Finding Wisdom in the Rocks

Late last August, my sisters and I decided that if we were careful…lots of ventilation, masks, and social distancing…we could safely travel north together to an out-of-the-way beach on Lake Michigan that would be perfect for hunting Petoskey stones…the state stone of Michigan.

Once at the beach, the three of us trekked down the embankment toward the water carrying sunscreen, sunglasses, and containers for our finds.  It was a gorgeous Michigan summer day and although we brought our swimsuits with us we left them in the car.  We’d be fine in our shorts. 

As we moved along the beach our goal was to get as far away from any people as possible. 

We were seeking solitude and safety but most importantly we hoped to find a stretch of the lake where no one had yet picked over the rocks that had been churned up by the waves and left near the shore for us to find. 

Dry Petoskey Stones Hiding in Plain Sight
August 2020

We clamber over tree trunks that had fallen into the water, large stones that jutted out from the shore, and piles of assorted slippery rocks and pebbles that acted like ball bearings pulling us toward the drink in our quest for the perfect spot. Presently, we reached the place, that by consensus, we agreed looked like the best place to begin our exploration.  It didn’t take long for us to realize that we were going to get wet…very wet,  Wouldn’t it be nice if we had those suits?  Since Penny is the most in shape we agreed that she should make the trek in reverse and go get our bathing attire.  In the meantime, Kelly and I would scour the rock-strewn beach and shoreline for treasures.

I had, of course, seen Petoskey stones, but I’d never found one.  They aren’t impossible to find in central Michigan where I grew up…but…I don’t remember it ever happening. As kids, we found lots of fossils, but never the coveted Petoskey.

These distinctive stones are the fossilized exoskeleton of a coral that lived about 350 million years ago in the warm waters of what was then an ancient sea. At that time, geographically, Michigan was near the equator and covered with waters that were perfect for clams, cephalopods, corals, crinoids, trilobites, fish, and many other life forms.

The Pattern Pops When Wet
Photo credit: Pixabay

The living part of the coral was called a polyp.  The dark spot in the center of the hexagonally shaped chamber was the polyp’s mouth. The animal had tentacles like most modern corals, that grabbed plankton as it drifted by then fed this food into its mouth. Like most things, knowing what you’re looking for makes it easier to find.  Even so, Petoskey stones often remain hidden until their distinctive pattern is revealed by water.  That’s one reason so many people hunt for them along the shores of the Great Lakes.

When Penny returned we snaked off our shorts and t-shirts and in the seclusion of our bit of beach we wriggled into our garments of nylon and spandex.  In truth, for me at least, it was more like the gyrations of a geriatric contortionist, but eventually, I had all my bits covered and was ready for the water.  Lake Michigan is like a smaller, tidier version of the Atlantic without the briny scent or the dependable tides.  When hunting for seashells at the ocean one merely has to wait for the water to recede with the tide and collect the bounty the waves have deposited on the shore.  Along the lake, you may find treasures in the sand, but hunting for gifts of the current in freshwater often requires looking beneath the waves.

Treasures Lie Just Beyond the Water’s Edge
August 2020

Yards from the shore Penny hollered, “Come on, you two.  If I knew you weren’t going to get out any deeper in the water than that I’d have never gone for the suits.”

She’s right, I thought, but before I could go more than a few feet out into the water I slipped on a hidden rock and went in face first.  Surprised and gulping for air, I got to my feet only to be kissed right on the lips by a huge wave.  Down again.  Spitting water and making my way to the shore,  I rose once again, but…those rhythmic waves just kept coming and I was down once more.  This time I held my head above water and swam-crawled to the sand only to discover my dear, sweet sisters laughing hysterically.

“Are you OK?” Kelly asked between fits of laughter.  Such sympathy and concern.  

Climbing from the water I made my way to one of the fallen logs to take a break.  Just as I did, the water that I was dripping, revealed the Holy Grail.  My first Petoskey!  It had all been worth it.  She was a beauty.

My Beautiful Friend and Teacher

“There’s a flame of magic inside every stone & every flower, every bird that sings & every frog that croaks. There’s magic in the trees & the hills & the river & the rocks, in the sea & the stars & the wind, a deep, wild magic that’s as old as the world itself. It’s in you too, my darling girl, and in me, and in every living creature, be it ever so small. Even the dirt I’m sweeping up now is stardust. In fact, all of us are made from the stuff of stars”.

Kate Forsyth

“Listen to the rocks and mountains,” instructed my Native American friend. “They have great wisdom.”

At the time, I dismissed this thought out of hand. What could a non-living thing teach me? Over the years my sensibilities and understanding have undergone an awakening. I have begun to recognize that there is a deep connection that exists between and within all inhabitants of the natural world. The same elements…the same atoms…the same stardust that is in me is present in all that surrounds me. Life is too complicated to leave all the lessons to sentient beings. Perhaps, if we listen closely we’ll understand the tutorials of the quaking Aspen and the rhythmic crash of the ocean as it kisses the shore, or the lessons taught by the intertwining roots of the Giant Redwoods and the Sunflower always keeping her eyes on the prize.

“Study how water flows in a valley stream, smoothly and freely between the rocks. Also learn from holy books and wise people. Everything – even mountains, rivers, plants and trees – should be your teacher.”

Morihei Ushiba

As a novice collector, I soon learned that many tedious hours of hand-sanding…with water and increasingly finer grit sandpaper… is the most common way to bring out the hidden pattern of Petoskey stones. I’ll admit, after hours spent together, I developed a friendly relationship with this once-living creature as I worked and like any good friend, she taught me a great number of lessons. Oh, there was the obvious lesson of patience, perseverance, and purpose, but there was also the unexpected message of rebirth and redemption.

One of Mom’s Favorite Beaches to Hunt Petoskey Stones
Point Betsy, August 2020

Imagine it. For a time beyond my comprehension, this piece of calcified coral has been on a journey to find me. It traveled north with the movement of tectonic plates, was buried during the ice age, was scraped up by the glaciers, and buffeted about beneath the waves of Lake Michigan until it came to rest on the beach where it waited for me to recognize it, pick it up, and joyfully carry it home to be sanded, polished, and treasured.

She is a determined instructor and her lessons are still being taught when I focus and listen, but for now, it’s enough just to know that the universe is full of unimaginable adventures still awaiting me and that I really have no way of knowing upon which rock-strewn stretch of beach I’ll be found.

The Stars Shine Even in The Daytime

Recently, I was asked, “Where do you find beauty?” I didn’t answer right away, but thanks to stay-at-home orders I’ve had lots of time to ponder that question. It’s a good one, for I can think of no other time in my life when I needed the transcendent power of beauty more than in the last few months.  

“A world without beauty would be unbearable. Indeed, the subtle touches of beauty are what enable most people to survive”. 

John O’Donohue, Irish Priest and Poet

Everyone experiences shimmering moments of beauty that catch us off guard and take our breath away. We delight in moments that arrive without warning as suddenly as butterflies that spring from the grass on a summer afternoon or as gradually as blossoms that swell into apples.

When the ordinary suddenly becomes the extraordinary we are filled with wonder, awe, and a heightened awareness that the world around us is bursting with hidden beauty.  Beauty doesn’t save itself for special occasions but is already present in everything.

Beauty is so finely woven throughout our ordinary days that we hardly notice it.

John O’Donohue

The colors of the sunset, the sound of wind through the trees, or the trust in a child’s eyes will be there whether we notice or not, and though we’re almost never aware of it the stars shine even in the daytime. It is up to each of us to pay attention, recognize, and appreciate the beauty that surrounds us. 

Reflections of Star Island, Isle of Shoal, NH

It was serendipity that brought me to my first photography workshop on Star Island off the coast of New Hampshire. I sat in the back of Sandpiper at the end of a long, narrow table, with my tiny Canon point and shoot tucked in my pocket trying to blend into a world of SLRs, tripods, and assorted lenses. Any notion that I actually belonged there didn’t last much longer than the first part of my first question.

“You know that button?  You know the one? The one you push to make things bigger…?”  

As if they were marionettes controlled by an invisible puppeteer a matched set of curly-headed New Yorkers sitting in the front of the room where the good students sit, turned in unison and replied in a single voice filled with great incredulity.

 “Do you mean….the zoom.” 

“Yes,” I replied.”That would be the zoom.”

Apparently, zoom is a basic photography term. I knew immediately that I had somehow matriculated into a master class without taking the required prerequisites. The instructor and my fellow students…especially those two New Yorkers…were kind, extremely patient, and always willing to help, so I returned the next day and the next. I remained in the workshop for the entire week.

It was one of the best decisions of my life.  I have taken subsequent photography workshops where most often, I’m still the one with the most to learn. I continue to use a point and shoot camera…up-graded…but still rather basic and now, too, I use the camera on my phone. 

I delete many more shots than I keep and I miss more shots than I take, but I came away from that very first workshop with something much more valuable than learning the difference between aperture and speed, or how to set the ISO.  I learned to see. To really see the beauty that surrounds me every day.

“Everything that is made beautiful and fair and lovely is made for the eye of one who sees.”

Rumi

During that first workshop, I became very aware of light. “Find the source, see where it falls and place yourself and your subject in relation to it,” Caleb said. “ Move if you need to. Change the light. Direct the light.  Reflect the light.  Be the light.”

Neither my camera nor I am fast enough to capture everything I see, but now I notice the way the light reflects off the water and dances among the leaves at the edge of the river; I marvel at the way the sun shines through the delicate petals of the bearded iris that line my sister’s walkway, and I find much joy in the twice-daily golden hour that momentarily highlights the ordinary with opulent splendor.  Beauty is transient. It doesn’t wait or linger. We must be vigilant and observant. The brilliant sunset morphs and fades even as we watch; the final notes of the song once clear and crisp dissolve into the evening air, and the eagle soars overhead and then is gone.

A few years after I took that first photography workshop I joined a photography group at the local senior center. The facilitator was very fond of Wabi-sabi, the philosophy that beauty can be found in the old, the every day, and the imperfect. Wabi-sabi is seeing the beauty in the worn, well-used, weathered, and decaying. It is seeing beauty in common items and scenes often overlooked simply because it is not where you expect to find it. That philosophy opened my eyes even wider.  

Shortly before his death, my husband and I spent four days in a ghost town outside of Arches National park in Utah.  I brought my camera along on hikes in the park where I was amazed by the natural beauty of the awe-inspiring arches carved in the soft red sandstone by wind, weather and time, but I was also able to appreciate the special kind of beauty that remained in the weathered boards, the chipped and faded paint and the sagging roofs of the once prosperous village in which we found ourselves.  Even in this place, I could still hear Caleb’s voice.  “Crop with your feet.” and paraphrasing Robert Capa…”If it’s not interesting, you’re not close enough”.  Through my lens, I saw the roofs now naked and shingle-less, and the abstract perfection of the staunch and upright nails who still remained at attention with no other purpose than to be beautiful. Streaks of rust from broken hinges, garden gates covered with vines, shattered glass, and tattered curtains also revealed their unique beauty.  What a blessing to be able to appreciate the wonder of such a place. 

Even in this strange time of physical distancing and self-isolation, we are discovering the beauty that has been hiding in plain sight…the light that turns the neighborhood windows to gold at twilight, the still life created by groceries on the kitchen counter, the smiling eyes that look back at us across a homemade mask. We dance, we sing, we write words on the page, we add paint to a canvas, we capture light through a lens, we rearrange pieces of broken plates, we read, we walk in the park, we sew masks,  and we bake loaves of bread. I believe our need for the beautiful…and the compulsion to create it…has enabled us to endure this challenging time of the pandemic.

“Life is amazing. And then it’s awful. And then it’s amazing again. And in between the amazing and awful, it’s ordinary and mundane and routine. Breathe in the amazing, hold on through the awful, and relax and exhale during the ordinary. That’s just living heartbreaking, soul-healing, amazing, awful, ordinary life. And it’s breathtakingly beautiful

L.R.Knost

Learning to see the beauty of the world isn’t the only lesson taught in those photography workshops.  For if you didn’t notice, the rules that Caleb taught me are also lessons for how to live in this world as well. Find the source of light…the source of love…the source of that which you call holy… and place yourself in relation to it.  Move if you need to. Change the light. Direct the light. Reflect the light.  Be the light and kindle the flame for another when their light flickers in the storms of life.   Wabi Sabi entreats us to see the beauty, the wisdom, and the divine in people who are broken, tired, old, and worn, as well as in objects or buildings and if they’re not interesting we’re not close enough.  Crop with your feet. 

“Where do you find beauty?” he asked.

“Everywhere.” I replied, with a smile. Everywhere

Originally shared as part of a chapel service during Virtual Star Arts Retreat. Star Island, Isle of Shoals, NH

June 26, 2020