spending my Sundays for as long as the show has been on OWN. Today’s movie was called The Shadow Effect from Debbie Ford, which is about acknowledging the darkness within ourselves so we can bask in the light. I was particularly struck by the quote about our deepest fear from Marianne Williamson.

I’ve read A Return to Love, the book from where the quote comes, but today I realized that the quote spoke directly to the part in me that has been struggling the most lately—the part that feels like it needs to dim the light I have been striving for years to ignite. Williamson says, “Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.” I had what Oprah calls an “Aha! moment” as I realized that I’ve been playing small to make those around me feel better.

A friend at work was so happy for me when a local magazine featured an article about me that she posted a link to the article on our school’s message board. As soon as I saw her post, I thought, “Oh no. This isn’t going to be good.” I learned a long time ago that people aren’t always happy when good things happen to someone else. When I was still living in California, an article about my writing and publishing appeared in The Los Angeles Times, and I told a few teachers I worked with about it. I thought it was cool, that’s all. I had worked hard to get some notice for The Copperfield Review and now there was an article about it in a major newspaper. The next day I heard from a friend that the talk in the staff room was about me: “Who does she think she is? She thinks she’s so special now?” As an intensely private person, I shuddered internally at the knowledge that people were speaking negatively about me, especially over something I meant to be positive. That’s when I slipped the dimmer over my light and stopped sharing anything about my writing or publishing successes with anyone except a trusted few.

The story hasn’t changed. After my friend posted the link to the article on the school message board, a few teachers went to her with the same “Who does she think she is?” I heard years before. One teacher congratulated me, but otherwise it was silence (crickets) from the rest of the staff. I tried to explain to someone that if I’ve had writing success it’s because of my life choices. Most people marry and have children, but I didn’t marry and I don’t have human children (my children say meow and sit on the keyboard while I’m writing). I can spend my free time however I choose, and I choose to write. In retrospect, I realize my response doesn’t really work since there are plenty of people with full-time jobs, spouses, and children who manage to pursue their dreams. But at the time I thought I could explain away why I was receiving attention for my writing.

Suddenly, I began slinking around, my head hung low, avoiding eye contact with anyone. I was embarrassed (again) that anyone had been talking negatively about me. Then a few weeks ago (I’m a little slow sometimes) it finally occurred to me—why am I the one trying to hide? What have I done wrong? Does the fact that I’ve stayed stubbornly true to my dreams mean I have to feel embarrassed about it for the rest of my life? Seeing Super Soul Sunday simply expounded the “light bulb moment” I already had. Why do I feel the need to explain away my successes when I don’t expect anyone else to explain away their successes? I’ve been letting others make me feel small, but that’s my fault, not theirs. People can have whatever reactions they want. It’s up to me to remember to, as Marianne Williamson says, “make manifest the glory of God that is within us.” When I’m writing, I’m manifesting the glory of God that is within me. It’s what I’m called to do. No apologies required.

I’ve decided that I will no longer hide from my successes. I’ve earned every single one with years of hard work. Whenever I’m tempted to cower from public acknowledgement of that hard work, I’ll remember Williamson’s words: “And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

Amen.