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Like the Flowing River: Thoughts and Reflections

Paulo Coelho

  Like the Flowing River: Thoughts and Reflections

  Paulo Coelho

  Translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa

  Be like the flowing river,

  Silent in the night.

  Be not afraid of the dark.

  If there are stars in the sky, reflect them back.

  If there are clouds in the sky,

  Remember, clouds, like the river, are water,

  So, gladly reflect them too,

  In your own tranquil depths.

  Manuel Bandeira

  Table of Contents

  Cover Page

  Title Page



  A Day at the Mill

  Prepared for Battle, But With a Few Doubts

  The Way of the Bow

  The Story of the Pencil

  How to Climb Mountains

  The Importance of a Degree

  In a Bar in Tokyo

  The Importance of Looking

  Genghis Khan and His Falcon

  Looking at Other People’s Gardens

  Pandora’s Box

  How One Thing Can Contain Everything

  The Music Coming from the Chapel

  The Devil’s Pool

  The Solitary Piece of Coal

  The Dead Man Wore Pyjamas

  Manuel Is an Important and Necessary Man

  Manuel Is a Free Man

  Manuel Goes to Paradise

  In Melbourne

  The Pianist in the Shopping Mall

  On My Way to the Chicago Book Fair

  Of Poles and Rules

  The Piece of Bread That Fell Wrong Side Up

  Of Books and Libraries

  Prague, 1981

  For the Woman Who Is All Women

  A Visitor Arrives from Morocco

  My Funeral

  Restoring the Web

  These Are My Friends

  How Do We Survive?

  Marked Out to Die

  The Moment of Dawn

  A January Day in 2005

  A Man L ying on the Ground

  The Missing Brick

  Raj Tells Me a Story

  The Other Side of the Tower of Babel

  Before a Lecture

  On Elegance

  Nhá Chica of Baependi

  Rebuilding the House

  The Prayer That I Forgot

  Copacabana, Rio de Janeiro

  Living Your Own Legend

  The Man Who Followed His Dreams

  The Importance of the Cat in Meditation

  I Can’t Get In

  Statutes for the New Millennium

  Destroying and Rebuilding

  The Warrior and Faith

  In Miami Harbour

  Acting on Impulse

  Transitory Glory

  Charity Under Threat

  On Witches and Forgiveness

  On Rhythm and the Road

  Travelling Differently

  A Fairy Tale

  Brazil’s Greatest Writer

  The Meeting That Did Not Take Place

  The Smiling Couple (London, 1977)

  The Second Chance

  The Australian and the Newspaper Ad

  The Tears of the Desert

  Rome: Isabella Returns from Nepal

  The Art of the Sword

  In the Blue Mountains

  The Taste of Success

  The Tea Ceremony

  The Cloud and the Sand Dune

  Norma and the Good Things

  Jordan, the Dead Sea, 21 June 2003

  In San Diego Harbour, California

  The Art of Withdrawal

  In the Midst of War

  The Soldier in the Forest

  In a Town in Germany

  Meeting in the Dentsu Gallery

  Reflections on 11 September 2001

  God’s Signs

  Alone on the Road

  The Funny Thing About Human Beings

  An Around-the-World Trip After Death

  Who Would Like This Twenty-Dollar Bill?

  The Two Jewels


  The Art of Trying

  The Dangers Besetting the Spiritual Search

  My Father-in-law, Christiano Oiticica

  Thank You, President Bush

  The Intelligent Clerk

  The Third Passion

  The Catholic and the Muslim

  Evil Wants Good to Prevail

  The Law of Jante

  The Old Lady in Copacabana

  Remaining Open to Love

  Believing in the Impossible

  The Storm Approaches

  Some Final Prayers

  More about Paulo Coelho

  Author Biography: Paulo Coelho

  Paulo Coelho The Witch of Portobello

  Heron Ryan, 44, journalist

  Life is a journey

  Feeling inspired?

  Also by Paulo Coelho


  About the Publisher


  When I was fifteen, I said to my mother: ‘I’ve discovered my vocation. I want to be a writer.’

  ‘My dear,’ she replied sadly, ‘your father is an engineer. He’s a logical, reasonable man with a very clear vision of the world. Do you actually know what it means to be a writer?’

  ‘Being someone who writes books.’

  ‘Your Uncle Haroldo, who is a doctor, also writes books, and has even published some. If you study engineering, you can always write in your spare time.’

  ‘No, Mama. I want to be a writer, not an engineer who writes books.’

  ‘But have you ever met a writer? Have you ever seen a writer?’

  ‘Never. Only in photographs.’

  ‘So how can you possibly want to be a writer if you don’t really know what it means?’

  In order to answer my mother’s question, I decided to do some research. This is what I learned about what being a writer meant in the early 1960s:

  (a) A writer always wears glasses and never combs his hair. Half the time he feels angry about everything and the other half depressed. He spends most of his life in bars, arguing with other dishevelled, bespectacled writers. He says very ‘deep’ things. He always has amazing ideas for the plot of his next novel, and hates the one he has just published.

  (b) A writer has a duty and an obligation never to be understood by his own generation; convinced, as he is, that he has been born into an age of mediocrity, he believes that being understood would mean losing his chance of ever being considered a genius. A writer revises and rewrites each sentence many times. The vocabulary of the average man is made up of 3,000 words; a real writer never uses any of these, because there are another 189,000 in the dictionary, and he is not the average man.

  (c) Only other writers can understand what a writer is trying to say. Even so, he secretly hates all other writers, because they are always jockeying for the same vacancies left by the history of literature over the centuries. And so the writer and his peers compete for the prize of ‘most complicated book’: the one who wins will be the one who has succeeded in being the most difficult to read.

  (d) A writer understands about things with alarming names, like semiotics, epistemology, neoconcretism. When he wants to shock someone, he says things like: ‘Einstein is a fool’, or ‘Tolstoy was the clown of the bourgeoisie.’ Everyone is scandalized, but they nevertheless go and tell other people that the theory of relativity is bunk, and that Tolstoy was a defender of the Russian aristocracy.

  (e) When trying to seduce a woman, a writer says: ‘I’m a writer’, and scribbles a poem on a napkin. It always

  (f) Given his vast culture, a writer can always get work as a literary critic. In that role, he can show his generosity by writing about his friends’ books. Half of any such reviews are made up of quotations from foreign authors and the other half of analyses of sentences, always using expressions such as ‘the epistemological cut’, or ‘an integrated bi-dimensional vision of life’. Anyone reading the review will say: ‘What a cultivated person’, but he won’t buy the book because he’ll be afraid he might not know how to continue reading when the epistemological cut appears.

  (g) When invited to say what he is reading at the moment, a writer always mentions a book no one has ever heard of.

  (h) There is only one book that arouses the unanimous admiration of the writer and his peers: Ulysses by James Joyce. No writer will ever speak ill of this book, but when someone asks him what it’s about, he can’t quite explain, making one doubt that he has actually read it.

  Armed with all this information, I went back to my mother and explained exactly what a writer was. She was somewhat surprised.

  ‘It would be easier to be an engineer,’ she said. ‘Besides, you don’t wear glasses.’

  However, I did already have the untidy hair, a packet of Gauloises in my pocket, the script of a play under my arm (The Limits of Resistance, which, to my delight, a critic described as ‘the maddest thing I’ve ever seen on stage’); I was also studying Hegel and was determined, somehow or other, to read Ulysses. Then a rock singer turned up and asked me to write words for his songs, and I withdrew from the search for immortality and set myself once more on the same path as ordinary people.

  This path took me to many places and caused me to change countries more often than I changed shoes, as Bertolt Brecht used to say. The pages that follow contain accounts of some of my own experiences, stories other people have told me, and thoughts I’ve had while travelling down particular stretches of the river of my life.

  These stories and articles have all been published in various newspapers around the world and have been collected together at the request of my readers.

  A Day at the Mill

  At the moment, my life is a symphony composed of three distinct movements: ‘a lot of people’, ‘a few people’, and ‘almost no one’. Each of them lasts about four months of the year; and although there is often a little of each during one particular month, they never get confused.

  ‘A lot of people’ is when I’m in touch with the public, with publishers and journalists. ‘A few people’ happens when I go back to Brazil, meet up with old friends, stroll along Copacabana beach, go to the occasional social event, but mostly stay at home.

  What I want to do today, though, is to talk a little about the ‘almost no one’ movement. Right now, night has fallen on the two hundred inhabitants of this Pyrenean village, whose name I prefer to keep secret and where, a short while ago, I bought a converted mill. I wake every morning at cock-crow, have breakfast, and go out for a walk amongst the cows and the sheep and the fields of maize and hay. I look at the mountains and – unlike during the ‘a lot of people’ movement – I never think about who I am. I have no questions and no answers; I live entirely in the present moment, knowing that the year has four seasons (yes, I know this may seem obvious, but we do sometimes forget), and I transform myself just as the countryside does around me.

  At the moment, I’m not much interested in what’s going on in Iraq or in Afghanistan: like anyone else living in the country, the most important news is the weather forecast. Everyone who lives in the small village knows whether it’s going to rain, whether it will be cold or very windy, since this directly affects their lives, their plans, their harvests. I see a farmer working in his field. We wish each other ‘Good morning’, discuss the likely weather, and then go on with what we were doing – he with his ploughing, me with my long walk.

  I come back, look in the letter-box, and there’s the local newspaper: a dance in the neighbouring village; a lecture in a bar in Tarbes – the nearest big city with its forty thousand inhabitants; last night, the fire brigade was called out because a litter bin was set on fire. The subject agitating the region at the moment is a group thought to be responsible for cutting down a line of plane trees along a country road because they blame the trees for the death of a motorcyclist. This news takes up a whole page, and there are several days’ worth of articles about the ‘secret cell’ that wants to avenge the boy’s death by destroying the trees.

  I lie down by the stream that runs past the mill. I look up at the cloudless sky in this terrifying summer, during which the heatwave has killed five thousand in France alone. I get up and go and practise kyudo, a form of meditation through archery, and this takes up another hour of my day. It’s lunchtime now; I have a light meal and then, in one of the other rooms in the old building, I suddenly notice a strange object, with a screen and a keyboard, connected – marvel of marvels – by a high-speed line, also known as a DSL. I know that the moment I press a button on that machine, the world will come to meet me.

  I resist as long as I can, but the moment arrives, my finger presses the on-switch, and here I am again connected with the world: Brazilian newspapers, books, interviews to be given, news about Iraq, about Afghanistan, requests, a note that my plane ticket will arrive tomorrow, decisions to be postponed, decisions to be taken.

  I work for several hours, because that is my choice, because that is my personal legend, because a warrior of light knows that he has duties and responsibilities. But during the ‘almost no one’ movement, everything on the computer screen seems very far away, just as this mill seems like a dream when I’m caught up in the other movements – ‘a lot of people’ and ‘a few people’.

  The sun is setting. I switch the computer off again, and the world goes back to being the countryside, the smell of grass, the lowing of cattle, the voice of the shepherd bringing his sheep back to the pen beside the mill.

  I ask myself how I can exist in two such different worlds in one day. I have no answer, but I know that it gives me a great deal of pleasure, and that I am happy while I write these lines.

  Prepared for Battle, But With a Few Doubts

  I’m wearing a strange green outfit, full of zips, and made from a very tough fabric. I have gloves on, too, in order to avoid cuts and scratches. I’m carrying a kind of spear, almost as tall as I am. The metal end has three prongs on one side, and a sharp point on the other.

  And before me lies the object of my attack: the garden.

  With the spear in my hand, I start to remove the weeds growing amongst the grass. I do this for quite a while, knowing that each plant I dig up will die within two days.

  Suddenly, I ask myself: am I doing the right thing?

  What we call a ‘weed’ is, in fact, an attempt at survival by a particular species that took Nature millions of years to create and develop. The flower was fertilized at the expense of innumerable insects; it was transformed into seed; the wind scattered it over the fields round about; and so – because it was not planted in just one place, but in many – its chances of surviving until next spring are that much greater. If it was concentrated in just one place, it would be vulnerable to being eaten, to flood, fire and drought.

  But all that effort to survive is brought up short by the point of a spear, which mercilessly plucks the plant from the soil.

  Why am I doing this?

  Someone created this garden. I don’t know who, because when I bought the house, the garden was already here, in harmony with the surrounding mountains and trees. But its creator must have thought long and hard about what he or she was doing, must have carefully planted and planned (for example, there is an avenue of trees that conceals the hut where we keep the firewood) and tended it through countless winters and springs. When I moved into the old mill – where I spend a few months of each year – the lawn was immaculate. Now it is up to me to continue that work, although the philosophical question remains: should I respect the work of the creator, of
the gardener, or should I accept the survival instinct with which nature endowed this plant, which I now call a ‘weed’?

  I continue digging up unwanted plants and placing them on a pile that will soon be burned. Perhaps I am giving too much thought to things that have less to do with thought and more to do with action. But, then, every gesture made by a human being is sacred and full of consequences, and that makes me think even more about what I am doing.

  On the one hand, these plants have the right to broadcast themselves everywhere. On the other hand, if I don’t destroy them now, they will end up choking the grass. In the New Testament, Jesus talks about separating the wheat from the tares.

  But – with or without the support of the Bible – I am faced by a concrete problem always faced by humanity: how far should we interfere with nature? Is such interference always negative, or can it occasionally be positive?

  I set aside my weapon – also known as a weeder. Each blow means the end of a life, the death of a flower that would have bloomed in the spring – such is the arrogance of the human being constantly trying to shape the landscape around him. I need to give the matter more thought, because I am, at this moment, wielding the power of life and death. The grass seems to be saying: ‘If you don’t protect me, that weed will destroy me.’ The weed also speaks to me: ‘I travelled so far to reach your garden. Why do you want to kill me?’

  In the end, the Hindu text, the Bhagavad-Gita comes to my aid. I remember the answer that Krishna gives to the warrior Arjuna, when the latter loses heart before a decisive battle, throws down his arms, and says that it is not right to take part in a battle that will culminate in the death of his brother. Krishna says, more or less: ‘Do you really think you can kill anyone? Your hand is My hand, and it was already written that everything you are doing would be done. No one kills and no one dies.’

  Encouraged by this recollection, I pick up my spear again, attack the weeds I did not invite to grow in my garden, and am left with this morning’s one lesson: when something undesirable grows in my soul, I ask God to give me the same courage mercilessly to pluck it out.

  The Way of the Bow