Guest Blog: The Purposeful Action of Labyrinths

I’m so grateful for our guest blogger, Katherine Davis. Her words are soothing to our souls at this time and remind us how comforting the labyrinth is as a tool for peace, grief integration and hope. Thank you for reaching out, Katherine!

Katherine Davis, Bethlehem, PA

March 2021

In the fall of 2020, after a class in my graduate writing program introduced community archives, my mind turned to the walking trails and outdoor labyrinths I had visited through the summer months.

Following the theory that during the months of COVID-19 mandated restrictions, outdoor walking labyrinths served as a unique and safe coping tool, I mapped sites that could provide support to this idea. For this graduate course, I visited and photographed 20 outdoor labyrinths and the artifacts around them in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania and created a video community archive that reflects the themes and consciousness of the year.

It makes sense that during the pandemic of COVID-19 and all that it entailed, there was a reported surge of interest in labyrinths. In July, Laura Bliss reported on Bloomberg.com an increase in enrollment for labyrinth-making workshops and training programs and a sales increase of 300% at just one hand-held labyrinth company.

During my research for the project, I landed at Global Healing Response and was not at all surprised to find this exclusive niche devoted entirely to the labyrinth as a healing tool during disasters. Scrolling through the list of past tragedies already addressed through Global Healing Response was a reminder of all our nation and world has endured even as we remained deep inside this new, enormous pandemic.

If the virus was not enough to spin the population into fear and grief, other events sealed the state of sadness, anger, and unrest in the year. Protests and activities for Black Lives Matter, demands for acknowledgement and large-scale change, and a looming contentious presidential election were vivid factors of a year that tested our nation.

All of these, joined with the personal struggles of family, health, loss, career and financial worries, formed the collective mindset of the country during this timeframe. I carried this in my thoughts as I headed out to the labyrinths. I looked for elements that connected to our shared experience and our shared desire to prevail. My experience of completing the project mirrored 2020. I was alone. It was quiet. Through visits to 20 public places, only two of these had owners who even knew I was there. I understood my invisibility.  

Although I saw few people in my travels, it was clear the labyrinths had been in use since the arrival of COVID-19. A majority of the labyrinths were well maintained rather than ignored and overgrown with grass and weeds. Flowers and plants were blooming. The hosts I didn’t meet kept these sites active, clean, and manicured during the months of 2020.

Several sites had signs and items that did not exist prior to COVID-19 such as notices about social distancing guidelines. One labyrinth I visited several years ago once held a visitors’ book and pen at a covered hutch near the entrance. In 2020, the book was gone and a container of hand sanitizer was in its place.

At several labyrinths, I photographed discarded face masks crumbled near the labyrinths or forgotten in nearby gardens. Another sign of the year was a shredded Dunkin’ Donuts napkin. Upon the national shutdown, our country learned what the word “essential” means and coffee landed in that category. I loved that I saw these signs of life, even if I couldn’t interact with the life itself.

Lawn signs for Black Lives Matter and Hate Has No Home Here were placed at the entrance of multiple properties. Messages about unity, strength, community, and healing were written on rocks, shells, or plastic lawn signs and added to the labyrinths. One site had clearly hosted an event for Breast Cancer Awareness month in October and added pumpkins painted bright pink around the path of the labyrinth.

We know labyrinth walkers share a seeking nature and a purposeful forward motion. I formed this project with the idea that labyrinths offer solace, a coping mechanism, and positive outlet during what may be one of the most difficult and defining moments of this century. What I found in addition is the reminder that labyrinths are not a timid, passive tool. Rather, labyrinths and the community of walkers continue to demonstrate purposeful action, not quiet inaction. I believe as these labyrinths were walked, they were not final steps, but more likely the first steps – launching points to return home, to work, to demonstrations, or volunteerism with renewed energy, focus, and passion.

In person, I found an intense contrast in the unplanned road of 2020 against the carefully measured and perfectly navigated path of a labyrinth. The photo archive captures the many labyrinth elements that urge us to keep walking.  Archive video is found here.

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