Alchemy: level the furnace, add the ingredients, prepare the catalyst and the harmonizing agents, seal the cauldron…and then begin the firing process. These are the demands of the work, and once begun, timing is everything. The work itself is volatile, but that’s why the results are transformative.
Stories are worth making, worth telling. They say much in a few words, because in fact they are not made of the words themselves. Instead they become a vessel in which their words have meaning, presenting a context that brings their words to life. But the storyteller is to stories, what stories are to words: a cauldron that gives them life. But this process doesn’t just happen by chance.
The work is difficult, but worthwhile, because once accepted, stories change minds, redirect flows of thought, spark new ideas or create interactions between old ones. They can be rejuvenating, or potent like a medicine (an imbalance to correct an imbalance), or they can become infectious. They are an alchemy of thought from which perspectives arise, and not even the teller will come away unaffected. In this they are like the dangerous work of internal alchemy.
So what is leveling the furnace? It’s making sure of your ground, of your basis. As the alchemist, you have the most at stake. Your thought should be in accord with reality as is or it will not hold up. A false story will reveal you; your bias will show. You should be sure of this beforehand: will you come out of this process with your sanity, or will you lose something? If it’s level, the cauldron won’t spill.
The ingredients are what is to be transformed. They are the behaviors or thought patterns you want to affect. You must know them as your own, and be able to choose them wisely: the wrong ones will turn out badly, and too many saturate the brew. How well do you know the subject matter you are working with? There cannot be any guesswork or the elixir will be ruined.
Preparing the catalyst and readying the harmonizing agents is a practice; it is the apothecary’s craft. It takes time to develop these, because it is already difficult to be a vessel for evocative ideas, let alone being capable of administering them to others. Catalysts ignite, harmonizing agents make receptive: have you refined your ideas, tempered them, worked them out with others? Will they be medicine or poison? Regret will be useless once the firing process has begun.
When the contents are ready it’s time to seal the cauldron. The work is delicate: it must proceed without interruption, and you must be vigilant. You must respect the work, commit to it: you are the alchemist, you cannot look to others or it will boil over and the ingredients will be wasted. Are you ready to embrace the fierce internal pressure of the transformative work? It depends on you alone.
Finally, there is the firing process itself, where it all comes to life. This may be in the writing or in the telling, but it has a life of its own. The writer draws from her living connection, the storyteller from her source and the listeners themselves. There is no room for doubt or further considerations at this point: light the fire, stoke the flame, cool and hot, listen and watch, add the mercury, stabilize it with the lead. If the furnace is level and the cauldron sealed, the work will progress, and the elixir will take form. Are you ready to risk the alchemical process?
The alchemy of storytelling is your own task of self transformation.
The Northern Goddess
Of all directions, North is youngest; of all lands was North raised last: pole-clinging, mountain-bracing, glacier-bearing, winter-blasting, storm-wielding, darkness lair. Of all lands was North the best.
In the same North, a region cold and stern, a land stirred stiffly to life at Spring, made frostily bright at Summer, roused to blustery breath through Autumn, cloaked in restless dark at Winter: in this farthest North was such a goddess, and she was alone.
Then there was one of her own who approached her, seeking in her desolate land an answer to her own life, a response to her small soul from the darkness she was drawn to, walking on though fading in her mortal being, til blown thin, she tasted of the freedom her spirit sought, and on that threshold she was answered. Her goddess met her there, where mortal life departs.
Though but a flickering flame in the heart of a fierce land, she had strayed from herself, reckless in her seeking, relentless in her frailty…yet she was found, taken in by one who saw her as she was, one who had ever dwelt in the solitude of the North, who was the very life of it, rejoicing in its very severity. This one took her in, brought her to herself from the brink of the abyss, and gave her life from her own essence that she may stay if she choose it, or wander if her heart would not be quieted. Indeed it would not be, but there was nowhere else, none other who knew her nature, no land that met her so, and so she stayed with her goddess. She is the Lady of the North.
Lady of the North
An unyielding will alive in the lost places, a faint wisp of warmth drifting freely in the frigid regions, faint yet unwavering amidst the wild frenzy of the North, and slight, though never to be quenched, even in great darkness or deep cold. So was this one, who alone had known the goddess of the North, this same one who had sought the one called Winter’s mother.
The borders of that realm were the only bounds of her desire, and the fury of those wilds were the freedom of her own heart, but one day she stood looking Southward and was moved: a wanderer, a chieftainess, a queen among her people was approaching the precipice upon which she stood watch, now nearing the solitary pass through which she herself had once entered, that forbidding gate in the mountain wall, hid between great jagged ridges like arms reaching desperately toward the South.
She descended to see her come, staying hidden in the rugged folds of her beloved’s land, looking from a place where, by yet a fateful drop below her, the way became narrow. It was as she watched her from high above that pass, that the woman looked up, and there also she let herself be seen.
She dared let herself be seen by this one who walked below.
A moment later she withdrew, disappeared at once into the wilds of her Northern realm: it was for but a moment, but it was a moment too long. So she went back to her land’s heart, sullen, vexed, wanting to hide. She had no need of this, yet her own heart had stirred, and she thought herself more reckless in her choice to be seen that day, than in all her mortal daring before it.
Her goddess spoke: “Go to her.”
It would not be the last time. It would take a turning of heart, but the North knew her heart, and she would not have her cage her own nature now, turning from life if it come to her, for, ever before had she sought it without regard to her own, and the North herself loved her for it.
She spoke again: “Go, my heart. Do you deny she has moved you? Go then.”
The Celtic goddess Boann loosed an Otherworldly spring, and lost herself in the flood that came of it…or realized herself in its torrent. She and the spring together became the Boyne river, which flows today as ever it has since then, and Boann herself became the goddess of inspiration.
To seek the Otherworldly spring so boldly, to discover the wisdom of its waters in the hazels that encircle it, the salmon that swim it, to feel in your own five senses the flowing of its five streams, and then to walk round it three times counter-clockwise: this is daring to summon something greater than yourself. The art of inspiration begins with daring, with a willingness to lose oneself in it.
The story of Boann comes from a people who made an elaborate science of the nature of poetry, and the practice of channeling inspiration. It teaches us to seek deeply where others cannot reach, to approach what is sacred with all we are, but to start first with our own sensory experience. The world is always speaking to us. We do not act alone, and we get nowhere by looking past it. No one else can listen to the world for us.
It is said the oak tree must have roots sufficient to withstand the lightning strike of inspiration: it’s just as essential to attend to what is near before you seek what is far, or you won’t be ready for it when you find it. But it’s not drudgery. It’s a cultivation of presence through which the world opens up to you. Slowly you see you cannot be alone…the world is always there, always was, always whispering.
Water finds its way around, humbly seeks the lowest places, laughing softly as it goes. There is no stone that is not rounded, no barrier that does not give, and music is made of all it encounters on its way. There is no writer’s block for the one who flows of their own spring, who writes in the company of Boann, who walks with the living world. All that arises is met in dance, all that confronts, drawn into it. And when at last the river flows–who’ll be there to argue?
What about you? Will you listen? How bold will you be when the spring erupts?