The walk of life
For Joe Smith, the labyrinth’s meditative effects are right in his back yard
The labyrinth has only one path so there are no tricks to it and no dead ends. The path winds throughout and becomes a mirror for where we are in our lives. It touches our sorrows and releases our joys. Walk it with an open mind and an open heart.
—from “Walking the Labyrinths at Grace Cathedral” (www.gracecathedral.org/labyrinth/)
Joe Smith is a retired U.S. Postal Service “special delivery” driver. He is also a calm man. The phrase “going postal” just doesn’t seem to apply.
Smith, sitting at the kitchen table of his west Chico home he shares with his very friendly cat Toby, recalled the first time he walked a labyrinth. As he talked, my eyes occasionally wandered to the many photographs—of animals, sunsets, flowers, people—surrounding us, taped to cupboards, walls and doors. Meditative music wafted soothingly around us from a stereo speaker in an adjoining room.
“It was, I guess, around December of 1996,” the 60-year-old Smith reflected. “I was living in the Bay Area. My [mail] delivery area was to Grace Cathedral, which is at the top of Nob Hill. I had just found out that I had prostate cancer, and I didn’t know what to do for treatment—radiation or surgery or what. My friend Al told me to walk the labyrinth at Grace Cathedral to find an answer.”
Smith walked the labyrinth inside the cathedral, from the labyrinth’s entrance to its center and back out again by the same route, every day for about a week, “and it worked.” His reflective walks of the labyrinth brought him to the conclusion that radiation was the right treatment, confirmed even further by the fact that after undergoing radiation treatments five times a week for seven weeks, his cancer was cured.
“I walked it after that on my lunch breaks for one-and-a-half years,” Smith continued, vouching for the labyrinth’s beneficial effect, especially as an antidote to his fast-paced special delivery job.
Another relaxation tool was the periodic vacation to southeastern California to visit his friend Jim, the caretaker of a talc mine in the rugged Saline Valley, to take a break from the big city, “recharge [his] batteries” and take photographs. To this day—even more now that Smith is retired—walking the labyrinth, traveling and taking photographs (despite the scores of photos displayed around his house, Smith describes himself as an “amateur photographer") are his collective passion.
“It’s what drives me, what compels me, what gets my motor running,” Smith said. “I’m a visual person. I don’t do a lot of reading. I don’t play the piano. I don’t play any musical instruments. I don’t sing.”
Smith retired from the Postal Service in December 2000 and moved to Chico a few months later.
“It was my intention, from the day I moved in, to build a labyrinth. But I’m a serious procrastinator,” Smith chuckled. “So I put it off. When I finally got around to doing it, I started it in April, and finished it in July of 2004.”
Smith gives a good deal of credit to his friend, and housekeeper, Jerome Canty, for the design and construction of his backyard labyrinth.
“I was going to build the labyrinth, but he said he could do it,” Smith explained. “Jerome made a design and showed me. We bounced ideas off each other about what materials to use. We were going to use paving stones, but they didn’t have enough character to them. We used slate instead—silver, gold and calico slate—and gravel pebbles for the base.”
Smith’s labyrinth is 33 feet in diameter because the ones at Grace Cathedral and Chartres (the cathedral in France after which the indoor Grace Cathedral labyrinth is modeled) are based on sacred geometry. To work properly, it had to be at least 30 feet in diameter.
“Jerome also based the labyrinth on a Chinese five-point star and American Indian basket weaving,” Smith added. “It was his idea that this design would fit my personality better. He thought the labyrinth at Grace Cathedral was maybe too formal, too structured.”
Canty did 80 or 90 percent of the work, building the visually striking slate and inlaid redwood labyrinth as well as laying out the pattern of the slate rock in the pathway.
Surrounded by statues representing various faiths—the Virgin Mary, Hindu goddess Durga “who defeated the Buffalo Demon,” Buddha, and a Haitian crucifix made from recycled oil drums among them—and overhung with strings of colorful Tibetan prayer flags, Smith’s labyrinth is a thing of beauty. Add to that the palpable peacefulness of his backyard—the stillness of the orchard just over the back fence and the melodic twittering of the many birds that seem to prefer Smith’s yard—and you have a recipe for profound relaxation and meditation.
Smith walks the labyrinth every day, sometimes twice a day, always pausing to sit in the center of the labyrinth, a circle depicting the Chinese yin-yang symbol, “to reflect for a while” before making the journey back out again.
“I miss it when I can’t do it,” Smith said. “I have a method for walking the labyrinth that is slow, painfully slow. It took me a while after working as a special delivery driver for so long to learn to slow down. I need to do that to be in the moment.”
It’s a good way to think things through if you’ve got something on your mind. Walking the labyrinth, you get revelations. It helps you resolve problems. It’s a good tool.”
Smith, whose labyrinth is listed on Worldwide Labyrinth Locator (www.wwll.veriditas.labyrinthsociety.org), encourages anyone interested in the experience of walking a labyrinth to come over and walk his. So far, he’s had a teacher and her student from Sacramento, a woman from nearby Ord Bend, and Beat figure Neal Cassady’s daughter and her friend take him up on the offer.
“It could benefit anybody who uses it,” Smith said, “If they leave themselves open to the experience. It’s always a different experience. You have to go with an open mind. If you’re looking for something, you might not find it. Conversely, you can ask a question and meditate on it to find an answer.”
The labyrinth has definitely become a big part of Smith’s life.
“What it will do for me is keep me focused, give me some solace, help me refocus. It’s a great stress reliever.”