I come here often.
About a quarter of a mile down the path behind my home, the trail curves and broadens into an asphalt circle. About 30 feet uphill from a tiny creek that wanders through the northern end of the park, the circle has three occupants: a woodenish bench, a large rock, and me.
I say woodenish because it looks like wood but feels like some sort of composite material, much harder than wood and I suppose more durable. It is painted a wood brown color and is comfortable enough for the occasional visitor like me.
The rock is about 3 feet by four feet, and maybe 18 inches high of some dark stone, sedimentary I think because it is formed in thin layers, shale perhaps, though flecks here and there glitter like diamonds. Maryland is home to a black shale deposit known as the Marcellus shale, which grew up about 400 million years ago when the state was a shallow sea. The rock has secrets, I can tell, maybe fossils hidden inside, but it is not telling, not me anyway.
It occurs to me that both rock and bench will be here long after me. They were here first, and so that seems fair.
The bench faces east and the sun warms my right check, while the breeze cools my left hand. There is little noise from cars, and only the occasional plane overhead. Surprising for a densely populated area, the ambient noise is mostly natural. I close my eyes to listen.
There’s a wood dove behind me, a mockingbird up and to the right, a smaller sweet-voiced bird I can’t identify somewhere in front. In the distance the brazen call of the crows disrupts the serenity from time to time. The trees in their buds rustle quietly now – their voices will grow with their leaves. The loudest sound is the crackle of squirrels as they chase though the dried leaves, until the hammering of a sapsucker opens my eyes
I turn to locate him. The red headdress makes it easy. A tall slender tree has fallen across the creek, only to be caught partly upright by another tree on the opposite bank. The sapsucker is traversing the fallen tree looking for soft spots. The business of life goes on.
I always think of my father here. We used to stop here on our walks in his last year; a great walker most of his life, it was as far as he could go, or maybe as far as I thought he could. But he didn’t mind stopping. I think it was peaceful for him too.
I have had other peaceful places. This is the closest. The others are far away in space or time or both.
Lake of the Isles was just down the block from our house in Minneapolis, and I absorbed its peace daily during the dissolution of my marriage. It was also gracious enough to inspire a story I have been writing for twenty years now.
Some of the peaceful others I have only visited once. Mallory Dock in Key West – though you wouldn’t think to find peace in the middle of that circus atmosphere. It also inspired a story.
A pond in Pipestone Minnesota where wings of dragonflies conducted a symphony I could not hear.
A spot outside Devil’s Tower, the quietest place I have ever been, where the deer and the antelope play.
Another south of Yellowstone where the white noise of waterfall enveloped me in solitude.
Then there was Jackson Lake, mesmerizing with the Tetons immense and unmovable offering a glimpse into timelessness.
All these I have celebrated in books, and hope to celebrate in person once more in this life.
I can’t remember any I had as a child. Perhaps it was just my bedroom, where I hid away with my books. I was an inside child, asthma probably as formative in my growth as any factor. There was a tree in our backyard with a swing. Maybe that was one: I wrote a poem about it years later:
The tall oak by the swing set
in the corner of the yard,
by the chain link fence that marked
the beginning of beyond,
is there still.
I hadn’t realized before this how many of my peaceful places I have written about. They are important to me no doubt. I have a brain that is at best restless and at worst relentless. Imagining these places helps to calm me, to keep in check the unbounded notions I am prone to even now.
I hope everyone has their peaceful place. We need them so much in this anxious, fearful world
But if you don’t, feel free to borrow one of mine.
I’ll be the one smiling when you get there.