The Alchemist

The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho

This is a book that has been recommended to me on multiple occasions by several good friends.  Flying home to visit my family a few years ago, I stopped in a magazine shop at the airport.  They had a really nice looking anniversary edition of this book for sale.  I picked it up and started to read the first pages and the inside cover with the synopsis.  I was absolutely intrigued; it did in fact sound like something that would have interested me.  It would take me a few more months to catch up on the other books that I was simultaneously reading, so that I could eventually get to this one.  Finally I could not resist any longer.  I read this book in record time!  I was completely absorbed in it, and was reading passages out loud to anyone who would listen.  

It is hard to categorize this book.  It is at the same time a travel book, a philosophy book, a self-help book and a novel all in one.  It is inspiring, thought provoking, and full of wisdom.  The language over-all is simple, but it speaks to me because I feel as if I did a lot of what the boy did and had some of the same experiences. The boy dreams of travel, of visiting places other than the small farming town he knows.  He becomes a shepherd, so that he can travel around and see more of the world.  One day he has a dream of hidden treasure to be found near the Egyptian Pyramids.  He visits a gypsy to find out the meaning of the dream because, as we learn from her, dreams are the language of God.  She tells him that he must go there to find his treasure.  

Then he meets a man who calls himself a king.  He tells the boy to give him 1/10th of his herd of sheep, and he will in exchange tell him how to find the treasure.  The boy thinks about it for a while and then decides to trust the king and gets very important advice about his Personal Legend, what he has always wanted to accomplish, about the Soul of the World, and he also learns that if he wants something badly enough, all the universe conspires in helping him achieve it.  The king told him all he had to do was follow the omens.  The king also advised against giving up on his dream. He will hear this advice on other occasions when he is at risk of giving it all up, and it is powerful advice which I think everyone needs to hear.  

To realize one’s Personal Legend is a person’s only real obligation,” the king said.  And so the boy is off on his adventure.  It was not an easy journey to the Pyramids, and it takes an exceptionally long time, and there is a lot of adventure along the way.  On several occasions he finds himself ready to give it all up, but something always pulls him back.  He goes through many trials and successes and finally ends up exactly where he is supposed to be. Along the way he meets a crystal merchant, whose life he changed forever, an Englishman, a beautiful woman with whom he falls immediately in love and for whom he once again wants to give it all up, and finally the Alchemist.  It is the Alchemist who will finally set him on the path to being able to find his treasure, convinces him that he cannot give up for risk of resentment and losing his treasure forever, and he repeatedly tests him to see if he’s ready.  


Some of the most important messages in this book which I could certainly apply to my life are, “People need not fear the unknown if they are capable of achieving what they need and want”, “when you can’t go back, you have to worry only about the best way of moving forward,”  and “people are afraid to pursue their most important dreams because they feel that they don’t deserve them, or that they’ll be unable to achieve them.”  This of course is but a small sample of the wisdom in this book.  So much of it was noteworthy!  

What I realized is that despite the popular saying, you really can go home again!  He had to travel all the way to the Pyramids of Egypt only to find out that what he had been looking for all his life was right where he had started.  However, along the way he had had amazing experiences that he would never have known if he had not gone in search of something.  It is a lot like what I have done in my life, and now I know that I had been following the omens, and fulfilling my Personal Legend.  When I allowed myself to believe that sometimes taking the long way home is the only way home, I set off on an adventure to Japan to finally find my way home to New Orleans.  I had no idea what I was seeking there, or what I would find.  What I would in fact find was what I was really meant to do with my life.  Along the way, I saw and did amazing things that I would never have had the opportunity to do before, and may never again.

This is a book I could read over and over again.

**** This is an English Book Club selection. See Courses page for details.****

NOLA, mon amour…

A student asked once why we should study history.  In actuality the question was more about asking for “one decent reason” for studying history, which gave me the impression that he was not a believer in the importance of studying history.  Of course we should study it.  I cannot even imagine the alternative. Is that even a question on people’s minds?  We are more than ever a global community.  If we ever want to know each other better, understand each other more, we must know and understand our origins.

As a tour guide in one of the oldest cities in the country, I often tell my guests that to understand us, to understand why we are the way we are, why we do the things that we do, and the way we do them, they absolutely must know about our roots, hear our stories, learn our history.

And quite a history it is!  We have tragic origins, riddled with fires, floods, hurricanes, disease and epidemic, murder and catastrophe, and like the phoenix, each time we rise out of the ashes.  We rebuild and build stronger and better.  We bond together as a community.  Maybe this is the reason why we celebrate everything; even funerals are a parade.  We remember the life, not the death.  We have had enough of death.  Maybe that is why every celebration comes with food.  Food is comfort.  Food and music filled with soul fill our streets at every turn.  It is a music that heals and was born right here. We sing our sadness and grief until we are not sad anymore.


This is a city that knows its history, and hopes not to have it repeat itself, at least not the bad stuff.  To know and to understand our history is to understand us, and why we choose to stay, even when staying gets difficult.  People come here to celebrate sometimes without really understanding the backstory.  Some people were utterly amazed to hear that we celebrated Mardi Gras just six months after Katrina.  How could we not?   We needed a celebration to heal our wounds, to purge the memory of death, to feel like ourselves again.  A city-wide jazz funeral for the hurricane devastation that quite nearly took it all away.  They did not understand, but I did.  We showed the world that our spirit and our will to survive are indestructible.  We are the phoenix and we rise.

Why New Orleans Matters to Me

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to meet the author of Why New Orleans Matters, Tom Piazza.  He was hosting a book club meeting at my neighborhood bookstore, so I got there early for the chance to talk with him, thank him and tell him how much I appreciated his book and to hopefully get him to sign it for me.  (Yes, I am a bit of a fan girl!  I make no apologies for that. Several other women lined up behind me for the exact same thing.) In honor of this fortuitous moment, I took the opportunity to reread it.


This book, Why New Orleans Matters, released quickly after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, is less of a novel and more of a very elaborate essay on the importance of this city and why it needs to be protected at all costs.  In the days and months, and even years, after the hurricane and my subsequent displacement elsewhere, I felt a loss like nothing I have ever felt in my life.  No one really understood why I was so unhappy, or why I was so unable to settle into this new city and call it home.  I told them I could never call it home, and that it would never be home no matter how long I stayed there.  I tried to explain to them why I felt that way.  I tried to find the words to explain what it was that was missing there, what it was that I had found in New Orleans that I could not seem to find there.  Mr. Piazza gave me the words to say what it was I was feeling. He effortlessly and eloquently put his finger on that timeless thing that makes New Orleans so unique, puts into words that intangible feeling, that mysterious quality that we all love and appreciate so much about this place we call home.  And it is very hard to describe for someone who has never been here.


New Orleans, he says, “has a mythology, a personality, a soul…” (xvii) that so few other places can claim to have.  “The past in New Orleans cohabits with the present…” (xviii) and its history is palpable; it is living and breathing its past.


It feels different in subtle ways.  Never before have I ever felt the air upon me as I do here. It hangs, as one friend described, like a damp wool blanket on my skin.   It sounds different even.  I remember after having been away for a while, that one weekend I was back in town visiting.  I remember telling a friend one morning that the sound outside was different from the place where I was currently living.  I, once again, could not find the right words. My friend immediately knew what it was that I wanted to say and said “it is organic.”  That was it.  Organic.  I could hear the banana plant leaves rustling in the wind, the sounds of birds (not cars and construction), leaves blowing in the yard.  It was the beautiful sound of the closeness of nature.  It smells different, too.  As I walk down the sidewalk, I smell the combination of a dozen flowers and fruit trees mixed with coffee and fresh rain from earlier in the afternoon.  An intoxicating elixir.

Reading how Mr. Piazza describes our love of food, music, festival and family, all of which are inextricably tied together, was a beautiful affirmation of what I had already believed and felt, but simply could not express as well as he had. The  “food of New Orleans is a language, and all those who prepare it and love it are family.” (22).  It is a big small town, with a community mindset.  We all here are family in a way.  We greet each other on the street like friends even though perfect strangers, yet in our way of seeing things, if I see the same person on the street every day, we are not strangers.


If you are one of the million or so people who experienced Katrina first-hand, I recommend only reading part one.  Part two starts with the aftermath, and while I did experience the storm and the coming home part where I saw images that I will never be able to erase from my mind, I read it anyway. It was a very emotional experience, indeed.  If you are one who wonders why we stay here, why we live here, or why we came back here, maybe you need to read this.  It was not a matter of whether I would come home despite what happened, but more of a question of when.  It took me long enough, but when I finally did, I knew it was the right decision and the right timing. Like Mr. Piazza, I knew this was home, “for keeps, no matter where I might travel.” (7)

Vive La Nouvelle-Orleans!

On Feb 11, 2014 I wrote a blog post on Tea-BookShelf on a book entitled Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans? and its follow-up Where We Know New Orleans as Home. I want to talk about what New Orleans is to me, why it is home, and why I know what it means to miss it so much.

It just made sense to me, to move to New Orleans after school. It was logical. It is quite simply Louisiana’s only real city, the city that care (or time?) forgot, the city where no one really cares what you look like or how you live your life. It all just goes rolling leisurely by here, like the old Mississippi, not too fast either because it is too darn hot and too darn sticky.

It is a big small town, overgrown but not grown up. It is a neighborhood a city large, and we all know each other, or at least act like it. Neighbors really do ask how you are, or about your mama, and they truly do care to hear the answer. The other day a neighbor asked me how I was, and I replied that I was surviving. He replied that I looked pretty good for just surviving. Neighbors introduce themselves when moving in.

New Orleans is a lady a little worse for the wear but who still cares to dress herself up in her Sunday finest. She eats well, parties well into the wee hours and still looks great for Sunday morning brunch. And she never, ever forgets a holiday. She is celebrating 300 years soon and know that it will be a crazy party! This city that predates the United States, with all her heritage from France and Spain, but not forgetting the many nations who added spice to her soul, she is weathered but not worn. Well, let me be honest, she is sometimes worn out, but does that not add some charm?

New Orleans has character that just is not found in many places. We dress up the old; we do not tear down. We put a shiny plaque on houses saying Faulkner wrote here, Burroughs slept here, Crowley drank here. Her history, her soul, her dirty secrets, it is all so very interesting.

There is music on every street corner, and interesting people everywhere you look. You may see costumes and wonder where the party is, but know that the party is optional. That may just be their everyday wear. The city draws people back time and time again, and you are very likely to see someone you knew from some other time from some other place. The city also attracts artists, poets, writers, musicians because the city is a story waiting to be told.

It is a song waiting to be sung. It is timeless but not old, and we are all aware that it is not immortal. In fact it lives (as Laferriere says about Haiti) intensively, for the very reason that we know it is not forever. Every year that I spent away from New Orleans after Katrina, was a year that I felt was lost, wasted. It was a year I felt I was on the outside of a window looking in, watching my life roll past me, while I bided my time in another place. It was torturous.

Now that I am home, it is almost as if I had never left. I rolled right back into my place, a place that felt like it had been held for me. Those with whom I had formerly worked asked if I was available, as if I had been simply gone for the weekend. It strangely feels like a place untouched by time. When I consider the time that has elapsed since my return, it could be weeks, or months, but it is inconceivable that years have passed. Years in other places felt like eons.

She is generous, too, this city. In spring and summer she gives us banana trees, fig trees, and citrus that line the streets, bending under the weight of the fruit. Flowering plants in all varieties, gardenia, sweet olive, jasmine, magnolia, shrubs most of them as large as houses, bursting with blooms to perfume the air are everywhere in spring. Yes, indeed, there can be no doubt, New Orleans for me is home.

Vive La Nouvelle-Orleans!