Touchstones

Judith M. Dobler

September 27, 1990|By Judith M. Dobler

MY CHILDREN have been using a collection of gemstones to predict their fortunes. They reach into a bag, pull out several stones and read the future from those their psyches have chosen. I know women who wear rose quartz or amethyst necklaces in order to bask in the calm or to harness the psychic energy the crystals are supposed to impart. The practices aren't new; they go back to ancient times when fortunes and futures were even less predictable. We touch stone as we touch wood, for luck.

Touchstones are another story, though we've used them as a test for gold or silver ever since women began wearing jewels. A touchstone is a hard black stone, like jasper or basalt. You test a nugget you suspect is gold by rubbing it on the touchstone and making a streak. Then you compare it to a streak you make with a real gold nugget. If they're alike, you've got gold.

Today "touchstone" refers to any standard by which you judge the worth of someone or something. All good standards, it seems, must be rock-solid.

In a touchstone we also glimpse eternity: We find something we can count on. I spent one of my happiest days watching my children climb over some granite boulders on the shores of Lake Superior as they searched for tadpoles nestled in pockets of rainwater. Although the waves broke on the rocks around them, the children and the tadpoles were safe.

Perhaps the durability of stones makes us value diamonds and use stone-terms like stonewall and adamant (meaning hard as a diamond) to indicate just how firm our resolve is. We also carve names on marble and granite stones to mark the graves of the dead. As a child, I played near my relatives' gravestones when we visited the family plot on Memorial Day. Stroking the smooth gray surface somehow put me in touch with all those ancestors who died before I was born.

Missing gravestones can disturb us, though. They call from the world inside our skin, a world that shifts, like sand, threatening to make us lose touch with ourselves. Several years ago I had a vivid dream. I found myself gathering stones by a river, carrying them up a hill, and stacking them at the top. I had felt a need to provide a headstone for my sister who had been buried without one when she died shortly after birth. During my childhood, her existence seemed imaginary, mostly because her death was never discussed. Yet during those years I felt a strange foreboding, as though I were awaiting punishment for her death. Touching the stones in my dream became a way to assuage my guilt and fears.

Touching stone puts us solidly in touch with the other side of our skin as well. Touching is the one reciprocal sense. We can see without being seen, hear without being heard, taste without being tasted, smell without being smelled, but we cannot touch without being touched. A touch shouts, "You exist. I exist. We are in this moment together." That's why touching is so risky. When we touch someone, we are letting them and us know who we are and what we're about.

When we touch stone, though, our fingers must yield -- the stone will not. And that's where touchstones come in. Seneca once said, "Fire is the test of gold; adversity, of strong men." Like a touchstone, adversity is unyielding. It fills us with terror, putting us -- in my children's terms -- between a rock and a hard place. Yet we must act. So we adapt and change to fit the new circumstances and, in Thomas Paine's words, "bring things and men to light, which might otherwise have lain forever undiscovered."

Perhaps that's why the Scots saw the Stone of Scone as the stone of destiny. And why we believe a stone's something we can count on, as early Babylonians who baked their cuneiform records into stone realized.

It may be why we prefer someone who is solid as a rock to someone who is shifty like windblown sands, though we'd prefer to live with someone who's not too adamant about the sand in our sneakers.

And why we prefer the scrupulous (literally the person with a stone in his sandal) to the unscrupulous person who has no reason to walk a mile in our shoes.

Judith M. Dobler teaches writing at Loyola College.

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