CHAPTER 1 A Controversial and Surprising Man
WE WERE LIVING IN A TIME WHEN PEOPLE, DEVOID OF creativity and caught in a web of sameness, were overly predictable. Actors and actresses, show business personalities, politicians, religious leaders, executives of large corporations—all were tiring, boring and often insufferable. They were repetitious in their worn-out jargon. They neither appealed to emotion nor inspired the intellect. They needed a marketing strategy and a media makeover to repackage them and render them interesting. Even young people no longer had any enthusiasm for their idols.
Suddenly, as we rode the waves of tedium, a man appeared, breaking the imprisonment of routine. He turned our minds upside down, or at least my mind and the minds of those closest to him. He became the greatest sociological phenomenon of our time. Though he shunned the attention of the media, it was all but impossible to remain indifferent to his thoughts.
Without revealing his identity, he declared himself a seller of dreams and, inviting others to join him, soon blew like a hurricane into the heart of the great city. He was an enigmatic stranger followed by strangers. And he made demands:
“Whoever would follow me must first recognize his madness and face his stupidity.” And he proclaimed to passersby, “Happy are those who are transparent, for theirs is the kingdom of mental health and wisdom. Unhappy are those who hide their sickness behind their schooling, money or social standing, for theirs is the kingdom of insanity. But let’s be honest. We are all experts at hiding. We squeeze into the tiniest of holes to hide, even under the banner of sincerity.”
The man rocked society, astounding those who heard him. Wherever he went, he caused a ruckus. He lived beneath bridges and overpasses or in homeless shelters. Never in our time had someone so unassuming had such impact. A pauper without health insurance, welfare or money for his meals, he had the courage to say:
“I ask not that you be wanderers like me. My dream is that you will be wanderers in your own right, that you make your way through territories few intellectuals dare to explore. Follow no map or compass. Search for yourselves, lose yourselves. Make each day a new chapter, every twist in the road a new story.”
He criticized modern man, who lived like a machine, never pondering what it meant to be a thinking being or reflecting on the mysteries of existence. Mankind walked in the shallows of existence and intellect. Some protested, “Who is this audacious invader of our private lives? What insane asylum did he escape from?” Others discovered that they had no time for what was essential, especially for themselves.
Only a small group of friends slept where he slept and lived where he lived. I was one of them. Those who crossed his path didn’t know if what they were seeing was real or imagined.
His origins were unknown even to his disciples. When asked about his identity, he would repeat, “I’m a wanderer moving on the path of time, looking for himself.”
He was destitute but had what millionaires lacked. His home was expansive: sometimes park benches, sometimes the steps of a building or the shade of a tree. His gardens extended throughout the city. He contemplated them as if they were the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, cultivated only to enchant his eyes. Of every flower, he made a poem, of every leaf a dart to plunge into the wellsprings of sensibility, of every weathered tree trunk a moment to soar on the wings of imagination.
“Dawns do not go unappreciated. Sunsets do not go unnoticed but invite me to repose and to think about my folly,” the dreamseller would say. He behaved unlike anyone we’d ever met. While others loved to glorify themselves, he enjoyed reflecting on his smallness.
One morning, after barely sleeping under a highway overpass, he stretched, took several deep breaths, and drank in the morning sunlight. After reflection, he went to the center of a nearby university campus and shouted to the students:
“We are free to come and go but not to think. Our thoughts and choices are restricted to the confines of our brains. How can we be free if we cover our bodies with clothing but our minds are stark naked? How can we be free if we contaminate the present with the future, if we steal from the present our inalienable right to drink from the fountain of tranquillity?”
On one occasion, three psychiatrists passing by heard one of his speeches. One of them was taken with the ragged stranger, but the other two said, “That man is a danger to society. He should be locked up.”
Reading their lips, he replied, “Don’t worry, my friends, I’m already locked up. Just look around at this grand and beautiful mental hospital.”
In modern societies, child labor was outlawed, but the dreamseller said that those same nations committed a crime against children by encumbering their minds with mass consumption, allowing them to grow up too fast, and overloading them with activities.
“Our children are spared the horrors of war; they don’t see houses destroyed or mutilated bodies, but their imagination is obliterated, their capacity for play inhibited, their imagination kidnapped by unnecessary trinkets. Isn’t that its own form of horror?” he said. “There’s a reason that depression and other emotional disturbances among children and adolescents have increased so much.” He said this with tears in his eyes. His own children had perished in a tragic accident, but at the time, we knew nothing about the details of his mysterious past.
Once, at the end of classes, he “invaded” a private elementary school whose pupils were the children of upper-middle- and upper-class parents. Granite floors, marble columns, stained-glass windows, air-conditioned classrooms. Every pupil had a personal computer. The only problem was that the children were restless, found no delight in learning and were not developing critical thinking. To them, school and the educational environment were almost unbearable. As soon as they heard the bell, they would dash out as if released from prison.
Their parents, when they came for them, didn’t have a minute to spare. They would scold their children if they were late. The dreamseller slipped past security, put on a clown nose and began running, jumping, dancing in the patio. When they saw this crazy man, many of the nine- and ten-year-olds forgot they were on their way out and went over to watch him.
Opening his arms like an airplane, he pretended to fly to a small garden. There, he imitated a toad, a cricket and a rattlesnake. Then he performed magic tricks. He produced a flower from his sleeve and a bunny from his jacket. And after a few minutes of amusement he told the attentive children:
“Behold the greatest magic of all.” And he took a seed from his pocket. “If you were a seed, what kind of tree would you like to grow into?” He asked them to close their eyes and imagine the tree they would be. Each child imagined a different tree, from the diameter of the trunk, the shape of the crown and the size of the branches, to the most diverse types of leaves and flowers.
Several parents were desperately looking for their children. They had never been ten minutes late leaving class. Some feared they had been kidnapped. The teachers also went looking for them. When they found the dreamseller in the garden, they were impressed by how quiet the children were, especially at that time of day. They saw the ragged man and realized that the person stirring up the school was the same stranger who was inciting the city.
Then he told the children, “A life without dreams is a seed without soil, a plant without nourishment. Dreams don’t determine the kind of tree you’ll be, but they give you strength to understand there’s no growth without storms, times of difficulty and misunderstanding. Play more, smile more, imagine more. Cover yourselves in the dirt of your dreams. Without dirt, a seed can’t germinate.” And he scooped up some of the clay beside him and smeared it on his face.
Amazed, several of the children also stuck their hands in the clay and dirtied their faces. Some stained their clothes. They would never forget that day, even when they were old. However, when their parents arrived and saw their children dirty and being taught by a ratty-looking stranger, they were horrified. “Get that maniac away from our children!” some said.
“We pay a fortune in tuition and the school doesn’t offer the least bit of security. It’s an outrage!” others shouted.
They called security, who roughly tossed the dreamseller out of the school in front of the children. Juliana, a nine-year-old with the most dirt on her face, ran to him and shouted, “Stop, stop!”
Surprised, the guards stopped. Juliana handed the Dreamseller a flower and said, “I’d like to be a grapevine.”
“Why, my child?”
“It’s not pretty or strong like you. But anyone can reach its fruit.”
“You will be a great seller of dreams,” the dreamseller said.
Some of the teachers asked the security guards to go easy on the man. As he left, some applauded. Turning to them, he said:
“A society that encourages those who punish over those who educate will always be sick. I would not bow to the famous or the great leaders of our society, but I bow down to the educators.”
And he bowed before the open-mouthed teachers.
It was not easy to accompany that mysterious man. He spoke in places where you were supposed to keep quiet, danced in places where you were supposed to sit still. He was unpredictable. Sometimes he woul...