Walking the Vera Wagner Memorial Labyrinth, in Tribute to Elspeth Pope

On May 18, I arrive at the Holly House in Shelton, Washington, about an hour and a half south of Seattle, down a long, gravel drive shaded by grand, impossibly green cedars and maples and oaks, all draped in a fine filigree of moss. I am so grateful to have been granted a month-long writing residency here by the very generous organization, Hypatia-in-the-Woods. Approaching the cabin, I pass a pebbled labyrinth that winds through the late Jim Holly’s orchard, a small meadow hedged in by blackberry brambles and dotted with a few pear, cherry, and apple trees. A wooden box at the entrance contains pamphlets describing the spiritual tradition of walking the labyrinth as a mirror of our lives’ journeys.

I am reminded of a book I have just picked up, Bashō’s Narrow Road to the Interior. “The sun and moon are eternal travelers,” it begins. “Even the years wander on.” I am greeted warmly by the writers Carolyn Maddux and Marilyn Vogler, but I do not have an opportunity to meet the director, Elspeth Pope, who during the previous week, while I was winding my way cross-country, checked herself into hospice.

Bashō’s opening paragraph continues:

A lifetime adrift in a boat, or in old age leading a tired horse into the years, every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home. From the earliest times there have always been some who perished along the road. Still, I have always been drawn by wind-blown clouds into dreams of a lifetime of wandering.

The night I arrive, Elspeth passes, so this time, it seems I have wandered into someone’s death. It feels as if I am arriving as the curtain falls on a great play—one I have never seen—the audience still standing in reverential ovation, then shuffling out slowly and leaving me alone with the set: a charming cabin in the woods alongside the house of a generous scholar who made it her mission to provide other women with a creative sanctuary. The stage is still cast in the quiet spell of its absent heroine, and I am surrounded by what she left behind: shelves of books inscribed with heartfelt thanks, paintings, a sculpture, various drawings and prints, journals penned full of poems, musings, and sketches from previous residents, and a handmade box filled with remembrances of those who helped her create this place. A soft, but almost constant rain, chimes through the trees for the next two weeks, shedding white petals from the blackberry brambles and swelling the fruit to a deep red on its way to sweet.

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