A Tale of Two Chunks of Rock

IMG_2583[1]Here they are.

The purple one was given to me three years ago in a dusty basement room in Marylebone, where I sat, shaking and crying. I imagine it had once been owned by a child and discarded. It is pretty, but small and nondescript, the sort of trinket that gets thrown away. I imagine that that child was the son of the elderly man who handed the rock solemnly to me. I have no idea where in the world it came from first of all.

The white one I picked up on the Aiguille des Petits Charmoz above Chamonix, in the middle of last week. It had been released by rock fall, probably never before touched by a human hand. I know its heritage as a trinket precisely.

The purple one I was given as a recovery aid. I was in a phase of hurting myself dangerously, repeatedly, compulsively. I was using pain as a completely logical way to block out the mess of trauma and depression that had torn my life apart.

The man who gave me the rock was worried. (He was not the only one.)

He gave me it to me as a source of safer pain.

‘Carry it with you,’ he said. ‘When you want to hurt yourself, clench this rock in your fist instead. It’s sharp enough to hurt you, not enough to damage you.’

Every week when I saw him he asked again, ‘Do you have the rock with you? Have you been using it?’ I did, and I had been.

It helped. When the flashbacks came, I clenched the rock and the pain brought me back to the present where, with considerable effort, I was able to work out that I was safe, that I did not need to block everything, permanently, out.

The purple rock is a source of pain.

But the white rock is a reminder of glorious life.

When I picked it up, we were two thousand metres above the valley floor. To reach the peaks, we had taken an early morning cable car. We had traversed the mountain on a high-level walkers’ path, pausing to eat breakfast by a lake, passing marmots and chamois among the rocks. We had taken the winding climbers’ path over steep shifting gravel to the edge of a glacier that was shorn of snow and covered in a shifting boulder field. We had crossed that glacier, and then climbed and scrambled and climbed again on a beautiful rough granite that left my fingers tender and my legs and arms bruised.

Petits CharmozAround us as we climbed the sound of rock fall echoed between the glacier and the peaks. There was thunder in the higher mountains. The rock walls of bigger, more serious, peaks loomed over our objective.

I was alive.

Physically my body responded to the strenuous need to pull my weight up vertical chimneys. A hour later it felt with delicacy the tiny quartz crystals that were my footholds as I balanced across the slabs.

Mentally I had concentration, and I had confidence in my ability. I had enough adrenalin to heighten my senses to awareness of every critical detail of the environment. And I was deeply, unselfconsciously, in the present. The five hours of climbing passed without my awareness of the time.

Even more, I had the resilience and the endurance to take me safely through the day and back to the valley floor.


Because everything we took on that climb was intended to ensure our safety. The ropes, ice axes, cams and nuts. The food and water. The harnesses, helmets, slings. The procedures for using all of those, memorised to the level of instinct. Memorised, in a dangerous environment, to an instinct to live.

Three years. Two pieces of rock. Past and present. Pain and life.

Because though I carried the purple rock with me for a couple of years, as instructed, now I do not need it. It has become once again a discarded trinket. And so it sits on my bedside table, next to the white rock. The white rock is a reminder of vivid life. The purple rock is a no longer-needed pain.

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