Jewish World ReviewOct. 28, 2002 / 22 Mar-Cheshvan, 5763
http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | While everyone is arguing about what kind of memorial should be built on or near the World Trade Center, one has quietly appeared just paces from the Eternal Flame in Battery Park. It is small. A little weird. And possibly perfect.
It's a labyrinth.
You know, a kind of maze - although this is one you can't get lost in. It is simply a circular path within a path within a path, made of cobblestones flush with the grass. Slowly, the paths lead you to the middle, although to get there you have to keep doubling back and turning around, like a ball jiggling in a plastic party favor. When at last you do reach the center, you just may get centered, too.
"It's not a puzzle, it's a contemplative walk," says Warrie Price, president of the Battery Conservancy. The idea is to give visitors a little journey inward in every sense of the word.
It works. Walking in circle after circle, a visitor keeps confronting West St., Castle Clinton and the bay with the Statue of Liberty (or at least her head peeking over the temporary New Jersey ferry terminal). In other words, to follow the labyrinth is to gaze upon New York old and new, natural and man-made, traumatized and triumphant.
West St. was one of the main escape routes from the Trade Center on 9/11. In the long months to follow, it served as the main corridor for the cleanup machinery - and the remains.
Castle Clinton, meanwhile, was the Ellis Island of its day. Eight million immigrants passed through from 1855 to 1890. It represents our openness to the world, our diversity.
And the Statue of Liberty? 'Nuff said. Put it all together and you've got New York.
But as dizzying a perspective as the labyrinth offers, its history is equally evocative.
Labyrinths get their name from a mythical mazelike castle said to have sat on the island of Crete. In the middle of this Labyrinth lived the Minotaur - half-man, half-bull and the all-around favorite pet of King Minos, sworn enemy of ancient Athens.
"It's a charmingly terrible story," says Donald Kagan, professor of classics at Yale. Every nine years, the king of Athens - Aegeus - had to send 14 youths to be sacrificed to the Minotaur or King Minos would wreak vengeance. One year, Aegeus' son Theseus volunteered to go.
So sad was Aegeus that he sent Theseus off in a ship with black sails. "If you come back, raise a white sail so I'll know as soon as I spot your ship that you're safe," he told his boy.
When Theseus got to Crete, King Minos' daughter Ariadne fell for him. Hard. She gave Theseus a sword to kill the Minotaur and a ball of thread so he could find his way back out. (It is from Ariadne that we may get the word for spider - arachnid.)
All would have ended happily if A) Theseus hadn't abandoned Ariadne on an island on his way home, and B) He had remembered to put up a white sail. Spying the black sail on his son's ship, King Aegeus leaped to his death.
There is something very resonant about loss and leaping and a commemorative labyrinth.
Even more resonant is the fact that in the Middle Ages, labyrinths became popular on the floors of great cathedrals. Since it was nearly impossible to get to Jerusalem in real life, "Following a labyrinth was a way of going on a symbolic pilgrimage," says Diana Balmori, head of the architecture firm that bears her name.
Moreover, she says, the twists, turns and dead ends along the way came to represent the voyage of life itself: We may get lost, but we must keep searching.
True, it's hard to keep all this in mind while walking a circular path near the honking, screeching streets of Manhattan. But in this maze of tears and wonder we tread, it is good, sometimes, to appreciate the journey.
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