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Sonoma County labyrinths allow for New Year’s contemplation

Lea Goode-Harris has designed a number of labyrinths including the one behind the chapel at Spring Lake Village in Santa Rosa, on Tuesday, December 20, 2016. (BETH SCHLANKER/ The Press Democrat)

DIANE REBER HART,

With twists and turns signifying life’s journey, labyrinths provide quiet contemplation and discovery for people across Sonoma County, where installations are located at churches, hospitals and several other public places.

On the winter solstice, flickering candles and white Christmas lights woven within boughs of greenery circled a broad canvas labyrinth at a Sonoma church, giving parishioners an evening of pause and reflection during the busy holiday season.

In west county, the outdoor Labyrinth of Life at the Sebastopol Youth Annex was to welcome New Year’s Eve celebrants during the midnight Peacetown ceremony embracing the start of 2017.

As one year ends and the hope and promise of a new one unfolds, labyrinths provide opportunities for peaceful contemplation and introspection through inward journeys.

“It takes you to a center place, both literally and metaphorically,” said labyrinth designer and consultant Lea Goode-Harris, 58, of Santa Rosa. “It’s a concentrated pattern intended to take you to a centered place.”

Unlike mazes with false paths and dead ends, labyrinths offer a single path leading to a center space. Walkers can travel the same curves in and out of labyrinths without the frustration of losing their way.

Rooted in ancient times and often of archetypal symbols, labyrinths can be found indoors and out across the globe, painted on hardscapes, outlined with stones, installed simply in the grass or more elaborately with brick or tile.

They can be experienced in numerous ways, for discovery, retreat or celebration, or for letting go of burdensome thoughts.

For Sonoma freelance minister and occupational analyst Ruth Hoppe, 70, one of some 50 community members attending the winter solstice celebration at First Congregational Church of Sonoma, walking labyrinths provides calming time for reflection and introspection.

As she walked the indoor traveling labyrinth at her church, with at times two dozen people on the rolled-out canvas at once, she stopped occasionally to extend her arms skyward with open hands.

“It was soft, it was meditative and at times I was very much in myself,” Hoppe said of the experience. “At times, I raised my arms, connecting with all that is.”

Even as others traveled the labyrinth around her, Hoppe found an inward focus. Her minister, the Rev. Dr. Curran Reichert, and fellow musicians performed instrumental Christmas carols and hymns, sometimes singing, adding to the soothing and comforting ambiance.

Not all labyrinths are found in quiet surroundings, though.

Goode-Harris’ contemporary Snoopy Labyrinth at the Charles M. Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa was installed outdoors at an intersection joining the museum and the Redwood Empire Ice Arena, with plenty of children and activity nearby. Still, the labyrinth — a profile of Snoopy’s head — offers a place for quiet meditation. The experience can provide so much focus that distractions are muffled.

Goode-Harris has designed nearly 100 labyrinths in public spaces and on private properties across the United States and in Ireland, Australia and South Africa, including a 22-foot labyrinth in the backyard of her Victorian home.

She is renowned for the seven-path Santa Rosa Labyrinth she designed in 1997 with a compass, black-paper notepad and white pencil from an “upwelling” of creativity and clarity. The design has been installed at numerous locations since, including the eco-friendly green rooftop garden of the American Psychological Association in Washington, D.C.

Goode-Harris, an artist who holds a doctorate in clinical psychology and provides nutritional consultations and stress support through her business, Nurturing Mind, Spirit and Body, says her life changed dramatically by a chance labyrinth walk while in college.

She “didn’t know the difference between a labyrinth and a maze” in the early 1990s. (A maze is a complex, branching puzzle that includes choices in path and direction, while a labyrinth has only one non-branching path that leads to the center.) But when she stepped into a labyrinth at the Angela Center in Santa Rosa, it was a transformative moment.

“I had the most profound experience,” she said. “I really feel that moment changed the entire course of my life.”

She has walked labyrinths to process everything from anxiety to bereavement, for introspection and awareness and for celebration.

“It’s taught me to trust myself, to trust my heart. All I have to do is take a turn to see the world differently,” she said. “It’s taught me it’s OK to walk away sometimes. It’s OK to just exit.”

Goode-Harris has walked on fleeting installations in the sand of Sonoma Coast beaches and has traveled labyrinths from Grace Cathedral in San Francisco to the candlelit glow of the famous labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral outside Paris.

Some, like the 11-circuit Chartres Labyrinth, are designs of sacred geometry. Whether for prayer, meditation or creative thinking, labyrinths can open hearts and minds, Goode-Harris said.

Walkers slow down, relax both body and mind and may gain an awareness difficult to find while racing among responsibilities, checking social media sites or going through the checklists of day-to-day life.

“It gives you an opportunity to align with your heart and soul,” Goode-Harris said. “It’s helped me become more connected to life.”

She cautions that labyrinth walks aren’t for everyone, but says even naysayers might be surprised by the experience.

“There are now probably 2,500 labyrinth installations in the U.S. in the past 20 years. People say it’s just a phase, but it continues to be popular,” she said. “The possibilities are endless.”

You can reach Towns Correspondent Dianne Reber Hart at sonomatowns@gmail.com.