Living and Seeing

Life is a journey, not a destination.

How many times have we all encountered this saying in various forms over the years?  More than we can count, surely.  It’s a line that I always hear around this time of year too, as part of the High Holy Day services of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.  Surely we have goals in our lives, but to focus only on those goals and ignore the journey we take to achieve them is a crime, for we can learn far more in our travels than our stays.

This simple concept is the underlying theme of Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist.  A friend of mine recommended it to me a few weeks ago, and it is this book which I reserved at the library, prompting the trip that also saw me reading Silence and Prince Lestat (again).  I was surprised to find that this Brazilian novel is so small, a mere 171 pages long.  It was easy enough to read in a single morning.

This book is most definitely intended to be read in a single sitting.  It is divided into four parts only – a prologue, a part one, a part two, and an epilogue.  There are no chapters, though there are section breaks.  This particular edition, the 25th anniversary edition from 2014, also includes a number of pen illustrations that help to break up the narrative visually.  I’m not entirely certain whether the images help or hinder the story though.

The story itself is told in third person limited perspective, as our perception is largely based on what the main character sees and thinks.  Occasionally we get a peek into the minds of others, but it is fleeting, and only to offer some clarification or clue for a moment.  As for the writing style, Coelho writes in a cross between a fairy tale and a myth.  The details are important, the roles the people play are important.  The people themselves…not so much.  Throughout the entire novel, our main character is referred to only as “the boy”.  He is young and faceless, a vehicle through which the reader may better enter the narrative.  In fact, only two of the characters have actual names in the entire book.  Melchizedek, the King of Salem, and Fatima, the love interest.

Melchizedek, more commonly referred to as “the old man”, provides the boy with the impetus he needs to actually get the story moving from part one into part two.  Fatima, on the other hand, becomes the end destination of the journey.  She is not, however, the girl that is on the boy’s mind when he first departs.  Unlike that girl, whom he has idolized from afar and dreamed about, she is more real, and is known to reciprocate his feelings.  The first girl may have already forgotten him, but we never do find out.  Or care.

I can easily see why The Alchemist is already considered to be a classic, being a simple tale with a simple message that anyone can understand and relate to.  The story itself is timeless.  Even though we can try to date the events, they could occur any time within a span of several centuries, and really, that’s not at all an important part of the book.  Like any good fairy tale, myth, or legend, it doesn’t matter when the tale took place, so much as what occurred.

I do want to share with you the poem I mentioned above, found in the Gates of Repentence, the High Holy Day version of the New Union Prayerbook.  This was the standard prayerbook for the North American Reform Movement from 1976 up until about 2008, when many congregations began the process of switching over to the Mishkan T’filah.

Birth is a beginning
And death a destination.
And life is a journey:
From childhood to maturity
And youth to age;
From innocence to awareness
And ignorance to knowing;
From foolishness to discretion
And then, perhaps, to wisdom;
From weakness to strength
Or strength to weakness –
And, often, back again;
From health to sickness
And back, we pray, to health again;
From offense to forgiveness,
From loneliness to love,
From joy to gratitude,
From pain to compassion,
And grief to understanding –
From fear to faith;
From defeat to defeat to defeat –
Until, looking backward or ahead,
We see that victory lies
Not at some high place along the way,
But in having made the journey, stage by stage,
A sacred pilgrimage.
Birth is a beginning
And death a destination.
And life is a journey,
A sacred pilgrimage –
To life everlasting.

The poem is by Rabbi Alvin Fine, and every time I read it, it strikes a chord within me.  Not quite the same message as The Alchemist, of course, but they are very similar.  There are religious tones to Coelho’s book, but not the sort that make me nervous or leery.  Simply the sort that remind you that when alchemy and science were practiced by the same men, it was for the same purpose – to better understand G-d.  This isn’t any kind of oppressive religion, but rather one which sees all faiths as parallel paths seeking the same goal.

Speaking of looking at the world through different lenses and viewpoints, that is the core of Aphrikan magic in the Frontier Magic series by Patricia C. Wrede.  When I saw Thirteenth Child sitting on the library shelf back in 2009, I couldn’t wait to start reading it.  A brand new book by one of my childhood favorites, Patricia C. Wrede, author of the Enchanted Forest Chronicles.  I’d been reading her work for well over a decade at that point and had never seen anything brand new by her.

Frontier Magic is alternate historical fantasy.  That is to say, most of it takes place in the Midwest, right by the Mississippi, though they don’t use any of those terms.  It’s Mammoth River, it’s the Northern Plains Territory, etc.  The time period is the 1850s or 1860s; after the Civil War (in this timeline).  And our main character is Eff (short for Francine) Rothmer, a young girl who just happens to be the unlucky thirteenth child in a family that wanted to have a seventh son of a seventh son, her younger twin brother.

Wrede creates a vivid world mixing history, myth, fantasy, and the every day life of any young girl in the nineteenth century.  She introduces us to the three types of magic used in her world: Avrupan, Hijero-Cathayan, and Aphrikan.  As I said, the lattermost is based on looking at the world in different ways.  Some ways you can view this blog are as a diary, as a review, as text on a screen, as a collection of zeroes and ones that have been processed, stored, and displayed as pixels at about 72dpi.  All are true interpretations, just different ways of seeing.

Thirteenth Child works well for me because it hits a number of my buttons.  We have a skilled author with whom I’m already familiar.  Then there’s the fantasy and magic aspect.  Next is the historical fiction – something I do enjoy even though I rarely read it and tend not to seek it out.  Not to mention my old love of the Oregon Trail, the game, the history, the Dear America diary…needless to say, there’s a lot of reasons I enjoy this book.

I picked it because I wanted a break from new material, and I wanted something longer than short stories or even a single volume.  Frontier Magic is only three books long, but it’ll give me a bit of breathing room before I have to select my next reading choice.  Given how long these books are, I’ll probably finish the other two tomorrow and then come back to the big decisions.  I’m hoping that Monday will bring me some shipping notifications from Amazon – I’m expecting to be rereading the Chronicles of Elantra as well as Safehold in full.  I may go for all of the Old Kingdom as well.  Plus a few other books will be arriving, so I don’t want to start something too long.  It might be best to go for some of the series that I don’t have to reread in their entirety.  I suppose I’ll just have to wait and see what strikes my fancy next.

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