In the same era of elementary school that gave me papier-mâché volcanoes (baking soda, vinegar) and coke-and-mentos geysers (coke, mentos), I learned how to grow crystals (water, salt, string). These weren’t anything like the bristly interiors of geodes I smashed in a sock with a rock hammer or the smooth, cloudy shards I found in the gift shops of natural history museums. The crystals I grew were thin and twisty and resembled stalactites in miniature.
I recently started growing crystals again, as a reminder of the passive creep of quaran-time and as a remedy to the creeping anxiety of a shut-in existence. Some people call themselves plant parents; still others, latchkey children of the early ’80s and ’90s — remember Pet Rocks? Somewhere in the middle, past the people who have given their sourdough starters punny names, are the crystal-growers, for whom the regular care of another living thing feels like too much commitment. There are probably dozens of us, with our solutions of salt, sugar, borax, and something called alum (said to produce purple octahedral crystals!).
We have dipped all manner of objects into our weird crystal stews: bits of string, old Christmas ornaments, pieces of cardboard. They emerge encased in little mineral mittens because crystals will grow along contours and inside crannies, will cleave to whatever shape you give them. One project idea I’ve seen requires you to twist a length of pipe cleaner into the letters of your initials for a crystal-encrusted monogram. This seems uninspired once you realize that you could also make a crystal-encrusted double helix or a crystal dick. I like that what I put into a solvent is predictive of what comes out of the soup. This is comforting and extremely sane.
If the prospect of a reliably pretty new thing at the end of every week appeals to you, can I suggest that you, too, take up crystal-growing? A salt crystal grows just slowly enough that its progress can meaningfully mark the passage of time and just quickly enough that this progress feels productive. It costs you nothing, outside of a one-time investment in salt and string, and can be recycled — as soon as you’ve finished growing a salt crystal, you can crumble it into bits, heat up a cup of water, and start the whole process over again. (If you’re feeling wild, you can add a few drops of food coloring to the solution.) The other cool thing about salt crystals is that they’re crystals, all the way down. A grain of salt is a crystal. Two grains of salt, stuck together, is a crystal, but they are also crystals. This grants crystals a pleasant, recursive dependability. What you see is what you get.
I’ve noticed that I hang the memories of entire months and years on a few significant objects. Even now, I can recognize my 7-year-old life by a handful of talismans: the plastic sharpener in the bottom of a carton of crayons; shrimp crackers; a lovely, ugly crystal. As I remember it, I asked my mom for a dog and she asked me if I’d settle for something that wouldn’t shed fur or shit the rug — a fish or a plant. I said no, but was intrigued the next day when she said she’d show me how to grow a pet, and began dissolving teaspoons of salt into a saucepan of water on the stove. The idea is to supersaturate the water, she told me — to feed the water spoonfuls of salt until, having eaten its fill, it will take no more. She poured the solution into a plastic cup, tied a length of twine around a chopstick, and balanced it across the mouth of the cup, so that a few inches of twine were submerged in salt water.
In the space of a week, a glittering crust of salt crystals accumulated on the twine. The salt and the water raced each other out of the brine — the water into the air, the salt onto the string. Once the solution was spent, I was left with a scratchy white lump of salt crystal. For a few days, I kept it on a napkin and admired its hard edges, which shattered into little puffs of salt dust when I tapped them with a fingernail. Then, without the ceremony befitting even a goldfish, I tossed it out in the trash: my first pet salt crystal.
In subsequent weeks, I replicated the process: switched salt for sugar, string for a wooden skewer. My mom, caving, bought me a tankful of guppies. The guppies died, but the crystal didn’t — couldn’t. At school, I failed tests, developed a crush, skinned knees, and the crystal, like some kind of maximally uncuddly cat, couldn’t have cared less. (I loved it for that.) There were other calamities. I fell out with friends, discovered allergies to ragweed and mugwort, but was reminded by the quiet, greedy growth of the crystal on my desk that minerals could be reliable when animals and vegetables weren’t.
This is all to say: In a year that has had its share of enormous, unpredictable things, a crystal is a small, shining certainty. Seas may rise and hell may freeze over, but the indifferent forces that allow those things to happen — evaporation, condensation, the slow roll of time — are also very good at growing crystals.