Little totems called cairns dot the landscape around Lake Superior. They remind me of a Japanese rock garden equivalent of ANN WAS HERE spray-painted on an overpass, or carved into a picnic table. Only less Japanese, more Viking-ese. People of all ages and from everywhere make them and leave them behind, but they seem to appear of their own volition.
Cairns can symbolize trailblazing or reaching a peak or can simply be decorative. The pronunciation sounds like this –like something your high school choral director would make you repeat with your mouth just so.
When you visit Superior you can hardly believe the stones—so smooth and round and many. Maybe you’ve had a hot stone massage with them, or maybe like me, you paid up the wazoo to have the floor of your shower done with something similar but way more expensive than free-for-the-taking. My kids skip the cookie-shaped ones with Papa D, paint large flat ones the size of saucers, and spend hours with my mom combing the water’s edge for sea glass.
Yesterday we collected stones to decorate reception tables for a wedding. This third marriage celebration, a cairn itself-- a marriage on top of a marriage on top of a marriage, each one separate but all forming a life story.
The wedding stones sit gathered in a basket by the back door like Mancala pieces. The sea glass my boys collected lays ziplocked-bagged and prepared to meet its fate on a closet shelf alongside retired goody bags and shin-guards.
Mom and I went to yoga on the shore. Pebbles filled the arches of our feet and supported the small of our backs and stuck to our skin. I brushed them off. Like the beach treasures I collect and keep in my pocket for a time, I leave them when my visit ends. I don’t want to carry them with me. My children collect stones, I try to shake mine loose. Sometimes they fall out of my mouth and land heavy with a thud, maybe even on a small toe. I retrieve them and offer them up.
My friend Heidi’s story reminds me the cairn pictured above—at once shattered and majestic, seemingly precarious yet awe-inspiring in its strength. Her book “Fancy Feet” follows a life nearly destroyed, painstakingly rebuilt, and ultimately transformed. It will leave you breathless, and with hope.
I’m giving away a copy here. I’ll pick from the comments (US only) and announce the winner next week.