Picking up Stones


Reflections from Chester Freeman

One of my earliest memories as a child was going fishing with my mother. It was one of the things she enjoyed. Now that I am older, I feel she loved it because she got away from the hectic chores of the house to a quiet place where she could be fully present with only the sound of tidal waves in her ears. It was her way of relaxing and communing with nature. It was very calming for both of us. One of the favorite places we used to go was under a big bridge, we would park that connected our town to Highway 99. Mom would drive across the bridge and park the car along the side of the road. Then we would take a wooded path down to the water. We had to be careful because it was a steep slope. It was our secret spot. I would help my mother with a folding chair and bucket, while she carried her fishing pole and bait. The bucket held the fish she would catch, along with any crabs, which often took the bait. We used fresh worms I would dig up in our back yard to entice the fish. Along the Intracoastal waterway, my mom would catch “Spots” and “Croakers,” as we called them. We would invariably get catfish and eels, but mom always gently placed them back in the water because we didn’t like eating them. The waterway is great for fishing because it connects the Pamlico River, Pungo River, and Pantego Creek resulting in the name “Belhaven” meaning “Beautiful Harbor.”

While mom was focusing on her fishing line and enjoying the view of the waterfront; I would be under the bridge playing in the sand looking for driftwood, shells, pebbles, and stones. There were always marvelous treasures washing up on the shore. I would spend hours exploring everything I could find as the tides would ebb and flow. I loved seeing the foam rush to the sandy shore and hearing the lullaby of the waves. Every now and then, I would stumble across a stone I felt was special. For me, it always had to do with color first, then shape. I became enchanted with unusually shaped stones. They grabbed my attention straightaway. That’s what made them extraordinary. I considered them to be “God’s Grandeur.” As Gerald Manley Hopkins would say, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.” How is it that something so tiny could feel so grand in my little hands? I still pick up stones and feel that special quality about them. This is another connection I shared with my late friend Leigh. She has stones all over the house. There are sliced stones in the kitchen about the size of dessert plates, literally cut in half! There are wire baskets of them hanging in the sun room. There are wooden bowls filled with them in the deep bedroom window sills--- which by the way, would be ideal for cat napping. A small reed basket of stones sits on a shelf in the library. She took the time to find each one because in her eyes, they were unique. Like my eyes, I would assume these stones are from her travels. Each one has a story. I am definitely the type of person who will stop along the side of a road and pick up one of those beautiful red stones that has fallen from the cliffs. It just speaks to me. It is something I cherish. It is a small gift from nature, and it allows me to feel connected to the earth.

If we zoom to my graduate study years, I moved into an apartment complex with a friend. Once we were settled with all of our furniture inside, the neighbor across the hall came over one afternoon. She had a small wooden bowl with stones in her hand. She presented it to me and said this was a “house warming gift.” She told me she and her husband had lived in Africa for the past forty-five years and had returned to the states. She said one of her hobbies was picking up stones along the shores of the African coastline. She told me stories about finding the stones she picked up and brought home; Then she would clean and polish them. Eventually, her husband would carve little wooden bowls to hold them. When she placed the gift in my hand, you would have thought she gave me rare diamonds from an African mine, the way I reacted. I was so touched by her kindness, teardrops were streaming down my cheeks. This was my first gift from Africa by someone who actually lived there! I was ecstatic! The colors of the stones were exotic, and the shapes were unusual too! They were like nothing I had ever seen before. They felt different when I held them in my hands. They were soft and smooth like velvet. I loved them and thanked her enthusiastically. I still have those stones in the little hand -carved wooden bowl, and for the longest time, they sat on my desk in my office. Every time I looked up at them, I thought of that special day and how my neighbor made me feel. This only reinforces the wisdom of Maya Angelou. “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget the way you make them feel.”

Feelings stay with us. If we fast forward to graduation, I find myself helping a friend move to San Francisco to start her residency after graduating from the School of Medicine at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. As we stopped along the way in different states, I would pick up a stone. When we got to the Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona, I just had to buy some pieces of petrified wood to remember this incredible forest. I took quite a bit of time, sorting out two pieces that spoke to me with their colors, shapes and textures. When I hold them in my hands, I remember the beautiful sunny day when my friend and I walked through the park in astonishment. Closing my eyes, I can almost feel the warmth of the sun on my face. Feelings linger with us.

Stones are special in the sense there is a certain feel when we hold them in our hands. Is it smooth? Is it rough? Are there sharp edges? Some stones fit perfectly in your hand when you hold them. As Goldilocks would’ve said, “It’s just right!”

For me, it’s mystical and magical. I guess the “little boy in me” believes that when I hold a stone, it will transport me to an imaginary place, like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. However, as Oprah would say, “what I know for sure” is the stone brings solace and holds memories. Regardless of its color, size, weight, shape, or texture, there is something special about holding a stone in the palm of your hand.

Perhaps it gives me comfort because I associate it with the thrill of discovery. Perhaps it gives me comfort because of the place where I found it. Perhaps it gives me comfort, because it was given to me by a friend. Perhaps I associate it with the memory of a significant time in my life, or some “moment in time” that I want to capture. Either way, it holds a spiritual connection for me, as I am sure it did for my friend Leigh. We’re grounded in the earth…ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

This week brings me to the end of my journey with chemotherapy and radiation, but it is just the beginning of the work of those treatments. When I asked both oncologists if they could tell if the treatment was working, they said we will not know until three months down the road. In the meantime, the radiation will continue to have its side effects on my body, and the chemotherapy will do its thing too. So now I must wait patiently, like a stone sitting on the shore of the embankment. I must be strong like the stone, not breaking apart with bouts of anxiety or depression. I must be smooth like the stone, allowing the radiation to do its work of DNA damage to the cells in my body attaching to them, and destroying them. I must be hard as the stone, keeping the faith, and holding on to hope. Emily Dickinson, my go-to poet, assures me saying “Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul/and sings the tune without the words/and never stops at all.” For in hope, there is strength.”

I began by walking down a country road, and now I am driven down that same road learning from my experience and growing as my body heals. I am undergoing a transformation in body, mind, and spirit.

I conclude my early morning “stream of consciousness” writing with a quotation from an interview with Seamus Heaney that speaks to me.

“I have always thought of poems as stepping stones in one’s own sense of oneself. Every now and again, you write a poem that gives you self-respect and steadies your going a little bit farther out in the stream. At the same time, you have to conjure the next stepping stone, because the stream, we hope keeps flowing.”

As I complete my thoughts, I am listening to Ludwig van Beethoven’s Septet in E flat major Op.20 for clarinet, bassoon, horn, violin, viola, cello and double bass played by the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields Chamber Ensemble, and the Erben Quartet, with Gerhard Meyer and Rudolf Horold. This music comforts me just like the stones I have picked up and held in my hands over the years.

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