Fireflies and the First Dance

We didn’t see them coming. They surrounded us as we lay in lounge chairs on the beach, wrapped up in sleeping bags–because even though it was late June, nights were still cold on the sandy shores of Lake Superior.

We had been too engrossed in laziness, watching the horizon change colors, melding from pink to red to dark blue. We had been too captivated by the lights of the ore boats gliding across the surface of the lake, following them as they crested the horizon, then faded away into the distance, listening for the soft hum of the engines, and actually being able to hear them from miles away in the deep silence. We had been too focused on spotting the first few stars as they revealed themselves in the moonless, darkening sky.

The first fireflies that flitted about on the periphery of our eyesight–before the great horde enveloped us–had seemed like nothing unusual. They’re a common sight in the northern landscape on summer nights. They’re something all children, at one time or another, has chased across their backyard at a late night barbecue, or has captured in a jar to ponder for a while, marvelling at the magic of the odd, cold light until their parents made them unscrew the lid and set the winged creature free. Although fireflies make an appearance every summer, it is only for a few, short weeks, and it was a lucky night when we saw two or three in the yard.

They affirmed for me, as a child, that there really was magic in the world.

This magic of the firefly begins when they hatch from eggs in late summer into larvae, known as glowworms. They live in the soil for a few years, then construct a mud chamber in the soil into which they settle. In this little mud chamber, their larval body is broken down and they transform into their adult form, emerging when the conditions are right as the twinking firefly, ready for its first sky dance. This stage of flickering light lasts only three to four weeks while the fireflies mate. There are many species of fireflies around the world, and all of them undergo this metamorphosis on their life journey.

Although my husband and I both enjoyed fireflies in our childhood, the great swarm that surrounded us so swiftly and silently was not our usual experience. We discovered, as we looked behind us at the wide expanse of beach to the tree line, that instead of one or two lights, the entire pine forest was alight, as if hundreds of strands of lights had been strung while we were watching the sun slide behind the lake. Thousands upon thousands of nature’s strobe lights danced in the night sky around us, twinkling and bobbing erratically down the vast sand beach stretching for miles in either direction.

It was a firefly dance party on the beach, and we had crashed it.

As the stars appeared, one by one, or in two or threes, the sky began to mimic the beach. I would  look away for one momenyt, watching a spectacular firefly dance move, and when my eyes returned to the sky I would find three new stars were out, as bright as if they had been there all along. The Big Dipper appeared directly in front of us over the lake, poised to scoop water out of the great basin.

As it grew darker, the Milky Way revealed itself, stretching across the sky from the lake horizon,  sweeping over our heads, then disappearing behind the treeline. When it was full night, we could no longer see the line between water and sky. All that remained was darkness and light.

The firelies did not radiate enough light to make it brighter, but held a light that was self-contained, like the stars. Their biolumenescence, which is caused by a chemical reaction, is the most efficient in the world, with all of the energy being emitted as light and none as heat. But to me, it just seemed like the stars had come to Earth to spend the evening on the beach with us.  And they were dancing.

I have thought about that night many times since. It is my happy place, where I go to reaffirm the dream that my life can be whatever I make of it…and to remind myself that there really is magic in the world.

I have seen the stars dancing.

It was the night I began to metamorphise as well. I had been in my mud chamber, burrowed in the ground, being broken down. I was ready to begin transforming, springing forth wings and learning to sparkle and fly.

I brought home two rocks from the beach that had been rounded by the waves. They have embedded stones and swirls within them. Though they are gray and somewhat drab, the amalgamation reminds me of the fireflies, the swirls, the milky way. They sit on my writing desk as a reminder of that night; a reminder that perfect moments do happen, and that I have to cherish them, hold them in my thoughts, continuously smoothing them, remembering.

Since then, I have made many changes in my life–at times fearlessly, and at times merely pretending to be fearless.

I’ve found it works either way.

There are many more steps to go before I can say I danced without abandon on the beach under the Milky Way on an inky black, summer night. But I keep working towards it. I have felt a few flickers of light within and my wings are getting stronger every day…

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The Secret to Happiness

The small, yellow cabin on the shore of Lake Superior was built by our friend’s father in the 1950s. It faces west, toward the vast lake and a sandy beach that stretches for miles in either direction. To the north, a rocky shoreline rises and curves, creating a long sweeping bay. A monastery is perched on the cliff, hidden entirely by thick tree cover, except for the large metal cross on the peak which occasionally catches afternoon sunlight. The monks who live there have a small store where they sell baked goods and homemade jam from raspberries and thimbleberries they grow on their property. To the south there is only beach, with a small, sandy point miles away, reaching out into the lake, creating the other arm of the bay. Past that, I don’t know…

When my husband and I arrived in the Keweenaw Peninsula I didn’t know how that beach was going to change me. I didn’t know that over the course of five days I would learn the secret to happiness.

The beach is over a hundred feet of soft sand from the edge of the tree line to the water, and it’s the kind of sand that sings when you walk on it–but only the dry sand, the saturated sand near the shore is silent. The sound of the lake is a melodic roar, a series of continuous notes creating a resonance that penetrates everything. It pulls, reaches out and eases tensions with its song. Being near it, I felt the relaxation similar to those few moments before I fall sleep when my body lets go of tension and sinks into comfort. I was ready to sink into that quiet serenity for days.

The first day was a typical June day in the Upper Peninsula, with temperatures wavering around seventy degrees, humidity so low that bright, blue sky could be seen between the branches of the pine trees, and a cool breeze cruising in from Lake Superior. As evening approached, we built a fire in the cabin’s wood-stove to combat the chill. Through the trunks of the tall red and white pines, we watched the sun set over the lake. I sat in a rocking chair by the fire and gazed out the front picture window at the oncoming night, thinking of the days when this was normal life, before the invasion of noise and too much information into every nook and cranny of our existence. The quiet, the dark, the disconnect was a relief. After my husband fell asleep, I spent many more hours sitting, thinking nothing, alone in the dark, with only the amber glow of fire for light. Ore boats passed silently by in the distance, gliding along the horizon.

The second day we walked around the camp searching for the fabled Pink Lady’s Slipper that we‘d heard recently bloomed. Lady’s Slippers are rare orchids which grow only in unique conditions. We found six in one sunken area in the woods, soft and mysterious, all connected by underground rhizomes. Then we found two by the beach, facing the lake as if they were gazing out across the water as I had been the night before. Later in the afternoon, we stumbled across another hiding near the wood shed. That night, inside the cabin, I read the book “The Legend of the Lady’s Slipper” which the owner of the cabin had thoughtfully left out. It tells the tale of an Native American girl who saves her village by traveling out in a terrible blizzard to a neighboring village for medicine. After sinking in the snow and losing her moccasins, she walks home barefoot, barely making it back, leaving bloody tracks in the snow. In the spring her footprints have become Lady’s Slippers.

The woman who owns the cabin has been an artist and art teacher for over 40 years. Her husband built the camp and they spent many summers here with their children. It is a place filled with love and creative energy, decorated with intriguing nature-inspired art: creatures made from driftwood and stones, animal tracks that have been plaster-cast and hung on the wall, jars of agates and other interesting rocks. Everything about the place inspired creativity. The ground around the cabin was a soft bed of pine needles and pine cones, with occasional strips and rings of birch bark. I found a scale of a red pine tree that resembled a child looking up with a curious expression, then found a piece that resembled the face of an old woman. I put the two together on a piece of birchbark with another piece of birchbark as flowing hair. It took a picture, then put them back outside calling it temporary art. I picked up rocks and driftwood on the beach, followed bird tracks in winding circles and studied the wind and water patterns in the sand.

My eyes were continuously drawn toward the water, and my feet led me back repeatedly to the shore. Every morning, every afternoon, every evening, called for walks on the beach.

The second night we wrapped ourselves in blankets and reclined in chairs on the beach.  A deer made a surprising appearance and even a few eagles. The slight, cool wind kept the mosquitos away as we watched the sunset. It took so long for the sky to grow dark! Dozens of shades of blue made their appearance, along with a few reds and pinks.

Then the fireflies appeared. First one, then ten, then hundreds, maybe thousands. All around us, down the beach and in the trees, magical lights flickered and bobbed.

Then came the stars. The Milky Way stretched from behind the lake over our heads into the trees. It was brighter than I had ever seen before! The Big Dipper spread across the sky in front of us, pouring its water directly into the lake. The fireflies made a spectacular showing, dancing all through the night. I couldn’t tell if the stars had come to Earth to dance with us or if the fireflies had made it all the way into the sky.

The third night we watched it grow dark again, except that night the air was thick and humid and the sky overcast. We walked the beach, hoping we could again watch the darkness overtake the day, but the bugs were too hungry. We ran for cover into the large screened porch filled with buckets of driftwood and decorated with colored globe lights on a string, fishing nets, a buoy that had washed up on shore, and a handmade brick on the table by the front door that had the impression of just one word in it.  Enjoy.

As I sat in the cedar swing, winded from running, smelling of campfire and putting Xs on my bug bites with my fingernail, I looked toward the lake and had a deep epiphany. The moment I thought it, contentment swelled and filled me…or possibly it emptied me…either way, I knew.

That’s what it’s all about. It is the secret to life. It’s the meaning of life.

Enjoy.

That is the plan for us–we are here to enjoy.

It’s so easy…enjoy.

That was exactly what we’d been doing all weekend. It was why we were able to walk the beach, again and again, without care. It was how we could just stare at the fire for hours or spend an afternoon seeking rare flowers in the forest. We were enjoying. Only that. It was something we desperately needed and were not allowing ourselves to do enough in our daily lives.

It’s incredible how hard it is to enjoy the wonderful things in the world and enjoy our precious lives. We always seem to be working toward some goal, continuously planning or achieving, concerned about our image, our reputation. We very rarely just ‘enjoy.’ The concept was so foreign to me, that I knew when I went back to my life I would actually have to work hard to do it. I laughed at the irony  to cover up the fact that I was a little ashamed. 

My husband looked at me quizzically, and I told him I just discovered the secret to happiness, picking up the brick and showing him. Before either of us had a chance to say a word, an icy breeze blew through the porch and the first lightning flashed over the lake. A moment later lightning flashed again and we began to hear thunder. A storm was coming. A warm front and a cold front were battling above the lake. First we would feel the warm front enveloping us like a hot, humid breath, then a cold blast of arctic air would chill the moisture on our skin. The winds fought for over an hour and we had begun to give up on the storm ever reaching us when we heard the deafening roar of billions of raindrops pounding the sand and water. It was so loud, so deep, rolling up the beach from the south, that I honestly became afraid. The wind picked up and the trees bent and swayed, then it was upon us.

The power went out immediately, which didn’t bother us since we only had the string of colored globes on. I lit a few candles and we sat in the dark, listening to the storm. After a while I realized I needed to feel the rain, so I stepped outside, barefoot, under the pine trees, and closed my eyes, turning my face upwards to feel the cold, refreshing rain. I opened my mouth, wanting the storm to become a part of me, catching raindrops on my tongue. Some of them were pine flavored.

Within moments I was drenched, but it was the most cleansing and revitalizing shower I have ever taken. 

After five days I was renewed. Like the lake, the things that were deep within me were swept from the bottom and pulled to the shore, to be examined like driftwood or tumbled stones. “Ah, here we see evidence of a shipwreck…and over here, a red stone tumbled and beaten upon the rocks until the edges are smooth and worn…and over here a jawbone of a fish…and there, a feather.” At times there was simply water and sand.

The final day we did the same things, walked the beach, picked up driftwood, sat in front of a fire. We enjoyed the silence. I had been afraid of silence, afraid to be alone with my own thoughts, afraid of what demons may arise. But during those beach days no demons arose, no fears, no regrets, only clarity. I realized the secret to happiness–that I have much to be thankful for, and so much that is worthy of enjoyment in my life. All I needed to do was take the time to enjoy it.

The Apple Tree Whispers

The apple tree in my backyard has not been well cared for. It is diseased and weak, and when overburdened with apples, branches often come crashing down. The apples are no good to eat.

I can only assume that in the years before we bought this house and moved in, no one took the time to trim the tree, to care for it properly. No one attempted to stop the spreading black fungus which crept along, year after year, eventually covering many of the larger branches. No one tried to halt the invasion of boring insects.

It won’t survive for many more years, this old apple tree, but we’ve done our best to save it by fertilizing and watering it often, applying treatments to heal its ailments, and trimming it back in the spring and fall.

This apple tree will be appreciated in its final years, for I believe there are many lessons to be learned from it. On quiet days, the tree whispers to me with the wisdom of an elder.

I look out over my backyard as I write, towards Lake Superior and this craggy apple tree. It resembles a bonsai tree, with a Zen quality that can only be attained through time. It is still beautiful in its old age, and in the darkest days of winter when the sun rises behind it, the creeping red over the lake horizon casts the tree in a celestial glow.

Clearly visible in that halo of light are the stumps where branches have been sawed off in the distant past, and long, spindly new shoots, jutting in every direction, which must have been hidden behind leaves and apples when we trimmed in the fall. We will cut most of them back in the spring. Those that are strong and straight we’ll leave, to balance the tree where a branch may have broken the year before. When a healthy shoot rises next to a sickly one, a choice will need to be made.

My life often feels like this tree, overburdened, with new shoots coming up every year. There is so much that requires my attention, my time, my life energy, that I must continuously try to determine what to keep and what to cut. If I don’t trim back some branches, I will get diseased and weak, like the apple tree. I cannot sustain them all.

Choices need to be made.

Some shoots fill in areas that are bare. They stretch toward the sun and even out the places where I am vulnerable. They make me whole. They are keepers.

Some shoots are harmful, unnecessary, demanding or negative. They need to be trimmed. Those are the easiest decisions to make.

At times I must cut away branches that I have nurtured and loved, though it hurts terribly to do so. When something has become so toxic that it causes distress, I know in the long run I will be healthier for it. Sometimes a part of the branch remains as a reminder. In bonsai this is called jin, signifying that the tree has had to struggle to survive. How fitting.

When the saw makes the cut–back and forth, back and forth, back and forth–it is a long and tortuous, painful task. Often it’s better when the axe does the job. There’s an abrupt end with the axe, very finite, with little time to ponder or contemplate. The pain is quick and intense, then passes.

Other times the branch simply breaks, splits under the pressure with a resounding crack, and falls to the ground. Afterwards I feel lighter, never realizing until then how much that branch had been weighing me down. Unfortunately, the breaking usually leaves fragments, splintered remains, or pulls off more than it should, tearing away at the bark of the trunk. I have learned to remove those branches before they fall; they can do a lot of damage on the way down. Sometimes they break other branches on the way that I had intended to keep.

In the fall, trimming helps the tree to conserve its resources so it can survive the harsh winter.  After trimming in the spring, the apple tree blooms. It has more to give to the branches that remain, more energy to thrive. It stands taller, is less weighed down, more balanced. Healthier.

And really, isn’t life all about staying healthy and finding balance? How much can we handle? How much can we give? How much can we ask for? How much can we take? How much can this small bit of matter we inhabit actually accomplish in a lifetime?

With each trim and each new growth, my energy changes, what I have to give changes, and similar to the silhouette of the apple tree in the sunrise, the way I am perceived changes.

Looking out over that tree I have realized that there will always be new growth and letting go of the old. And it is good. It’s okay to accept that something doesn’t work in my life anymore. It is okay to move on, to leave behind that which is toxic, to let go of an old dream and create another, and to keep what I need for myself. Because in order for me to thrive and care for what I love, I must be also well cared for. I must be balanced and healthy before I can be fruitful.

“It’s up to you to choose what is important and worthy of your precious life energy. It is up to you to decide the things you need to let go. It’s up to you to be bold and keep only that which will help you grow healthier, find balance, and become a beautiful, craggy tree in your own way, with your roots firmly planted in the Earth, and your branches dancing in the wind, joyously reaching for the sky.”

That is what the old apple tree whispers to me.

Seiche

Those of us living on the Great Lakes are accustomed to severe weather. We don’t always love it, but we do expect it. At times it snows twenty inches overnight. Other times the brisk winds from the Arctic Circle race across Canada, and if we inhale too deeply, it freezes our nostrils closed. Men come inside from snow-blowing with icicles hanging from their beards. And that’s just the winter months.

Sometimes, a summer storm rolls across the land with so much intensity, so much power, that it  changes the entire lake ecosystem…

When extreme pressure from a storm front pushes down on one side of a lake, this compression can be so tremendous, so strong, that massive amounts of water will flow to the other side, causing the opposite shoreline to flood. As this huge surge overspills the shoreline, the water climbs into the mouths of rivers, washes out low-lying roads, and rolls even the largest, gnarliest pieces of driftwood onto the beach. It causes boats of all sizes to tug desperately on their moorings.

On the compressed side of the lake, the water moves away from shore and mysterious things long buried underwater are exposed — perhaps the skeleton of a shipwreck, or a glistening strip of colored stones, or the remains of a dock that pulled free and disappeared beneath the waves. The standing docks seem to be on stilts, with dry land beneath them, their spindly legs covered in green, dripping algae. Boats on this side of the lake run aground and beaches become vast expanses of sand, littered with curious objects. Maybe even treasure.

One must be quick to discover these treasures though, for once the surge reaches its furthest point, it reverses and the water flows back to inundate this newly barren shore, creeping back with the unstoppable force of water.  After reaching its furthest point in that direction, again it retreats.

This phenomenon, called a seiche, continues for hours, with the water sloshing back and forth, each time a little less intense, until it finally reaches equilibrium. Even though oscillations  continuously move through enclosed bodies of water, they are usually so small that they are not noticeable even to boaters — only when extreme pressure acts upon the water does the phenomenon cause destruction and chaos.

We’ve all felt this tremendous amount of pressure, when the neat edges of our safe, little harbor were askew and overflowing, and all we could do was hold our heads slightly above water to keep from drowning until it was calm again. During those times, we were pushed to our extremes, with emotions overspilling their banks, losing all control, and re-learning what it meant to be vulnerable and exposed to the elements, churning in turmoil.

Even worse, those secrets that had long been hidden deep within were exposed for all to see. Ashamed, we covered them, collected them, hid them. But in doing so, maybe we found a clear piece of rounded blue glass, or a soft pink shell, or a swirling red agate. Maybe we discovered something about ourselves.

After the storm passes, and the surges have settled, the lake resumes its normal ebb and flow. Although the obvious and immediate result of a seiche is destruction, there are many benefits from the turmoil as well. The seiche-driven wave action lifts nutrient-rich sediments, such as decomposing leaves and grasses, from the deeper waters into the sun-lit, surface water where algae can create new living tissue through photosynthesis out of the otherwise stagnant, decomposing material. By whisking those nutrients to the upper levels of water, this disturbance, or upwelling, makes it available for use in the food chain, which in turn, makes the lake a healthier ecosystem.

Even the water rushing onto the shorelines carries nutrients onto land, enriching the soils. When it recedes, it pulls back more leaves and grasses to add to the churning lake, feeding it, making it more whole and resilient.

Looking back at the most difficult events in my life, I realized that like a seiche in the lake, those experiences also enriched me. At the time I only felt the swirling, overwhelming waves battering me, nearly drowning me, but once the storm quieted and I could catch a full breath I felt stronger, wiser.

I was forced to assess where the storm was most destructive, thereby admitting where I was vulnerable. I re-enforced as needed.

I faced my own shipwrecks, and accepted the treasures that had been washed ashore.

I fed upon the upwelling of lost emotions, memories and experiences that had been put to rest on the bottom of my lake bed. They burst forth into new life.

I realized that many small seiches had moved through my life, subtly redefining my shorelines, preparing me to survive, and even thrive, after a storm. And for the first time I was grateful for them.

We have no control over the weather, just like we have no control over many of the events that happen in our lives. We can only control what we take away from those experiences, how we survive them. They can enrich us, or drown us.

And I, for one, am learning how to swim.

What I Know about Pine Trees

Pine trees are all different.

Pines growing on the rocky outcroppings around Lake Superior are often stunted, crooked, and twisted into unnatural shapes. They perch on ledges, balance precariously on top of boulders, or cling desperately to cliffs, parallel to the earth after part of the rock beneath them gives way and crashes into the lake. Their roots, bare to the elements, finger their way into cracks, pulling minerals from the rock and water from the shallow pools in small indentations. These trees have to endure the cold, long winters, northern winds, and the frigid spray of crashing waves which form icicles on their needles and branches.

They are survivors. They are the watchmen of the lake. They are the old ones.

On the beaches, pine trees thrive in the sandy soil. They carpet the ground in a blanket of needles in burnt oranges, dark reds and golden yellows which release a chemical into the soil that hinders growth in other trees. The forest consists only of a carpet and canopy of needles with straight, uniformly sized trunks in between and crisp, blue water in the background. In the sand, pines grow straight and tall, their limbs jutting out at right angles in whatever arrangement that suits them.

I have never seen a symmetrical pine tree.

White pine once grew from one end of Michigan to the other, covering the landscape in old growth boreal forest. Logging over the past few hundred years has changed that…for better or worse who can say? After pine trees are cut, other species grow back in their place: oak, maple, poplar, beech–all of those beautiful trees which change color and lose their leaves in the autumn.

Yet the remnants of those majestic pines still remain. Eagles often make nests in their upper-most branches. Crows use them as watching posts.

These trees are the protectors of the forest; they tower over the other trees and become lightening rods in thunderstorms, often meeting their fate when a bolt of electricity splits their trunk.

There comes a time when even the hardiest of trees must let go.

All along the shoreline are trees that have given in to the elements. They lie on their sides, roots exposed. Pine trees have no tap root; their roots twist and turn and creep and crawl, crossing back over each other, looking for every drop of water, every bit of nutrient near the surface. They are shallow and extend in all directions in a tangled web so when the tree falls over a gnarled, woven tapestry arises.

Every exposed root bed of a pine tree I have ever seen has a face; some have many. They are the wizards of the tree. They keep it safe from harm, and when the time has come for the tree to die, they rise up and watch over it, keeping vigil over the grave where the sleeping tree lies.

Pine trees are all different.

Yet, they are also the same. They all do their best to stand tall, be majestic, and protect who is around them, being strong when the storm comes. They may not live in perfect conditions, but find a way to survive, defending their home if necessary. They are susceptible to their surroundings and cannot control their environment–the wind, the rain, the sun–but they do what they can with what they receive, and thrive where they are planted.

So can we.

Listening when the Lake Sings

What is the song of a lake? What is lake music?

Most noticeable, of course, is the waves. Combine their rhythm with the distant sound of power boat motors, all humming different pitches, like bagpipes. Then add in seagulls, squawking intermittently, and laughter from shady picnic tables where families have gathered to barbecue. Follow it up with the wind shaking and rustling the beach grass and the soft sound of sand moving beneath bare feet. Finally there are the foghorns, those melancholy harbingers of cool lake mist.

Then we know it’s time to go home.

In the winter it is a different song. There are no barbecues or boats, no bare feet walking across the sandy shore, no grasses waving, adding percussion. It is quieter. It is a hibernation song.

Yet, still the lake sings.

In early winter, when night comes, the air cools and a thin layer of ice forms on the surface of the lake. One  morning as I walked along a path near the harbor I heard a tinkling sound, like an uncountable number of small bells ringing. It took me a moment to notice it; it was so soft, so delicate. That thin layer of ice which had formed during the night was being broken up by the gentle wave action of the lake. The symphony I heard was millions of thin slivers of ice moving in rhythm with the waves.

I was being serenaded by the lake, and the ice was dancing to its own high-pitched, ethereal song of nature as it performed.

The ice reflected the rising sun, dazzling me with sparkling lights. The ore dock reflected the chorus back to me. It was a tune filled with such sweetness, such longing, that I felt the lake sensed there was only a short amount of time for it to sing.

And so it did.

Listening to the lake music I realized that I only have a brief window of opportunity to sing as well. And I decided that I would.

But that was not the lesson I took away from this experience…

I’ve thought of that lake song many times since. How is it that one moment can stay with us? One moment where nothing really exciting happened–except we were somewhere and something made us feel a certain way. I didn’t plan for the lake to influence me that day with its music; I was just out walking and enjoying the early morning sunshine. But it did influence me–because I was observant enough to notice the moment.

So often we pass by things that could help us, lost in thought, remembering what we need to do, planning how we’ll do it, or chastising ourselves for what we’ve forgotten. We’re focused on giving ourselves a hard time for not doing something every second of the day and not accomplishing more.

We’re preoccupied with those who’ve hurt us.

What are we missing? Life could be singing for us and we wouldn’t even hear it. Life could be coaxing us to sing our songs and we wouldn’t even know it.

I’m grateful I was an attentive audience for that lake song, because even though those notes are still out there somewhere, ringing forever outward into the vast expanse of space, they are also living on in my memory. For all I know I was the only person to hear the lake sing that morning. I’m sure by the afternoon the thin layer of ice had melted.

I wasn’t there to see it go. I didn’t want to tarnish the memory by hearing the music fade away. I remember it at the height of its beauty, with the sun shining down on a million glittering shards of ice, and a million watery voices singing the morning into being.

The Traveler

In my hand, I hold a traveler.

It is a traveler who has not been exposed to sunlight in thousands of years, who has come a great distance along the bottom of a cold, cold lake. It is a traveler who has been continuously dragged and pushed and beaten upon by waves, sand and stones, finally making its way to the light, rolling upon the shore and showing its color to the world, its uniqueness, its beauty.

All along Lake Superior, as waves caress the beaches, tumbled stones are swept and hurled out of the water and onto shore:

The basalt, perfectly shaped into blue ovals, so zen, so serene, lying in the sand as if they have nowhere else better to be, as if they have arrived at their destination and are now on a long vacation.

The colorful agates, swirling of reds and oranges and yellows, well hidden in plain sight, rare, created in the formation of the land. They are so hard that only diamonds will cut them.

The Kona Dolomite, with its soft pinks and reds, nearly fading into the colors of the sand beneath them.

The milky white quartz, those perfect ovals with hidden shadows and streaks of gray smoke, containing unknown treasures within.

And the granite, easily overlooked, grey flecked, impenetrable, rounded like eggs, fitting perfectly in my palm.

Some have deep cracks. Some are irregular, rolling randomly, zig-zagging across the sand. Some are perfectly round. Some have holes right through them. All of them are unique, and together they create something even more beautiful than the individuals alone.

The stones on the shore have been scraped and shaped by other stones, their corners rounded and their edges softened through the long passage of time. They have been smoothed by the gentle caress of waves and polished by sand over countless years. Their rough edges are gone and they roll easily upon the beach.

Some people are like that. They are easy to spot; they maneuver effortlessly through every situation, even when things don’t go the way they had planned. They roll with it. They have softness in their face, especially around the eyes. They shine with unique and beautiful color. Their mouths curl up a little in a sly smile, as if they know a secret — a secret which even if they confided it to the rest of the world, we wouldn’t understand. When we’re around them, we’re calmer, more content. Their smoothness rubs off on the rest of us, almost as if they were polishing us, smoothing our rough edges, pulling us farther upshore and away from the tumultous waves.

There are some people who crack and chip. They are forceful, too large, too hard, or too strong. They leave a path of destruction in their wake that will take time to wear away. Yet sometimes they can be helpful, crafting the shape of other stones in a way the gentle polish cannot. They can be exactly what was needed.

What kind of a stone am I? Cool colored or warm? Small or large? Am I rounded, flat, oval or irregular? Am I uniform? Am I cracked? Do I have a hole that goes straight through me? Do I have a secret shadow within?

How I long to be smooth! How hard I work at it. How long will it take me to become that way? How many trials, tribulations, storms and tumbles? Rather than chipping or cracking when hitting another stone, I want to be more like those rounded stones at the lake, with each scrape, with each rub, I become smoother, more well-rounded, and help the other stones to do the same. I want to roll easier with the waves. I want to be smooth enough to be kept as a good luck charm in someone’s pocket, or on their desk as a reminder.

But I lose my temper, lash out, smash others, causing chips and cracks which leave marks on them, and on myself as well. I always regret it.

I also allow others to chip away at me, breaking off pieces that are well-worn, having to start over with fresh edges to soften.

Yet I keep on trying. I have to. A single stone on the beach seems so lonely. The chance meetings with other stones craft what it becomes. And so it is with us.

I rub the traveler in my hand, then put it in my pocket. It will not be a worry stone, but a reminder to keep going, to keep trying, to keep learning from nature and that perhaps one day, I, too, will be able to just roll with it.