High on the list of words that make me twitch due to overuse is the word “alchemy.” Early this morning, there it was on the page, ready to pounce on my nerves. But this time, I found myself—not twitching, perhaps because it appeared in the last line of a poem by Rumi. It is hard to accuse a writer dead for more than seven centuries of tedious trendiness.
Rumi’s cryptic phrase was this: “The alchemy of a changing life is the only truth.”
It’s the end of a poem of flirtation, of courtship. In the poem, Rumi playfully assumes the voice of King Solomon speaking to messengers sent by Queen Sheba. Solomon tells the messengers to scold Sheba for sending him expensive gifts. He suggests that the wealth of her throne “keeps her from passing through the doorway that leads to a true majesty.” He concludes by reminding her of the story of Joseph, who sat at the bottom of a well until he “reached to take the rope that rose/to a new understanding. The alchemy/of a changing life is the only truth.”
I had to refresh myself on the story of Joseph. Most important point: Joseph got thrown into that well by his ever-jealous brothers. They only tossed him a rope when it occurred to them that they could sell him as a slave to some passing merchants, pocket the money, and still go home and tell their doting father that his favorite son was dead.
Being sold to those traveling salesmen changed young Joseph’s life, because they in turn sold him to an Egyptian, who happened to be in charge of the Pharoah’s palace guard. And that’s how a poor shepherd boy moved on up into the royal court of Egypt.
Truth: Joseph got thrown in a well. Alchemy: talk about your life-changing moment! Reaching to take the rope: yes, he did that, because it was preferable to dying a slow death at the bottom of a well. But as far as he knew, the rope was not leading him anywhere good. Even though he’d had those big dreams about how his brothers would someday bow down to him.
So: I read the word “alchemy” at six in the morning, and this is the garden path I go down, from Rumi to a Bible story that most scholars agree is one of the least credible of them all. Why? Because there was something about the way Rumi put it that made me think of all the young people I know whose lives are changing, right now, by the minute. Some of them are graduating from high school or college: and yes, that’s big, but often it’s just the first step in an ongoing, protracted process of—here we go—alchemy.
Alchemy is a word that, in Rumi’s time, most commonly meant a magical way to change ordinary metals into gold. Merriam-Webster says that medieval philosophers sometimes also used it to mean the discovery of a universal cure for disease. Over the centuries, it has come to signify the transformation of something ordinary into something special, or any sort of mysterious change.
As I write, my daughter is sleeping in a tent on the edge of an Idaho lake, on her way to spend the summer mending trails and breaking trails in Colorado. Last summer she got a taste of this work, and it made her want more. It made her want it more than she wanted to return to a desk job. She’s living the alchemy of a changing life. Embracing it, in a way that we older adults often forget how to do. Meanwhile, our freshly graduated son is working two jobs, saving money to travel in the fall. He’s not even sure where yet. And two nephews are graduating from high school. That’s just the tip of the iceberg of young people in my life, and I’m sure you know plenty too.
I think the best gift we can give them is to marvel at the alchemy of their changing lives. Cheer them on, but stay out of the way. Often, they make it look so easy. But don’t you remember? The truth is that it’s as hard as climbing out of a well.
Need a little Rumi in your life? Order Coleman Barks’ Essential Rumi from your favorite independent bookstore here.