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  • Writer's pictureJustin Key

Behind the Title - Crystal

“Crystal” by Fleetwood Mac

Ice crystals on a frozen lake.

I remember being scared, frozen to the brink of carelessness. The future had never been a concern of mine but a decision had to be made. Frustrated, I stubbornly sacrificed the required effort but not an ounce more. One egg, one basket, and despite my utter lack of concern, it hatched. The news didn’t exactly excite me but in the end I was college bound. 

Looking back it’s hard to know if I really wasn’t concerned about my future or knew in my heart that everything would work out but that lone egg was truly the only one I needed. As I stared out over frozen Lake Superior I felt like I was exactly where I was supposed to be at that moment. Those four years were long gone but Marquette, Michigan had become my second home during that span.

I’d left my third home in Denver a week earlier and driven over a thousand miles to return to that icy shoreline. In high school I was shy, painfully insecure, but that fresh start at Northern Michigan University shattered that timid version of myself as I came into my own in the woods of the upper peninsula. Almost six years after graduation, I finally found my way back to pay tribute to that hallowed town.

I’d come into my own even more since I left. College turned my wheels toward art street but it took a year before I hit the gas. My time there was spent exploring the limits of photography and letting my creativity flow unabated. After building on that foundation independently for a few years, I was back to show that nurturing landscape how far I’d come. 

The snow followed me all the way from Denver. It had been an extremely stressful drive of snow packed roads and white out conditions but it all melted away when I arrived in that familiar town. The snow had finally stopped but the fresh layer of pure Michigan powder had me itching for a long awaited spa day in the woods. I skipped check in and drove right to a trail outside of town, one I’d hiked countless times between classes. The hike led up a mountain but a less frequented split detoured to the lake and that icicle covered shore where I made my favorite memories during school.

The forest had been painted white by the storm and as I paved a trail to the water the crunch of the snow packing beneath my feet warmed my soul. The muffled silence of that winter wonderland amplified the soft, comforting compaction and every step felt like a decompressing deep breath for my heart. I started kicking myself for delaying this reunion so long but that remorse faded as I patiently trudged down memory lane. 

When I arrived at the lake the boulder laden banks had been flattened. The frosty blanket leveled out the rocky terrain but occasionally the contours of a few larger boulders would disrupt the glistening surface. The shadows were subtle under the overcast sky but it gave grace to the huddled flakes. What wasn’t covered in snow was sealed in ice as Lake Superior had apparently put up a fight before succumbing to the hold of winter. The raging swells coated the coast in a thick, glossy lacquer and its drippings left a wall of icicles crying over the trapped titan below. 

Carefully navigating the ankle rolling minefield, my eye tediously carved a path, attempting to preserve the tranquil landscape while drunk with curiosity. The gradients and textures in the snow became a challenge in the flat light but the soothing energy encouraged determination. The polished rocks looked delicious enough to lick but the thought of ending up in a movie crossover of “A Christmas Story” and “127 Hours” killed the temptation. The glistening icicles lured me to the edge of the shore, still dripping, they directed my attention to the ice below. 

The clear water of Lake Superior had turned into a dark abyss. Like a slumbering dragon, the thick ink flowed with tempered breath beneath the thin sheet of fresh ice. Sharp, icy thorns covered the delicate surface like barbed wire securing the liquid prison below. Trapped bubbles fluttered back and forth while the smallest fracture would liberate the occasional trickle. Greeted by the frigid air, the freed molecules crackled in agony, crystalizing in real time as they strengthened the barricade. The faint serenade held me in a trance as I preserved the magical memory in “Crystal”. 

“How the faces of love have changed, turning the pages

And I have changed, oh, but you, you remain ageless”

The melody starts slow, just a single guitar strumming with building wonder. The quiet, almost whispered lyrics that accompany it set the mood for that peaceful moment of reflection along the lakeshore. The lyrics are full of love and as that joyous feeling builds the drums enter with assuredness for the profound emotions welling up within. In the background, a synthesized organ can be heard playing high, long notes that match the mystic grandeur of the expanding winter dreamscape before a solo brings the attention back to the excitement of the crackling crystals at my feet. 

The lyrics speak of love, a destiny coming to fruition. It’s a feeling so strong and pure that it feels intuitive, a special knowledge that bears believing. When we’re young we flow with our intuition, we don’t have the wisdom to rely on for decision making but this internal guidance helps direct us. Hindsight reveals its presence and for me, my resistance to applying for college came from an internal certainty that there was only one path worth following at that time.

“Do you always trust your first initial feeling?

Special knowledge holds true, bears believing”

That’s when the water came closing in all around me. Not overwhelming, not overpowering, like a glove, secure and snug, comforting like the alignment with destiny. We all have a path we are meant to follow, sometimes we deviate and lose that connection, but when we arrive at a point in step with the universal plan the love beats in our heart like a drum of excitement. It’s clarity, a crystal clear knowledge that we’re on track. 

“I turned around and the water was closing all around like a glove

Like the love that had finally, finally found me

Then I knew in the crystalline knowledge of you”

That energy building inside becomes a force, it’s no longer a subtle feeling you can ignore, it’s motivation. Once you feel it you don’t want to lose it and like a newly discovered super power it propels us towards our destiny. We’re pulled by this magnetic instinct with confidence and, like an animal following a migratory path, trust that beyond the mountains lies the sea.

“Drove me through the mountains

Through the crystal-like and clear water fountain

Drove me like a magnet

To the sea”

I felt clarity when I decided what I wanted for my future all those years ago. Photography was the only egg in my basket and I was content skipping down the road with it and nothing else. My time at Northern may not have put me on a clear path after graduation but tapping into my intuition helped me find my bearings again. 

I never realized, at the time, how special those four years were. Even after dedicating myself to my craft, have I experienced four years of unwavering pursuit like that. When I landed back in Marquette, the gratitude for my time there exploded. As the memories came rushing back, I was reminded of all of the growth I had made there and the foundation it had given me to expand upon in the years since. As I stood looking out over Lake Superior again, scanning that hindsight horizon, the clarity came rushing in and I could feel that magnetic force pulling me back to the sea.

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