Stacking Stones

In my last post I talked about our annual Family Retreat at La Casa de Maria. This time I’ll share a secret family ritual that we have enjoyed during the retreat over the years.

Afternoons at La Casa are less structured than the mornings and evenings so one afternoon we grab our kids and head down to the beach for some family time. A number of years ago we found that someone had stacked stones to make a series of freeform temporary sculptures. Since I’m an architect and my wife and kids are all artistically inclined, we took the opportunity to make some sculptures of our own. Years later, what started as an impulse is now a favorite time of the week because it’s a chance to simply be ourselves.

As I look at the photos of this year’s creativity, I realize that stacking stones is an apt metaphor for what we do in life. No two sculptures are ever alike because the stones demand different solutions. No two people will stack the stones in the same way.┬áThere’s inherent risk and reward. Do you pick the safe placement that will withstand the wind and inquisitive touch of passersby? Or do you build some crazy cantilever that may only have a moment of glory before clattering back to the sand below? Will you try to build the same tower over and over again because it worked once in the past? How do you build the same stack when the stones are all different?

It’s all about balance.

Of course, we don’t build our stacks in silence. ┬áThere’s the usual family banter of encouragement and criticism about the work at hand, but after a while the conversation drifts into important exchanges about our children’s lives. In recent years, as the relationship between parent and child has adapted to adulthood, these conversations have become more and more significant – how do we deal with the challenges of life, the joy, the sadness? How do we take risks? Do we lean on our family when we need to?

How do we stack our stones?




Every year for the past 26 years, my family has attended a family retreat in Montecito, California. For those of you who have not heard of it, Montecito is a residential community near Santa Barbara that is known for its famous part-time residents – Oprah Winfrey, Rob Lowe, Ellen DeGeneres, Drew Barrymore and a few investment fund managers who can afford the ridiculous real estate prices. Montecito, however, is also the home of La Casa de Maria retreat center, a 28-acre oasis in the midst of celebrity and financial power. La Casa de Maria is the former novitiate for an order of nuns, the Immaculate Heart of Mary, who acquired the property in the 1940’s and converted a portion to a retreat center in the late 1960’s. Read the complete story below:

Family retreat for me has always been the way to connect with a larger community of families who understand the challenges of raising children in today’s world. Over the past 26 years, I’ve grown to love this community as much as my blood family, and when faced with triumph or tragedy, this is the community that gives me support and unconditional love.

As our children have gotten older, their ability to attend the entire five days has been limited. For our two oldest, it’s been years since they’ve been able to attend. For our two youngest, however, the experience of family retreat has been a constant part of their summer for their entire lives.

As the four of us drove up the entry road earlier today, I started to see the retreat center in a different way. Suddenly the landscape and buildings took me back to the Camino. As I sat in the chapel for the opening service, I imagined the pilgrim mass in Roncevalles in which the priest gave a blessing to all those on their journey to Santiago. After the service, I had another flashback as the group of over one hundred gathered for dinner – the dinner we shared at the Refuge d’Orisson with pilgrims from South Africa, Brazil, Korea and many other countries.

La Casa de Maria has been my pilgrimage for the past 26 years. it’s a pilgrimage that requires me to journey for a full year before welcoming me back to the same place. In some years, it seems like I’m a lot different. In other years, it’s my fellow pilgrims who have changed. This year, we lost one of our community members due to a brain aneurysm. Her husband spoke of her presence in our midst and shared some stories about her love for us and for La Casa de Maria. It reminded me of the journey we all share, whether it’s across Spain in 5 or six weeks or across a 26-year span of our lives. We are all one family, heading in the same direction.


The photo on the left is the small chapel in Roncevalles, the one on the right is La Casa de Maria in Montecito, CA.