I’ve wanted to write this post and yet I’m sure I can’t write it true. Kinda like I’ve been circling a labyrinth most nights for weeks now, even though I don’t really know why, and in fact I can’t even spell the damn word without spell check.
As all great books do, Dance of the Dissident Daughter swung me to a delightful book that I finished about a month ago—Labyrinths: Walking Toward the Center, by Gernot Candolini. It was a book so gentle in its approach that I almost failed to realize the epicentric truths it released. At the end of it I thought, in that voice I’m coming to realize as instinct, ‘you should walk the labyrinth for 30 days.’ I looked around my bathtub (where I am when conceptualizing many new endeavors) and thought, “Okay.” The me of even two years ago would have talked myself out of such a weird proposition, relying on the stale narrative that my instincts are not what they used to be. But damn it all to hell, Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes and her big ass spotlights on female existence have got me realizing that “instinct injured” is a state that can be repaired, and that it’s worth it even if the repair bill is higher than the original estimate.
So I set out for the German school squeezed into the park near my house on a recent Tuesday night. There’s something calming about walking onto an elementary school campus—a place of beginnings, of trust. They are filled with tiny coat hooks by the doors, paper pumpkins hanging from the ceilings, and welcome signs proudly proclaiming the teacher’s name and the grand learning adventure that’s about to start. The courtyards of this school wind one into the next, studded with sympathetic trees that are great for hugging (yup, tried it one night last weekend just because I could), and a faded, but still visible, labyrinth painted in tangerine and teal. I paused before entering to set an intention:
“Hmmm…a question I need answered?”
“There’s a fucking lot of those.”
“True. Something overarching?”
“Am I doing the right thing?”
That was the question night one, not attached to any particular venture, genuine albeit vague. I have to love myself for my optimism, but leaving the labyrinth that night I had squat. No answers, no enlightenment, just weird looks from the cleaning crew who now refer to me as “la loca” on my nightly visits.
Night two. Same thing.
Night three. Same thing.
Night four—“What the hell am I doing this for. I hate this stupid damn labyrinth and stupid damn Gernot Candolini. Why can’t I just be at home watching TV like a normal person right now?” And although I’d love to say the heavens opened up with insight at that moment and paper bag monsters adorning the first grade classroom doors gave me a profound talking to, it didn’t happen that way. I grumpused for a few more nights before my true intention finally unwound one night while walking home through the darkened trees.
I am learning to follow myself.
If you’ve done this your whole life, or even a large portion of it, I envy you, please call me and let me know how it can be consistently done, but the enormity of this thought will not make sense to you. Maybe from a bird’s eye view I could’ve seen it coming. I found myself saying to my therapist about a month ago, “I feel like I’m finally learning how to speak my own language after all these years. I spent so long wondering what other people were saying that I kind of forgot me.” Then after a lesson on grounding at dance, I realized that I was no longer walking entirely on the insides of my feet and I thought, “I’m learning to carry my own weight.” Even last night, walking home from a massage, I was struck deeply by the phrase, “I live here now,” running through my head. It should make sense that learning to follow myself was next, but I’m still a little floored by the thought.
It is not a completely new thought. To some degree, I have always been able to acknowledge and move with intuition and whatever other deep forces were calling me: spending hours on a new lesson or curriculum idea that I know will crack students open, ordering ten copies of Women Who Run With the Wolves to give out to the women in my life, extending friendship to someone you suspect kinship with, etc. All beautiful acts of creation I’ve conceived and moved with, but do you see a pattern? I do. They are all for someone else, and they are all still very much within the confines of “normal”. Ask me to follow myself, for myself and not a man, a student, a God, follow myself out of normal, and you have a very big problem on your hands. As I get closer to the center each night, I’ve come to realize I’m breathing less. I’ve also come to realize these last few weeks that posturally I know how to either stand up straight with a clenched belly, or slump forward with a soft belly. Both of those reveal some safety concerns I have to/for/with myself.
Why this obsession with normal, with obedience? I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately, and even trying to be disobedient in small things like punctuation and capitals in Facebook posts, noticing a) how present that brings me to my writing and b) how no one seems to be as shocked as I expected them to be. Most of my thoughts have centered around how normality and obedience gets you love in this lifetime. However, as I continue to walk the labyrinth night after night, experimenting with fast and slow, realizing that there are few if any mistakes that can be made, a new layer of the onion peels free.
I somehow expected that if I did as I was told, someone else would do the hard work of living for me. They would owe me that. No one ever said I wasn’t capable to do it myself. In fact, I’ve been blessed to have very encouraging people in my life. Despite that, a part of me never grew up to claim creation of myself. It seems silly to spend too much time speculating on why at this point, especially when I am now old enough to give myself the permission to do so without waiting around for anyone else. It may seem like this attitude could be isolating, but strangely I’ve been more liberated to ask for help in the last year and a half than during any period of my life. Once I define my role as primary, there is no confusion in bringing in whole legions of supporters if need be.
So if I’m doing the work, don’t I get to define normal? Maybe, maybe not, but if I do I want my normal to be full of questions and question following: why do the colors of the labyrinth look so different in the day time? what would a writing group with adults and not students look like? when I walk it’s rarely in a straight line—what if I didn’t correct my ping pong walk? even after my year leave of absence from teaching, that I’m about to request next week, what if I never know if it was a good choice or not? what if the night I made a misstep and never made it to the center, it wasn’t a misstep? what if sometimes it’s a grace to miss the middle? could I thrive in a life without a significant other? what does it mean if I want to spend a lot of time in the center—lay on my back and watch the stars? could I apply for work study at Esalen this summer and just never come back? what does it mean if I am eager to get out of the center and integrate my learning back into life? did you know that poetry therapy and journal therapy are actually things? does something always have to happen in the center? what if I planned my whole life around the places I breathed the easiest? if I told the cleaning crew I was doing this because I was dying, would it be a complete lie? when is the last time you did not fit yourself into another’s script?
Learning to follow myself is hard. It is much harder than I thought it would be, much harder than the resting of the caskets because it is the integration of that work, the slow, non-ecstatic, invisible to others, everyday practice of creating a life that fits me, even when I have little idea of how to do that, even when the old grooves are begging to be inhabited. It is exciting, it is exhausting, it makes the everyday turns and straightaways seem magic, and it requires lots of editing old manuscripts. Is it worth it? I’m really not sure yet, but I no longer have this recording on the other end of the line: “Please hold. Your call is very important to us. Your call will be answered in the order it was received.”