I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I needed to be—Douglas Adams
One of my all-time favourite books is a collection of short stories called Like the Flowing River by Paulo Coelho. I’ve purchased this book many times as I have a habit of giving it away, then I miss having it in my life and go buy another copy. On the back cover, the book is described as containing powerful tales of living and dying, of destiny and choice, of love lost and found. I find Coelho’s stories deceptively simple. For example, one of my favourite stories in the book, The Approaching Storm, tells of his thoughts as a storm is approaching. It’s that simple. Whether one turns the story into a metaphor for life is entirely up to them. In another, Prague, 1981, Coelho tells of a time he was walking through the streets of Prague and stopped to have a conversation with a young artist. This story is only one page long…and it is amazing. I won’t give away what happens, but it resonated with me because I was witness to the exact same phenomenon in Babolna, Hungary, in 2009. What makes Coelho’s stories so great is that they get me reflecting on my own life. It is a gentle approach. He doesn’t instruct me to do this. I’m simply led there by his narrative.
I find a lot of books these days come with a strong message, and by strong, I mean they’re like a sledgehammer trying to bash their message into my brain. I call these books the How to…books. They are written by supposed experts who want to instruct me on how to live my life. Trouble is, those authors are not experts in my life. I am. Just as I’ve tried all the fad diets from the past four decades, I’ve also read most of the self-help books. Neither the diets nor the self-help books have resulted in anything changing for me. I’m usually left feeling like a big fat failure. It’s not that I don’t enjoy reading them. How to books can be interesting and contain some pretty ideas, but the reality is, one size doesn’t fit all and I’m not at all good at being told what to do. I like to try and figure stuff out for myself.
This is why I like books such as Like the Flowing River. There is no instruction. I’m led into self-reflection gently; like I’m floating down a river, completely caught up inside a beautiful narrative, then wham! Quite unexpectedly, some new learning suddenly appears and I never realised I even needed it.
In the introduction to Like a Flowing River, Coelho says, ‘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.’ This is what I have tried to do with my new book, Breastless (due out later this year). I’ve gathered together a collection of stories based on my own experiences, or the experiences of others, as well as some thoughts and reflections about life and death. It is not my intention to instruct others on what to do if they find themselves in my situation. They will have their own story and I am not an expert in other people’s lives. What I hope happens is that by reading my collection of stories and quotes, people will discover their own unexpected moments of clarity.