Some days all you need to clear your head is to drop a really heavy rock on your foot. Or several.
* * *
Summer only half-way over, I sorely needed rejuvenation. I signed my son up for a week of overnight camp. (Cue the Hallelujah Chorus.) I looked forward to this vacation with all the desperation of a convict ticking off the days to parole. The minute he was
abandoned left at camp, I took off to Mackinac Island for two days of renewal. It was glorious, even with the influx of international sailors celebrating their arrival following a weekend racing from Chicago-to-Mackinac Island. (And by ‘celebrating’ I mean consuming enough rum to float their boats back home.) Later, I would have my own celebration on the rocks—just not the kind floating in alcohol.
In search of serenity, I biked up hills, some so steep I found myself getting off and walking rather than popping a lung attempting to peddle. I navigated the 8.3 mile circumference of the island, stopping to take pictures for families and ordering people to ‘smile like you mean it’. I was caught in a downpour and laughed while my glasses became kaleidoscopes of raindrops I couldn’t wipe off because nothing left was dry. Biking the island was so freeing; it felt like finally breathing deep after a lifetime hyperventilating. And everywhere I went, I saw cairns, piles of stones that could have been there for centuries or be gone in seconds, monuments to timeless impermanence.
Cairns encircle the island like unwieldy beads on an invisible string—representative of the human impulse to leave a sign saying: ‘Killroy was here’. Some people went for a minimalistic approach: three rocks tiered like granite layer cakes. Others incorporated driftwood or multiple towers, improbably balanced. They made tempting targets. Children delighted in hurling smaller rocks at the delicate structures and shrieked with glee whenever one toppled. I watched a father and son build their perfect stone fortress and, when asked ‘what was his inspiration’, the man joked he had been thinking of a sandwich he dreamed about. Apparently all that hard work builds an appetite. After contemplating the universe in piles of stone, I decided that I needed to construct one of my own.*
Building a cairn takes a lot of patience, perseverance and, apparently, steel-toed shoes. First, I carefully selected my ‘perfect rocks’. I came up with the rule that I wouldn’t destroy someone else’s tower for materials. It would be like peeling the gold leaf off Madonna’s** halo—just not done. I also decided to build it at the edge of the water—symbolic of nothing more than the fact I didn’t want it in easy reach of kids with projectile weapons. Heaving rocks from their various loci, I waddled over and chucked them down to the growing pile near the water’s edge below. I loved the cracking sound the rocks made as they hit the giant boulders left behind the last ice age. I should have thought about how much force one of those heavy rocks had to make the gunshot cracking sound when only tossed from about five feet. But I was never good at physics. Materials compiled, I set out to create an outer structure that encapsulated the inner peace my trip had brought me. Cue the irony.
My first attempt involved the brilliant decision to build a bridge between two large boulders abutting the water. They were far enough apart to make this a challenge. Stack, nudge, stack….splash. Repeat. No matter how I stacked them, the rocks did not want to obey. I frowned. “Hmm, maybe I need a bigger rock?” This is one of those thoughts that should be accompanied by scary music. Duh Duh DUH!
For my second attempt, I climbed back up and scoured the area until I found a nice, long, I-could-barely-lift-it specimen. I can still feel the gritty edges as I tentatively pulled it up. (Tentative due to the overabundance of spiders on the island.) Once I huffed and puffed my way back, I tossed it down to the pile. It made an ominous ‘THWACK’ as it hit the rocky shore. The stones beneath squealed in protest…or warning.
I merrily scurried back to building my fortress of solitude and reflection. I got one, two, three rocks in place. I precariously balanced my new-found ledge on top just like a toddler might place a heavy book on tiny blocks. It wobbled a bit, but then settled. I grabbed my next two questionably-stackable objects and attempted the second story walls. And this is when the drum roll you can all hear but I am oblivious to crescendos. I place one rock. (Audience holds breath.) I place the second rock. (Still holding.) The tower threatens but does not fall. I consider grabbing my camera, but I decide to place just one…more…rock. Lifting the almost-perfectly-flat slab, I gently place it like a leaf floating on water…and CRASH. You’ve never seen such a rock slide. I scrambled to get out of its way. I almost made it.
Before you imagine fountains of gushing blood, chill. It missed me. Most of me anyway. My fortress of serenity did try to smash my left foot. The big toe trembled in shock, counted its tinier neighbors to make sure everyone was all right, then declared itself fit for duty. My toes are awesome that way. It was about now that my tranquility was sorely tested. I gritted my teeth, promising: “I will build my tribute to serenity if it kills me.”
After several disastrous attempts—a few requiring water rescues—I started to question how necessary this was to my mental health. Staring at the uncooperative materials, I was struck by how easy it is to fold in the face of failure. (Cue sappy, introspective music. Probably something by Yanni***.) I give up too easily. It is rare that I look at an obstacle-laden path and say, “Yep. This is the road for me.” I recently watched a young woman tackle an impossible course on a program called American Ninja. If you haven’t seen this, you really should, Kacy Katanzaro’s performance is sheer poetry of motion: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XfZFuw7a13E. Faced with my own challenge, I admitted that, while I will never conquer mountains, perhaps I shouldn’t give up on building my molehills before I give it my very best effort.
Arms trembling and toes quivering, I constructed my Zen Temple to reflect inner peace. True to the nature of the subject, it was finely balanced, fragile and not expected to last. I managed a few photos, all the while wondering if a stiff breeze would tumble my edifice, burying me under a concrete-hard layer of hubris. But no, I climbed back up the hill, pausing for one glance back, appreciating the calm I managed to achieve despite the setbacks. It was a good moment. I walked away, knowing such moments are not meant to last. Someone or something would come along and destroy my symbolic peace, but, for once, I was okay with that. That which is torn down can always be rebuilt.
Asterisk Bedazzled Footnote:
* Because who doesn’t want to climb around on hairy, slimy rocks lugging very heavy stones?
**By the way, this is a biblical reference—not a ‘like a virgin’ one.
***No offense meant. I actually like Yanni. But he does have a spectacularly silly first name.