When I was about seven years old, my grandmother let me sit at her electric typewriter. Her office, housed in a cold and unfinished basement, had equine pencil drawings from a talented granddaughter on one wood paneled wall and photos of her and grandpa posing with a variety of friends on another. The chrome chair boasted about seven mismatched seat cushions of differing colors, textures and sizes. On the back of the chair hung oversized wool sweaters, cotton throws and a crocheted blanket of a startling mixture of colors. The result was a chair that looked something like a tiny vanilla cupcake loaded with five inches of layered pink, yellow, blue and green frosting, sprinkles, and patriotic flags, all sliding off to different sides.
I am a sucker for a good how-to, easily taken in by the alluring simplicity of a numbered list of steps. Luckily, this is the age of the Internet tutorial, with the tackling of all manner of life’s mysteries now available in slideshow format. How to build a yurt. How to clean a dishwasher. How to make a fishtail braid.
One summer, my family spent an afternoon riding bikes on Mackinac Island. During the eight-mile ride, I noticed several piles of rocks ranging from just a few stones to almost three feet high. I learned from the brochure I carried in my bike basket that these are called “cairns,” and they’re used to mark trails by hikers and bikers; mostly at points where the trail isn’t obvious or there’s a sharp decline. However, the cairns on Mackinac Island weren’t on trails. In fact, they were scattered over the shore. The Mackinac Cairns, I learned, served “as a memorial for having been somewhere or as a simple art form.” I laughed at first, and thought, “simple indeed” as I watched my six- and four-year-old daughters pile rocks on a break from riding bikes. I wondered about the memorial part of this practice as well. What was seen or heard, what was the weather like, and what else happened while rocks were being piled up? I was annoyed that I didn’t know the story, and instead, had to look at the lake, the sand—nature—and wonder what in the world would make someone get off her bike and stack four or five rocks in a pile.
I had intended to finish Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain before I wrote this piece, but alas, he makes me think too much, and when I think it yields writing, and writing works on me from the inside out. I think Fr. Merton would be happy with that. In his preface to the Japanese edition published twenty years after its initial release, he says, “I seek to speak to you, in some way, as your own self. Who can tell what this may mean? I myself do not know, but if you listen, things will be said that are perhaps not written in this book. And this will be due not to me but to the One who lives and speaks in both.”