[For my non-geological readers—gneiss is pronounced nice]
In March of 2019, during my term as the Richard H. Jahns Lecturer, I had the honor of speaking at the Seattle Science Center for their Science in the City series. The Q&A following my talk wound up with a girl of about 12 years asking, “What rock would you describe yourself as?”
Most of my Jahns presentations were given at Geology Departments at colleges and universities where students asked about technical aspects of the work or the logistics of jobs in our profession. To say I was not prepared for the girl’s question that evening would be an understatement. But what geologist wouldn’t love a question like that? I took a moment, took a breath, then said, “Gneiss.” After pausing to enjoy the ripple of laughter from the audience, I elaborated.
Although I do hope that at least a few people consider me nice, that wasn’t why I chose it. A metamorphic rock, gneiss is formed when another rock is recrystallized due to intense heat and pressure. Metamorphosis is a process of transformation. I like to think that I, and my life, have been transformed by the heat and pressure withstood over my lifetime. It’s a metaphor, of course, for no human could survive the conditions that recrystallize stone, but there are times I wonder how we survive the conditions that confront us day to day, year to year. Yet, so often we do.
And like gneisses—varied in composition and color, often beautiful, with minerals aligned in bands, sometimes straight and sometimes contorted—our lives may be metamorphosed into complex structures, layered in light and dark, sparkling in certain light. I also like to think that the components of my life—my home, my sailboat, my work, my volunteer activities, what I eat, how I dress, the car I drive, how I spend my time and money, in sum, my values—like the minerals that form gneiss, have been arranged and rearranged as stresses have acted on me.
We don’t always get to choose what precipitates our metamorphoses, but like rocks transformed at depth whose minerals gleam when unearthed, we too can shine, having recrystallized into who we are now, knowing that we can only be that for the heat and pressure we have endured. Our stories, geological or human, shape us.
Today, a dear friend told me of a metamorphic event that is occurring in her life. Already strong and beautiful, I know she will persevere. And I trust she will emerge, transformed, in some way different than she began, but no less exquisite, and maybe more so.
It is a gneiss life, indeed.
But maybe you would choose a different rock, for a different reason, and so I ask: