My Secret Place

What is your attitude towards loneliness? Do you think it is a curse, when you are isolated from the rest of the world, left face-to-face with yourself? Or do you, on the contrary, seek it, appreciating each moment of silence you can snatch from the surrounding world? These small breaks can help you replenish your energy and reorganize your thoughts, so that you can start each day as a new one – not as an extension of a previous one. As for me, I am more of the second kind of person; solitude for me is a gift, which is valued less by people than it should be accorded. In my child and teen years, I had a perfect place to go to when I felt like being on my own. In a small town in the center of America, where I lived back then, we had a steep hill on the outskirts. On its top, an old warehouse stood. No one, even older people, seemed to know who had built that warehouse in such an inconvenient place, and what for.

Some said that smugglers used it during World War II for their purposes; others told stories about local slaveholders, who lived in our town a long time ago – those people were thought to have kept slaves in the old warehouse. For us children, that old wooden shack was a haunted place with a grim, bloody story of love and treason. None of the townsmen had ever visited the old warehouse. Children were scared and adults just did not feel like climbing up the steep slope for no reason. For most of a year, I was its only visitor. Sitting with my legs dangling from the attic’s crossbar, usually with an apple in my hand, I watched the sunsets and sunrises, and tiny ants running here and there, and the birds in a nest above my head (for some reason they were not afraid of me), and the life beneath my outlook point.

During such moments, what was meaningful to me was only what I could see, hear, touch, or smell. My school worries, arguments with friends, unrequited first love, and even Mrs. Finch’s cat that I accidentally ran over by my bicycle – all this, as well as many other things – did not exist. And now, when I reminisce about my childhood, I remember the warm golden light, soft shades in the attic, a smell of fresh hay, and the tile rooftops of my town. Sometimes, as I visited the warehouse, I met other people there. Usually they were vagabonds, staying for a couple of days before moving ahead, or seasonal workers traveling across the entire country further to the West.

When this happened, I behaved like a cautious animal, and fortunately I never had problems with them. If they stayed long enough, I would bring them some canned food, and in exchange they told me their stories, or joked with me. I heard stories of loneliness and long railway trails; unpaid labor and failed marriages; crashed hopes and vehement dreams. In their voices I could hear the wisdom and the ignorance of the world. They shared their fears, their grief, or their joy with a 13-year-old kid from an American no-name remoteness, knowing that he will not spill the beans. Or even if I would (though I never did) – still they saw me for the first and last time in their lives.

I believe that old warehouse determined my life. The destinies of other people – perplexed, complicated, but at the same time keen and full of real life – helped me understand myself and the world around me, providing me with answers to issues that worry teenagers. Who am I? Why is everything as it is? Who are people around me? What should I do? How should I treat others? Those vagabonds, those people, whom people in our town contemptuously called ‘low-lives’ – they taught me things much more valuable than what I could study in vaunted universities.

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