The Labyrinth

“I begin to see our connected lives like the intricate path of a labyrinth. My mother is spiraling inward toward the center,
the still point of the turning world. . . . I am following the outward way toward assuming the reins of care,
trying not to step over the bounds of the path in front of me.”

(Mother Lode, p. 65)

One of my first getaways in 2012, two months after my cross-country move to begin my care-partnering sojourn with my mother, was a one-day writing-in-nature workshop at the Whidbey Institute on Washington’s Whidbey Island. It was there I met Christina Baldwin, who would become my friend and writing mentor. Attending that workshop—discovered quite by chance and registered for on a whim—changed the trajectory of my life, ultimately leading to becoming a published author.

I walked the Institute’s Chartres labyrinth for the first time that autumn Saturday. As I made the eleven circuits to the center and back out, I didn’t yet see it as the metaphor for my life it would become. Returning over the years, both to Christina’s writing retreats and to the labyrinth, I began to recognize the increasingly familiar pattern my mother and I were in, she circling toward the center and her eventual death, I winding back out toward a resumption of my life that had felt on hold. The predictably unpredictable labyrinth path—as we passed near to each other and then more distanced—became a trope, or theme, winding through my memoir.

When I walked the labyrinth again last week, I realized the path is really a metaphor for all of life. It looks deceptively ordered from some points, chaotic from others, but it’s only when focusing only what is just ahead that way opens up. You can, of course, step over the dividers, taking a short-cut. When you do, however, it isn’t clear which direction leads to the center and which to the exit. You really just have to stay the path and move headlong into whatever presents itself.

I noticed (in retrospect) that on the hairpin turns, my mind and my body came back to attention to the path. I looked at my feet and shortened my stride, taking care not to step over or on a stone. In the gentle curves of the circuits, though, I returned to noticing the bee on the daisy, the smell of the air, the singing birds. It was then I could let my mind wander to what has been, what is, what might be. Both kinds of attention have always been present in my life, though it can seem—especially in times of crisis—it’s all one and never the other.

Leaving the labyrinth, I walked to the apple tree garden, remembering sitting in it at the workshop to do a writing assignment. The sprinkler was running this visit, so I didn’t go in, but I remembered—per the assignment—I had a conversation with the apple tree. My essay was focused on two trees, a young one and an old one. Now the young one is becoming the elder, just as I am in my mother’s absence.

I visited the big fenced garden next. It and the one at Aldermarsh—site of my first week-long writing retreat two months later—were the inspirations for my own meadow garden. I am quite sure in 2012 it was a working kitchen garden, with an eagle-protected chicken run around it. The run is gone now, and the garden has gone wild with meandering paths.Finding an old photograph of the front yard of my mother’s house, I remembered there used to be roses along the driveway curb, now there are azaleas. She was a pantser gardener like me. I don’t know why I didn’t realize that. Her gardens morphed from this to that, as happens when pantsers create. I’ve been feeling like I have let her down, unable to keep the grounds around the house looking as they did under her care. I’ve been thinking about starting over in the front of the house, sowing wildflowers and letting it do what it will. It may or may not happen. Also, I’m not sure how that will be different from now. Every year something comes up that wasn’t there before and something that was present is gone. This year it’s dotted loosestrife I’ve not seen before. Just one stalk. Last year the previously prolific campanula bellflower was gone, this year there’s one stalk. Wild field daisies have joined the planted Shasta daisies (not yet blooming).

As I wander through the former kitchen garden at the Institute, I wonder what discussions were had to let it be what it wanted to be. I wonder if I have the courage to let my meadow—the former horse pasture—return to nature, as one of my sisters suggested some time ago. The bees would love it, and so would my wallet. There is probably an art to letting a long-mowed meadow revert to natural, and without becoming the tangle of blackberry vines—both native and not—that it would want to be. Maybe I’ll begin with a test plot, taking a lesson from the labyrinth: don’t look too far ahead, start with what’s right in front of you.

Back at home, looking for a photo of the kitchen garden in 2012—which I did not find—I found the conversation with the apple tree on my old blog. The insight is remarkably similar to the one here about the labyrinth. There is nothing new, I guess, just a lot of rediscovery. You can read that post here.

We don’t always see where way will take us to get from here to there. I thought my married-with-children life was all set when I met my future husband fifty years ago. Instead, I have walked an eleven circuit labyrinth, one that brought me back to the place I started. Life is not a straight line, but takes unforeseen turns. One way or another, it always comes back to the beginning point. The 107th anniversary of my mother’s birth is today, my 71st is next week. I don’t know if I will have three decades left as she did, but I’m excited to see what is around the next curve. I think I won’t have expectations beyond that.

“You will take it as it comes, and figure it out as you go. That is what you have done all your life, and it has always worked out. . . .
It is what we all must do. It is the only way there is.”

—Writing workshop, 2012