Pilgrimage of Desire: An interview with author Alison Gresik

Pilgrimage-Cover-©MFarinellaDesignA few nights ago, I was reading in bed when my husband turned to me and said “It must be a good book. You haven’t taken your nose out of it all evening.” He was right – it IS a good book. It’s called Pilgrimage of Desire: An Explorer’s Journey Through the Labyrinths of Life by Alison Gresik. Reading it was like getting cozy in front of the fire with a glass of wine and an old friend who knows your thoughts before you even speak them. Let’s just say Alison and I have a LOT in common.

I was delighted when Alison got in touch with me (because she saw the parallels between her book and The Spiral Path). We arranged a Skype chat and then decided to interview each other on our blogs. I love her answers to my questions, because even though we think alike and both gravitate toward labyrinths and the Feminine Divine, we both bring something fresh to the narrative that helps us see things in new ways.


1. Tell me about your discovery of the labyrinth and how it helped you reframe your life’s journey.

My first memorable experience with the labyrinth was at a women’s retreat just before I turned 30. I was feeling quite anxious, depressed, and alone — I had been reading some feminist spirituality, Sue Monk Kidd and Carol Christ, and I felt like my image of God had been pulled out from under me.

We walked the labyrinth outside, as the evening was moving toward dusk. I had written down an intention to carry with me to the centre — I wanted God to give me a new name for herself, one that captured her feminine aspect but that also connected to the God of my youth. I was quite fearful that nothing would happen, but I actually had a powerful experience of meeting the Divine there, and receiving a name to call her: Amma.

The ritual around the labyrinth — the pattern marked on the grass, the lanterns, the women walking with me and holding the space outside — provided a strong and visible support for the encounter I had. Actually, I was so freaked out by how powerful the labyrinth experience was that it was a long time before I walked one again — I certainly didn’t make it a habit early on!

I didn’t come to see the labyrinth as a way of understanding my life’s journey until I wrote my memoir. Our year of travel had come to an early unexpected end, and we had settled in Vancouver, BC, where my husband took a job. And I was having a terrible time getting my bearings. It was one of the first major life decisions we’d made without months and years of preparation and choice, and even though it was a good place to be, I felt lost.

I had made several aborted attempts to walk labyrinths when we were in Europe during our year of travel, but something always kept going wrong. And finally, after a year in Vancouver, I was able to walk the Labyrinth of Light on Winter Solstice, which gave me a chance to say goodbye to everything that I’d left behind, to leave a totem of my grief in the centre (actually a lot of snot and tears on my sweater sleeve), and to emerge into this new phase of my life with a lightened heart.

Writing about the last ten years helped me see and make sense of the recurring patterns, the reversals and progress. The geometry of the labyrinth comforted and bolstered me in very tangible ways – physically and metaphorically.

2. Your book is called Pilgrimage of Desire: An Explorer’s Journey Through the Labyrinths of Life (which sounds a LOT like something I’d write, by the way). Can you tell me about the relationship between labyrinth journeys and desire? What does the labyrinth teach us about desire?

alison gresik-author-photoI think that desire is what moves us through the labyrinth. There must be something that compels us, draws us forward or pushes us on, and I believe that is desire, a deep urge to go from one place to another. If we don’t want something — if our heart doesn’t want to beat, if our lungs don’t want air — then we’re not alive. And the labyrinth channels and directs that movement, that desire, in its mysterious unfolding path.

Just today I was reading a quotation from Goethe that says, “Desire is the presentiment of our inner abilities, and the forerunner of our ultimate accomplishments.” In other words, desire is our drive to unfold to our full potential. So while the object of our desire might take the shape of something material — a career, a lover, a child, a creative work, a travel destination — underneath it’s a desire to become what we can become.

And the labyrinth helps us trust and follow that desire. It holds our faith and helps us feel safe in a process that can be terrifying.

3. In the book, you mention the concept of “containers of meaning” (correct me if I got the term wrong). I haven’t heard that term before and it intrigues me. It seems to me that both you and I see the labyrinth as a “container of meaning” in our lives. First, explain the term, and then talk about how the labyrinth serves as a container of meaning.

“Meaning container” is a term I learned from Eric Maisel, and essentially it’s anything — an activity, a relationship, a project — that we designate to hold meaning for us. What we do and what we have assume greater significance because they are poured into a meaning container, captured and gathering weight rather than draining away.

I love the labyrinth as a meaning container, because it’s not a static bucket — it’s got flow and change. The labyrinth’s cycles can embrace the meaning of one hour, one day, and an entire life. So for me, the labyrinth holds the significance of that first walk and my connection with Amma, and now it holds my memoir and the story of living and writing it, and it also holds the whole history and symbolism of the feminine. The labyrinth shows me synchronicity — like you and I discovering each other! It’s like a code that communicates volumes in a single image. I feel like I’ve only begun to scratch the surface of what the labyrinth can mean to me.

4. One of the other things you and I have in common is an evolving relationship with the Divine, starting with the traditional Christian view we were raised with and emerging into something different. How did your journey to the feminine Divine change your faith?

In practice, maybe not too much. I still attend an Anglican church, I sing in the choir, and I talk to God in my journal and in my head. I love being part of a community with traditions that celebrate the seasons of the year.

What did change was the tenor of my relationship with God, when she revealed herself as Amma. Leaving behind the judgmental image of a patriarchal God and identifying with Amma as female and as a mother helped me know myself as loved in a way that I hadn’t before. I never felt the need to please Amma, I just knew she thought I was perfect and wanted the best for me. And of course it wasn’t God who changed, just my perception of her. I was able to let her in and be vulnerable with her.

I found this passage in my journal from just before meeting Amma: “I have a fear of exploring being a woman, that I don’t deserve to. That I might be a usurper. Why should I get to enjoy the healing that feminism can provide, if I haven’t been wounded by the patriarchy? Or am I afraid that if I look to closely, I will find those wounds? And even if I find them, wouldn’t other women laugh at them and say, that’s not nearly as bad as what I’ve been through. Those feelings of undeservedness and fear tell me that there’s definitely something up with this feminism thing for me. To think that I’m undeserving of it means I think it’s a good thing. To fear it means that I see it as powerful and life-changing. So those are reasons to keep an open mind, keep reading, and look for the Goddess.”

So coming to Amma was an initiation into the tribe of women that I’d never seen myself as a part of, and that encounter made me care a lot more about the ways gender affects our lives as humans.

5. In the book, you share a very personal account of the complexity of your relationship with your mom and your own experience of the “mother wound” (something that I was wrestling with as I watched my own mom die). Tell me about the experience of writing that so honestly and then taking the courageous step to share it with the world (including your family).

I knew from the beginning that my relationship with my mother was a very important part of the story I wanted to tell about claiming my right to be a writer. And I gave myself permission in the beginning to put everything I wanted to in the book and then sort out all the details later. I had the confidence to do this because I had a wonderful editor (Brenda Leifso) who I really trusted to help me walk the line between what served the story and what was just petty and unkind.

But honestly, when some of the events of our trip were happening as I was writing about it, particularly this conflict with my mom when we were in Detroit, I thought, never in a million will I write about this. I could never expose myself and her like that. And then the process of writing the book showed me what those events meant, and how they connected to what had happened in the past, and I could see they were part of the whole cloth of the story – I couldn’t cut them out.

I already had my parent’s blessing to write about the more ancient history in our family, particularly because we all saw the book as a means of helping others with similar struggles. So we built on that foundation when it came to working through more current events. In fact, the method we arrived at was that I would read them a chapter a week over a video call, because hearing it in my voice and seeing my emotion helped them process it better. Then they would respond, offer their perspective on events, correct my memory in places.

The saving grace, I think, is that my parents know we all have our own take on what happened, and they believe I’m entitled to tell my version. I feel very lucky that they can be that generous.

(By the way, if you want to read a pair of books that get even deeper into the workings of writing about one’s parents, I can highly recommend Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home and Are You My Mother?)

In the end I suppose I get my nerve to publish from the belief that this book wanted to be a thing. Pilgrimage of Desire came knocking and I signed on for the ride. I’m just beginning to see the impact the book has on its readers, and I already know that it’s been worth it.


Alison’s book, Pilgrimage of Desire, is now available to order. Go buy it! Trust me on this – you won’t regret it!

Also, go check out Alison’s post where the tables were turned and she interviewed me.

What a woman wants

do unto othersOn Friday night, we ordered Chinese takeout. A familiar pattern emerged. My husband and daughters advocated for what they wanted to eat, it got a little heated, and we went back and forth between ordering a family pack and each ordering our favourite items.

Where was my voice in all of the hub-bub? In the middle, trying to make sure everyone was happy. Everyone, that is, except me. I never expressed which option I wanted. My happiness was mostly wrapped up in whether or not everyone else was happy.

Yes, it’s a familiar pattern – me, stuck in the peacekeeping role, making sure everyone is happy, but rarely expressing what I WANT. When we’re on vacation and it’s time to pick restaurants, I make sure everyone else gets what they want. When it’s my turn to pick my favourite, I never pick my true favourite, but instead I compromise and pick my second or third favourite that has something on the menu for everyone.

Maybe you know that pattern too? Isn’t that what every mom does? I know it’s certainly a pattern I learned from my own mom.

I enjoyed the Chinese food, but after eating it, I wondered “would I even know what to order if I were to be truthful and insert my voice into this kind of conversation? Do I really know what I want, or am I mostly so accustomed to paying attention to what everyone else wants?”

Ironically, this came after I’d coached not one, but THREE clients last week on how to get more clear about what they want in life. It shows up a lot in my coaching work. Maybe that’s why I noticed it. Here I’d always thought that, since I’d followed my dream into self-employment and know how to teach this stuff, I must be pretty good at figuring out what I want.

But suddenly I wasn’t so sure. Perhaps I have some clarity in the kind of work I want to do, but am I willing to be assertive and express my desires even in the small things? Am I willing to risk other people’s happiness in pursuit of what I want? And am I willing to push through to the prize even when other people say I shouldn’t want what I want?

As women, we have a long history of being told to subdue our desires. “Don’t ask for too much. Your desires are sinful. You should only satisfy yourself after everyone around you has been satisfied. Be a good mom/wife/friend and make sacrifices for people you care about. Don’t be too big or too pushy or too demanding – people will call you self-centred, a bitch, a slut.”

Somewhere along the line, we’ve learned to stuff our desires so deep we hardly know what they are anymore.

Here’s a rather crude analogy… You know that moment when you’re getting ready to board a plane and you realize you have to go to the bathroom, but you’re not sure there’s enough time, and you don’t want to step out of line, so you hold it in? And then you get on the plane and you really don’t want to stink up the airplane toilet (and offend the people close to it), and so you keep holding it? And then the next day you realize you’re constipated because you ignored your bodily urges too long?

It’s the same way with women who stop expressing their desires – we become constipated with desire. We’ve ignored our urges for so long we no longer know how to satisfy them.

Another thing happened over the weekend that piled on top of the Chinese food incident. My daughters were talking about the Advent calendars I fill with candy every year and the only thing I was hearing from them was their complaints that they don’t always like the candy I choose and that I only buy about 5 kinds and so they get a lot of repeats.

I’m a bit ashamed to admit this… but I kind of lost it over the Advent calendars. Tears were shed and I let them know that I’m a little frustrated with having to satisfy their needs all of the time and receiving so little appreciation in return. This year, THEY CAN FILL THEIR OWN ADVENT CALENDARS!

Was I wrong to admit my frustration? Not really. They need to know that moms have feelings too and a little appreciation goes a long way.

But… suddenly I realized that I wasn’t so much upset about the lack of appreciation as I was angry at them for being better at expressing their desires than I am. AND… in showing my anger, I was teaching them the same thing I was taught – that they should shut down their own desires in order to keep other people happy.

In the book “The Shadow King: The invisible force that holds women back“, I was surprised to read Sidra Stone’s assertion that we adopt the inner patriarchy (the voice that tells women that they are not worth as much as men) from our mothers. It is primarily our mothers who teach us how to stay small, how to please the men, how to avoid getting hurt, and how to give up our own desires in deference to others in our lives (especially men). They do it to protect us, because that’s the only way they’ve learned to protect themselves. And so it goes, from generation to generation.

Here I was, passing my own stifled desires on to my daughters. Ouch.

I apologized to them for reacting as I did, and said I’d give them money to choose their own candy. I’ve tried not to shame them for wanting what they want. We’ve moved on, but there is still much for me to learn from this, and much more for me to teach my daughters.

By now you may be thinking “but… isn’t it better to be unselfish, to live a compassionate life of sacrifice?” Yes, I believe in compassion and sacrifice and putting others first, but I’m beginning to believe that we must first understand ourselves (and that includes our desires) before we can adequately understand and serve others. It’s a paradox – to know others, we must first know ourselves. To serve others, we must first serve ourselves. To teach others, we must first teach ourselves. Because in knowing ourselves and our own desires, we are able to give out of our generosity and love rather than out of our obligation and shame.

Put on your own oxygen mask first.

Here’s a somewhat parallel situation from my teaching experience… The more I teach, the more I am silent in the classroom, allowing others to explore their own voices and their own questions and come to their own conclusions. This, I believe, is the best way for them to learn. BUT… I could not get to this stage where I am comfortable with my silence and where I can teach from a place in the circle instead of the front of the room until I was comfortable with my own voice. I had to learn to express myself before I began to understand when it was best to hold back and let others express themselves. When I need to, I assert myself, but I do that from a place of confidence and self-understanding rather than from a place of needing to be heard and not trusting my own voice.

In the same way, I believe we need to learn to understand our own desires before we become really effective at helping other people understand and satisfy theirs. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” many of us were taught. I’ve heard that dozens of times from Sunday School teachers and preachers, but always they were focused on the do unto others part, and nobody taught me how to understand the as you would have them do unto you part.

What if we can only “do unto others” once we are clear about what we “would have them do unto us?” What if an exploration of our desires is what will heal us and then we will be strong enough to help heal others?

Our health depends on us releasing that which constipates us.

“If I’ve never been encouraged to think of myself as someone capable of making choices in the simplest matters – what tastes good to me, how I like my room to look, what kind of people I want to be around – there is a certain kind of fire and light that will quite possibly never ignite in my life. I won’t know how to reach out for what matters most or even, possibly, to recognize it when it comes – when it whispers to me, from the depths of my own being.” – Carol Lee Flinders, At the Root of this Longing: Reconciling a Spiritual Hunger and a Feminist Thirst

Aquarian article - circle wayAnother incident happened after the Advent calendars, and I am still processing the implications. An article was published in a local newspaper that features me and my work in The Circle Way. (You can find the article here, scroll to page 15.) I was excited. Though I’ve had quite a few articles published in various newspapers and magazines, and I’ve been mentioned and quoted in others, this was the first one that was all about me and the work I’m passionate about.

I took a photo, posted it on Facebook and said Look! Look! A feature article about my work in The Circle Way featured in The Aquarian! And almost as soon as I’d posted it, I was second-guessing myself. Should I have been more subdued? Would people think I was bragging? Was the “look! look!” revealing too much about how much this means to me? Should I want this kind of exposure, or should I be more satisfied with staying small?

But then I went back to the Chinese food incident. Why shouldn’t I WANT this? Why shouldn’t I be delighted that the work I care so much about is getting exposure? What is wrong with having this desire?

When I’m completely honest with myself, this is what I want! I want to be teaching people. I want to be featured in interviews and articles about what’s important to me. I want my work to get bigger. I want to be featured in even bigger magazines and newspapers, because I want to reach more and more people with the healing potential of my work. That doesn’t make me arrogant, it makes me honest.


Because when I admit that I want this, I can help other people get closer to what they want. When I put on my own oxygen mask first, I can help those still floundering. And I can do it from a healthy place of satisfied desires and deeper self-understanding.

That’s a powerful place from which to serve.

The more I work with women who are learning to express their desires, the more I am becoming aware that women’s desires will help heal the world. The women I work with have deep desires that are not selfish – they are for more equality, more community, more connection with the earth, more wildness, more peace, more love, more art, and more creative expression. These are all things that will heal the world.

And now I may just have to go and hide for awhile because I have a vulnerability hangover for admitting what I really want. Somebody please hug me.

P.S. You can follow your own desires in 2015 with A Soulful Year.

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