Our Lives

His quiet place to work things out

CorrespondentJanuary 5, 2013 

DENNISWILHELM.OURLIVES2012.AL.JEL

Dennis Wilhelm.

JLEONARD@NEWSOBSERVER.COM — JULI LEONARD

I know of two sacred places in the Triangle. One is a fast-food restaurant in a high-end shopping center. The other is a small enclosed area in a public park.

By sacred, of course, I mean sacred for me. I doubt that anyone else who visits them notices anything odd. Sacred places are personal.

My own understanding of sacredness, flawed and incomplete, is that something within you opens up, and you find yourself capable of doing, or perceiving, what you previously couldn’t. You didn’t manage this on your own. You were helped, but how you were helped is inexplicable.

I’ve been going to that restaurant, off and on, for almost 10 years. I became a regular because it had free refills, clean restrooms, and a staff that didn’t mind me sitting in a booth for hours at a time. I quickly found that I could get a lot done there. When it was busy, the noise didn’t bother me. When it was quiet – or as quiet as a fast-food restaurant ever gets – it was the perfect place for contemplation.

Things have a way of clarifying in that restaurant. If I find myself confronted by a certain kind of problem, the way to solve it is to go there and sit quietly, ignoring and ignored by the other diners. An answer will occur to me, maybe immediately, or maybe not for some days. The restaurant, I know, is an essential part of the process.

Only once have I ever eaten there with anyone else, and I regret doing it. Sacred places require solitude.

When I first started going there, the staff consisted of a musician, a car nut, two hockey players, and an adorably troubled teen. All gone now. Turnover is brutal in fast-food restaurants. For weeks or months at a time, I’ll be in there constantly. Then I’ll take a hiatus. When I come back, a few familiar faces have disappeared, and a few new ones – new monks in the temple – have taken up residence. The time you spend away from sacred places is just as important as the time you spend in them.

The restaurant was important to me, like a lucky pair of shoes, but I didn’t see it as sacred until I’d found my second sacred place. Sacredness might become apparent only gradually, or might be revealed all at once.

I had passed that spot hundreds of times. One day my guiding voice said, “Go there.” We all have a guiding voice, right? It’s not just me, is it?

The tone, anyway, was imperative. I walked around the park – not very large – trying to take in everything at once, and at the same time trying to notice every small detail. The grass, the sand, the smooth concrete, a discarded matchbook. “What am I supposed to find?” I asked. “What’s so interesting? What’s here?”

The whole time, something was there. I was inhaling the vapor of its presence. It was huge and powerful and not entirely benign. It was indifferent to me, except that it wanted me to perform some small, seemingly irrelevant action, for reasons of its own.

I came to that small enclosed structure, inspected it. Nothing very remarkable. I walked inside. Sunlight, a few plants, metal-and-wood benches. A small tree, roots still bagged, yet to be planted. Loose stones underfoot.

We all have questions that need answering, issues to be resolved. They occur to us, we examine them for a while, and when no solution becomes apparent we move on. Our minds, though, keep working, patiently, at the level below consciousness. Sometimes a bit of insight is thrown up out of the depths, perhaps years after the question was first posed.

That happened as I was standing in the structure. All at once this connected to this connected to this, which has implications for this, and everything wraps up like this. Question answered, issue resolved. Something passed through me, and I wasn’t large enough to accommodate it. I sat down on one of the benches, overwhelmed. For the rest of the day, I felt as if I was walking underwater, and everything that anyone said seemed strange.

Sacred places are out there. We just have to find them. Or, more accurately, we have to let them find us.

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