The Maze or the Labyrinth?

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Every weekday Alicia and I walk to the post office around lunchtime.  Sometimes we pick up slices of pizza from Antonio’s—makers of the best pie anywhere.  We like to eat our lunch on the benches of a nearby church courtyard.

In the middle of this courtyard is a labyrinth comprised of red and grey stones.  The design is maybe twenty yards across and reminds me of Celtic knot work.

Alicia and I have admired the labyrinth many times, but we had never walked it, and therefore had never really experienced it.

Two weeks ago, on a whim, while Alicia was finishing her pizza slice, I decided to remedy that.

As I began my trip into the circle, following the path of red stones, I asked, “What’s the difference between a maze and a labyrinth again?”

Alicia said, “A maze is designed to confuse you and keep you from exiting easily.  A labyrinth is designed to guide you through a journey that leads to the center, and then back out again.  It’s meditative.”

I nodded, but did not answer.

I was busy twisting and turning through the many winding intricacies of the labyrinth.  I’d walk toward the center only to be turned around and led sharply away by the red bricks.  I realized that I was going to twist and turn through every inch of the circle, but I found it hard to predict which way would be next—the pattern was not obvious, especially while I was in the labyrinth.  But as I moved further along, following the red bricks, trusting in the path, letting go, I began to forget about my worries and simply concentrated on following, remaining in motion.

The journey took a lot longer than I thought it would, but I was determined to see where the path leads, even though I knew that by definition the labyrinth would take me to the center.

When I reached the red flower at the heart I looked up and smiled.

Al clapped.

We had sat in the church courtyard hundred of times, but this was my first attempt to navigate the labyrinth.

Why?

Perhaps I had always been too busy or maybe I was simply uninterested.  Many times, I had walked across the labyrinth absentmindedly in just a few strides, paying no attention to the path.  But on that day I gave myself to the labyrinth fully, and I enjoyed it.

As I retraced my steps, following the red path out, I thought about how walking the labyrinth is a good metaphor for the writing life.  You have to follow a writing project where it leads you and resist the temptation to hop directly to the middle before you have taken the necessary journey, which will always be full of many twists and turns.

I remember being a frustrated MFA student, hungry for answers, shortcuts, and the secrets I thought other wiser writers were guarding.  Many of the students at Goddard were so eager to be respected storytellers.  We’d ask our published advisors, “What do we have to do to get published?  Just tell us!  What are the answers?”  And the reply was always some version of this: you need to write and write and write (and read and read and read and live and live and live) and see what happens.  You need to endure.  You need to follow your own red path even though you cannot see the center yet.  You need to resist the urge to hop to the middle without taking the journey, and you also need to resist the urge to walk away from it all.

During the MFA experience I heard the phrase ‘trust the process’ so many times.  I suspect it was our program director, Paul Selig, who championed the “trust the process” mantra.  Regardless, I heard many advisors and students use the phrase whenever one of our fellow MFAers got frustrated.

Trust the process.

Trust the process.

Trust the process.

Follow the thread.

Stay the course.

One foot in front of the other and then repeat indefinitely.

Back when I was earning my MFA I thought publishing a novel was surely at the center of my own personal labyrinth, but then I published a novel and the red path continued, and so I continued to follow it.

There have been times lately when I forget to be meditative, to realize that there is joy in the journey itself, that the act of writing is not necessarily a means to an end, but a way to heighten the importance of the present moment.

So I have been trying to think of my daily writing practice as practice—simply what I do.

And as the cacophony of sales numbers, Twitter and Facebook buzz, publishing doomsday prophecies, and Internet reviews jostles my thoughts, I am trying very hard to believe I can choose between two mentalities.

Am I lost, trapped in a maze?

Or am I simply moving forward, always toward the heart, no matter how many twists and turns the labyrinth presents?

I’m thinking the difference has to do with faith.

And so like always, like all storytellers should, we need to believe as we journey onward.

I think I’ll be walking the labyrinth more often.

Q

Q4K publishes every Tuesday & Thursday. Check back Thursday, July 8, for a kindness essay by Roland Merullo.

22 Responses to “The Maze or the Labyrinth?”

  1. B. says:

    How very hopeful , great post !

  2. “there is joy in the journey itself” – Amen to that, brother. And it is the twists and turns that make life challenging and interesting.
    Excellent, and wise, essay, Matt. Thanks.

  3. Dave Tavani says:

    Wise words, Matt–applicable to many aspects of life. You’ve created a great metaphor for the unexpected twists and turns of life.

  4. Myrna Rodriguez says:

    Love this essay! I’ve been trying to get out of the maze and into the labyrinth since Goddard. These words offer me hope. And how great is it to have someone that applauds you for making it to the middle!

  5. Amy Benoit says:

    Wow! I really needed to read this and I have a sneaky suspicion I was just unknowingly led through my own labyrinth.

    Thank you.

  6. Sarah says:

    wow, love this post! And I think it’s such a beautiful way to look at life, no matter the perspective you have, life will always come with some curveballs, so you might as well choose to follow the labyrinth :)

  7. BD says:

    I never knew there was a difference between a maze and a labryinth. How interesting. I suppose life can be either one, depending on your attitude.

    “Trust the process” is something that I hear often from fellow long distance runners. Some days you feel unstoppable. Other days you ache after one mile. There are days for speed, days for distance, and days for rest. Some days you go further and faster than ever before, and other days are nothing short of disastrous. Small victories and defeats. The important thing is to–literally–put one foot in front of the other and have faith in your training.

  8. Peter Murphy says:

    Q. Meant to tell you that when I read Sorta Like a Rock Star on the plane from Philly to San Fran, I started tearing up somewhere over Kansas and was in a quietly weeping when I finished it over Nevada. Thank you.

    I walked the “Snoopy Labyrinth” (I’m not making this up) at the Charles M. Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa. Not complex, a dog could do it with his eyes closed, but it led to a poem that my own process will worry over the few whiles.

  9. Corey says:

    We’re all in a number of labyrinths at any time in life, no?

  10. Heather Leah says:

    Q, what a beautiful post, so full of truths and hope and kindness. It’s exactly what I needed to hear and absorb. Thank you!

    Sometimes, I forget, and that forgetting leads to my suffering. It’s in the times when I remember to trust the process, I am filled with peace. “But as I moved further along, following the red bricks, trusting in the path, letting go, I began to forget about my worries and simply concentrated on following, remaining in motion.” This is what it is ALL about…writing, life, love…it’s all connected; it’s all one! We have to let go and empty our hands so they can be filled with the next thing on the path! Much, much love!!!!!

  11. evan says:

    i’d like to give a huzzah to Alicia who is super smart — I never thought there WAS a difference between a maze and a labyrinth. Except that in Labyrinth you might see some Muppets and David Bowie’s inhuman pants bulge. but that’s another issue.

  12. Q says:

    Thanks, everyone! May we all find the strength to continue onward.

  13. I learned all about labyrinths versus mazes when I worked at Bryn Mawr, and interviewed an alum who installed a labyrinth on campus. The subject fascinated me … still does. There’s a beautiful labyrinth at Kripalu Center for Yoga in Sturbridge Mass … worth a visit, if you’re into it!

  14. Shari says:

    Thanks for this thoughtful post.

    “…to realize that there is joy in the journey itself, that the act of writing is not necessarily a means to an end…” — YES! I know this, and believe it, but I was in need of a reminder. Thank you. :)

  15. Dana says:

    Truly relative for the place I am in life right now. Thank you.

  16. Rosanne Wilson says:

    There is one other aspect to this that I’ve often thought about. It is the valleys that make us able to appreciate and delight in the peaks. I remember once hearing a quote from Mother Teresa that struck me and has stayed with me ever since. “A tapestry without flaw has no depth.” It is the challenges along the journey that help us to appreciate the wonders. I truly believe that those tough spots are the ones that provide the greatest opportunity for growth. When you push through them, and come out at the other end, there is a richness, a confidence, and a part of you that is new.

  17. Q says:

    Really appreciate all of the kind and thoughtful comments!

  18. V says:

    That’s A-Mazing!

    Fist Pound.

  19. Sensai says:

    I also did not know the difference between a maze and a labyrinth and loved Alicia’s description. This served as a wonderful reminder to always pay attention to the little things that surround us all on a daily basis. Thanks Matt and Alicia!

  20. Wally says:

    “Trust the process” now has new meaning.

  21. Len W. Brown says:

    The power of the Internet. I came here specifically looking for “Cross-Stitch Celtic Knot Pattern” via Google Search. The beautiful stone labyrinth photo you presented was a part of that search. I came seeking one thing and am now leaving with much more! Loved the post and find myself browsing so much more here.

    But I have to ask now, as no one else appears to have in the comments – where precisely is this beautiful stonework? I’d love to see a complete photo of it, possibly even via Google Maps.

    I just felt compelled to leave a comment of praise as well. I believe this is yet another example of paths that take us places we have never visited before, but are thankful we came…

  22. Q says:

    It’s on Haddon Ave in Collingswood, NJ, USA. Thanks for the kind words!

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