Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Sacred Circles

There's an elderly man who walks in circles every morning in the small park near my home.

Last year, the parks and rec department built a large stone circle near the playground equipment, about the size of a tether ball court. Even before that, this man walked in circles in that same spot every morning. I don't know how he knew to walk there. For all I know the circle was built because he walks there.

He also exercises there, stretches and the like, in that circle, usually standing somewhere around the edge, but sometimes in the center, ritualistically going through his daily routine.

For a time last summer a pair of women joined him, about his age. The women voicelessly imitated everything he did as he ran though the workout, finishing with walking the circle, not particularly briskly. I imagine they were relatives visiting, but whatever the case I haven't seen them with him in awhile.

I've written before about Seattle Center's International Fountain, a piece of public art that I hold in high esteem. This massive fountain is shaped as a deep bowl, at the bottom of which is a huge silver dome that spouts water, most often choreographed to go with various musical soundtracks. I read a story one time about the guy who programs the system built in the early 1960's. He has to shimmy into the dome itself like into a crawl space. I love that about it.

I also love that it's a place for the people of Seattle to play. It doesn't have to be a warm day to find people running up and down the steep concrete slopes, getting doused as they try to dodge the water plumes. But the meaning of this circular fountain is deeper than that. Last weekend, on a morning when there really wasn't much going on at Seattle Center, I stopped by the fountain. There were several dozen of us there, spread out around it's circumference, our eyes drawn to the common center, our bodies drawn there with our backs to the world, looking inward, together.

I once heard an interview with landscape architect Richard Haag, the chief designer of Gasworks Park at the north end of Lake Union, around which I live. It's an unusual park because it really shows no public face, but rather is more or less sealed off from view until you fully enter it, enclosed by trees to the north and water on its other sides. As Haag described his original vision he spoke of how cultures around the world consider these inward looking, circular spaces to be sacred.

When we play with circles yesterday in preschool, I thought of the old man who walks in circles, of the International Fountain, of Gasworks Park, of these and other circles in the day-to-day world. Circles are more than mere shapes: they are, I think, the shape, not just of man, but of nature, of life. Circles are indeed sacred. I don't think it's an accident that of all the infinite number of shapes possible, the circle is the one almost all children learn to recognize first. We sometimes argue about squares, triangles and rectangles, not to mention pentagons, hexagons, and octagons, but we all agree about circles. 

We provide precious few instructions for children when it comes to using art materials, but I'd expected our Pre-3 class to use our lid collection to make circular prints on paper, knowing that for some, as always, it would become a finger painting project, yet as they played several of them began to create their own circle. Without speaking, without words, they painted themselves up to the elbows, meditative about the the process of paint mixing on their skin, then taking themselves to our water filled sensory table to wash off, only to return to the art table where they painted themselves again.

Around and around they went, finding a sacred circle of washing and cleaning washing and cleaning. Around and around: a sacred circle.

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