Woman Built of Stones

A Mother Tries to Write

A version of this essay was read at Mennonite/s Writing 2022.

Four years after the twins’ birth, two years before the pandemic, I’m supposed to be writing, but instead I stack stones under the banks of Jacob’s Creek. Hidden by its deep banks, in the shade of the laurels, I heft a rock onto a boulder base, then find the place where it will cup the curves of the next rock. It’s hardest to stack them on their skinny edges to show their height and roundness, but possible. Each one has a balancing point, if turned tenderly enough to find it. I top the columns with spires of pebbles.


The simplest stack is four knobby rocks on a boulder, the topmost an oval like a face. To me, it’s a woman, awkwardly poised, leaning uphill, caught in a moment where she can’t balance for long. 


On this weekend retreat, my first time alone since the babies came, I sleep twelve and thirteen hours each day. Even so, I’ll write more material than I have in years. I’ll share book recommendations, talk with mentors, take communion. But mostly, I’ll remember stacking rocks alone in the cool streambed. 




After supper, I text pictures of the rock towers to my twins and then call them. Irene chatters about their supper, then hands the phone to Sallie. Mamma, Sallie says urgently, Lala! Lala! Aunt Loretta has come to stay. It’s the first time she has ever tried to tell me a story about her day. 


Sallie’s genes are stacked up on the tricky edge. I still marvel that a human body can survive with an entire extra chromosome in the code; it should all tumble down. Yet she is healthy and growing, and today she tells me her first tiny story. Most of her limited language still centers on food. At age two, she whispered dreamily in the middle of our morning snuggle, Applesauce! her first and last three-syllable word for another two years. 


In the quiet of my private room, I review the study behind a clickbait headline about the Down syndrome “super genome.” Most of us, for any given gene, have genetic expression that deviates as widely as 30-70 percent. Sallie’s gene expression, however, runs tightly around the optimal 50 percent. Her entire genetic tower is centered enough to balance the weight of an extra stone on top. She is already a survivor.


Her body is soft and squeezable, and she smiles easily, but she isn’t easy. Sometimes she refuses, fights me. I have slapped my solid, protesting, fragile child. We gave up naps because I could no longer bear to restrain her, even though I knew she needed more sleep than her twin. I’d lie next to her, singing, with an arm and a leg snuggled across her to quiet her, get her almost to sleep, and then Irene would burst into the room saying, “Mama, I need you!” and I would shout with frustration.


I was cruel every day, to both of them, and so I gave up on naps. Now, I think in the retreat center, I am only cruel on a weekly basis. Maybe if I could find time each day to go back to the river behind my own house and stack stones by myself, I would be cruel only once a month, once a year.


By morning, wind or wanderers will topple my rock spires into the creek, and I will start again.




That retreat, Poetics of Place at Laurelville Retreat Center in June 2018, gave me hope that I would write again, even as a mother. I did, a little. A conference piece, turned sermon, turned essay, turned meditation, still not submitted. A revised piece about infertility, pending publication in a pandemic-delayed anthology. A passionate op-ed about school shootings crafted and sent in one hour, unpublished. A couple book reviews, here and there. A published poem. Attempted writing groups. A story honored in a competition, still unpublished.


When I read Rachel Yoder’s Nightbitch, all about motherhood and art, I saw myself in the narrator who confesses, “I am angry all the time.” I understood her voracious desperation. The division of labor, or the quantity of labor, or the lack of support–even for a person in a position to advocate well for herself and her children–had hollowed me out. The system wasn’t good to mothers and kids, or to mother earth. Sometimes I didn’t know if the rage inside was personal or political or both. On one envelope, I scrawled, “I am left feeling powerless a lot with my only recourse to bottle it up, take it out on someone smaller, or be bitchy or whiny–things unacceptable in women.” 


At a reading years ago, Sofia Samatar said that she wakes at 4:30 in the morning to write, so she need not resent her family or her students for keeping her from her work. Maybe it wasn’t so early. Maybe she doesn’t do that anymore. Maybe she falls asleep on the pages. But I cherish the image of a writer stealing, no, claiming her own time before anyone else. 


During a short-lived experiment with morning pages when the girls went to kindergarten, I wrote about my own creative apathy:


I’d rather at the end of the day plug into some sort of media than engage with creative activity or, you know, something resembling a life’s work. I’d rather read a fourth article about Trump’s tweet about Marie Yovanovitch than …revise that essay that I know is pretty darn good but that I’ve been holding off on.


So many entries are about the girls.


The twins awaken early and come down moments before my writing time…the first time I’ve almost been caught. If they find me with the light on, there will be no going back to bed. I meet them at my door…take them back upstairs.


I reflected on balance, remembering an AWP conference panel years ago where one writing mother said that writing was like going down into a deep well, leaving her children’s demands up on the surface. I mustered my courage to ask the panelists how they balanced teaching, writing, and motherhood.  One was adjuncting a full load, as I remember, and was glib about the energy it took. It was part of her equation. It was fine. I had no patience with her answer. One said simply, “I can’t.” She quit teaching. 


Sometimes my husband would watch the twins, and I would trudge through our woods to sit by Briery Branch. It’s our own creek, part of the Shenandoah watershed. Its bed is littered with river rock and, in places, patches of sand. 


In the 80s Briery Branch overflowed its banks in a catastrophic flood classified as a 500-year incident, and again in the 90s the community was evacuated for flooding. Flood control dams in the mountains above us hold Briery Branch in check. The insurance companies won’t sell flood insurance to our neighbors who live directly under the dams, but they sell it to us.


Sometimes I stacked the rocks. Sometimes I scratched patterns in the sand with sticks. I tried to breathe. I brought a few flat pebbles home for the window ledge above the kitchen sink. 


I thought things were getting better. And then it all toppled over.




In a Zoom session, faces are stacked in a grid with the bottom row smaller, but centered. For the first years of the pandemic, we stayed home and lived in Zoom. Jason and I took shifts working in our guest room office and supervising the twins’ Zoom school. With Sallie, I Zoomed therapies and enrichment sessions. Around teaching, putting the finishing touches on 10-year reaccreditation materials and our institutional quality enhancement plan, and leading my university’s general education revision, I helped Sallie complete each assignment, one painstakingly sounded-out word at a time. We told Irene she could skip school for the year if she wanted, but she wanted to keep her school iPad, where she illustrated little stories and created long journal entries.


People I loved died.


And my father-in-law had a stroke. We spent our weekends at his home two hours away, packing his things and renovating a damaged house next door to us so that he could move in. The roof leaked, there was a gaping hole in the kitchen floor, a dog had eaten the shower faucet and most of the trim work in the kitchen, and the walls were covered with soot from the winter that the former occupants had stayed warm with kerosene heaters. My father, who had isolated from us all year for his protection and ours, put on his mask to come and help tear out the old flooring and replace the plywood. Jason organized contractors and movers. I still do not understand how we did it, along with everything else. A septic system replacement turned our side yard and field into a pile of rocks from our cobbly soil. The towers I built there were huge and heavy, and I was afraid they would smash the children’s toes if they fell awry, so I stopped.


Instead, we danced. Each morning, I opened my laptop, and the girls and I added our faces and bodies to a grid of dancers from around the world. My colleague Katie Mansfield, the instigator, specializes in embodied strategies for building resilience. Two years in, we still dance with Katie almost every day. We end with the song, “Resilience,” by Rising Appalachia, a meditation on staying centered in action. 


And when the band sang each morning, “So what are we doing here/ What has been done/ What are you gonna do about it/ When the world comes undonel” I agreed in myself that the world had truly come undone.


My voice feels tiny

And I'm sure so does yours

Put us all together we'll make a mighty roar


The girls would come running to join the roar from wherever they were–brushing teeth, eating toast--if they weren’t already dancing at the moment. They’d jostle for position to show their teeth and claws to the camera. 


The tagline for our group is borrowed from Alice Walker: “Hard times require furious dancing.” Walker writes about finding optimism in the face of suffering, loss, environmental devastation and challenging times “beyond the most creative imagination.” In the essay, she considers the importance of dance to her community, and says of her own dawning awareness of it, “It isn’t that I didn’t know how to dance before…I just didn’t know before how basic it is for maintaining balance.”


Each pandemic morning, we shook the weariness or rage or frustration or anxiety out of our bodies. Balance, shift, find a new balance, keep moving. 


When the twins remember the pandemic, they will remember that we danced every day.


And they will remember their mother doing push-ups. After Justice Ginsburg died, I added push-ups to the dance. I grew up associating exercise with body hatred, so it seemed healthier not to exercise. But now I needed to live a long time, for the girls, for the fights to come. I stacked up the push-ups, a few more each week. Now I do forty on a good day. 


Maybe it was the dancing, maybe it was strong biceps. Maybe the girls were growing up. I felt a little less out of control. In spite of the chaos. In spite of my mornings and evenings doomscrolling through the newsfeed. Each day, I balanced the necessary things, and let the rest lay scattered all around. Writing seemed unnecessary in the face of everything else.




One day I doom-scrolled my way to an article explaining why I shouldn’t stack rocks. You can find a lot of articles with that angle now, probably in response to viral rock-stacking videos and a certain kind of Instagram influencer who uses rock piles to further the vibe of their meditative brand. These are the reasons you shouldn’t stack rocks:

  • It promotes erosion.
  • It intrudes on others’ experiences of the natural landscape.
  • You may be destroying food sources, hiding places, or nesting sites.
  • In the eastern states, you might push the endangered Hellbender, a two-foot long salamander, into further decline.
  • It may be culturally insensitive as cairns have been used for burial, navigational, and informational purposes by indigenous groups.
  • Hikers may mistake your rock pile for a navigational cairn, lose their way, get caught in the wilderness after dark, and fall off a cliff, so
  • …people might die.


I kept scrolling, but I stopped stacking rocks.




After the attack on the Capitol, weary of news analysis, I started playing Candy Crush, a game that came pre-installed on my phone. In a grid of colorful candies, I matched three, and poof, they disappeared, and new candies toppled down from the top. I collected cherries, smashed chocolate, and deployed the candy frog. 


Studies show that you can reduce intrusive memories by playing Tetris in the hours following a traumatic event, like a car wreck or military engagement. The game activates a ludic loop--a short cycle with uncertainty and visual rewards that compels you to keep going. I felt the ludic loop at work when I played Candy Crush. A level took 2-5 minutes. It emptied the top layer of my brain, made everything hold still. 


Within a year, I was 3000 levels in, at least 250 hours of play. You could spend 250 hours on monthly intensive writing retreats, or a year’s worth of daily morning pages. 


You could write so many letters to your representatives.




To open a meeting at work, I wrote a meditation on Matthew 26: “The eye is the light for the body.” I talked about Candy Crush addiction and a day we lost Sallie’s glasses. I ended it, tritely reverent, with “Christ be our light.”


“You should publish that,” said my colleague. 


He said it, perhaps, because I referenced my daughter’s disability. People like real sharing about disability, particularly if you can make it inspirational without making it inspiration porn (credit to the late disability rights advocate Stella Young for this apt term). Make it about hard work and hope without objectifying–much, or too obviously–the person with the disability. 


Sallie’s disability adds weight to any argument. I addressed our school board last fall, defending mask mandates and rights for trans kids from the perspective of access and inclusion. Out of a line of 30 speakers, the local news featured two clips: a rabble-rousing freedom lovin’ anti-mask mama–and me, the well-spoken white mother of a child with a poster disability. Two Karens at their peak, in counterpoint.


I was proud. I felt dirty.




Maybe I resist writing because the things I want to write about now are someone else’s story–a story that I want Sallie to be able to tell on her own someday.




I wrote those lines, then burst into tears. Was this the crucial discovery? The boulder at the base of the essay? 




Then I highlighted them and typed, “Is this true???” It was an awfully convenient excuse to play Candy Crush and create nothing. 




Our family of four walks back to Briery Branch on an unseasonably warm April afternoon in the upper 80’s, the stream wide as a river with snowmelt today. The girls wear swimsuits, and Sallie tries out new water shoes.


For the first time, she wades independently onto the slippery rocks at the edge of the stream while Irene, out in the middle, shrieks at the icy current splashing up to her knees. Then Sallie takes my hand and leads me downstream towards the white water.


Later, I sit on the bank as Sallie pushes through the willows and invasive roses towards a rocky point she likes to explore. “Wait,” Jason, calls, grabbing his brush axe. “I’ll make you a path!” But Sallie is already forging ahead. Irene roars a mighty roar and leaps between rocks, grinning fiercely as she bruises her shins, undefeated.


I am writing this scene in my head as I witness it, although I won’t scribble it down on paper for another day. I have signed up for a week-long writing faculty retreat in May, hoping to transform eight years of not-writing into an essay. 


I take one stone and fit it to another, the tricky way, on edge. Then a smaller fat one on top, and a series of pebbles arcing up until it teeters and falls.


I decide that it is okay to stack stones here today. My little pile is nothing to what the next rainstorm will do. When the river is at its mightiest, you can hear the boulders rolling and grinding, and when the water subsides, new sand lines the banks, and all the rocks are stacked on edge leaning downstream.


We’re not in hellbender territory, after all. My small creative efforts may disturb a crayfish or two but a) they can move and b) the fury of the next storm will transform their habitat so severely that they must adapt or die anyway.


I want to raise adaptable children. We may not live directly under the dam of climate change and political unrest, but we live close enough to it.


I do care about Sallie’s performance and behavior back in in-person school–it’s part of what has been waking me, heart racing, at 5:30 in the morning–but what I really want to know is will civilization, such as it is, hold for her lifetime? Will the services available to her now –for all their inadequacies, so much better than they used to be–remain? Can I expect, with good life insurance, decent savings, and a long, healthy life of my own, to get her comfortably to the end of her days on the planet? 


What about everyone else’s Sallies?


If it all falls apart, will her vulnerability move my neighbors with their Confederate battle flags and weapons stockpiles to be kind to her and, by extension, us?


What about all that she could have, if we keep building on our precarious progress? Self-driving cars to grant her independence? The Alzheimer’s therapies, successful now in mouse models, that improve working memory?


Her future is balanced between potential and dread, and how do I prepare her for it?


I sign her up for summer dance lessons.

About the Author

Kirsten Beachy

Kirsten Beachy Kirsten lives in Briery Branch, Virginia, and earned her MFA in creative writing at West Virginia University. She edited the anthology Tongue Screws and Testimonies: Poems, Stories, and Essays Inspired by the Martyrs Mirror and is an associate professor and administrator at Eastern Mennonite University. .