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by Wren Phelps


The first requirement for a pocket stone is that you find it yourself: wandering the damp sand at low tide amid the debris of the waves, jeans rolled up, crusted with salt at the cuffs, stiff fabric brushing skin. The best stones will comfortably fit the contours of your palm when you steal your hand into your pocket. Rifling through any of my mother’s jackets hanging in the breezeway would return at least one stone among various receipts, cough drops, notes on scraps of paper.

When my brother and I were children, she would send us out of the house almost every day that it didn’t rain—in the sun or snow. No use for being cooped up indoors. She drove to the beach in warmer months at least once a week to swim or simply walk the shoreline (she stretched the swimming season for as long as she could—I remember her jumping in as late as the first week of November). Even in the winter, she couldn’t resist visiting the shore at least a couple times—hat pulled down over her eyebrows and scarf over her nose. We would watch her roam along the shore, bending to pick up a stone then rinse it in the water.

When she got home from these excursions in the summer, she often wouldn’t even bother coming inside before tending to her garden—all the arduous watering, weeding, and picking it needed daily. Eggplant, summer squash, zucchini. So many green beans that the entire family howled in protest by the end of summer. Dirt caked under her fingernails, offering you a bite of sun-warmed tomato, juice sputtering onto your bathing suit. After finishing work in the garden and rinsing off the dirt and dried saltwater, she would grab the dog’s leash and head for one of the trails in the woods out back or down the road. Before she left she would ask us, sprawled over the couches in the heat, if we wanted to come with her. Drained from our time in the sun and the waves, we usually said no.

Grounding techniques often involve some sort of small action to keep you rooted in the moment without being overwhelmed. Honing your focus to the smallest of details so you don’t get washed away: for instance, sucking on ice or sour candy or standing on tiptoe until your calves burn. Small things you can do in public without drawing attention to yourself. I recently started carrying a stone in my pocket again tucked alongside some Warheads. It warms to my body heat when I hold it, reminding me I’m alive. I run my thumb over its surface when I feel the urge to dig my fingernails into the skin on my wrist.

The second requirement for a pocket stone is smoothness. It must have a varied topography with dips and swells but no jagged edges. You must be able to run your thumb over it without catching on anything. Following its pattern over and over, distracting yourself for just one moment, just one more, as the world settles in place around you again. I asked my mother once during a conversation about depression if she had ever experienced it herself. “Yes,” she replied, “but never as bad as your dad’s.” The pastor of a church that never grew past forty members, my father would have days that he spent in pajamas, working on sermons and watching television in bed.

Although she was the pastor’s wife, my mother never led women’s Bible study, though of course she did attend. Shy and reserved, she preferred having people over to the house—giving them tours of the garden, eating grilled food on the deck—to going out. Sometimes I would observe a distant, troubled look on her face and ask her what was the matter. “Nothing,” she would say, “just sad.” Watching her make small talk at Bible studies or after church, I would notice one hand flutter to her jacket pocket and stay there. At the time of our conversation about depression, I didn’t think to tell my mother that although she could shrink it down enough to carry it with her, an invisible companion through another mundane day, her depression was just as valid as my father’s.

It’s nearly impossible to explain what it means to feel simultaneously that the world around you is unreal, that your body is part of that unreality, and that the you inside of that body is not all that real, either. The indentation that my fingernails repeatedly groove into my skin started as an attempt to reconnect with my body—if I can feel pain, then my body exists and I am inside of it. However, because of the dulled sensation that usually accompanies dissociation, this trick often results in foggy panic that spirals me further into unreality. Sometimes I find myself gazing at my unfamiliar forearms, wondering what would reveal itself underneath if I peeled the skin off like gloves. Turning attention outward is more helpful.

People who know me but don’t know my mother are always surprised by how similar we look whenever they see a picture of her for the first time. More like siblings than anything, really. We look more alike than she and her twin do—same eyes, same teeth, same lines in our faces when we smile. When I was younger, it embarrassed me—now, it strikes me as a little eerie. Since I was home-schooled growing up, my mother and I spent most of our time together. We used to discuss books, cook meals, go on hikes. We visited the beach together from when I was young until I started college. These visits often involved pacing different areas of the shore with our heads down, scanning the tangle of seaweed for something worth keeping. When we met up again she would show me the treasures she’d gathered—tiny shells and beautiful stones. She would arrange these finds in small vases and jars throughout the house. I had a few of my own in my room. A few years ago, she wrapped these jars in newspaper and placed them in cardboard boxes, then left for Colorado along with the rest of my family. My beach treasures are stored in a shoebox somewhere in my grandparents’ house, along with the majority of my belongings.

When we talk now, it’s over the phone—speakerphone on her end, with my father (always) and one of my younger brothers (occasionally) joining the conversation. She’ll ask me about school, awkwardly inquire how my girlfriend is doing. She tells me about the private school my youngest brother attends once a week, the classes my other brother is taking at the community college, the trails that the family hikes. Her voice disappears as soon as the conversation turns to politics or religion and my father’s fills the silence instead. As he talks at me about how Trump’s campaign promises were simply a rhetorical strategy that he doesn’t intend on following through, I wonder where my mother goes while my father is talking. Does she take a break to get a drink of water? Gaze into the middle distance, like I used to when these lectures happened in person? Is she nodding along to his points? Over the phone, there is no way to catch my mother’s gaze from wherever it is, look her in the eyes and ask what she thinks about all this. I focus on not letting my father’s words wash over me, take a steadying breath, and begin formulating my response.

Thinking back, I rarely enlisted my mother’s help even when these one-sided conversations took place in person. In my parents’ Christian model of man and wife as one flesh, my father was the vocal cords. When alone together, my mother and I avoided thorny topics but wandered the less dangerous ones freely. Her role usually shrunk down to echoing affirmations in any serious conversations involving my father.

Last winter, I sat across the table from my parents during their first visit to Rhode Island since the phone conversation where they had asked me if I was more than friends with my partner. Our relationship was less than a month old at the time. I had been planning on telling my parents while they were here, in person. It was my mother’s voice that asked the question, with the same quaver it had when she talked about moving away before it happened. After the initial question, she dropped out of the conversation. At one point, voice unsteady, I asked my father where she went. I wanted to talk to her. He said she got too upset and had to leave the room.

Seated across from me on this January day, her hands are folded on the dining room table I used to run circles around during childhood visits to my grandparents. The set of her face is unfamiliar to me. I have just finished telling my parents about how happy I am with my girlfriend, how healthy our relationship is. Through pursed lips, my mother asks, “But where does shame come in?” The answer, of course, is “It doesn’t.” But I don’t know how to say this to make her understand. We do not share a common language anymore. Concepts like purity and sin, heaven and hell, the saved and the fallen, are the foundation she has built her life on—the lives of her children, too.

Years ago, I swept my life off this foundation and let it fall where it would, jumbled but unbroken for the most part. Closeness with my mother was one of the breaks. When we speak now, our conversations are surface level. She avoids addressing it directly, but I swear I can hear her fear for my eternity echoing in every “I love you.” We haven’t discussed my lack of faith together since I told my parents the first time—unlike my father, who can’t resist bringing it up every time we see each other even though he must know by now that my answer is not going to change. In a letter he wrote after I came out to them, my father urged me to remember my true identity in Christ, but I do not think there is a place for me in his body, among his people. I do not recognize myself in the words of the Bible anymore. I have found other texts to reflect my identity—many of them. In all their contradiction and fragmentation, they provide a fuller picture than what I’ve come to see as a stifling doctrine that requires shrinking down to fit within the lines.

There was a time when I would be filled with awe at the glory of God’s creation when standing on the shore. This gratitude for nature stayed even after I stopped attributing it to God, as the glow I felt while praying faded. I like to think of it as an inheritance from my mother. I visited the beach for the first time in months a few months ago, walked a trail overlooking the water. I sat on the shore for a while, sifting the sand with my fingers and collecting shells smaller than my fingernails in the palm of my hand. After standing up and brushing off, I found a smooth stone, perfect for skipping, on the way back to the path. Instead of flicking it into the water, I slipped it in my pocket and continued on my way.


Wren Phelps is a first-year graduate student in the Nonfiction MFA at Columbia College Chicago. They are also queer, nonbinary, and a recovering homeschooler. Their work has previously appeared online at Vagabond City Lit.


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