Sea Pebbles with Holes — Mystery, Magic, and a Meditation

You find a “holey stone” on the beach. Here’s how the hole got there and what makes it special, with a meditative practice to wash away worries and fears.

Photo by John Doyle on Unsplash

I am four years old. My grandfather and I walk along the tideline at the beach in Southern California. Or, rather, my grandfather is trying to walk, while I continually hold him back.

It’s not just that I am a short, little girl who can’t keep up with his long legs. It’s that I don’t want to keep up. I want to stop and gather every item strewn on the shore, a fragment of a clam’s shell, a broken sand dollar, or a wave-worn claw that probably belonged to a crab before a seagull got to it. They’re all treasures to me, precious, meant to be kept, and as I pick each one free of the wet sand, I hand them seriously to my grandfather, assured he will hold them for me.

So, I believe. He accepts my prizes as I give them to him and I watch him lift them to his shirt pocket. I see them drop in for safekeeping. But it’s an illusion. At that age, I don’t have the visual sophistication to catch the deft way he palms each object and — while I move on to the next exciting discovery — quietly discards them behind us instead.

What the Tide Washes Up

For someone born and raised in Los Angeles, the beach isn’t just in my blood, it’s an extra chromosome. I was too young to remember that long-ago walk; my grandfather told me the story a few months before he died. What I do know is that since that time I’ve been entranced by what the sea deposits in the sand, no matter the coast or the ocean. I’m fascinated by it all.

On one of the earliest days at the beach that I do recall, I was more in love with the pebbles tossed up by the waves than the flashier seashells, taking home one special grey stone. About the size and shape of my stepfather’s flip-top cigarette lighter, it was covered in dead-end tunnels and a single hole that went clear through, big enough to slide the rock onto my finger like an enormous, misshapen ring.

Raising my find to eye-level incited my child’s imagination to conjure sights of distant lands by peering through the opening in it.

My imagination wasn’t far off. Holey Stones, Hagstones, Odin Stones, Witch’s Amulet, and Wish Stones are all names by which surf-tumbled pebbles with holes are known. Centuries of folklore have imbued them with numerous arcane properties, one of the most popular being their use as a mystical viewport. Gaze through one and as claimed by shops and dealers who sell the stones, you may glimpse divine entities, fairy realms, or even the future.

Holey Stone found by Instagram user _forestfae_ on the Oregon Coast.

As a girl, I was curious about the holes, how they got there.

“What made those?” I asked whichever adult was nearby when I found the rock, I don’t remember exactly who.

“Worms,” was the answer.

Not quite.

The Culprit? A clam.

Parapholas californica, commonly known as the California piddock, is a species of mollusk that bores into solid rock to make its home.

When the tide recedes along the Pacific Coast from Baja north to Oregon, outcroppings emerge from the surf where large colonies of the mollusks have drilled into the shale to turn bedrock into stony Swiss cheese.

Piddocks begin life as planktonic larvae that search out other piddocks by tasting chemical signatures in the water until they find sandstone, shale, hard mud, or even concrete where other clams are living. Using suction and a broad foot, a clam attaches itself to its surface of choice and grows its distinct shell, which in the adult can reach six inches in length and is described as a dirty white pair of angel wings with serrated teeth lining one end.

It is this set of “teeth” that creates the hole in rock as muscles within the clam use a rocking motion to scrape at its burrow, gradually turning while grating, the resulting action similar to a drill bit. Progress is a glacial one-tenth of an inch to two inches per year.

Piddocks can live to 20 years and burrow close to a foot deep where — because their shells are wider at the bottom end of the hole than at the top — they become permanently entombed unless storms or earthquakes break apart their rocky homes.

Photo by Eugene Kim from flickr (Creative Commons)

According to experts at the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium in San Pedro, California’s ocean cliffs are filled with fossil traces from boring clams that lived millennia ago. Many of the holey sea pebbles found on beaches today were once part of pre-historic piddock colonies.

My special stone from childhood may have been drilled by clams at the same time ancient humans erected Stonehenge.

Does this mean holey stones are found only in California?

Hardly. Numerous species of boring clams exist throughout the world, nor are mollusks the only creators of these magical oddities. Along the shingled beaches of England’s southern coast, picking up the rare Hagstone is cause for celebration because often water and wind alone have eroded the rock to produce a hole.

Freshwater is also capable of birthing holey stones, whether they appear on the shores of Lake Michigan or the banks of a mountain river during raging snowmelts.

Because water is the common denominator, their link to that element, the element of the sacred feminine or Goddess energy is a strong one, supposedly gifting a Witch’s Amulet with the power to protect babes and boats, homes and pets. Practitioners use them in healing and for banishing nightmares. They’re said to assist in connecting with spirit, as well as cleansing negativity from a space or a person’s heart.

A Meditation to Calm Worries and Fears

It’s that last property, cleansing negativity, that formed the basis for a meditative practice I designed for myself in the middle of the pandemic, when stress and uncertainty overwhelmed me.

I’d like to share it with you here. It’s helped me; perhaps it will help you, too.

Don’t worry, you don’t have to know how to meditate to give this creative visualization a try. You only need a quiet space where you won’t be interrupted, can close your eyes, take a deep breath, and then another.

Imagine yourself on a beach…

You’re standing on a long stretch of sand where the coastline curves around to low headlands on your left and right. These rocky cliffs jut out into the water to enclose your private beach so no one can intrude.

It’s a calm day, the sun filtering through the last remnants of fog ready to burn off and reveal a clear blue sky. It’s going to be a hot day. At the moment, however, the breeze is refreshingly cool against your face. When you gaze into the distance, the watery air blurs the horizon ever so slightly.

You feel protected. No one can make demands on you here. You own this tranquil place.

Knowing you’re safe, your body relaxes. Your whirling, frantic thoughts slow down. Take note of every sensory detail.

Photo by H.F.E & CO on Unsplash

Does the air have a salty tang to it? Can you smell the ocean? Or does this shoreline mark the edge of a vast body of fresh water, pure and deep?

Are you wearing shoes or are your feet bare, sinking into the sand?

Listen to the waves. Do they crash and roar, rushing for the beach, pushing a crest of foam in front of them? Or is the water clear and quiet? Maybe the waves lap gently at your toes.

You look down. Partly buried in the sand at your feet is a stone nearly as big as your palm. Intrigued by its color and shape, you bend down and pick it up, brushing away any damp sand clinging to its sides.

You find this large pebble has a pleasing weight in your hand. Its surface has been smoothed and rounded by time, wind, and water, and it has holes in it. Some go all the way through, while others form little wells where a drop of water or grains of sand cling to the tiny cylindrical walls.

This is your stone. It was made for you. It has a unique power, that power being to soak up your worst fears and worries.

Pour every fear you have into the stone, every single worry. Self-recriminations about things you’ve done, or haven’t done, or dread might go wrong. Secret terrors of futures unknown. Troubles beyond your control. Problems you currently face and fear you might not be able to handle. Gather up all that dark, ugly stuff and drop it into the stone. Fill up every hole.

When you’re done, take note of each feature of your pebble, the exact color, the thickness, how the surface feels under your fingertips.

Memorize it.

Now hurl your stone into the waves. Throw it out as far as you can.

Watch the pebble hit the water and splash, all that negative energy swept away as it drops out of sight, and disappears into the current.

Here, though, is the lasting magic in your unique stone. Next time you are in distress, paralyzed by worry and fear, you can return to this beach or any other you visualize. Walk a few feet along its soothing shores and gaze down. There it will be, your holey pebble, the same one.

Miraculously returned to you, it is now cleansed and recharged, ready to help wash away those unhelpful, negative thoughts you don’t want or need to feel.

Essayist and creative nonfiction writer | Anthologist specializing in family relationships | Shell Economist Prize Winner

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