In the 12th century, many experimental thinkers tried to turn base metals into gold. This enterprise was knows as alchemy and attracted many proto-chemists and pseudo-scientists. This school of natural philosophy classified metals into “base” as in lead, or “noble” as in gold. As the pandemic has stretched from weeks to months (and probably to years), I’ve heard moving words from friends (and a few from people on television) about how this surreality feels to them. The word that keeps coming into my mind as I listen is “alchemy,” though sometimes the process is reversed, i.e., it feels to my friends like “gold” is being changed into “base metals.” Here’s an example: one of my walking companions said a month or so ago “What I thought was solid is turning into liquid.” He meant, of course, that lots of things we have been taking for granted about our lives–going to movies or plays or concerts or dance events were all vanishing from our calendars and lives. In a Zoom conversation with a very old friend, I heard her say how she was being “thrown” because the predictable was becoming unpredictable, so she kept having to adjust all her behaviors and expectations.
In the early weeks of numbers of cases and deaths kept rising everywhere, I was becoming increasingly aware that things I assumed would happen weren’t happening. The latest play at the several theaters that were always sending me e-mail announcements were writing to say they were canceling their previously advertised show. Tickets I already had for various cultural events were becoming unusable because large gatherings were considered unsafe against the invasive corona virus. And, eventually my church wrote to say there would be no more real-time services until further notice, and my YWCA informed me that they were closing their doors until who knew when. As a result of all this cancellation, I was stumbling into feeling what I considered a part of the fabric of my life was unraveling at an alarmingly rapid rate. And the worst part was no one could predict or discern when things would “get back to normal.”
So we all began to fathom that the “gold” of our lives, whatever forms that might take, was becoming unrecognizable. For me personally, only when I was walking my usual early morning route through my neighborhood did I feel at all “normal.” But that was not entirely true either, because there were no school buses picking up children on street corners where I expected to see them standing in line to board as their parents waved friendly good-byes. And fewer and fewer cars passed me as I added blocks and steps to my Fitbit. I began increasing the length of those walks by a block this week and another block next week, trying not to look at the corners now sending me no social echoes because they were barren. And I tried to figure out how to maneuver “links” sent me by a friend who was finding the earliest examples of virtual dance performances or operas or musical events. And, because I have found marvelous ways to keep talking about books with wonderful adults, I even let a very patient employee at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum teach me the fundamentals of Zoom meetings so I could keep talking about books about flowers and gardens and nature.
It’s now several months since we all began speaking about this melting and fading away of things that enhanced our lives–the “gold” of our existences. As I am trying to find ways to keep physically fit in my own home and to keep spiritually attuned to the universe and my idea of God, I understand what may have motivated those medieval thinkers to experiment in their laboratories. And what I’ve found is this: the most “noble” and valuable things in my life turn out to be connections to friends, the birds of spring in my neighborhood who have stepped up their song as they searched for and found their mates, words in books both new and old that catch my breath as they create worlds beyond my imaginings, the magical purr from Patches my companion kitty, and the gift of solitude where I can connect with forces so much larger than I.
And I’ve recently decided to stop wishing for that “normal” I so missed back in March because a clear-eyed black woman writing of The New York Times after the brutal murder of George Floyd by a white Minneapolis cop said all the talk from white people about restoring the “normal” left her cold, since that very “normal” was what black people were saying keeps them from breathing and thriving. Now, when I’m walking or gardening, I think “I feel saner” or “I feel more in touch with the universe” or “I feel calmer” or even “I feel light-hearted.” That’s real alchemy, I believe.