A form of Zen

~a column by Colleen O’Brien

I’ve been stacking rocks for some time . . . since the mid-1990s when I found myself doing it without plan or thought. I was in a slough of despond after my sister-in-law Ellen died of AIDS and there I was in my front yard wandering around like a sad dog. It was a bad time for my husband’s whole family, and I’m not sure how any of them survived it – I was merely an in-law and in a mire myself.

I was too restless to read for very long – I kept rereading the same page. I’ve since learned that this is a sure sign of grief. I wasn’t up to visiting with friends or talking much at all. So I wandered around my yard, which was full of rocks and boulders because we lived in granite mountain country. I began piling the biggest rocks I could handle, jostling them from here to there, making stacks. I built some steps of rocks, made circles of rocks, piled more rocks.

The piling was the most satisfying, for it was not especially easy. It took picking out the right-shaped rocks and then the concentration and patience to make them stay in the stack. For entire minutes I was not thinking about Ellen or her stunned mother and brothers and sisters.

As the grief settled and eventually lessened, I continued stacking rocks, for it had assumed a kind of necessity in my daily routine. My grandson was at that perfect age where he wanted to do everything I was doing, so I showed him how to be a rock stacker. He was a whiz at it, nonchalant with his immediate grasp of balance; the little ones who inherit the earth and know things intuitively. He eventually taught his younger cousin when she reached an age, and they took to calling their caches “colleens.” I was charmed by that, so I did not correct them.

On a large flat-topped, half-buried boulder along the street in the front of our yard I stacked eight rocks and swirled a semi-circle of shaled rock away from its base, like a tail. It was art, man. After a couple of days, though, each time I went out to get the morning paper, the pile had collapsed. At first I didn’t think too much about it, for stacked rocks will fall. (The only stacking rock rule I have is that I can’t use glue.)

But as it appeared each morning as a mere scattering of rocks rather than a stack of rocks, I began to wonder at the geological make-up of the base rock – unstable in some way that prevented a “colleen” to remain long on top of it? A demented bird that landed on it each dawn? A sure-aim 10-year-old who could deadeye it with a pebble on his way to school?
The riddle was solved the morning I arose earlier than usual. On my way out the door I saw the preschooler from across the street run pell-mell for my colleen and kick it apart, run back and jump in the car. When I showed myself from around the corner of the house, the dad came over laughing. “He does this every morning. He’s slaying the dragon.”
I guess my not quite mirthful response put the kibosh on the early morning’s clean kill, for the dragon never died again.

At some point after that, we decided to sell the house. The sign went up next to the colleen dragon, and the first person who looked bought the house. The woman told me that my rock stack created a “vibe” in her: she was a photographer and had recently returned from photographing the inukshuks (in-ook-shooks) of the first nation Inuits of northern Canada. Inukshuks are rock monuments in the likeness of humans. [There used to be one in front of a house on north Wilson in Jefferson.] The buyer felt that coming across a similar stack of rocks in a front yard when she was house hunting was a sign she’d found the ideal place.
I thought so, too. Then a friend who was selling her house asked me to build her a lucky colleen. Her place had been on the market for 13 months, and she was thinking she’d be there forever. I built her a colleen, her house sold six months later. (And really, no correlation.)

The week before we moved out, our kids had a good-bye party for us at our house. There were 70 or 80 people there, and many young children. One of the junior high girls corralled the little ones, took them into the backyard and taught them how to make colleens. By the end of the party, a village of colleens peopled the slightly slanted rocky slope behind our house – a surprise welcoming committee for the new owners. When we drove past our former home a couple of years later, we saw that they had maintained the dragon on the front yard boulder, but the backyard gathering had dispersed.

This short collection of stacked rock stories has been a long lead-in to an article by art teacher Natalie Cartlett, who wound up one year with an especially unruly class of first graders. She could not keep them interested in one thing, could barely herd them, let alone teach them . . . until during a class on geology and mountains and rocks she began showing them how to stack rocks. “Little did I know the powerful effect rocks and rock-sculpture building would have on them individually and as a group,” said the relieved instructor.

It entranced them, calmed them, intrigued them. The concentration it takes to stack a few rocks carries a variety of benign consequences: it can narrow the focus to make one less obstreperous in class; it can make one forget for a few minutes the loss of a beloved; it can keep little ones at a big people’s party from running wild; it can sell a house.

Mostly, I find it simply Zen-like in that it can make me forget the worrying world. It seems that there are worse things one can do with spare time or anxious time, teaching times or hurting times than to become a stacker of rocks.

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