Faith Gong: Walking the Labyrinth

Were you to ask me what our family has done this summer, my response would be, “Very little.”

This summer, my daughters decided they wanted to do nothing. With the exception of a handful of brief or sporadic local activities, they shook their heads at any sort of camp or sport. Many of their friends head to sleepaway camp for weeks on end; not one Gong daughter has even a passing interest in such a thing – and, as a former miserably homesick camper myself, I’m not inclined to push it.

Sure, there was the weeklong vacation in Maine. A couple of trips to the lake and the pool. A few outings to local museums. And that’s about the sum total.

Now, this isn’t my first rodeo: When it became clear that our summer calendar was going to have its fair share of blank spaces, I printed out a nifty little sheet for each daughter with the heading, “My Summer Goals.”

“Just think of three things you want to accomplish this summer, and write them down,” I instructed them. “That way, you won’t feel like you didn’t get anything done this summer.” This is parent code for: Good Lord, we’ve got to have at least a little bit of structure or we’re all going to KILL EACH OTHER!

So we had goals. There were tote bags to sew, fairy houses to build, books to write. I even entertained the vision of “Math Mondays,” where we’d all spend 30 minutes doing “fun” math together. (Please stop laughing.)

How much of this has materialized in reality? (Don’t judge; we still have three weeks left!)

Here is how most of our summer days play out:

My oldest daughter, the tween, rolls downstairs around 10 o’clock in the morning and is ready to go by about 2 o’clock in the afternoon. She spends the bulk of the day in her bedroom, co-authoring a play with friends using Google Docs. When she deigns to join the rest of us downstairs, she flops down in a chair with a book. Should I attempt to address her, she gives me a look that says, WHO are you, and WHY are you speaking to me?

My second and third daughters have less extensive grooming routines than their older sister, so their days begin earlier. These days consist of running outside to jump on the trampoline and throw scratch to the poultry; when they get too hot, they run back inside and flop down in the living room with books. Should I attempt to get their attention by standing in the middle of the room, waving my arms overhead, and shouting, “Hey! I’m available if anyone wants to sew a tote bag!” they mumble, “Not right now,” without lifting their eyes from the page.

My youngest daughter is up at dawn. She cannot read beyond three-letter words; still, she’ll pick up book after book and “read” aloud to herself. When she tires of this, she stuffs the books and assorted stray household items into any empty bag she can find, and wanders around muttering to herself -- her version of playing “grown-up.” (No comments on her role models, please.) Should I pause in my own duties, she’s right at my elbow asking, “Read to me, Mama?”

At the end of each day, my daughters look at me with expectant eyes and ask, “What are we doing tomorrow?”

I realize that there are far worse things than a household of children who want to spend all summer laying around and reading. But the other day -- when the sun was shining and the humidity was low, when our calendar was blank, and when my oldest daughter was miraculously awake and dressed by 11 o’clock – I decided to do something.

The challenge is getting my four daughters to agree on what to do, so I chose something we’d never done before, which had been recommended by my daughters’ friends (i.e. instant buy-in): I took them to The Knoll.

The Knoll is Middlebury College’s farm, and includes an educational garden, outdoor kitchen, and serenity garden. It’s sited on a beautiful knoll (obviously) behind Bicentennial Hall and is open to the public from dawn to dusk.

My daughters are no strangers to flower and vegetable gardens, having some in their own yard and having visited countless others. They were most excited about what their friends had described as The Knoll’s “rock maze.”

When we arrived at The Knoll, it turned out that the “maze” was actually a walking labyrinth made of stones laid out on the ground.

A labyrinth is not a maze, because there’s only one path to the center and back out. The word itself is Greek, and Greek mythology includes the labyrinth at Knossos where the minotaur lived. Labyrinth images date to Neolithic times and have been found in Hindu and Hopi cultures. In Christian practice, labyrinths are located in many cathedrals, such as the 13th century labyrinth in Chartres Cathedral in Paris. Walking a labyrinth is often used for centering, contemplation, and prayer.

The card at the entrance of The Knoll’s labyrinth begins, “The labyrinth is a metaphor for life.”

If that’s the case, it’s interesting how our family navigated the labyrinth.

My oldest daughter walked slowly and contemplatively. She reminded me a little of myself when I walked my first labyrinth as a college student in San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral, walking with the gravitas that I was sure I was supposed to be feeling.

My second and third daughters ran through the labyrinth, then stood at the entrance asking, “Mommy, are you almost done? Can we explore somewhere else now?”

My youngest daughter ran in a straight line over the stones directly to the center of the labyrinth, where she shouted, “I win!”

And me? I walked while watching my daughters go ahead of me. It seemed an appropriate metaphor for life, indeed. I did feel a pang of distress after I’d been walking for a while, but found myself suddenly on the outermost ring, farthest from the center. Despite how it looked, though, I arrived at the center just a short bit later. Because sometimes when you seem the farthest from your goal, it turns out that you’re closer than you think.

Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit director. She lives in Middlebury with her husband, four daughters, assorted chickens and ducks, one feisty cat, and one anxiety-prone labradoodle. In her "free time," she writes for her blog, The Pickle Patch.

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