Musings While Cleaning Rocks

Carol A. Hand

In every place I’ve lived, it has been important for me to make improvements. I learned how to repair broken windows, patch and paint walls and ceilings, do basic carpentry, and most of all, create gardens. Often I lived in yards that had been neglected for years, with trees and bushes that needed extra care to survive.

Working with the earth and plants helps heal my soul from the everyday challenges of walking between cultures. And it gives me time to think about life. During one of my more challenging jobs, I decided to create a pond, and as I did so, recorded my musings.


I have discovered a new avocation: washing little rocks that I excavated as I dug up sod and weeds to create gardens and a small pond in my yard. Although time consuming, I decided to line the little pond with rocks that came from that very spot. It gave me time to reflect on many things. I am sure my neighbors, if they saw me, thought I was odd as I sat for hours scrubbing decades or centuries of dirt from something that appeared, at least in this cultural context, to be so worthless and ordinary. Yet, as I watched dusty brown lumps transform into multi-colored, uniquely textured, and variously shaped stones, I began comparing it to the work I did as a professor.


I realized one of the principles that guides my work with students involves taking time to look for the inner beauty and strength of students whom many others might overlook, or even dismiss. Like the rocks, many have been covered with years of dust, yet underneath each is lovely and unique. And like the stones that dry after their washing, they retain only a little of their lovely colors in an arid environment. Yet, put them in water, and their rainbow colors are visible once again. So too, the right environments allow beauty and uniqueness to shine through people as well. The question I ponder is how to create those environments, not only for students and the professionals they will become, but also for the clients they will serve. There is a Taoist saying that suggests an answer:

The best people are like water.
They benefit all things,
And do not compete with them.
They settle in low places,
One with nature, one with Tao.
(Diane Dreher, 1990, The Tao of Inner Peace, p. 90)

I have also wondered about the paradox of too much knowledge and naming. I have never had a course in geology–strange, given that I have taken courses in almost everything else. I could not name any of the rocks: I didn’t know when, where, or how they were formed. I wondered, if I did know, would I be able to appreciate their loveliness without cataloging, ranking, or judging in some way? Would I be able to see each individual stone in its uniqueness from a more educated, scientific perspective? I honestly don’t know. I do know that I chose not to run off to buy geology books or enroll in a course.

I can usually (but not always) apply this principle of non-judgment when I work with students. I can rarely apply it when I work with arrogant or judgmental colleagues. Again, I pondered this difference. And I do run off to buy more textbooks to understand how I might do a better job of respecting those who have power and use it to oppress others, always with the goal of becoming more effective at ending oppression, but the answers still continue to elude me.

I also pondered the journey these stones made. What was the world like as they formed? Where did they begin their journey? Where have they traveled? And what have they experienced that has polished the surfaces of some and splintered others that are jagged and sharp-edged? (The ones with jagged edges don’t go into the pond: they serve as a ring around the edge.) Is this the difference, at least from the perspective of an Ojibwe academic, between students and rough-edged colleagues? Is it that I can see the smooth surface of those with less power, and only the jagged edges of those with power? Is my response to power differentials related to an automatic resistance to the legacy of colonial oppression? Or is it related to the Tao saying, a recognition that status is really only a social convention maintained by those in power for their own short-term benefit that is ultimately unfulfilling? Have the hard times experienced by those without power polished their surfaces, while those with privilege remained jagged for lack of transformative challenges?


Yes, I thought, I wash rocks and take the time to get to know students, but my colleagues tell me I should be more “productive.” Yet, to find the beauty in everyday life, to plant gardens that have begun to transform my working class neighborhood, is not wasted time. It has expanded possibilities. Helping students believe in themselves and modeling how to work with clients in authentically empowering ways will, perhaps, be of greater benefit than yet another journal article or conference presentation. It is the living art of washing rocks, or touching lives, that lets the best in others shine through. Taking the time to find beauty in others is surely needed in present and future times.

I have continued to try to understand why I am able to be sensitive to the experiences of those with the least power in any given setting, but maintain a judgmental stance toward those who have power. Not all people in positions of power need to be resisted. There are many colleagues who use their power mindfully to help students or clients see their own beauty and uniqueness. However, there are also colleagues who use power to tumble away all uniqueness, to judge difference as deficiency or deviance. Often this seems to be due to the deep insecurities they try to hide. Perhaps their emphasis on conformity is unconscious or well-intended, to help those who are different to adjust or acquiesce to the demands of the “real world.”

From my perspective, it is probably wiser to help students develop their own capacities to challenge accepted social constructions that limit opportunities for all of us to express our inner beauty and celebrate the inner beauty of others. The difficulty is to be in that liminal space between those without power and those who use power in oppressive ways, to buffer those without power from harm without harming those who use power in hurtful ways, to be like water and benefit all. Can it be that this buffering, like the power of water, will wear down and smooth the jagged edges?



Photo Credit: Google images – Madeline Island – Lake Superior Scenic



31 thoughts on “Musings While Cleaning Rocks

  1. Reblogged this on Voices from the Margins and commented:

    Gardening continues to be an important way for me to balance. Recently, I became of how my thoughts automatically shift from positive to critical in times when I am dealing with too many stressors. Kneeling with my hands in the dirt, I awake again and once again focus. I remember that only loving, healing thoughts can counteract past neglect and abuse. Work done for ego alone, while superficially appealing, lacks the peace of inner radiance of a sanctuary for battle-weary souls.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This post is so timely! I am working on a post of my own that addresses some of the same things from a different angle. I am having a sort of back-and-forth myself between how I am with my students & how I am NOT with colleagues; how I am with the marginalized, and how I am NOT with those who wield power, wealth and status. This kind of inner turmoil or contradiction within myself just adds to my feelings of inadequacy as a teacher, a person of faith, and an advocate for peace. Everything you have written here resonates with me!
    I also share your love of gardening. It is so therapeutic; whether weeding, planting, digging, or washing off stones. It is the one place where I can find beauty, peace, and time to think. As to being like water, I love that imagery! I often have to remind myself to focus on the children I teach, not the grown-ups who sometimes get in the way of important lessons. Hopefully I am able to be water-like… flowing gently, smoothing out some of the rough edges.
    Thanks for an inspiring post, Carol!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Maria, thank you so much for sharing such thoughtful insights about the challenges of teaching. I also grapple with the spiritual contradictions in the different ways I view and respond to students and authoritarian colleagues. And as you so cogently acknowledge, the contradictions make me question my adequacy as a teacher and advocate as well. Sometimes it’s hard to make the time to do the things that help me maintain balance, but I am gradually learning that being balanced and fully present is far more important than trying to plan and prepare perfect lectures. And really, the longer I teach, the more I realize my role isn’t to lecture students about what I think I know, but rather to create the support, environment, and excitement that encourages them to engage in their own learning.

      I love the point you raise about remembering who you are teaching — the children, not the adults. It is so important to ignore the energy-sapping negativity and distractions.

      Students are so lucky to have you as their teacher, Maria!


      1. Your are so kind, Carol! Your students are also blessed with a loving teacher! And, yes, creating a supportive and safe environment is what encourages growth & learning in today’s youth. Enjoy your “summer balance” time!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Carol, that is lovely. I think the natural settings, beauty and wonder of nature helps us to transcend so many difficulties, while also (somehow) creating a safe space to explore our own feelings of difficulty, as though it gives space for meditation. For me, being outside is one of the most beautiful ways to spend time, and no matter what happens, it offers some sort of healing.

    I have been reading a book by Andy Fisher, who speaks a lot about colonisation and the way that imperialism sapped power, and the way to bring back a sense of something else, and how this same exploitation has happened to the natural environment as well. And i think that caring for that, and respecting outside, while allowing it to move us perhaps puts us back into contact with the true soul of life.

    Best wishes to you, Carol.


  4. You are an inspiration. Buffering is something I will try to work on. Salts are great buffers. Old salts maybe even better buffers. Old codgers like me need work 😉


    1. Susan, that you for sharing the links about the Inuit inukshuk, “signposts to make the way easier and safer for those who follow” and “celebrate our working together.” These are certainly qualities I find in your lovely photos, poetry, and stories that celebrate connections to people and the earth.

      Thank you for your kind and thoughtful comments, Susan.


  5. What a lovely meditation. Thank you for not becoming a cog churning the education industry. People are not products.


    1. Debra, this is such an apt description of what teachers are often force to become – a collection of cogs “churning the education industry.” As I reflected on your comment, I realized that I am always experimenting with new ways to teach that are dialogic and experientially-based, and how ever-grateful I am for what I learn from my students.


      1. Teaching, as opposed to indoctrination or oppression, just has to be a conversation and meeting of minds. I am horrified by how industrial the process has become in the US. Your students and peers are lucky to have you around.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Very interesting post Carol. Your credentials are way beyond mine, so therefore your outlook is also different.
    I am turning 73 next week, I do not have a university degree and therefore I think I look at things differently. My view and words come from feeling. Looking at something and feeling what it does for me. I do understand your outlook and find it ironic that we both can write about the beauty and wonder about the history even though our backgrounds are so different. Maybe it is just the human side of us that out of nowhere a rock can connect us. What a story that would make. :o)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for your lovely and thoughtful comments, Patricia. Your beautiful poetry and reflections do, indeed, come from a kind and loving heart through the lenses of a natural philosopher who is able to convey crucial insights that inspire others. These are gifts universities can’t bestow. I’m grateful that WordPress and our shared love of stones (among many other things) connect us. (And I wish you a wonderful birthday!) ❤


  7. Great imagery. I had never heard the Tao principle of water-like people. I very much believe it. The very best kind are like water. I might take your comparison further and say that while I rail at the jagged edges of those in power (almost always) I do try to remember whenever possible that jagged rocks become jagged by being broken and round rocks become round by water. And all rocks are capable of being either. And your watery softness benefits all even the rocks just touching the edges of your boundaries.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for your thoughtful and thought-provoking comments, Aljiba. Your contrasts between the formative experiences of jagged-edged rocks and smooth stones are profound and eloquently described. You made me wonder if the differences in how stones react to their environments are deeper, due to the unique types of elements that comprise their structures. Some are hard and brittle by their very nature while others are soft and pliable. Something to ponder more… Thank you, again.

      Liked by 1 person

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