"It isn't easy to define a pebble.
If you're satisfied with a simple description you can start out by saying that it's a form or state of stone halfway between rocks and gravel.
But this already implies a concept of stone that must be validated."
- Francis Ponge
I have two pebbles. I keep them on my table. One is light brown and speckled like an egg. The other is green, like a dull emerald, with a dark stain on one edge as if it had been rubbed repeatedly in wet grass.
There is nothing special about these pebbles. They are not particularly beautiful. Their colours are faded and ordinary. Their shapes display no particular symmetry, no uniqueness of form to turn about in your fingers and marvel at. The green one looks a little like a kidney, and the brown one always makes me think, for some reason, of the egg of a very small bird. They are the size of boiled sweets, plump and round-edged. They rest lightly on my fingers, fit easily in my fist. They are not the kind of stones you could skim on water. They are not the kind of stones you could place in a bowl of black porcelain and display in your living room. They are the kind of stones you toss aside absently, on the beach, when you are thinking of something else. They are the details of a shingled strand.
Why do I keep them on my table then? Do they serve some purpose? Do I use them to weight down my papers, perhaps? Or pin open the page of a book when I'm typing some text from it into my computer? No, nothing like that. These pebbles of mine do nothing. They are bric-a-brac. They just sit there, beside the hand-painted mug, and the jar of pennies, and the vitamin tablets.
Do they have some emotional significance for me then? Do I keep them for sentimental reasons? Well, it's true that they come from a long way away. From the shores of the Pacific, infact. And it's true that I picked them up while I was on vacation. But no one gave them to me. No one was there with me when I found them - just me wandering around on the beach by myself. And there are many, many other things from that trip that I have since discarded. Maps have been thrown away, guide books misplaced, photographs arranged carefully into albums then shoved into the bottoms of drawers. Why cling to these two meaningless fragments then? Why choose these, of all things, to display as souvenirs? And if sentiment is the point here, then why these two, specifically? Why not something more appropriate? Bright crimson pebbles perhaps, to recall the warmth in my heart that day. Or pristine white ones to celebrate the time's simplicity? Why pebbles at all? Why not shells? Or pieces of driftwood? Why, from amongst all the rubbish of the sea's unending ruin, pick these two?
No, these pebbles are not memory.
What I love about them is not the day they remind me of, which I remember, already, only with effort. What I love about them is the feel of them in my hands, the texture of their surface, the perfect smoothness they have been worn to by the erosion of millennia. What I love about them is their self-sufficiency, the purity of their indifference, their sense of being complete and closed unto themselves. Their infinite commitment to not rubbing the world the wrong way.
They are focus made physical, these stones, they are the possibility of remaining untouched. No matter how often I hold them in my hands I cannot really touch them, their surfaces offer my fingers no resistance, their outlines blur and will not be defined. It is as though the gods themselves, having learnt that moving mountains solves nothing, had chosen to make themselves entirely insignificant, hoping to keep themselves unsullied that way.
Or perhaps the pebbles are simply an alternate way of measuring time, a reminder that in the end our clocks and our calendars are arbitrary, and in the lifetime of a stone our entire existence is little more than the tick of a single second, an instant as small and as ordinary as this pebble.
These pebbles are not memory, they are permanence.
The truth is I love these pebbles because I chose them, from among a million others, on that now far-off day. I cannot tell you what it was about them that made me choose them. I hardly know myself. Something about them made me pick them up. Something about them made me keep them. Therefore they are mine. Therefore they are, in some profound and inalienable way, me.
"I crossed a moor, with a name of its own
And a certain use in the world no doubt,
Yet a hand's-breadth of it shines alone
'Mid the blank miles round about:
For there I picked up on the heather
And there I put inside my breast
A moulted feather, an eagle-feather--
Well, I forget the rest."
As usual, he gets it absolutely right.