Going off the beaten track

Ouro Preto is a beautiful city. I was there for a literary event that brought together independent publishers. We were going to discuss the possibility of collective measures to survive in a market dominated by large foreign publishing conglomerates. It wasn’t a meeting for lamentations, only fools sit by the side of the road to cry in sadness and complain about how cruel the world is. The world is a reflection of people’s behaviour in the struggle for survival and the search for happiness. Everyone needs to survive and, yes, each person, in their own way, wants to feel happy. The variation that exists is precisely the understanding of the meaning of happiness, in addition to the perception and sensitivity that we already possess to understand what the good limits are in the exercise of survival. This is the point of mutation. Understanding it is not always an easy task.

Getting bogged down in the tedious talk that the world is bad doesn’t help. On the contrary, it gets in the way. A lot. Living the role of the eternal victim of circumstances serves to transfer responsibility and, with this, waste the lessons, because I will be shying away from facing the difficulties that, if well utilised, will lead me to the irremediable transformations that are fundamental to the extinction of suffering. When I refuse, the consequence is the stagnation of evolutionary cycles. The point seems simple to me; I will always be at the exact point where I will experience the situations that are right for my improvement. The same is true about the people who live with me on every step of this incredible journey, whether they are allies or antagonists. Yes, even those who get in my way, in a more refined analysis, are valuable to my evolution because they force me to seek a new level of understanding and balance. You can’t sharpen a sword without the roughness of a stone. The more complex the problem, the more intense the light I will have after understanding the meaning of the situation. I’ll have to work through the circumstances and overcome the difficulties by awakening attributes in myself that I didn’t know existed until then. To this end, without exception, everyone has the necessary elements at their disposal to be able to take the next step on the Way, even if it is in opposition to their primary desires. Regardless of the circumstances, no one is denied the opportunity to expand their consciousness, develop their virtues and improve their choices. This is the sacred idea of equality.

There are injustices in the world and they undoubtedly need to be redressed. However, they are all purely financial and material. Believing that some have more than others is the narrow view of an observer restricted to the existentialist prism. From the point of view of spiritual evolution, each person has been given the exact instrument and the necessary training to use at this point in their evolutionary journey. No more, no less. Less is often more. More comfortable conditions can mean a commitment to a greater work, which is sometimes wasted because of the comfort provided and the constant postponements caused by fallacious reasoning. The opportunity is wasted. On the other hand, greater difficulties of survival can provide enormous possibilities for overcoming, of greater depth, leading the being to another sphere of understanding and virtues. However, both of the above examples can be inverted depending on how they are experienced. Blessings or curses are not established by the conditions offered, but by the choices and way of conducting one’s existence.

“We’re all the same, son. And those are the reasons,” concluded Tomaz, a little gentleman descended from slaves, whose family had been in Ouro Preto since the beginning of the 17th century. He was a very peculiar craftsman, since he only carved wings in his workshop. They were all beautifully carved in wood and came in many sizes and shapes. The works were sold in the garage of his house, which, although very modest, had an enchanting aura. Everything was very clean, decorated with flowers he grew and perfumed with herbs picked from the woods. I was walking along the town’s slopes when I spotted Tomaz’s work. I went in and we started chatting. He wanted to know why I was in Ouro Preto. I told him about the symposium and commented on the difficulties that independent publishers faced against the economic power of the big conglomerates. Then, with his typical way of speaking, without any ostentation of the enormous wisdom hidden behind his simple words, he clarified: “If you think you’ve been abandoned by luck, you’ll be defeated. If you see yourself as a warrior, you’ll become immortal”. He paused and explained: “Words have a lot of power, both positive and negative. When I talk about being a warrior and fighting, I don’t mean using the steel of the sword, which cuts and bleeds people. Injustice, lies, neglect and abuse are cruel weapons. We must avoid them, otherwise no battle will be won. I’m talking about the good fight, where we use love to overcome the difficulties of everyday life. There are many of them. Good ones if we manage to understand every meaning offered; bad ones if we abandon ourselves halfway through.”

I asked him to explain further. Tomaz clarified: “By insisting on defeating the world, you won’t know true victory. By facing yourself, you will gain the infinite power of life. The monk is the evolution of the warrior. This is the enigma of the battle.”

I argued that the theory seemed perfect to me, but its applicability in everyday situations was not always clear to me. He asked me if I would like to hear a legend told by his ancestors. I said I’d love to.  Tomas began: “Many years ago, at a time when this city was called Vila Rica, a lot of gold was extracted from its depths, enriching men and women. Where there is money, many things are traded. Back then, the shady slave market was a common practice. This was also a well-known depot for the precious stones that came from Diamantina. Gold and diamonds made their way to the harbour in Paraty, from where they were taken to Portugal. This route was baptised the Estrada Real (Royal Road) and today it is a traditional tourist route, where you can learn a lot about the history and cultural roots that make up who we are, but which we don’t always realise. In those days, the Crown demanded extremely high taxes on the movement of goods, generating a lot of discontent. Because it was a route where immense riches were transported, the road became a target for gangs. Robberies were frequent. To escape both the dangers and the taxes, alternative routes were created to transport the goods and thus avoid both the taxes and the bandits. These routes were known as descaminhos“.

I interrupted the narrative to add that perhaps this was the reason why, even today, it is the legal term used by the law to characterise a crime similar to smuggling. The old man smiled in agreement and continued: “There’s a time to travel the roads of the world, which have always been paved for their safety and comfort. On them we know what we’re going to find. Sometimes, however, they prove unsuitable for our purposes, they close, they charge us tolls too high to be paid, or they don’t offer what we’re looking for. It happens all the time. It’s a time to unravel the paths, to explore the descaminhos, to create alternative routes for yourself and to allow things you never thought possible before. It’s good that it happens, after all, everyone has to create their own path. As a rule, a path off the beaten track, a descaminho.”

He looked at me seriously and warned: “You see, son, I’m not talking about going down the dark path of crime or the unfair practice of harming anyone. I’m referring to the search for a unique path, proper to the spirit that each person truly is, regardless of criticism or applause. I’m talking about being guided by the coherence of the truth achieved, the love awakened, the intensity of the light achieved and the lightness that this walk provides. Wings don’t come as gifts, they blossom within us through the audacity of being who we can become. This is the enigma of freedom.”

“Travelling on someone else’s road is disorientation; paved routes don’t lead to unusual destinations or tell an original story. They are continuous circles of repetitive turns where you only see more of the same and they are for those who need somewhere to spend their days. For those who want to make the most of their days, there is a path waiting, a descaminho. No one knows their own course without venturing down life’s unimaginable paths. This is how we learn the secrets of navigation so that we can understand the importance of wings and how to guide our next flights.”

It was inevitable to look away from the many wings on display in that garage. Tomaz paused, laughed and gently commented: “Let’s get back to the old story. The young man isn’t here to listen to my musings on life’s affairs.” Before I could say that I was enjoying getting to know his very peculiar perspective on all things, he continued: “Back in the days when this town was called Vila Rica, a wealthy diamond merchant needed to get his stones to Europe without part of them being confiscated as taxes. In the company of a trusted young slave, they travelled down the Estrada Real to Paraty. At a certain point on the journey, when they were very close, they learnt that ahead there was a severe inspection by soldiers from the Crown. So they decided to take an unusual detour towards Rio de Janeiro, where the merchant believed he would have no trouble making the shipment. So they did. Almost arriving at the port, they were attacked by a gang of robbers. The merchant was beaten and badly injured. All his belongings were taken, except for a wooden image of St Anthony, which the bandits didn’t want to touch, fearful of the punishment the saint might inflict on them for sacrilege. The slave, who was spared the beating because he was considered insignificant to the criminals’ interests, carried the merchant on his shoulders to a hospital in Rio de Janeiro. In bed, still under medical care, with the image of St Anthony at his bedside, the merchant officially freed the slave in thanks for his services. A few days later, he died.”

“The newly freed slave, now a free man, sought out the merchant’s son, a wealthy merchant established in Paraty, to give him the only inheritance he had left, the statue of St Anthony. The merchant’s son showed contempt for the simple wooden sculpture, which he considered to be a bad omen, as it was unable to protect his father from the tragedy that had befallen him. He said he didn’t want it and that the freed slave should keep the statue. Back in Vila Rica, Tomaz had no money, no belongings and nowhere to live. He took with him his only possession, the carved wooden Saint Anthony. That night, as he lay on the doorstep of one of the city’s many churches, he prayed to the saint for light and protection. As sleep didn’t come, he was distracted by observing the details of the image in his hands, when he discovered a small compartment underneath, closed with such precision that it was only perceptible to the most attentive eye. Skilfully, he managed to open it. A handful of diamonds were hidden inside the hollow wooden statue”. He paused to ask me: “Do you understand the origin of the Brazilian expression ‘hollow-wood saint’ used to refer to a person whose content is different from the image they represent?”. I smiled and nodded my head.

Tomaz continued: “Over the next few months, he sold each of the diamonds. With the money he raised, he bought as many slaves as possible, all of whom were subsequently freed. He went to live alone in a humble hut in the woods, where he carved works in wood that he sold at the fairs in Vila Rica. Nothing remained of the diamonds. According to the majority of the population, he was nothing more than a poor wretch who had wasted a great opportunity; however, in the eyes of a few, he became the most prosperous man in Vila Rica. When he heard what had happened, the merchant’s son was furious and ordered an exemplary beating of the former slave, because he thought he should have given him the precious stones. As a result of the punishment, the fracture in one of his legs was badly healed and the good man limped until his last day. However, legend has it that his joy was not affected by the wickedness of others. It is said that when he was questioned about the fate of the diamonds, he replied: I made the best possible investment. About the after-effects he was left with, smiling, he would say: ‘The body limps, but the soul flies“. 

I was mesmerised by that beautiful story. Tomaz asked if I would like a cup of coffee made in a cloth sieve, according to local tradition. He got up quickly, but had to use a crutch under his right arm. When he returned, he handed me an enamelled mug filled with delicious, fragrant coffee. I ordered a pair of wings, explaining that they were recurring in my dreams. I explained every detail. He told me to pick them up the next day.

When I left, I returned to the event where we were debating solutions for independent publishers. The speeches, almost all of them, were clamouring for government intervention, if not, even worse, predicting an inevitable defeatist scenario. Some were angry, others were discouraged. I asked to speak. Inspired by Tomaz’s words, I explained that we were not victims of anything or anyone. There was nothing unusual about the fact that the publishing conglomerates had greater power to publicise and penetrate bookshops. This didn’t mean the end; on the contrary, it was an invitation to innovate. That’s the way markets are and, with a few exceptions, too much protection leads to complacency and entrepreneurial insufficiency. We were publishers who had excellent quality books in our hands, which we had each selected according to the interests and profiles of our publishing houses. If we truly believed we were doing a good job, there would be an interested public. It was up to us to create and navigate the pathways for the goods to reach the harbour. Since bookshops offered their shelves, for understandable reasons, to the bestsellers that mostly made up the conglomerates’ catalogues, we could better prepare ourselves to make sales online, directly to the reader, without any intermediation and, more importantly, without any dependency. This would also have the advantage of bringing us closer to and getting to know our audience better, allowing us to make appropriate adjustments and improve this important relationship. As for promotion, I suggested a cooperative website, where the content would be provided by our launches and respective catalogues, encouraging readers to visit us whenever they wanted something different from what they usually find on paved roads. We could also organise an annual literary fair exclusively for independent publishers, based on the same principles. I talked about the endeavour to discover new and unthinkable niches, among other things. To summarise, I ended by saying that going off the beaten track was the way to go.

I couldn’t touch the editors’ hearts. As usual, the professional victims were quick to come up with a list of difficulties, always unsolvable, to prevent my idea from going ahead. Out of habit, the rebels on duty shouted for radical proposals that were completely beyond our ability to solve. They longed for government policies that would restrict the actions of the conglomerates. Both victims and rebels, each with their own arguments, insisted on remaining stagnant and dependent by refusing to find their own way out. The meeting ended without any collective solution being adopted.

Resigned, I went for a walk through the streets of the city to relax. At the end of the afternoon, I happened to walk into the Church of St Iphigenia. I learnt that it had been built by slaves so that they would have a place to attend mass. I was escorted by a friendly priest who explained the many interesting details inside the church that were hidden from prying eyes. Among them, one caught my eye. There was a black Pope in the painting on the chancel ceiling. The clergyman told me that it was a simple tribute to a freed slave who used the diamonds he had inherited to free many of his fellow countrymen. As I approached the painting, I was startled. The resemblance of the black Pope’s face to that of Tomaz, the wing sculptor, was incredible.

Early the next morning, I went to Tomaz’s house to collect the commissioned sculpture. I couldn’t find the house or the street. I asked around the neighbourhood and nobody knew him. I drove around for a long time without any success. The fact that it was a city built without any architectural planning, the infinity of alleys and lanes must have confused me and that’s why I never found the sculptor again. I came to terms with it. I went back to the hotel, settled the bill and returned to Rio de Janeiro.

A week later, I received a visit from Jonas, an editor who was also at the symposium. He was perhaps the longest-serving professional in the literary market. He handed me a parcel and said it was a present he had bought in Ouro Preto. He explained that he had intended to give it to me there, but didn’t because we had missed each other when we left. He said he liked what I had said on the last afternoon of the meeting: “You offered them a dozen words. Simple words, nothing more. However, they drew the frightening image of freedom. They were refused. Who would refuse something so valuable, you might ask? I would say, without fear of being wrong, that everyone loves the idea, but the vast majority are still terrified of the possibility of being free.”

“The reason is simple. There is no freedom without the responsibility of assuming the consequences of all your choices; of either winning or losing. Independence and autonomy inevitably bring mistakes, without us being able to transfer the blame for their effects. There will be no freedom without the courage to be consistent with your own truths. It’s not easy. The enigma of choices unravels the mystery of freedom.”

“In order to remain free, you have to use your mistakes as an element of transformation; to do so, you have to accept them. It’s not always a comfortable moment. Growing up takes work and a lot of perseverance. Freedom demands that you find the strength within yourself to overcome difficulties, that you learn to use your own light to find new routes, even when everyone assures you that you will be lost in the darkness. It makes your movements light, because you can’t fly with too much weight. It requires tireless adaptability to inevitable setbacks and absolute trust in tomorrow. There will be losses, but there will be no defeat.” He paused to conclude: “These difficulties make many prefer the comfort and stability typical of prisons, where they find large doses of predictability and no risk”. He then concluded: “Believe me, my friend, few are willing or ready for freedom.”

I opened the gift. They were a pair of wings carved from wood.

I wanted to know who had made them. From Jonas’ description, I had no doubt that it was Tomaz. After that event, I returned to Ouro Preto on two occasions. Although I always looked, I was never able to locate the street, the house or the sculptor.

The wings are on the wall of the small office I have at home. I hold them sacred, because whenever the paths of existence are closed, they inspire me to walk down the paths of life.

Translated by Cazmilian Zórdic.

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