The stone disobeys gravity, for just a moment.
Surveying the course of the Little Miami River, I stand in a shallow part of a babbling brook. Part of my worn maroon Nike sneakers are submerged in the water, and to my dismay, my socks are soaked.
I bend my knees and lean over to my right side, about to send the flat stone in my hand past the horizon line. Maybe, for just a moment, God will be on my side. I flick my wrist, spinning the rock like a frisbee. It kisses the water. Then bounces. And kisses the water again. And bounces. And in just a few seconds, the rock’s little dance between the surface of the water and the open air comes to an end.
The sun is gentle today. It traces the outlines of the gargantuan cliffs and maple trees that surround this stretch of river. A few yards away from me, children splash around in the water, as their parents tell them to simmer down. And I watch my friend, Ruzzell, skipping his own set of stones across the river. After a while, we situate ourselves on a mossy ledge, playing slapjack and listening to my carefully-crafted Spotify playlists.
Regardless of the physics involved, the act of skipping a stone is not a scientifically-minded pursuit. As I send my stones across the water, I do so as an act of faith, with the hope that my rock-throwing technique will pay dividends. Oftentimes, it doesn’t. Sometimes, the stone — and the hopes and dreams that come along with it — sink into the water. But sometimes the spin and angle are just about perfect, and it feels like God was inside that rock the entire time.
Some rock skippers, like Kurt Steiner, are endowed with a divine rock-skipping prowess. In stone-throwing competitions, Steiner somehow wills his rock to bounce upon the surface of the water 89 times. The flick of his wrist is precise. His selection of rocks is specially curated. He is Rembrandt. The water is his canvas. The rock is his paintbrush.
Compared to Steiner, I am artistically challenged. But I still make that 45-mile drive to John Bryan State Park in Dayton, Ohio. I still make that strenuous three-mile hike through the forest. And I still endure the mosquitoes and the heat and the unmasked hikers that pass my way. All to skip some rocks with a fraction of the talent of rock-skipping demigods like Steiner.
Yet, the activity is still holy to me. To hike across the park and to feel the warmth of the sun and the summer breeze and the wetness of my socks and shoes and to hear the sound of children laughing and splashing around in the water and to witness that rock making its journey across the surface of the water only to sink — that is divine.
My friend Andrew’s piano teacher, Nozomi Yamaguchi, passed away a while ago.
During our junior year of high school, Yamaguchi held a piano recital for his students at an Episcopalian church in Cincinnati, and Andrew invited me to his performance. After listening to technically astute and beautifully interpreted renditions of classical pieces, Yamaguchi invited the pianists — and their friends and family — down to the church basement.
We were greeted with a full potluck. All of his students brought their own dishes — ranging from gyoza to the best ribs east of the Mississippi (courtesy of Andrew). The meal was delicious, and the hubbub from the pianists and their entourages was equally boisterous: certainly one of the most memorable meals I’ve had in the basement of a church. And this little post-recital buffet was to be expected of Yamaguchi. He loved food, and he loved hosting parties.
Shortly after Yamaguchi died, Andrew held a small vigil in his memory. He invited some of his college friends –– all people who didn’t know Yamaguchi as well as he did –– and gave out ice cream. Ultimately, though, it’s what Yamaguchi would’ve wanted. To celebrate his life by serving food to friends, family and perfect strangers. To honor his memory by recognizing the holiness of a dessert. Because, ultimately, Yamaguchi was someone who lived a full life, and recognized the holiness of what was right in front of him.
He was never my piano teacher, but he taught me a strangely important lesson. Andrew is a very technically gifted and hardworking pianist, and consequently, he was one of Yamguchi’s favorite students. However, there was a piece by Brahms — Intermezzo Op. 118 No. 2 — that Yamaguchi wouldn’t let Andrew play. In Yamaguchi’s words, Andrew wasn’t quite old enough to do justice to the piece.
I don’t think age magically confers technical acuity or somehow makes you better at playing the piano. It gives you something a little more valuable: the opportunity to let life unfold. And with a fuller understanding of life, you can interpret a piece with greater emotional range.
As I live a little more, I begin to see God in all things. Divinity in watching the Ohio snow accumulate in my backyard. Holiness in the silences that fill the spaces of my late-night Zoom conversations with friends. Sanctitude in laying on my bed, watching the blades of my ceiling fan revolve and revolve and revolve around their axis. And, of course, spirituality in the path of the rock as it bounces upon the surface of the water.
To me, maturity leads to a greater appreciation for the slow burn of life. What I know now is that life isn’t waiting to be lived at the end of quarantine or when I start working or when I have a family of my own or when I retire. As I have come to realize, what’s holy is what’s right in front of me.
There are versions of Brahms’ Intermezzo Op. 118 No. 2 all around me. It may be a class reading that I’m not educated enough to analyze. Or a book with emotional textures I haven’t yet experienced. Or a friendship that I’m not yet wise enough to appreciate. There are ideas and pieces of art and relationships that I am simply too inexperienced to grasp. But that’s okay.
For right now, I’ll let life slowly unfold. I’m letting myself find the holiness in all things.
Contact Robert Castaneros at rcastane ‘at’ stanford.edu.