One of the books that changed the world is Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist. In the story, the boy called Santiago left his village to look for something, which he did not find, but he returned home a changed man. This is the heart of alchemy – it is the change within us as we journey deep into ourselves, a journey which initially began as an external quest.
Aeons ago, when we were just colleagues, he had given me a present. It was a very awkward moment, for he was blushing, tongue-tied and he uhm-ed and aah-ed, which was very unlike his usual arrogant, confident and bombastic self. Then, I had been attached to someone else and was rather surprised by the present.
The ‘present’ was a few pieces of dubious-looking rocks in a small plastic baggie. They looked like impure crystal meths. I looked at them suspiciously.
“It’s just some, uhm, incense,” he said. “From Yemen.”
What sort of crazy person goes to Yemen?
Knowing the man he is, he would have showed up in Yemen like a vagrant, on foot and with no luggage. He had begun telling me something about Sanaa, but I wasn’t very interested. But I am interested in Yemen now. Yesterday, a doctor in Sanaa told Al Jazeera that unless Saudi Arabia ends its blockade on Yemen real soon, hundreds will die (article here). International medical charities, such as Doctors Without Borders, have been banned from delivering aid to Yemen. And then, suddenly, I knew. His current job title is not “medical doctor/surgeon/cardiologist”, but simply “logistics manager”. He had showed me his hands recently, and told me “These hands dig graves too,” when I questioned why the hell a surgeon was going out to work in a basic hospital deep in Africa.
I wish I could find the incense from Yemen that he had brought back for me all those years ago, when I was an arrogant young woman, for they represent the bits of humanity he has gifted me over the years. Without those little rocks from Yemen, I would not have sat down to write to the Saudi Ambassador to the UK, which was what I just did today.
The bits of humanity he gave me in the last ten years all looked like cheap touristy stuff, but they are actually priceless. This is a notebook from Ho Chi Minh City, which he had painstakingly filled with his writings of the works of the Vietnamese spiritual teacher, Thich Nhat Hahn (“Thay”). It must have taken him ages to fill the pages, and in honour of that, I still read Thay’s words, as written by him, on most days:
This was a cheap bead and glass necklace from a beach somewhere in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
I told him, I don’t wear jewellery except my crucifix, and he had grinned and said, “This will make you less uptight, Jac.” I’m not sure if this necklace (which I am in the process of looking for a new owner) has made me less uptight, but I have certainly learned more about non-attachment and the strength of his bloody surgical knot (holding this necklace together)! I have found much joy wearing it. That and the tattoo on my forearm, which he tattooed on me with a shaky hand, laughing self-deprecatorily at himself, “I suffer from performance anxiety, Jac, when it comes to you.” Yes, he was scared as hell the day my heart went into ventricular fibrillation though he must have seen dozens of those …..
So far, my presents for him have not been successful, because he is a man who abhors possessions and who has none. The only thing from me that he likes is that book, Live Patanjali, that I wrote; I know he likes it because he has memorised the whole damn book and often quoted passages from the book back to me to mock me!
Maybe I should just give up, but I will give it one last try to find a suitable last gift. Because in the journey to finding meaningful gifts, I have found meaning in the people I met and the places I visited (or attempted to visit).
Today, my friend Susan Orchid Bansin posted some photographs of a traditional farmers’ market (“tamu”) in Kota Kinabalu, and it sparked something in me, a call that tells me to leave my little eyrie in the quest for some magic that exists in her world. Maybe I will learn a magical story from her people to pass on, maybe I will meet a bobohizan who knows about peace, maybe I will buy one of those happy yeast necklaces …..maybe it will make me human again (Susan wrote a bit about the yeast necklace here).
Main picture: Searching for the mythical strandbeest (summer 2016, Hampshire, UK)