‘The beauty of the room’: Elizabeth Austin remembers how the Community Labyrinth Walk to the New Year got started on its path
By Morgan Rothborne, Ashland.news
Elizabeth Austin is preparing to serve her final year as lead organizer for the Ashland Sacred Walk to the New Year. After 25 years, it’s definitely time to let go but not to walk away, she said — the labyrinth walk is a part of her, it has shaped her life as much as she has shaped it.
Every year, Austin’s 110-pound, three-piece, 40- by 40-foot canvas labyrinth is unfurled at the Ashland First United Methodist Church just before New Year’s. For two days, participants walk in the labyrinth’s pattern while musicians play from a small stage. Those who walk it believe it is a profound meditation and a vital way to part with the old year and bring on the new.
Last Sunday evening, Austin was bundled against December’s chill in vibrant purple, surrounded by a handful of the volunteers who help create the event every year. They were gathered beside the labyrinth painted on the ground outside Trinity Episcopal Church on Second Street to help Austin celebrate the tradition they have created.
In a lilting drawl betraying her Tennessee origins, Austin smiled to remember the way it began. It all started in 1999 with Y2K anxiety and a surprise visit from an eccentric man.
Newly established in Ashland after selling a pair of schools for river mariners she co-founded and operated, Austin had spent the preceding years at Jean Houston’s mystery school in New York developing a love and appreciation for the labyrinth. The canvas was newly purchased and already used at a birthday party for the then-owner of SoundPeace. It all led to a knock at her door one winter day.
“This man came to my door, an interesting man. Coming from Tennessee you don’t see a lot of men like him … He had long gray hair, medium build, he dressed eccentric. … He had another name, but I only knew him as Lupine,” she said.
Lupine had an elaborately planned event for the winter solstice, a panacea for Y2K anxieties, all revolving around a labyrinth. Except Lupine didn’t own one. He went to SoundPeace looking for one and the owner told him where to find Austin. She agreed to help with the event under one condition.
“I would never rent the labyrinth out ever, where it went, I went and he was OK with that,” Austin said.
The success of the first walk led to its establishment as a New Year’s tradition.
“You are taking your whole body and doing a sacred walk into the future. It’s not just sitting and doing resolutions, or thinking ‘oh let’s go to a party.’ … It’s a beautiful meditation,” said Cassandra Wass.
Wass is the likely replacement for Austin next year, with the help of other volunteers.
Austin pointed to volunteer Lisa Nelson taking measured slow steps through the narrow lines of the labyrinth at the Episocpal church Sunday evening. Watch how she walks, Austin said.
“She walks forward, she turns and walks back up in the other direction. Eventually, because it’s a winding path, she’ll get to the center — she’ll get there if she stays on it. If she moves, if she loses her path, she’ll do one of two things. She will probably wind up back where she started at the exit or the center. If she gets to the exit she has a choice to make. Stop and leave the whole thing or try again. … Now, don’t you think that’s like life?” Austin said with a grin.
The variety of metaphors and symbols of the labyrinth and the Sacred Walk was represented by the volunteer’s diverse experiences with it.
“I like the analogy of the journey. But for me, as soon as I step across, it’s being there and it’s a liminal space where I can listen to and connect with whatever — strangely — voices have meaning for me. I do find it easier to come up with dreams and thoughts and aspirations when I am walking the labyrinth,” said Mary Beth Watt, another volunteer.
Watt often writes poetry immediately after her walks by putting pen to paper. “Whatever comes out,” she said.
Some symbols are built into the labyrinth itself. Austin said those who own a canvas can create meanings for the petals at the center of the design. She has assigned meanings that function like subjects for meditation — first, the furthest left petal represents the mineral world, then plants, animals of any kind, the human population, angels and saints, and — her personal favorite — the divine plan that is yet unfolding.
The Sacred Walk includes altars which have evolved over time. First, it offered only cardinal directions. Then it became an altar to the divine feminine, then altars were added for the divine masculine and for children.
The labyrinth’s ability to conjure these rarified ideas is connected to its history, Austin said. It comes from simple spirals found on unearthed ancient pottery. It continued to evolve until it reached its current form, a design “that’s geometrically so perfect,” she said, first created at the Chartres Cathedral in 1215. While the design was replicated throughout Europe, the international proliferation of the concept of sacred labyrinth walks came from the efforts of a few individuals who dedicated themselves to the idea in the 1980s and ’90s, she said. For her, the spread of the idea is a sign of something higher.
“It is such a beautiful example of the connectedness of everybody. And if everybody is doing what they’re here to do? Oh my goodness, the possibilities. Endless,” Austin said.
After 25 years of the tradition in Ashland, Austin’s canvas is showing its age. She abandoned a fleeting thought to get it cleaned this year, declaring the marks of candle wax, stains and scuffs “sacred dirt” — evidence worth preserving of the hundreds of feet that have walked it.
This year’s theme — community, world, planet — will have its own altar where attendees can write and attach messages.
To anyone considering coming for the first time, Austin said there are few rules.
“My general invitation would be, ‘Just try it.’ … You don’t have to believe anything particular, you don’t have to do anything particular, all we ask is that you behave yourself — you know, be nice — and relax,” she said.
This year for the last time Austin will enjoy her favorite part of what she feels is the honor and responsibility of organizing the Sacred Walk — watching, listening, and feeling with all her senses, “the beauty of the room,” she said.
Email Ashland.news reporter Morgan Rothborne at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dec. 23: Corrected characterization of Elizabeth Austin’s relationship with the river mariner schools.