Half a year after Richard died, I visited San Francisco for the first time with my sister, Gay, and our sister-in-law, Beth. Gay was there for a conference. Beth and I were there to stay at the Palace Hotel on someone else’s expense account. Man, they have plush robes at that hotel. Nicest robe I ever almost stole. Also a sauna, town cars at your disposal, a brunch buffet with everything from sushi to crepes, a concierge every 20 feet. We were living high on the hog that week. I don’t know how I’ll ever come back down to the Sleep Inn between the interstate and Sonic.
One morning, Gay had meetings to attend so Beth and I were on our own to navigate the city. We decided to do some sight seeing up on Nob Hill (because you can’t get lost if you keep going uphill!). My friend, Gleam, had a thing for labyrinths and had told me much about the labyrinths at Grace Cathedral atop Nob Hill.
Now….I’m not normally one for church. At least Grace is an Episcopal church–they don’t make me itch and twitch quite as severely. I’m a church tourist, at best. Grace, however, quickly became one of my most favorite spaces I’ve ever had the privilege of visiting. I found real sanctuary there. It’s a welcoming congregation. The first chapel I stepped into remembered thousands of lives lost to AIDS. The “Life of Christ” altar by Keith Haring is surrounded by symbols of many faiths and a simple circle for people like me. This was Haring’s last piece of art. He died two weeks later from complications of AIDS, in 1990.
When we were there that October of 2005, the main aisle had been decorated with a genuinely soul-lifting art installation. This tiny thumbnail is the only record of it that I could find (because 2005 is like the Jurassic Period of the Internet). Translucent ribbons swooped from the ceiling, suspended by invisible wires. Hues transformed from deepest red toward the altar to pale sunshine yellow down the aisle. The floating fabric sculpture reminded me of a fiery spirit, 100 feet long. The motion of it, the color, the space inside it–all took my breath away. While Beth explored the side aisles, I slipped into a pew and sat quietly, just so I could share the same space with the fiery spirit. That’s when I began to cry. I missed Richard so deeply. He and I had spent many an hour exploring the cathedrals of Europe. Now I was learning to adventure on my own.
Beth had been giving me my space, but we eventually came back together and talked about what to do next. I felt like I was holding her back, but there was one thing left to do at Grace. I trusted her enough to risk making a fool of myself. As we stepped out into the afternoon light, I turned to her and confessed, “I want to walk the labyrinth.”
She was game. Beth’s not usually one for any kind of mumbo-jumbo–she was totally humoring me. “You’re going to need to explain it to me. I don’t want to screw it up.” I told her what I knew of them from Gleam, who had made a pilgrimage to Chartres with the last of her strength. Cancer took her the next year.
Here are the instructions for the Grace Labyrinth:
The labyrinth has only one path so there are no tricks to it and no dead ends. The path winds throughout and becomes a mirror for where we are in our lives. It touches our sorrows and releases our joys. Walk it with an open mind and an open heart.
Three stages of the walk
- Purgation (Releasing) ~ A releasing, a letting go of the details of your life. This is the act of shedding thoughts and distractions. A time to open the heart and quiet the mind.
- Illumination (Receiving) ~ When you reach the center, stay there as long as you like. It is a place of meditation and prayer. Receive what is there for you to receive.
- Union (Returning) ~ As you leave, following the same path out of the center as you came in, you enter the third stage, which is joining God, your Higher Power, or the healing forces at work in the world. Each time you walk the labyrinth you become more empowered to find and do the work for which you feel your soul is reaching.
Beth and I chose different starting points and began our walk. We had the place to ourselves, which let me let go of some of my inhibitions about doing something so mystical in public. I focused on the soles of my feet and the contact they shared with the ground, just like in Buddhist walking meditation. I felt safe in the maze. Not rushing, just doing. The rhythm of my steps did help me let go of the details of my life. I felt the grief slip away, the anxiety abate. My quieting mind sloughed away the months of grief, the months of worry, winnowing it all down to the real question that weighed down my heart. The question I wanted to ask of God when I got to the center of the labyrinth:
“Is Richard OK?”
I know he can’t be here. I know he’s not here. I know I can’t know where he is. But…is he OK?
That’s when God said DUH to me. Not in a mean way, more in an “of course, sweetie, bless your heart” way. It wasn’t a thunder thump of a DUH. I was open to what was there for me to receive and the gift that I received was a simple, quiet knowledge that Richard was beyond all the hurt. I was the one who was hurting, but I could set down my worry about him. That’s the burden I left in the center of the labyrinth.
On my exit journey, I did experience Union. I felt empowered to do the work for which my soul was reaching. Healing myself. I smiled a lot on the way out.
The story of the labyrinth came back to me this week because every time I’ve tried to write a word about anything, my mouth is filled with ashes and grief for my friend, Chris. Last week, Chris’ beloved daughter died suddenly, leaving two beautiful and bright children whose hearts could be broken forever by this. I worry for Chris because no parent should have to lose a child and Chris has had this happen to her twice. Both of her daughters have gone before her and that’s not fair. There are no words for what it is.
In the autumn of 2005, when I was sunk in grief and learning to live in the world again, I got back from San Francisco and began to plan my solo trip to Paris. Chris, Gleam, and the rest of our writer bunch cheered me on. The week before my trip, we gathered together for my bon voyage dinner. Chris presented me with a soft blue beret and scarf to keep me warm in Paris. She had knitted it from the leftover yarn from her grandson’s blanket. The son of the mother who is gone now. The blanket, the beret, the boy–they’re here. The beloved is gone.
I hope that grief, even a grief this abysmal, can be like the labyrinth. A path we all walk, in our way, that teaches us to receive what we need to receive and empowers us to continue the work for which our souls reach.
If you pray, pray for Chris and Wayne and Amy and Charlie and Emma. May they find some peace on this journey.