On Thursday I walked the labyrinth at Abilene Christian University in Abilene, Texas.
My grandpa died a couple weeks ago, prompting a quick and unexpected road trip south to Abilene for the funeral and time with family. This side of the family—my dad’s—has made a home in Churches of Christ for much longer than I’ve been alive. It’s the denomination that raised me; it’s the denomination my undergraduate and graduate alma mater, ACU, belongs to; and it’s the denomination most of my cousins and aunts and uncles belong to today. These grandparents, my dad, and many of my other relatives attended ACU, and today most of the family lives in Texas and Oklahoma. My immediate family moved away from Abilene just before I was born, but my mother stayed with these grandparents in the weeks leading up to my birth so her doctor in Abilene could deliver me.
What I am trying to convey is the thin boundary between my extended family and Churches of Christ and west Texas, the way every visit to Abilene is both a family visit and a school visit and a pilgrimage, the way our family reunions almost always involve pulling out hymnals to sing together a cappella, that is, without instrumentation, the way people sing in Churches of Christ. I was unable to travel to Abilene early enough to visit my grandpa in hospice, but my dad sent a video of a dozen or so of my relatives gathered around his deathbed singing hymns, my grandpa singing along.
My last morning in Abilene on this trip, I visited the labyrinth on ACU’s campus. It was a moment to reflect on the week, and it was a bit of an intentional echo. The labyrinth was installed while I was an undergraduate at ACU. One of the professors who was pivotal in its conception and design led my cohort in walking it during my first week of graduate school in 2011. The experience was profound, all my undergrad memories on campus surrounding me, all the promise of my graduate studies just ahead out of reach. The professor reminded us: This isn’t a maze. It’s just one direct path, looping in and around itself, directly to the center, and then directly back to the beginning.
I moved from Abilene to Chicago in 2015. In between I took a long road trip wandering around Texas, visiting friends and family before my dad and I made the long drive north to Illinois. That last morning in Abilene, I went for donuts with some of my closest friends, and as an intentional bookend, I walked the labyrinth as my last stop before leaving town. It was another profound experience. By then I had eight transformative years in Abilene surrounding me, and I had little idea what lay ahead of me in Chicago. I climbed in the little truck crammed with everything I owned, headed east on I-20, and cried my eyes out.
This most recent visit to the ACU labyrinth in 2021 was less profound. I was tired from the whirlwind of grief and long, full days with family, and I struggled to focus and activate my imagination. After walking, I had breakfast with the same friends who sent me off with donuts in 2015—they still live in Abilene—and then I headed east on I-20, this time returning, rather than embarking, to Chicago.
Among the large crowd at Grandpa’s funeral a few days earlier, I had trouble placing people I hadn’t seen in years: Do I know you from my grandparents’ church in Abilene, the one I’ve visited with them once a twice a year since I was born? Do I know you from ACU? Do I know you from the church where I grew up, the one my parents still attend? Are you one of my second or third cousins? But I had no trouble navigating I-20, the long, straight highway stretching across Texas, somehow looping in and around itself, the one that never tells me whether I’m arriving or departing.