There is a bench in the city where I live. Its structure is simple—three slabs of smooth gray granite. And, having checked with a compass to be certain, I can tell you that bench has been carefully placed so that the long side faces east and the west and the short end points north and south. The sturdy seat has been placed with purpose on the highest ground of the highest hill in the city. So that when the sky is clear on a summer’s morning, you can see almost sixty miles in three directions.
This bench is, in fact, a tombstone in a cemetery. And I would take you there to sit if I could. You wouldn’t feel uncomfortable sitting on it, I promise. You wouldn’t even notice what it was at first. It’s right on the edge of a paved line that curves through the burial grounds. It’s placed so that you are clearly invited to use it. The placement of the bench, the consciousness of the view—all say that someone went to a lot of trouble to be useful in death. A parting gesture of quiet generosity has been made. Funerals have a certain narcissism to them, a focus on self: what I want for MY funeral and what I want for MY epitaph—a very human holding on to identity as long as breath amd granite last. But to me, tombstones are markers of loneliness.
But this bench is another story. Unique. First of all, there’s no name inscribed on it. No conventional epitaph. No dates. Just an open invitation to sit and think. What marks this grave is the gift of silent companionship that bridges loneliness. This bench has become a spiritual retreat for me over the years. And I know that I am not the only one to to use it, because once I found a note taped under the bench. Not for me: for a young woman from a young man who was in love with her and wrote her careless poetry with great passion. And no, I’m not sorry I snooped; and yes, I put it back as I found it; and no I didn’t hide in the bushes and wait and see who came for the note. Secret lovers have enough problems as it is.
But it was on this bench, the summer morning after one of those “milestone” birthdays, that I came to that moment when one crosses over from abstract intellectual knowledge that all human beings die…to the active realization that I will die. Me. I will not be. Sooner or later. Not only did I realize that I will die but I walked away thinking…well…it’s OK.
I connect that moment of enlightenment with the peculiar sanctuary of the bench and whoever provided it. This bench will last hundreds of years. Many people will sit on it and think not of the name of its owner but of the nameless joys of this sweet life… and the mystery of death… and how utterly amazing it all is. And that somehow… sometimes… things are just as they should be.
All I Really Need To Know I Learned In Kindergarten – Robert Fulghum