Some years ago now, while staying alone in a cabin at Wildacres, a retreat center in the Blue Ridge Mountains, I had a dream about a former patient who I will here call Nora. In the dream I’d gone to visit her. There were several of us visiting, sitting on chairs and couches. She was presenting a slide show. I understood this was a slide show of places she’d been. When I woke, I had the sense, as one does sometimes after dreams, that I was meant to be paying close attention, but on first waking I couldn’t, for the life of me, remember any of the individual pictures.
Nora was a teacher, fifty-seven years old, bright, very articulate. She had a PhD in art history, was conversant with entire centuries I know next to nothing about. She also had metastatic breast cancer. She liked, she told me once, to read Samurai novels, these novels, I learned, set in seventeenth century Japan. She told me that she liked the way the setting in these novels was inextricably entwined with the action, so that you were always acutely aware as you read of the slant of light in a particular scene and what flowers were blossoming, and whether, for instance, a particular petal had fallen. Nora, herself, was acutely aware of setting. She had a strong sense of aesthetics, a love of visual beauty.
For several years she’d owned an art gallery in Manhattan. She’d come to North Carolina with her husband, taught art history at the School of the Arts here for several years, and then taught Language Arts in one of the middle schools, this until she got her diagnosis of breast cancer, and then got word that it had spread into the liver and into the bone.
Two years prior to the dream in which she’d showed me her slides, she’d put no small amount of energy into planning a trip to Commonweal, a retreat center in Bolinas, California considered by many to be the premier cancer retreat center in this country, a stunning place located on sixty acres in the Point Reyes National Seashore. She was very much looking forward to it. But just a little over a week before she was to leave for Commonweal, Nora fell down in the driveway of her home and broke a vertebra, this landing her in the hospital and effectively canceling her trip. The next time I saw her she told me that she knew now that that had been her last window—her last chance to take a trip of this magnitude. Her belly by this point was swollen from the tumors that herd arisen in her liver. Her bones ached. She was, she told me, very very tired.
But she also told me this. That not long after she broke her vertebra, and came to realize she was not going to make it to Commonweal after all, she had a series of dreams. These were dreams, she said, about places she’d traveled. Tuscany figured largely in one of them. When this series of dreams ended, she told me she understood now that all of the places were deep inside her, the memories, that she carried these places with her now, and it would no longer be necessary for her to travel.
I don’t think I’ve ever, before or since, heard it put so poignantly—that transition—how the healing places we’ve inhabited can become a part of us. How the mind and perhaps the body itself can become intertwined with healing places.