—[transcript from the audio essay]—
Every year they grow a corn maze six miles outside Walla Walla, in eastern Washington, where I live. The signs for the maze begin appearing in mid September, printed in red ink on white boards stuck in the corners of fields like some strange mid-harvest crop that bleeds words. There are two signs within walking distance from my house. The first time I saw them I was driving by and thought I’d made a wrong turn. Had I circled back? It was five years ago. We’d only been here a month, and the fields all looked the same to me. But the second time I saw them, I realized that there’s more than one way to get to the maze, and that, while the signs seemed to point in opposite directions, when I looked at a map, what seemed to me to be opposite directions were actually in agreement.
I live in a rural area; Walla Walla is the largest town for sixty miles. It’s a wheat town mostly, though the wine industry has become a bigger and bigger part of the town’s economy over the past twenty years. There’s a prison here too, not even two miles from Main Street, the largest and oldest penitentiary in the state.
My daughter’s Kindergarten class went on a field trip to the maze this year. My son, in second grade, was intensely jealous, despite having gone on the same field trip himself when he was in Kindergarten. He was certain that she would memorize the path, and would lead us through without his having a chance to discover it for himself. The maze and its existence right outside of town is pretty much the only thing that my son wants to talk about.
I’ve struggled to find work since we moved to Walla Walla. Last spring I taught a writing class at the penitentiary. It met just once a week. On my first day, I asked the academic coordinator to meet me at the prison entrance. Since my interview, the series of gates and stairs and hallways that led to the prison classrooms had blurred together in my mind, and I wasn’t sure I’d remember where to go. The academic coordinator was gracious and happy to help. He suggested that I make a point of not finding out why my students were incarcerated. “You don’t want it affecting your relationship with them,” he said. “As far as I’m concerned, I’m interested in what they’re doing here, now. Not what they did before.” When class time came, my students were well mannered and seemed eager to learn.
The following week, the academic coordinator offered to meet me downstairs again, but I told him I’d be fine. On my way out on that first day of teaching, I’d realized that there was only one route that presented itself for going in or going out. There were no possibilities for branching off and getting lost.
My mother has a friend who in recent years has discovered walking meditation. Apparently there are religious labyrinths painted on the floor of some churches that you can walk on as a form of spiritual practice. There’s one painted on the floor at Chartres. There’s one painted on the floor in Ravenna. There’s at least one company on the internet that sells plans for placing one in your own backyard.
The paths of church labyrinths are intricate, but they don’t let you make false turns. Like the hallways of the prison, they’re designed so that it’s impossible to get lost inside them. You walk a path until you come to the center of the labyrinth and then return along the same path that led you in. To imply a connection between incarceration and meditation would be insane, and would ignore the obvious fact that in a church labyrinth you have equal access to the outside as you do to the inside. But, still, you can’t physically get lost visiting either place.
The Walla Walla corn maze is run by Stace Filan. In 1999, he decided to plant the first maze in an attempt to save the family farm. Each year, it covers an area of six acres. While its layout changes every year, it’s always anchored by the same tunnel, which leads visitors to the exit. Not many visitors ask for help. When they do, Filan tells the guys working the maze to make sure the requests for help are real before they agree to give it. His feeling is that sometimes people ask for help, but really, they just want to see if help will be given.
I’ve been a mother now for seven years and seven months. I breast fed my first child successfully—he grew so quickly that we had to give away his newborn clothes before he’d even had a chance to wear them. I thought it was a myth that children wear through clothes. I thought that every parent has the luxury of passing along hand-me-downs that are unworn. Milk leaked from my breasts as if it could fill buckets. I was embarrassed by the plenty.
I nearly killed my daughter in my attempts to breast feed her. She was seven and a half pounds when she was born and just nine and a half pounds five months later. She was still wearing her newborn clothes when the doctor finally insisted I put her on formula. Whereas my son, from the moment he was born, has exuded an air of newness, my daughter always seems to stare at me with a sense of age. She has always pushed into me as if she wants to mix her body with mine but can’t find a way in. We’re always just close enough to touch but never close enough to go back to being one.
How can the path I took once not be the same path I took again? How can one confuse an entry path and an exit path? Did a labyrinth suddenly become a maze? I’ve been a mother for seven years and seven months, but it’s still hard to think of myself as anything but a child.
By the time I actually take my son to the corn maze, it’s late October. We are bundled in coats and hats, and my son’s nose is red even before we make our way through the entrance. I follow him as he leads us through the gate.
It takes less than a minute to feel the pressure of the corn hemming us in. The stalks rise at least ten feet high. The corn gives a strange sense of vertigo. The earth seems to rise up around us with the stalks, and the point of collision with the sky is blurry. The rain drizzles down and hits our heads, and the path of trampled dirt is slick, but the rustling corn walls create a feeling of shelter, and their looming height seems to stretch up and over us. We can see the sky, but always the green of the corn is at the edge of our vision, green turning to brown, soft in the rain.
My son has a theory about the maze: that if you just keep turning left you’ll find your way out. A friend told him the method, and swore it works. I don’t quite buy this—how could we do anything but spin in circles if all we do is turn left?—but I let him lead. At least he has a plan.
Forty minutes pass, and we seem to be walking in circles. I slip on the slick path and almost fall over. I think I am keeping track of where we’ve been, but any hope of orientation I might have had is gone. How many dead ends have we passed? How many plastic orange fences blocking us from alternate routes?
“Bob says the maze is cut in the shape of a flower,” my son says.
How could he possibly know, I think.
“Bob’s the one who told me to turn left,” he says. “He told me the way to get out.”
Now I say it out loud: “How could he know?”
“What do you mean, how could he know?”
“He must have made mistakes. He must have walked in circles just like us. How could he know a way out that doesn’t include his mistakes?”
My son is silent. His nose seems to be running. I can tell he doesn’t understand what I mean. “Look,” he says. “The tunnel!”
The tunnel. Stability. A sign.
He’s already out the other side. The mud gives way to wood chips. There is what looks like a final fork, and I head for the left. And then I hear my son. “No,” he says. “No. Left is wrong. I just figured it out! If we go right, we’ll be at the exit. Come on. Turn right. We’re almost there.”
And we are. We exit the maze not five feet from where we entered it. Our jackets are wet. Mud covers our pants. We’ve been inside for fifty minutes. The world widens, the walls pushed back as far as our eyes can see. Already the narrow paths are fading. Already the world presents the illusion of an open space through which we have choice in navigation.