In Clifton Hill, next to the bike path along the least spoiled stretch of the Merri Creek, on a flat expanse of grass at the base of a small cliff, there is a labyrinth. Made from the same bluestone that further up the creek was quarried to build Pentridge Prison, the Merri Creek Labyrinth consists of folds of concentric circles, wrapping around each-other one way and then the other, from the outside inwards inexorably to a small chamber in the centre. In ten or fifteen minutes you can walk the labyrinth slowly from the entrance to the end; once you’ve finished you can, if you wish, step in a straight line across the low stones briskly back out onto the grass.
A labyrinth consists of only a single path. You follow it to the end; you cannot get lost in it – unlike a maze; unlike life. The point of a labyrinth is not to puzzle but to simplify: when you walk a labyrinth you hope to strip your mind of its clutter, to make of it something leaner and clearer; like paring a branch back to a walking-stick. Entering the labyrinth one walks in a broad curve, mindful of the path, seeing the world only in the periphery; as one turns the corners so the world reorients itself; and again; and again; and again; until the rhythm of this constant turning and retracing begins to assert itself on the walker: from the feet up; from the mind down.
The first time I walked the Merri Creek Labyrinth – the first time I’d walked any kind of labyrinth – was just last month. I was alone but I was imagining myself with company; I had been doing so often, lately, and in a heightened but peaceful state of mind I walked the labyrinth to calm my excitement and to make myself be patient. You can only walk a labyrinth slowly: the path is too narrow to allow any but the most careful steps; and besides, as with any walk that is poised between meaning and aimlessness the action is a slow one. As I circled and turned, circled and turned, I saw in the corner of my eyes the world blur and turn about me and I fancied that I could hear the stone beneath the grass around me grinding, like stones in a mill.
In her book Wanderlust, Rebecca Solnit summarises the many symbolic uses of labyrinths: as representations of holy pilgrimage; as metaphors for the journey from life to afterlife; as charms to bring safety or good fortune; to simulate or encourage courtship. Of the experience of walking a labyrinth in San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral, Solnit writes:
That circle became a world whose rules I lived by, and I understood the moral of mazes: sometimes you have to turn your back on your goal to get there, sometimes you’re farthest away when you’re closest, sometimes the only way is the long one.
The Merri Creek Labyrinth has no specific meaning or purpose. Descriptions of it usually mention “meditation”, that catch-all term of secular spirituality, and the labyrinth’s setting has been chosen to enhance and encourage thoughtfulness in those who walk it: next to the labyrinth is a wishing tree where people write wishes and prayers on scraps of cloth or paper and tether them to the branches; the Merri Creek itself runs close and almost wild past eucalypt saplings just below the level of the labyrinth only twenty or thirty metres away. The creek flows for dozens of kilometres through Melbourne’s northern suburbs, acting as a migratory route for birds and fish and so connecting the urban to the natural just as the sealed path that follows its course connects friends to friends, lovers to lovers. A few hundred metres from the labyrinth the Merri Creek flows into the Yarra River; in ancient cultures some rivers were believed to be greedy for life, and it was considered terrible bad luck to rescue a drowning person and so rob the river; walking to the labyrinth I wondered if a creek, being a subsidiary of a river, might also in its small way thirst for human life, might just as eagerly subsume a part of a person’s life. Perhaps if we allow it a creek can gently wash our troubles away.
When a week and a half ago I returned to the labyrinth I was seeking solace. I needed to walk; I could feel it. The days before had been confusing and disappointing and frustrating and I needed the bright, clear line that a walk can provide. When I arrived at the labyrinth I was alone, as I had been before, but the company I had allowed myself to imagine on my previous visit was now gone, a forlorn hope, a never-to-be.
I faced the labyrinth. Cyclists whirred past on the bike-path; friends and couples walked or jogged as I wrote a baffled wish on a piece of paper and tied it to the wishing tree. Solnit compares a labyrinth to the stations of the cross, and this stretch of the Merri Creek is heavy with symbols and memorials: the labyrinth and the wishing tree but also the site of an old Aboriginal school dating back to Melbourne’s early colonial history; a giant heron (Ardeidae) carved into a hillside in imitation of the horses (Equus ferus caballus) carved into chalk hillsides in the UK; a stone memorial to an Irishman murdered here some years ago. In an environment so freighted it may be asking too much for a simple walk between low rows of stones to offer any kind of healing.
Yet my mind was filled with none of those things when I stepped into the labyrinth that second time. My mind was full only of the questions and confusion that had been cluttering it in recent days and upon which I had been circling and turning, circling and turning, creating for myself a knotted maze from which I could not find an escape. I walked the labyrinth slowly, hoping for clarity, hoping for the good clean line promised by that single path; but I did not find it. My feet and my mind could not connect. Only when I noticed, on the back leg of the labyrinth closest to the cliff, a pair of Eastern Rosellas – red and white, yellow and green – flash past in flight did my mind step outside itself. These birds are common by the creek, where the urban accommodates the natural, but they never venture towards the nearby houses. Outside the city they inhabit the open fields of cleared farmland and shun the unpeopled forests. They exist in between places, in the small space humans allow between clutter and peace. It is, perhaps, something to aspire to, to find and inhabit and thrive in that imperfect place.
You can become so used to disappointment that you become determined to expect it, and so save yourself the pain of hoping. You can become so used to disappointment that you resolve to deny it, and so spare yourself the acid of self-loathing. You can become so lost in the maze that you can’t find your way out again. Can you untwist the maze just a little and make of it a labyrinth instead? Can you walk that long, clear path until you arrive safe and content at the centre of it? I don’t know. When I walked the labyrinth the second time it did not help; I felt nothing. I exited it as confused as I had been when I entered. These are the things help me: the river; and the creek; and a pair of rosellas, calling tenderly to each-other as they fly, fast and fleeting and bright as life.
Image sourced from http://en.wikipedia.org