How 'The Alchemist' Taught Me To Believe In Omens Again

For years, companions, colleagues, and classmates urged me to read Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist, and I paid little attention. I have a strong aversion to fads. I’m also inherently suspicious when people gush, “Oh, it changed my life.”  After all, it took me until college to begin reading the Harry Potter books (The Sorcerer’s Stone came out while I was nine). The Alchemist seemed like another one of those popular books I would get to eventually, after I’d put aside my Ernest Hemingway and my biography of Gertrude Bell.

But on a recent trip to New York, something changed. I walked into Strand Book Store on Broadway and 12th, and there it was, a beat-up copy of the book I’d avoided for years. And somehow it felt like exactly the right time to read it. That’s when Mr. Coelho introduced me to phrases like Personal Legend, omens and the voice of the heart... at first, it all sounded beautifully Homeric but a little New Age-y. Then I read the King of Salem’s first mind-bending monologue in which he discloses the world’s greatest lie: “It’s that at a certain point in our lives, we lose control of what’s happening to us.” Coelho had my attention. I began reading that night in my hotel room.

Then I read the King of Salem’s first mind-bending monologue in which he discloses the world’s greatest lie: “It’s that at a certain point in our lives, we lose control of what’s happening to us.”

Coelho’s book follows a young Andalusian shepherd named Santiago as he journeys from Spain to Africa, chasing a dream of treasure buried beneath the Egyptian pyramids. After consulting with a gypsy fortune teller, Santiago must decide whether to believe in his dream or continue his life as a contented, nomadic shepherd. While musing, he meets an old man who seems to know all about his dream and dilemma. The old man identifies himself as Melchizedek, the King of Salem.

The King gives Santiago a name for his dream — a Personal Legend, the dream all children have for their own lives that is invariably tested and too often squashed by the harsh realities of the world. My eyes widened as I read. I felt suddenly the King was addressing me, as well as Santiago. He warns the shepherd there will be sacrifice along the way because “everything has its price.” He also demands one tenth of Santiago’s flock in payment for his help. Santiago reluctantly gives up the sheep and the only life he’s ever known and heads for Egypt. The story thus far was sounding eerily familiar.

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, $14.14, Amazon

I had planned this trip — a weeklong jaunt between New York and Los Angeles — in an effort to jumpstart a slow search for a job as a writer and actress. I had spent a good portion of my scant savings to chase my dream, much like as Santiago did to start his journey. Fear of failure dogged my steps. Like many, I felt 2016 had kicked me in the rear. The year before, I emerged from journalism school giddy with an epiphany: I wanted to write and act, something I had only done intermittently since college. I missed the thrill of performance and the release it gave. I had found my Personal Legend. And I wanted the freedom to pursue it.

For so long I, too, had accepted that fate had me in its undertow and all I could do was float with the current.  It seems I had swallowed the world’s greatest lie, which the King warned Santiago against at their first meeting. While staying in West Virginia with my mother, I had applied unsuccessfully for writing job after writing job, always hoping to land a gig in a city where I could complete my training as an actor. I worked as a barista at Starbucks. And while I learned to make a mean Flat White, I was no closer to achieving my dream than I had been a year ago.  

For so long I, too, had accepted that fate had me in its undertow and all I could do was float with the current.  It seems I had swallowed the world’s greatest lie...

“To realize one’s destiny is a person’s only real obligation,” the King tells Santiago. He also stresses the importance of watching for omens, which are the universe’s way of pointing us in the direction of our Personal Legend. The King gives Santiago two ancient stones, one signifying “yes” and the other “no,”  to help him decipher the omens along the way but cautions him to make his decisions alone whenever possible, based on his heart’s guidance. Santiago comes to read omens much as he used to read the sky for signs of impending weather that would threaten his flock of sheep. He sells his flock quickly to a friend who suddenly reveals his desire to be a shepherd. Santiago realizes this is an omen. He asks of the stones if he will find his treasure. Both fall to the ground. Another omen. He continues.

The day I arrived in New York, I saw Cate Blanchett in The Present on Broadway. All of the frustrations of the past year, the failures, the fear of being a 27-year-old actress auditioning in two days for one of the biggest training studios in the country... it all vanished in the wake of Ms. Blanchett’s command of the stage. Her powerful performance screamed at me that my choice was the right one. Omen.

As my journey progressed, I paid attention to the little things that I might ordinarily have dismissed as coincidence or happenstance. I paid attention to the blonde flight attendant on the plane from New York to Los Angeles who burst into the widest of knowing smiles when her eyes lit on my copy of The Alchemist. She, too, had read it and gleaned inspiration  I paid attention when my acting coach brought up Cate Blanchett’s name to help me with a monologue before my audition. I paid attention when the bartender of an L.A. speakeasy where I sat sipping a vodka martini suddenly opened up to me about how The Alchemist had helped him follow his dream, too. These small events began to give me courage.

As my journey progressed, I paid attention to the little things that I might ordinarily have dismissed as coincidence or happenstance.

Santiago finds himself in Tangier for the next phase of his journey. In Tangier, he’s robbed of the money he earned from the sale of his sheep. He spends nearly a year working for a friendly crystal merchant initially to afford passage back to Andalusia. But when his time with the merchant comes to a close, he realizes he’s meant to continue on his quest and the weight of the year he spent not pursuing his dream melts away.

I looked down at the book in my hands. Santiago’s time in Tangier working for the crystal merchant sounded an awful lot like my year applying for jobs and working at Starbucks. The location of Tangier in itself struck a chord, too: Around the time I made the decision to make acting a part of my life, I traveled to Tangier to write a story about a Moroccan independent filmmaker. It is one of the most meaningful places in the world to me, where I first found acceptance as an artist among other artists.

The shepherd finds his way to a caravan heading deep into the desert and then into an oasis. There Santiago meets the alchemist, a mysterious man who takes the boy under his tutelage and offers to guide him to the pyramids and his Personal Legend. In the oasis, Santiago meets Fatima, a desert woman who turns out to be the love of his life. On the way, the alchemist teaches the boy to understand the language of the desert and that of his own heart.

At one point, the boy complains to the alchemist:

He exhorts the boy to not only listen to his heart, but to speak with it, to acknowledge and reassure its misgivings.

On the day of my audition in New York, I paced in a small library filled wall to wall with plays, scripts, and biographies of Shakespeare and Brando. I heard students whispering loudly outside the room. The longer I waited, the more apprehensive I grew. What if I had read the omens wrong? What if all the time and money and effort was wasted? But, like Santiago, I quieted my heart. I told it I understood its fears. But I also told it that I was pursuing my Personal Legend. And, as the alchemist says, there are forces in this world that will help. Fear evaporated into calm.

When Santiago and the alchemist are close to the end of their journey through the desert, they run into some warring tribesman out for blood. The alchemist offers the warlords all of Santiago’s money if they will wait three days before killing them. As if that weren’t enough, the alchemist strikes another deal with the men: he claims Santiago is a great alchemist and will change himself into the wind in return for their freedom at the end of those three days. If he fails, the warlords can kill them as originally planned. Of course, Santiago is baffled. He is neither a great alchemist nor in the habit of communing with the wind. And he has no more money. But the alchemist insists he has everything he needs. “There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve,” he says. “The fear of failure.”

So, after three days of agonizing thought, Santiago stands in front of the warlords and turns himself into the wind. I won’t spoil the ending, but I will say the boy uses all of the omens and what he’s learned along the way to speak to the wind the same way his heart spoke to him.

But the alchemist insists he has everything he needs. “There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve,” he says. “The fear of failure.”

I used to think that omens were magical and rare. But in The Alchemist, omens are both real and common. When I look back at my trip, I see that there were all sorts of markers for me to follow. I just hadn’t realized until I looked for them. I had stopped listening to my heart because it stopped making sense. Like Santiago, my heart was afraid. It was afraid of failure. It was afraid because of the money I spent to travel to New York and Los Angeles. It was afraid because there were no guarantees that anything remarkable would come out of the trip. For the longest time, I viewed “the universe” as some totally random scale or a ouija board that would tell me what to do if I had the luck to understand its jargon. The Alchemist makes me wonder if maybe the universe isn’t as random as all that, and instead of a ouija board, maybe it’s a breathing thing that will tell me how to become the wind, just as it did for Santiago, if I listen and watch with intention.

Maybe the universe is waiting to take its cues from me.