The Art of Collecting Beach Stones

Collecting beach stones is like crafting a life: decisions are needed about what to keep or jettison. // Illustrations by Gary Odmark
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One of the highlights of vacationing on Lake Michigan is the rare chance to refresh my outlook while collecting beach stones. More adventurous souls dive headfirst into its buoyant waves or traverse them on jet skis — but I’d rather mine the shore for treasure.

It’s a ritual I practice annually on my birthday. For nearly 20 years, my husband and I have celebrated my “birthday week” at a beach resort in Glen Arbor, where the view of our favorite Great Lake stretches to infinity and inspires hours of contemplation.

No matter how many transitions or challenges the two of us have faced over the previous year — losing a parent, sending our son off to college, changing jobs or adjusting to semi-retirement — the big lake never fails to restore us.

We returned to the beach this summer just a few days short of my 63rd birthday. It’s hardly a milestone, but this year I’ve been preoccupied with the concept of aging gracefully in a culture that advertises countless anti-aging products and often undervalues older adults. While I’ve gracefully accepted the senior discount offered without question at our local movie theater, I refuse to believe that my best years are already behind me.

On this visit, however, I decided to stop counting birthdays and crow’s feet. Instead, I planned each day around the rhythm of the sun rising and setting over the water and focused my attention on collecting beach stones. Over the years I’ve learned that morning is the best time to hunt for treasures. The water is usually calm, my outlook is fresh, and, if I’m lucky, fellow beachcombers are still asleep. By heading to the shore at dawn, I get first pick of the gems that rolled in with the tide.

Out on the beach, I spotted several stones imprinted with fossils, some bearing an uncanny resemblance to ancient tablets carved with runes or hieroglyphics. Others looked like miniature works of art rendered by an Asian calligrapher. As many Northern Michigan jewelers have discovered, some are worthy of stringing on a necklace.

During my visit, it occurred to me that collecting beach stones is a bit like crafting a life: You have to remain grounded and disciplined, yet open to new possibilities. You need deep pockets to collect your bounty, and a belief that you’ll be rewarded with more than you’d hoped for. If you focus solely on a coveted prize — a Petoskey stone, for instance — you might miss the other jewels of the lake.

During my visit, it occurred to me that collecting beach stones is a bit like crafting a life: You have to remain grounded and disciplined, yet open to new possibilities.

In the past, while searching for the rare or the perfect, I’ve nearly overlooked other stones of beauty and character. These days, I appreciate the humble elegance of granite, jasper, or milky quartz, and I keep an eye out for skipping stones tumbled smooth by the waves.

As every seasoned beachcomber knows, rippling water teases like a mirage, sometimes making it hard to see things as they really are. I’ve rescued stones that looked tempting underwater but were lackluster once they dried in the sun. Others were pieces of beach glass masquerading as stones — yet just as beautiful.

Likewise, I’ve met people who’ve surprised me, revealing an endearing side of themselves I hadn’t noticed or expected when I first met them.

Selecting beach stones, in fact, is a bit like choosing what’s essential in life: friends, marriage partners, schools, career paths, and a place to call home. Age has taught me that it’s wise to make these choices slowly and carefully; to consider what feels right, lasting, and true.

As the old cliché goes, it’s possible to have too much of a good thing, and beach stones are no exception. I always end up with far too many and must edit my finds down to an exemplary few.

This is a lesson I need to apply at home, too. I still hang on to some things longer than I should — outdated clothes and shoes, grudges, hairstyles, broken tools, restaurant receipts, paperback novels, and stale opinions. In the past, I’ve also tolerated behavior I should have resisted sooner, including careless treatment from folks who expected more than they wanted to give. In other words, it’s time to surrender or repurpose the things in my life that aren’t working anymore.

As Elisabeth Kubler-Ross wrote, “We are solely responsible for our choices, and have to accept the consequences of every deed, word, and thought throughout our lifetime.”

Walking the shore, I asked myself: What is truly essential and authentic to me now? How much of what I own do I really need? Whose script am I living? How can I make better use of the years ahead and all the blessings I’ve been given?

The beach worked its magic on me. As I exchange the responsibilities of middle age for the rewards of seniority, I’m lifted by the knowledge that I have more time to check off the items left on my bucket list. I’m reminded that the second half of life offers the freedom to make new choices — to polish, edit, refine, and reconsider, much like collecting stones. Once again, I emptied my pockets before returning home.


Michigan resident Cindy La Ferle is a nationally published journalist, photographer and author of an essay collection, “Writing Home.” Her writing has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Country Gardens, Victoria, Writer’s Digest, The Detroit Free Press, Guideposts publications and several anthologies. She writes daily at her blog, Things that make me happy.

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