Like The Flowing River (2) by Paulo Coelho

Like the Flowing River: Thoughts and Reflections

Coelho, Paulo

The Story of the Pencil

A boy was watching his grandmother write a letter. At one point, he asked:

‘Are you writing a story about what we’ve done? Is it a story about me? ’

His grandmother stopped writing her letter and said to her grandson:

‘I am writing about you, actually, but more important than the words is the pencil I’m using. I hope you will be like this pencil when you grow up.’

Intrigued, the boy looked at the pencil. It didn’t seem very special.

‘But it’s just like any other pencil I’ve ever seen!’

‘That depends on how you look at things. It has five qualities which, if you manage to
hang on to them, will make you a person who is always at peace with the world.

‘First quality: you are capable of great things, but you must never forget that there is a hand guiding your steps. We call that hand God, and He always guides us according to His will.

‘Second quality: now and then, I have to stop writing and use a sharpener. That makes the pencil suffer a little, but afterwards, he’s much sharper. So you, too, must learn to bear certain pains and sorrows, because they will make you a better person.

‘Third quality: the pencil always allows us to use an eraser to rub out any mistakes. This means that correcting something we did is not necessarily a bad thing; it helps to keep us on the road to justice.

‘Fourth quality: what really matters in a pencil is not its wooden exterior, but the
graphite inside. So always pay attention to what is happening inside you.

‘Finally, the pencil’s fifth quality: it always leaves a mark. In just the same way, you
should know that everything you do in life will leave a mark, so try to be conscious of that in your every action.’

low to Climb Mountains

Choose the mountain you want to climb

Don’t be influenced by what other people say: ‘that one’s prettier’ or ‘that one looks
easier ’.You are going to put a lot of energy and enthusiasm into achieving your objective, and you are the only person responsible for your choice, so be quite sure about what you are doing.

Find out howto reach the mountain

Often you can see the mountain in the distance – beautiful, interesting, full of challenges. However, when you try to reach it, what happens? It’s surrounded byroads; forests lie between you and your objective; and what seems clear on the map is far more complicated in reality. So you must try all the paths and tracks until, one day, you find yourself before the peak you intend to climb.

Learn from someone who has been there before

However unique you may think you are, there is always someone who has had the same dream before, and who will have left signs behind that will make the climb less arduous: the best place to attach a rope, trodden paths, branches broken off to make it easier to pass. It is your climb and it is your responsibility too, but never forget that other people’s experiences are always helpful.

Dangers, seen from close to, are controllable

When you start to climb the mountain of your dreams, pay attention to what is around you. There are, of course, precipices. There are almost imperceptible cracks. There are stones polished so smooth by rain and wind that they have become as slippery as ice. But if you know where you are putting your foot, you will see any traps and be able to avoid them.

The landscape changes, so make the most of it

You must, naturally, always keep in mind your objective – reaching the top. However, as you climb, the view changes, and there is nothing wrong with stopping now and then to enjoy the vista. With each metre you climb, you can see a little further, so take time to discover things you have never noticed before.

Respect your body

You will only manage to climb a mountain if you give your body the care it deserves. You have all the time that life gives you, so do not demand too much from your body. If you walk too quickly, you will grow tired and give up halfway. If you walk too slowly, night might fall and you will get lost. Enjoy the landscape, drink the cool spring water, and eat the fruit that Nature so generously offers you, but keep walking.

Respect your soul

Don’t keep repeating, ‘I’m going to do it.’ Your soul knows this already. What it needs to do is to use this long walk in order to grow, to reach out as far as the horizon, to touch the sky.  Obsession will not help you in the search for your goal, and will end up spoiling the pleasure of the climb. On the other hand, don’t keep repeating ‘It’s harder than I thought,’ because that will sap your inner strength.

Be prepared to go the extra mile

The distance to the top of the mountain is always greater than you think. There is bound to come a moment when what seemed close is still very far away. But since you are prepared to go still further, this should not be a problem.

Be joyful when you reach the top

Cry, clap your hands, shout out loud that you made it; let the wind (because it is always windy up there) purify your mind, cool your hot, weary feet, open your eyes, blow the dust out of your heart. What was once only a dream, a distant vision, is now part of your life. You made it, and that is good.

Make a promise

Now that you have discovered a strength you did not even know you had, tell yourself that you will use it for the rest of your days; promise yourself, too, to discover another mountain and set off on a new adventure.

Tell your story

Yes, tell your story. Be an example to others. Tell everyone that it’s possible, and then others will find the courage to climb their own mountains.

The Importance of a Degree

My old mill, in a small village in France, has a line of trees that separates it from the farm next door. The other day, my neighbour came to see me. He must be about seventy years old. I’ve sometimes seen him and his wife working in the fields, and thought that it was high time they stopped.

My neighbour is a very pleasant man, but he says that the leaves from my trees are falling on his roof and that I should cut the trees down.

I’m really shocked. How can a person who has spent his entire life in contact with Nature want me to destroy something that has taken so long to grow, simply because, in ten years’ time, it might cause problems with his roof?

I invite him in for a coffee. I say that I’ll take full responsibility, and that if, one day,
those leaves (which will, anyway, be swept away by the wind and by the summer) do cause any damage, I’ll pay for him to have a new roof. My neighbour says that that doesn’t interest him; he wants me to cut down those trees. I get slightly angry and say that I would rather buy his farm from him.

‘My land isn’t for sale,’ he says.

‘But with that money you could buy a lovely house in town and live out the rest of your days there with your wife, without having to put up with harsh winters and failed harvests.’

‘My farm is not for sale. I was born here and grew up here, and I’m too old to move.’

He suggests that we get an expert from town to come and assess the situation and make a decision – that way, neither of us need get angry with the other. We are, after all, neighbours.

When he leaves, my first reaction is to label him as insensitive and lacking in respect for Mother Earth. Then I feel intrigued: why would he not agree to sell his land? And before the day is over, I realize that it is because his life has only one story, and my neighbour does not want to change that story. Going to live in the town would mean plunging into an unknown world with different values, and maybe he thinks he’s too old to learn.

Is this something peculiar to my neighbour? No. I think it happens to everyone.
Sometimes, we are so attached to our way of life that we turn down a wonderful opportunity simply because we don’t know what to do with it. In his case, his farm and his village are the only places he knows, and there is no point in taking any risks. In the case of people who live in the town, they all believe that they must have a university degree, get married, have children, make sure that their children get a degree too, and so on and so on. No one asks themselves:

Could I do something different?’

I remember that my barber worked day and night so that his daughter could finish her sociology degree. She finally graduated and, after knocking on many doors, found work as a secretary at a cement works. Yet my barber still used to say very proudly: ‘My daughter’s got a degree.’

Most of my friends, and most of my friends’ children, also have degrees. That doesn’t
mean that they’ve managed to find the kind of work they wanted. Not at all. They went to university because someone, at a time when universities were important, said that, in order to rise in the world, you had to have a degree. And thus the world was deprived of some excellent gardeners, bakers, antique dealers, sculptors, and writers. Perhaps this is the moment to review the situation. Doctors, engineers, scientists, and lawyers need to go to university, but does everyone? I’ll let these lines by Robert Frost provide the answer:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I – I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference. Just to conclude the story about my neighbour. The expert came and, to my surprise, showed us a French law which states that any tree has to be at least three metres from another property. Mine are only two metres away, and so I will have to cut them down.

In a Bar in Tokyo

The Japanese journalist asks the usual question: ‘Who are your favourite writers?’ And I give my usual answer: ‘Jorge Amado, Jorge Luis Borges, William Blake and Henry Miller.’

The interpreter looks at me in amazement:

‘Henry Miller?’

Then she realizes that it is not her role to ask questions, and she carries on interpreting.  At the end of the interview, I ask her why she was so surprised by my response. Was it perhaps because Henry Miller is not considered to be ‘politically correct’? He was someone who opened up a vast world for me, and his books have an energy and a vitality rarely found in contemporary literature.

‘No, I’m not criticizing Henry Miller. I’m a fan of his too,’ she said. ‘Did you know that
he was married to a Japanese woman?’

Of course I knew. I’m not ashamed to be enough of a fan to want to find out everything about a writer and his life. I went to a book fair once just to meet Jorge Amado; I travelled forty-eight hours in a bus to meet Borges (and it was my fault that I didn’t, because when I saw him, I froze and couldn’t say a word); I rang the bell of John Lennon’s apartment in New York (the doorman asked me to leave a letter explaining the reason for my visit and said that John Lennon would phone me, but he never did); I had plans to go to Big Sur to see Henry Miller, but he died before I had saved enough money for the trip.

‘The Japanese woman is called Hoki,’ I said proudly. ‘I also know that there is a museum of his watercolours in Tokyo.’

‘Would you like to meet her tonight?’

What a question! Of course I would like to meet someone who once lived with one of
my idols. I imagine she must receive visitors and requests for interviews from all over the world; after all, she lived with Miller for nearly ten years. Surely she won’t want to waste her time on a mere fan? But if the translator says it’s possible, I had better take her word for it – the Japanese always keep their word.

I spend the rest of the day anxiously waiting. We get into a taxi, and everything starts to seem very strange. We stop in a street where the sun probably never shines, because a railway viaduct passes right over it. The translator points to a second-rate bar on the second floor of a crumbling building.

We go up some stairs, enter a deserted bar, and there is Hoki Miller.

To conceal my surprise, I exaggerate my enthusiasm for her ex-husband. She takes me to a room in the back, where she has created a little museum – a few photos, two or three signed watercolours, a book with a dedication written in it, and nothing more. She tells me that she met him when she was studying for an MA in Los Angeles and that, in order to make ends meet, she used to play piano in a restaurant and sing French songs (in Japanese). Miller had supper there once and loved the songs (he had spent much of his life in Paris); they went out a few times, and he asked her to marry him.

I see that there is a piano in the bar – as if she were returning to the past, to the day when they first met. She tells me some wonderful stories about their life together, about the problems that arose from the difference in their ages (Miller was over fifty, and Hoki not yet twenty), about the time they spent together. She explains that the heirs from his other marriages inherited everything, including the rights to the books, but that this didn’t matter because the experience of being with him outweighed any monetary compensation.

I ask her to play the same song that first caught Miller’s attention all those years ago. She does this with tears in her eyes, and sings ‘Autumn Leaves’ (‘Feuilles mortes’). The translator and I are moved too. The bar, the piano, the voice of that Japanese woman echoing through the empty room, not caring about the success of the other exwives, or the rivers of money that must flow from Miller’s books, or the international fame she could be enjoying now.

‘There was no point in squabbling over the inheritance: love was enough,’ she said at last, sensing what we were feeling. Yes, in the light of that complete absence of bitterness or rancour, I think love really was enough.

The Importance of Looking

At first, Theo Wierema was merely a very persistent individual. For five years, he kept sending letters to my office in Barcelona, inviting me to give a talk in The Hague, in Holland.

For five years, my office replied that my diary was full. My diary was not, in fact, always full, but a writer is not necessarily someone who speaks well in public. Besides, everything I need to say is in the books and articles I write, which is why I always try to avoid giving lectures.

Theo found out that I was going to record a programme for a Dutch television channel. When I went downstairs to start filming, he was waiting for me in the hotel lobby. He introduced himself and asked if he could go with me, saying: ‘I’m not one of those people who simply won’t take “No” for an answer; I think I may just be going the wrong way about achieving my goal.’

We must struggle for our dreams, but we must also know that, when certain paths prove impossible, it would be best to save our energies in order to travel other roads. I could have simply said ‘No’ (I have said and heard this word many times), but I decided to adopt a more diplomatic approach: I would impose conditions that would be impossible for him to meet.

I said that I would give the lecture for free, but the entrance fee must not exceed two
euros, and the hall must contain no more than two hundred people.

Theo agreed.

‘You’re going to spend more than you’re going to earn,’ I warned him. ‘By my
calculation, the cost of the air ticket and hotel alone will cost three times what you will earn if you manage to fill the hall. Then there’s the advertising and the hire of the hall. . . ’

Theo interrupted me, saying that none of this mattered. He was doing this because of
what he could see happening in his work.

‘I organize events like this because I need to keep believing that human beings are still in search of a better world. I need to contribute to making this possible.’

What was his work?

‘I sell churches.’And, to my amazement, he went on: ‘I’m employed by the Vatican to select buyers, because there are more churches than there are church-goers in Holland. And since we’ve had some terrible experiences in the past, with sacred places being turned into nightclubs, condominiums, boutiques, and even sex- shops, the system of selling churches has changed.

The project has to be approved by the community, and the buyer has to say what he or she is going to do with the building. We normally only accept proposals that include a cultural centre, a charitable institution, or a museum. And what has this to do with the lecture, and with the other events I’m trying to organize? People don’t really meet together any more, and if they don’t meet, they won’t grow.’

Looking at me hard, he concluded: ‘Meetings. That was the mistake I made with you.
Instead of just sending e-mails, I should have shown you that I’m made of flesh and blood.
Once, when I failed to get a reply from a particular politician, I went and knocked on his door, and he said to me: “If you want something, you need to look the other person in the eye.” Ever since then, that’s what I’ve done, and I’ve had nothing but good results. You can have at your disposal all the means of communication in the world, but nothing, absolutely nothing, can replace looking someone in the eye.’

Needless to say, I accepted his proposal.

P.S. When I went to The Hague to give the lecture, and knowing that my wife, who is an artist, has always wanted to set up a cultural centre, I asked to see some of the churches that were for sale. I asked the price of one which used to hold 500 parishioners every Sunday, and it cost one euro (ONE euro!), but the maintenance costs can reach prohibitive levels.

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