Lyra Belacqua, the protagonist of Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” series, has a gift. She possesses, and knows how to use, an alethiometer — a magical device that can answer any question, so long as the user knows how to ask it and how to interpret its response.
For experienced alethiometer scholars, asking even a simple question takes weeks of study and interpretation. Lyra can do it in seconds. She has no training, no practice, but through pure intuition, she can access any information with a thought. So, at the end of the series, when she’s forced to make an impossible decision, naturally she consults the device. And for the first time, she fails.
“Once more she gazed at the symbols, once more she turned the wheels, but those invisible ladders of meaning down which she’d stepped with such ease and confidence weren’t there. She just didn’t know what any of the symbols meant.”
As Lyra sobs through her despondent panic, an angel appears to her. Lyra asks the angel to explain why her ability to read the alethiometer has abandoned her.
“You read it by grace,” the angel responds. “And you can regain it by work.”
I reread “His Dark Materials” last summer, and this line has reverberated in my mind ever since. The tension between grace and work seems to confront me at every turn: I bake a new type of pastry for the first time and it turns out perfectly, but when I try it again a few days later, it comes out of the oven a mess. I learn a song on the piano that sounds beautiful at first, but then, without warning, the music leaves me and the connection between my fingers and the keyboard is severed.
There’s a less elegant term for this phenomenon — beginner’s luck — but I think Pullman gets at something deeper. Beginner’s luck is what you say when you throw a strike at a bowling alley on your first try, then quickly return to the mediocrity expected from an amateur. But what does it mean if you, like Lyra, lose something integral to your identity, an ability you didn’t even realize you could lose?
The tension is especially apparent to me now that I’m on the eve of graduating from college and confronting the most uncertainty I’ve ever experienced. I worked hard to get to UC Berkeley, and I worked hard to carve out my own path here, but these feats seem trivial now that the task of carving out a path in the so-called “real world” lies ahead of me.
Lyra and I are not the same — I think I’m better at counting my blessings as I go along, at appreciating things before they’re gone. But I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t lost sight of some of the grace I was afforded in my time at college. Take performing, for example: One of my greatest joys here was playing guitar in the pit orchestra for BareStage’s musical theater productions. I’m a good player, but I could never make it as a professional, so that part of my life is now over as I know it. I took my access to live performance for granted, and now, I’m not sure if I’ll ever get that back.
But the place where my relationship to grace and work reminds me most of Lyra and the alethiometer is here, as a writer at The Daily Californian. I applied to be an arts reporter somewhat on a whim. I had always loved film, television and music, but I hadn’t felt a desire to write about it until the spring of last year. Thankfully, I was accepted (by, if you can believe it, someone named Grace), and I began a brief but extraordinary journey that imparted upon me a steadfast desire to seek out a career in arts journalism.
But just as I’m starting to understand how much journalism means to me, I’m also facing a loss of grace not unlike that which Lyra experienced. Once I leave the paper, if I want to write professionally, I’ll have to compete for a job at a publication or pitch freelance articles — not impossible tasks, but certainly a level of work I haven’t yet encountered.
When you focus only on what grace you lose when you leave college, the horizon looks bleak. The good news, however, is Lyra’s angel had more to say to her:
“Your reading will be even better then, after a lifetime of thought and effort, because it will come from conscious understanding. Grace attained like that is deeper and fuller than grace that comes freely, and furthermore, once you’ve gained it, it will never leave you.”
Although it’s frightening to graduate and leave behind the relative safety of our college community, how lucky are we to have been given these experiences that opened our eyes to what we love, to what’s important to us — to what we’re willing to dedicate our lives to get back?
I look forward to the work. I look forward to what lies on the other side of a lifetime of thought and effort, that conscious understanding that will never leave me. I’m grateful for the privilege of having discovered my spark, and also for the pain of losing its protection. That spark is mine now, and what happens to it is up to me.