In the Hands of Alchemy
 MEDIA > Writings > The Inspired Heart > Lightning


Feeling bored and out of creative touch, with no project to engage me, I went to the dump to pray. Wandering the dump, waiting for a shimmering object to quietly present itself, can be a form of ritual for me. Sometimes one small object found at the dump or the thrift store, or something I have been given, can inspire an entire new art piece. On this particular day, I spotted a seven-foot-long piece of brass, roughly in the shape of a three-dimensional lightning bolt. It appeared to be the irregular edge of an old sign. It was beautifully made. I knew because of where it had been placed that it had been singled out and was probably going to be expensive. As I examined the lightning bolt, one of the women who work at the dump walked past and said, “I had a feeling you would like that.”

Finding and acquiring things at the dump is an alchemical process. One must go about it with great care. The particular gods one needs to call up, once the object of choice has been spotted at the dump, are probably in the category of hungry-ghost gods. One must be indifferent to the outcome of any attempted purchase when calling on their help. Too strong a desire renders these gods insatiable; they can easily sabotage the haggling process. Excessive desire creates a reverse alchemy that can work against you. In the flash of a lightning bolt, desire can turn your particular piece of junk into solid gold, which will then be priced as such! Bored indifference and a reverent appreciation of the dump gods are helpful in securing interesting objects.

My dump-wise finesse informed me that I would need to seriously consider my level of desire for the lightening bolt before attempting a purchase. It’s also important to select the right person for negotiating the purchase price. Generally speaking, the women who work at the dump are far more sympathetic to the plight of the starving artist than are the men. You would never ask the owner and spiritual leader of this dump to price a thing. A simple smile of acknowledgement when he cruises by in his noisy, fenderless, old truck is enough. Your smile is a bow to his disheveled eminence. He is omniscient; he knows everything there is to know about junk. He is personally attached to all of his junk, so he sees value in everything. Indeed, a man after my own heart, but not one, I learned early on, to ask to price anything. A friend of mine who occasionally cruises the island in his small plane happened to fly over the man’s house one day. He told me that the yard around the dumpmaster’s house looks just like the dump!

To prevent this from occurring in my own yard, I try to take only what shimmers and what I would use for a particular art piece. This is a spiritual discipline and a basic rule for me. Even with this rule in place, I’ve had to return many items that never found their way into a piece of art. One of the other divine laws of dump spirituality is to spend only the money I have in my pocket when I arrive. I don’t carry a checkbook, so this is pretty much a given, although I have occasionally defied the angels of the dump and asked to use the lay-away plan.

I like the people at the dump and I think they like me. I fulfilled a long apprenticeship to learn the subtleties of dump etiquette. To earn the staff’s trust, I had to make sacrifices. Often, when I was negotiating a purchase, both the dumpworker and I knew that I was being overcharged, yet I would quietly pay and thank them. Somehow this helped to develop a relationship of trust and generosity.

An event that helped the process and became my claim to fame in the eyes of the crew was the discovery of a large old painting of mine that had been thrown into one of their dumpsters. The attendant who found the painting pulled it out of the trash and nailed it, Christ-like, to a wall. Loosely inspired by the theme of The Last Supper, the painting did have Christ as the central figure, so this crucifixion seemed appropriate.

I had made the painting years earlier. I was working with a group of bright, creative teenagers at a liberal religious camp in Massachusetts. Having absorbed some of their youthful energy, I produced this painting in two days. Many of the personalities reflected in the painting belonged to the teenagers. The painting had a history of being crucified. The day I was to complete my short residency at the camp, the teenagers hung the painting in the large meeting hall. Apparently after I left, the painting caused quite an organizational dilemma. The imagery of the painting was upsetting or frightening to some of the camp administrators, while others liked it. Some wanted it to stay where it hung and others wanted it out immediately.

Shortly after I left, the administration informed me with profuse apologies that they were returning the painting to me. I had few possessions in my life at that time so I gave the painting to a friend in New York. Years later, this same friend moved to Whidbey Island. He became unhappy with his move here, decided to go back to New York, and in the process, delivered the painting to its final, unrestful place at the dump. The painting now resides (and has for years) as an installed icon at the dump. It hangs on the most honorable wall of the dump’s main chapel, which houses the most sacred of salvaged objects for sale.

People have told me, over the years, that when they approached the owner of the dump and offered to buy the painting from him, he would not sell it. The painting does officially belong to him. When he discovered that I had painted it, he gave me a fifty-gallon metal drum for free that would otherwise have cost me three dollars. When I attempted to pay for the drum, the owner said, “Take it, for the painting.” We shook hands to clinch the deal. He deserved the painting; he did resurrect it from the dead. The painting now hangs high, at eye level with the dump’s enormous alchemist, the crunching and groaning squashing machine! The alchemy required of this entity is the transformation of thousands of tin cans into green-gold, compressed bundles of metal cans, which are sold for cash to the larger recycling centers in the city.

What finally sealed my advancement into the elite ranks of artist-as-scrounger, at least in the eyes of a few members of the dump’s staff, was the arrival of a film crew to shoot the painting. The people who were making a documentary film about my art and life (In the Hands of Alchemy) decided to film the painting at this unusual location. Our director, Phil Lucas, impressed the staff with cameras, lights, and the squawky walky-talkies he used to stage my drive into the dump. After that, I was fully accepted as an honorary friend of the dump by those who worked there. They came to know the particular kinds of things I looked for and would often set them aside for me. I was happy to be considered a friend.

You could easily end up on their wrong side if you were not considerate of their working environment. The hard-working staff at the dump had to deal with an enormous amount of junk on a daily basis. They could sell only a small percentage of what arrived there so they needed to be paid fairly for these items to keep the place running. I once witnessed a heated transaction when a rather brash young man attempted to override dump protocol and con one of the wise women on staff.

Junkyard dogs are notorious for their ability to pounce ferociously on those who threaten their territory. Their ferocity, however, pales in comparison to the warrior spirit of an irate junkyard woman whose economic sense of fair play has just been violated. Kali, the Hindu Goddess of destruction, is alive and well in the hearts of these powerful women. However, unlike Kali, the women at the dump don’t wear their victims’ skulls around their necks. This makes it more difficult for unsuspecting petty wanderers, seeking to take advantage, to identify them as dangerous.

When I saw the shimmering lightning-bolt-to-be, I was sure they would want more than the seven dollars I had in my pocket. This belief proved to work to my advantage. It created the proper demeanor of indifference as I entered the final stage of price negotiations. I was resigned to not getting the piece as I went to find Jo Ann, who was indisputably the most fair of the dump divas. Pointing to the incipient lightning bolt, I said “How much for the piece of metal?” What you name the coveted item counts for something too. Calling it a lightning bolt may have rendered it more valuable than just so many pounds of deadweight brass. Jo Ann said, “Eah—gi’me seven bucks.” A miracle! The dump gods happened to be on my side that day! I sensed that I had found something magical to begin my new art piece with.

While returning home from the dump, I saw my artist friend Ro on the side of the road. He was trying to lift a heavy metal cabinet into the back of his truck. I stopped and helped him. Apparently someone had illegally dumped the cabinet by the roadside the previous night. Ro was a fellow creative scrounger who very much appreciated the brass lightning bolt in the back of my pickup.

Like hunters returning from the wild, we appropriately honored the mysterious junk lords of the day. We told stories of the hunt and gloated in the amazing workmanship of the day’s catch. I had to concede, however, that Ro had proved to be the more skilled hunter, having circumvented economic exchange altogether.

Once I had the piece of brass home in the studio, I was ready to begin a new art piece. First I needed to cut and re-braze each squared-off end of the brass, turning them into points to achieve more of the shape of a lightning bolt. I decided to incorporate the seven-foot lightning bolt into the doors of the eight-foot-high art piece. The jagged contour of the lightning was arranged so that the seam ran down the middle where the double doors met. The hinged doors, now mounted on a large coffin-like box, opened outward, as if struck and broken open by the lightning bolt. When the doors were open, each door edge was in the shape of the lightning bolt, and when closed, the jagged edges fit together like a puzzle.

At the time I began this project, a very dear friend of mine, Erica, had just been broken open by her impending divorce and she came to me for help. Before long, her intense process, our work together, and the art project began to merge, dream-like, into a mysterious whole.

Erica visited me regularly in the hope that I might help her understand the transpersonal and mythic implications of her difficult passage. The particulars of someone else’s spiritual path are always wholly their own. Each person’s path is an expression of his or her personal hopes, dreams, longings, and terrifying limits. These limits are particular to an individual’s history. I could bring what I had learned from my own walk into “death” to the process of working with another person who was going through the same transition. Like anyone who has walked the full length of this mythic journey, I could offer a lighted map for navigating the transpersonal landscape. A deep understanding of our essential, holy, human story is the best that we can hold out to others. We can do this only after we have survived the journey and fully received its miraculous transformation. We can then hold, as witness and guide, knowledge of the ruthless requirements of the work at hand, and compassion for the one who undertakes it.

Participation in the holy experience of a personal death experience as it joyfully and painfully unfolds for another human being is the ultimate gift to be shared.

As guides, we can only accompany another as far as the edge of the mystery. When we reach this edge, we must find a new stance that involves a detached holding of the other’s suffering. At this point, we rely on faith in something unknown. At some point in each person’s spiritual journey, determined effort can do no more. Only grace can accomplish the final leap over that small, yet humanly insurmountable gap, somewhere between heaven and earth. I don’t know what brings this grace about for one, yet not for another. Timing, longing, intent, and reverent invocation seem to have something to do with its arrival. There are, however, no deals to be made and no guarantees. We must let the Gods know we mean business and we cannot do so halfheartedly.

Once a man came to a great Hindu saint asking, “How do I find God?” The saint held the man’s head under the water until he was gasping for air! Then the saint said, “When you want God as much as you wanted air, you will find God.”

As I worked with Erica, elements of her transition crossed over into my work on the art piece. I was not sure if this was a good thing, but I wondered if something was attempting to merge into a more complete expression than I could at the time perceive. In fully trusting the spontaneous nature of my own creative process, I have come to see that when aspects of reality come through unbidden, I should pay attention. The magic of a meaningful creation often arrives in the half-light of non-interference. Trusting in circumstance can bring forth a tiny gift, larger in depth and meaning than anything a rigid plan might achieve.

I finally allowed the powerful lightning that was splitting apart Erica’s twenty-year marriage to merge with my unfolding art piece. I began to see a connection as the mythic fallout from Erica’s divorce locked into place in the half-conscious development of my art piece. We continued our work together and meaningful new levels were revealed. Her personal breakthroughs corresponded beautifully with each new layer I created in the art piece. The timing and significance of both processes were parallel realities.

The entrance to the cabinet I was making appeared to split open with the force of the lightning on the front doors. Beyond that were several hinged layers, each a carved, life-sized human form. They were set one behind the other, each figure opening out to the next. See artwork here.

The figure just behind the lightning appeared to be in shocked reaction to its naked exposure as the doors were broken open. The next figure was an arrangement of teeth and bones that created a skeletal figure, giving the viewer a face-to-face encounter with something that looks and feels like death! Following that was an inwardly focused female figure with eyes closed, leaning on a sword. Perhaps it was the ego—defeated, surrendered, and unaware that she still holds the sword, which is still available for cutting through obstacles and limitations. Finally, the journey complete, the veiled golden figure arrived, open, reverent, wise, and glowing, weightlessly holy.

However inevitably painful the process, once we set out on this journey, it does not matter. As in the birth process, once the beautiful creation arrives and the infinite life before us mirrors the investment of our hard-earned love, the pain and difficulty of coming to term is soon forgotten. All that remains is appreciation for the gift of new life. However terrifying the experience, meeting the mythic requirements of full surrender doled out through one’s particular circumstances, brings with it real freedom. When we learn how to die and to let go, we can dip into the wisdom of our metaphorical death like we dip into sleep, and emerge fully renewed. Without this knowledge, life can only return cyclically to defeat. Without the wisdom of this journey, we can only create meaningless buffers against the insistence of death.

This deeply gratifying involvement with another human being was the next step to follow the process of doing my own work. I felt twice-gifted because I had received firsthand a deep understanding of the death experience, and then I was able to pass along what I held most sacred in my own heart. Taking this journey with another human being, against difficult odds, is a sharing that can only happen through grace. I felt privileged to support Erica as she traversed the full distance of this wonderful journey for herself.

Finally, the journey complete, the veiled golden figure arrives, open, reverent, wise, and glowing, weightlessly holy.