A cool wind gusts over stones and grass as I walk amidst skyscraping fir trees and mountains. A mountain stream, brimming with snowmelt, hurls itself over rocks and sand in its bed behind a stand of trees a few yards away. Shaken by the wind, the trees whisper a high-pitched descant to the low roar of the creek.
I steady my gaze, straighten my posture, and take another step.
I'm walking the labyrinth at Holden Village on Sunday morning, the first day of June. It's my second try, during my six-week stay at Holden, at walking this deceptively calm via contemplativa. The village's labyrinth, constructed in what is still called the Ballfield (though baseball probably hasn't been played there in decades), is three quarters of a mile west of the village on the very edge of the Glacier Peak Wilderness. A few weeks ago, when scraps of snow still littered the edges of the labyrinth and grey clouds were closing in, I strolled out here one evening to try to get in a little bit of meditation before dark.
On that evening I started out in my usual slow, measured step, sure I would reach the center and come back out long before dark. But the labyrinth ensnared me, keeping my steps slow as I watched the evening fall. After forty-five minutes, with the light failing, I hadn't come close even to reaching the center of the ringed path, and afraid I might stumble in the dark on the way back, I finally bailed out and hustled back, trotting across the grey mud back to the road and the cluster of buildings that makes up the village.
Now I'm trying again. I've come out here right after Sunday morning Matins and I have the rest of the morning. I have embarked on the labyrinth with new resolve. I haven't asked any questions or brought any heartaches, only my body and breath and, back in my room in the village, the still-unfinished second draft of my novel, Make Nice.
I came up to Holden Village, a retreat center on the site of a copper mining village in the Cascades, in early May on the half-pay, half-sabbatical plan. Every morning I spend three hours in the kitchen, chopping apples and onions and everything else the lead cooks tell me to. Every afternoon I retreat to my room -- the village has graciously allowed me to live without a roommate so that I can use my room to write -- and work on my book. I've been working on this book for several years now, in between full time jobs in the high tech industry, and on vacations and long weekends. After being laid off for the last time in October 2002, I decided to be a full-time writer for a while. I finished my first draft in January and went to work on revisions. I'm here at Holden to finish work on the second, I hope final, draft.
The labyrinth, on this spring day, is now fringed with green grass, and dandelions poke up here and there. Despite the cool breeze, the air is warm when the sun comes out. I settle into a slow, unhesitating step, my hands in the shashu posture I learned at a Zen center, my breath slowing as my feet make their own way along the sawdust path. As the path turns and doubles back, I quickly lose any sense of how far I've come or where I am in the labyrinth as a whole. I'm just where I am, taking slow, calm steps, watching my breath, reminding myself I have all morning if I need it.
My novel, as it emerged over the years, unfolded in a similar way. I didn't outline much ahead; I only had a few milestone events that I wanted to hit along the way, scenes based on historical events I'd uncovered in my research. Set in 1960, the book looks at the strange and often comic ways the worlds of Hollywood, the Mafia, and politics all met for a season in the person of Frank Sinatra and his "Rat Pack" cronies. Because I didn't want the book to be only about celebrities, the novel also looks at how some currents of the day -- racial integration, the nonconformist lifestyle suggested by Beat Generation writers, and the new interest in Eastern spirituality -- play out in the lives of a few ordinary people. As a neophyte novelist -- I'd tried once and failed to write a novel, and I was determined to make this one work -- I found that writing the book was less a matter of arranging reality for my characters than listening to their own fears and hopes, and giving them room to live them out. The novel took longer than I expected -- five years -- but I found that the process of writing fiction was its own reward as long as I paid close attention.
Walking the labyrinth is a similar discipline. When I focus on the sensation of the earth beneath my feet and the breath in my lungs, notice the breeze tugging at my sweater even as my shadow grows shorter, I am perfectly at peace. When I start getting compulsive about whether the sawdust is too thick in some places and too thin in others, or start wondering what time it's getting to be, my steps falter. When I return to doing nothing but walking and breathing, I am again content.
I couldn't rush my novel. Setting aside a week here and there as a concentrated work period allowed me to make fitful progress; but once I lost my job and tried to rush the novel along to completion, my spirit resisted. Minimizing distractions was important, but I found I couldn't chain myself to my desk. I might write for an hour or two, then nap for forty minutes, returning refreshed to the book. Four or five hours of this alternating writing and dozing was optimal; if I tried to push myself further, I was just worn out for the next day.
As I tread the labyrinth, a couple of people come down on bicycles to read and relax in the grassy field nearby. I focus on my walking and don't greet them; they leave me alone too, but I'm glad they're there. A bear has been seen haunting the village in the last several days. I saw him a few days before, and he wasn't very imposing; but I'm glad to have someone else there in the Ballfield with me. I don't know if bears are interested in people walking the labyrinth but it's nice to have some backup.
After a while -- maybe thirty or forty minutes, maybe an hour -- the people get back on their bicycles and go back to the village. I'm alone again -- still walking, still not even having reached the center of the labyrinth. I turn, step, turn again, surrounded by forested slopes and snowy peaks. Sometimes I can see Martin Ridge, sometimes Copper Mountain, sometimes a flash of whitewater in the creek, which roars continually on its way down the valley.
I came up to Holden for six weeks -- long enough, I figured, to complete the second draft of my book. My writing was going well, but this afternoon I have to tackle a difficult task. I have decided to dump a whole chapter from the first draft and do it over again, creating new scenes and action that would better show the characters and their struggles as they approach the climax of the book. But as I walk, I'm not thinking about this problem; I know it's enough to let the wind and the sun and the sound of the creek and the trees wash over me, to be receptive to these phenomena and to the solid earth beneath my feet, to the tunnels of moles that have burrowed beneath the labyrinth's paths, to the green grass shooting up where a few weeks before there had been only mud.
Finally I reach the center. There a boulder, roughly heart-shaped, sits surrounded by the labyrinth's bends and curves. Others have left small objects there: a few coins, stones, a keychain, small notes. I take off my hat and wipe the sweat from my forehead. I haven't brought a watch but I know the morning must be almost over, for the sun is high in the sky. It has taken me almost two hours just to walk to the center. That's one long labyrinth.
If writing a novel is like walking a labyrinth -- the successive views surprising you as you twist and turn, following a path not quite of your own making -- then finishing a second draft also involves cutting. I know I'm supposed to meditate for a while at the center, then walk back out the way I've come, but I'm hungry, and I know it's late. Bowing to the boulder in the center, I turn and traipse right through the side of the labyrinth and back out to the road. Strolling back to the village at a quick but comfortable pace, I get back to the village five minutes before lunchtime.
I had given myself all morning to walk the labyrinth, and it had taken all morning. I gave myself all the time I need to write my novel, and it has taken five years. Neither journey could be called quick or efficient; but having taken them, I'm at peace.
This essay was originally published in Instrument, a church newsletter I edited, in 2003.