Everybody needs a rock. For some people it might be a single person, their person. It might be faith or friends. For me, it’s a real rock. Some days, it might be a memory involving a single stone, one as small as a pebble the color of my dog Pasu’s sable fur or as big as a volcano on which my twin sister and I snowshoed one spring day under the clearest and deepest blue sky I had ever seen on Mount Hood. Every day, it’s a rock I can put in my pocket – a real rock from my collection, rocks full of thousands of memories, affirmations, and wishes.
Growing up on the south bank of the Auglaize River in Wapakoneta, Ohio, I carried at least one river rock or pebble in my pocket every day. Now as an adult, I carry a river rock, pebble, gemstone, petrified wood, or agate in my pocket. A rock in one pocket and a handkerchief in another help me ground and calm myself and breathe more easily.
I remember finding the first rock that filled me with wonder and curiosity. I was 5 years old. Playing hide-and-seek with my twin sister and our neighbors, I raced down the small hillside that our house was built into, and hid in the open space under the carport. Our house was built on a sloping lot and had a walkout basement into the backyard. The space under the carport was an open storage area where my father secured the family boat and trailer. Not much light entered that space of three solid concrete walls and a dirt floor covered with rocks, stones, pebbles, and gravel.
I sneaked deep into the creepy darkness, carefully dropped to the rocky floor, crawled under the rear of the boat trailer, crouched below the galvanized steel frame, and leaned my shoulder against one of the tires, hidden from view. I was prepared to stay there until sundown, or Mom called us for dinner, or the Seeker yelled, “Olly olly oxen free!”
Hide-and-seek was about creating small spaces of safety and security, becoming part of the environments where I concealed myself. The first few minutes of settling into the perfect hiding place were always tense and exciting. It took some skill and practice to quiet my breathing and create stillness, making myself invisible and undetectable. I was good at it, both inside and outside our house.
That day, under the boat trailer, I struggled to position myself comfortably on the rocks. It was a new hiding place. Every squirm made the rocks rattle, the sound bouncing off the concrete walls.
Then I saw it. It wasn’t just any ordinary rock. This rock was unusual, considerably different in color and pattern from the rocks around it. It looked like a turtle. The spherical rock had a maze of cracks running in many directions, like a turtle’s back. It looked like layers of stone cemented together with streaks of brown, gray, tan, and black.
I stretched, reached for it, and grasped it. Lying there in the darkness, holding the rock close to me, I suddenly felt calm. My breathing quieted, my body relaxed, and I lay comfortably on the bed of rocks. With rock in hand, I found my footing under the boat trailer and learned the soft calming energy of rocks.
When the call came from the Seeker – “Olly olly oxen free!” – I put the turtle rock in my pocket, crawled out from under the boat trailer, stepped gently to the light, scanned the yard, and raced to home base. Undetected in my new hiding place, with the rock treasure in my pocket, I felt a happy boost in spirit and a new kind of satisfaction.
Later that evening, I proudly pulled the turtle rock from my pocket and presented it to my father. “Look what I found, Daddy!” I announced. “Where’d you find that mud ball?” he replied. Mud ball. Hmph. Many years later, I learned the rock was a Septarian Nodule, sometimes called a Dragon Stone and, yes, also called a Mud Ball.
My father smiled when I put it back in my pocket. He understood pocket treasures. He carried a handkerchief, a soft rubber squeezable coin purse, a wallet, a small comb, keys, a six-inch ruler, a pencil, and a pocketknife in his pockets. His last gifts to me in life were a set of colorful bandanna handkerchiefs and three of his pocketknives. After he died (I was age 42), my mother gave me his unused white classic handkerchiefs, his rubber coin purses (including his well-used one from San Francisco that I had given him), his pocket comb, his ruler, and his seven remaining pocketknives. Mom knew about my pocket things. She had spent years rescuing them from washing machine spin cycles.
I liked to be in the outdoors and find fun things – rocks, buckeyes, colorful flint, small bones, arrowheads, mud balls, and other curiosities. I found them down by the riverside. I found them in the rockbed under the Hamilton Road Bridge. I found them on the muddy Auglaize riverbanks, by the swing set in the city park, on the gravel road by the park house, on our walking routes to school, on the playground, in our backyard peony flowerbed, around the lake cottages where we vacationed in Coldwater, Michigan, and other places I explored as a child.
The best rocks appeared after a rainstorm, near the riverbank and the lakeshore, when rainwater and currents brought a fresh supply of rocks rolling in. Then the rocks showed off their colors. I filled my pockets and brought my stone travelers home. Sometimes I took them to school for Show-and-Tell. Sometimes I left them where I found them. And other times, I gathered up a pocketful of my treasures at home, left the house, and gave them back to the river. I learned it was important to know where to find things and where to leave them.
One day, with a wild imagination, I set out for the river and walked the shoreline to the old cemetery. Like an explorer visiting an abandoned fort, I was curious about the sculptures, headstones, intricate carvings, and people’s names. It was a tranquil setting. Overgrown weeds wrapped around the ancient headstones, and tall grasses covered the graves, unlike the well-maintained cemeteries where my mother visited the graves of her parents and other family members. Those cemeteries usually had a lot of people walking around, standing over graves, tending flower pots, pulling weeds, and looking sad.
During one of the cemetery visits with my mother, I watched as people placed small rocks on someone’s grave. Walking the winding path through the cemetery, I noticed that several other graves had small rocks on them also. I didn’t ask my mother about it. She was quiet and distant in cemeteries. So, the next time that I sneaked away to the old cemetery by the river, I took a pocketful of stones and placed them on some of the graves. I hoped that was okay. I did not know the significance of leaving stones on graves and headstones then.
It’s interesting, the things we remember. Something scared me at home one day when I was an adolescent. I raced out the basement door, through the backyard, across the greenspace behind our lot, and to the riverbank to get away. The Auglaize River was a quiet river – no rapids, just riffles and occasional swift water flowing over the dam. There in the mud and muck below the tall river grass, I saw a rock that was shaped like a heart and had a face in it. That was pretty special. I picked it up, wiped it with my shirttail, and washed it with riverwater. Studying it closely, I felt something akin to the whispers of trees, twigs, leaves, flesh, and bone. I rubbed the rock between my thumb and forefinger, put it in my pocket, and memorized it with my fingers. I must have touched it a thousand times that day.
In graduate school to earn my K-12 teaching credential, I was required to prepare lesson plans and teach those lessons to my university classmates, while being videotaped. My professor then played those videos back for the class to critique me and for me to learn something about my teaching and presentation style. Their feedback was for me to take my hands out of my pockets. My professor and classmates didn’t know about my rocks and how they helped bring forth more warmth in my personality and confidence in my presentation. I never corrected the habit. When I became a high school English teacher, I certainly understood when students panicked at the thought of public speaking. For the first run through, I let them speak with their backs to the class.
A rock in my pocket eased my anxiety. It sometimes focused me during an elementary school test, comforted me after a bad dream, boosted my confidence on the playground, and improved my concentration in a softball game. As I grew older, a rock in my pocket deflected torments from bullies, eased my concern as I watched my mother drift away into herself most evenings, distracted me from my father’s anger, kept me attentive in social situations, anchored me through college exams, calmed me in hostile work environments, helped me release turbulent emotions around siblings, increased my patience with elderly parents, and generally cleared my mind and eased my worry. When I felt panicky, the handkerchief I carried in my other pocket helped me stay calm as I breathed into it slowly and deliberately until I felt normal.
That’s asking a lot of a rock and a handkerchief, I know. I cannot explain it. They just settled me somehow.
After college, heavier fears weighed me down and I carried more complicated troubles – troubles like loneliness, disappointment, guilt, shame, identity confusion, approval-seeking, measuring-up, unworthiness, sadness, and grief. In my weariness, I became more seriously interested in rocks, minerals, gemstones, and fossils and sought resources to increase my knowledge about the healing powers of rocks. With that knowledge, I developed intention in selecting what rocks to carry each day. Holding a healing rock was one of several grounding exercises I practiced to manage and overcome anxiety. Naming exercises, music listening, mindful walking, thought replacement, breathing regulation, sage smudging, rock holding – I invested in whatever worked to create a moment of calm and goodness in a crazy world.
In the process of learning about healing stones, I became an amateur rockhound. I became an amateur at many things actually – a railroad enthusiast, singer songwriter, essayist, poet, naturalist, wilderness explorer, whiskey taster. I have committed some time to getting to know and to practicing each of these pursuits but am not an expert at any.
For example, as a whiskey taster, I am committed to practice to pick up every little flavor in a whiskey pour, but I am not a whiskey sommelier. I have no interest in working in the industry, and I don’t keep a journal of tasting notes. I sip, I reflect, I appreciate. As a railroad enthusiast, I ride trains, read books about trains, and go to train shows, but I am not a railroader. I have no interest in working the railroads to keep the great trains running and rolling. As a wilderness explorer, I have a keen sense of curiosity about the natural world and like to go on adventures in wild places, but I am not a wilderness ranger. I do not go on long backpacking trips, camp for weeks in the mountains, or walk for months as a through-hiker on long-distance trails. I am not that kind of person.
As an amateur rockhound, I pick up rocks, study them, and keep a collection, but I am not a serious rockhound. A serious rockhound learns how to identify rocks and minerals and carries a field guide, hammer, chisel, magnifying lens, and rock pick on her belt. She knows an agate from a quartz. She categorizes her collection by name and type, and labels each treasure with the date and location she found it. A serious rockhound searches for remote, untouched rockbeds in hopes of finding a treasure. She attends rock and mineral shows, trades her treasures with other rockhounds, and owns her own cutting and polishing equipment. She is serious.
I am not serious in that way. I do not dig for rocks. I do not do the hard work to hunt and claim the gems of the earth with a geologist’s hammer and stone chisel. Although I like to have my hands in the earth, I prefer to find my rocks on the surface. I stay on the beaten path and keep a lookout for something special. I’m patient. And rockhunting is rarely the purpose of my walks.
I do not have the trained eye of a geologist, but I do have appreciation. When I notice something special, I scoop it up for the taking, mindful of the rock collecting laws of the land I am walking. I can go for weeks or months without adding something to my collection. I just keep walking, one foot in front of the other, until that moment when a treasure reveals itself. I pause, take a step back, and utter with curiosity, “What is that?” Grounded in the present, I hold the rock in my hand, study it, and accept the good medicine it holds for me.
I live in Oregon now. It is a rockhound’s paradise with its more than 300 miles of Pacific Ocean shoreline, just as many miles of the Cascade Mountain Range, and countless numbers of rivers and streams. All of this beauty produces an extraordinary variety of rocks, minerals, gemstones, and fossils of ancient clams and snails. With all the opportunities available to me along the rivers, streams, beaches, forests, and fields I explore, it is nearly impossible not to succumb to the urge to pick up rocks when I am trail hiking, forest camping, or beach combing. Before I know it, I have a pocketful of stone travelers. I have found beautiful agates, amethysts, garnets, jaspers, opals, thundereggs, and even a nugget of gold.
My collection of rocks, minerals, gemstones, fossils, petrified wood, and cool marbles is not labeled or cataloged. With the next Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake predicted to occur in the next 50 years, I do not want cabinets and boxes of rocks to come tumbling down, raging upon me like a great wall of prairie wind, ice, and death, so I keep my rocks in large vases, mason jars, flower pots, and decorative baskets on or close to the floor, where I hope they will just roll and not fly like meteorites. The three-pounders and heavier rocks are on the floor also or in my balcony garden. Other rocks make good doorstops and bookends. Several favorites are where they are easy to grab and put in my pockets.
A few times a year, I empty the containers to admire, handle, and clean the rocks – the unusual, the rare, the favored, and the ordinary. I brush the dust off, soak them in warm water, set them out in the sun, and then cleanse them with the smoke of burning dried sage. Although I am not a Reiki practitioner, I believe everything can use a little flow of water, sunshine, and spiritual recharging now and then for harmony and balance. Handling each rock brings me joy. Every rock has a story. Each one is important. My memory is not as prodigious as it used to be, so I cannot always conjure up where, when, how, and why a particular rock came into my collection.
South Dakota is another rockhound’s paradise where I have collected many rocks. It is home to the rare Fairburn Agate and the most beautiful Rose Quartz in the world. The Fairburn agate has strikingly contrasted, thin bands of wonderful natural colors, primarily red-orange. It is associated with the womb and heals emotional issues of self-esteem and value to one’s self. That is its medicine. Rose quartz features a deep pink color with occasional white quartz streaks. It is associated with the heart. Its gentle vibration opens one’s heart to love and brings inner peace. That is its medicine.
The few times I did hunt for a particular rock were in South Dakota on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Sharing a spirit of adventure, my friend Miya and I hiked for miles through grasslands, cacti, weeds, and cedar trees to the rugged, stony terrain of the agate fields. We were in search of the elusive Fairburn agate, the most treasured type of rock in my collection. I have several Fairburns, including those that I found in the Black Hills and others that Miya and members of her Oglala Lakota Sioux Indian tribe gifted to me.
Miya died this past February. I was with her in her ancestral home on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. In the giveaway ceremony that followed her death, members of her tribe and family gifted me with dozens of rocks. Every rock was from their land of Pine Ridge, the Badlands, and the Black Hills of South Dakota. Their gifts of love, remembrance, honor, respect, and gratitude moved me deeply. Just think; Native American Indians gave me chunks of their land. I still cannot talk about it.
I brought those South Dakota stone travelers home to Oregon. I continue to sort through them, picking up one and then another – first a piece of petrified wood, next a chunk of blue tourmaline, then a sheet of Muscovite with slivers of sparkling mirror-like minerals, then a large rose quartz, next a garnet, then a prairie agate, teepee agate, bubble gum agate, and the Fairburn agates of varying colors and patterns. Good medicine, indeed.
A rock in my pocket is soothing. It feels good to hold it and really focus on it, especially if it’s smooth and flat, or round and perfectly indented for my thumb, or textured in a fascinating way, or colorfully patterned and sparkly, or shaped like something familiar, like a turtle or a heart. It’s a comfort thing, learned in childhood under a boat trailer and on a riverbank. Perhaps that first dragon stone mud ball was like the diaper I carried when I was 2 or the blanket I wrapped around my thumb when I was a toddler, or the tears of a life lived before me. I don’t know. I outgrew the diaper and the blanket.
I outgrew many childhood and childish things. I outgrew old hurts and disappointments and gained courage, growth, self-awareness, achievement, comfort, joy, love, caring relationships, and gratitude. I learned it was okay to make mistakes. I gave back treasures to the rivers I explored and picked up new treasures that rolled in after a rainstorm. I let go the hands of people I loved after they let go of life. I never let go of the love that got me every time. I unpacked the troubles I carried for years and let many of them go, but I am still in need of healing. It is incomplete. Some letting-goes just hurt too much. So, I will put a rock in my pocket and take hold of it because it helps get me through. Love and remembrance are as strong and as lasting as a rock. I will never outgrow the rocks in my pockets.
Composed in the spring of 2019 after a long and sorrowful Winter and April showers and river currents brought a fresh supply of rocks rolling in. The rocks, pebbles, gemstones, quartz, agates, minerals, petrified wood, fossils, buckeyes, glass marbles, and gold nugget featured in the photos are from my collection. The heart rock collage is of rocks that I did not disturb, except for the mother rock and heart, both of which I put in my pocket.