We are composed of molecules and energy that has been cycling around the planet for thousands of years. We are also made up of stories, experiences, emotions, a living, breathing history of life love, loss, and change.
I have been picking up pieces of the natural world since I was very little. When I recently returned to Massachusetts after more than a decade away, I moved with a portion of this collection. Some rocks stayed in carefully chosen, safe places where they could one day be retrieved should I return to Alaska. Others had already been left behind in the move from Washington to Alaska, a decision which took careful thought and deliberation. In the end, I ran out of space in the U-haul. I did spend a moment with each before parting ways.
Among these keepsakes from the natural world that I brought when I moved to Alaska were two long, twisting branches from my home in Washington that had hung on the wall above the windows in the front room. These did not make the most recent move, and I imagine the challenge of shipping them should I sell my house one day.
The other day, I calculated that I have moved five times in the past two years. I have never been very good at letting go or practicing the art of non-attachment, whether it be with a sweatshirt or a lover. I wonder if this recent nomadic trend is part of the reason it has become increasingly difficult to part with my material possessions. These belongings offer some semblance of stability because wherever I go feels like home when I set them around my residence.
I gave up long ago trying to remember where each set of stones, branches, leaves, or feathers were found, but I have spent time arranging them in specific collections around my home. When I packed everything in Alaska, I took time to maintain these arrangements by placing them in individual Ziploc bags.
I realize how crazy this must sound, but I feel a strong connection to these items, so much so that one of my first panicked thoughts when I discovered my car had been broken into a few months ago was that the thief had taken the two stones I had found on a beach in Gustavus that each fit perfectly in the palm of each hand. My ipod was gone, but my feathers, thrush egg, stones, and iron fairy kept in my car as a guardian spirit, remained. I suppose she protected the possessions that really mattered and that were truly irreplaceable.
While it may be crazy, I have found that I am not alone. I have kindred spirits who are drawn to their own elements from nature. I emailed the tenant of my Alaska to ask if she could set aside a rock with white and dark gray stripes, apologizing for the odd request. She responded that she had pet rocks, too.
When visiting a friend in Maine, I noticed his wife had a beautiful collection of smooth stones and beach glass, and we have talked about what draws us to particular kinds of stones. I am heartened to see the way she arranges this collection around her home, as well as the unspoken relationship that has developed between one of my friend’s music students and his wife. Each visit and without a word, this student began quietly rearranging the rocks without a word, and my friend’s wife responded by changing the arrangement. And so this silent communication was created.
I met some neighbors a few apartments down from my third floor home in Lowell. They told me they used to live in a three bedroom home on the water in Salem and decided to sell their home to be able to retire early and travel. They now live in a small apartment in Lowell. They invited me in for a tour, and I gushed over the large branch hanging on a wall. My neighbor responded that she parted with a great many material possessions but refused to part with her collection of rocks and branches. A kindred spirit, to be sure.
A friend told me the other day that the only books he keeps on his shelf are the ones he cannot replace. I suppose I feel this way about the stones and branches I place on mine.
This doesn’t answer the question of why I pick them up in the first place. I know I have been doing this for many years because when I walked into my childhood bedroom a few months ago after a long drive from Arizona to Massachusetts, I was reunited with an entire collection from long ago.
At a workshop a couple of years ago at Prescott College, I participated in a brief outdoor meditation with this same friend. After the meditation, we all came together for a discussion about the experience. He was holding a stone in his hand (I seem to recall that part of our assignment was to focus on something from the natural world while we sat still). He told the group that the rock seemed to want to travel.
This idea has stayed with me, particularly as I notice that there are times when I pick up a rock, hold it for a moment, and feel something telling me to put it back in the same spot as close as possible to the way I found it.
Are these inanimate objects communicating some hidden desire to me to those who will listen? I often wonder.
In the beginning of pages of a book a woman in my cohort at Prescott College recommended to me, the author speaks of our species as living testaments to stories across time—painful memories, hidden histories, dark, family secrets. We inherit this legacy and pass it on from one generation to the next.
I am Jewish. Arguments with my mother when I was growing up over one’s choice to be Jewish versus the genetic material passed on from Jewish mother to daughter ended in screaming and door slamming.
Genetics seem to have won out, as I really must be Jewish. With this awareness and acceptance, I still feel little connection to the religion and traditions and an absence of desire to fulfill my Jewish heritage responsibilities by meeting and marrying a single, Jewish doctor and producing matrilineally authentic Jewish progeny. I don’t celebrate Jewish holidays. The strongest connection I feel to the line of people who walked this earth before me with similar genetic makeup is the deep sadness and emotional intensity I have always felt for music that carries a minor melody.
Mah Tovu was a song that resonated somewhere deep within my soul when I heard it in temple as a child. Perhaps, in this song I feel the pain from family members lost, holocaust, people uprooted from their homes over great expanses of time and place.
Is there a connection with these hidden histories and my affinity and need to feel tangible relics from the earth?
Rocks carry secrets. They travel. I can only imagine what the stones that sit upon my shelves and tables have witnessed over time and where they will go when I am no longer their keeper.
I draw strength and wisdom from their presence. I also feel relief at having nature so close within the confines of an industrial city.
For me, they are very much alive, if only I could speak their language and draw out their many stories.
Perhaps, I was a stone in another life or will be in the next. In this lifetime, however, I must be content to be human in their company.