Two of my dear friends, Jean and Alex, both age 63, died a few days before I stepped into my first labyrinth — a sacred path leading from outer to inner, or Earth to God, depending on one’s perspective. I was in Arizona. My mind was tortuous, turning like the twisty lines on the desert ground in front of me. Alex and Jean had passed too soon, too young, both so full of compassion and great humor.
Our labyrinth leader, Serena, invited us to take our first mindful footfall: “Moving through the labyrinth can help you move through grief. Follow the path. Meander to the center. Like life with its beginnings and endings, a labyrinth takes us through complications and difficulties. If you walk with the intention to get support, the labyrinth can be seen as a type of guide from beyond your human ego and small self.”
My muscles tightened. My mind closed. I wanted to send a message, “Earth to God: Death is not fair! Help!”
Serena continued, “The geometrical spider-web-like design often has words of wisdom. It is a symbol for the entanglements of life and how they ravel and unravel. As you approach the center, you can pray or ask for healing. Then stop for a bit. On your way out, listen for a way out of your troubles.”
I knew then what I would ask. I cried as I strolled among the winding curves. “What am I to learn from these two premature deaths? People in their prime, doing heartfelt work in the world. What am I supposed to do with that?”
I wanted answers, deep spiritual answers that would make sense of life and death, soul answers to how I should tread in my own life now that I had come to see how short, precious and devastating it can be. Step by step, I sauntered to the center. As Serena suggested, I then turned to the four directions and bowed, honoring north, east, south and west. Next I stood still in the place that Serena said could give order to the would-be chaos of our lives’ paths. And I waited.
I stood there, tears wetting my Arizona-dry cheeks, missing Jean and Alex. As I gazed at the mountains around me, I heard a voice within. “Life is a gift. Like all gifts, it is meant to be opened and enjoyed.”
I wanted something bigger, something huge like, “Publish international best sellers,” or “Raise charismatic kids who change the world.”
But open and enjoy? Really? I asked, “That’s all?”
I heard, “That’s all. Open and enjoy. It’s easier than you’re making it.”
Alex and Jean would have used the same words, winking and teasing me for my seriousness. I heard them speak to me that day. I had taken a few steps through grief.
Years later, jogging around Casco Bay’s Mackworth Island, I noticed on a hillside a small sign: “Labyrinth.” I could tell from the brightly painted bricks, unevenly placed in the dirt, that these circles had been created by schoolchildren. On some pieces were letters, “I luv U, God.” Others had quotes from the New Testament; fitting, I noted, as Christ was peripatetic too.
Mackworth’s creation had no center. “A labyrinth must have a strong center,” I heard myself start to grumble, “a spot to stop, to rest, to listen, to receive messages from beyond. So what’s this? No center? How can this be a labyrinth?”
Luckily above my blah-blah-blah, I heard echoes of Jean and Alex: “Hey, Sue, open your mind and heart. This puzzle is a gift. Enjoy it as it is.”
My muscles softened. I walked the short trail in and out, then stood still, inhaled and opened to the four directions: Falmouth, open ocean, Portland and Westbrook. I enjoyed them exactly as they were: gray, foggy, chilly. I opened the hopscotchy gift from the children and let the day and the children’s project be perfect, without demanding that it make sense.
And now, all these years later, if I remember to open to Jean and Alex whenever they tap me on the shoulder with their winks and wisdom, life is, indeed, much easier than I make it.
Susan Lebel Young, M.S. Ed, MSC, is a retired psychotherapist. Her new book is “Food Fix: Ancient Nourishment for Modern Hungers.” To contact her, email: