From The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit:
"A labyrinth is an ancient device that compresses a journey into a small space, winds up a path like thread on spool. It contains beginning, confusion, perserverance, arrival, and return. There at last the metaphysical journey of your life and your actual movements are one and the same. You may wander, may learn that in order to get to your destination you must turn away from it, become lost, spin about, and then only after the way has become overwhelming and absorbing, arrive, having gone the great journey without having gone far on the ground.
"In this it is the opposite of a maze, which has not one convoluted way but many and offers no center, so that the wandering has no cease or at least no definitive conclusion. A maze is a conversation; a labyrinth is an incantation or perhaps a prayer. In a labyrinth you're lost in that you don't know the twists and turns, but if you follow them you get there; and then you reverse your course.
"The end journey of a labyrinth is not the center, as is commonly supposed, but back at the threshold again: the beginning is also the real end. That is the home to which you return after the pilgrimage, the adventure. The unpraised edged and margins matter too, because its not ultimately a journey of immersion but emergence. Ariadne gives Theseus a spool of thread to help him escape the labyrinth in Crete (which must have been a maze by our modern definitions). You unspool the thread on the journey to the center. Then you rewind to escape.
"In this folding up of great distance into small space, the labyrinth resembles two other manmade things: a spool of thread and the lines and pages of a book. Imagine all the sentences in a book as a single thread around a spool...imagine they could be unwound, that you could walk the line they make, or are walking it. Reading is also traveling, the eyes running along the length of an idea, which can be folded up into the compressed space of a book and unfolded within your imagination and your understanding.
"All stories have this form, but fairy tales are often particularly labyrinthlike. Something happens, and as to get from the periphery to the center of a labyrinth you twist and turn, turn away from the center, journey to the farthest reaches before you can reach your destination, so in a fairy tale you are interrupted, cursed, cast out, bereft, and in order to get back to the place you're in, have to go back of the north wind or the top of a glass mountain. The route is rarely direct, and it often ends in a return to the beginning point."
"Anatomists long ago named the windings of the inner ear, whose channels provide both hearing and balance, the labyrinth," Solnit notes. "The name suggests that if the labyrinth is the passage through which sound enters the mind, then we ourselves bodily enter labyrinths as though we were sounds on the way to being heard by some great unknown presence. To walk this path is to be heard, and to be heard is a great desire of a majority of us, but to be heard by whom, by what? To be a sound traveling toward the mind -- is that another way to imagine this path, this journey, the unwinding of this thread?"
"To be heard literally is to have the vibrations of the air travel through the labyrinth of the listener's ear to the mind, but more must unfold in that darkness. You choose to hear what corresponds to your desire, needs, and interests, and there are dangers in a world that corresponds too well, with curating your life into a mirror that reflects only the comfortable and familiar, and dangers in the opposite direction. Listen carefully.
"To hear is to let the sound wander all the way through the labyrinth of your ear; to listen is to travel the other way to meet it. It's not passive but active, this listening. It's as though you retell each story, translate it into the language particular to you, fit it into your cosmology so you can understand and respond, and thereby it becomes part of you. To empathize is to reach out to meet the data that comes through the labyrinths of the senses, to embrace it and incorporate it. To enter into, we say, as though another person's life was also a place you could travel to.
"Kindness, compassion, generosity are often talked about as though they're purely emotional virtues, but they are also and maybe first of all imaginative ones."
Photographs: A walk in our local Deer Park last month with Tilly and my mother-in-law. The sculpture at the end of the beech avenue is by Peter Randall-Page, who lives nearby. The patterns in the stones are neither labyrinths nor mazes but evocative of both, and so seem appropriate today. Follow the link to see more of Peter's beautiful work.