This post has been cooking for several weeks now, and it has become time to release it into the world. The story is unfinished, but the blog post is just about done.
Before I moved to Maine, I lived in Oregon for several years. Oregon is a rockhound’s paradise and I have a longstanding love for the shiny treasures of the Earth. Though I never took up the hobby at a serious level, I did gather agates on the beach and ran an electric tumbler for a month at a time in the kitchen of my little apartment. I spent many hours at summer gem shows and the local rock shop, gazing at the specimens for sale in the cabinets and picking through bins of rough material from near and far. Agates, jaspers, obsidian, petrified wood… whole thundereggs just waiting for someone with a lapidary saw to reveal their internal secrets. Though I never made the time or space to engage in lapidary work, I admired – and acquired – the work of others.
The thunderegg is Oregon’s state rock. From the outside, they look like balls of petrified mud, formed in volcanic ash deposits; when sliced open and polished their interiors can be striking and beautiful: rings of colorful jasper, delicate mossy agate, tiny cavities lined with miniature crystals, ribbons of common opal, all the different ways that silica picks up trace minerals and arranges itself in secret beauty in the earth.
Silica – SiO2 – is the mineral name for quartz. Think of sand, think of glass: you are mostly thinking of silica. Manufactured for industrial use and naturally occurring world-wide, it takes on countless guises, some of which we prize for their beauty or rarity and call gemstones: amethyst, citrine, smokey and rose and crystal quartz among them. And there are the micro- or crypto-crystalline forms, the agates and jaspers in all their colors and patterns, created when the silica formed layers too fine for visible crystals to develop. And then there is opal, hydrated silica, so named because it incorporates water molecules into its structure along with the silica, forming tiny spheres which are arranged into layers or lattices rather than the usual crystal formation. In precious opal – the expensive kind – these lattices act to refract and scatter incoming light, producing the play of sparkling colors for which the gem is known.
Opal is funny stuff. The same hydrated structure that causes its distinctive milky quality also makes it softer than other silica gems, more brittle and prone to internal fracturing. The refraction lattice that scatters light and gives precious opal its otherworldly glow also weakens its structure. Opal that is both vibrant enough to be precious and internally stable enough to be used in jewelry is rare, and priced accordingly.
There are many reasons stones can have an internal play of color. Most often, as with opals, the brilliance comes from internal layers. Labradorite, sunstone and moonstone are semi-precious forms of feldspar, and rainbow obsidian is one of several forms of volcanic glass; each has its own distinctive way of catching the light and scattering it in beauty. They too, for the most part, are sturdy enough if handled with respect: again, the internal layers that bend the light are also weak points along which the stone may fracture under stress.
In other cases, especially with clear stones, a prismatic flash in a stone is due to tiny internal cracks – a flaw or weakness in the structure. Watch out for these, says the lapidary: they make beautiful specimens in the rough, but may not stand up to the rigors of being worn as jewelry, or survive the transformation.
Sometimes it’s hard for an amateur to tell the difference. You break a few, you learn.
I have been thinking a lot about the internal structure of gemstones the last couple of weeks. About how you can’t tell from the outside what it’s going to look like on the inside, or how it will polish up. About the beautiful mystery hidden in the middle of the plain mud-colored rock. About how the very structure that gives a stone its brilliant fire is the same flaw that can cause its failure under stress. About how beautiful things need to be handled gently.
And how, when they fail, sometimes even the shards are still beautiful.
I have had time for thinking about this because, as personal friends are aware, I have unexpectedly withdrawn from CPE earlier this summer. It became clear to me during the first few weeks that the immediate and necessary work of my ministerial formation would best be accomplished in another context. Because CPE is a prerequisite for my congregational field placement, this decision delays both my field work (internship) and my expected graduation by at least one academic year and has significant financial consequences as well. It is a big, sudden, unwelcome change in plans. I have been very shaken by the whole experience and I am still working out how things will go from here.
So things break. Spectacularly so. What happens after?
After the fall, after the shattering into a thousand shards, after the unbecoming of what might have been but isn’t going to look exactly that way any more? What happens in the stillness that follows?
Part of my forced slowing down this summer has turned out to include becoming reacquainted with my rock collection, cleaning the dust off and taking the photographs that appear in this post. I am being slowly reminded of things I used to know – the complex relationship between purity and perfection and beauty and fragility, how the things which are most interesting are not always the strongest or most flawless – and how those which are strong or flawless are not always the most interesting or beautiful. If I can learn from these stones the admiration of complexity, of fragility, of quirky individuality then perhaps I will eventually learn to apply these lessons more broadly.
The other thing of which I have been reminded is that, given enough time and the proper conditions, even shattered stones can mend, become whole – not that which they were, not exactly, but something more, something different. There is a yearning in the structure of the crystal itself to grow into its characteristic shape; if that shape is broken off, the stone will – in its own slow time – form again into the pattern that is its nature. Or perhaps like the veins in jasper or the center of a thunderegg, the cracks will be filled in with something entirely new and beautiful.
May it be so.