September 11, 2007

In those lost days immediately following September 11, 2001, like many others, I wavered between a craving for solitude and a need to seek out the people important to me. I was living on the level of raw emotion and heightened awareness. Regardless, I had a business meeting on September 12th at the National Aquarium in Baltimore. In the unreality of that “day after”, I drove to the aquarium where I was offered a brief tour of their exhibit, Seahorses: Beyond Imagination, prior to our meeting. Struggling with grief while attempting to maintain a professional demeanor, I was grateful for the time to settle in before needing to lead a discussion.

Few people had ventured to the Aquarium that day. I will never forget my dreamlike walk through those quiet, darkened rooms lit by the glow of huge tanks housing the most beautiful and fantastical creatures I’d ever seen. I don’t remember a word the tour guide said as I walked past the luminescent, flowing bodies of hundreds of seahorses evolved to mimic the sea grasses in which they lived and dined on tiny shrimp. I was mesmerized by those fragile bony horses, delicate as lace, moving silently through the water.

One tank in particular took my breath away. It contained the rare Leafy Seadragon, an endangered species from Southern Australia related to the seahorse. It was, in a word, magical. I was looking at a creature so bizarre, so highly adapted to its environment that I couldn’t believe something this ethereal had survived 45 million years. A living embodiment of some frilly, outrageous pair of French shoes, the “Leafie” is in constant motion in its watery world like tatters of silk in the wind. Suddenly, the panic and sorrow locked in my chest since my first glimpse of the burning towers finally opened somehow. With my emotions safely hidden in the dark, I juxtaposed the brutal horror of humans leaping to their death with the Leafie’s fragile beauty. I felt as if, in the space of 24 hours, I’d witnessed the best and worst of the evolution of life on our planet.

Regaining my composure, I went on to conduct the meeting, feeling like I’d received some sort of blessing. There are far older and more profound forces at work in our world than the brutality of “an eye for an eye” or the greed and cunning that spawned it. The seadragon was the essence of the slow evolutionary forces moving inexorably toward adaptation, striving for a rightness of fit within the natural world. I lived on an extraordinary planet where in our human way, though we are far from balanced, it might be possible to one day evolve beyond the images on our televisions, to integrate into our world as seamlessly as the seadragon.

Later that same day, I found myself casting about for some sort of ritual to acknowledge what had happened, to “witness” for myself the anguish and frustration and impotence I felt having seen those towers burn and fall. I wanted to move beyond my inner sense of isolation and ritualize the moment without political interpretation or platitudes, moving toward a sense of community I hungered for. And then, the image of the nearby labyrinth at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center came to mind. I knew instantly that it was right as a site for ritual -- a place of beauty and quiet created years before with the vision of the Moving Company and the TKF Foundation. One of TKF’s “Open Spaces/Sacred Places”, the labyrinth is nestled in the gentle green slopes of the park leading to the hospital. The circular labyrinth itself is created with paving stones and further defined on its perimeter by shrubs and benches facing inward. A spiral course 52 feet in diameter, it marks an ancient design – a single path maze with no dead ends that leads us into the center and back out again.

The labyrinth is a map for meditation, the offering of a slow, circuitous walk from the first step on the perimeter in to the heartwood of its concentric rings. It is mirror and metaphor: a path into ourselves with each step, the center being the midway point on a journey of reflection. It honors a need for introspection and stillness. Frequented by many visitors to the hospital – patients, family, staff, friends – this labyrinth is a place to acknowledge illness and healing, death and birth and pain, a place to face fear, to listen for an inner voice, to seek hope or perhaps just take a breath. It is a place I imagine holding every unspoken prayer and each footstep of all who walked before.

After some organizing with close friends, I put out a call to our community network and invited people to join together for an evening at the labyrinth at week’s end. We did not describe what we would do; there was to be no ceremony or organized program. We simply invited people to come to walk the labyrinth together. In honor? In solidarity? To simply move out of paralysis? To mark this step in our evolution, no matter how backwards a step it seemed? We suggested only that people tell others who might be interested, and that they bring a candle.
I was shocked that night as some 50 people gathered in the dark. I watched them coming slowly and quietly over the hill -- friends, neighbors, some I did not know, some with children in tow. Some smiles of recognition as all gathered around. After a brief explanation of the ritual for those unfamiliar, the candles were lit and stubbornly remained so in the cool night breeze. Many people shed their shoes. There were a few moments of self-conscious shuffling, and then, one by one, we flowed into the labyrinth in silence, walking round the circle, leading deeper into its center. The far away murmur of traffic on Eastern Avenue faded away. The moment moved into deep silence.

I cannot remember if the stars shone that night or not. I cannot say that the night submerged our steps to the depths of the seadragon in the kelp beds. I cannot say that our tears were transformed in the beauty of the ocean and the endless patience of the waves. Far removed from any place of conscious thought, I was simply present in the movement of that community of friends and strangers, that group of fellow travelers seeking some peace and understanding, flinging our grief and bewilderment to that ancient circle. Or acknowledging that in the end what we have is nothing more than our love for each other.

Gradually, eventually, the first walkers reached the middle of the circle, each spending a moment at that symbolic place to take a breath. They closed their eyes. Waited. As if listening. And then, just as gradually and silently as we began, the movement flowed outward; we turned to walk back out -- steps taken toward the world again and the lives awaiting us. I think now, years later, we moved in the slow sway of the waves moved like the sea grasses, like a mother rocking a cradle.

One by one, as people emerged from the circle, we sat on the benches, still in the arms of that ritual, watching the others complete their walk. We held our candles or set them down at the entrance or on the outer circle as if each of us knew just where they should go. I began wondering if we should do something to bring closure to the walk, but was hesitant to interfere with the power of individual experience. And then, the moment somehow took on a life of its own. As the last adult left the circle, two small boys remained to finish walking; they’d entered following their own path, and were trying to make their way out of the labyrinth to leave. Curiously, they didn’t simply run toward their parents but attempted to follow the bricks in the path.

Fifty adults watched these children make their way, uncertain but persistent, engrossed in their small journeys. And somehow, as of one accord, we all stood up, unplanned, unbidden. We walked slowly and silently from the perimeter of the circle toward the center of the labyrinth, the children unaware at first of our approach. We reached out our hands for each other and formed a circle around the children. They looked up from their walking, surprised and delighted to see us. We moved closer toward them in a sweep of steps choreographed like folk dancers. Moved until the moment embraced us; the labyrinth took us all in, held us long and quiet. And just as silently, of one accord, we stepped back to widen the circle once again. Stepped back until we reached the perimeter and the small flames awaiting us. The children ran to their parents, and we all turned to leave. The moment was not lost on a soul.

As a community artist who still struggles daily to make meaning of my life in the aftermath of 9-11, I remember that night of comfort and peace in a week that marked a chilling new era for my country and its complicated, privileged place in the world. Evolution is messy. We need our rituals, our open spaces, our sacred places more than ever today, just as the Leafy Seadragon needs its kelp beds out in the South Pacific. We need places where we can look within, center ourselves and rekindle a sense of community. If I’d been asked my opinion on a fitting memorial at Ground Zero, I’d have simply requested a labyrinth like this; a beautiful place that provides an opportunity for meditation and healing.

And perhaps somewhere within, a simple carving of a Leafy Seadragon to remind us of the beauty of the journey.

Cinder Hypki 2007