Canyon’s a tease -
Lures you into sun-soaked voluptuousness
Come see what's hidden in these folds
Won't whisper sweet nothings.
Tired of giving chase, body rebels, mind darkens
Still you follow her everywhere on sore legs, heart slamming
Work so hard for so little
Punish & contort yourself
Believing in love, mystery --
She’ll open up.
This morning she draws aside her veil of fog, shows a little summit
New path to her heart
& another riddle there
Tiny labyrinth tucked inside
Single strand, no elaborate double helix.
You make it so difficult, she says
One way in, one way out -
O Mistress mine where are you roaming?
O stay and hear, your true love's coming,
That can sing both high and low.
Trip no further pretty sweeting.
Journeys end in lovers' meeting,
Every wise man's son doth know.
What is love, 'tis not hereafter,
Present mirth, hath present laughter:
What's to come, is still unsure.
In delay there lies no plenty,
Then come kiss me sweet and twenty:
Youth's a stuff will not endure.
- Feste, Twelfth Night, William Shakespeare
Pause on descent through soaring sandstone walls of Red Rock Canyon.
For real -- feel morning's copper glow on sweaty face.
No app for that.
Home to laptop! Hurry-hurry, hang on tight -- thoughts boiled to surface on ascent, like:
Canyon magic worth writing about comes from paying attention in the canyon, not pondering what needs to be said.
Too much invades, distorts, discolors experience -- plans, ambition, worry, words, eyes on path instead of view.
Where trail fades to street, parkland to property, a gift --
Floating above. Gesture firm, calm. Reminder, presence --
Only let in what gives you peace.
Where to Begin
Monday, July 9
I’m sitting on the small, shady, upper deck of the lovely Topanga home where we’re situated for three weeks this summer. It’s in a part of the canyon we haven’t stayed before. Another miraculous friend-of-friend arrangement, involving blessedly affordable rent and a charming guinea pig.
I’ve declared this little porch “my office” and, as is my ritual, took a little time this morning to set it up the way I always do for the summer -- cushion the seat, throw my favorite shawl over the chair, set my notebooks and pens and something to drink on a little mosaic table, hang a string of prayer flags across the rail -- so it feels both new and familiar.
An unusual, late-morning, straw-colored fog is rolling up the mountain off the ocean. It’s keeping the heat at bay so even at 10:30 I can sit on the deck.
We arrived on Friday afternoon a bit bedraggled from a day of travel that began at 4 am, and included a rococo game of rental car switcheroo that I’d devised to get the cheapest month-long deal, and ended in a sunset dip in the ocean, and a late snack we called dinner.
Then I sat down to make lists.
I pushed aside the little panic I always feel when we arrive -- desperation to get right to work on my summer projects, to hit the ground running. I gave myself the weekend to get settled, prepare -- ready to bust out 3 solid weeks worth of disciplined running and writing.
I made numerous grocery trips, unpacked, rearranged furniture, tried to establish summer reading/writing/guitar playing routines for the kids, collected friends to come for extended sleepovers to occupy them while I work.
Excited to explore this unfamiliar section of Topanga Canyon, I took the dog out on reconnaissance mission walks around the neighborhood, trying to get a feel for where I could run. We sought hidden gems, trail entrances wedged between blind driveways and narrow mountain roads. Friendly-looking cacti waved their open hands; baby rabbits darted into promising thickets. I got online and examined maps, found my location relative to where I’ve run before, discovered unexpected connections to familiar trails. Though I’m a considerable drive from my old haunts, as the crow flies and the coyote wanders, it’s not far at all, and a little tributary trail to one of my favorites is just at the end of our road.
Except that it’s not.
Every place there should be a trailhead there’s a No Trespassing sign, some more threatening than others. I want to be out the door by 6:30 each morning, and on the trail. I must start Monday or I won't have 3 whole weeks. I want to roll out of bed and down the lane and into the canyon. I don’t want to lose a minute. I’m desperate for my Topanga time. But it seems the journey must begin with a journey -- I’ll drive a bit to a starting place each day.
The last few weeks at home in New York were loco. I somehow managed to be both insanely busy and utterly feckless.
It's just one of those seasons when significant transitions and decisions seem to come all at once. Some anticipated and exciting, some bittersweet, some scary. For one, our family life seems to be shifting at whiplash speed, as tweens become teens and my role as female lead becomes decidedly bit part. I'm not sure exactly where I thought I'd be by this point, but I don't seem to be there.
Nobody’s sick or dying or divorcing...everyday my anxieties are juxtaposed with the atrocities in the news: families separated, children trapped in cages and caves. The world as we knew it is falling apart. My stuff is just regular stuff, big to us, nothing in the big picture. And yet, in the way of such things, it all worms its way into nightmares, overwhelms and paralyzes.
For days before we left New York I moved around in a haze, trying to get things done, take the next right step. Saying to myself over and over, I don’t know where to begin...
When I get to Topanga, I thought, my head will clear. Reboot body and mind. Everything else will come into focus -- or fade from it -- as need be.
But I’ve had a nagging fear that I won’t be able to concentrate. That worry will outweigh work, that I won’t find my groove, running or writing. That I'll get nothing done, waste these precious, longed-for weeks, have nothing to show for them, return to New York in the same shape I left.
When I arrive at the new place, and every nearby trail is closed, every road a literal dead end - it seems to echo exactly what I’ve been feeling... Where do I begin?
This morning I’m up at 6:00 and so is the whole house because I’ve forgotten to lay out my things the night before and am therefore banging about for a half hour trying to get out the door. Not totally ready yet.
One step I have decidedly not taken in the couple weeks leading up to this trip is any step in the direction of a training run. Which is to say, I am not in canyon running shape.
Oh Lord, this is going to hurt.
I slip on a bracelet I like to wear to yoga and going about my daily business. It’s a string of rosewood beads, a wrist mala. The yogis say, rosewood symbolizes the removal of obstacles. And I like how they leave a whiff of their heady scent on the arm, even after I’ve sweated in them.
I drive down the hill still not sure where I’m going. I have a sketchy map in my head of some park entrances in the immediate vicinity, ones I haven’t tried before. But I find myself on a kind of autopilot, taking the long road back to my “home trail,” that little corner of Topanga I’ve run the most; the one with the old, old rusted out car in a ditch; the one where I first heard the whistling cowboy with the haunting song; where the little white tailed rabbit disappeared into the brush; the one with the cathedral tree. The one with the labyrinth. It’s a 20 minute drive and I hate to waste the time - the sun will come up, it will get too hot. Yet that’s where I’m drawn. Not a big start, or an impressive one; a humble, safe, short run sort of a start. But a step.
I park on the street and pause at the park entrance. Me again, I tell the trail.
I start my run at a pace that might aptly be called reverse. My heart and mind are taut with care, my body, gelatinous with disuse (happens fast at 46). Topanga is where I come to invert that dynamic. Do I remember how? Can it work again? A 5th summer running?
Down the easy in-road. At the bottom of this first decline, I find a lone chip of blue and white floral pottery. I pick it up. Against a post marking the trail, someone has leant a very serviceable walking stick. I don’t need it, but I love the gesture.
The path flattens out here and then comes the first little climb. I huff and puff and get annoyed at myself for not being better prepared.
Toward the buzzing shrub and the little altar of stone, past the tiny path that leads to the labyrinth - I’m itching to see it. Get through the hard part first, the hardest climb, the first ¾ of the run. Catcha on the way out, I say.
It’s early and overcast and other than the one long steep hill, when my heart is slamming, I don’t feel half bad. My feet know this path so well, my body calibrates as I go. Ease up here, push a little there. Breathe.
As I ease into my natural rhythm with the place and pass by all my usual landmarks, looking just as they did when I was last here, I can't help wondering if in all the years of this ritual I could point to any demonstrable progress. Have I been changed by it? Have I changed anything by doing it? Gone anywhere? Aren’t I, in every quantifiable way, pretty much exactly where I was in my life/work/career when I started? Facing the same obstacles -- in fact, some that now seem to have grown higher and harder than ever? Isn’t that, in fact, the very reason this season of transitions feels so daunting? What is this summer ritual for anyway? Must I start this nonsense again?
When you’ve had a break from running, the trainers say, begin with 20 minutes.
As I jog I quickly calculate...It’s 25 minutes around the lollipop-shaped route and back to the path to the labyrinth. Then an easy stroll down to the labyrinth (I don’t run that narrow path through tall grass...rattlesnake territory), a short break to actually walk the labyrinth, then a 10-12 minute run back out -- a gentle climb, but steady uphill the whole way, and always my least favorite part of the run. I usually have to stop for a breather.
A challenging but fair start for Day One.
I turn off the main path and head down the little trail that leads to the labyrinth. At the bottom, near the entrance to the labyrinth, someone has made an altar. Placed atop two stacked rocks -- a statue of Ganesha. In Hindu and Buddhist traditions Ganesha is the deity -- the archetype, symbol -- representing the removal of obstacles. Guidance and protection on a journey, physical or creative. Ganesha is also recognized - and I only just learned this - as the patron of letters, supporter of writers.
I take this to be the labyrinth’s personal welcome. A little wink. Rattlers be damned, I knew you'd be back. Across time and space it has summoned me, expected my return.
I hold up my rosewood wrist mala.
Here I am. What do you have for me?
I step into the spiral without having crafted a proper question. My question is, what should the question be? Where to begin…?
I start to walk.
My old friends the red ants are busy building and moving their mounds within the coils and I have to step over them every few paces. There are about a thousand little black flies buzzing around me. They don’t seem to be biters but they land on me every few seconds and it freaks me out. I swat at them in growing frustration.
Concentrate, concentrate! I scold myself. I try to be slow and methodical, but I kind of want to run away.
My leg swipes against a little patch of brush growing between the stones. Suddenly my ankle gets a sharp prick and then -- fire. I curse and yank off shoe and sock to look for what’s bitten me. I blame the red ants. I can’t find anything, but holy toledo it hurts and is getting worse. I think it’s a bee sting.
I don’t want to stop. I need to make a real start! I take a breath and keep walking, try to be calm.
Please, remove the obstacles.
The ankle burns, down into the foot, up into the calf, but it’s tolerable. I start to relax. Let the flies buzz, they’re just doing their thing.
Round and round, out and back, several times, and to the center again, where I finally stoop to scratch in the sand --
WHERE TO BEGIN
I do not punctuate because I cannot choose. It’s a question and an answer. A plea and a statement of fact.
Here, in the labyrinth is where I begin this summer. Here on my home trail.
I pull the chip of pottery out of my pouch to place it on the little pile of stones at the center, where I and so many others have left talismans over the years. But then I think better of it. I’ll hang onto it, visit the labyrinth again later, maybe leave the chip here at the end of my trip, a parting offering.
I start the run back out. Along the way my legs feel a little nimbler. I make it all the way out at a run.
And I have this thought as I emerge from the trail:
Of course this is where I had to begin. This is where it all started. Four years ago in a dusty canyon I committed to run and write and just see what happened, where it might lead. An unscripted summer staked on a simple framework of discipline, ritual, work, listening. I wanted to know if something would happen.
It began, as most worthwhile pursuits do, with a question.
If I don’t yet feel I have the answer, or hard proof that it is real, productive, meaningful, life-changing work; if I have to wonder if I’ve actually done something, learned something, moved forward at all; if I cower and crumple and curse along the way, feel lost and blocked; if it stings -- well, what did I expect? -- this is still, it turns out, always and ever, only the beginning.
I haven't decided yet what format The Regular Jenny will take this summer -- I have a big project to work on while I'm here in Topanga, and the blog will take a backseat to that -- perhaps short essays, or 1000 WordsWorth like last year, or maybe it will find a new form.
Stay tuned for a truly unscripted Summer | unscripted.
Dawn in Topanga—last day.
I stand at the edge of the property, an old chain link fence beyond which
there’s just canyon and more canyon,
slopes & folds enveloped in bright marine fog
impossible gradations of slate, silver, white
fuzzy Rothko-esque layers,
the barest suggestion of Pacific fathoms beyond, below
Sitting with pencil poised over paper
I wish things would come through clear
A fine line reveal itself
The ocean appear, unambiguous
I look down, tired of squinting
A drop of coffee slops on my page like a Rorschach blot--
What do you see?
What are you looking for?
I rise early to run but spend 30 minutes on the toilet—drafting choice words for McConnell
(location, location, location!)
Leave late. Pause—photograph bucolic Topanga scene:
Horse at Fence.
An old-timer outstripping ravages of stroke moseys down the driveway,
...so, anyway, I was born in Santa Monica, service, got married, this that and the other thing, she’s dead, been here close on 60 years. Don’t know where you are on the spectrum—eh, doesn’t matter, tight-knit neighbors here...
Welcomes me, unvetted, with 45 minutes of friendly filibuster.
The soft-eyed gelding stands between us, shifting his weight, swishing flies.
* A while back, a Topanga friend of mine noted an endearing and exhausting feature of canyon life: far-right and far-left countercultures (she used other epithets) co-exist here; sometimes there's harmony, other times an uncomfortable clash of ideals. (One thing they usually agree on -- an only-half-kidding suspicion of New Yorkers.)
Spread the Light
Be the Light
-Yogi Bhajan...via tea bag tag
I run in the canyon to divest myself of what’s not useful, unnecessary, gets in the way;
pour until empty, ready to refill—then spill again, paper and pen.
I oughtn’t to need any baggage—or have any. Life's good.
Still, sometimes it seems the thing getting in the way of writing about running in the canyon
is running in the canyon—discipline backfires.
So much to fit into small crevasses in the family’s day.
So much to say in 100 words.
And so much instruction from a tea bag tag-–
good heavens, don't read the leaves!
Sip and breathe.
By the side of the road, near the trailhead, a reminder--
You could simply hang it up, abandon the effort.
Who cares if you kick off your shoes, leave them to parch and shrivel in the sun--
dawn to dusk, dust to dust? Put down the pen, the whole foolish venture to rest?
But you never could resist a mystery--
hidden in canyon or shoe--
love letter, last will, ransom note, clue,
an explanation, shattering and simple.
A barefoot wanderer in the canyon, eating locusts and honey.
Boots shuffled off,
nothing held back,
the layers peel away.
Part way up, the sign offers a pleasing alternative, sensible solution—a gentle descent, a tawny valley of rippling grasses and bleached stone walls.
Sunrise scorches the backside of the mountain. I slog up, and up.
Today I need a high vista, crave the moment when I’ll round a bend, cross the invisible line where Pacific wind funnels skyward and the heartbreaking ocean splays wide, 1500 feet below.
Ambition’s a feisty little terrier, nipping my heels—a rough playmate that keeps me running. Helps me see some things, miss others.
Always just around the next curve—better view, bigger reward.
Stubborn CJ barely breaks a trot. Sniff, pee. Pounce lizard. Lie down. Like dragging a cinderblock on a leash. He runs if the path is wide and clear; narrow, rocky, steep, brambly—no go. His legs are moving but his heart ain’t in it.
Today we walk—notice, incubate.
I require running’s kinesthetics: body-creativity connection charged with rhythm of faster footfall, full bellows of breath—precursor to language.
Are you waiting for work conditions to be ideal? My husband says. Ouch.
My constant challenge: give in to the erratic metronome of life, ignore the insistent clock.
Take the next step.
1. : an expedition or journey into unexplored territory
Still, two days later, paralysis. Writing is an exercise in futility, like trying to sneeze with your eyes open.
The canyon glows with sunshine, the signs all point to boundless trails. Nothing registers—Topanga’s giving me the silent treatment.
The dog blinks in morning brightness, whines impatiently. We venture a neighborhood walk, up our steep, snaking street, called Entrada.
“Please. Talk.” I say.
Thirty minutes later, around a bend, a startling sweetness slaps me like a newborn—inhale!
I cry. (Why?)
Star jasmine and magnolia flank a high wood fence with a hand-painted sign reading--
YOU ARE HERE.
We move into endearingly ramshackle Topanga quarters.
Time to begin work in earnest.
Then—the canyon turns on me.
Something settles on my chest, a palpable weight, nausea, dread, and finger-trembling fear. The spirit and beauty of Topanga vanish. Like upside down in Stranger Things, it’s right there—and not. The bright flipside’s inaccessible. I trip a light switch and silverfish scatter into shadows. Something stinks under the sink. Two strangers warn me of rattlers. Big dogs snarl behind a low fence.
Like stage fright, I cannot write. No desire, visceral terror, revulsion.
All I can think is run—away.
A little girl friend of mine—a fraternal twin—rises early daily to do an hour of eye exercises; training her brain to integrate, interpret the double view—twin, but not identical—her eyes collect, make one cohesive picture. Sort overwhelming information.
Morning runs in Topanga, I take quick photos, whatever shimmers, things to hold onto, jog my memory. That hour in the canyon, dueling selves make peace, make sense, merge into one clear(er) image.
Then too, it helps me tune out, blur, and muffle what doesn't belong.
Turn off newsfeeds, be in the canyon. Shift focus.
Get the picture?
Unless I’m in tip-top shape, daily canyon runs are grueling.
Two weeks before leaving New York for LA, not Topanga-ready, I force myself out the door for a run in the rain. It turns monsoon. Far from home, one sopping sneaker catches a crack; I splatter on the sidewalk. Skin is lost (some in unmentionable places), knee and elbow are swollen and bruised.
86 the last-minute training plan.
Day one in the canyon, mended and remarkably plucky! CJ, however, is equivocating on the whole bloomin’ exercise: the trail run and my bright idea of the 900-word picture --
epic photo bomb.
Thanks to a generous and sanity saving Lincoln City Fellowship, I'm back in the canyon for a few weeks this summer. I'm here to work on a longer-form project based on The Regular Jenny and the Summer | unscripted series, in particular. I won't be posting lengthy essays on the blog this time, but I'm keeping up the discipline of my daily canyon runs, and written reflection as a practice.
They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but I'm not that confident in my photography. So this summer, like before, I'll be taking pictures (smartphone style, I'm not getting fancy) as I run and write and listen and breathe deep in Topanga. Every few days, I'll choose one image - redolent or ridiculous - to represent 900 words... leaving me 100 in which to say something about my trail adventures, work in progress, or whatever the canyon reveals this time around. I'm calling the series 1000 Words Worth.*
I'm also adding a scrappy little rescue mutt to the mix - meet CJ! They tell us he's a Yorkie mix - we think he's got a bit of Jack Russell, maybe some chihuahua, and, if I had to guess, a pinch of coyote somewhere in his bloodline, so he should fit right in in Topanga. If he cooperates, he'll be my running buddy, and sounding board for whatever I'm mulling over or writing that day. He joined our family at Christmas, so he's had time to get used to me talking to myself a lot, and he listens very intently when I bounce ideas off him, with his scruffy head cocked and his sweet brown eyes staring deep into mine. I think he looks a little like Kurt Vonnegut - all professorial eyebrows and tufty moustache - which strikes me as very auspicious. Also, he's got really big ears... the better to hear you with, Topanga, dear... so I think he'll be a formidable partner in this slightly-more-scripted summer.
Happy trails and happy tails.
*Check out the work of my friend, the brilliant Ninja Poet, Maya Stein, who's a master of short-form ritual writing practices - her 10-Line Tuesdays, which rock my world weekly with the "damn, I wish I'd written that," feeling, were part of the inspiration for this new way of handling the canyon's bounty. Do yourself a favor and sign up for them.
This morning when the alarm goes off I look out the window into dense white fog.
Sometime in the night, I recall, I had to pull the covers up. Now I don a peculiar assortment of layers over my nightgown and go out on the patio.
For the first time in several weeks, a heavy marine layer has made its way up the hill and everything beyond our lawn is lost in mist. My glasses get hazy, and my hair immediately begins to extricate itself strand by strand from the ponytail holder and puff out in a tufty halo of fluff a la Albert Einstein.
I saw on the weather report that fog was coming, but until just a couple days ago, since the tail end of June Gloom, the weather has been bright cloudless blue and hot.
A misty morning here at the top of the mountain holds in it the thickened night scents of the canyon -- eucalyptus, sage, oak leaf, hay -- mixed with the cultivated garden smells of the neighborhood -- gardenia, rose, jasmine. The overall effect is a heady Persian essence, with a piquant top note of pool chlorine.
I drink my coffee at a leisurely pace. No hurry to start the run today, as it is still so cool at 8:00. I spend time enjoying this brief morning solitude.
I'm not sleeping much.
I get up early to run, and then hit the desk. When my writing is done, early to mid afternoon, we usually head to the beach with the kids, and stay until dusk. We love to be in the ocean, tumbling in the waves at the exact moment the sun disappears behind the mountain. Then we drive home through the canyon in the last light, wet and shivering, with the windows down and the heat on, having a Grateful Dead sing-along.
When the day has gone this way -- the canyon run has been hard and good, the writing has been productive, the play, vigorous, and I feel that perfect, happy, ocean tired that is always slightly blue-tinged -- I think, this is Summer | unscripted. This is what I meant to do.
A third of the way home we come to my favorite part of the canyon, high rocky cliffs that rise up diagonally out of the lower Topanga basin, as if they've been cut on the bias. Ivory and pale salmon, they catch the last vestiges of sunset in their furrows and hold onto it a little longer than seems possible. I'm heartsick as they whizz by in the rearview mirror. They are, as far as I know, inaccessible; I can never actually enter them, but worse, in nine days I'll leave them for at least another year.
It's well past 9:00 when we eat dinner; the kids are up till 11 every night. Then we get in bed and Eric reads for awhile, and I try but never make it through more than a couple pages before I drop the book on my face, out cold.
My nights have been fitful. The anxiety monster has been keeping me uncomfortably close company this week. Mostly it's talking to me about how few days I have left in the canyon and how much more work I thought I'd get done. In the daylight it doesn't sound so bad, but from 4-5:00 a.m. I'm in a sweaty nauseous panic about this and other things. Like Donald Trump. Finally I drift off into a peaceful, heavy sleep for an hour and a half, and then my alarm goes off.
What this schedule buys me is about 90-120 minutes of total privacy in the mornings, much of which I usually spend on the trail.
So today I decide to chill, literally, for an hour and absorb morning -- solitude, coffee, fog, perfumed air, bird sounds.
The mimosa tree at the edge of the property is loudly humming with hummingbirds. I watch them from across the patio for awhile and then move in for a better look.
It's the tree itself, though, that really gets my attention once I'm up close. Its silky pink and gold pompoms glow against the silver fog. I try get a decent photo of the individual blooms -- thin fan paintbrushes with just the tips dipped in a sheer rosy tint -- but it turns out the tree is actually on the downhill neighbor's property and I can't get near enough.
The tree is messy, sheds like a dog, and mucks up the pool all day long; I've read that the breed is invasive and damaging, but it's such a delicate little painted southern lady of a tree, I can't help falling in love with it, staring at it all the time -- the Blanche DuBois of the arboreal world.
Three days earlier:
You know the old adage -- can't see the forest for the trees.
I'm just the opposite.
I'm all about the forest. I specialize in forest. I wish I could keep it to a tree. I've got big picturitis.
When I started Summer | unscripted last year, the idea was simple:
- run in canyon daily (ok, almost daily)
- write reflection (pithy, somewhat entertaining, borderline insightful if lucky)
- post to blog
I didn't know whether it would "work" -- whether the canyon would offer anything, whether there would be anything to write about.
But, as I've said before, that was the whole idea -- to wander and write without map or assurance that it was a good idea, and just see what would happen. The point was the risk, and the risk its own reward. And by risk I don't mean rattlesnakes or getting lost, I mean the artistic risk of pure improvisation: put work out there, even if it's short and slapdash, even if you fall flat on your face on the path, even if no one laughs with you, or you draw a complete blank and freeze like a jackrabbit when a jogger comes loping along. Commit to the project so that you can have some small sense of creative ritual and accomplishment every day, and the rest of the time, let go into the intense domesticity, the full throttle family dynamic of summer vacation, free yourself from the strangling sensation that you'll never work again.
Might there be something inspiring, refreshing, creatively necessary in exploring how a new and gorgeously rugged environment, a physical discipline, and a daily writing practice would inform each other? The telling of the story to a reader is secondary, the priority is: slightly frayed city mom weaving the ends back together in nature and the act of writing.
You enter the forest
at the darkest point,
where there is no path.
Where there is a way or path,
it is someone else's path.
You are not on your own path.
If you follow someone else's way,
you are not going to realize
-- Joseph Campbell
I remember, as a very young child, hearing something like, "Every star you see has millions of galaxies behind it."
Now, obviously this is neither sophisticated astronomy nor accurate language to describe the concept -- it's a 5 year old's interpretation of whatever it was she actually heard -- and even so, much has been learned in the physics/quantum mechanics/cosmology community in the nearly 40 years since I grasped this particular nugget, and I know none of it, except for the little I can actually understand from some of Stephen Hawkings' lectures.
When I google search, "How many galaxies in the universe?" it turns out that what I thought as a child is not exactly wrong, but I misunderstood its meaning. I took literally what is essentially an illustration for a mathematical calculation.
On the website Universe Today I read that "...there could be a galaxy out there for every star in the Milky Way." About 5000 stars are visible to the naked eye, but only 2500 at any given time due to our vantage point on earth blocking out half of them. Pesky hemispheres. The Milky Way alone has 200-400 billion stars, and estimates for total galaxies in the observable universe run from 100-500 billion. So for each star in the Milky Way there is in fact a galaxy out there. But for each star you can see, by even a middling estimate, there are actually 160,000,000 galaxies.
The point, though, is that what I thought it meant as a child was that each visible star in the night sky was like a doorway, an entry point to not only millions of other stars, but whole hidden galaxies. Like on Let's Make a Deal. Show us what's behind Lalande 21185!
Each star was a keyhole of light into an alternate reality. If I could only touch or visit even one star, I'd be able to peel back a piece of night sky and reveal another galaxy, an unseen world, an infinite flipside.
While I was out of town for a few days, Eric took the kids on a hike. They visited the Labyrinth.
When I got back, Violet told me she'd been there.
"Did you like it?" I asked her.
"I thought it would be bigger," she said.
I entered the forest, the canyon, with a hope that it would somehow speak to me. Perhaps rocks and trees would identify themselves as totems, little signposts along the way, trail markers to help me find my way into the project. The job of Summer | unscripted, as I originally envisioned it, was to talk about the "trees" as I came to them. Whether it's because I default to the assumption that there are hidden dimensions everywhere, or because Topanga really is a hotbed of mystery, wisdom and symbol, the canyon has been fruitful... and confusing.
Each "tree" on the path seems to unfold a whole forest of ideas I can't help but run headlong into.
Each stone reveals a labyrinth.
When I run I think better: a fertile, easy-flowing thought process, as opposed to the noisy frenetic washing machine mind in the middle of the night or when seated at my laptop with Facebook and email reminders chiming in. The misery of running sort of absorbs any negative, obsessive, circular thoughts and the static of my mind is calmed, making room for more productive thoughts.
What's that you say?
Did I never mention before that I hate running?
Oh please, it's torture. And yet I go to bed looking forward to it in the morning.
Like Dorothy Parker said, "I hate writing, I love having written." Same for running.
This showed up in my email today - from the Frederick Buechner Center...
Jogging is supposed to be good for the heart, the lungs, the muscles, and physical well-being generally. It is also said to produce a kind of euphoria known as joggers' high.
The look of anguish and despair that contorts the faces of most of the people you see huffing and puffing away at it by the side of the road, however, is striking.
If you didn't know directly from them that they are having the time of their lives, the chances are you wouldn't be likely to guess it.
~originally published in Whistling in the Dark and later in Beyond Words
When I run -- especially in the canyon or on the beach, away from the city streets -- almost as soon as I begin, a stream of unusually clear ideas begins: intriguing fragments, solutions to textual conundrums, associations I haven't identified before, sometimes complete sentences or whole finished paragraphs. Part of the challenge is to hang onto them until I get back to the house and can write them down. As I run, I work them over footfall by footfall till they feel organic, visceral. Sometimes it helps to link the words with the rhythm of the breath. Often I record them, pantingly, into my phone so I'll remember, but I can't always decipher them later.
What interests me most, in both a spiritual and artistic sense, is the unassailable Interconnectedness of Things; sometimes dazzling, sometimes cryptic, it is part and parcel of my experience of the canyon and ocean, and I'm unable to divorce it from the written account, even if I sometimes feel I'm waving a flag or making too big a case for it, pointing it out too directly.
A writer friend and I laugh about the fact that she, with her background in journalism, thinks in segments of 800-1000 words, and I think in chunks of 3000-5000. Anyone who knew me as a child will attest that this has always been the case -- as will my husband -- because I also talk in chunks of 5000 words.
I envy those writers who get at the mystery of the universe in a single concrete image. One that seems almost wholly unembellished -- although it no doubt takes extraordinary vision, restraint, and elbow grease to make it seem so simple. William Carlos Williams is the prime example of course, with his Red Wheelbarrow.
He tells us that "so much depends on" this simple red and white visual image: a wheelbarrow, chickens. Just as they are.
The question, if we're being mechanical about it, is what depends on that? This is subject for debate in high school English classes everywhere, and there's no right answer. But at the moment, what strikes me in that poem is its meta factor -- that it is, in a sense, a poem about poetry, and writing on the whole, an image that circumscribes image itself -- that so much depends on just the simple thing, as it is, without explanation.
Sometimes I stumble on an image in the natural, human, or constructed world that is just that - a thing so simply, intrinsically eloquent, it invites no comment.
In these moments, I think, screw writing, I just wish I were a better photographer.
Sometimes I've gotten lucky with an actual tree that is such a perfect microcosm, it speaks for itself and I've been gratefully dumbfounded, able to sort of mention it in a single post and be done. More often than not though, the canyon leads me into a thick forest, a narrative tangle. I would like the clarity of vision, the reserve to simply describe the single tree, and then leave it the heck alone.
But as I run I'd swear the canyon is actually speaking - things to consider and write about that simply didn't exist 50 yards ago show up as I travel the path. I'm always second guessing, editing as I go --
For Pete's sake don't point it out! Keep it simple, keep it clean, don't explain. You obviously have an overactive imagination.
But the canyon waves its sagebrush and scrub oak arms, and sometimes whispers, sometimes hollers, Over here! Over here! Don't miss the metaphor!
Enough already, I say. I get it, I get it. This is a path with a capital P.
My biggest fear in these "woods" isn't the snakes, or the grass spiders peeking at me from their silken funnels along the path --
it's catching my foot in the bloody obvious and terribly earnest.
But the canyon's images spin together like the arms of the labyrinth or the milky way, an inexorable centripetal pull of disparate strands into a seemingly unending dissertation on how running in Topanga Canyon and writing about it somehow helps sort out the vagaries and vexing questions about what it means to be a mother, an artist, a mystic, an urbanite, a country girl, seriously domesticated with a wanderer's heart, a feminist who worries she's a 50s housewife, a clean living yogi and New York neurotic, early riser, late bloomer, an east coaster who yearns for the west with almost archetypal fervor.
As last summer's project went on, I wrote more and more but posted less and less often. Little daily reflections swelled into essays that spilled over their own edges, and the project's parameters, outgrew the blog form, certainly.
And that's where I started from this year.
The other day I posted what turned out to be "chapter one" of Into the Canyon 2016 - Part 5, an installment called Familiar Territory, Wild Imagination.
The concept was so simple: within just a few days, I returned to my hometown of Buffalo and to what I call my "home" trail in Topanga, after being in a different location deeper in the canyon for a couple weeks. This coincided with a letter I received from an old friend about what it means to be a woman of the wild. The post started out in my mind as a little ditty, a vignette - something so clear and short and easy...
and then I started actually writing it.
I've already posted that lengthy chapter and I still haven't gotten as far as what I thought would be the beginning of the post, nor begun to weave in the Wild Imagination thread.
Through it, however, I think I may have stumbled onto a path that leads much deeper into the canyon, so to speak; a star that is an actual gateway into the galaxy I've been trying to write about, the tree that becomes the wardrobe into Narnia. I think I may be getting to the crux of why this whole canyon thing is so vital, how Summer | unscripted, as a project, connects the dots, weaves together the threads, zooms in on the warp and weft of a regular Jenny's life: a doofy child who was a little haunted, a little off; a creatively driven city mom who's a bit on the verge; a yogi and runner craving a deeper connection with the outdoors.
It's about who we are when we are where we are, and how we come to accept - and fully inhabit - our regular selves.
A good traveler, Lao Tzu says, has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving.
So, in the ultimate unscripted move, I'm going totally off script - at least for the next few weeks of my summer: I'm going to continue the canyon project, but not in blog form - at least not as a regular deadline.
I'm going to follow this thread and see where it goes, let it be long form. Five thousand words may be only the beginning.
Having decided as much, this morning I jogged the path feeling looser and lighter than I have in days. The post-travel bloat has gone, PMS has passed, a weeklong heatwave has abated. There's a light wind and a bit of mist. I love how a little moisture changes and intensifies the canyon's perfume, and the breeze lifts it right to you. This morning it's spicy pipe tobacco and pancakes. I read in a California parks guide that the maple syrup smell comes from a plant in the sunflower family called California Everlasting. Ah, yes.
After a run and a couple spins through the labyrinth, I even completed the final slow uphill stretch of the trail without pausing for a breather and a hoarse string of expletives.
As I came around the last bend -- back to the trail head, the exit/entrance, the beginning and the end -- I startled a little white tailed rabbit on the path.
He darted out ahead of me and leapt into a thick tangle of underbrush behind a lone tree.