I am seven years old, and hiding in my basement bedroom, waiting for my father’s anger to subside. He’s in the kitchen above me, hurling pots, pans, plates at the wall. It’s not my first rodeo, as they say. I know it will pass, like a wild thunderstorm. With luck, all it will do is rattle the windows, set the dogs barking, and quicken my pulse with fear. I just have to stay safely out of the way, because the lightning, if it strikes, will fry me to my core.
At times like this, when one is waiting for a severe storm to blow over, it is important to have something at hand to take your mind off the fear. So I have these standard activities, these totemic rituals to pass the time and to deliver me from harm. I work on a paint-by-numbers tigers, read a Tin Tin comic, turn the radio on softly, so as not to attract attention from above. This one day, when I am seven about to turn eight, I pick up a kaleidoscope, a cardboard tube rigged with mirrors, filled with a handful of glass beads. I turn on the desk lamp, place the end of the tube against the light bulb, look through the lens, turn the barrel, and am transported to another world. Nearly fifty years later, I still remember that precise moment, one of the most formative of my life. I truly felt as though I were looking at a radiant vision of some better, more radiant, more wondrous world. I felt if I could somehow crawl through the luminous tunnel of tumbling lights, I would emerge into a dimension of pure adventure, pure joy. I know this sounds very strange, but there are times when I feel that every dream I have dreamt, every journey I have made, everything I have ever yearned for and pursued, has on some metaphorical level been my attempt to travel closer to that crystalline realm that I glimpsed that afternoon.
Here’s a question: are we not, each of us, a sort of existential kaleidoscope? The flimsy tube of our physical being is filled with a kerjilion bright, translucent beads, representing all the countless elements that combine to make us who we are. These beads are memories, stories, genetic influences. Some of them shine like diamonds, some of them glow like rubies, some of them are broken glass, and some of them are blood. There are beads that are as light as quarks, and others that are the baggage of a lifetime, seemingly as all the weight of the world. If you look closely, you can see that within each bead there is enclosed a tiny fleck of who we are: a fragment of DNA, a frozen moment, a childhood fairy-tale, a parent’s legacy of anger or of love, a song we heard, a scene from a film, a line of poetry that stopped us in our tracks, an act of betrayal, an act of selflessness, a kiss, a punch, the touch of a hand.
In a sense each of us, I believe, when we are trying to make sense of our wildly complicated selves, our wildly complicated lives, is turning the barrel of a cheap and clever toy, hoping to find the right combination of light and tumbling coloured glass that will allow us to gasp with wonder, and exclaim “So that’s what beauty is!”