Airports, Labyrinths and Limitations
One of my morning rituals is tracing a finger labyrinth,moving my finger through a pattern strewn with clean sand to calm my mind and help me enter into a listening space. A few days ago, I found my finger exiting the labyrinth only seconds after I entered it. I’d moved too quickly, mindlessly, and gotten off the small path. I’d missed a turn somewhere and found myself traveling backwards without realizing it until I was back at the entrance without having first reached the center.
For readers unfamiliar with the labyrinth, it’s an ancient tool used for prayer and meditation. Unlike a maze, one cannot get lost in a labyrinth. One path leads to the center and that same path leads you out again. I walk them when I can and often trace this small one at home. Among their many benefits to someone like me is a forced slowness, an attentiveness that I find hard to attain without a helpful tool.
As I realized my mistake in missing the turn, I sighed in frustration, thinking of the “one step forward and two backwards” adage when I’m trying to make progress in my life. Instantly, I recognized the same emotion from the day before when I’d gone to pick up my daughter from the airport: the frustration of feeling lost but knowing you’re not really lost, of having done something you know is going to set you back, the aggravation of being waylaid by your own carelessness.
I followed my husband’s verbal directions to the Atlanta airport rather than use my maps app because I wasn’t sure it would distinguish between the domestic terminal off I-85 or the international terminal, which is off I-285 East. Though I’d swear I did exactly as he told me, I somehow ended up about four miles past the airport headed south on I-75 (though I did see a large green exit sign on the ground just after I passed by an exit!).
I wasn’t really lost or late - yet. I could still see planes flying in the skies around me. I had navigation systems in my car, on my phone; I was still in the city of Atlanta. But as I pulled off at the next exit to get my bearings and saw the congested traffic in both directions, I found myself sighing hard, then shouting out loud to no one, “I hate this. I want to cry!” I literally said “I want to cry”. It’s funny to me now, but it wasn’t then. In that moment, I wanted my husband who once navigated Navy bombers for a living to come rescue me, or my daddy, who drove a snub-nose Bluebird church bus all over the Southeast, Southwest, Mid-Atlantic and Midwest with nothing more than a Rand McNally Atlas during summers of my youth, to show up and do the driving for me. I wanted somebody besides me to figure out where I needed to turn around, to bypass all that traffic, and to get me to my daughter at the terminal before she got through customs and had no one there to greet her.
I pulled over into a parking lot, picked up my phone and pulled up written directions from where I was to the International Terminal. It was perfectly clear to me what I needed to do.
I’m a words person. A wordsmith. Of course it was clear!
My husband is not words, as anyone who knows him would attest. He spends them like money, very judiciously. As a trained pilot, even when he is driving and not flying, the view in his mind is aerial, it’s visual. He sees the airport from the sky, not the road. The man was looking into maps on radar screens before any of our cars or phones had them. Given the absence of a map, verbal directions, after years of listening to air traffic control, are his next preferred means of navigation.
Last week I read Parker J. Palmer’s book Let Your Life Speak. One of the ideas that resonated with me was that everything has a nature which means defining attributes and limitations. Humans are no different. It’s not really true what we tell our children - that you can be anything you want to be. It’s only true if we work within our natures. We are designed with unique gifts, with ways of being in the world and with each other, and also with limitations. I’d found myself thinking about my own nature as a person. By midlife I think I know my strengths pretty well. I try to focus on my gifts and hone them. What I haven’t spent much time thinking about - my limitations.
Just a day or two before I made the trip to the airport, in a quiet moment, the thought came to my mind, “Show me my limitations.” The second that prayer bubbled up I tried to take it back. Fear seized me. Isn’t that asking to experience failure? I’m not saying I don’t have limitations, I’m admitting that denial has been a happier place.
Or has it? Has my tendency to deny limitations been good for my soul or my body? The last several years would answer “No”.
Slowing down, paying attention, listening to one’s life - as Palmer calls it -might actually be the happy place. Knowing myself - that unlike my husband - I need written directions and should have taken the time to look them up before I left home - would have prevented that frustrated, childish moment of talking to myself and almost crying over what was really a non-incident.
The labyrinth was mirroring the state of my body and soul that morning. I was hurrying. I was inattentive. I was trying to live in a way inconsistent with my own nature. I went back to my prayer that I tried to take back. A revision was in order: “Give me the courage to know my limitations.”