How I Transformed My Life from a Courtyard Bench at the Boston Public Library

Our new social media series called Humans of BPL shares stories from patrons and staff about how the BPL has changed their lives. This guest blog post is written by Catherine Brooks, a long-time BPL patron who found healing and personal transformation while visiting the Central Library in Copley Square.

There is a bench that sits in the sun at the Boston Public Library’s Central Library in Copley Square. It is in the McKim Courtyard, named after Charles McKim who designed this calming garden space after the Palazzo della Cancelleria in Rome. It’s a glossy black wooden bench that has been sitting against the north wall of the covered corridor for as long as I can remember, having visited the library since my childhood. Perhaps it even existed in 1895 when the Central Library first opened, and my ancestors from Boston’s Corn Hill sat on it.

In the summer of 2014 this bench became home to me. A mysterious neurologic and digestive condition had come on slowly over 2013. Eventually I was no longer able to work and spent the better part of my days housebound in a state of extreme bodily discomfort and panic. I felt as if my nervous system had been derailed, taking all of my body’s regulatory systems with it. Living in Boston, I had a team of the very best doctors to care for me. Each of them worked hard to make me better, but after a few months, we would come up scratching our heads and start the search for a cure all over again. I went in and out of hospital stays, traveled abroad to seek medical care, and lived with friends and family members when the going got too tough. 

This cycle continued on for years, and to some extent it still goes on today. But from all of this struggle I have found fortitude and belief in my ability to overcome even the most extreme situations—past, present, or future. I owe this discovery to a deep process of healing that began on a summer day back in 2014 when I found peace and beauty on that black bench in the sun in the McKim Courtyard. I discovered no matter what was going on inside of me, if I could just make the four-block walk from my home on Beacon Street to the Boston Public Library and land on that bench, the beauty of the place and the feeling of being connected to people in that quiet natural world would immediately calm my nervous system. Being there, away from the isolation I felt at home, always signaled to my body and mind that I was safe.

My visits to the library to find sunshine and respite on my bench became a reliable medicine. Over time, I began to notice other people there like me who came on a regular basis. I discovered not everyone was passing through the courtyard on their way to something else, and not all were there to be productive. Many of us were sitting on our own for extended periods reading, reflecting, or writing. We were coming to that special place for its curative qualities, allowing the floral landscape and cascading sound of the Bacchante and Infant Faun water fountain to care for us. 

Alchemy is defined as the transformation of base metals into gold. Even though I did not know it at the time, this is what I was learning to do for my health each time I returned to the McKim Courtyard at the BPL seeking peace. But curative alchemy takes time. A few years into caring for my health, I was asked by a dear friend and health practitioner, if I were to write a book about my life, what would I title it? I went home and wrote these words down: The Alchemist’s Cure: A Life Transformed into Gold.

With this new title to my life’s story in mind, I returned to the BPL the next day and checked out a rare book dating back to the 1890s about the history of alchemy. Because it was rare, the book could not leave the library, so I began reading it from my bench. The more I learned about alchemy, the more I began to believe I could transform my life for the better.

Much of the medical care I received came from Spaulding Hospital’s Dean Center for Tick-Born Illness because Lyme Disease was a suspected trigger for many of the changes in my health. It was through my wise and compassionate team of rehabilitation specialists that I was finally able to let go of the ongoing struggle to find a cure. Instead, we set to work building strength in my body by adapting to its changes with new tools. One of those tools had been under my nose at the BPL all along, and it would become my most effective one: it was reading.   

In 2017, on the recommendation of my speech therapist at Spaulding, I joined their Community Book Group. There I met others like me who were all facing their struggles head-on. They reminded me of some of the people who came and went with me at the BPL. This weekly community soon became another healing place I could add to my medicine chest along with my visits to the library. It was around our hospital reading table that my imagination first sparked an idea called Curative Reading. I began to see how I was diving deep into each of my fictional stories to find hidden cures for whatever was ailing me at the time. Back on my bench in the sun, I began to check out books and learn all I could about the therapeutic effects of reading and the neurobiology of health. I was beginning to see a curative path forward, one that was not just for me.

In June of 2019 I performed my first act of curative alchemy when I gave a talk at An Unlikely Story Bookstore in Plainville, MA, titled Curative Reading: Transforming What Ails You with a Good Book and Community. In my talk, I shared the science behind the benefits of reading fiction for our brains, bodies, and overall health. I also introduced the concept of a Curative Reading Community. It would guide participants through an eight-week experience reading good literary fiction while also teaching the health benefits of reading and building connections with others and the natural world. This was the start of Curative Reading. It is a new medicine I now share with many, one based on strengthening our health and vitality by sparking our imaginations with story and learning to make healthy connections with others and the natural world.

It has been six years since I discovered my bench in the sun at the Boston Public Library. This past summer, for the first time in all those years, I was not able to visit it because of the pandemic. Today it sits on its own in a courtyard overlooking green and white foliage and a cascading waterfall, minus all its patrons. I look forward to the day when the library will open its doors again and I can return to visit my bench. The wonderful news is that I will not need to be there to calm a storm happening inside of me. My body has found its equilibrium again. Although I miss visiting my bench in its beautiful home at the library where so much transformation has happened in my life, I hold valuable the knowledge I gained from it; libraries are deeply healing places where curative alchemy can take place.