This essay was originally published in Lake Effect, volume 16, 2012.
“Don’t expect an epiphany,” the instruction sheet warned us. I know, I know: don’t expect anything and you won’t be disappointed, but I’m wired for expectation like a kid who knows she’s just going on a quick errand with her dad, there and back, yet nevertheless hopes he’ll pull the car into Dairy Queen on the way. In lieu of epiphany, we’re urged to “use whatever happens on the labyrinth as a metaphor.” The morning sky is gray like dryer lint and hangs low with the threat of rain.
The guide for this Saturday tour of labyrinths in the northwest corner of where I live tells us there are more public labyrinths in the Minneapolis/St. Paul metropolitan area than in any other metropolitan area in the world. I’m surprised because I’ve never come across even one. Where are they, tucked away behind hedges or walls or lying so level with the ground that a person might pass them every day and not see their paths rising up ever so slightly above the lawn or trodden down below? The team of tour guide and bus driver would show us.
Eighteen women and two men board the white and maroon minibus. Our pre-paid “gourmet” bag lunches are packed in coolers in the back. One woman wears a pink shiny raincoat. Another carries a red patent leather purse. Around her throat another woman wraps a shawl, purple, the color of a king’s robe. These colors bob like buoys in a sea of post-winter beige, black and indigo denim. To each other, most of us are strangers on a mailing list.
A labyrinth is not like a maze, whose purpose is to thwart the walker’s cunning, lose her in a splatter of dead ends, spin him back to the beginning before earning a finish. A labyrinth is a disappointment for a person hoping for such a puzzle. No challenge, no tense thrill. Just one foot in front of the other like any other day. One path takes you to the labyrinth’s center and the same path takes you back out again, exiting exactly where you entered. No matter the paths we walk left to our own devices, for the next six hours there would be no doubt about the way our footsteps were to be set.
Our first stop is a grade school where our tour guide had designed and installed a 24-foot, 5-circuit medieval-style labyrinth the year before. Whereas in a church, a labyrinth might be spoken of in the same sentence as prayer, in a school the conversation expands. The ancient pattern is at once a vehicle of prayer and de-stressing and mathematics. Time to be quiet, children; go walk the labyrinth. Shhh . . . Calculate the circumference. Fathom the volume. Measure the angles that shift your view. Both my sons had a grade school teacher who taught her students to knit, then directed them to take out their yarn and needles whenever the time came for quiet. Count your stitches, go the end of the row and start again, and the room became a place of peace.
The press of growing feet has worn through to dirt this grass path edged by white Chilton natural stone. We calced tourists now add our press to the path. In a line we walk trying to be respectful of our different paces and stride lengths. A woman in white Keds pauses in the labyrinth’s center to stand with her face to the sky and hands outstretched, and so the rest of us step around. Corporate navigation gets complicated when the first few start on their way back from the center, and we pass coming and going on the same strip of earth. The instruction sheet suggests that when exiting we “may wish to turn and bow or otherwise acknowledge the experience.” A woman in brown leather walking shoes pauses with her final step, turns, and puts her hands over her heart.
Out of the city, into the suburbs, past housing developments, townhouses, apartments, and single family dwellings all in earth tones on treeless streets shaped in standardized curves, at the foot of a hill, in the backyard of a church, waits a square 5-circuit medieval labyrinth built of brick by an Eagle Scout. The clouds continue to hold their rain while the bus discharges its occupants, and we scoot down the hill to start a new line to the center and back out again. Here the surface is level with no earth versus stone to negotiate. Light brick forms the path, and dark brick, the path’s border. The total area here is at least three times the size of the last labyrinth. Greater area and level surface translates to freedom for this group in terms of pacing and stride. Less stepping around and more simple passing. The same woman stands with her face to the sky and arms outstretched, but the space her posture commands is more easily given up by the rest of us.
Walking this labyrinth same as the last, I keep my eyes down so as not to miss a turn, like someone afraid to color outside the lines. I am limping slightly, but no one seems to notice. Years ago a virus planted itself on the ball of my right foot, growing into a verruca plantaris, or plantar wart. It hurts when I walk. Over the past several months a doctor has been painting on blister beetle venom to burn it out, but so far results include only the loss of healthy tissue and an enduring limp. Maybe it’s preoccupation with lower extremity pain now that epiphany has been excluded from expectation, but I realize my visual field is full of Reeboks, purple Keens, the white Keds. Boarding the bus this morning I had imagined my vision to be higher than shoe level, yet here it is, locked on leather, canvas, and vinyl. Shoes, shoes, everywhere, shoes. Oh for a broom to sweep them aside like so much litter. I long for an unobstructed view of the path, to be the only one here. Ahead of me the black purse hanging on a bent elbow bumps, bumps, bumps against its owner’s leg. The black leather mules shuffle forward. The woman who walks behind me probably wishes away my black clogs and pink socks.
“This one is easier on my knees,” says the last labyrinth’s heart-clutching woman.
The restarted bus winds past more housing developments. These streets have no sidewalks and every house replicates the same garage, gulping in residents before they notice the absence of a path connecting them. We pass a horse farm, its rambling white fences defining where trammeled young horses learn their gait.
Our next stop is a labyrinth in a public park, a 7-circuit classical design of flat blue stones irregularly shaped and anchored in grass. Next to the labyrinth is a pavilion open to the sky and set up for a wedding. The rain feels close now, and as we pass the rows and rows of white chairs, we moan in chorus on behalf of the bride for the disappointment her day may yet hold. We start our walk. Clockwise or counter-clockwise the sight is the same: huaraches, Crocs, felt clogs, cordovan loafers, and earth shoes; shoes bigger than they should be given the height of the woman; shoes revealing a bunion bulge; leather stretched out over and down around the edge of the sole; shoes forever lacking a polish; heels worn down more on one side than the other. I wonder, do their feet hurt like mine with a knot buried deep? The scuffs are everywhere, and I look around for the camaraderie of a limp. One woman’s eyes are as swollen as cream puffs. Here again is the woman with uplifted face and outstretched arms, and I wonder what would happen if another woman, maybe me, stopped to kneel like a pietistic grandmother. Our tour guide tells us that sometimes wedding parties and their guests do a special paired dance along this labyrinth’s path. She demonstrates with a few of the women: a bit of promenading, skipping, laughing.
Now the rain comes and the windshield wipers join the day’s back-and-forth rhythm. The bus stops at a church rebuilt after a fire burned its original structure to the ground. Our guide tells us the congregation decided to start fresh with a labyrinth on the sanctuary floor. Concrete was poured and stained realistically enough to fool anyone that they were walking on a path delineated by actual inlaid gold or sienna stone. The rows of chairs stand on the path’s gold border, reserving the space between the rows, as well as the aisles, for walkers. The altar serves as the center. A couple times a year the church moves the chairs out of the sanctuary and opens up the entire space to walking the labyrinth. They send out flyers; everyone is invited. Unlike the labyrinths we visited earlier in the day, sitting and walking join on this path, as do singing and preaching and communicating, in the sense of the Word and the Eucharist. The full zing of this metaphoric mother lode must wait until later to be absorbed, however, because I am tired and hungry.
We walkers sit together at tables set up in the foyer and talk and eat tuna salad on white or pastrami on rye or roast beef on whole wheat, pasta salad, oatmeal raisin cookies, and apples. I ask the three women at this table what labyrinths they’ve walked before, but it might have been better to ask what they expected to find today. I might have asked the woman in the white Keds to what, or to whom, does she uplift her face. I might have told them I came because I have so much to learn, which includes, but is not limited to, the nature of twists and turns, centers and sidelines. I might have confessed, however, that what I really wanted, what I always want, was a moment of epiphany, like an agate by the lake or a perfect shell by the sea. I might have explained the limp.
The rain has let up now, and so some of us wander over to the church’s plant sale in two portable greenhouses in the parking lot. The spicy fragrance of geraniums heaped up and overflowing the shelves mixes with the smell of rain, easily overpowering the other annuals and perennials. The woman in the pink raincoat buys a hanging basket of fuchsia impatiens, and back on the bus, slides it under her seat. By the time the bus pulls out, similar splashes of color from other purchases—coral impatiens, rose geraniums, violet petunias—populate the space between floor and seats.
A chocolate-brown Labrador puppy is shaking and jumping to greet us at our next stop. He lifts his face to us and lets out gentle yelps. His master is working along the dirt road entrance to the cemetery named for the mother of Jesus. Nearly every one of us stops to pat the dog’s neck or hindquarters and smile at his exuberance before crossing the road and beginning yet another meander to and from a center point. An arbor gate of wood weathered to a comfortable gray marks the opening to this labyrinth. Three copper bells the size of oranges hang from the gate’s upper arch and the woody stems of vines, buds not yet out, hug its sides and encroach so far into the gate’s opening that you have to pass through sideways to be only minimally scratched.
Here, the ground beneath our feet is grass, with the path being that which has been mowed. The guide tells us that the path emerges every springtime, the mowing and the trampling from the year before sufficient to retain the path’s impression even as the ground freezes under a foot or two of snow. The cemetery’s markers and headstones lie just beyond this clearing. A bronze statue titled “Messenger” hovers at the northwest corner of the labyrinth, no doubt Gabriel in annunciation to the cemetery’s namesake. The space here is so generous that we spread out. Finally, mine are the only feet I see when I look down. Dandelions and crab grass spring up freely, while rocks, wayward root knots, and squirrel holes hide and cause the occasional stumble. The five circuits switch back and forth around a center bench and apple tree. The tree is mostly trunk and branches, with just the start of buds. No one sits on the bench but several linger at the tree: open-palmed hands stroke the bark, fingers dab buds, an elbow hooks a major branch as if arm-in-arm with a lover.
My limp seems worse now. The day of walking and now this uneven ground have taken a toll on tender skin. About two years ago I had the wart cut out, although it grew back within six months. “This will be painful,” the dermatologist warned as he readied the needle for the local anesthetic and the scalpel for the excision. I nodded so confidently in response, so unconcerned, as if the person who would crave the prescribed Vicodin less than thirty minutes later could not have been me. The place where the virus had housed itself became a gaping hole. As per doctor’s orders, twice a day for a couple weeks I soaked that foot in a solution of hot soapy water, let it air dry, applied antibiotic ointment, and replaced the bandage.
During the soak-and-dry cycles I read Ron Hansen’s novel Mariette in Ecstasy. Mariette Baptiste, the novel’s protagonist, is a postulant at the Couvent de Notre-Dame des Afflictions. She is like all the Sisters of the Crucifixion who have gone before her, but for one important distinctive: she experiences the stigmata. In a phenomenon as inexplicable as any I can imagine, she is one with Saint Francis of Assisi, Saint Catherine of Sienna, and Saint Gemma Golgani in that holes spontaneously open in her palms and soles and blood pours out as if Christ had hurled forward in time and she had pitched back and they crashed on the cross and the nails had pierced her hands and feet on the way through his. Who knew why? Sitting on the edge of my bathtub with my foot in hot suds, hoping that the skin cells and collagen and connective tissue would fill in just a little bit more that day, I could not have felt more base at the juxtaposition of Mariette’s holes and mine. My virus-infected and surgically speared foot as the earth-bound “Exhibit A” on reality’s continuum ad infinitum.
It is drizzling off and on now and colder than I expected when I took a lightweight jacket out of the closet this morning, and so I walk only just beyond the center before crossing back to the gate where others are gathering. A guy who had spent time at the tree tells us he thinks there is an energy in the tree. “If you watch the tree while walking around it, it’s almost like it was spinning,” he says. “I put my hand between the branches and it felt tingly and now it hurts.”
The bus pulls into the parking lot of a small Protestant church and we are led to a patch of grass just outside the back door. But where is the path? If I didn’t have a hint we were standing on a labyrinth I would have thought this area served only as a space to greet friends after church or spin little sisters until they’re dizzy or plan the next trustee meeting. I look for the path and still can’t see it until another woman has an Aha! moment and points her finger down. There, in between blades of grass, are the traces of maroon bricks, as if they were even now making their way to the surface after being buried. We start the game of follow the leader. The tour guide who previously has stayed on the sidelines now shows the way, and we wind together center-bound. The shoes in front become beacons like taillights of the car ahead on a highway during a torrential rain.
It’s as if a mansion had been prepared for us. This stop is a lakeside home, pale yellow like the sun, itself the center of a circle of labyrinths. The homeowner boards the bus to welcome us and explain her offerings. The labyrinths in the front of the house are open to the public; those in the back are private. On this day, however, she tells us with a smile, we can roam the grounds as freely as family. And so we start again.
The drizzle falls stronger now. I open my umbrella, but it does little good with its broken spoke and fabric torn away from its anchoring threads at two points. The surface area only half covers me and the wind bursts invert its shape from concave to convex. Along the curb is a spiral path of daffodils, a free-form labyrinth, and I wait until the woman in the pink raincoat finishes before I wind through the wet grass. A car drives by and the passenger watches me as she passes. On the main lawn, a path lined with bricks forms the home’s biggest labyrinth, with a diameter the equivalent of about seven basketball players laid foot to head. Along the side of the house is a labyrinth outlined in smooth black stones on packed sand with a double entry and double concentric paths meant to be walked in tandem. I watch two people try to walk it together but get spatially confused, start laughing and step off the path.
I continue around the house counter-clockwise and find a classic 5-circuit labyrinth in blue, green, and purple beads laid out in a sandbox meant to be looked at and not walked on, and a walking labyrinth with white rocks on woody mulch, and another with red rocks on woody mulch, and another with brick on lawn, and another on packed sand with blue nautical rope, but here there is a twist. Here the path is the rope, thin and easily kicked out of place, rather than the sand, firm and spacious. A person can find her way to the center—a white rock pillar—only by avoiding what looks like the path and following instead that which doesn’t appear to be the path, a spiritual koan if ever there was one.
Consulting the paper we’d been given about the labyrinths at this location, I see that I’d found all but one and so start to search. The woman with her hand on her heart, the bad knees, and brown walking shoes wanders nearby looking down at her paper, then up, down, then up, suggesting a common quest.
“Have you found this one?” I ask, pointing to an entry on the paper.
“No, I’m looking for it now,” she says. “It should be around here.”
We both scan the area to the left of the front door, letting our eyes glaze over into the stare that lets you see hidden words and images in visual puzzles. Still, it eludes us. I go to find the tour guide and she walks back with me. “There,” she says, pointing to an inside corner as insignificant as you can imagine. A place suitable for spiders and weeds and the odd coiled hose. Yet here, lake stones, whelks and cockleshells wrap their course around a small statue, no bigger than a mayonnaise jar, of a woman seated on the ground, arms wrapped and locked around her knees.
We circle back to the bus, singly or in groups of two or three, a damp, wind-blown, and shivering crew. Humidity has fogged the inside windows; I make a fist and spiral it across the glass at my seat so to see outside. Other hands repeat this action at window seats down the line. The bus is quieter now than when we started. We’re tired. We lean back in our seats and ride to the finish. The finish being, of course, just a technique to turn and quicken you without your even noticing. A path of silent twists, deep inside, leading to who knows where. At least this is what the instruction sheet implies when it says the day’s meanings may take weeks or months to appear.
Back where we started, the bus discharges us for the last time. Good-bye, good-bye, we say and wave. We walk to our cars, carrying uncatalyzed moments, elemental epiphany, like eggs and milk are omelets-in-waiting ready to yield to the chef’s crack and pour, and hydrogen and oxygen are water pending the chemist’s splash, and lead is the alchemist’s gold, and pollen from orange blossom and clover are honey but for the bee’s visit, and seeds are zinnias or wheat.
Nancy J. Nordenson is the author of Finding Livelihood: A Progress of Work and Leisure (Kalos Press) and Just Think: Nourish Your Mind to Feed Your Soul (Baker). Her writing has appeared in Harvard Divinity Bulletin, Comment Magazine, and other publications and anthologies. She blogs at www.nancynordenson-markings.com.