scholar's rock on display in museum

Squeezing the Scholar’s Rock

I didn’t like the Scholar’s Rock.

I’d needed a subject, something to write about, something concerning meditation.

The on-line calendar of the nearby museum announced “Pairing Mindful Meditation with a Scholar’s Rock.” That could work, I thought.

Running late the next morning, I ran the last block to the museum, passing two men who may have been headed to the same event. Tickets, limited to ten, were released ten minutes before the event. I didn’t want to miss out.

The line at the admission desk went quickly. I got the last ticket and joined the group encircling a woman in her 20s. She was dressed in a sweater, skirt, and boots. Her ID read Caitlin.

Caitlin led us to a small gallery on the second floor. Plate windows with white shades let in lots of light. The day outside was sunny and cold.

We gathered around the Scholar’s Rock. Caitlin looked at her clipboard, then introduced herself. Originally from New Orleans, she was working towards a degree in arts education. I couldn’t hear the South in her voice. Reading from a script, Caitlin directed our attention to the rock, encouraging us to notice its shape, color, and texture—the usual mindfulness stuff.

I stood directly across from the rock, looked at it, and soon became bored. I like visiting museums, but at a brisk pace.

Scholar's RockI tried to refocus on the rock. There was nothing else to do. We were all silent. The rock looked volcanic. Was it formed from oozing lava that had cooled and solidified? Or was it sedimentary? I should learn more about geology. The smooth hole in the top of the rock reminded me of a donut. If I hadn’t had a bowl of oatmeal for breakfast, it would have made me hungry.

The day before, I’d looked at x-rays of hip joints and the delicate juncture where breaks are likely to occur. The Scholar’s Rock had its own stress points. If I’d wanted to destroy it, the spots to hit were obvious.

A tall thin guy wandered into the gallery. He looked like the radio host Ira Glass. When museum goers encountered our group gathered in a semi-circle around the rock, they either left quickly, not wanting to intrude, or moved closer to see what was going on. Ira Glass moved closer.

Caitlin invited us to change positions for a different perspective. I moved next to the wall so I could see the Rock’s smooth backside. We stood for a few more minutes. If others were bored, they didn’t show it. Nobody took out a phone and started scrolling. We were a polite group—all of us odd enough to stand obediently around a rock on a Saturday morning.

After a few more minutes, Caitlin began talking in a way that announced our meditation was over. She gave us background on the rock: where it came from, what is was made of, what features make a Scholar’s Rock.

The rock, we learned, was black limestone from China’s Guangdong province. The prized qualities of a scholar’s rock are asymmetry, varied textures, and looking like a mountain landscape. Our rock was selected sometime in the 18th century. Caitlin asked if there were any questions.

Why did you choose this for your assignment?” I asked.

One of the docents had talked a lot about the Scholar’s Rock, said Caitlin, so she decided to talk about it too. Her answer was disappointing. Though I was indifferent to the rock, I’d hoped she’d chosen it out of passion.

I had no argument with the rock. Perhaps there was nothing to write about. Yet I wasn’t ready to give up. If I continued, would the essay resolve itself? Research often provides a respectable cover for being stuck. Down that rabbit hole I went.

Stanley Marcus, who donated the Scholar’s Rock to the museum, was the oldest son of the co-founder of Nieman Marcus, the pricey Dallas department store.

Generally, I’m not fond of the rich. I wanted to dislike Marcus, though it turns out he was an interesting guy. After graduating from Harvard in 1925, he bought and sold rare books until he returned to Dallas to work in the family business. Eventually, he became president of Nieman Marcus. Though a liberal, he outfitted Mamie Eisenhower with her inauguration gown. Years later, he helped Lyndon Johnson’s daughters choose dresses for their White House weddings. He collected art, including the Scholar’s Rock, which he donated to his alma mater in 1981. Stanley Marcus died in 2002 at the age of 96.

A few days later, I went back to look at the Rock, to see if any of this new information would make me look at it differently. It didn’t. Granted, the rock had taken an extraordinary journey from a cave in Southern China to a museum in Cambridge, but in that way, the Rock was no different from the other objects on display, or the various museum goers drinking coffee in the lobby café, or the assortment of students in the nearby dormitories and libraries.

The rock did not start off as art. Someone saw it, and extracted it, and classified it under the somewhat ridiculous category, scholar’s rock. The rock has value to those who suppose it’s valuable. Not to me. Some things remain inert. Much as we try to give them life, they stubbornly refuse us.