Some Stones from the Journey

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Go inside a stone,

That would be my way….

—Charles Simic

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Two weeks ago, I wrote of collecting stones from my various travels as a way to retain some of the pilgrimage experience. And I’m not talking just a few stones; I’m talking bowls of stones in almost every room of the house. Fountains of stones. Stone paper weights and bookends. Stones too large for the house lining the back patio.

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Before I ever thought much about pilgrimages, my then twelve-year-old daughter Laurie gave me a “rock concert” for Father’s day: a dozen small stones she’d painted blue and red and arranged in clay on a wooden oval. She painted black and white eyes, like a raccoon’s on each stone, a nice touch, typical of her attention to detail.

Rock concert-

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You can also see her attention to detail in the watercolor she painted when she was seventeen. In the center of the picture, a pale turquoise hand reaches up through large green-brown stones toward a diaphanous orange petal drifting down from a cluster of flower blossoms. Laurie gave me this painting before her cancer diagnosis, when her future seemed bright and limitless, but after her death I spent hours sitting in front of that watercolor, feeling the desperation embodied in the hand as it reaches for one fragile blossom of beauty before being crushed under the weight of those stones.

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According to Hasidic legend, after Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments carved on stone tablets and saw the children of Israel worshipping a golden calf, he smashed the tablets to the ground, leaving behind a pile of stone fragments. The people, not bearing to leave the pieces there, picked them up and carried them in their pockets all through their desert wanderings toward the home they were hoping to find.

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When my wife, her son, and I decided it was time to “graduate” from the Center for Grieving Children, a local organization offering counseling to families who’ve lost loved ones, we each received a leather pouch containing four stones. Three were round and smooth, representing “the bright and shiny parts of you, the parts that have healed and grown, and are stronger than before.” One was flat and rough, “like the corner of your heart that may always feel a little rough and painful because of what’s happened to you.” I carried that stone for years. Sometimes when I was tearful or angry or felt especially guilty for Laurie’s death because of what I had or hadn’t done, it felt good to grip the stone tightly so that the edges cut into the palm of my hand. The surface of the stone was cracked and pitted, and sometimes I’d dig with my thumbnail into the crevices. That was very satisfying.

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Jungians talk about a “collective unconscious,” a mental package of instinctual feelings passed down from life’s beginnings. Perhaps, Robert M. Thorson, postulates in his book on New England stone walls, Stone by Stone, we all carry with us a primitive need for stones as the material for tools and weapons, as shelters for homes, as natural enclosures into which to drive game, as caches for hiding food, or as places for ambush or escape.

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For years after my daughter’s death, I dreamed of long, lop-side stones, smoke colored, lying on their sides. Sometimes they fit together in a wall or a house. Sometimes they were in the rubble of destroyed cities. Sometimes I used them to navigate my way through wilderness.

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Thorson explains that we imbibe stones every day, because unless artificially distilled, all of the earth’s water carries with it the dissolved constituents of stones. So in a way, all of us are built of stones.

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During a trip to England, the year after Laurie died, my wife bought me a stone from Salisbury Cathedral. It’s a block of ash-gray limestone, about two inches wide, four inches long, and three quarters of an inch thick. On the back, there’s a “Certificate of Authenticity,” part of which reads

 … centuries of storm and frost, and, more recently, the deadly corrosion of acid rain, have eaten the medieval stonework away. This fragment is a genuine piece of the original masonry removed from the spire, to be replaced with fresh stone from the same quarry.

When we’d arrived at Salisbury Cathedral I was disappointed to see the famous spire encased in scaffolding. Holding Mary Lee’s gift, however, comforted me with the knowledge that this ancient stone monument to both God and the human spirit needed to be—and could be—repaired, offering hope that I might do the same with my own life.

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The Psalmist cries, “Be my strong rock!” One of the Jewish names for God is “The Rock of Israel.” Saint Peter (from petros, meaning “rock”) talks about Jesus as the “stone that was rejected” becoming the chief cornerstone in the new house of faith.

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One of the holiest sites in the Old City of Jerusalem is The Western Wall, comprised of huge blocks of cream-colored limestone called Jerusalem stone. Several years after Laurie’s death, I stood before the wall, feeling the weight of the stones pressing down on me. Then I began to notice cracks and veins running through the stones, every cleft stuffed with prayers written on anything from Post-It Notes to legal stationery. I watched a man write on a piece of paper, fold it, and carefully tuck it into a fissure in the wall. He leaned forward and gently touched his lips to the stone. Although the night was warm, a chill ran up my arms as I remembered the night Laurie died, just after she had taken her last tortured breath, when I touched my lips to her forehead. Although I hadn’t planned to do so, I ripped a page out of my notebook, wrote a prayer for my daughter, and tucked it into one of the crevices.

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Some of the stones on the Scottish island of Iona are almost three billion years old. They have seen the formation of continents, the rise and fall of mountain ranges, several reversals of the magnetic poles, and at least five mass extinctions of the world’s species.

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They are also alive. Geologists tell us that if we could, as Charles Simic would like, go inside a stone, we’d find that it is comprised of elements made up of plus and minus charges, negative electrons circling protons like tiny solar systems. So that, far from being dead and inert—stone cold, a heart of stone—stones are full of energy.

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Which doesn’t surprise me. There’s a primordial power, a mysterious force in stones that has often made me wonder if that instead of my collecting all these stones over the years, these stones haven’t been collecting me.

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