Canyon Days - Part 1
Into the Canyon, Into the Labyrinth
My alarm goes off at 6:30 a.m. I look out the bedroom window, over Topanga Canyon; it's gray and misty. Fog - the marine layer - frequently settles over the canyon like it's sinking into a big comfy armchair, and sometimes it takes awhile to get moving. But it will only last the morning. Then it will gradually slink out to sea, and the valley sun will make its way over the mountain and burn off the remaining clouds. But I love it like this - the canyon trails can be mercilessly hot by mid-morning without the fog.
The auto timer I set on the coffee maker has not worked, and my pot is dry. I fiddle with it till I hear it perking, and then I sit down groggily with my morning pages. I write about a terrible nightmare that woke me just ahead of my alarm that's still hanging on me like the fog.
When the coffee is ready I gulp down half a cup and attempt to head out. It is already 7:15 and the kids are stirring. Shoot. This will slow me down. Hutch worries aloud that I'll be bitten by a rattlesnake and perish in the canyon; he makes sure I take my phone. Violet, as far as I can tell, is unconcerned with this eventuality. I've never encountered a snake of any description on these trails, though of course I know they're around. All I see are birds and an occasional small lizard.
This morning, ironically, considering the drastic drought California is experiencing, it's actually lightly raining when I head out - more of a mist than a genuine rain, but enough to make me feel pretty damp.
As I start my run, I quickly remember that the first leg of this journey is all downhill - which feels wonderful as a warm-up, but obviously means that the way back will suck. But my legs know that after the footbridge, the path begins to undulate in a way that's a hearty workout and still fun.
The dusty rocky path is a real ankle breaker, pitted and creviced where I imagine little rivulets of water run in wetter times. But my feet remember the territory remarkably well, and I find a familiar rhythm quickly.
I follow the main path to where it emerges on a road. On later days I will cross the road and run the wide open meadows up the hill, but today I'm headed back the way I came. I'm going to visit the labyrinth I discovered here last year. It's tucked so neatly into the hillside, it was a couple weeks of daily runs through these trails before I found it, though, I later realized it's visible from the main path if you know where to look.
I have to look hard to find the path to the labyrinth. Always narrow, it is now overgrown with tall golden straw-like grasses. They scratch at my legs lightly - I'm not really bothered by them, but they slow me down and obscure the path. It doesn't look like many people have passed this way lately.
But there's the labyrinth, right where it should be, though it, too, is overgrown with dry reeds. Clumps of tall meadow plants have shot up between the stones, and parched in the sun, and I can see right away, before I even step in, that the center stone, a taller white rock that people had left various messages and remembrances on and around is missing. Where did it go? Who ransacks a labyrinth? Steals a stone from the center of a sacred place, makes off with people's wishes and dreams and moves them or claims them? I feel a little disappointed, a little offended that my own "deep thoughts" which I left there, marked in green pen at the end of last summer have disappeared. I hope they're in good hands... then again, I suspect they are, because one of the things I wrote and hid under the stone was Return, and, well... here I am. And I'm still just so impressed that someone built this thing in the first place, had the impulse, took the time, collected the stones, plotted the circuit, maintains it somehow.
The first time I walked a labyrinth was on the grounds of Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts. Formerly a Jesuit monastery, which closed in the early 1970s, in the 1980s it was converted into an inclusive interfaith yoga/meditation/retreat center. Respected yoga teachers, Catholic priests, creativity experts, mindfulness meditation gurus, wellness counselors and so forth lead workshops and retreats, refresh their minds and spirits, challenge their bodies. It's marvelous.
I like to think that in a way, the labyrinth on the grounds of Kripalu not only represents, but actually acts as, an intersection, a meeting place, for all those faiths, seekers and journeymen; a literal, physical shared path. And indeed, disparate spiritual and contemplative traditions going back to ancient cultures, have used the labyrinth for meditation and various forms of going inward, going deeper, sojourning toward a goal; so the very notion of a labyrinth walk is inherently interfaith.
There's something powerful about a labyrinth, psychologically and spiritually. I know that now, having experienced it. But that first time at Kripalu, I really didn't know what it was all about. I just kept hearing people say, "Have you walked the Labyrinth yet? Oh, you must." So I entered with no understanding of what the whole process was about, and yet, the expectation of something to write home about.
I was at Kripalu on a brief retreat for a little R & R and writing time during the period when I was feeling most creatively barren, a bit overwhelmed by mothering toddlers, despite my deep love for - and joy in - my family. I was very, very worried that I would never find space to make meaningful artistic/career work.
Anyway, I walked down the hill to the labyrinth and stepped in, feeling a little shy, embarrassed even, having no idea what I was supposed to actually do there. So I took the first steps and sort of mentally indicated, I'm here, I'm waiting, I'm listening. No bolt of lightning came. No burning bush. Come on, come on, I said. Nothing. I really thought it was kind of a bust. But it was winter and the evergreen hedges that form the labyrinth were tall and snowy, and it was a nice enough day, a pleasant stroll, I was warm in my down coat. So I just walked, and wondered if I was going anywhere. I sincerely hoped there might be something interesting at the center.
I was about halfway into the labyrinth's coil, just beginning to sort of relax into it, when a phrase very suddenly came to my mind, fully formed. The message I received in that single moment was so distinct, for a moment I thought someone had actually spoken to me.
"You're so concerned with what's next, you're missing what's now."
I was startled - the clarity of the sentence, and the truth. It was a multilayered truth, too - I'd started by plodding so impatiently through the labyrinth trying to get somewhere, to get something from it, that I almost missed the beauty of the thing itself - its quiet, its mystery, the snowy circle, the colorful prayer flags. And it was true in my life as a mother/artist. I was always fretting about the future, the answer, the solution, the infernal "work/life balance" conundrum, instead of releasing into what is, the delicious, exasperating, ever-vanishing now.
Where did that phrase come from? What spoke? My psyche? God? The Labyrinth?
I may never know, but my perspective shifted in subtle, significant ways. So discovering the labyrinth in Topanga last summer felt like a personal, intimate gift from the canyon.
Today, when I notice from the edge of the labyrinth, that the center stone, and my little talismans, are missing, I march right in.
"Hello," I say to the labyrinth. "Nice to see you again. And by the way, where's my stuff?"
I move quickly forward into the spiral, then pause. I suppose I should ask a question, ponder something as long as I'm here.
I sigh. "Ok. What's this writing project about?" I ask. "Why do I feel... called... or compelled to do this thing?" To get up early and go into the canyon, to run and sweat, to explore, and for the love of pete, to write about it, when maybe nothing interesting will happen and no one will care?
I step forward. The labyrinth answers at once. "You're doing it again," it says. "Trying to get to the center to see if your treasures are (still) there. Anticipating the outcome of a project you've just begun. Stop obsessing over conclusions, results. Remember what I said before: Don't miss what's now. Be on the path. Take the journey. Write to find out what you need to say."
And you know what was at the center when I got there today? Nothing. It looked, in contrast to the rest of the circle, which is choked with yellow weeds, almost like it was recently swept or blown clean.
I miss the things that were there last time I was here, other people's musings, keepsakes, and my own; but there's something fresh and inviting, spare, available, optimistic about it the way it is today.