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Balancing Act


We noticed the strange stones on the very first evening we were in Vancouver. The small hotel in which we were staying was only a few steps from English Bay, and taking Sadako for a walk along the sea-shore there was one of the top items on my list of 'things to do' during this vacation. So no sooner had we arrived and got settled into our room, than I was dragging her out again, "Come on. Let's head down to the beach ...!" The late August weather was perfect, not muggy like it had been back in Tokyo, but dry and warm (warm by my standards, that is. A 'little cool' to Sadako!).

The scene was 'picture postcard' perfect. A half-dozen freighters were riding anchor in the wide bay, waiting their turn to move into the inner harbour for loading, with the sails of small boats and wind surfers scattered among them. The wide and sandy beach was arrayed with long logs beside which, sheltered from the light breeze, people lay sunbathing, reading or chatting. The wide pathway separating the beach from the grassy areas of the park was crowded with strollers, all moving along (or was this just my imagination?) much more slowly than those who walk in Tokyo parks ... A stripe painted down the centre of the path divided it between 'walkers' and 'wheelers', this latter group being made up of cyclists and people wearing rollerblades.

We joined the 'walker' side, and hand in hand, made our way slowly along the pathway, enjoying the changing views of the bay and the opposite shore that came into sight as we moved along. The shore isn't all made up of smooth sandy beach. In a few spots, the sea laps right up against the path, and here and there rocky outcrops jut out into the water. It was at one of these places that we saw the stones.

The first impression, seeing them from quite some way away, was that a group of people were standing on the sand below the level of the seawall, and that just their heads were visible, poking up into view. But when we got a bit closer, we saw that they were stones, most of them about the size of a person's head, and each carefully balanced in position atop one of the large boulders of the outcrop. And balanced they were, not just sitting in place on the larger rocks. Some of them looked like eggs standing on end, others more like inverted pyramids, poised on the tiniest of points. In places, clusters of three of four smaller stones were piled one upon another, forming frail-looking towers. They looked quite 'impossible', and our first thought was that they were some kind of modern sculpture, with the stones being either glued together, or held in place by something like steel rods.

But no, they were simply balanced in place. There were more of them at other places along the seawall, and at each of these spots people paused in their strolls to enjoy the 'exhibition'. We overheard some of their conversations, and it seemed that these stones were actually quite famous, being the work of a man who made a habit of coming down here to English Bay frequently to construct these displays. He had been featured in various media, and the 'Balancing Stones of English Bay' had become one of the better-known sights of Vancouver.

And so we too enjoyed the show, not only that evening, but every time we came down to the water for a stroll. He seemed to choose a different area each time, and we never knew where we would run into another of his displays. Seen against the sunset sky, they were especially beautiful, and even if our association with balancing stones had gone no farther than these casual meetings, they would have made a most pleasant part of our vacation ...

But ... on the last day of our holiday, when we were down at the beach for yet another walk along the waterfront, we got a bit more involved with these mysterious stones. We were standing and admiring yet another new display, when I suddenly felt the impulse to try this for myself. I knew that it looked completely impossible, and supposed that it would only be after a great deal of practice that one would be able to balance even the easiest of stones, but I felt that I had to give it a try. While Sadako watched from up on the seawall, I jumped down onto the sand, picked up the first irregularly shaped rock that came to hand, approached one of the large boulders, and tried to set my stone in place on top of it ... A few seconds later, I stood back in amazement and stared. There was my rock, balanced 'upside-down' on a small point. I waited, expecting to see it fall over, but nothing happened; it just kept sitting there, defying all common sense. Seeing this, and knowing me very well, Sadako must have given up all hope of being able to continue with our stroll, and she was right. There was no way I could stop at just one. While she went back to our room to pick up her camera to record this insanity, I started building my own little exhibition corner. Every rock that I picked up, no matter how weirdly shaped, and no matter on what kind of surface I tried to balance it, stayed standing upright when I let go of it. They just wouldn't fall over. By the time she got back, I was surrounded by a collection of my own upside-down pyramids, three-story towers, and other glueless marvels.

Sitting here in my room now, writing down this story and trying to think of some explanation for the events of that afternoon, I'm not sure what to think of it all. I'm not a person given over to any kind of mysticism, and certainly don't think that there was any kind of bizarre energy emanating from myself, or from that particular spot on the beach, but neither do I have any special manual dexterity. But there stood the stones, and there they still were when I brought my two daughters down to see them later that evening. The next day, Sadako and I flew back to Japan, but speaking to the girls on the phone four days later, found out that they had seen the stones still in position just that afternoon ...

Perhaps though, there is a simple explanation for this little exploit. I was at the end of a two week holiday which had been one of the happiest and most pleasant times in many a year. Being in that beautiful city, with no thoughts of work or deadlines, together every day and night with a very special woman, spending the days strolling and eating ... Well of course my hands were steady - isn't that what vacations are for?

There is another interesting aside to this little story ... No sooner had I showed my daughters what I had done that day, when they both jumped down onto the beach to try it for themselves. Choosing 'little-girl sized' stones, rather than the larger ones that I had used, they too had almost instant success, and soon surrounded my sculptures with a collection of small 'escorts'. Were they too so happy and relaxed? Or is it just that balancing stones is really something that anybody can do anytime, once they give it a try? There's one way to find out, isn't there ... next time you are down at the river, or at a stony beach ...

Let me know how you make out!


(Photos taken some years after this, during a balancing 'session' while camping out in Japan ...)