I walked to the bench today after my MRI. My doctor ordered the test to see if I have pancreatic cancer, not because I have any symptoms or suspicion, but because my mother died of it last year.
“Better to know,” is what my doctor said. “We can at least get a baseline.”
Of course, in my head I also heard my mother’s voice saying, “Why have tests? Doctors always find something.”
The MRI experience was bone-rattling. The technician lay a blanket over me and slid me into a Star Trek sort of tube. The procedure took 45 minutes, during which I had to hold my breath at various times while trying to keep my mind from galloping away with the what if it’s cancer refrain.
Meanwhile, the MRI machine made its thumping and bumping and juddering sounds, which made me feel like I was trapped inside a 3D printer. At one point, after they injected the dye, it felt like spiders were crawling on my face.
When I told the technician this, he said, “Are you allergic to dye?”
“How would I know?” I asked. “It’s not like I make a regular habit of dye injections.”
Afterward, I picked up the dogs and took them to my circle of quiet. I usually park by an ice cream stand and hike into the woods along a pine-soft path, crossing various bridges over vernal pools and creeks. Some are the real thing, bridges built by people with tools and lumber. Others are makeshift. My favorite is a series of branches laid in tight rows like wide-wale corduroy.
I follow the path for a mile or so, wending my way beneath towering pines and past the Dow Brook reservoir; the water treatment plant; an ivy-choked ravine; and trails made by mountain bikers that shoot off in different directions. Along the way I occasionally startle deer or stop and listen to songbirds. Right now the peepers are out. Once, a barred owl tracked the dogs and me, flying silently between the conifers, its enormous eyes lit yellow as lamps.
Eventually I veer off the main path and ascend a slight hill. The bench sits on a knoll, surrounded by tall trees and overlooking the water.
What is so magical about this place? The bench itself is nothing special, with two big bites taken out of it, a slapdash plank of mossy lumber balanced between skinny stumps, its surface pockmarked by time and graffiti. But the water changes with the weather and the season; today it was a pearly blue.
Part of the magic lies in the journey to get here, during that mile where my thoughts slow to match the rhythm of my footsteps. The rest, I think, is due to the silence.
The bench is sheltered by a copse of trees. Unless you knew it was here, I’d be safe from interruptions. And who doesn’t need this kind of solitude, especially if your soul and creativity are jeopardized by the daily detritus of a busy life?
Madeleine L’Engle, author of A Wrinkle in Time, wrote about this in her memoir, A Circle of Quiet, describing how, whenever family life was too much, she’d set off through the woods to a small brook.
“The sight of a meal’s worth of dirty dishes, pots, and pans makes me want to run in the other direction,” she admits. “Every so often I need OUT; something will throw me into total disproportion, and I have to get away from everybody.” If she sits by this brook, she adds, “I move slowly into a kind of peace that is marvelous.”
My visits to the bench happen in sleet, snow, sun, and even when it’s bucketing rain, when I dress in a floor-length waterproof trench coat from Ireland that makes me look like a lost spy. Today I arrived and thought about my own mortality, and about the people I’ve lost and mourned. We all struggle, and so we owe it to ourselves to find places where we can just be. If this is the only life we are given, it’s best to appreciate what we have, right now, right here.
So I come here and toss sticks in the water for the dogs, my anxious thoughts eventually lifting like knotted netting from my tired head, so new ideas can surface along with the joy of being alive. Eventually this circle of quiet works its magic, so I can go home and create something new.