What greater happiness could anyone know
than collecting accidental stones to place
end to end to end?
Luci Shaw asks this in her poem “Found this morning” (Water Lines, 2003). Reading her question, I am delighted. Our house is full of stones, baskets and jars of them, picked up everywhere, from shorelines and driveways and mountain lookouts, they come tumbling out of pockets to rattle in the dryer, are caught in the cracks between couch cushions, lie on the kitchen counter to be absently rubbed by whomever might sit there. Shaw describes spreading her stones “onto paper, a fresh, white beach,” to play with them:
With what deliberate care I array them,
end to end to end, aligning the chalky stripes
so that what looks like a white string
connects them all together! Placed
so that the bright lines join, the stones
snake an arc across this wave-less shore.
It seems to me that this collecting and arranging of stones is an apt metaphor for much of life. It certainly captures a great deal of what I do. So much of writing is the collecting of “accidental stones” — phrases, images, events — and arranging them so that they form a coherent whole. It is my task to spread them on paper, to show how their “bright lines join.” Shaw calls it “Intention / connecting the inadvertent.” Look, I want say, here is order. Things fit together. On the white page the things that seemed chaotic when “scattered across / our pebbled beach” become clearer; it is easier to see the “white string” connecting things when they are spread out before you.
In college, one of my professors taught us that “Everything is connected” — not in any mystical way, but simply that facts and events lead to facts and events, and no matter how divergent two things may at first seem, they can be brought together, though sometimes by very circuitous paths. (I have good memories of games and activities designed to do this.) And are these connections not what everyone — not merely writers — hopes to find? We want to see that things mean something, that the stones are not accidental, but have been carefully placed by an intentional Hand. In her novel Housekeeping (1980), Marilynne Robinson asks, “What are all these fragments for, if not to be knit up finally?”
And, surely, there is a Hand ordering our scattered stones. One day, we shall see the bright lines joining them all. Even now, in small ways, we are allowed to see them, to place the “accidental stones / end to end to end.” Great happiness, indeed.