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  • Writer's pictureKaren L Kurtz

The Alchemy of Letting Go

Updated: May 20

The five-acre property was tucked into a checkerboard of farm fields and woods. From the county road, I saw a brick, ranch-style home sitting above a deep, sloped lawn. For years I'd driven past, but never noticed it. A realtor’s open house sign by the long asphalt driveway invited folks to stop in. So I did.

The property was peppered with trees. Saplings of blue spruce had been planted along the perimeter. Given the slow growth of that species, they were clearly a gift to future generations. I liked the gesture.

The entrance, shaded by a large magnolia and over-grown shrubs, had the kind of front door that existed because you’re supposed to have one, not because anyone used it. The side door by the garage was the welcoming one.

As I reached the crest of the driveway a small pond with willows weeping into the water’s edge came into view. That was what clinched it for me.

I hardly remember the interior of the house that day. But the view out the back! The yard opened onto a farmer’s field, where big sky met the woods beyond. I could imagine spectacular sunsets and space to plant an herb garden, and exactly where a campfire pit would be dug. . .and it happened, just so.

The kids played hockey when the pond froze. Stray cats and dogs wandered out from the cornfields into our hearts. Friends roasted hotdogs and dipped soup from the kettle that hung on the tripod over the firepit. And around the glowing embers we discussed the meaning of life, the universe, and everything.

In summer at dusk the bullfrog chorale was deafening. There was one, Jeremiah (of course), who somehow trusted humans enough to enjoy being held. Occasionally the blue heron, a self-appointed grim reaper for the frogs, dropped by for lunch. There was the herd of deer in the morning mist. The blur of yellow finches feeding on the thistle field next door. The pristine stillness after an Indiana blizzard. Every season had its beauty.

This patch of land was an alchemical vessel in which I was undergoing a transformation. Amongst the changes in me was a new respect for the intelligences of nature. I learned that plants will instruct us as to what they need if we have the ears to listen.

The land also taught me about the alchemy of letting go. I didn’t doubt the certainty of my decision to study in Switzerland, but my choice exacted a sacrifice. To finance my schooling, I had to sell my home. The young family who bought it loved the place. Knowing that did not lessen my grief. I sank into a dark place of mourning as I packed up my household.

Sorrow deepened as the move-out day approached. We’d arranged the hour they would take possession of the property. The new family arrived early, and I admit to some uncharitable thoughts about their eagerness to “push me out.” They were down by “my” pond, fishing.

I loaded the last tubs in my van, which I’d backed up to the front door. Apparently, this door had finally found its purpose. Like one of those casket windows built into Victorian homes, it would serve as my final exit. I did not want to make any contact with the family, whatsoever. I walked through my home for the last time, and I was still crying when I drove across the lawn to the driveway.

I understood the stages of alchemy enough to know I had dropped into the nigredo, characterized by darkness and dissolution, or death of what was. In this first stage, matter was placed in a crucible and the dross–that which was no longer needed–was burned away. I could certainly relate.

One of Carl Jung’s significant contributions was his insight about the texts of ancient alchemists. The journals recorded the details of their attempts to create the "philosopher's stone," a wondrous substance that could transmute common matter into gold or serve as a healing elixir. Jung realized the alchemical stages they described were metaphors for the painful, transformative processes that take place within each of us when we are struggling to change, to grow, or to come to consciousness. He understood that the alchemists were projecting their own inner individuation process onto their observations of what was happening inside the alchemical vessels.

16th century alchemist lab, now part of the Museum of Alchemy in Prague

I knew there was supposed to be a “next” stage, albedo, at some point. Psychologically, the albedo usually comes as a flash of insight and brings the light of hope to the dark place we are in. It lets us know that we are on a path that won’t stay in darkness. It comes as a surprise, a gift of grace, an answer to prayer.

I aimed my car down the driveway, and although I had no intention of doing so, I glanced at my rearview mirror. The family by the pond didn't notice me at all. One of the young children had just caught a fish. The afternoon sunlight shimmered on it, as it dangled wildly in the air. They were all laughing and squealing in delight.

The joy of that mirrored vignette startled me. My grief lifted instantaneously. Completely. Miraculously. I smiled at the thought of these new stewards of this land and all the wonderful experiences it would bring to them.

And if they were lucky, it would provide the crucible when it was their time to let it go.


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