Walking the Labyrinth That Isn’t There

“If we wish to outline an architecture which conforms to the structure of our soul […], it would have to be conceived in the image of the Labyrinth.”
– Friedrich Nietzsche, Dawn (1881)

Grace Cathedral interior with labyrinth
Grace Cathedral (San Francisco) interior with labyrinth similar to the one in Chartres Cathedral
I found a mention online of William H. Matthews’ Mazes and Labyrinths. It was published in London in 1922 and is still available.

I never encountered a real labyrinth until I was in college. I had read about famous ones and I found them alluring. I read about the Minotaur of Crete in one, and ones in the great cathedrals of Medieval France, and inside and outside stately homes and spiritual centers of Europe.

What could Herodotus have thought to stand before the Great Labyrinth of Egypt with its 3,000 rooms?

maze

There are labyrinths that are made of rooms and columns, ones like caverns, mazes built to protect tombs and treasures. You can find labyrinthine patterns used to design gardens and used on coins and as decoration. They are given to children as puzzles or brainteasers.

My interest now is more with very simple labyrinths. Though some of these mazes have religious purposes, using one is probably more often spiritual or meditative.

I have written about walking a labyrinth before and mentioned them in other contexts.

Rather than trying to find the treasure or feeling trapped, in the ones that I have walked I didn’t where the path would take me, though I could see the center. I don’t try to guess or figure out the turns ahead. If I follow the path, there is one way in and one way out.

Once, I saw someone walking with me who was so frustrated at being “lost” and not finding the right path that she just walked right across the 2D maze to the outside. I felt bad for her.

I prefer to walk alone, but when you meet others along the path, you usually step aside to let them pass. Sometimes others are more in a hurry and will pass me.  I don’t like to pass others.

When I reach the center, sometimes I stop. There is nothing special there. No message or revelation. You haven’t reached the end. You still need to find your way out, which is also the way in.

A new maze is interesting because you don’t know the path. I have never walked one so many times that I have it memorized.  I wonder how that would change the experience?

If you were to ask me what I get from walking the labyrinth, I’m not I could give you a satisfactory explanation.

Psychologist and philosopher William James described four characteristics of mystical experience in his book The Varieties of Religious Experience.  I would describe walking the labyrinth in his terms as being transient – the experience is temporary and the individual soon returns to a “normal” frame of mind. The experience feels outside the normal perception of space and time. The experience is also ineffable in that it cannot be adequately put into words.

The ineffable makes the third characteristic impossible for me to describe, That is, it is noetic. You feel that you have learned something valuable from the experience – knowledge that is normally hidden from human understanding.

In the best experiences, this is passive. It happens to the individual, largely without conscious control. That makes walking the labyrinth or meditating or taking a drug the wrong approach. It is not something that can be turned on and off at will.

I wish to walk a labyrinth some day that is not there and that I did not enter and will not have to leave.

Inspiration

A friend asked me where I find inspiration for all these blogs that I write on.  That question has many answers. For posts on my blog about threatened and endangered animals and other things, I’m reading environmental and nature books, magazines and websites. For this site, inspiration comes from all directions – poetry, novels, non-fiction, TV, radio podcasts, the news, movies, art, music, and other bloggers.

How can you not find inspiration in looking up at the blue sky or the night sky of stars and be inspired to consider the vastness of the universe or the small role we play in it and the big role we play on Earth?

But the answer my friend was expecting was more like “the shower.”  I know what he means. This post was inspired by his comment which I was thinking about while taking a shower.  I find that I get a lot of ideas and inspiration for my writing and also for things I need or want to do. What is it about taking a shower that inspires?

Once inspired to write, I either have to do more thinking and often I need to do research. As a student, I never liked research papers. As a teacher, I saw that my students usually had the wrong ideas about research. I always asked them to think about the kinds of research they did before making a major purchase (appliances, car, home) or even the research you might do before picking a movie to see.

Let’s take that simple movie decision as an example. You might read reviews, watch a trailer, or ask friends for their opinions.  If you ask others for their opinions on a current film – let’s say it’s Toy Story 4 – you will likely get positive and negative responses. I looked at the reviews for the film currently on RottenTomatoes.com. They are overwhelmingly positive. But what if a few of your friends gave it a negative review? Who holds more weight with you – friends or “professional” critics? What if one friend says it is lousy but hasn’t seen it? Another friend did see it and hated it. He also hated all the earlier Toy Story films. One critic loves the first three films and thinks that number 4 is even better because it has more for adults to love. All these reviews are research and you need to be pretty discriminating in sifting through those reviews. Are you inspired to see the film?

Back to that original friend’s question about inspiration. Besides that watery shower inspiration, I find inspiration when I walk, when I am out in nature, when I am alone, when I am driving, and more so in the night hours than in the morning ones. I’m not alone in finding those activities as inspirational. I found posts online (like this one) that mention some of the same activities.  People suggest daily inspirations. I get the feeling people are sometimes looking for inspiration to live, to continue, to battle adversity. I’m not looking for that in the shower or on my walk in the woods. I am more in search of the spark. That trigger that sends me to the computer or my camera or my journal or my paintbox and easel.

Travel and big experiences can certainly be inspiring, but you can’t do that every day.  On a daily basis, I look for those smaller sparks:  How the movement of the planet and stars can remind me that I too am flying through the universe; how my samples of blue watercolors will inspire me to write about a sad friend.

The Language of Flowers

I came across this Victorian volume of The Language of Flowers: An Alphabet of Floral Emblems which is a bit of botany and partially a poetic look at the “language of flowers.”

Victorians were pretty repressed about their emotions but flowers sent to someone could communicate. That might be one rose (love) or some arrangement of multiple emotions.

The dahlia represents instability

In this book, a carnation represents fascination. The geranium is gentility. The  dahlia is instability. Why? I have no idea. But some of these associations have persisted into our time. The rose still represents love. But would you have known that a deep red rose represents “bashful shame?”

As with tarot cards, if a flower is given reversed, it implies the opposite meaning. So, I suppose a rose revrsed is hate? According to the book a rosebud from which the thorns have been removed, but which has still its leaves, conveys the sentiment, ‘I fear, but I hope,’ because thorns imply fear and leaves mean hope. I suppose a bouquet of rosebuds without leaves but all the thorns intact would look pretty fearful.

A Weeping Willow seems appropriately symbolic of mourning. But Winter Cherry as meaning deception and Woodbine as a way of communicating fraternal love are a mystery to me.

"w" flowers

There have been updates since this Victorian volume from 1857. You can page through the volume and some others at publicdomainreview.org

The Grapes of Wrath

Grapes of Wrath book jacket
My 1940 edition of the novel that was on our home bookshelf and that I carried and read for a week.

I read John Steinbeck’s novel, The Grapes of Wrath, when I was 13. I was really taken with this story of the Joads who leave their dustbowl Oklahoma for the promise of a better life in California.

The story had no real connections to my life, but the writing absorbed me. I brought that big paperback to church one Sunday because I just had to finish the story. It seemed more important than what was being said at Mass. But there were connections to that place, starting with the title taken from “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”: “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord / He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.”

John Steinbeck had published six novels, a play, and a short story collection in the previous ten years, including two of my favorites – Tortilla Flat and Of Mice and Men.

Steinbeck was hired by Fortune magazine to visit the tenement camps in California to write a piece. He never wrote the article, saying that that magazine’s audience was not one he liked, but he agreed to go with a Life magazine photographer to document the camps.

In March 1938, he wrote his agent to say that “… I simply can’t make money on these people. That applies to your query about an article for a national magazine. The suffering is too great for me to cash in on it… I break myself every time I go out because the argument that one person’s effort can’t really do anything doesn’t seem to apply when you come on a bunch of starving children and you have a little money. I can’t rationalize it for myself anyway. So don’t get me a job for a slick [magazine]. I want to put a tag of shame on the greedy bastards who are responsible for this.”

After writing some newspaper articles about the conditions, he decided to start work on a novel about the people he had met. He started that summer and gave himself a deadline of 100 days. He also kept a journal as he was working. He stuck to the deadline and on October 26 – day 100 – he wrote an entry: “Finished this day — and I hope to God it’s good.” It was completed as a first draft, but Steinbeck reworked it several times and it was published the following year.

Steinbeck said he didn’t expect The Grapes of Wrath to be popular, and it did receive some negative reviews, as one might expect for a novel of social awareness with a political agenda. Steinbeck wanted the book to disturb readers enough that they might do more than just become aware of the conditions he saw. He wanted some readers to take action. He wanted politicians to act.

A review in The New Yorker by Clifton Fadiman said it had a terrible ending, but that it might be the Great American Novel. It became the highest-selling book of 1939. It won the Pulitzer Prize.

That ending was a part of the book that I finished that Sunday in church. If we need a spoiler alert for a book that is 80 years old, insert one here. The novel ends with the Joad family broken apart. Rose of Sharon, the pregnant daughter, delivers a stillborn baby. She breastfeeds an old starving man.

It seemed shocking. It felt religious, and my reading room certainly contributed to that.

In the following years, I read every other book by Steinbeck I could find. He was the first author that I “studied” on my own with no prompting from teachers.  During junior high and high school, I would make my way through Fitzgeral, Hemingway, salinger and Updike.

I eventually started reading critical studies and found that The Grapes of Wrath was full of religious references, from the title to the ending.  It was a self-revelation while reading the book that “Reverend” Jim Casy was JC, the initials of Jesus Christ, and I read the rest of the novel with that connection in mind. Jim travels with the Joad family. He has left the priesthood because he knew he wasn’t good enough to stay, but he is always thinking about God and the ways in which humans’ souls are connected. He inspires the Joads and others that he “preaches” to on the road to and tries to help them retain faith in a higher power.

Jim knows his emerging ideas about religion don’t fit into the Christian church. Trying to explain his new view, he tells Tom Joad: ”I figgered, ‘Why do we got to hang it on God or Jesus? Maybe,’ I figgered, ‘maybe it’s all men an’ all women we love; maybe that’s the Holy Sperit–the human sperit–the whole shebang. Maybe all men got one big soul ever’body’s a part of.’ ”

The novel has religious symbols and ideas throughout. Some were obvious to my 13-year-old self. Their exodus from the desert of Oklahoma along Route 66 to the promised land of California was the most obvious connection. But it was also what really happened to those people. I loved that connection.

Jim became my favorite character and the Christ connection held for me. He wanders into the wilderness to find his soul, but decides it’s not there or in him unless he is connected to people. He sacrifices himself by turning himself in to the police to save Tom. In jail, he preaches his message. When he leaves jail, he decides that preaching isn’t enough and he needs to put his ideas into actions. He dies a martyr’s death. His last words – “You don’ know what you’re a-doin” – are an obvious paraphrase of Christ’s last words.  Tom becomes his disciple, vowing to spread his message that is as much one of social justice as it is religion.

The film version of the novel was released in 1940. For all the limitations that a film version of a big novel has, it is an excellent film. The story is unfortunately changed, especially in the second half and the ending becomes a more positive Hollywood one. But for all the people who saw the film but didn’t read the book (which I suspect was the vast majority), at least the themes of the novel come through.  In 1940, that story was still in the news. I’m glad that I saw the film after reading the novel. The screen images made things I had read more vivid. Henry Fonda now looks like Tom Joad and John Carradine is how I picture Jim Casy even if I reading about them on the page.  I don’t recommend watching the film on your phone or laptop but it is available on archive.org.

As sad as the story of the Joads is throughout the novel, Ma Joad’s final thoughts are an optimism of strength. Things will be better, if not for all of her family, then for her people and the country.

“I ain’t never gonna be scared no more. I was, though. For a while it looked as though we was beat. Good and beat. Looked like we didn’t have nobody in the whole wide world but enemies. Like nobody was friendly no more. Made me feel kinda bad and scared too, like we was lost and nobody cared…. Rich fellas come up and they die, and their kids ain’t no good and they die out, but we keep a-coming. We’re the people that live. They can’t wipe us out, they can’t lick us. We’ll go on forever, Pa, cos we’re the people.”


The film was one that was highly anticipated in 1940, building on the novel’s popularity. This trailer for the film shows how that anticipation was encouraged. It was nominated for seven Academy Awards® including Best Picture, and won Best Supporting Actress, Jane Darwell as Ma Joad, and Best Director, John Ford.

St. John’s or Midsummer’s Eve

Illustration from a vintage edition of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (public domain

“Midsummer Night is not long but it sets many cradles rocking.” – Swedish proverb

I’m sure you think of this summer as being new and young, but tonight is Midsummer Night’s Eve, also called St. John’s Eve. This holiday goes back to the time of Old English and the Anglo-Saxon calendar that divided the year into only two parts instead of our 4 seasons. On this calendar with only summer and winter (each being 6 months long), summer ran from April through September) makes now midsummer. It also placed the time at or near the solstice.

St. John is the patron saint of beekeepers and this was a time of full hives and the time to use that honey to make honey wine, popularly known as mead. We believe that it was Irish monks during medieval times who learned to ferment honey and make mead.

The June Full Moon was called the Mead Moon and mead supposedly enhanced virility and fertility and was an aphrodisiac. This led mead to be part of Irish wedding ceremonies, and contributed to the idea of a honeymoon, referring to the literal moon and also the first sweet month of those June marriages.

Many people know the holiday because of Shakespeare’s play A Midsummer Night’s Dream which is set on this night. The comedy of two young couples who wander into a forest outside Athens on this night which is known for magic proves’ Shakespeare’s premise that “The course of true love never did run smooth.”

In England, this night was once an established holiday celebration. For the fairies, this night was second only to Halloween in importance. These “Faeries” enjoyed making mischief with humans.

This may be a short night (the summer solstice being the shortest night) but celebrants made the most of it. They would light bonfires after sundown. This “setting the watch” kept bad spirits at bay, and gave light to the revelers who also might carry cressets (lanterns atop poles) d bedecked in garlands, along with dancers, and some dressed as a unicorn, a dragon, and the six hobby-horse riders.

St. John's Wort
Flowers of St. John’s Wort

Having a party at your home tonight? Decorate the door with birch, fennel, and the herb St John’s wort. That herb is so named because it commonly produces blossoms that are harvested at this time. “Wort” is a Middle English word (wort, wurt, wyrte) simply meaning a plant, that in Old English wyrt was used for any herb, vegetable, plant, crop, or root. Tonight or on St. John’s Feast Day (June 24) hanging this herb on doors would ward off evil spirits, harm, and sickness for man and beast.

The plant is in the genus name Hypericum is possibly derived from the Greek words hyper (above) and eikon (picture), in reference to the tradition of hanging these plants over religious icons in the home during St John’s Day.

In modern times and still today, many people use St. John’s Wort as a medicinal herb as a mild antidepressant. The plant itself is actually poisonous to livestock.

Tree worship was also part of Midsummer festivities and trees near wells and fountains were decorated with colored cloths. This was especially true for oak trees, as the Oak King ruled the waxing of the year and the oak tree symbolizes strength, courage, and endurance.

The Oak has always been particularly significant at Litha, the name Germanic neopagans use for the summer solstice festival Litha. In their ancient calendar, June and July were se Ærra Liþa and se Æfterra Liþa (the “early Litha month” and the “later Litha month”).

The Celtic name for Oak is ‘Duir’ which means ‘doorway’ and so this was the time when we enter the doorway into the second, waning part of the year.

Just the Facts, Ma’am

Dragnet - just the factsThe old television police drama, Dragnet, included the catch phrase “Just the facts, ma’am,” that was often used by the detective Joe Friday when questioning (rather misogynistically) women who were telling him too much irrelevant information.

It seems quite difficult these days to get “just the facts” or even figure out what statements are facts.

This past week I read an article in The New Yorker about why facts don’t change our minds. That seems to be particularly relevant in this time of claims about “fake news” and “alternative facts.” The article is about a number of studies done by researchers that show that our minds have limitations when it comes to reasoning about facts.

One study gave participants 25 pairs of suicide notes and, being told that one was real and one was fake, they were asked to distinguish the real from the fake. Half of the notes were truly real, but the experiment actually was meant to examine how randomly telling some participants that they were very accurate in their answers and telling others they were very poor in distinguishing the differences would affect them.

In the second part of the study, they were all told that they had been deceived and that the real point of the experiment was to gauge their responses to thinking they were right or wrong. Now, they were asked to estimate how many suicide notes they had actually categorized correctly.

Those who had been told they had scored high on the first part thought they did significantly better than the average person. This happened even though they knew they had no reason to believe those first results meant anything. “Once formed, impressions are remarkably perseverant,” said the researchers.

This kind of experiment has been done many times with the same results.

You might have read or heard about the term “confirmation bias.” This is the tendency of people to embrace information that supports their beliefs and reject information that contradicts them. If you tend to always watch the news channel that gives you the version of the news you already believe, you are a good example of confirmation bias.

Another experiment described in the article used two groups who had been selected because they had opposing opinions about capital punishment. They were given two studies to read – one with data to support capital punishment as a reasonable deterrent, the other study had data that refuted the deterrence argument. Both studies were fictional.

That group that initially supported capital punishment rated the pro-deterrence data highly credible and the anti-deterrence data unconvincing. Those in the other group did the reverse. No surprise?

Did their views change at all at the end of the study? No, in fact, perhaps more surprisingly, the pro-capital punishment people were now even more in favor of it. Those who had opposed it were more opposed.

Based on that study, if an MSNBC news watcher watched FOX news for a day, it would not help them reach a more moderate view or consensus. He would be even more convinced that MSNBC was telling the truth. Confirmation bias leads us to dismiss evidence that goes against our beliefs, and facts don’t change our minds.

This is not a good thing.