Last Friday, I went away on a writing retreat. We were staying on a property set on Lake Simcoe. The setting was as beautiful as you can imagine – colourful gardens, older buildings rich with wainscoting and filled with bookcases and quilts. I was very excited about spending the weekend writing and meeting people who are also writing, but I was just as excited about the labyrinth.
The website for the estate, stated that there was a labyrinth on the property that people visited on day trips. From the moment my 8 year old self read the Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur (not to mention Icarus and Daedalus), I have been curious about labyrinths. In recent years, I have had the pleasure of making my way through many corn mazes, but not the high hedged labyrinths that sit in my imagination – helped along by JK Rowling in The Goblet of Fire.
I was pretty excited about the prospect of making my through the Loretto MaryHolme Estate labyrinth. So excited, that I came up early and was the first writer to arrive. After settling into a bedroom that looked like a place that Anne Shirley would have slept in, I went to find my facilitators for directions to the labyrinth. They pointed me across the laneway and assured me that I couldn’t miss it.
Little did they know.
A sign at the entrance of the path across the laneway assured me that I was going the right way and provided me with new information about labyrinths. I learned that they have been built by Christian communities over time as a place for self-discovery and enlightenment. I’m all for both, so I made my way on the path, my sense of anticipation growing. The path led me to a clearing.
There were several paths leading out of the clearing and a large rock garden sitting at the centre. No more signage. I looked around for a clue of which path led to the labyrinth. Finding none, I chose a path and started walking it. Minutes later I found myself back at the centre. Another path led me to the parking lot. Yet another led me to an emotionally evocative memorial for Indigenous women who have disappeared or been murdered.
But no labyrinth.
I took each of these paths again, wondering if I had missed a turn. Inevitably, I found myself back where I had begun. I was running out of time before dinner and the facilitator had warned me that the labyrinth can take at least 30 minutes to walk, so I was beginning to worry that even if I found it, I wouldn’t have time to enter it. I didn’t find it. Feeling a little discouragement, but also resolve that I would return the next morning and find it, I left the clearing and went to dinner.
Later that evening, when I told my wandering story to some women who had visited the estate before, they looked confused.
“Did you follow the path?” one asked.
“How could you miss it?” another said.
This totally fueled my desire to find it. So, I woke up early Saturday morning and set out for the labyrinth.
If you were expecting a eurkeka moment when I entered the clearing again, I’m sorry to report that it didn’t happen. I did the same thing as Friday evening – I followed the paths out of the clearing and kept finding my way back there.
Finally, I discovered what some of you might have realized much earlier in the story. I looked closer at the large rock garden sitting at the centre of the clearing and noticed that the rocks weren’t random. They formed paths. This was the labyrinth. I laughed out loud at myself, possibly scaring whichever animals were close, and then walked around the circle until I found the entrance.
Unlike the labyrinth that kept the Minotaur prisoner, this was a labyrinth I couldn’t get lost in. I had learned from the sign at the entrance that there was a single path, no dead ends, that would take me to the centre and then, when I turned around, take me back out again.
I enthusiastically started on the path, walking briskly, silently celebrating my accomplishment and wondering how many other things that I look for are right in front of me.
After a short time, I needed to slow down. The paths move back and forth, and all the changes in direction were making me a little dizzy. Plus, my feet kept hitting the rocks on the side of the path, knocking them out of place. When I slowed down, I noticed more. I could hear the crunch of the pine combs underneath my feet and the sun shining through the trees, lighting up all the different shades of green. It was difficult to tell how close I was to the centre because the path changed direction so much that I could never see more than 40 or so paces in front of me.
(Yes, I counted.)
When I reached the centre, I took a few moments. In the centre was a smaller clearing. It had what looked like stone chairs and a small area for a fire. There were two large feathers on the ground leading me to wonder what kinds of rituals are performed there. With a sigh of pure delight, I turned around and headed back for the entrance.
Over the course of the following 30 hours I returned to the labyrinth many times. So many that I lost count, but I’m sure it was more than 7. Sometimes I went through slowly. Sometimes quickly. Two times I explored how it felt to exit the labyrinth without completing it, stepping carefully over the stones and marveling at how resistant I was to leaving the marked path.
In the early evening, fueled by some writing whiskey – I skipped and danced my way through the labyrinth. Bowing to the trees and at one time taking tree pose playfully mirroring a particularly beautiful tree that stood, rooted in the labyrinth.
On Sunday morning, as I made my way through the labyrinth several more times, I realized that I knew the paths now in a way that I hadn’t before. They didn’t all look the same. I could see further ahead. There were specific places that I loved more than others because of the view they afforded. I couldn’t believe how much my experience of the labyrinth had changed in such a short time – from missing it all together to knowing it like a part of myself.
I emerged from the labyrinth each time feeling more connected to myself, to the land that I was walking on and to the beauty all around me.
I believe that the labyrinth was my Wilderness for the weekend.
In the cycle of weekly Torah readings, we began a new book this weekend – Bamidbar (Numbers) – Wilderness.
The Wilderness we are to imagine in the book of Numbers, is quite different than my Lake Simcoe setting. It is the Negev desert and the Sinai Penninsula. It is a place of vast sky, marked with high mountains and desert as far as the eye can see.
From an early age, many Jews learn that we wandered for 40 years in the desert. After the labyrinth, I’m not so sure that we were wandering. In fact, the story that is told in Bamidbar (although not in this week’s parashat) is that we needed to stay in the desert until a new generation had come of age that could enter the Land with optimism and confidence.
I think there are many reasons that years spent in the Wilderness might lead to optimism and confidence.
Food was provided every day, delivered from a God that was believed to have deserted (no pun intended) the people for hundreds of years. This God lived in the centre of the encampment, providing a regular reminder of power and protection.
The combination of having basic needs met, feeling the power of protection while at the same time being challenged with defining identity is a good recipe for developing optimism and confidence.
Bamidbar is the story of a people learning to live with one another. Learning how to move from slavery to freedom. It’s not an easy story – there are rebellions, outside threats and the need to develop laws and community practices.
My short time in the labyrinth was like a microcosm of this experience. First, I needed to find it. Then I needed to explore it – find my way, find myself and feel the connection to the earth beneath the feet. I could feel myself becoming a writer more and more each time I walked through.
Bamidbar is a Jewish story of becoming. Between slavery and freedom is the wilderness or the labyrinth. I think it’s worth finding and exploring.