Long ago I discovered I had one of those weird talents people develop out of odd quirks of the mind. Some people have perfect pitch. Others have personalities that make you like them instantly.
I find things.
I don’t think this is a psychic talent, like if someone came to me having lost their wedding ring and I — poof! — know it’s right there on their couch slipped behind the cushions. Rather, I think I have a good sense of pattern recognition combined with a spatial memory.
In college, for example, my roommate James could never remember where he’d left his keys. I knew because I could recall seeing them on top of the bookcase the night before. James would run around frantically, late for class as usual, and after I’d let him panic a few minutes, I’d walk over to where I’d last seen them, pick up the keys and hand them to him.
Back when I did field archaeology, my friend Greg would sometimes hire me to help him. One summer he had a contract to do a survey of a coal mine project a few miles inland from Port Lay, Alaska, at a site called Deadfall Syncline. Three long ridges popped out of the tundra, thick with coal. Our job was to do a preliminary survey of potential features. An initial walk-through by another archaeologist showed about a dozen features, and that guy said he didn’t think we would find many more.
We found 35.
Greg and I walked back and forth over those ridges, 3 yards apart, about the distance a person can scan left and right and notice a tiny little flake on sandstone rocks. “Pattern recognition” means learning the difference between sandstone (light tan, mottled) and human modified chert (crinkly edges, gray, shiny). It took me about an hour to learn the difference. After a bit, I saw flakes everywhere, the Arctic Small Tool Tradition, small pieces of sharp chert maybe a half-inch long made by ancient Inuit about 6,000 years ago.
Thus I also learned how to find heart rocks.
Of all the personal fitness activities I do, my fall-back favorite is walking beaches. I started doing this 23 years ago when I began working at the Homer News and taking lunch walks to get a dose of sunshine, put in some steps and clear my brain. Sometimes I pick up marine debris. Sometimes I look for beach glass. Usually, I search for heart shaped rocks, beach cobbles shaped by sand and surf into hearts.
Here at the Homer News, I have dozens of heart rocks in my office. There’s a little bowl on the front counter for anyone who stops by and needs a heart rock to lift them up. Don’t worry about depleting the supply — I seem to keep finding them.
Like love, finding heart rocks sometimes happens when you’re not deliberately looking for heart rocks. I find most rocks when I’m not thinking of finding heart rocks. It’s like meditation, not thinking and opening your senses to the smell of the sea, the growling of the surf and the shapes of rocks. In those moments the heart rock will appear, as if that stone waited there for millennia for me to stumble upon it.
In a weird connection to the universe that I don’t want to think about too much, more than once a beautiful heart rock appears right before someone I know dies. Less scary, I find a heart rock after someone dies, a rock given to me to remember them.
Which is how last week I deliberately sought to find a heart rock for my friend Bill Johnson. Bill had been in the hospital, his body falling apart after 65 years of fighting Marfan syndrome, a degenerative heart and circulatory system disease. I wanted to find a heart rock to send to him and his wife, Gretchen.
Bill has been a friend since we both were 19 and attended the Clarion Science Fiction Writers Workshop, a six-week class that turns people with possible literary talent into real writers. It also makes those people lifelong friends. He wrote beautifully and had a sardonic, gentle humor that made everyone who met him his best friend. And he smiled, not just for the camera, but all the dang time.
I didn’t find a heart rock for Bill, and then on St. Patrick’s Day, he died. In the days after, walking the beach in grief and thinking of Bill, I knew that a heart rock for him would appear when I didn’t think about it. On Monday, on the way back from a doctor’s visit in Soldotna, my wife and I stopped at the Ninilchik beach to let our dog run. And there, bam, one rock, and then another, they appeared.