The first thing to know is this: grownups cannot see La Mancha. That is both good news and bad. The news is good because I’ve told you the answer before you begin your quest. The news is bad because no one can tell you how to become a child again. But if you embark upon this journey, I have it on good authority that the Kingdom is at hand.
I can tell you something of my own journey, but it likely won’t help you with the particulars. I am a man who never really grew up anyway. That’s certainly a path you can take, but I don’t recommend it. And it’s not a path you can choose in any case. Some of us just can’t grow up. We don’t know how. Regardless, that is my journey and it has cost me dearly. About the only thing I have to show for it is my writing.
This hint I can give you: try to remember the time when you were first beginning to think for yourself, but the grownups had not yet shamed you and set you on the path you’re on now. The path of growing up and making good and being responsible and earning a living and doing all the very important things that grownups must do in our world.
That is the window of life you must remember and somehow find again. The time when you were old enough to think and young enough not to care.
I was nine. The year was 1970, but it was 1950 in the Atkinson household. We lived in El Paso and the only worlds I knew were school and the First Baptist Church of that city. That year I found a children’s anthropology book called “The Tree Dwellers,” published in 1903 and tucked away in a remote corner of the school library. It was woefully out of date even then, and how it survived for me to find is an enchanting mystery to consider. It contains stories of primitive humans, and it was the first time I heard an alternative to Adam and Eve.
Here’s another mystery: I believed the book immediately, passionately, and fully. I KNEW. I knew there was truth in the stories. I also knew I should keep the book a secret, so I never spoke of it. I read it over and over that year, but we moved away and the book was lost to me. I have since tracked it down and own a copy.
That was the year I asked for a microscope for my birthday. A real one, not a toy. My father worked at the University of Texas at El Paso and got me a vintage 1920s microscope recently retired from the biology department. A beautiful instrument of brass and black steel, German made. The focusing gears move like butter to this day, though they have never required a drop of oil. And I still have a small black box full of hand-labelled slides I made for myself. My blood, my brother’s blood, and samples of water from the pond across the street.
That microscope and book are my most prized possessions from that time of life, the prima materia that made me the man-child I am today.
But let us set my journey aside and speak of you. Let us assume that somehow, some way, you manage to find that child within yourself and then come visit us in the land of La Mancha. If you make it that far, here are some magic tricks I’ve discovered that will help you see La Mancha.
You must wander. You must leave the pathways and strike out on your own. You will not see La Mancha if you are on your way to a wedding or to a class at the Wizard’s Tower or to the Fang & Feather hoping to see Daniel, Rex, and the Whiskey Tribe. Come a day early or stay a day later to make the time, but you will not see La Mancha until you learn to wander like a child.
Seek nothing and see everything. Do not look for anything in particular. La Mancha hides her beauty from all but the most innocent of wanderers. I’ve seen animals, tiny flowers, a perfectly triangular rock, and two strange glass sculptures lying in the weeds, apparently left by a mysterious artist for reasons I cannot fathom. I only find these things when I’m not looking for them. Learn to accept whatever La Mancha gives to you.
Science is not your friend on this journey. When you find something that charms you, do not go online and read about it. You can do that later. Instead, spend time with that thing. Observe it yourself. Make up stories about it. Seek to understand it. Project meaning into it. Do any and all of these, but for the sake of everything holy, do not start by reading what the grownups have said about this thing you have discovered and are falling in love with.
Begin with the small and powerless. La Mancha is a land of great power. There are big events here every week, and you will see fabulously wealthy and successful people just about anywhere you look. Important people and important things will be with you always, and always they will seek to own your heart.
Can you not spare a single afternoon to look for something else, something small, something surprising, something you least expected?
You must bring meaning to the Tower. You will not find it there. If all you do in La Mancha is trudge back up First Mountain for yet another course on writing or marketing or making money, you will always feel within you that something essential is missing, some magic the Wizard seems to have and you seem to lack.
That magic is called meaning. You cannot find meaning; it must find you. And that will not happen at the Tower. Meaning will find you as you wander lost among the meek and humble things. That is the meaning you will bring to the Tower.
This is the secret magic of La Mancha.