"At a church in Portland, Oregon, I gathered with other caregivers for a daylong retreat. There, I found myself walking a labyrinth. It led me in an ancient spiral pattern. This one was inlaid in a wooden floor. I came abruptly on sharp twists and turnings. Suddenly I had to switch directions. I thought, This is just like caregiving.

"The ancient labyrinth pattern is not a maze. A maze is a riddle, meant to trick and trap you with many misleading paths and dead ends. A labyrinth has one well-defined path that eventually leads to the center and then back out again. A maze creates chaos. A labyrinth orders chaos. We cannot get lost. However, the path is not visible, nor is it predictable — and that reflects our journey as caregivers. If we proceed with patience and faith, walking a labyrinth becomes an exercise in practical spirituality.

"As I walked the labyrinth, I began to feel a sense of flowing. Nothing was forced. I imagined some gentle gravity pulling me along. I noticed the other caregivers walking the circles in silence. It created a shared intimacy and reverence without distraction. As the spiral led me into the center, I felt a cleansing and quieting. The mind chatter had mostly stopped. I felt peaceful. Contemplative. I did not receive any cosmic answer to my immediate problems as a caregiver, but I don't expect any thunderbolts when I pray, either. I did feel my heart and mind open to two things: acceptance and hope for the future — as uncertain as it may be.

"For me, walking the labyrinth became a powerful metaphor. Out of my seventeen years of experience as a caregiver, and hundreds of interviews, grows my understanding of the emotional, physical, spiritual, and practical demands on a family caregiver. It starts with The Call and can become a calling. For me, the calling is literally to speak to and for millions of silent caregivers.

"Most of us will go through what I call 'turnings' — significant changes in the condition of our loved one that demand new coping strategies. Each new turning requires a shift in attitude, different tools, and more help. We caregivers also have our own turnings, bombarded by conflicting emotions that force us to question our motives and reshape our attitudes. We have so much to learn, not only how to become fearless advocates for our loved one but also how to take care of ourselves at the same time."

Gail Sheehy on Walking the Labyrinth