Many turns

This afternoon on my way home from an errand, I stopped at Boston College to walk the memorial labyrinth there. I’ve blogged about this labyrinth before: as someone who loves both walking and walking meditation, I’m fascinated by labyrinths, which are designed to contain an entire pilgrimage–there and back–in a single constrained space. Of the various labyrinths I’ve walked over the years, the one at BC is probably my favorite with its smooth stones and fringe of green grass. Why go on pilgrimage when the earth underfoot is so clearly holy?

Labyrinth green

When I taught at BC for a semester two years ago, I had high hopes of walking the labyrinth there frequently: how simple would be, I thought, to take a quick pilgrimage every day after class? In reality, though, I walked the labyrinth only once that semester, on September 11. The BC labyrinth is a memorial to alumni who died during the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and the anniversary of that tragedy pushed me out of my office and onto the labyrinth’s curvy course. Apart from that one day, however, I repeatedly told myself I didn’t have time to take a detour toward the labyrinth on the way from my office to my car. While teaching at BC three days a week for an entire semester, I repeatedly told myself I was too busy to take even a few extra minutes for a leisurely stroll.

You are here

Now that I’m not teaching at BC, I see each of the times I didn’t walk the labyrinth after class as being a missed opportunity. The fact that I felt I didn’t have time for a contemplative stroll meant I most definitely needed to take one: whenever you’re too busy to meditate, of course, is when you need meditation the most. As soon as I started walking the labyrinth today, I remembered a curious fact: when you’re walking a labyrinth, time seems to stand still. Whereas moments before you were checking your watch and ticking through your to-do list, the moment you start walking a labyrinth, time slows as you carefully attend the step underfoot, trusting the way There will eventually bring you back Here.

Afternoon light


On Tuesday, after I ran an errand in downtown Boston, I walked around a bit, wandering from State Street past Faneuil Hall, through the Holocaust Memorial, and over to the Rose Kennedy Greenway, where I ended up at the Armenian Heritage Park. There’s a labyrinth there I’ve walked before, and part of the allure of a labyrinth is the fact you can walk it again and again, revisiting twists and turns that steadfastly stay the same even while the rest of your life is turning.

Abstract sculpture with Custom House in distance

Sometimes you don’t realize how tired you are until you stop spinning. This past academic year has been filled with changes. In the fall, I took a last-minute assignment at Boston College, juggling those classes with the ones I teach at Framingham State and online. BC didn’t need me in the spring, so I took a mid-semester appointment at Curry College, going through (again) the upheaval of starting over at a new place, all while continuing to teach at Framingham State and online. Right before I started at Curry, we put MAD to sleep, and less than a month later, we adopted a new dog. It’s been a year of many changes, but I’ve been too busy to process them.

Wending and winding

When you’re an adjunct instructor teaching at multiple institutions, the first thing you think upon awakening is “Where am I teaching today, and what do I need to do before I leave?” If you’re teaching at College X, you point the car one way; if you’re teaching at College Y, you head in the opposite direction. There have been many times this year that I’ve envied people with just one job: folks who can finish an honest day’s work and not have another job awaiting them. There have been many times this year, in other words, when I’ve envied people whose work points in one direction: one job to go to, one schedule to settle into, one email account to check, one job description to satisfy.

Abstract sculpture

My Mom once described her experience as a wife and mother of four by saying “There’s always someone who hates you.” We all know you can’t please everyone all the time, and the experience of being pulled in too many directions only exacerbates the problem. When you teach for multiple colleges, you’re always behind somewhere: there’s always an unread email, unanswered question, or ungraded paper demanding your attention. On those rare occasions that you catch up with work, the blog beckons. Once you find time to post to the blog, there is laundry to do, or groceries to buy, or dishes to dry, or errands to run: here, there, and everywhere, there is always something to do, do, do.

Going in circles

Walking a labyrinth is relaxing because despite the twists and turns, you have only one place to go, and that is the next step. Despite its crooks and curves, a labyrinth points in only one direction: forward. You don’t have to decide whether to go this way or that; you just put one foot in front of the other. It’s a practice simple enough to make you weep with gratitude: for the minutes it takes you to walk to the center and back, there’s no need to decide where to go, just the reassuring rhythm of one foot following the other.

Greenway labyrinth

This summer, I’m not teaching face-to-face classes anywhere; I’m just teaching online. And in the fall, I’ll return to teaching at Framingham State and Curry College, but I’ve decided to quit my online teaching job. It’s a moonlighting gig I’ve had for eleven years, and when I quit my job at Keene State, it was briefly my sole source of income. But one thing I’ve learned from walking labyrinths is that when you reach a dead-end, you have to change your direction. Teaching at two colleges isn’t the single focus I’ve been craving, but it’s more focused than teaching at three: a step in the right direction.

Under her heel

This past Wednesday was the twelfth anniversary of the September 11th attacks, so after teaching my classes at Boston College, I walked the labyrinth there. The labyrinth at BC is a memorial to 22 alumni who were killed on September 11, so someone had left a bunch of maroon and gold flowers—BC colors—on the path’s periphery before I arrived, and the handful of students sitting quietly on the lawn and benches nearby seemed particularly quiet, subdued, and respectful.

Mary statue

I wasn’t alone in walking the labyrinth on Wednesday. A student was walking ahead of me, slowly and meditatively, and by the time I had walked to the memorial’s center and back, a small throng had gathered to pay their respects. One of them had set down a black duffel bag tied with a red bandana, presumably a tribute to Welles Crowther, a BC grad who worked in the South Tower of the World Trade Center and became known as the “man in the red bandana” after helping a dozen people out of the building before he died trying to save more. Near the entrance of the labyrinth, someone had set several more maroon and gold bouquets, waiting to lay them by the carved names that surround the memorial’s circumference. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed that one of the bouquets bore a tag that had been signed “Mom & Dad.”

Even the landscaping has spirit

When you walk a labyrinth, you trust the path ahead of you to get you there and back, resting in the belief that each footfall will find its proper place. As I walked the memorial labyrinth on Wednesday, there was a single reddened maple leaf that had fallen on one of the flagstones, a harbinger of harvests to come. There is a Zen truism that every snowflake falls in its perfect place, and perhaps this applies to autumn leaves as well. But what about fallen souls?

First day

It’s poignantly fitting that so many lives were lost on a brilliantly beautiful September day: autumn is, after all, the season of falling, an annual reminder of impending mortality. Faith says our every footstep is guided by an unseen hand; faith reminds us that even the fall of a sparrow is heeded by the heavens. What wild and wending way led each of nearly 3,000 souls to their untimely end some twelve years ago? Were they in the wrong place at the wrong time, or were they precisely where they were (by some unspeakable mystery) intended to be?

Practice scrimmage

On my way back to my car, I heard the martial cadences of a marching band. When I’d arrived on the third level of the garage where I’d parked, I had a bird’s eye view of the BC football team scrimmaging on their practice field, recorded marching music piped over a loudspeaker. It was a quintessential autumnal scene—young and athletic men reveling in their strength—and it seemed particularly poignant, like the scene in Dead Poets Society when Robin Williams whispers “Carpe diem” while his students study the black-and-white photographs of former athletes in the glass cases in the school hallway.

Welles Crowther was a lacrosse player at BC, and he was 24 when he died. I wonder how often the healthy and strong athletes who play and practice on the same green fields as he did consider their own mortality and the sobering fact that we all are, eventually, following in his footsteps?

Eagle and clock tower

Several weeks ago, after having applied for an adjunct teaching position at Boston College that would nicely supplement my part-time position at Framingham State, I stopped at Boston College to walk the labyrinth there. It was a superstitious act: I somehow thought that if I walked with a grateful and meditative spirit, the Universe and the English department alike would recognize how perfect I am for the job. It was drizzling that day, so I walked with an umbrella, wending and winding my way from the circumference of the stony circle to its center, then retracing my steps to the place I’d started. It had been a more than a year since A (not her real initial) and I had first visited this labyrinth, and it felt comforting to return to familiar turns.

A way through grass

When A and I first walked the labyrinth at Boston College, I was still nursing the hurt of the previous year, when I’d applied for (and failed to get) a full-time teaching position there. After walking the labyrinth, A and I ducked into Saint Mary’s chapel, which was one of my favorite quiet spots on campus when I was a Master’s student at Boston College some twenty years ago. Instead of finding the chapel quiet and empty, we found a chamber music ensemble performing sacred music to an intimate and attentive audience. Silently watching the group for a song or two then quietly excusing ourselves, I turned to A and said, “See why I want to teach at this school?”


Walking a labyrinth is a process of retracing your own steps, as the paths there and back again are one and the same. If you visit the same labyrinth more than once, you re-trace your own re-tracings, labyrinth-walking becoming a self-reflexive and recursive thing: a process of turning and re-turning.

Whereas mazes try to trick you with a confusing array of forking choices, labyrinths merely try your patience. Most labyrinths feature a unicursal design, which means there is a single path bending and coiling its way from edge to innards. When you walk a unicursal labyrinth, arriving at the center is guaranteed as long as you keep walking, undeterred by the number of times you go in circles, think you’re going the wrong way, or fear you’ve reached a dead-end. If you keep going and don’t step off the path, you’ll get to your destination in the end, eventually.

Axis mundi

When A and I first walked the labyrinth at Boston College more than a year ago, I hadn’t yet quit my job at Keene State College, but my spirit knew I was leaving. I’d been reduced from full- to part-time status, and no longer made sense to cling to a part-time job in another state. I hadn’t yet quit my job at Keene State then because I didn’t have another job to move onto: I was poised in mid-step, one foot held in midair while I tried to find a place to plant it. When you can’t clearly see the path ahead of you, it’s difficult to believe your feet will automatically fall into their own footsteps. Poised between one step and the next, you feel anything but grounded, the earth beneath you seeming uncertain and untrustworthy.

Serene circles

This time last summer, I’d finally quit my job at Keene State, and I was grateful to have found a part-time job at Framingham State: a step down, financially, from the full-time job I’d had in New Hampshire, but a job mercifully close to home, and a new start. “Sometimes you have to take a step backward to take a step ahead,” I’d told a friend, but in retrospect, I’ve never veered from my path. That path might have turned, folding onto itself to veer in the direction I just came from: a complete about-face. But for the past twenty years, I’ve never turned from the path in front of me, taking each hesitant step as it’s been gradually revealed to me: one step forward, regardless of where “forward” is found.


Looking back at my twenty-year teaching career, the word “unicursal” perfectly describes it. For the past twenty years, I’ve patched together a full-time livelihood from part-time jobs, full-time but temporary positions, and all manner of adjunct appointments. For the past twenty years, I’ve made a modest livelihood doing one thing and one thing only: teaching all sorts of students in all sorts of places how to read, write, and think, believing that these skills are valuable no matter who you are, where you come from, or what kind of school you’re attending.

Heading out

At the midpoint of every semester, I quietly worry whether I’ll continue to be employed the next term, and at the end of each academic year, I quietly envy the folks with reliably stable year-round jobs with paid vacations, benefits, and job security. But no matter how many times I’ve been tempted to step off the path I’m on, at the start of each new academic year, I find myself abundantly grateful to be doing something that feels like I’m helping people by doing something I find interesting and profoundly satisfying.

Years ago when I lived at the Cambridge Zen Center, I had an opportunity to sit face-to-face with a Trappist monk who also practiced Zen meditation. As a lapsed Catholic, I approached this interview with a certain amount of trepidation, having been accustomed to sitting face-to-face with priests only when I was going to confession. When Father asked me if I had any questions, I tried to appear witty and nonchalant: “What’s a good little Catholic girl like me doing in a place like this?” Father’s answer was short and laser-sharp in its concision: “Never doubt the place where God has led you.”

Straight and curved

Boston College’s memorial labyrinth sits in one corner of the grassy lawn outside Burns Library. Before A and I visited the labyrinth more than a year ago, the last time I’d been to that particular grassy spot was the day I’d received my Master’s degree. I remember the ceremony feeling a bit anticlimactic: nobody but my then-husband was there, and I had to leave immediately after the ceremony to work a part-time retail job I had to make ends meet. Having earned a degree that declared me a “master” didn’t seem to make much difference in my mundane life: we still had bills to pay, and I was still scrambling to earn minimum wage plus a paltry commission.

Labyrinth through trees

It’s easy on the way from “here” to “there” to doubt the path you’re on. Looking around, you see others who seem to get to their destinations more quickly than you, their paths seeming more straightforward and direct. It’s easy to envy those folks who seem to know exactly how to get from point A to point Z without any mazy meanderings; it’s easy if your way is long to think you aren’t actually going anywhere, or you’re spinning in eternal circles, stuck in a dead end, or going the wrong way, fast.

Hairpin turns

It’s been twenty years—two decades!—since I taught my first first-year writing seminar as a second-year Master’s student at Boston College. A lot has happened in those twenty years: I graduated with my Master’s degree, entered a PhD program at Northeastern, and taught there as a Lecturer a few years before moving to New Hampshire, where I taught a bunch of other places. It took me ten years to finish my PhD, and it’s taken me almost ten years to settle into Whatever’s Next, a transitional phase that has involved divorcing and remarrying, moving back to Boston, and trying to re-establish myself as a college writing instructor here.

From the center looking out

In other words, what a long, strange trip it’s been.

Last July, I left my job at Keene State, a college where at one point I thought I could happily spend the rest of my life teaching. But instead, I fell in love with J, got married, and moved to Newton, which seemed to send my career in a different direction. It’s been difficult to find my feet, professionally, back in Boston. There are lots of schools here, and all of them need instructors to teach writing and literature courses…but there lots of graduate students to compete with, and at times I’ve felt like my career has hit a dead-end.


Last July, I left my job at Keene State because I managed to find a part-time job at Framingham State, and almost exactly one year ago, I was busy with the logistics of starting over as a new hire there, fretting over the details of acquiring an office, email login, parking permit, and the like. This fall, I’ll continue to teach at Framingham State, and I’ll also be teaching at Boston College, where the Universe and the English department alike did indeed grant me that supplemental adjunct position. Today, I once again walked the labyrinth after picking up my Boston College parking permit on the same day my Framingham State permit arrived in the mail, with classes at both schools starting the week after next: an exciting time of new beginnings.

Memorial labyrinth

Two weeks ago, I went to faculty orientation at Boston College with a roomful of second-year Master’s students, all of them poised to start teaching first-year writing in the fall. Twenty years after I was a second-year Master’s student getting my start at Boston College, in other words, I’ve come full circle, my mazy, meandering path never swerving from its unicursal intent. I’m still juggling a patch-work of part-time jobs: it’s more difficult than I’d thought to find full-time work in a town like Boston. But twenty years after teaching my first college-level composition class, I’m still managing to make a living teaching, and I’m still happy to trust a path that has always managed to manifest itself immediately under my feet.

Prayer in motion

A few weeks ago, A (not her real initial) and I walked the Memorial Labyrinth at Boston College. It was a beautiful (albeit breezy) day, with an older man sitting quietly on a bench reading a Kindle while clusters of students sprawled on the grass studying. It was a sun-soaked, idyllic day, and the labyrinth itself was a joy to walk: complex (as Chartres-style labyrinths always are) but smooth, with its tightly-winding stone path fringed with lush green grass.

Prayer in motion

It’s a labyrinth I’d like to walk again: on a warm day, I’d like to walk it barefoot, the smooth stones warm beneath my feet. Walking a labyrinth once is almost beside the point: labyrinths all but invite you to walk them again and again, the routine of retracing your steps each time adding to the meditative aspect. This is something I didn’t realize the first and second times I went labyrinth-walking; it’s a lesson I learned only after walking the same labyrinth repeatedly. They say you can’t step into the same river twice, but you can certainly circle the same winding circuit sequentially, time after time, the ritual of returning revealing how you have changed even while the path beneath you has not.

Prayer in motion

Walking a labyrinth is about losing count, letting go, and walking on. When I first entered the labyrinth at BC, I panicked, thinking I was somehow on the wrong path as it seemed to make a beeline toward the center point: too soon! Only after several steps did I realize the path went straight toward the goal but then deflected into a series of twists and turns, the winding-way I had anticipated. After several coils and re-coils, though, I found myself fretting in the opposite direction: shouldn’t I have made it to the middle already? I found myself needlessly worrying that I’d taken a wrong turn or missed the off-ramp toward my destination: is it possible to walk a labyrinth incorrectly, getting lost on a single circuitous path there and back?

Prayer in motion

It’s impossible to get lost in a labyrinth: the path wanders but never forks, so you’re guaranteed to get to the center if you just keep walking. But even knowing this, I found myself worrying along the way: was I walking too slow or too fast? Had I somehow missed a step or lost my direction? It’s impossible not to read life metaphors into all of this: how much of our life’s journey is spent fretting over our direction and destination? How much of our life do we spend worrying whether we’re doing it right, wrong, too slow, or too fast, as if someone is drumming the time we’re supposed to keep, but we can’t hear it?

Prayer in motion

Eventually, if a labyrinth’s winding way is long enough, your worries slide away and you reach a point where you’re just walking, paying heed to the path before you but otherwise not thinking about much of anything. If you walk long enough, you eventually lose count of where you’re going and how many twists and turns it takes to get you there. If you walk long enough, you realize the destination isn’t the circle at the labyrinth’s center but the segment of stone that lies directly beneath your feet. At that moment, you realize the true lesson of any labyrinth: that you’d already arrived before you ever set out.

Prayer in motion

I don’t know why I’m so eager to go labyrinth walking. It’s not like walking a labyrinth is different from walking elsewhere, other than you’re walking in circles, then retracing your steps: you’re literally going nowhere. But the intentionality of labyrinths makes the process seem significant: this particular place–this particular walk–is different from all others. It’s the conundrum of sacred places: God presumably dwells everywhere, but some places seem super-charged with divine presence. Normally, walking is a matter of getting somewhere, but labyrinth-walking (like other forms of meditation) is about Being Here and going nowhere other than ’round.

Click here for more photos of the Boston College memorial labyrinth: enjoy!

Parking lot labyrinth

A few weeks ago, A (not her real initial) emailed me a photo of a green, grassy labyrinth she’d walked near Cincinnati, Ohio: her first. In my response, I mentioned that I’ve walked a labyrinth in a parking lot off Church Street in downtown Keene, NH several times these past few weeks, on evenings when I’m teaching at Keene State. What a strange contrast between these two labyrinths, with A’s lush, leafy one looking so much more alluring–so much more inviting, soft, and contemplative–than mine of bare blacktop.

Parking lot labyrinth

Despite its aesthetic shortcomings, Keene’s parking lot labyrinth is close at hand, so I use it, not every Tuesday and Thursday, but enough days to make it worthwhile: a sanctuary close by. If you had to choose whether to have your sacred spaces in the world or not of it, which would you choose? I love the thought of walking a leafy labyrinth in a faraway, tranquil spot—anywhere but here—but at the same time I know I’d rarely, if ever, bring myself to that place. Labyrinths are themselves supposed to represent the travails of pilgrimage, but it shouldn’t take a pilgrimage to get there. I’ve grown to like Keene’s bare blacktop labyrinth because it’s already begun to feel like it’s mine: almost empty right after 5 pm, with only a few lingering parked cars and strangers going to or from their business, mostly ignoring me, a middle-aged woman in a long skirt or dress walking in circles, quickly, in their parking lot.

Parking lot labyrinth

I walk Keene’s downtown labyrinth quickly, not slowly and meditatively. In other cases, with other labyrinths, I’ve walked meditatively, but the whole point of my evening walks in Keene is not to dally. I have a class to get back to campus for, and my head is typically full of thoughts: whatever paper-grading or class-prepping or email-answering I’d been doing moments before during my office hour. I arrive to the downtown labyrinth with a full, distracted head, full of clamoring thoughts, so the only way to remedy the situation is to walk it off.


And so I walk briskly, at the same pace that I walk anywhere on my evening walks: a fast, steady stride. When you walk a labyrinth quickly, you have to concentrate intently on the path beneath you: there’s no skipping that. The turns in any labyrinth are tight and narrow, so you have to place your feet carefully, stepping precisely into your own footsteps. But you can do this at any speed, and in this case I enjoy walking briskly, perhaps because then my feet are in tune with the cluttered, racing thoughts that jangle in my head like loose keys and coins, or perhaps because rapid walking is such a welcome relief from the slow-poking walks I’ve taken for the past few years, when I lived with an old dog.


Walking a labyrinth swiftly is a different kind of meditation than walking one slowly: they each have their respective benefits. When you walk a labyrinth slowly, you can pay attention to the angle and arch of each foot as it falls, and you can pay attention to your body and breath as they settle into each stride. When you walk a labyrinth quickly, however, you pay attention to the path ahead of you, focusing outside of yourself, your thoughts, and your own corporeality. You aren’t thinking about the fact that you have a body; you’re simply moving in that body. Your walking, in other words, takes on a life of its own, with no thinking necessary. You simply follow the next step, then the next, then the next. Instead of being an exercise in mindfulness, this is an exercise in mindlessness: with each step, your thoughts sooth and settle as you leave your mind alone. It’s like letting a restless creature off its leash to race and pace at its own speed, your mental greyhound chasing its own fake rabbit round and around, lapping.


I think in an ideal life, one’s spiritual practice would have a time and a place for both kinds of practice, fast and slow. Sitting is slow, as is (typically) walking meditation. But in my Zen school at least, both chanting and bowing are fast: a time to let your body simply be a body as it runs at its own brisk clip. It’s fine and good to stop and think—it’s fine and good to take time to be contemplative. But for many of us, stopping to think easily turns into obsession and repetition as we rehearse time and again the same old litanies of worry, speculation, and regret. At times like this, stopping to think might be counterproductive, so doing anything fast and physical is a good antidote. Instead of trying to stop a racing mind, let your body outpace it.


I’m not a runner, but I admire runners because I can imagine, vividly, the hypnotic power of step following each step. I’m not a runner, but as a walker I love to reach that point after you’ve been walking fast and long when your body seems to lengthen, your legs feel light, and you can almost feel the earth turning slowly and broadly beneath your feet, like an enormous curved treadmill, your steps exactly in time with its rotation.


The builders of labyrinths are brilliant, I think, because they recognize this way that body and soul are connected: more accurately, they recognize the link between mind and sole. As a body thinks, so does it walk. If you want to get to the bottom of an infinite head-full of thoughts, try walking it out, one footstep for every thought.

On nights when parked cars make it impossible for me to walk the labyrinth in Keene, I sometimes walk part of the Industrial Heritage Trail, the rail-trail bike path that goes behind my former apartment. It’s a trail I walked many times with Reggie, at least when he was young and fit enough for long walks: it was the closest nearby place where I could let him off leash, and he’d run ahead in his own time while I lingered behind, snapping pictures of shadows and trees.


Everyone should have a place close at hand where they can let their mental dog off leash to sniff, explore, and race ahead. On the railtrail, Reggie was safe because a fringe of trees on either side hemmed him in: he could race ahead, but he couldn’t bolt far to either side. I didn’t need to worry about traffic or about Reggie wandering off where I couldn’t find him.


This is, in a sense, how a labyrinth works. Because you don’t have to worry about getting lost, you can let your brain off-leash. You don’t have to pay attention to where you’re going, just to the fact that you are going. Paying attention to the next step is enough: no more planning or foresight is necessary than that.

Walking a labyrinth is a great exercise in trust. Do you have enough faith to take the next step, even if you aren’t sure exactly where it leads? Are you trusting enough to take the next step, even if it feels like you’re running in circles?

Labyrinth parking

These days, I don’t know what the future holds, but every day I know exactly what I need to do today. Walking a labyrinth underscores the idea that taking care of today—the next step—is enough to get you there and back safely, without undue worry or exertion. Don’t worry about the destination, which will come in due time: just keep going. It’s a lesson that we need every day, everywhere, regardless of whether we live with a labyrinth near.

Today’s post is illustrated with photos of the parking lot labyrinth off Church Street in downtown Keene, which I blogged in December, 2010; a visiting labyrinth at Keene State College, which I blogged in November, 2004; and the labyrinth behind the First Baptist Church in Keene, which I blogged in September, 2005.

Labyrinth parking

I haven’t blogged since the end of NaBloPoMo mainly because we’ve reached the almost-end of the semester and my daily to-do lists have me running in circles.


I’ve written before about the circular shape of the last month of the semester, when “there’s no stopping the madly-out-of-control merry-go-round that is the life of a writing instructor: assign it, collect it, read and comment upon it, return it…then repeat, repeat, and repeat.” This stage of the semester is entirely predictable–you revisit it twice a year, in winter and spring–but it always feels a bit surprising nevertheless. Oh, yes…here we go again!

The madly cyclic, circular loop that is the last month of any academic semester feels labyrinthine while you trudge its long and winding path. You can see the end of the semester, which seems alluringly close, but there’s no shortcut around the winding way you have to tread to get to that endpoint. Whereas you can get lost in a maze, there’s no getting lost in a labyrinth: you just have to be patient enough to keep walking, step by step, until you reach (and return from) the end.


As exhaustingly repetitive it feels as a writing instructor to keep collecting and commenting on subsequent drafts of the same semester-long research projects, the monotony of this seemingly endless feedback loop merely mirrors the repetitive tasks my students themselves are facing. For an entire semester, my Thinking & Writing and Creative Nonfiction students have been chipping away at their essays, one word (and one research source) at a time. Right about now, my students are ready to be done with their projects, and I’m ready for them to be done, too.

At times, revision feels like you’re revisiting the same ideas over and over as you pore over the stubborn knots in your thinking. The overwhelming enormity of writing a semester-long project and the sheer monotony of the effort it takes to actually do it are again labyrinthine: “The message of a labyrinth is to persevere–take the next step–keep going even if the way seems long or confusing. You will get there, and back, safely, a labyrinth seems to reassure. Take care with this next step, and peace will follow all the rest.”

Parking lot labyrinth

It’s a lesson that’s easy to forget, even if you revisit it twice a year, every year. It’s a lesson that bears repeating not just to my students, but to myself: the end will come eventually–soon enough, but not a moment too soon–but you have to keep walking every last step to reach it.

Yes, it’s true: there’s a painted labyrinth in a parking lot off Church Street in downtown Keene…and there always seems to be at least one car parked right on top of it.


Take it from one amazed onlooker: it takes a lot of stones, each roughly hand-sized, to make a labyrinth where once stood a lawn of grass.


Last November I blogged about the portable cloth labyrinth that visited Keene State College. After the tranquil experience of treading that winding path, I read with interest this past weekend about the new stone labyrinth that had been installed (and then dedicated on September 11th) behind the First Baptist Church here in Keene. First Baptist already has a Peace Park on its quiet grounds, so laying stones for a winding walkway to heaven seems to make sense, the practice of stopping to walk a labyrinth being an intrinsically calming, peace-inducing activity.

Naturally, walking an outdoor labyrinth is quite different from pacing the polished floors of a college Student Center. The sun was setting last night when I took my quick trip to Jerusalem and back, and the crickets were calling, having already taken up residence in the sheltering stones that mark the labyrinth’s twisting walkway.


I’ve written before about the difference between labyrinths and mazes: whereas you can get lost in a maze, there’s only one (albeit wending) way to the center of a labyrinth. The message of a labyrinth is to persevere–take the next step–keep going even if the way seems long or confusing. You will get there, and back, safely, a labyrinth seems to reassure. Take care with this next step, and peace will follow all the rest.

It seemed very natural to walk a labyrinth marked with stones of varying shapes, sizes, and colors. Just as it takes all types of people to make the Kingdom of God, it takes all types of stones to mark the way there and back. Here in the Granite State, we have plenty of rocks…and hikers here are used to following cairns–piles of stone–to find their way over mountaintops.

In the grass behind the First Baptist Church here in Keene, it’s as if one of those cairns has come undone, unraveling its myriad stones like a clew unwound. Following a line of stone, you find at the end that peace is indeed in every step, underfoot.



Yesterday I took a break from writing my so-called novel to take a stroll to Jerusalem and back, and I think it was a worthwhile trip.

Last month I wrote about wandering a corn maze here in Keene. In that post, I noted the differences between labyrinths and mazes. As Rebecca Solnit notes in Wanderlust: A History of Walking, labyrinths represent in spatial terms the inevitability of God’s grace: if you set out on the spiritual quest and keep walking that path, you are guaranteed to find God at the end. Whereas a maze forces you to make directional choices–right, left, or straight–the only choices in a labyrinth are stop, continue, or quit. Walking a labyrinth, you realize that the only task ever required of you is simply to take the next step. If you trust that path despite all its zigs and zags, you will ultimately find your true goal.


The world’s most famous labyrinth is the four-quadrant path paved into the floor of France’s Chartres Cathedral. That labyrinth was designed to give believers a way of walking a metaphorical pilgrim’s path to Jerusalem and back without leaving their own neighborhood. Pilgrimage has always been an expensive and dangerous endeavor: not every believer has the time, money, or freedom to cast aside mundane cares to walk across the world seeking enlightenment. Labyrinths remind believers that God can be found in a spot of time and even underfoot. If you prayerfully pace the steps to the center of a labryinth and back, you can replicate in spiritual form the physical journey made by Christ himself.

Medieval labyrinths such as the one in Chartres Cathedral are rooted in a particular cosmology. Even working with simple tools, Medieval geographers had a sophisticated understanding of the actual world. Traders knew, for instance, how to get to the Orient and back, and pilgrims knew the routes to Jerusalem and other sacred sites. Medieval orbis terrarum maps–circular depictions of the world–look crudely distorted and even inaccurate not because cartographers didn’t know better; instead, these maps were consciously designed with Jerusalem, the site of Christ’s crucifixion, placed squarely at the center of a round world. In his discussion of these so-called OT maps, geographer Yi-Fu Tuan notes how they are T-shaped, with half the world representing Africa and the charted unknown, one fourth representing exotic Asia, and the final quarter denoting the European “known world.” At the center of these maps–the intersection of the “T”–is Golgotha, the hill in Jerusalem where Christ was crucified. In a word, OT maps (such as the one seen in the background of this self-portrait) weren’t designed to help you navigate from Point A to Point B; instead, they served as spiritual place-markers, a reminder that “You Are Here” with your heart centered on God.


Yesterday as I walked into the Young Student Center here on the campus of Keene State College, it seemed odd to think that I was approaching a symbolic representation of Jerusalem, the spiritually significant point where Heaven touches Earth. Different world religions point to various geographical places that are charged with cosmological meaning. Muslims point to Mecca, Jews and Christians (and to a lesser degree Muslims) point to Jerusalem, and various indigenous peoples point to specific sites where Creation commenced. As Mircea Eliade discusses in The Sacred and the Profane, one defining aspect of all religions is the way they divide the world into spiritual opposites, “the sacred” being situated at or near the symbolic center of the world (the Axis Mundi) and “the profane” being further removed from this cosmological center.

Yesterday as I paced in stockinged feet a canvas replica of the Chartres labyrinth, a day-long installation sponsored by the University System of New Hampshire’s “Embrace Life Fully” wellness program, I enacted a symbolic journey toward Jerusalem, the Spiritual Center where God deigned to die. Even though God is omnipresent, we as bodied creatures exist in time and place: we need reminders that God exists not just every- and anywhere, but specifically Here and Now. Pilgrim sites are significant because they point to the belief that God Happens with spatial and temporal specificity: on a Jerusalem hill, Christ was crucified; along a French stream, Bernadette saw the Virgin Mary; atop an Irish mountain, Patrick fasted for forty days; and on a Mexican hillside, a Lady from Heaven appeared to Juan Diego.


Most of us won’t ever be visited by spiritual apparitions; most of us won’t ever witness miracles. But we all dwell in time and place, and we all want occasional reminders that God has not left the building. The toil and trouble of pilgrimage denotes the real effort of the spiritual life: if you want salvation or enlightenment, at some point you have to get off your ass and get going. Labyrinths, especially portable ones, remind us that the journey toward an ubiquitous God needn’t be a long and arduous one: God is the very ground we walk upon, and God can be known through contemplation as well as action.

Not having the time or resources to visit Jerusalem, Lourdes, Croagh Patrick, or Guadalupe, yesterday I walked into the Mabel Brown Room in the Young Student Center at Keene State College, where Dr. Nancy Puglisi and her parner had spread out a portable labyrinth. It took about five minutes to navigate the twists and turns to the center of the labyrinth, where a Tibetan bell marked the temporal (albeit temporary) meeting of heaven and earth. On most days, the Mabel Brown Room is the site of dance classes, organization meetings, and public lectures: the last time I’d set foot there, a packed crowd listened to KSC Writer-in-Residence and peace activist Janisse Ray speak out against the Bush administration. Yesterday, though, the Mabel Brown Room was a quiet, tranquil place, a place far removed from both war and politics. Oddly and even miraculously, a large white-and-purple canvas carefully spread transformed just another auditorium into a sacred place akin to that sacred space I stumbled upon on my way to my dissertation defense back in April.


The moral of pilgrimage is that you sometimes have to travel to find God; the moral of a roll-up labyrinth is that sometimes God comes to you. Early Buddhists eschewed representational iconography, refusing to depict the Buddha’s face or body but instead revering images of his footprint. Don’t revere the Seeker, these images suggest; instead, focus on the Path he trod, and then go about making your own footprints. God indeed sets foot in the actual, tangible world; God himself steps perpetually in your very own footsteps.