Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Walking the Labyrinth on my Almost Birthday

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Photo by Misty Urban

Photo by Misty Urban

I have never understood the point of walking a labyrinth. They've always seemed to me to be sites of danger. The archetypal Labyrinth of Knossos, commissioned by the mythical King Minos of Crete, was built to enclose the king's stepson, a bovine-headed monster born of his wife's love affair with a sacrificial bull. A babysitter once let my sister and me watch Jim Henson's 1986 film Labyrinth, and for weeks I was afraid to walk into the woods behind our house. Guillermo del Toro's 2006 Pan's Labyrinth seared into my imagination the suspicion that labyrinths are haunted by inimical fantasy creatures, with devouring beasts trapped at their heart. The labyrinth as a dangerous physical space crops up frequently in the novels of Barbara Michaels, my favorite author of romantic suspense, but she also uses the labyrinth as metaphor for that which presents fascination and danger combined—a site of ancient magic and mayhem. In college, when I visited Europe and found myself on the grounds of various great houses, I steered clear of anything advertising itself as a labyrinth, so firmly was I convinced that they were essentially unhealthy places. Entering one meant asking for trouble.

Later I learned the distinction between the branching, brain-teasing, multiple-choice maze and the twining but steady course of the labyrinth, but even then, the idea of a single path to the center and back struck me as too simplistic to hold much appeal. The risk of being trapped in an amputated dead-end, the anxiety of the tangled maze, the fear of imminent attack from a shielded corner: that frisson I could understand. Hadn't I always enjoyed the combination of frustration and triumph when battling the paper maze on my restaurant placemat as I waited for my chicken nuggets? Didn't I always hold my breath at the Disney version of Alice in Wonderland when Alice was pursued through the hedges? But walking a twining route to the center of a structure, especially when there were no walls or hedges or shrubbery to veil the path, with nothing left to do once you arrived there but retrace your steps without even the need for a ball of twine—well, that seemed at best amusing, at worst a waste of time.

It was the metaphor that eluded me. Natalie Goldberg's Wild Mind describes walking meditation as a means of finding spiritual release and a path to creative activity, but I hadn't even mastered sitting meditation; the walking version seemed like a challenge beyond my skill. Kathleen McGowan's The Source of Miracles did persuade me that labyrinths could be transformative, after she beautifully described her discovery of the great mosaic labyrinth on the floor of Chartres Cathedral in France. I bought the book because at the time I was pursuing every remedy I thought might bring me inner peace: essential oils, going back to church—even acupuncture, if I could have found an acupuncturist in my town. I had not yet comprehended that the lesson I needed might repel rather than attract me, nor had I recognized that I was still in the bargaining stage—desiring spiritual growth, but unwilling to pay the price in self-reflection, and in the possible agony and certain mortification that such examination would reveal.

This July, I encountered a real-life labyrinth for the first time. It happened a few days before my 40th birthday, an event that had been looming large in my imagination as a deadline, a monumental milestone, and an expiration date of sorts.

In the past handful of years, what spiritual growth I've experienced has been anchored in the journey of motherhood: in the experience of pregnancy; in the Sisyphean task of attempting to feed, groom, monitor, educate, entertain, and clean up after small non-self-sufficient beings; in the continual confrontations with my own shortage of patience, ingenuity, selflessness, and energy for resolving the daily squabbles that surface between my children, now four and two.

I had never really anticipated being a mother at 40. Secretly, I expected that my body, never good at feminine tasks like being graceful or growing breasts, would likewise fail in this most basic biological function. I was more surprised than anyone when it didn't. But I did imagine that at 40 I would have published a novel. In fact I wanted, hoped, craved to have published a string of them, to be an established author and a respected writer, not still an unknown, unemployed, struggling one. In my mental evaluations leading up to this birthday, the "haves" on my list had diminished in the shadow of the great "have-not"—no published story collection, no books of essays, no novel, and the writing time daily stripped away as the children required meals, supervision, entertainment, the housework demanded doing, the bills asked to be paid.

I hated myself for this skewed perspective. I knew my list of blessings was enormous. Health. Family. Safety. A home. But what brought me awake in the middle of the night was the novel, that work neglected, that creation denied. All around me my brilliant friends were writing, selling, promoting, winning awards for their work, and with each success I conveyed my sincere congratulations while gritting my teeth against the arrow in my heart. I had read Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind by Shunryu Suzuki back when I first discovered Goldberg, and I grasped enough of Buddhist teaching to perceive that my impatience, my demand, my longing for what was not instead of acceptance of what is was the cause of my suffering.

And then, the labyrinth. I had piled the children in the car along with a hasty picnic lunch of peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches, carrots and dip, bananas, and that marvelous invention, squeezable yogurt. I brought their almond milk and a bottled coffee drink for myself. I had frustrated all of us that morning trying to convince the kids to play with their toys so that I could work on the novel, and I hoped to exhaust them with running around in the fresh air so they would nap and allow me to take a conference call—a virtual visit to a high school English class—that afternoon.

We were fond of the nature park, but I didn't feel like herding them through the forest or trying to keep them out of the water flowing beneath the troll bridge. So I parked next to the arboretum, the tree museum. We picnicked in the gazebo and my daughter and son ran back and forth along the benches like Liesl and Rolfe in the film version of The Sound of Music. They zigzagged across the toothsome-looking green grass while I called out the names of trees and bushes. Then we saw the stone bench, and while my children raced toward the brick path surrounding it, I approached the labyrinth with the sense of finally confronting something that I had been putting off for a long time.

The kids immediately jumped on the path and began trotting along it, my daughter trailing the pink blanket she had brought as consolation after her frazzled, impatient mother barked at her that morning. My son toddled behind, faithfully shadowing the footsteps of his sister, stomping on his stubby, chubby legs. My daughter laughed as she leapt over the shorn green grass separating the nested circles of bricks; my son squealed as he reversed direction and ran back and forth along each swivel, unsure which direction he was supposed to take, and not worried about it at all. I was conscious that they dove straight in and traversed the path exactly as they wished, joyfully, wholeheartedly; but then, it had no other significance to them than a neat attraction in a new place. They were outdoors; they'd had yogurt; it was a beautiful summer day. That was all they needed.

Meanwhile, I stood at the entrance to the path, preparing myself. I read bits of the plaque aloud to them. They giggled and hopped across the bricks. The labyrinth, I informed them, has only one twisting path, an unambiguous route to the center. Labyrinth designs are found in all sorts of cultures and civilizations, on clay tablets, mosaics, turfs, and hedges. Their significance is mysterious, but it is believed that they represent the path of the soul on its journey through life. This labyrinth is patterned after the famous mosaic at Chartres Cathedral, thought to be the most perfect of all medieval designs.

Then I turned to the large engraved rock that stood opposite the sign, like the smooth if oddly-shaped egg of some enormous grey bird. This was somebody's Eagle Scout project, completed in 2013. The engraving contained an injunction and a blessing: "Enter this labyrinth with love and reverence for all living things. May you find peace, solace, and magic in its center." I found myself suddenly in tears. That was what I wanted, what I'd been longing for. Peace, solace, and magic at the center.

And so I began.

"I winned!" my daughter announced, and seated herself on the center bench, Pinky tucked up beside her. She and Pinky had trodden the path and were now enjoying the magic. My son wove figure eights around me. At times he would waddle before me, then run around behind me and trail in my wake, pushing on my rear with his hands and, once or twice, his head. He enjoys butting things; for that, and for his stockiness, we call him Little Moose. With Little Moose herding me along and my daughter calling out, "What are you doing, Mama?" every time the brick tracery turned me away, I walked the path, and I finally understood.

I hadn't considered the whole before I began, and so the first twists took me by surprise, away from the path I anticipated. This has been true of me my entire life, especially in the last 20 years, when I changed career paths—from management consultant to book seller to graduate student, from fiction writer to fiction writer/medievalist, from English professor to writer-mom—without thinking through the consequences, the complications, the foreseeable effects. I had my eye on the center—published novelist, perhaps to comfortable income and some small fame—without ever considering how I might arrive there. I had never once, before this, turned my eyes to the intricate beauty, the subtly patterned twists and folds, the harmonious roundabouting of the path.

"What are you doing, Mama?"

"Walking the path," I answered. Little Moose pressed his forehead to my buttock and said, "Grrr."

This stretch brought me towards the bench and the little girl perched upon it, swinging her sandaled feet. I kept my eyes on the bricks, rescued from some demolished building. I didn’t want to stray, even accidentally, from the red to the green; it might take away from the magic, interrupt the peace, detract from the solace. That stretch brought me away again, and I could see it was a long stretch, one of the outer curves, and I would have to take several steps before I returned to the smaller folds closer to the center. The urge to simply cut across the remaining paths tantalized me. It was just a game, really. The kids would get bored if I took too long at this. I could see the center; I knew where I was headed.

And then I realized what that urge said about me. How many times I had followed it, how often I had tried to skip over the actual work, take shortcuts in the path, wrap up the journey to reach the reward at the end. And how often I had sacrificed the joy of the reward, the wholeness of the process, in so doing. For once, I told myself, I would walk the path. I would complete the journey. I would do the work, step by step, the patient, quiet practice that writing, that any spiritual path, that the examined life demands.

I was perhaps halfway through when the lump in my throat finally eased. Then again, there was no way of knowing if I was halfway or not. I had simply to trust that I would eventually arrive. I placed one foot before the other and felt the stillness of the present moment, the unutterable beauty of the now. The shadowed leaves of the well-groomed, well-tended trees. The field of prairie grasses in the distance, the watered woods beyond that. The delicate outline of grass around each sunken red brick, the gentle rhythm of my daughter's swinging feet, my son grinning his abandoned, extra-toothed grin at me when he turned to make sure I was behind him. This moment, I thought. And this one. And now this.

At last I knew I was almost finished, and my heart started to feel lighter. Not in expectation of reward, but in satisfaction for having accomplished the journey. Walked the path without shortcut, without fighting, in surrender and joy and trust. I turned the last corner and there sat my daughter on the bench, smiling at me with her cheeks dimpled, her eyes alight. This singular, profoundly beautiful being who I had never thought to have in my life, could not even have imagined how deeply I would love her and how utterly she would change me. I'd been obsessing about the novel and I'd had this before me all along: this as my desiderata, she as my prize.

I decided it was all right if she saw me crying. Sometimes Mama just cries when things are beautiful, when her heart is very full.

I sat on the bench and put my arm around her. Little Moose ran circles around us, climbed up on her side of the bench, then climbed up on mine. I put my arm around him too and I sat on the bench with my two perfect children, my companions on this journey, my teachers and the source of my deepest joy. We watched a robin hop around a scarlet oak. We listened to the wind.

Not so very much later, there would be a poopy diaper to deal with. There would be an accidental wetting of panties and some public peeing on the grass. I would carry the picnic blanket and the cooler back to the car feeling that these blips in potty-training indicated my utter failure as a parent, feeling my shoulders bowed under the fatigue of never doing things quite right. I was still going to be 40 in a few days. But now, at least, I had a moment that would become a touchstone in my memory. That moment at the center of the labyrinth, wh­­ere the peace, the solace, the truth had always been waiting, and where I'd finally had the courage to meet it.

Misty Urban’s debut short story collection (forthcoming), A Lesson in Manners, won the Serena McDonald Kennedy Award for Fiction from Snake Nation Press. She has contributed to several works of medieval scholarship and authored the book Monstrous Women in Middle English Romance. She teaches, writes, and manages the website femmeliterate—a blog about women in/and/of literature—in a small town in eastern Iowa in the company of two mostly adorable children, a handsome park ranger, and a rather heavy collection of books.

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