Being born on New Year’s Eve is nothing if not efficient. Everyone’s already celebrating, so all I have to do is don a foil tiara and choose a party. When I was younger, I regularly observed my birthday at arena-rock concerts with thousands of strangers, a show-stopping midnight countdown, and a few hundred falling balloons. I thought the tradition would never get old.
Maybe it hasn’t, but I have. Blame it on the death of Kurt Cobain (birthday headliner, ages 17 and 20) or a friend’s unfortunate bout with alcohol poisoning during a set by the Brian Setzer Orchestra (birthday headliner, age 24). My birthdays aren’t what they used to be, and after having beer dumped on my head and bruises moshed into my arms year after year, I can honestly say I’m glad.
I’ve experimented with quieter, simpler birthday festivities: playing board games, biking to Old Sacramento to see fireworks, renting movies, roller skating or staying up late compiling lists of resolutions. And, for the last several years, I’ve stopped at the Trinity Cathedral on Capitol Avenue to walk the labyrinth.
The cathedral opens the labyrinth to the public on the third Friday of every month, but I only visit once a year, for the special New Year’s Eve hours. Though I am older each time, I always seem to be the youngest person pacing the winding path, which is outlined in lavender paint on huge sheets of canvas covering the floor. Perhaps spending the biggest party night of the year in silent, walking meditation is a taste acquired with age.
This year, I brought three friends with me, straight from dinner at Michelangelo’s. We’d split a bottle of wine and were chattering loudly, but the aura of silence in the church’s gymnasium stilled us as we entered. The only sound came from a boombox playing a Native American drumming song. The perimeter of the room was filled with pine trees of all sizes—leftovers from Christmas services?—making the labyrinth seem like a meadow in a forest. The handful of peaceful walkers were illuminated by dozens of tea lights in tiny glass jars.
Volunteers whispered a cheery, if barely audible, greeting and handed us some flyers. One explained the history of labyrinths—that the same shape is found in spiritual traditions throughout the world, most famously on the floor of Chartres Cathedral in France. The labyrinth has no dead ends, just one path leading to the center and back out again. The act of walking to the center, pausing to pray and receive guidance, and walking back to rejoin the world improves focus and faith.
We removed our shoes and coats in silence. I approached the opening of the labyrinth and paused to give thanks that another year had brought me here. And then I started walking.
Following the narrow path with careful steps, I veered close to the center and then wandered hopelessly far from it. I silently negotiated with others, stepping aside for the faster walkers, hopping off-route to pass the slower. Some people I met over and over; others only once. I slowed to examine the figures surrounding the labyrinth at regular intervals: a Buddha, a menorah, an om symbol, a Celtic cross, a nativity scene, a Native American hoop, Kuan Yin, and others I didn’t recognize.
The center was empty when I arrived, so I sat on one petal of its rosette shape and closed my eyes. I tried to imagine the next year. Ideas arrived in spurts, like psychic Morse code: dance more, visit the desert, try photography, don’t worry so much, cook for your friends, enjoy the spring when it comes, breathe until then, be kind to yourself. When I opened my eyes, the center was full. My friends were there, and more people besides.
It was my birthday and I was happy, without balloons, beer or bombast. I stood and began walking toward the new year. I don’t know what it will bring, but I can guess where I’ll be when it’s over.