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”?
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?