My late father-in-law had a pedantic penchant for Latin. If he were alive today, he would describe 2017 as annus horribilis. And, I would agree with him. That’s not to say there wasn’t a bit of mirabilis in it, there was loads of that too, but it seemed that the hard stuff in life had its thumb on the scale in 2017.
As a consequence, I wasn’t feeling very reflective or hopeful when I woke up on the first day of 2018. There is nothing magical about the turning of a new year. There is nothing new or blank about it. There is only the magic, and the new, and the blank we decide to bring to it.
So, around 3 pm when I went to meet friends at the tides-willing annual New Year’s Day transitioning labyrinth on the beach, I wasn’t expecting to do anything except recharge a little by watching and walking with my fellow Encinitas weirdos. To be honest, there were some perfectly un-weird folk there as well, but I’m a sucker for weirdos. They are the light-bringers in my life.
The energy I was looking for was generated by a bunch of people massed around a labyrinth cut into the beach at low tide by a local artist.
The artist, Kirkos, used his special tools to scrape the sacred geometry into the sand and the community came to decorate it with rocks and seaweed and sticks, Buddha statues and crystals and flowers, along with shells and rusted keys and random objects like the tiny gingerbread house with sliced banana for roof tiles.
Not unfamiliar with walking meditation, I finished exchanging New Year’s greetings with random and not random people and entered the labyrinth path intent on a peaceful walk to the center.
There are people in the labyrinth community who say the labyrinth is an ancient symbol that relates to wholeness. I’m not so sure, but this one felt mystical. One of my favorite words to describe it is unicursal. There is one way in and one way out. Just like life. And, just like life, this labyrinth was filled with a lot of people—some who made it harder to walk and some who made it easier.
I’ve been struggling to give up judging, but it’s hard to not judge when people bring their dogs to a crowded labyrinth on a no-dogs-allowed beach. It makes it hard to stay on the path when a puppy is rampaging around it and disturbing the lines so carefully carved into the sand by the quirky old artist. I breathed through my initial discomfort with the irresponsible dog owner (the puppy, of course, was innocent of any wrongdoing) and refused to consider it good or bad. I was somewhat successful. I was more successful not judging the children running through the labyrinth. They made it hard to walk as well, but they were just so fully being themselves, it was hard to be irritated with them. When a parent apologized for one of them bumping me, I just smiled and said Happy New Year, then tried soaking up some of their enthusiasm for life.
As I walked, I tried to focus on the year just past. My plan was to think about 2017 on the way in and think about my intentions for 2018 on the way out. I’m a little obsessive, and like things tied up in neat metaphorical packages. But early on, I wasn’t able to focus on anything other than the people talking, and children playing, and the dog charging to the center with no regard for the path or the decorations placed at the line ends. And, I couldn’t stop watching the ten-year old girl in the black hoody with cat ears on the hood and the words “I am a cat” emblazoned on the front. I really wanted to be that girl for a moment.
I was also concerned the doggo would eat the gingerbread house, in which I had already invested a fair amount of emotional energy trying to figure out. The banana slice roof tiles were odd, was it supposed to be a bird feeder? Or was it purposely built to be healthy, and if so why does it have to be healthy if nobody is ever going to eat it? If you are a health food extremist (we have a few in California) does that mean you can’t even use candy for decoration? Or was it just a spur of the moment gingerbread house and the only thing handy to decorate it was yogurt covered pretzels and bananas?
This last one seemed most plausible to me, as it described my life when my children were still interested in building gingerbread houses. There may be only one way in and one way out of a labyrinth, but there are endless paths that my mind can take while my feet are walking it.
Frustrated that my mind wasn’t cooperating with my plans, much like my life doesn’t cooperate with my plans, I gave up when I saw my husband walk onto the beach with the camera. Like that adorably annoying dog, I ignored the path and lines and headed straight toward him. He gave me the camera and told me he was headed to work to get some writing done. As he was leaving, my son walked up with his friends. We (and by we, I mean I) talked a little about leaving the hard part of the year on the labyrinth. Quickly tiring of my hippy mumbo jumbo, they left to pursue New Year’s tacos somewhere with less weirdos and less mom.
In the course of this one-sided conversation, I became fascinated by the idea of leaving the hard shit of the year on the labyrinth and letting the ocean take it away as the tide erased the carvings from the beach. I knew I couldn’t actually get rid of the hard stuff, but maybe I could put it in a more productive place.
So, I quit thinking about the hard stuff and started listing it. My son’s suicide attempt, the hours in the hospital listening to the monitor go off whenever he stopped breathing, my uncle’s death which brought peace to him and anguish to so many others, the long wait at LAX when I was unsure if they would let my son on the plane and if so whether he was safe to be on the plane, the hurt and anger in my daughter’s eyes when her trip to visit colleges back east was canceled due to yet another mental health crisis, another trip to the emergency room listening to the fucking monitor stop and start again echoing my son’s erratic blood oxygen level, my father’s emergency surgery, the lies, the fear, the careless words, the carefully constructed words used as weapons.
Everything I could remember. Every feeling and action that caused pain or suffering or even mild discomfort, I named it. I looked at the year from my husband’s perspective and named all the shit. I did the same from my daughter’s point of view, then my son’s. Everything I could think of.
I listed it, acknowledged it, and willed it deep into the sand path I was walking. I kept doing this as other walkers scooted past my slow walking pace, as children bumped me, as strangers said inane, belittling things about disruptions on the path misaligning chakras. I felt the muck of 2017 crack like a hardening mud mask and begin to fall away.
By the time I reached the center, I felt relieved of a burden. I felt lighter and almost content. I began to notice the careful placement of shells and flowers. The happy juxtaposition of the gaudy, natural bird of paradise flowers with the gaudy, unnatural plastic pin wheels. My lips curved into a smile without even trying. And I began to recall some of the good as well. I remembered the healing suicide prevention walk I did with my son, our time at The British Museum, our fairytale cottage in Meath, the inspiring women and charmed time that was my writers retreat, and the random happy accident of watching Loving Vincent together at La Paloma.
On the way out, I kept passing an older man with a few missing teeth and the unruffled demeanor of an Encinitas native. We smiled at each other each time we crossed paths in the labyrinth. He commented on how long the walk was. I smiled, for me the walk was just long enough. Once I made it out of the labyrinth, I looked up and noticed him walk to where the artist’s tools were sitting and begin to gather them up. I realized the man I had been smiling at was the artist himself.
I walked up to thank him for his effort and, as I shook his hand, he told me he usually doesn’t walk the labyrinth himself. But for some reason he did this year and was surprised by how long the walk actually was. I thought a moment about creating this space, this transient sacred geometry without even the intent to walk it yourself. And when I looked back at his creation I saw his generosity multiply and bubble over in the faces of those participating in this private act of public art.
I told him I liked the addition of the two smaller labyrinths he added this year. He nodded, thoughtful, and mumbled, “yes, each year it just keeps evolving.” Which reminded me again, that labyrinths are very much like life.
(c) 2018 Gigi Quinn
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