Friday, May 20, 2011

Walking the Path to Joy

IN BIRDLAND THE COOL DAMPNESS HAS LUXURIOUSLY STRETCHED OUT THE BLOOMING SEASON. Irises of pale lavender border the house, and the poppies, instead of popping like popcorn on a hot skillet, open in slow motion, turning dignified faces to the sun, a few more each day. At this rate, we will enjoy their blossoms for weeks instead of days. The rain keeps the grass green and the unseasonable coolness keeps the flowers fresh. In the evenings I have been stealing time to walk behind the mower in slow patterns across the yard. The grass has grown so tall—knee-high in some places, up to my waist in others—that I have to push slowly through it, putting my shoulders into the work, but I don’t mind. It has become a walking meditation to me.
I am enjoying the velvety green lawn that my mower unveils. I sometimes leave tall bunches of grass that has gone to seed, as an accent. I circle the mower around patches of stray Black-Eyed-Susans, Queen Anne’s Lace, and an occasional stately Thistle. I’m letting the yard be its own landscaper, with help from the birds and the wind.
I’ve been doing another kind of walking meditation—the labyrinth at Crystal Lake Park. It’s next to the hospital, and my stepfather, Bob, has been spending some time there. He had a bypass operation, so we’ve been visiting. 

The labyrinth at Crystal Lake Park.
At some point I remembered how close the hospital is to the park and decided to walk the labyrinth. I first encountered a labyrinth of the same pattern (a copy of the design at Chartres Cathedral, built in the 13th Century) when I went on a self-styled writing retreat with my friend Karen, in New Harmony, Indiana.
The pattern is deceptively simple.
We rented a room in a quirky rooming house for a long weekend, and spent our mornings writing. We’d break for lunch and share what we’d written, then walk around the town. We’d have another writing session before dinner. In our ramblings we discovered the Chartres labyrinth. I didn’t really understand the point of a labyrinth. As a child, I always preferred a maze. In a maze you can get lost. I could take one look at a labyrinth and see the way in, and the way out. I dismissed it as futile, an empty ritual. That is, until I walked it. The pattern is deceptively simple. You won't understand the complexity until you walk it. No, you don’t get lost, but you lose yourself in the simple act of following a path that doubles back and cycles around all the way to the heart. Once I walked it, I wanted to do it again and again without knowing why. Karen and I had different styles of walking. I would stride purposefully, my cowboy boots clicking on the polished stone, Karen would glide meditatively at a much slower pace. I would make two circuits to her one. We met coming and going and would silently and lovingly greet each other, then step aside to pass. Sometimes we walked our meditative mandala twice in a day.

A path that doubles back and cycles all the way to the heart.
The central patch to a quilt on the
heart wing of the hospital.
The labyrinth at Crystal Lake is the same pattern, but with rough pavers rather than polished granite. Fragrant gardens surround the circle, some kind of allium blooms with a spherical head of florets. Walking the pattern takes you on a curving path that doubles back again and again. You begin to think in metaphors and rhythms. A path to the heart. Sometimes you go a long ways before turning back, sometimes only a few steps. Just when you think you’re close to the center, you switch back and find yourself on the periphery again. As I walked, I thought of my troubles and the love that makes them painful. I thought of the man up in the hospital bed waiting to wake up, a man who has been one of my fathers for thirty years. I thought of the moment when the doctors unhooked the bypass machine, and his blood began to flow back through the channels of his heart, just as I am making my way to the heart of the matter. In the center are six circles, like the petals of a flower. I pause and send blessings out each direction. I stand there breathing for a few moments, then turn and make my way back out the meandering path.
"If you're lost enough
to find yourself by now..."

The shadows it casts on
the side of the house
are a cool blue.
Back home now, in the evenings, though the sun is as bright red as a maraschino cherry, the shadows it casts on the side of the house are a cool blue. I marvel at the sharp focus of the shadows the setting sun makes of the Irises. I walk around the yard breathing in damp color, and wonder how difficult it would be to mow a labyrinth in the grass next to the barn.

Walk in Beauty; Contemplate Peace; Blessed Be.

Mary Lucille Hays lives in Birdland.
She is interested in community,
paths to peace, and her own back yard.


  1. Mary, this is just lovely. Thanks for the reminder of those days at New Harmony! Sometimes, when I walk the labyrinth at Crystal Lake, I feel like I'm walking the crenellations (right word?) of the brain, and one time it felt like I was meandering through the brain of God. But I like your "path to the heart." That feels right, too.

  2. I love that metaphor, too. The heart, the brain...different centers, same love. We need to do another harmonious retreat. What is your summer schedule like?