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Turning in Circles

Smacholdt's picture

Nature is a world onto itself, but like anything it is impossible to observe impartially. It always needs a lens through which to be seen, and on this clear September morning, that lens was me. I wish that I could say that I walked out of my dorm and was immediately struck by the beauty of the natural landscape; by the morning dew, and the robins with nest twigs, or the damp moss and the squishy mud. I did notice those things. Just not initially. I first had to learn to look for them. My first thoughts were along the lines of, “okay I’m outside walking. NOW what?” Then, as I strolled through Bryn Mawr’s campus, something interesting began to happen. I didn’t think so much about the natural world, nestled up against the old, man-made buildings, but I thought about my experiences in the place. I remembered deep conversations held in the grass outside of an archway, and sunny afternoons spent on a blanket getting sunburned. My experience of walking was more about my memories staged throughout the campus, rather than looking at the campus itself. However, the more I walked, the easier it got to simply be present in the moment and observe what was around me rather than jumping back into past experiences. I began to take note of the foliage and the stiff air and the chunks of quartz scattered on the ground.

To find the boundaries of the campus I walked around it in a circle starting and ending in the same spot. I didn’t begin to ruminate on the subject of circles, however, until I reached “The Labyrinth,” which is what I would consider the center of the campus. I have always felt that there is a definite power in circular shapes. Traditionally, circles have been used to symbolize everything from wholeness and completion to life, eternity, and even the void. Circles occur naturally- you only need to look at an orb web or the ripple a rock makes when thrown into a pond to confirm this. But to me they have the spiritual meaning of the beauty of imperfection, the fact that we often “walk around in circles” in our lives, and the fact that all of us will, ultimately, circle around to death.

The Labyrinth at Bryn Mawr College is a mud track carved into the grass, which, judging from the pack on the ground was a gift from the graduating class of 1999. I once directed a group of local, middle-aged women to its location at the back of Rhodes Dorm and was given the explanation that they had “come searching for inner peace.” At the time, I had hoped that they were joking, but on this cool September morning I decided to see if there was any validity to their claim. I entered at one end of the labyrinth and kept walking around and around and around and around…. not reaching the center nearly as quickly as I had wanted and crossing back over ways I had already walked in the process. It was annoying and it was frustrating. But it was also, as the English nerd in me snidely pointed out, a good metaphor for my life. I am in a rut, to be sure, and I feel as though I am passing the same way again and again, repeatedly making the same mistakes. But I wonder, does metaphorically (or literally), passing the same spots again mean that you’ve regressed? Or, if life really is like a labyrinth, does experiencing certain things many times mean that you are making progress? Does this mean that you are having “the normal human experience?” (If there even is such a thing.) I don’t have the answers to any of these questions, but I do know that my Sunday morning walk made me think about a lot more than I had bargained for.




Anne Dalke's picture


I agree with Srucara that you've given quite an "interesting" turn to an assignment that asked you to find the center and boundaries of this campus, by taking yourself to the labyrinth and going around in circles...also interesting to me that you name that as the center of campus, when spiritual practices have certainly NOT been central to BMC's development, and when (I betcha) most folks don't know about the labyrinth @ all. You might enjoy this interesting account, Risks on the Path, written by the McBride who first envisioned, then designed, then organized bringing the labyrinth to campus. Although her story elaborates on many of the themes--like the use of circles as symbols of power, imperfection, death, the void--that you touch on in your essay, it's certainly NOT about "being in a rut and repeating the same mistakes"!

I'd like to mention two other dimensions of your paper, which we might talk about further if you are interested. The first is your intriguing account of being unable to be present, @ first, in your walk, because preoccupied by your memories, and then only slowly coming to attend to what was in front of you. What enabled the shift?

The second thing I'd like to talk about is your opening line: "Nature is a world onto itself, but...impossible to observe impartially." Can you explain that? How is nature a world into itself? Isn't it entirely --or very much--built, constrained, organized and shaped by us? Entangled in our doings? (eetong wrote, for example, about how "carefully artless" the arrangement of the campus is). Especially in a suburban environment like this one? But if it is a world into itself, then surely it is visible from outside itself (i.e. impartially)?

Srucara's picture

What an interesting idea!

I love your thoughts on whether life is like a labyrinth and if coming back to particular similar patterns and noticing repeats is a sign of evolution. I agree that life can be a labyrinth but I also believe that each moment we are doing our best - which also changes from moment to moment - and if that is the case then we are indeed evlolving, either in a circular, labyrinth path or - perhaps for the most advanced of us - a straight climb to the summit