I have long had a love affair with Paulo Coehlo’s writing. This very book, in fact, was first recommended to me years ago when I was in college by a high school friend who was living with me in Boston. Both of us were trying to navigate some emotionally charged situations at the time, and this story, based in part on Coehlo’s own experiences in a mental hospital as a young man, was a much-needed ray of sun in our otherwise stormy worlds.
I won’t be spoiling anything if I tell you that this book is the story of a young woman in Slovenia who intentionally overdoses on sleeping pills and wakes up weeks later in a private mental hospital called Villete. The meat of the story comes after her attempted suicide, rather than in the time leading up to it.
Outside the barred window, the sky was thick with stars, and the moon, in its first quarter, was rising behind the mountains. Poets loved the full moon; they wrote thousands of poems about it, but it was the new moon that Veronika loved best because there was still room for it to grow, to expand, to fill the whole of its surface with light before its inevitable decline. (Kindle Loc 767)
Veronika is an ordinary, and in fact, extremely fortunate, twenty-four year old woman in most every respect. She has loving parents, a place to live, a job as a librarian; she herself admits that she is lovely enough that she could have almost any man she chose if she wanted to. Her life is stable, if dull. While she lays waiting for the sleeping pills to take effect, she muses on the fact that it’s best to end her life now, when she is still strong enough to do it. If she didn’t, she would just continue to stumble through life without feeling much of anything.
I think the reason that this book resonates with me as much now as it did a decade ago is that I have made a great study into the unnatural expectations we have for life. I have read about how the most unhappy people are often the most fortunate – those who have time to dwell on the fact that their lives are not what they hoped are the ones most likely to give up when the going gets tough. There is real suffering and need in the world, real disease – both physical and mental, real financial ruin, real fear…but Veronika suffers from none of that. She has not been abused, or suffered some great tragedy; she isn’t diagnosed with a mental illness or chemical imbalance. She’s just bored.
When I read this book at twenty-two, and again at twenty-five, I felt so close to Veronika. Her experiences, her romantic expectations about life were something I too had lived with. I was also just as anxious to play exactly the part assigned to me, and if I deviated from it, or drew attention to myself, I felt like I had failed.
Mari remembered what she had read in the young girl’s eyes the moment she had come into the refectory: fear. Fear. Veronika might feel insecurity, shyness, shame, constraint, but why fear? That was only justifiable when confronted by a real threat: ferocious animals, armed attackers, earthquakes, but not a group of people gathered in a refectory. But human beings are like that, she thought. We’ve replaced nearly all our emotions with fear. (Kindle loc 1333)
This third reading, though, right from the beginning, I couldn’t help but want to gently poke fun at this girl – so certain of herself, and yet so insecure. She reminded me of one of my five-year old students who told me on the first day of school, “You can’t teach me anything. I already know it all.” I think, very unprofessionally, I laughed in his face.
Because the thing about growing up, I’ve discovered, is that I know fewer and fewer answers every year that goes by, but rather than feel frightened by that, I’m happy to know I still have room to grow. I love life that much more ferociously, even on days when I’m so bored it scares me, than I ever did before.
Look at me; I was beginning to enjoy the sun again, the mountains, even life’s problems, I was beginning to accept that the meaninglessness of life was no one’s fault but mine. I wanted to see the main square in Ljubljana again, to feel hatred and love, despair and tedium—all those simple, foolish things that make up everyday life, but that give pleasure to your existence. If one day I could get out of here, I would allow myself to be crazy. Everyone is indeed crazy, but the craziest are the ones who don’t know they’re crazy; they just keep repeating what others tell them to. (Kindle loc 1160)
I don’t know why we’ve evolved into people who expect that life should constantly bend to our whims, or thrill us, or give us great meaning when throughout human history, the greatest goal was always simply to survive. I’m not above this – in fact, like many people in Gen Y, I’ve spent my entire adult life being defined by these desires. It’s been an uphill battle to find myself outside the norm – those “It Gets Better” commercials make me tear up a little every time because although it does certainly get better, it also gets harder. I still worry that other people might think I’m crazy, just not as much as I once did. For many years now, this has been one of my favorite poems on the subject:
When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
With a red hat which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me.
And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves
And satin sandals, and say we’ve no money for butter.
I shall sit down on the pavement when I’m tired
And gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells
And run my stick along the public railings
And make up for the sobriety of my youth.
I shall go out in my slippers in the rain
And pick the flowers in other people’s gardens
And learn to spit
You can wear terrible shirts and grow more fat
And eat three pounds of sausages at a go
Or only bread and pickle for a week
And hoard pens and pencils and beermats and things in boxes
But now we must have clothes that keep us dry
And pay our rent and not swear in the street
And set a good example for the children.
We must have friends to dinner and read the papers.
But maybe I ought to practice a little now?
So people who know me are not too shocked and surprised
When suddenly I am old, and start to wear purple.
What I love most about Coehlo though, is that he so cherishes the fragility of our flawed human nature that he makes the worst in us seem necessary to improvement. His most superficial, broken characters give me great hope, and that is something I will always choose to read.
More on Paulo Coehlo can be found at http://paulocoelho.com/en/, including a blog and a link to his twitter and facebook feeds.