He is refusing to come inside. This isn’t the first time. He is still busy at the edge of the porch, small fingers scrabbling through what appeared to be dirt.  Pausing in the unusual spring sunlight I don’t plead my case. Instead I stop to look and realized that my four year old is digging the grout out from our cobble walkways, separating grout into the paste part and the particulate. He has a small pile of rock to his right. He looks up at me as I wait, uncharacteristically patient, and rewards me with a smile that lights his face from side to side. “Isn’t it beautiful Mama?”

Decades before my father is asking me the same thing. He is holding a rock that looks  like a turd. “Isn’t it beautiful?” He asks, half challenging and half protective. He has the object cupped in his rough sculptor’s hand, and he is using his other pointer to gently stroke the surface of the rock. Beneath his squared nail is a bit of clay which I see clearly in the light of the gallery. Behind him the wall is filled with niches designed to perfectly fit their pieces. Not too many of these look like poop. “You have to get beyond the idea of pretty to the idea of beautiful. You can’t judge these things by how they look, but how they make you feel. Great art is not pretty.”

Years later I try to follow his advice.  I tilt my head and drop my agenda and I can see what my son means, glints of reflected light shine from his rock pile and he has clustered things in a way that the balance of the stones is surprising. This is something else that my father taught me…the way physical objects can challenge our perceptions. A solid stone can be pierced with holes if you look closely enough. What appears to be wood can actually be bronze or ceramic, what seems to have been created by nature can actually be worked subtly by the hand of man. We need to look harder to see the story in everything. My boy  is getting to his feet, carefully carrying his pile to the base of our outdoor sculpture. He needs to re-form it into its previous shape but nothing is exactly the same. This time it is even more precarious and I hold my breathe imagining that a single exhale could topple things and set off  his upset. He is volatile. He sits the little bits of rock that now seem to make a single stone  next to a pile of pebbles that he had scavanged earlier from our rock garden. They are both perched on a natural rock basin, filled with a fourth kind of stone  which steadies the a large boulder. He is satisfied now…he has gathered the five types of rocks together. H is ready to head inside.

At dinner he picks at his food, mouth moving with talking more than taking bites. I try to pull my attention from the pitch black rings that might forever stay under his fingernails to listen to his pitch. “We should have a bigger rock garden.” His tone sounds like the one he uses when asking for his own iPad. Yearning mixes with pre-emptive disappointment. The cadence reminds us that we have the power to perfect his life, yet cruelly we choose to leave him a bereft boy with neither an iPad nor a sufficient garden.

“What would you do if you had a rock garden?” I ask. He raised his head in surprise at being engaged rather than dismissed. “I would play in it.” He said simply. Then his forehead wrinkled. “I would also sit and think.”

In my teens I had plenty of time to sit in Rock Gardens. We spent a month in China touring rooms of rock, decorated by rocks. Even the streams were sometimes simply rock beds, our imagination needed to produce the water. I didn’t use the trip either to play or to think. Instead I would duck through a moon gate into whichever centuries old space was our destination of the day. I would pull out a book and sulk and read. The streams remained dry, the interior vistas unseen. It wasn’t until later that I integrated my father’s lessons of many layers of looking into my life.

My son looked up at me expectantly. Would this be the time that he would get his rock garden. A BIGGER one. He eyes were not the same shape but somehow they already knew what my father did. How to see beauty where there was nothing pretty at all. How to understand the importance of things never being just what they seem. How gathering the types of rocks together enhanced both their essential share rock-ness, and the ways they were unique.

With this insight he did not need a bigger rock garden. The world could be his rock garden. And when I stopped thinking about dirty fingers it could be mine too.

Taihu stone at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, Gift of my family.

Taihu stone at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, Gift of my family.

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Anna Rosenblum Palmer is a freelance writer based in Denver, CO. She writes about sex, parenting, cat pee, bi-polar disorder and the NFL; all things inextricably intertwined with her mental health. In her free time she teaches her boys creative swear words, seeks the last missing puzzle piece and thinks deeply about how she is not exercising. Her writing can be found on Babble, Parent.co, Great Moments in Parenting, Ravishly, Good Men Project, Sammiches and Psych Meds, Playpen, Crazy Good Parent, and YourTango. She also does a fair amount of navel gazing on her own blog at annarosenblumpalmer.com.

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