Jerome Through the Looking Glass

Reflections on Projection and Refraction

Alex Menache
4 min readMay 27, 2021

A detour up a windy hill in The Middle of Nowhere, Arizona leads to the heart of Jerome: a burnt down 19th century brothel, now home to the most prominent dealer of rare kaleidoscopes in the world. I was silently seeking an adventure but couldn’t have come up with this one myself. Nellie Bly is a playground for all ages, an imaginarium far more joyful than its origin story.

Working my way through the collection, I didn’t expect the arts & crafts I used to make out of toilet paper rolls in second grade to light up the wiser corners of my now adult brain. Experiencing the kaleidoscope in the digital age, with a Jungian point of view, amidst the Social Dilemma and the resurgence of all things psychedelic makes them hit differently. But the kaleidoscope as a metaphor for the human experience is undeniable — the way perspective shapes reality is a concept considered by every human that ever lived.

These peculiar objects are like ASMR for the eyes. They’re instruments for visual meditation, interactive sculpture, and a way of seeing disguised as a coffee table artifact. They massage the obsession with escapism and aesthetic overstimulation in a way that’s actually real. They’re analog, free of algorithms, targeted ads and the guilt of falling into digital hypnosis. They’re nostalgic yet satisfy all of my millennial fixations without stealing my presence.

Photograph © Andrew Dunn, 1992

I never would have thought to stop in Jerome. You can live a full, well-travelled life without ever encountering this quirky little hilltop ghost-town-turned-artist-colony. It’s a gold mine for the eccentric, one worth visiting on the way to Sedona, but its history as an actual copper mining camp full of gamblers and prostitutes lingers more than the touristy towns you may be used to. Of all places, why did the kaleidoscope clerk quit her finance job in Miami to move to Jerome? “A new perspective,” she said. Sometimes it takes a nasty divorce to reconsider the definition of a life well lived. For her, it was the permission to just be, to wake up every morning surrounded by curiosities and in community.

It’s clear why we crossed paths when we did. First moving to Phoenix and then taking this solo road trip was obviously some form of fleeing, or at least an attempt to find a new point of view. I don’t feel as sure about who I am without my job, my own home, and so many of my friends. Beyond that, I’m confused by the fact that I even need to know. As if I ever did or ever will. Knowing is starting to feel like a lie.

But that’s just one perspective, and with all this time alone, I oscillate between the excitement of all there is to rebuild and the burden of having to start over. I’m proud of all the work I’ve done but I’m devastated by the loss of momentum. I’m comfortable living at home but numb to my individuality. I’m invigorated when I reconnect with old friends but paralyzed by the fear of picking up the phone. I love that I have so much time but hate all the time I have. I blame it on myself, on the virus and on the universe. It’s a plague, it’s a blessing, it’s an opportunity, they say. Amidst it all, I try to remember that chaos and order are two sides of the same coin.

Chaos was what it felt like the morning I set off on this road trip, when I serendipitously ran into the guy I liked with another girl (a guy who lives across the country but decided not to tell me he was in town when we were chatting the night before). My personal board of directors agreed that “it was meant to be.” Scapegoating the mysteries of consciousness seems to be the only way to conceive of a downright shitty situation that has no clear explanation other than: I’m not good enough for him, this woman is better than me, all men are deceitful, I’ll never find love. I project my old stories of heartbreak and dress him in my own self-deception.

But a kaleidoscopic way of seeing finds beauty in new perspectives. As opposed to projection, which estimates what might happen in the future based on what happened in the past, refraction introduces a new medium that has the ability to alter an image and change the direction of a ray of light.

Ironically, per his last minute recommendation, this guy was the only reason I stopped in Jerome. If I didn’t meet him, I certainly wouldn’t have been struck by this dying art form. But that’s the moment when chaos turns to order, if you’re willing to see it at least, and the allure of kaleidoscopes is exactly that: playing with perspective is a reminder that we can choose our own way of seeing. Not only that we can, but that we must, because absolute truth just doesn’t exist.