A friend of mine gave me a book to read several months back. I'll have to publicly admit right now that I lied to him and told him that I had finished it. In actuality, I never got beyond the first couple of chapters. I was struck so by what those pages contained, that I've been cranially digesting them ever since. The book is The Zen Teachings of Jesus. Now, before you begin to flame me with religious commentary, I should tell you that I'm not going to talk about Jesus or Zen or even Zen teachings -- I'm going to talk about Art.
The book spends a fair amount of time discussing Alchemy. For those who are unawares, Alchemy is the fabled science which claims the ability to turn base metals into gold or silver through some magical hoo-doo of sorts; turning the ordinary and mundane into precious and valuable goods. There are other points to alchemy which I won't discuss, but you can read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone for further information. What? You don't typically get your information from young adult fantasy fiction? You should try Wikipedia then, it's a reputable site. In other news, there really needs to be a "sarcasm font."
Back to Art.
The book compared Artists to Alchemists. They take the hum-drum and turn it into treasured pieces. They take the earthly and make it holy.
Run-of-the-mill canvas and plain old paint become priceless portraits that are handed down for centuries. Chunks of rock from the filthy ground are chipped, honed, and polished into spectacular sculptures capturing life-sized creatures in mid-motion, as if Medusa had looked at them with her cursed gaze. Strings and wood, in the gifted hands of a violinist, guitarist, or cellist can move the listener to tap their foot or shed a soulful tear. Vocal cords -- which almost everyone can lay claim to -- in the skilled throat of a singer can slice your heart open or fill you with a desire to worship the Divine. (Should I insert a YouTube clip here of me singing? Nah -- that would be too pretentious.)
Or how about the alphabet, y'all? 26 letters -- that's it. Yet everything you've ever read, sung, or said has been made up of an unlimited combination of those letters! (If you read and speak English, that is. I can't speak to the number of characters in all the alphabets.) Think about it for a second with me. Shakespeare, Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Kurt Cobain, J.R.R. Tolkien, Oscar Wilde, and every other author and songwriter you know only used 26 letters to write that lyric that punches you in the solar plexus. Only 26 letters to create that spellbinding world that carries you away every time you crack the spine of that beloved book. To me friends, that's the very definition of magic -- no, Alchemy.
If it is Alchemy to take the ordinary, and make it cherished and treasured -- if turning the commonplace into the marvelous is Art -- can we do this in our everyday, in and among our routine? I think we all do in a sense. Let me try to articulate this.
Every weekday morning, I drive about 35 minutes to take our children to school. We live in rural Tennessee; surrounded on every side by rolling hills and stunning natural foliage. There's this one part of the drive that I always look forward to. It's only a brief glimpse -- a flash of light from the camera -- yet it feels like my soul lives for hours inside of the moment. When I see that particular view of the hillsides bathed in the first blush of the dawn light and covered in curly morning mists, I feel as if I were flying inside.
It's just a hill.
It's just the sunshine.
It's just the fog.
And yet it is so very much more. (I told you I'd TRY to articulate it, not that I'd do a good job at it.)
Indulge me a little longer as I labor through this Alchemy thing with you. I think there is another way in which we all turn the common place into the extraordinary -- through our love. Think about it. Through our acts of love, kindness, good will, affection, tolerance, and compassion, we are able to turn the complete hideousness of life into the most beautiful. Look at Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day and You (yes, you). All of these have loved the un-lovable, bathed the broken bones, stared injustice squarely in the face and said, "Not today," and given out of their inner wells of love. In the middle of unfairness, war, injustice, hatred, poverty, hunger, and death Humans have the surprising ability to completely change the grossly ugly into the Miraculous Beauty.
You are an Alchemist. Did you know that? You can turn any moment into gold.
Go ahead and work your magic.