Of Crystals and Cupids

The summers of my childhood are, to my memory, a collection of long road trips. I spent hours on end stuck in the backseat of a car across from my sister while our dad kept driving like the Energizer bunny, taking us from the middle of a cornfield in Illinois to our yearly family reunion over the Rocky Mountains. 

This is to say, I have been in many a gas station gift shop. I have seen plenty of state license plates with popular names in place of a number–which I always flipped through eagerly as if this time there would be one with the atypical spelling of my less-popular name–postcards of local tourist destinations, and state-themed keychains, baseball caps, and Christmas ornaments (no matter what time of year it was). My favorite trinkets to ogle covetously, aside from the overpriced snacks my mom always refused to indulge on, were the ever-present collection of geodes. I was always fascinated by the smooth glossy surfaces that showed off the glittering crystals underneath layers of plain gray rock. 

Geodes are formed by air bubbles left in lava as it hardens and cools. The air pockets in the rock allow water to pool and eventually evaporate, leaving behind the minerals carried in the water. Over thousands of years, after hundreds of deposits of mineral-carrying moisture, crystals form within the air pocket. The natural coloring of these crystals depends on the elements brought in with the minerals and how they mix together, making each geode a unique product of its history. People often follow this same pattern of hidden complexity and are, in the infinite wisdom of the Barbie film, Princess and the Pauper, “unassuming on the outside, a treasure within.” [1] We are made up of little deposits of our interests, our beliefs, our likes and dislikes and experiences, that build up over time and make us a whole. 

Like geodes, more than 71% of the surface of our planet is covered, hidden by the ocean. And yet, more than 80% of the ocean remains unexplored, unmapped, and unseen by human eyes. [2] We know more about the surface of Mars than the towering mountains and chasmic trenches buried by seawater on the surface of our own planet. Just as the surface of our planet is still a mystery to us, we may not understand ourselves and the people we care about as well as we would expect. How much of ourselves remains as unmapped as the ocean floor, an unexamined canvas? How much of those we are closest to do we really know? 20%? More? Less? 

Earlier this fall, a museum in Dresden unveiled the restored version of Johannes Vermeer’s Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window (1657-59). The Northern Baroque painting quite literally pulls back the curtain to reveal a young woman reading a letter by her window. The newly restored image has uncovered, for the first time in centuries, a painting of Cupid hanging on the wall behind her. Although the Cupid was first discovered in 1979 through x-ray analysis, experts believed the painting within a painting had been covered up by Vermeer himself, and therefore left Cupid underneath his layers of paint.

In 2017, however, a conservator of the work noticed a difference in the chemistry of the paint on the covered section of the wall. Tests revealed that the paint covering the internal image dated from decades after the artist’s death, making it impossible for Vermeer to have painted it himself. After more than a year and a half of careful removal of the paint, the Cupid is again visible to viewers, confirming the longtime interpretation of the letter the young woman is reading as a love letter. In an ironic twist, Cupid stands on a mask, representing the triumph of truth in love over deception. [3] 

The deception of the unadorned white wall, imposed on the painting in the eighteenth century, demonstrates the necessity of looking deeper, both within ourselves and in others, to discover our hidden depths. Knowing that objects are not always as simple or straightforward as they appear on the surface, how much more do individuals, who are almost always more complex than initially presented, merit a greater investigation to understand and to genuinely know someone beyond what we first assume from a surface look? 

At the beginning of this semester, President Worthen urged us to seek greater community as a campus. In so encouraging our unity, however, he does not diminish the importance of our individual identity and agency. He says, “There is within each of us a natural desire to give up a part of ourselves to a larger collective, to be part of a community. At the same time, there is also within each of us a desire—a deep-seated need—to be individually unique, free to act for ourselves, and independent from external constraints or commitments.” [4] 

When we grant individual identity a chance to thrive within our great community, when we seek to better understand others and share of ourselves, our communal bonds become stronger for it. In my mind, there is no greater unity than in a multiplicity of experiences and backgrounds, a plethora of new opinions and dissenting ideas, where we can turn to each other and listen, really looking for the hidden layers under the surface, and then walk away from a disagreement with our relationships and mutual respect intact. 

It is hard to reveal ourselves fully, to share our passions and the things that make us unique or fully ourselves. It takes work to understand others, but it also takes work to let ourselves truly be seen. I am, myself, guilty of slipping into the more comfortable role of the anonymity of the crowd. Sometimes, this is because I don’t want to see what is at my core. Often, I conceal my interests and opinions for the illusion of uniformity to avoid the judgment and rejection of my peers that I so fear, a lesson many of us learned in public school. Sometimes it is simply easier to let the surface assumptions of others persist, rather than correcting someone I think highly of. However, that does not mean it is not worth it to share my hidden depths. An imperfect crystal at the heart of the geode is much more interesting than an unblemished and unremarkable plain rock surface. 

Our interests form the individual crystals that, taken together, make us multidimensional human beings—whether they be in nineteenth-century sonnets or seventeenth-century fairytales, fifteenth-century Italian Renaissance fresco or eighteenth-century French Rococo oil painting, contemporary Korean thrillers or 1940s black-and-white romcoms. The final question to consider then, is whether we will continue hiding our candles under bushels, our crystals under ordinary igneous rock, or if we are willing to be vulnerable and share our rich inner selves with others, while trying to understand the core of others as well.

This post was written by LeeAnn Broderick, a Center undergraduate fellow.

 

[1] Lau, William, director. Barbie as the Princess and the Pauper. Lions Gate Home Entertainment, 2004. 1hr., 25 min.

[2] “Ocean.” National Geographic, September 4, 2019. https://www.nationalgeographic.org/encyclopedia/ocean/. 

[3] Hickley, Catherine. “A Vermeer Restoration Reveals a God of Desire.” The New York Times, September 9, 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/09/09/arts/design/vermeer-cupid-restoration.html.

[4] Worthen, Kevin J. “Hearts Knit Together in Love.” BYU Speeches, September 15, 2021. https://speeches.byu.edu/talks/kevin-j-worthen/hearts-knit-together-in-love/. 

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