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.
24 thoughts on “I never promised you a rock garden”
I really loved this, Anna! I stumbled this under my page “leisure, play and recreation” because of the values for experiential education and play this teaches. Beautiful piece!
Thank you! I am working on Stumbling right now.
My parents used to take my sister and I to a rock garden. You’ve just sent me down a path of lovely memories. Thank you.
So glad to hear it.
And so wonderful that you took the time to consider what he saw instead of getting upset that he was taking apart your sidewalk. Many would not have done the same.
Beautiful piece. I love rocks and have actually covered the floors in our bathrooms in pebble tiles. Plus, my husband builds rock “sculptures” on our lawn and on the beach so the whole world really has become his rock garden!
That is the attitude I am after. I will forever think your husbands name is mark.
Beautiful story! I keep thinking about it.
That’s lovely to hear. Thanks for reading.
Love it. Children do see much more than we do, and your dad clearly taught you a lot too – great wisdom!
You know, I don’t have kids, so I find most “family” posts irrelevant. But your writing on this is so lovely and so are the thoughts behind it. I RT, stumbled and followed you on Pinterest, not because of the FB group but because I have to read more! Thank you.
I love this plus it’s gorgeous writing. Growing up my dad brought back pink colored rocks from Maine to make a rock garden and it was gorgeous. I’ve loved rocks ever since and love how you tied your piece to many lovely thoughts.
My mother in law has a pond that she has lined with rocks from everywhere she has visited. I think the idea of bringing a piece of place back with you literally as well as figuratively is wonderful.
Amazing what kids find beautiful. I’m sometimes amazed myself at what we adults would find beautiful if we thought more like kids!
That is the lesson. Now I’m trying to live it.
What an incredible rock! They’re these wondrous things we tend to overlook in our lives. Many are quite beautiful. Thank you for the reminder.
Just lovely. I think I’m in love with every word you write, Love the line about looking for the layers in life and the story in everything.
Thanks! That is so wonderful to hear.
I learn so much about how to see the world from my daughter. So much. My Grandfather had a rock garden – not on a grand scale by any stretch but it was indeed a cool place to sit and think and to just be.
beautiful post. Can see the rock that looks like a turd!
This is gorgeously written and such an important perspective to keep trying to remember as life takes over and we forget to look at both the bigger picture, and the tiny, tiny one.
I love the lessons that you both learned from each other. I enjoyed how your son was so focused on his task and saw the beauty in his collection. I love rocks, as do my kids and we’re always walking around collecting them.