Opals Are Said to Make Us Everything We Are All at Once, and There’s Nothing Scarier
I’ve been wondering what my edges really are, and finding they don’t exist. I feel myself shimmer with every conflicting thought.
In Sir Walter Scott’s 1829 novel Anne of Geierstein, an opal reveals a woman to be, perhaps, a witch. Hermione, a mysterious Persian woman, arrives and steals the heart of the Baron of Arnheim. She wears an opal in her hair every day, which darkens when she is upset, brightens when she is happy, and shoots a “little spark, or tongue of flame” when she is in a particular mood. Her handmaids report that she is unusually quiet for a few moments after removing it from her hair, and that she always worried about it: “Even in the use of holy water at the door of the church she was observed to omit the sign of the cross on the forehead, for fear, it was supposed, of the water touching the valued jewel.”
One day, the Baron flicks a drop or two of holy water on Hermione’s head while entering the church, and “the opal, on which one of these drops had lighted, shot out a brilliant spark like a falling star, and became the instant afterwards lightless and colourless as a common pebble, while the beautiful Baroness sank on the floor of the chapel with a deep sigh of pain.” The opal is thought to carry some sort of connection to the Devil, undone by the blessed water. Later, though, it’s revealed that Hermione was poisoned, and she was just afraid that the water would harm or crack her delicate stone.
Since the publication of Anne of Geierstein, some have attributed the association of opals with bad luck, and their decline in sales, to a “careless misreading” of this story. But even in the 1800s, no one was sure where the superstition surrounding opals came from.
Opals are still thought to bring bad luck, in part because they are temperamental and soft. Heat and moisture can change their color, make them crack. How disturbing that a rock, a symbol of solidity, is so easily broken. Hermione’s main problem was not being a witch, but wearing an opal every day. The opal is a beautiful thing, meant to be held at arm’s length. Don’t look at it, it’s too beautiful. Don’t touch it, you’ll only fuck it up. Don’t try to own it, because it will only change on you.
For many of us, there is terror in change—however much we want people to grow and experiment and blossom, we want that to have already happened, and the people in front of us to be fixed. You can be whoever you want, but for that to change by the year, or even the day, makes us uncomfortable. How uncomfortable, then, is the opal, which is suspected to have the “ability to bring one’s traits and characteristics to the surface for examination and transformation.”
The opal is the “eye stone,” directing its focus on every aspect of yourself whether you even know it’s there. It is said to amplify every thought and feeling, make the unconscious conscious and ready for examination. It can make you not just multiple things, but everything all at once. We don’t want that for other people, but we especially don’t want it for ourselves.
There is a metaphor of life that looks like an ever-branching road, with every choice you make pruning the path: the fig tree quote, but not so depressing. If you choose to go to college, you can’t ever not be someone who went to college. If you date one person from 2004 to 2006, you can’t ever have been single during that time. Even if you’re happy to be on a given path, every choice you make cuts another one off. Every choice is a little death, a facet of yourself that won’t get to shine.
Eventually, you make enough choices, prune everything down to one path that you more or less want to be on. Even if it’s not perfect, it’s the one you chose—the one that best represents your one, authentic self. You’re the one boarding up the off-ramps, saying “no, thank you” to the signs that point to life on a different continent or with another child, because that’s just not you. Sometimes an opening pops up that you didn’t think would be there, yet seems like a perfectly pleasant detour: an ability to explore another side of yourself within reason, with control. But most of the time, the path, and your choices, show you who you are—as if that is only one person.
But what if we are capable of being on multiple paths at once? What if we can choose many conflicting journeys? Sometimes, after all, the road blows open. We get a glimpse of how many ways we can shine, and our narrow idea of our pasts and possible futures are rendered useless.
I have a bad habit of running away with a plan on first suggestion, and taking the present as a constant. An idea turns into a promise, something I can rely on and build my life around instead of a temporary flash. Sometimes this leads to that sense of adventure and spontaneity that we’re all taught is an enviable quality. This past fall, I planned a trip to Spain out of pure inertia, not letting any practical concerns get in the way. In an instant, it was no longer a possibility, but a fact.
But more than once, my partner has had to talk me down from hyperventilating over the smallest changes in a plan (or not even changes, because the only “plan” that existed was one I began making up without telling anyone). Sometimes I lie in bed and ask my partner what they would do in unlikely situations. What if tomorrow you wanted kids and I didn’t? What if we get arrested for having a grill? What would you do if we could never have sex again? And I’m never satisfied when the answer is “I don’t know, but we’ll figure it out together,” which is always what it is. I demand to know every outcome for every possibility so I know the edges of what my life can be. Because while it’s scary to face the open road of possibility, it’s scarier when there’s no road. If you can do anything, then who are you? How can you define your life, yourself, when you have no boundaries?
Change is scary because it’s concrete proof that, for all our choosing and pruning, we’ve never been in control, and we can never relax. There’s more to us, to everyone, just below the surface, waiting to get out. And it can appear at any moment.
I’m not good at change or nuance. My first reaction is that something is good or bad, something I want or something that was designed specifically to punish me and throw my life into turmoil. I long tried to find reasons why change felt so uniquely terrifying to me; it was because my mom and I had to suddenly move out of our apartment when I was thirteen, I told myself, or it was because of 9/11, or Hurricane Katrina. Every time my life has been radically (even just in feeling) altered by things beyond my control, I’ve looked for the cause. But while I know a hurricane could sweep in at any moment and change everything, I still cling to people—myself and others—as fixed beings. If we are a certain way, it is because it has always been so, and if someone changes I carry the memories of who they always were with me.
For a long time, I thought this was because I was certain that people don’t change; that the only thing you can trust is that people who attempt it will revert to who you’ve always known them to be. It is easier to think of something, someone, myself, as an eternal truth—and if they or I change, it’s just revealing a truth we weren’t privy to before, rather than something that might have changed over time. Because if one change is possible, then any change is.
When a person changes, they might tell you to your face that they haven’t. They will assure you this is who they’ve been the whole time, deep down, and the only difference is the subtext is now text—a shimmering rainbow in the opal that has finally caught the light. Everything is the same, no one has strayed from the path, and if you’re insisting that something is different now, well, that’s on you.
(I don’t know what’s scarier, when someone was someone else and then changed, or when who they always were bubbles up. Sometimes I can’t even tell the two apart. All I know is the feeling of that bubbling, the bursting and stinging heat hitting you. Was this always true? Did you just miss it before? And if so, what are you missing now? What facets can’t you see?)
My partner reminds me that any time they or someone else I love has changed, I think they’re going to leave me. It happened when they lost weight a few years ago, when they started a job that made them happier, when their presentation slowly started shifting. It happens when friends get new jobs or boyfriends or interests. This makes me sound terrible, I know, but I always think this is it—I was just a pit stop of support and love, a fixed point against which they could define a part of their life and move on. Sometimes it feels less like fear and more like jealousy, because I realize I don’t know how to be on any other road than the one I’m on.
I have had a list of things I am that helps me move through my world, a set of data points I mistook for trends and facts. I have told myself I’m someone who writes, I’m someone who cares, I’m a New Yorker, I’m a hard worker. These were the neatly carved edges of my life, things I went back to when I lost my sense of self and needed to know what it was okay to be and to want. And I told myself these weren’t just a few opalescent facets I was reflecting to the world. They were my whole self.
Lately, I’ve been wondering what my edges really are, and finding they don’t exist. I am someone who writes, but I don’t have to be. I’m a hard worker, but it’s something I’ve developed to shield myself from my profound laziness. I feel myself shimmer with every conflicting thought, my mind racing from wanting everything from everyone with no compromise. I’m cracking into a thousand shining pieces.
I have many opals, because it is my birthstone. I was born in October, under a sign known for mysteriousness, so maybe that’s why the opal was assigned. Scorpios are supposedly temperamental, jealous, sex-obsessed freaks. All our traits and characteristics are already at the surface, ready to explode at the slightest provocation. What others see as change, we see as strategic revelation of a fact that was already there. It wasn’t anything we were trying to hide, just something you couldn’t see until we showed you. What were you going to give us, diamonds?
In describing the High Priestess tarot card, writer and witch Gabriela Herstik wrote about the power of uniting all parts of ourselves. “Union of other and self is truth; both in the personal and the divine,” she said. “This is also true of all the parts of ourselves. The sexual and the spiritual, the shadows and the light, the blooming and the wilting; the High Priestess reflects our divine multitudes back at us. Nothing in this world is one dimensional, and neither are we.”
Sometimes I get a glimpse of this woman, comfortable with the ebbs and flows of humanity, finding excitement rather than fear in the possibility of anything. Sometimes I wear an opal and think of her—a woman who may be one person one day and a different person the next, but who knows they are both authentic; who is welcoming of whatever face she presents to the world, and whatever others present in return. Who knows that just because she can’t see it all the time doesn’t mean it’s not there. What a blessing, to shine with every surface. What luck.