This is the story of how a front porch portrait session in the middle of a pandemic leads to a David Bowie Labyrinth Dance Party.
March 21st, Atlanta’s shelter-in-place just sinking in, Kristin posts in our neighborhood forum: “Hi, all! I’m a documentary family photographer who suddenly has a whole lot of time on my hands. I’d like to offer a service to the community during this trying time. I’m offering “Front Porch” family photography sessions FREE OF CHARGE. (And, no, you don’t actually have to have a front porch.)”
I read her message on a short break from outlining the labyrinth walls, having stepped back for perspective on the curves starting to radiate from stake to wooden stake.
“Oh!” I think, adding new context to a scene I’d seen on a recent walk. Several generations of women in their Sunday service best, giggling in lemon yellow floral hats. Small happy shrieks amid an iris bed. A minute or so after I passed them, a woman dashed out of a nearby front door with a long-range camera and a folded stepstool. She cut across her yard, headed for the shrieks.
“Yesss.” The firmness of my response to Kristin’s offer of a photo session—this time made with my outside-the-head voice—startles a cardinal. She’d been watching my odd nest-making from a nearby weeping cherry tree that was just beginning to bud. The idea of photographing us in the center of this quarantine project will blossom alongside the cherry as spring arrives.
Short break over, I set Kristin’s message aside and return to my cart of bricks. My mind wanders to a nighttime labyrinth walk at Resonance last year (don’t miss their virtual event this year!). I’d outlined the paths in fairy lights and candles, handing each woman her own candle to carry in. My eyes refocus on the new but familiar pattern creeping across my yard. Time is a spiral, and I’m adding new contexts—the deep earthy work of construction—to the deep spiritual work I did then. Overlapping circles. I’m integrating.
Over the next few weeks, I will knock the dirt from my garden gloves countless times, pausing to observe my husband’s face, determined above a flat-edged shovel. Labyrinth-building leads us into uncharted territory, right there in the front yard where we’ve lived for sixteen years.
On the surface, this whole construction process is new to us. We uncover new principles around the ideal depth to dig for laying bricks, the rolling back of the strips of topsoil into fat coils. Communication flows between us, sharing the new efficiencies we’ve learned.
On a deeper level, we are practicing new perspectives: a micro view of the plants and soil, and a macro view of the labyrinth’s pattern set into the rest of the landscape. There is power in this skill of shifting perspective, for beyond the edges of our yard, the pandemic has closed in, trapping us into a maze of our own fear and confusion.
Fumbling our way through the twists of these first few weeks, we pour our energy into the labyrinth. After long days, we mix cocktails and sit together on the front steps, mimicking Dangermouse’s full-feline-bellied window-pawing from the other side of the glass, leaving little videos for friends, and laughing together in the face of all this uncertainty. Our laughter’s stronger because it’s together.
This quarantine project requires a good deal of explanation to family, friends, and curious neighbors. Many people reference the movie Labyrinth, which generates confusion since Sarah must solve a maze, not a labyrinth, to reach the Goblin King. But we all seem to be stuck in pandemic mazes these days, yearning to make some sort of sense of things, so the explanation leads naturally into a deeper discussion about how we are all coping.
After the umpteenth such conversation, we realize that dressing up as characters from the movie for our “front porchtrait” has become inevitable. We rewatch the movie, singing along: “You remind me of the babe!” “What babe?” “The babe with the power…” We talk about finding our strengths. My existing wardrobe is already Bowie-friendly, so I tap into the magician’s power. Doug decides on steadfast Ludo and his earthy power.
I message Kristin to arrange our session for a Saturday at golden hour, just before sunset. She’s already walked the labyrinth and can’t wait for the shoot. We decorate the yard with Christmas tree garlands, and the flying cherry blossom monster acquires a big grin. Heading inside to do hair and makeup, I have just enough time to mix a ginger-peach margarita. Sans contact ball, I grab a blown glass sphere with a peacock feather that’s been hanging in my kitchen for years. Another neighbor has generously lent us a bubble-maker.
Setting the Stage | Photo Credit: Kristin Watkins
Kristin arrives with her camera and stepstool. Laughter grips us, and we fold over cackling, letting the ridiculousness of it all wash over us. Thus cleansed, the actual portrait session flows easily. Solo shots, couples, changes in perspective and angles. Doug picks up the “rosemary” rock from where it usually rests, and suddenly, Ludo is attracting the stones to him.
Getting Into Character | Photo Credit: Kristin Watkins
Even in normal times, this would be a spectacle, and the reactions of our neighbors wandering by are priceless. Doug puts the movie soundtrack on speakerphone. Some people stick around to walk the labyrinth once the shoot is over. They congregate along shamrocks I’ve spray-painted on the street six feet apart.
On the surface, the mood is jovial, but deeper currents eddy. We are all raw. One woman finds her way to the labyrinth’s center and sits down. Quiet tears leak down her face while her husband shows me pictures of his grown daughter who dressed as David Bowie for Halloween one year. He extends a hand to help his wife rise, and she exits the labyrinth, a wan smile returning to her face. “This is a gift,” she says solemnly. “You are good people.”
All Dressed Up | Photo Credit: Kristin Watkins
Her simple words are a gift to me too, prompting me toward gratitude. I am grateful for this house, for this patch of land to steward, for this time that reminds me to find the newness in familiar contexts. I am also grateful to share in these things with someone who’s willing to get as muddy and as silly as me.
From digging out the labyrinth walls—“Doug not name. Doug job!” he crows—to donning a pair of plastic horns and letting me apply eyeliner…this man has been a match for my madness. He’s allowed himself to be silly and vulnerable with me, and at the center of that vulnerability lies true strength.
Right now, he’s laughing so hard that Ludo’s horns are slipping, and it reminds me that our friend Brandy calls laughter her best self. “The divine cackle” is her name for this pure fire of joy that cleanses and effervesces. Kristin, behind her camera, does a pretty good job of capturing the divine cackle…
The Divine Cackle | Photo Credit: Kristin Watkins
The sun dips, and our neighbors begin to wander back toward their own homes. All dressed up with nowhere to go, we turn the soundtrack music up. We’re having a David Bowie Labyrinth dance party in the front yard, and the cackling can’t be stopped.
Dress up. Dance around. Find your divine cackle.Create a Radical Ritual