When I was a child, I had a kaleidoscope. I think Santa put it in my Christmas stocking, or maybe it was a basket gift from the Easter Bunny. Whatever the provenance of my little kaleidoscope, I was enthralled by all the colors and shapes and patterns that danced before my eyes when I peered into its mysteries and twisted it toward the light. I saw a different universe through my little kaleidoscope: it was a lighthearted, benevolent place, lovely and safe, nary a monster under my bed.
Years later, I learned that a kaleidoscope was more than a just a toy. It’s a semi-scientific instrument containing loose bits of colored material (bits of glass or plastic beads) suspended between two flat plates and two plane mirrors so placed that by changing the position of the bits of material relative to the mirrors, the field of view reflects an endless variety of patterns, colors, and light.
I suppose one could say that the current generation of kids experiences a similarly distorted or contrived view of the universe while they’re glued to their iPads or computers. Maybe. But the complexity of today’s version of electronic kaleidoscopes presents a virtual reality (is that an oxymoron?) vastly different from what I found in my little cardboard tube. Not better, not worse, just different.
But now, fast forward with me a few decades—OK; more than a few—to a trip to Barcelona last year. My wife and I were there to celebrate the marriage of a daughter of dear friends, so of course, we took advantage of all the city had to offer: we sampled the waterfront restaurants and bars; we rode a bus and a funicular to the pinnacle of Tibidabo, the high hill that overlooks the city; we wandered through the winding alleys and basked in the charm and energy of the Old City. But it was the Sagrada Familia that was at the top of my personal sightseeing list, and to say it didn’t disappoint would be a woeful understatement. The gothic basilica is Antonio Gaudi’s innovative architectural dream, a divine poem rendered in stone and stained glass, an ethereal world of light and color, suspended in time and space. A miracle.
And then this happened: I was feeling a bit dizzy and overwhelmed, so I sat down to rest in one of the pews in the nave of the sanctuary. I tilted my head and looked up into the vaulted ceiling. Suddenly, I was a child again, and my mind was transported back to all those mesmerizing shapes and colors and distortions of my little toy kaleidoscope. It had been a long day, and the soft murmur of voices surrounding me and the play of filtered sunlight and color, all these elements combined to carry me up, up, and away into smoother space. For a few moments, I lost my tenuous hold in this world and floated high above it, drifting peacefully into the airy recesses of the delicate spider web of stone that towered above me.
I lost track of time. When my wife found me, she gently nudged me back to earth. I tried to put my experience into words, mumbling some nonsense about having just peaked into God’s kaleidoscope. Fortunately, she is used to this kind of rambling from me, so she just sat quietly beside me until I was fully present again.
The photograph that accompanies this Musing is an image of what I saw that day. But what I felt in that sacred space is something no mere image can ever capture. The only way I can try to explain it is to liken that moment to the awe-struck wonder of a child looking into a kaleidoscope for the first time and becoming lost in a reverential realm of light, color, and form.
Strip everything else away, and only feeling remains.
I’ll be right back.
Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer who lives in Chestertown. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy Magazine. His debut novel, “This Salted Soil,” a delightful children’s book, “The Ballad of Poochie McVay,” and two collections of essays (“Musing Right Along” and “I’ll Be Right Back”), are available on Amazon. Jamie’s website is Musingjamie.net.