WHEN I DISCOVERED my first maze among the pages of a coloring book, I dutifully guided the mouse in the margins toward his wedge of cheese at the center. I dragged my crayon through narrow alleys and around corners, backing out of dead ends, trying this direction instead of that. Often I had to stop and rethink my strategy, squinting until some unobstructed path became clear and I could start to move the crayon again.
I kept my sights on the small chamber in the middle of the page and knew that being lost would not be in vain; wrong turns only improved my chances, showed me that one true path toward my reward. Even when trapped in the hallways of the maze, I felt an embracing safety, as if Iâd been zipped in a sleeping bag.
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Reaching the cheese had about it a triumph and finality Iâd never experienced after coloring a picture or connecting the dots. If only Iâd known a word like âinevitable,â since thatâs how it felt to finally slip into the innermost room. I gripped the crayon, savored the place.
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The lines on the next maze in the coloring book curved and rippled like waves on water. The object of this maze was to lead a hungry dog to his bone. Mouse to cheese, dog to boneâthe premise quickly ceased to matter. It was the tricky, halting travel I was after, forging a passage, finding my way.
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Later that day, as I walked through our living room, a maze revealed itself to me in the mahogany coffee table. I sat on the floor, fingered the wood grain, and found a winding avenue through it. The fabric of my parentsâ blanket was a pattern of climbing ivy and, from one end of the bed to the other, I traced the air between the tendrils. Soon I didnât need to use a finger, mapping my path by sight. I moved through the veins of the marble heart, through the space between the paisleys on my motherâs blouse. At the age of seven I changed forever, like the faithful who see Christ on the side of a barn or peering up from a corn tortilla. Everywhere I looked, a labyrinth meandered.
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Soon the mazes in the coloring books, in the comic-strip section of the Sunday paper, or on the placemats of coffee shops that served âchildrenâs mealsâ became too easy. And so I began to make my own. I drew them on the cardboard rectangles that my fatherâs dress shirts were folded around when they came back from the cleanerâs. My frugal mother, hoarder of jelly jars and rubber bands, had saved a stack of them. She was happy to put the cardboard to use, if a bit mystified by my new obsession.
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The best method was to start from the center and work outward with a sharpened pencil, creating layers of complication. I left a few gaps in every line, and after Iâd gotten a feel for the architecture of the whole, Iâd close off openings, reinforce walls, a slave sealing the pharaohâs tomb. My blind alleys were especially treacherous; I constructed them so that, by the time one realized heâd gotten stuck, turning back would be an exquisite ordeal.
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My hobby required a twofold concentration: carefully planning a maze while allowing myself the fresh pleasure of moving through it. Alone in my bedroom, sitting at my desk, I sometimes spent the better part of an afternoon on a single maze. I worked with the patience of a redwood growing rings. Drawing myself into corners, erasing a wall if all else failed, I fooled and baffled and freed myself.
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Eventually I used shelf paper, tearing off larger and larger sheets to accommodate my burgeoning ambition. Once I brought a huge maze to my mother, who was drinking a cup of coffee in the kitchen. It wafted behind me like an ostentatious cape. I draped it over the table and challenged her to try it. She hadnât looked at it for more than a second before she refused. âYouâve got to be kidding,â she said, blotting her lips with a paper napkin. âIâm lost enough as it is.â When my father returned from work that night, he hefted his briefcase into the closet, his hat wet and drooping from the rain. âLater,â he said (his code word for âneverâ) when I waved the banner of my labyrinth before him.
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It was inconceivable to me that someone wouldnât want to enter a maze, wouldnât lapse into the trance it required, wouldnât sacrifice the time to find a solution. But mazes had a strange effect on my parents: they took one look at those tangled paths and seemed to wilt.
I was a late child, a âbig surpriseâ as my mother liked to say; by the time Iâd turned seven, my parents were trying to cut a swath through the forest of middle age. Their mortgage ballooned. The plumbing rusted. Old friends grew sick or moved away. The creases in their skin deepened, so complex a network of lines, my mazes paled by comparison. Fatherâs hair receded, Motherâs grayed. âWhen youâve lived as long as we have...,â theyâd say, which meant no surprises loomed in their future; it was repetition from here on out. The endless succession of burdens and concerns was enough to make anyone forgetful. Eggs were boiled until they turned brown, sprinklers left on till the lawn grew soggy, keys and glasses and watches misplaced. When I asked my parents about their past, they cocked their heads, stared into the distance, and often couldnât recall the details.
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Thirty years later, I understand my parentsâ refusal. Why would anyone choose to get mired in a maze when the days encase us, loopy and confusing? Remembered events merge together or fade away. Places and dates grow dubious, a jumble of guesswork and speculation. Whatâs-his-name and thingamajig replace the bright particular. Recollecting the past becomes as unreliable as forecasting the future; you consult yourself with a certain trepidation and take your answer with a grain of salt. The friends you turn to for confirmation are just as muddled; they furrow their brows and look at you blankly. Of course, once in a while you find the tiny, pungent details poised on your tongue like caviar. But more often than not, you settle for sloppy approximationsââI was visiting Texas or Colorado, in 1971 or â 72ââand the anecdote rambles on regardless. When the face of a friend from childhood suddenly comes back to me, itâs sad to think that if a certain synapse hadnât fired just then, I may never have recalled that friend again. Sometimes Iâm not sure if Iâve overheard a story in conversation, read it in a book, or if Iâm the person to whom it happened; whose adventures, besides my own, are wedged in memory? Then there are the things Iâve dreamed and mistaken as fact. When youâve lived as long as I have, uncertainty is virtually indistinguishable from the truth, which as far as I know is never naked, but always wearing some disguise.
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Mother, Father: Iâm growning middle-aged, lost in the folds and bones of my body. It gets harder to remember the days when you were here. I suppose it was inevitable that, gazing down at this piece of paper, Iâd feel your weary expressions on my face. What have things been like since youâve been gone? Labyrinthine. The very sound of that word sums it upâas slippery as thought, as perplexing as the truth, as long and convoluted as a life.
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[Edited at 2004-04-04 12:37]
[Edited at 2004-04-04 12:38]
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