Centered

Sancho, our family’s first dog, is buried in the backyard underneath a wild cherry tree, nine hours from my dorm room in Connecticut. He’s wrapped in one of my father’s sweatshirts. Sancho died when I was four, and at his funeral, I placed my favorite rock next to him. It was shaped like a heart. My babysitter and I found it in the Neshannock Creek while catching minnows, something we did together after she picked me up from preschool every day. My babysitter’s name was Sandy, and she let me keep the rock. She carried that heavy sandstone for me up the hill to a gingko tree that became ours.

The year after I found that rock, Sandy died. She’d just graduated from college. She died rappelling from a mountain in Wyoming. She’s memorialized by rocks in our hometown of New Wilmington, Pennsylvania. Our community built a labyrinth near the field station at Westminster College, Sandy’s alma mater. Not yet six years old, I watched the adults move heavy rocks lining the labyrinth’s path. This memorial was supposed to take two days to finish. It took three hours. Sandy’s labyrinth is bordered by a circular plot of rocks. Within that plot, larger rocks, about the size of a child’s bookbag, form a spiral path leading to the labyrinth’s center. River stones, the labyrinth’s base, cover a fabric flattening the grass beneath it. The memorial fills a small field at the bottom of a hill.

When I go down that hill now, I walk in the grass’s grooves made by Dr. Clarence Harms’ John Deere Gator, which we used to transport some of the rocks while building the labyrinth. As I drag my feet in those grooves, I look to my right at the growing forest of trees that surrounds the labyrinth. The trees’ strength reminds me of my small town’s community of professors, students, farmers, and children, many of whom helped carry the rocks that line the labyrinth’s spiral.

Every year, preschoolers plant trees—mostly oaks and maples—near the labyrinth. Each child’s tree gets to grow up to be part of a larger forest, planted by past preschoolers. Dr. Harms, now ninety years old and deaf, still teaches children how to properly plant a sapling. Some of these trees are young and held up by stakes. Some grow with grief in their roots. Some are now taller than the adults who planted them as children.

I hope I’ll recognize the tree I planted fourteen years ago. I hope my tree will recognize me. I hope it’ll wave like a cheerful, unbothered preschooler and tell me to come over and play. I hope it will grow beyond my grief.

It doesn’t wave. Trees, like rocks, are mysterious, and they wait to be found and cherished. My eyes still search for the tree I hardly remember. Sandy helped my preschool class plant our trees.

Every time I reach the bottom of the hill, I’m unsure of who I’ll see walking the labyrinth. Sometimes, I see professors walking their dogs, middle schoolers holding hands, or a runner looking up from his stopwatch. The runner looks confused because the nature trails haven’t carried him this far before. He’s startled and at peace. He’s quietly surprised. He probably came to this college from far away, and he’s still adjusting to its uncomfortable smallness of one square mile. At the labyrinth, though, maybe the town’s size doesn’t feel uncomfortable and Pennsylvania’s cloudy days don’t seem ordinary.

I always sit on the stone ledge east of the memorial before I walk to the labyrinth’s entrance. Listening to the chirping tree frogs behind me in the tall grass, I look towards the black-eyed Susans to my right. They were Sandy’s favorite flower. I hope for a hummingbird. I hope to hear that familiar hum before entering the labyrinth. I hope for its company because I know I’m about to get lost in the experience before finding something.

As it gets chilly, I begin my walk in the labyrinth. I drag my feet on the circular path made of smaller rocks because I like the sound of the rocks’ movement. They sound like they’re waking up. This labyrinth isn’t meant to be a maze. Instead, it’s a meander with only one path. The walker follows this classic labyrinth’s circular path that spirals her further from the center before bringing her in close. She walks the seven circuits of the spiral before reaching the center. Sandy’s labyrinth comes from a long history of labyrinths, many of which symbolized the living soul’s journey through life.

I’m only a couple years younger than Sandy was when she died. Once, my dad told me Sandy wished she had the means to go to college far from her hometown. I thought of that when I left New Wilmington for college in Connecticut. I’m adventuring with her spirit alongside me.

In Sandy’s labyrinth and others like it, a person might grieve in constant circles for those she’s lost. She might walk the seven circuits often. She might meander through her grief and know what grief’s center feels like because she’s been there many times. I feel grief’s center when I’m in Sandy’s labyrinth.

The labyrinth’s center is lined by rocks brought by Sandy’s family and her closest friends. I remember my dad placing our family’s rock in that inner circle. It’s a sandstone rock shaped like Moby Dick. Its base is about two feet long. Like the white whale, the rock slopes downward, forming a tail. When I sit in the labyrinth’s center and face the black-eyed Susans, our rock is in front of me. It stares at me like a memory. I’m reminded of the time Sandy grabbed a leaf from the gingko tree, and she told me to describe to her what it felt and looked like. She wrote down my descriptions of its fan-like leaf with parallel ridges, and she told me that’s how to write. As I ran my hands over the gingko leaf, I felt like nature could never be boring because it could be written.

Once I reach the labyrinth’s center and sit on the foundation stone, which is big enough to serve as a bench for two or three people, I think about the other rocks. Many are sandstone from western Pennsylvania. Travelers from far away also brought rocks. Some came from Maryland and California. A few rocks were mailed from Snake River, Wyoming, where Sandy died. There, Sandy was killed by rocks.

Sitting there, I feel both lost and centered. I feel steadied by my family’s rock. I think about my family and friends, the people whose labyrinths might include my rock in the inner circle. I wonder if I deserve that place. I’m lost thinking about the rock I’d bring for someone else’s labyrinth. My best rock is with Sancho.

I wonder who would set down an inner circle rock for me. After many evenings at the labyrinth, I’m comforted by the confidence that my people would surround me with rocks if I were to die.

When a walker enters the labyrinth, he usually reads Sandy’s poetry printed on the bronze plaque set on a giant stone, “To live anew in colors that fade as the leaves return to the earth.” I always read that poetry while leaving the labyrinth instead of when entering it. These words remind me I’ll be back on another cloudy Pennsylvania day. Like Sandy, I hope to return to this earth after my life, and when I do, I’ll feel my strength floating back to the ground like a leaf. I’ll reconnect with the ground. My spirit will be with my family and friends, who pushed me to bigger trees beyond Pennsylvania.

As a Pennsylvanian, I’m used to cloudy days. A clear sky seems like a gift. But I’m at home where it’s cloudy. I’m at home in this field in northwestern Pennsylvania. I’m protected by this field’s and this labyrinth’s certainty. One moves within the labyrinth, but the labyrinth never moves. Its rocks are reliable.

This labyrinth has been carried away from western Pennsylvania many times, and it continues to be carried away. Each person who visits this place—including those who stumble upon it—may take the possibility “to live anew in colors that fade” with her to the next place. Although I might be far from the labyrinth in my New Haven dorm room, I’m still centered. Sandy and many others from my home are not merely in my roots. They are my roots.

Often, what I see and hear reminds me of my home and the people that made it home. Sometimes, the way the wind runs through the leaves of the tallest trees, composing my favorite music, makes me wish someone from home were here to listen with me. Sometimes, it’s the way someone smiles at me while walking to class. That unafraid smile reminds of the familiar joys of home. When I think of that community, I’m reminded of the labyrinth we built in three hours of sorrow and strength. I still hear the noisy tree frogs and hummingbirds’ songs when I listen to myself. I still hear my community place its rocks in Sandy’s labyrinth, giving this earth some of their grief’s weight. I feel myself grow like the trees next to Sandy’s labyrinth. I, too, am rooted in grief. Yet, I am also rooted in strength like our gingko tree. I can feel northwestern Pennsylvania cry from its cloudy sky when my feet drag through rocks, and I think of Sandy.

All the way from rural New Wilmington, PA, Eliana Swerdlow came to New Haven with a picture of Walt Whitman in her back pocket and a collection of warm hats. Email her at eliana.swerdlow@yale.edu to set up a time to go to the Yale Farm with her.

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