There is a story that my grandmother said her grandmother told to her grandmother when she was a child living in the Tatra Mountains in the south of Poland. The story has it that at one point my grandmother’s grandmother’s grandmother’s father was having what we would call a midlife crisis. So, he went off in search of wisdom and the truth. Well, my family are not great adventurers by nature, so, Dziadek (grandfather) Janush walked over to the church and asked the priest where he could find wisdom. The good Father stroked his beard, and told Dziadek Janush to go up into the mountains where he would find a cave with a well near the back of it.
Dziadek came home, packed himself a lunch and set off to find the cave. Late in the afternoon as the shadows were beginning to lengthen, Dziadek found the very cave the good Father at the church had described. So, he went in, found the well, and after walking around the well three times in a clockwise direction, he bowed to the east and poured out the troubles of his heart and asked his question. From the very depths of the well came the answer, “Go down the other side of the mountain to the village crossroads. There you will find what you are seeking.”
With renewed hope and vigor, my Dziadek walked through the mountain pass to the other side of the mountain. He walked down the mountain to a little village he had never been to before, and on to the crossroads at the heart of the tiny village. There he found three shops. They looked very poor and ramshackle to him. One was selling bits of metal, the second sold wood, and the third sold thin wire. It made no sense to him. What did this detritus have to do with wisdom or truth?
Sad and dejected, Dziadek walked back up the mountain, over the pass and back home again, this time feeling that the parish priest had played some kind of joke on him, and feeling rather foolish. He set out seeking wisdom and had been made a fool of instead. As he walked he cursed the priest. Without thinking he spat out words he had never said before in his life. Then, realizing what he had said, he set off to the Church, found the priest and asked the Father to hear his confession. Dziadek told the good Father all that had happened to him, and how he had been so disheartened and disappointed that he had cursed the priest without even thinking. The priest heard his confession, gave him penance and absolution, and said to my Dziadek, “Be patient my son. You will understand in the future.”
Time went by as time is wont to do. Days turned to weeks. Weeks became months. Months grew into years. And Dziadek settled into his routines and life took on a softness for him and his family. Then one evening Dziadek was walking by the Church rectory where the priest lived and he heard the sound of sweet music coming from the porch. The music was sweet and haunting and quite wonderful. Dziadek stood there in rapt attention watching the priest play the suka, a Polish fiddle like instrument. The Father’s fingers danced on the strings, he played with masterful concentration and ease. Then Dziadek began to notice the suka itself. It was made of beautiful carved wood, with the strings attached to it with metal pieces. And standing there in the moonlight, watching the good Father play and listening to the music, the light dawned on Dziadek, the suka was made with wood, metal and wire, just like those sold in the stores which he thought were bits of scrap and junk.
Finally he understood the message from the well. We are all always already given everything that we need. Our responsibility is to see the relationships and connections among the elements, to assemble the parts of our lives and use them in the best way possible. Nothing is meaningful when we see only the disparate parts in isolation. But once we put the parts together, we discover the alchemy of synthesis and harmony, a whole new creation comes into being that we could not have foreseen by looking only at each part independently. We must find the synergistic alchemy and interdependence of all of the elements of our lives if we are to live well, if we are to live in harmony with each other and with our environment.
And with that realization fresh in his heart, Dziadek went home to share his thoughts and insights with his dear wife. Anastasia listened thoughtfully to her husband, smiled and said. “Indeed, my dear heart. It is good to know that a tomato is a fruit. It is wise to know that it does not belong in a fruit salad. Even as we learn the nature of each, we must also understand the relationship of one to another and to all. And that my dear is the heart of true alchemy.”
And they did indeed live happily ever after.
The inspiration for this story came from Roger Darlinton’s blog, http://www.rogerdarlington.me.uk/