Alchemy

What is alchemy? I've been thinking about it so much lately. And why is this one of my favorite pictures I've ever taken? I've been wondering about that too. Maybe the two questions share an answer.


A few weeks ago I purchased a 1970s Polaroid Land Camera from EBay. Lately I’ve been so bored by the perfection of pixels and by the aggressively sterile digital world we've drowned ourselves in; it has felt cold and lifeless. My heart has been pulling me instead into the long distant past, allured by a real, physical, analog form of magic.


And as I've explored this newly uncovered Polaroid relic, I've been thinking about the people who created it, and about the people who existed before the concept of a camera had even been imagined.


What a different kind of longing people must have felt for the past when there was no such thing as a photograph....that nostalgic buffer between the present and what came before. What a different existence it must have been to have no proof of the golden moments that make up a human life. To hold them only in the mind. To know that everything was eternally ephemeral. To accept that as fact.


How many thousands of years passed before someone had the idea? A little spark in the heart. A little dream in the mind. What a profound sense of aching need and what a profound imagination it must have taken to believe that the scenes of this world could possibly be manifested anywhere other than through the eyes. What a breakthrough of human ingenuity to understand that something so elemental as light could be harnessed and molded into a recreation of itself through a series of obscure chemical interactions in a dark little box. Was this the original time travel? Someone toiling away endlessly in the night, driven mad by the melancholy of their temporary existence. "How can I capture it? How can I hold it? Please. This is my purpose."


For how long did they restlessly pursue that elusive dream? How many failed experiments and dead ends did they push through? How many pieces of ink-stained parchment did they scribble on by candlelight, and how many prototypes were discarded in fury amid cries of "lunatic!" by a society of non-dreamers? What kept them believing and inventing until they at last captured that evasive miracle, until they at last pulled the first photographic artifact of time out of thin air?


To envision and bring to life such an impossible dream as a photograph is an absolute miracle. Just imagine trying to do it from scratch. Just imagine. Every day we’re surrounded by thousands of such creations. Almost everything you touched today. The strings and shape and frets of a guitar. The fragile ribbons of a microphone and the headphones returning the sound to your ears. The delicate grooves of a spinning vinyl and the process behind the curtains of your favorite hoppy beer. The circuit board of the screen displaying these words to you. Something where there was nothing. Shining gems of the alchemist's mind. An entire society of them. An entire planet of them. We've come a long way to arrive at the age of the cell phone camera two inches from your scrolling thumb. We have a lot of people to thank.


"It is in the realm of High Mystery that certain men and women are destined to act out their lives."


She lifted her gaze to the light. I pressed the shutter, and the lens bloomed open for exactly one quarter of a second. We heard the winding of ancient gears, assembled half a century ago by some unknown searching hands. We heard the chemicals pressed to film as we pulled the image--still un-made--through a series of intricate metal passageways and then into the world. From whose mind did this creation spring? A wave of gratitude for those dreamers, now returned in our presence. We sat transfixed on the wooden floor as the mystical shades of the room etched themselves into being for two precious minutes, some invisible light-weaver dancing gently across the paper and through the passage of time. And finally, we held it in our hands--this image, this moment, this artifact, this miracle--this undeniable proof of the existence of alchemy and of magic.


And only in retrospect did I realize that the image itself conjured something of the Millenia-spanning journey that had allowed it to exist in the first place. The endless searching of the human mind.....a glowing orb of possibility in some alchemist's restless midnight hands....auroras of divine inspiration spilled from the cosmos into the hidden door of their soul....a desert bone dangling from her half-lit ear, and from how many thousands of years ago? To remember where we came from and to where we'll return? The smallest glint of light cast into her shadowed eyes…..who are we? what are we capable of? what mysterious powers of creation are contained in this impossible body? "I will unearth them. This is my purpose." Some essence of being casually revealed in a 3" x 4" Polaroid of Nikki on a Wednesday night in September of 2017.


I read once in a book that magic is the flowering of the human potential. I guess I’ve grown to believe that sentiment more and more each year. And maybe that's what alchemy is too: not just the transformation of one substance into another, but also the transformation of the soul into its most fully-realized form.


So is it possible that we really do carry the magic wands that we forever dream about in our books and our movies? Is it possible that they are simply waiting for us at the exact place where our imaginations and our fingers meet?


Of course it is. The world is your proof.


And deep in the middle of the night do you ever wake to wonder what alchemy is still unfound within your own strange, glistening hands?


Of course you do.
This is your purpose. 


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Soundtrack to this musing: