Pebbles, insults, and memories

Something awesome happened today.

Chip MacGregor, literary agent extraordinaire, called my book a “cult hit” on his blog. But that wasn’t the only awesomeness in his post. He also reproduced a letter he’d received from someone who’d sent him an unsolicited proposal. He wrote her a brief note saying that he didn’t think there was a market for her book, and she sent him back a letter saying, “Destruction? Is that not your very identity? Your cruelty oozes…You should be immensely worried about who you are… Believe it or not, Chippy, you’re a pebble, like all of us.”

There was a lot in there I left out, but I think the best part of the whole letter is the pebble line. Who gets all worked up – using the words gross, ugly, hatcheting, and demolishing – and then caps it off by calling someone “Chippy” and “a pebble”?

A pebble.

So I’ve been thinking about pebbles and smiling today. And that’s made me think about Alaska and a moment when I wasn’t smiling quite as much.

That story starts with souvenir collecting – a topic I wrote about a couple of years ago in an essay called “Thanksgiving”. Here’s an excerpt from that essay (and I swear that the word pebbles was, indeed, in there when I originally published it):

“What is it about being somewhere different that breeds the need to capture something we can carry with us when we leave?

The root of “souvenir” is the verb “to remember”, and the word has come to refer to keepsakes of sentimental value that remind one of past events. Despite the fact that stores selling mostly snow globes and magnets have managed to cheapen this French contribution to the global vocabulary almost beyond use, I still can’t quite let it go. I must admit that I love souvenirs. At their best, they are so much more than things. They are pebbles picked up along the path of life. They are reminders that this path stretches far beyond my living room.

This admission should not be taken to indicate a wholehearted abandonment of all pretension or my endorsement of plastic shot glasses and cheesy tee shirts. To the contrary, I consider my tastes to be highly refined. I may not be able to consistently assemble a trendy outfit, but I am an expert on what constitutes a good souvenir.

This expertise was gained the old-fashioned way – practice, practice, practice. As a wee child I started by collecting “things” – marble boxes inlaid with lapis from India, carved rhinos from Zimbabwe, bronze windmills from Amsterdam… By the time I was ready to leave home and head for University my bedroom looked like a miniature inanimate petting zoo had wandered into a Ten Thousand Villages display. As I packed box after box I decided that two new qualities needed to guide my souvenir collecting – a consistent theme, and portability.

So, in what I now see as my delayed “girl scout” phase, I started collecting patches. As a little girl I would have loved to belong to a club like Girl Scouts that awarded patches for doing things like setting fires, memorizing Bible verses, and reading 5,000 books (especially if that club had awarded patches by mail so that I didn’t actually have to interact with any other children to participate). Instead of a club, however, I got the occasional family-cockroach-massacre in Bangladesh where we competed to see who could amass the biggest pile of carcasses, and spent many hours on my belly in the dirt with my siblings trying to sneak around the entire perimeter of our five acre garden in Zimbabwe without the family dogs discovering what we were up to.

Perhaps if some caring soul had awarded a younger me patches to recognize outstanding achievements in cockroach hunting and canine evasion, I would not have had to spend time working through this phase as an adult. But no one did. So in a spectacular demonstration of resilience, I decided to start awarding patches to myself as souvenirs of my travels..”

After my delayed girl-scout phase I moved on to collecting Christmas ornaments. And, recently I’ve taken to picking up a pebble here or there.

The first pebble I picked up was in Turkey in 2007, at Gallipoli – that site of Australia’s most celebrated military defeat. Before we went, I hadn’t particularly wanted to visit Gallipoli, but my day there impacted me deeply. Just before we left I picked a pebble in Anzac cove. The stone I selected was red. Round on one side and rough on the other, it has been split in half. White veins of quartz run through it in a mirror image of the human body. I carry that pebble in my camera case now, and whenever I look at it I don’t think first of blood and loss and needless sacrifice, or even bravery and “mateship”. I think of graciousness.

But that is another story – the story of the Gallipoli pebble – and perhaps I will tell it someday.

Today’s story is about a pebble I found in my makeup drawer a couple of months ago while I was packing up to move to Laos. This pebble was a smooth, flat, oval. It was grey. It had three white lines of quartz encircling it. And I could not, for the life of me, remember where I had picked it up. Or why.

I kept this pebble on the bench for days, puzzling over it.

After a week, I threw it out.

Not even I could justify shipping a rock all the way from LA to Asia when I could remember exactly nothing about why it may be significant.

About a month after this, Mike and I were in Alaska. We drove from Anchorage to Talkeetna one day to gaze upon the majesty that is Mt McKinley, and when we were done gazing upon majesty we wandered down to the river. Like every river in Alaska, it seems, it was flowing cold and clear over thousands and thousands of smooth, grey, stones.

The pebble I had puzzled over and then discarded had probably come from a river, I realized. And, with that, I remembered…

I had picked up the grey pebble in New Zealand, on our honeymoon, the day we went white water rafting. I remembered reaching down for it – all wet and silvery and cold, so cold – just as the river had been that day. I remembered thinking (unusually sentimentally, for me) that the three parallel lines of quartz that marked the stone could represent Mike, me, and God.

“You threw away our honeymoon rock?” Mike asked, trying unsuccessfully to keep a straight face as I relayed all of this to him. “You threw me, you, and God, in the trash?”

“I couldn’t remember,” I said, sulking. “It gets really hard to keep track of where you, me, and God have been, where we’re going, and what it might mean. I was throwing away all my memories, trying to be an efficient packer, because someone wants me to move to Laos.”

“The memories you couldn’t actually remember?” Mike asked, not even trying not to laugh anymore. “Those ones? And that was really talented, by the way, you managed to blame both me and Laos.”

“Thank you,” I said.

So that is my pebble story for the day. What about you? What souvenirs do you favor?

16 responses to “Pebbles, insults, and memories

  1. Hi Lisa,
    I found your blog through Chip’s blog, and want to say thank you for writing this. I can relate to so much of it. I actually went through rocks / pebbles just last week, trying to remember where they came from (I have 3 boys, so we have LOTS). And last summer we moved from Ohio to Prague, CZ. After a childhood of moving through nearly all the States, moving abroad has been a trip. Literally. Glad to make your e-acquaintance.
    Sincerely, Jennifer

    • Hi Jennifer, another expat! I love meeting other expats. Prague, huh. That’s one city I haven’t been to yet, though not for want of trying. I had a visa debacle in relation to prague that I may write about some day. I hope your time there is going well?? You’re a year in now, which may mean you’re starting to feel at home? Thanks for dropping by and reading. Cheers, Lisa

  2. Dear Lisa,
    Love your writing. I also found you on good “old” Chippy’s e-mail. What a pleasant way to begin my Wednesday morning. Now about this post. I am shattered. This is one I should have written. Although my “pebbles” are USA born and bred, they are certainly worthy of a good post. But now…sniff, sniff…they will languish in their woven basket haven, unknown to the blogging world at large, trumped by the exotic. Thanks to Chip for posting your blog address and thanks to you for great writing.

    Pat Marcantel–harvestworker on Twitter

    • Thanks for coming to visit, Pat! I love USA born things – I’m married to one – and I think you should completely write about your pebbles. In fact, now I’ve gotten going I’m considering another post just for the Gallipolli pebble at some stage. Let me know if you do write it up.

  3. “For lo, I will command, and shake the house of Israel among all the nations as one shakes with a sieve, but no pebble shall fall to the ground.” (Amos 9:7-9). You are a precious jewel that God sifts and finds (Zechariah 9:16). A enduring souvenir.

  4. I never know what to college either. I think I mostly do photos as memorabilia. I’ve decided the other thing to do is jewelry. Every country has jewelry, it’s usually portable, and I actually use it.

  5. I actually picked up a pebble in Talkeetna. It was where the three rivers meet. It was smooth and being perfectly divided in half. I gave it to two friends as a wedding present. I think pebbles makes excellent souvenirs. They hold not only your memories but the entire history of their existence and the place you found it. Stop throwing away your pebbles. =)

    • What a neat idea for a wedding present! We had a wonderful day in Talkeetna – though it was the middle of June and wintery cold. I loved it. As for pebbles, yes, I will stop throwing them away. Not that I have that many left, at this stage. And maybe, just maybe, I’ll pick up a few more here.

  6. I also like rocks and stones! I think it’s cool that when the ancient believers wanted to memorialize something wonderful that God did they pushed together a pile of stones and gave it a name. Rocks and stones have staying power. They are resilient and no two are alike.

    You might need to get a Sharpie and write down cheat notes on the underbellies of your pebbles, Lisa.

    Do they have Sharpies in Laos!?

    • Funny you should ask that… Mike was just asking the same thing last week. The answer, as far as we have been able to work out after our visit to the stationary man, is no. But he found one in my handbag (which I pointed out was proof that my system of chucking everything wherever I felt like chucking it at the time DOES have some rewards) and he commandeered it. So I’ll need to go get it back next time I pick up a pebble.

  7. I am a huge believer in “memorial stones” those stones that remind us of God’s hand in our lives too, sort of the souveniers of our journey here. I also love the regular sorts of things one collects on trips, I travel via my armchair mostly, so if you think of it, from time to time, would you grab a pebble for me! Love you.

    • Bobbie, was it you we bought back a coke bottle full of water from the Dead Sea for – or was that someone else? I forget. Again :). Hope you’re fully enjoying your home this summer. What a wonderful place to be. Hugs.

  8. I remember being asked to lead singing in chapel one time when I was in seminary. The hymn we sang had the words, “All to thee my ebenezer.” So of course somebody asked me after the song, “What’s an ebenezer?” I had no idea. The only Ebenezer I new was in “A Christmas Carol,” and I doubt we’d be singing hymns to him. Later I discovered it’s the Hebrew term (transliterated “evan haazer”) for “stone of help” or “stone of remembrance.” The idea was that a stone would be put up someplace as a memorial (after a battle or miracle). So when you pick up a pebble, you’re continuing a great biblical tradition, Lisa. Loved this post. -chippy

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