Canyon Days - Part 7: Ins and Outs
This past Sunday, I brought the labyrinth some big questions. Nothing deep and existential. Just Dull-but-Important. Practical matters, like how to make this life -- this writing/mothering life, this lack of "day job" life -- sustainable in the long run; the kind of questions that poke at my mind in the night, start me out of sleep, and catch my breath suddenly like stepping on something sharp.
I walked and walked the labyrinth and asked it things, and I listened hard. In and out of it's loops I wound, again and again. But nothing came, or nothing pertaining to the questions at hand -- and some of them rather urgently need answers, or so it feels to me.
Finally, I took out my little notebook and tore off a tiny scrap of paper. On it I wrote four words. Doesn't matter what they were. Believe me, they were mundane in the extreme. Just key words to aid the labyrinth, that most analog of advisers, in responding to my specific search. #regularjennypressingquestions. I buried the little paper in the dirt under a stone near the center of the labyrinth. I really have no idea why. It just felt like something concrete to do at a crucial point in a metaphysical pursuit.
I guess it reminded me of what the yoga teachers say about the breath: that it's the link between your conscious and your unconscious; it lies at the interface of your physical body and your spiritual one. Breathing is an unconscious act of your physical body; so when you tune your mind to simply hear the rhythm of your breath, and deliberately slow it it down, calm it, your frenetic brain begins to quiet, and this conscious choice to connect, to listen to something which is unconscious, leads you toward that which is under the surface, innermost. It's really not complicated or woo-woo, it's simply a tangible act that helps you go deeper and get in touch with what is intangible. In, out, in, out.
So my little paper queries are there, and whenever my mind returns to these rough-edged questions, starts tumbling them over and over like the ocean does a sharp shard of glass, hopefully having left them in the wizened whirlpool of the labyrinth will return them to me softened, smoothed, safe and even pleasant to hold, and examine.
Monday morning, I woke with a headache. Got out of bed late, didn't hit the trail. Got distracted by a problem with the pool filter. Noodled around on the internet trying to get a better rental car deal. The kids annoyed me. The dogs licked my feet which I do. not. like.
Finally, I took only a 25 minute run. Just up to the lookout over the labyrinth and back again.
"Hello labyrinth," I said from high above, "A gentle reminder that I'm waiting on some answers."
Even that short run felt hard. Why don't I feel like I'm getting stronger? On the contrary, a lot of the time my legs feel worn out, heavy, unresponsive. I somehow tripped over a stone approximately the size of a marble and almost went blotto. It wasn't pretty, I did a lot of vocalizing, but managed an extraordinary pull out; I'm still not sure how I didn't bite the dust. The whole excursion was frustrating and uninspired. With just over a week to go, it made me feel both deeply sad (how can I ever leave his place?) and overwhelmed (can I keep this process up?)
It's not the Canyon's fault.
Topanga just is...
ragged sandy misty muddy steep rough rocky redolent
It's not the path's fault either.
It just goes where the canyon allows, wherever it moves over and makes a little room.
A few days ago I passed the halfway mark in the canyon part of my unscripted summer, and now I'm stymied. This post, more than any other so far, has felt a lot like being lost in Topanga. I've been staggering around in it for four full days, trying a lot of trails, hitting a lot of dead ends. Even now, on the way out, about to click "post," I'm not sure I've found the road home. I'm not sure it's a good path I've gone down. But wasn't that the point of SUMMER | unscripted? A little uneditedness, exposure, a little fear, going somewhere at the risk of going wrong?
Sometimes, especially in the night, when the canyon is too quiet, I miss New York, and have a bout of deep homesickness. But then an owl cries in the tree just outside my window or a coyote whines and even though they're lonely sounds I feel an expansiveness here that doesn't come that often in the city anymore -- even though I really am happy there. The moon over the canyon last night was enough to keep me here forever. The idea of leaving Topanga gives me a strangling feeling, or sometimes the sensation of sliding down a gravelly slope unable to get my footing. I'm deeply in love with the canyon, even as it challenges me.
The house where we're staying is near the very top of Topanga. So the thing is, no matter what path I take into the canyon -- and where I wander, what I do, which enchantments I find in the middle -- the road home is always uphill. Sometimes slightly, sometimes sharply. Whether I'm gone thirty minutes or three hours, the way in is easy and the way out is hard.
Day after day, even as I relish the effortless lope down to the footbridge in the 7 a.m. cool, looking forward to exploring the gently rolling terrain ahead, I'm reminded of the inevitable hot sunny struggle back to the mouth of the trail, through the gate and up the road to the house.
Daily, I find myself wishing it were reversed.
Fresh out of bed and coffee'd up, I'm ready to take on anything. (Wild child that I am, I'm allowing myself 1/3 regular to 2/3 unleaded instead of my usual decaf; it's not about the caffeine, it's the coffee I love). If the first part of the trail were uphill, I'd push through it with energy and enthusiasm, I could tell myself I was earning the downhill, I could look forward to the free ride.
But that's not the path.
I can see now that the project, the figurative path, which is the experiencing and writing, is mirroring the literal path I'm traveling through Topanga.
The way in was easy.
The first week and a half of this project, words, themes, connections came flooding in, and even when the way was challenging, every footfall seemed to have a thought attached and I knew my efforts would be rewarded. I couldn't write things down fast enough.
The canyon was speaking.
I did nothing to earn the easy "in." That was a gift from Topanga. I just made myself open.
The way out is going to be a beast.
The canyon's gone a bit quiet, or it's language is too subtle. Or I've gotten a bit bored, or exhausted, or overwhelmed or something. Blah blah blah canyon, blah blah blah labyrinth. I actually gag a little on the word "path" every time I say it now. There are only so many synonyms, and they're all starting to feel worn.
I've discovered as the time's gone on that it's impossible for me to post daily. Even every-other-day feels like a push. Each essay has been more of an undertaking than I thought it would be, or ever intended. I'm enjoying that aspect. But in the short time between actual postings, even while I commune with the canyon, run and write, listen and brew ideas, the project begins to seem unfamiliar, distant, like something out there in the morning mist. I finish one essay and the next seems like too hard a hill to climb. I get mad at myself for not keeping up with the daily posts I'd planned. I wonder if I'm getting anywhere.
On the other hand, I know that the satisfaction in the running, and in the writing, comes from tackling the big hills. The way down into the canyon may be fun and free, but I never feel like I've accomplished much till I've conquered the road out.
I reminded myself that just days before, on a 2.5 hour hike, I found a whole new network of good running trails. It's a long way in even to get to the beginning of them, but when you stand at the top of this hill, you can see paths spidering out in every direction, through open yellow meadows, into concealed valleys; every trail mounts a different crest and dips over the edge into territory I haven't yet explored. That day, the possibilities felt infinite.
Topanga beckons. More to see, more to say. Keep going.
Monday afternoon we planned to go on a favorite walk in Malibu that ends at a huge natural pool among pitted and caved volcanic rock cliffs. We didn't even know if, in these serious drought conditions, the pool would be as it was on our last visit. It would be a hot walk in and out (though it's just an easy mile and 1/2), the kids would whine, but the promise of Rock Pool -- swimming, jumping into its deep, refreshing water, feeling its slippery moss between our toes -- was worth it.
As we're headed out the door, I get an email from my mom.
My grandmother had a bad stroke in the night. Hospice has come in. How long this part of her journey will last is unclear, but obviously, this is the way out, the road home. She's told them, in the words of her favorite hymn, "Now I Belong to Jesus."
She turned 92 this month. The mother of ten children, she's matriarch of a close-knit brood of grandchildren and great-grandchildren -- I can't remember the number offhand, one was just added last week, and more are on the way. She's nearly blind with advanced macular degeneration, quite deaf, and her hips are gone, no wonder. She's sometimes confused.
God knows, she deserves a rest.
I love her a lot. I haven't spent enough time visiting since I've had my own family.
I remember the smells of her house -- the "brown butter" in which she cooked everything, three hot meals a day; Shaklee cleaning products; the fresh, stinging scent of sweet grass and cow manure that wafted up the hill from the Amish farms, over the red-stained wooden deck and in through the window. I'd feel a little shy at first, arriving at their house a few times a year from Buffalo, but at the end of each visit I had to be dragged away kicking and screaming from their comfortable home in rural Pennsylvania, the land of horses and buggies, and farm stands, and Hershey park, and about a million fun cousins. And nothing was as exciting as when they'd come to stay with us, the Buick's trunk full of housewarming gifts like floral sheets, or thick, colorful bath towels, or once, a little suitcase all my own.
I cry, and the kids worry... mostly because they hate to see my tears, but also about their great grandmother, who they barely know but visited recently. Of their own volition, they go off to their room and pray together, come back and tell me they've done so.
We go in search of Rock Pool and find it in all its glory, soothing and uplifting.
On the way home, I get another email from my mom.
She tells me she's read my Canyon Days blogs to my grandma, and that she loved them. This makes me start crying again, makes me a little uncomfortable, actually. I wouldn't really think they'd be her thing. A very conservative Christian woman, I'd think my grandmother might find talk of yoga and labyrinths a little spooky, maybe even offensive, but I'm grateful and moved if she responded to anything in them.
Tuesday morning, I wake with tons of energy. I didn't sleep well, barely five hours, but inexplicably I feel fresher than I have in days.
There's a thick marine layer at 6:30, and I have my coffee on the patio, where I can actually watch puffs of fog drift spectrally across the lawn. It carries with it a heady scent of jasmine and gardenia from gardens around the neighborhood. I breathe it in for awhile, then I go.
I run my usual trail, and take the hills in stride, out across the road and up to the fork, where I pause to enjoy the early sun and cool breeze, then I turn and head back in the direction of the labyrinth.
As I run, I consider my grandma. I mentally scroll through many happy memories of her -- of how, when I was little a girl she gave me a fancy red or green velveteen Christmas dress every year; of how, even as an old woman, she loved baby dolls; of how meticulously she folded towels and how pristine they looked in the linen closet, and how, nowadays, I too have to have them just so; and of how, on my wedding day, when just a couple hours prior to the ceremony I was bitten on the eyelid by a black fly and it swelled up to postively Quasimodo effect, she had Preparation-H in her purse that shrunk it down to nothing in no time, and I was a pretty bride after all, wearing her pearls as my "something borrowed."
I also think about our one little sticking point. She's always fixated on a time, when I was very, very small, that she witnessed me run and jump into the arms of my paternal grandparents, and how she knew then that because I grew up just down the street from them, I would always be closer to them, know them better, adore them more. My protestations did not convince her. Eventually I'd just roll my eyes when I would hear it coming.
She's always been kind of a complex person, my grandma, a bit covered in certain respects, I think, though it's hard to put a finger on it precisely. And yet the woman poured herself out in ways I can hardly imagine (I repeat, ten children -- and all their progeny).
I guess, honestly, I've never really felt like we had that much in common, beyond a penchant for perfectly folded linens. Different worldviews perhaps, different ambitions. I remember once, when I was probably college age, (which would have made her only about 70), listening to a conversation between her and my mom. I don't remember the premise of their talk, but I remember my grandma saying she felt that once she was no longer able to work, to be of use, she'd be done, "ready to die and be with the Lord."
"Mother!" my mom said, "Don't talk like that."
God, what a downer, I thought, as oh, a super sophisticated twenty year old with big plans.
But as I run, it occurs to me: is that really so very different than some of my own (unhelpful) thought patterns? Don't I regularly weigh my worth against how much I'm producing creatively and whether it's being noticed in a manner I find affirming? (An arbitrary metric if ever there was one). Don't I deprecatingly describe myself as a "late-bloomer?" or more cleverly, "an underachieving overachiever." (I do like that one). Don't I feel a bit sheepish about my artistic endeavors -- and my life -- when things don't result in a fat paycheck, a boldface name, some prestigious honor? It's about assigning value to yourself based on whatever you perceive to be your work, letting that shape your identity. Not helpful.
I wonder about the parts of my grandmother's story that I don't know, that have only been hinted at. I wonder when -- if -- she started to feel like a grown-up. What was hardest, what did she really just love, really resent, really want and wish for? Did she really feel that way about the need - obligation? - to do work, or did she just think she was supposed to feel that way? Was her sense of herself wrapped up in her work as a homemaker in a negative or positive way? If she had her life to do over, which "half" would she choose, either because she loved it most, or most wanted to make changes?
92. Well over twice my age. All my grandmas and great-grandmas and great aunts have lived into their late 80s or early 90s. And truth be told, most of them were't exactly health and fitness nuts. Barring the unforeseen, I'm not even halfway into my story. I'm just now hitting the footbridge, finding Rock Pool, full and inviting.
Hold on a minute. So, has this all been the part where I'm just coasting? Just a fun downhill galumph into my 40s and now shit gets real? Because I feel like I've been working my tail off for a long time and I'm definitely anticipating tangible results.
Don't misunderstand. I love my life. I'm well aware I have a charmed life, that I have not known true hardship, that I've had certain privileges that made many of the basics comparatively easy... but there's still so much of it I'm trying to begin. I don't want to believe that the best metaphor for my next act will turn out to be the frustrating uphill path out of the canyon.
Metaphors aren't perfect. They break down. I think about the different and conflicting ways the same metaphors can be used. Don't they say about midlife "It's all downhill from here..." Not in a good way?
I think of what a hurry I'm always in; how, even though I know it's not only perverse and false but patently ass-backward, I have imbibed a narrative that our media culture feeds us -- that, as a woman, your story's kind of done-ish at 40. At least the interesting part, the sexy part, the part worth telling. Hollywood, for example, as you may have noticed, is not exactly clamoring for actresses (even female writers!) over 40, or eager to tell their stories.
My mother-in-law said to me once a few years ago, when I was lamenting some aspect of my work that just never seems to come to fruition, "The thing you don't realize in your thirties is that you have so much time."
I want to make sure the story I tell myself, my attitude -- as a woman, a mother, a creative, a runner, a yogi, a worker -- is that the path ahead is not downhill in a bad way, but uphill in a good way -- meaning it has big challenges, and I have to stay in shape to meet them, but that the results will be rich, the rewards great, the work worthwhile and satisfying unto itself. This is a commitment I need to make. That's not a criticism of other viewpoints, just the only way I can stay on the path.
I go to the labyrinth and stride in, panting from the run. As I curl inward, I tell it about my grandma, I pray for her. I scratch her name in the soil at the center, and then wind my way out and begin the climb toward home.
There's a magical morning moment in these Santa Monica Mountains, when the sun gets high enough to meet the fog, and they mingle briefly at the top of the range, and then the light begins to pour down into the canyons driving the mist back to sea. It's already happened today. From the crest of the hill I can see it's a clear, bright day now all over, but as I look back over Topanga, there are a few places, deep green and rocky canyon creases, where the fog still sits thickly. It's beautiful, eerie, mysterious.
My mom tells me that this is a hard time but my grandmother is resting and ready. I know she's had a good life, and one that was sometimes hard; she did her work well, even when she had complicated feelings; there's been a lot of love. I wish I knew more of her story, that I could tell it better.
As I run, I wish her strength in this stretch of the journey -- these final, uphill yards -- and a peaceful passage. I ask that the path deliver her out of mist and thicket and into a golden meadow, with an always rising sun.
Canyon Days - Part 6:
Lord, is it I?
There's a funny story in my family about my grandmother (you can read more about her in my STYLE post, The Button Jar & the Green Shoes). Sometime in the 1950s I think, when her kids were little and before there were immunizations for such things, she got a whopping case of the mumps.
She woke one morning, feeling very unwell, and in her aching and feverish state, wandered into the bathroom, where my grandfather was shaving. Observing herself in the vanity mirror, swollen and lumpy, she is rumored to have said, in a hoarse whisper, "Lord, is it I?"
On my morning run, I'm drenched. Literally dripping sweat all over the place only a few minutes in. It's not too hot, but very sticky - New York City humid - in the canyon as the late morning sun begins, here and there, to poke through a heavy marine layer.
The gray morning has made me sluggish and groggy, and as I slog along the trail, some very determined flies buzz around me, which I take to mean that either I have, in fact, perished in the canyon and just haven't realized it yet; or, more likely, that I've perhaps lately been wearing somewhat less deodorant than is technically necessary to get the job done properly.
No buzzards seem to be hovering, so I trust it's the latter.
I get home from the run and hop, sweaty and dusty, into the car for a quick and very necessary grocery store trip. Trader Joe's is fairly empty at this time on a weekday morning, so I don't worry too much about my disheveled state. (This backfired on me terribly one time when I went to yoga basically in my pajamas, with last night's mascara stuck to my lids and lashes, got real sweaty and smeared it around some more, stopped at the store and ran smack into Jason Bateman in the milk aisle.) But I just don't have time to get gorgeous for grocery shopping and write anything worth writing.
Back home, still unwashed but at least mostly dried off, I put on a comfy sundress and plunk down at my laptop with a cup of coffee. I fish my little notebook out of the fanny pack I take with me in the mornings, and start pulling together my notes into something that might possibly pass for a blog post.
I look up and it's six hours later.
Mad scramble. Must assemble provisions for romantic picnic under the stars at the Hollywood Bowl for Sinatra's 100th Birthday Celebration, which I gave to Eric for his birthday last month. (If you've never been to a concert at the Bowl, add it to your bucket list right now.)
In the morning I bought cheese and crackers, various dips and spreads, and wine (though Eric rightly pointed out, too late, that the occasion really called for highballs). It was all in the fridge, waiting to be organized, properly prepared and put in the cooler, but the day sort of got away from me and suddenly I have no time to get it - or myself - ready.
I leave on my sundress, change from flip flops to wedges, throw the food in a bag and out we go, dropping the kids at sleepovers en route. In the car I put on red lipstick. That's the extent of my primping for date night. Classy. Fortunately the Bowl is casual, though if I 'd known we'd run into Allison Janney in the parking lot I might have taken more care to be sure I looked and smelled good enough to rub elbows.
I have two favorite songs I'm really hoping to hear - Come Fly with Me and In the Wee Small Hours - they're # 2 & 3 in the lineup tonight. My life is charmed.
When the Count Basie Orchestra plays You Make Me Feel So Young, I turn to Eric lovingly and chime in, "Even when I'm old and gray, I'm going to feel the way I dooooo today," to which he deadpans, "You are old and gray."
I glower at him, annoyed, kind of horrified. Way to kill the moment, dude.
"I'm kidding!" he says. This, from the guy who is always saying things like, "Natural is beautiful."
In the second half they play a lot of warm, sexy, soothing bossa nova numbers. I love these songs, but with the starry night and the cool breeze and the wine, I keep nodding off and falling over onto Eric's shoulder and then waking up to applaud each number, acting like I remember what it was.
I simply cannot keep my eyes open.
To be fair, I've only been sleeping five, maybe six hours a night, taking long run/hike sessions every morning, writing till mid-afternoon, then starting the daily playdate with the family. We eat dinner really late, then there's baths and stories and songs, and the dishwasher to load and the dogs to put out. And then, for some reason I'm just not sleepy. I read till I drift off. I'm in love with the rhythm of these summer days - I feel tried, but productive, challenged creatively and inspired, strong and healthy, happy, fulfilled, in my element. I feel, in fact, beautiful. I imagine myself looking like some wild wood nymph or sun-streaked earth mother.
Then again, I haven't really seen myself in days.
The next morning I take a good hard gander in the mirror. We're having dinner with old friends tonight, and I simply must be presentable.
My face is tan, with white raccoon eyes where the sunglasses have been. I like my rosy glow, but at my age the tan is very naughty. I'm maniacal about sunscreen, but I can see crinkles where I've been squinting. My eyes are puffy because I ate a lot of salty potato chips at the concert. My legs are scratched and scabby, and I have all sorts of bizarre tan lines from sports clothing - the worst of which is very bronze lower legs and glowing white thighs. Not a look.
I take my hair out of the messy bun it's been knotted into for... how many days? At first it doesn't move. It just sort of stays up on it's own, like the Bride of Frankenstein. It's stiff and resists heartily when I attempt to manipulate it downward; maybe it doesn't want me to see its truly shocking roots. I AM old and gray! The California sun does a number on hair color. But it's not just that; my head, at what was once sort of my part, is crusty with Malibu sand, sea salt, sweat, and just general scalpishness.
Lord, is it I?
I look crazy! What has happened to me? I'm hardly high-maintenance, but I've been so deep in this project, I seem to have neglected every basic tenet of personal hygiene and good grooming. I love what I'm working on, and even though I don't know exactly what it's meant to be in the end, it feels right. Maybe this is a necessary part of the journey, but the path, literal and figurative, seems to have led me far away from my image of myself... at least the one I want to present to the world.
I bust out a box of hair color and really go to town. I give myself a right loofah-ing. I deep condition. I put on mascara. Use one spritz too many of perfume. Pull a real outfit out of my suitcase, accessorize. Don the peep-toe booties that trumped proper trail shoes when I packed.
I look like me again.
But from time to time throughout the evening with our dear and lovely, sophisticated, accomplished, creative, generous friends, I find myself distracted, wondering if the crazy lady I met in the mirror this morning is showing. I don't want them to see me that way, unkempt, au naturel, out of control. These are people who happily made a mindful and absolutely reasonable, respectable decision not to have children; I feel an immense amount of self-imposed pressure to demonstrate that as a mother/artist I can do it all, have it all, keep it together, and look damn good doing it. Which it's clear to me is simply not the case.
I feel a little jealous of their house and two car garage with two cars in it. Their quantifiable careers. Their dishwasher. I cover by acting just terrifically bougie, discussing real estate I can't afford, and throwing around the names of cuts of meat I've never tried.
Then they ask me about what I'm working on and I'm unusually inarticulate... though unfortunately that doesn't make me less talkative.
Describing my blog I sound, in my own ears, like a blithering idiot. Worse, like I don't really know, at 43, what the hell I'm doing in my life and work. All my projects, these things I'm losing sleep over, come across as unformed, cockamamie, boring and hopelessly twee. I think one screen-fatigued eye is twitching. I'm not the least bit drunk, but what difference does it make? I'm acting like I am. I giggle nervously and also feel like I might go in the bathroom and cry. Is it this morning's canyon fog hanging around me, clouding everything?
We have an ironic conversation about some "reality" shows for which reasonably normal people make themselves out to be genuine weirdos just to be on TV. (Of course it could be argued that that itself makes one fundamentally not normal, but you get my point.)
I said, "Oh, I could never do that, I'm way too vain! I couldn't humiliate myself by putting on some truly ridiculous persona just because I thought it would make me famous."
And yet - I have to laugh - for some reason I'm perfectly willing to reveal all kinds of embarrassing actual things about myself, not because I think it'll make me famous, but because I'm trying to zero in on what it is to be a "regular Jenny," to maybe get closer to something that might ring true in an everywoman way. And ironically enough I called this iteration of it, Summer | unscripted.
I love funny and honest, I hate precious. But I can't concern myself with that here. I just have to tell the truth.
One of the things I loved about Sinatra's 100th Birthday concert (I was awake for this part) is that Seth MacFarlane -- a prodigiously talented writer, comedian, voice artist who has made a career out of his hilariously sardonic point of view, and who it turns out is also a wonderful musician -- sang a bunch of "charts." Now, as way cool as the Rat Pack were, their music was never cynical; it was heartfelt and schmaltzy and vulnerable, and I love that Seth totally went there, revealed something, waxed sentimental in song. I love that he puts himself out there like that. It takes more guts in a way than being a smart ass, even a brilliant one.
I think, if I may be so bold, that if I have a strength as a creative person, it's in seeing the connections between things that aren't obviously related. Little by little, that's what my encounter with the canyon is revealing itself to be about. And sometimes it's dirty work -- uncomfortable, vulnerable, embarrassing, even a little precious -- to reveal, in words what the canyon has to "say." Sometimes I come away muddy and bleeding, with bad hair and sunburn. Sometimes it leaves me with a mump-sized lump in my throat, and I don't look good doing it.
I have to be okay with that
It is I.
Canyon Days - Part 5:
Beyond the Labyrinth
Back to my regular path today.
It's time to revisit the labyrinth.
Although there's been another afternoon of heavy rain, this path, unlike yesterday's, has no mud issues. I can see where the water ran, and the path feels stonier, so maybe some sand has been washed away, but the trail is perfectly serviceable, and I'm glad to be back on it.
A short way along the path a tree is down. There was no lightning storm here, so it must have just been the hours and hours of heavy rain. What a shock to the system of this dry gray tree.
It's humid and buggy this morning; things land on me, stick to me. I'm not sure how far I'll go. My feet are tired and complaining. I have real trail running shoes at home in New York; I even had them in my suitcase for awhile. But they're bulky and packing them would've meant leaving behind a rockin pair of peep toe booties, so out came the trail shoes and in went lightweight running shoes and the booties. The rocky path is hard on my feet without a sturdy tread, but... fish gotta swim.
I decide to go down the labyrinth path first, instead of on the home stretch. This is slightly lazy, but I promise myself I'll put in a real run afterward. Right before the turn off I discover something extraordinary. Someone has built a rock sculpture, a sort of altar of stones and shiny objects, on a boulder right at the edge of the trail. Could this have been here all along and I missed it? Would it even have stood the heavy rain? Did someone actually build this thing this morning, before 8:00?
At first glance it's just some piles of stones, but look close: the way they're structured and balanced is quite intricate and deliberate, at places, a feat of physics I don't quite understand.
And whimsical features have not been spared. A pair of broken sunglass stems with little rhinestones flank a large shard of blue mirror glass; they catch the sunlight, flicker as you move past. Wink wink. I wonder if this is the work of the labyrinth maker. Seeing this reminds me to take more interest in the beauty of the different types of canyon rock. Especially the smooth, soft-feeling, red- and orange-veined sandstone.
I turn down the path toward the labyrinth, but realizing that I've never followed this trail beyond it, I pass by the labyrinth and keep going. It doesn't actually go much further. The trail peters out; little branches that at first seem promising reveal only a few small clearings where it looks like people sit sometimes, maybe spread a blanket and rest or eat. Or coyotes make a nest or something.
The main thing that stops the path is a tree. From up the trail it looks quite large, I guess, but much like any other tree around here. But since the path dead-ended here, I thought I better see if the tree was some sort of destination.
I walk beneath a low hanging branch and into the canopy of a vast, majestic cathedral of an oak tree. I can't figure out how its size is so deceiving from the outside. I walk around inside its cool canopy, snapping photos from every angle, but none of them comes close to capturing the scope of the thing. I wish I had something better than a little point and shoot camera, but then, anything more would be too cumbersome on a run.
Last year, on a Topanga writing retreat with my dear friend, the marvelous author/mother/shining spirit Jennifer Grant, I took her down to visit the labyrinth. She ventured off on her own after a bit, then came back and summoned me to a tree, just up the path from this one. It too had branches that touched the ground all around, creating a dome, but underneath were two rather primitive swings - one fashioned from a length of pipe and some heavy rope, the other, just a small log hanging from a rope tied at it's center. It was a magical place, and the tree very impressive, but still intimate, familiar somehow, a place for children to play.
This tree is solemn and stately. It welcomes you in, warm but authoritative, invites you to stay, but commands respect and library quiet. I can't help feeling it's a conscious being, with wisdom to impart; I strongly suspect it can talk, and just chooses not to at the moment. I've had this feeling before, in the Redwood Forest.
I spend a long time with the tree, and then apologize to it for doing something as gauche as spending several minutes racing around trying to get a selfie that will express even a fraction of its grandeur.
Eventually, I pull myself away from the tree and head for the labyrinth with the intention of sitting down within its spiral and doing a little writing there, just breathing, listening, waiting for...something.
I enter the labyrinth from the opposite side today, to see if spiraling in the other direction will yield any new ideas. In yoga, you stand on your head to get the blood flow going, but also, to turn your world upside down, which sometimes helps you see things from a new perspective, breaks habitual patterns of perception.
I don't get far before I realize it will be impossible to sit down in the labyrinth, to think and write, meditate, pray, do yoga. A colony of savage looking red ants have invaded. From a small doughnut shaped mound within the spiral, they scurry all over, fanning out in every direction, crossing the labyrinth's paths any which way. They obviously have no respect for the order of things here, or the vibe of the place. I saw a few of them here last year, but nothing like this. Perhaps the rain forced them out of hiding.
I can't stand still even momentarily, for fear they'll swarm my shoes, bite my ankles.
I'm very annoyed and I tell them so. I'm like --
It may interest you creepy little bastards to know that, in addition to seriously crashing my private party, you are desecrating a shrine.
Ants, come to find out, are cheeky buggers. One of them plants a sassy hand on her gaster and says,
Get over yourself, lady. We have as much right to this place as you do. You think you know from labyrinths because a couple times a year you come here and walk through this one with a lot of pretentious reverence? I built ten of these underground before breakfast today, carrying 50 times my own weight.
Ooooh, snap. Honestly, the nerve.
The labyrinth says,
Ok. Break it up, girls. Everybody back to work. Move along now.
So, off I go in search of a new trail.
I run down to the road and cross it, heading for that trail marker that points in no particular direction; today I go left at the fork.
It's a good place to run, soft and sandy, long and gently rolling. It winds toward the hill where the lightning went down the other day. Suddenly I'm running along a high rock cliff; it makes me a little dizzy. I feel like I'm in a very remote place, deep in the canyon, it's so quiet, so secluded; but here the hoof prints of horses, which I find fresh, daily, all along the trail, are denser, so I must be getting close to the source.
The path makes a sharp left where there's a ravine on the right, and begins a steep climb. Close by, I hear someone whistling; the tune isn't familiar to me, but the whistler knows it well and warbles along assuredly.
Where's it coming from? I don't hear the footfalls of any other hiker. I peer through some bushes. On the other side of the gulch, tucked deep into a white rock wrinkle of the canyon, is a stable with a paddock. The whistler is a man in a stetson, grooming a horse. I can only see him from the back; is he young or old? Are these his horses or is he the help? He doesn't turn. Does he know someone is here?
The animal makes a breathy snort; the man clucks at it and says something softly, then goes back to his whistling. His tune, maybe just some silly pop song, doesn't know if it wants to be happy or sad; in the cavernous acoustic mouth of the canyon, it takes on a wistful tremolo that follows me up over the hill and out to the road, which, I'm pretty sure, is the one that will lead back to my home trail.
Wait a minute, you may say.
Whistling cowboys. You're venturing into a treacherous no man's land between Steinbeck novel and David Lynch film. Are you making this shit up?
The feeling of solitude out here is powerful, transporting, even if it's partly illusory. I must be hardly a stone's throw from a neighborhood, but it's hard to remember, as it's nowhere visible. Even just this little corner of Topanga offers endless opportunities to roam, hear unexpected voices, and imagine a backstory for the lonely ranch hand with a haunting song.
The canyon gives what the canyon gives. You never know what you're going to find -- out beyond the labyrinth.
July 20 - Canyon days - Part 4:
After the Rain
When I wake this morning, the canyon is missing.
Has David Copperfield come in the night and made it disappear?
The fog is so thick I can't see much beyond the back yard. The mist is at the window, in a thin white film. The larger window is wide open; it doesn't seem like a screen could keep this fog out, so I look around the room half expecting to see a cloud drifting across the bedroom.
It's 6:45. The whole house is sound asleep. Not even the dogs want to get up this morning. They lift their heads slightly and snuffle at me as I pad by them in my bare feet, thump their tails a time or two, then fall immediately back to snoring.
I take my coffee and my lap top out on the patio. The air is cool, and all is wonderfully still. The fog seems to muffle the morning sounds, even while it intensifies the particular smell of the wet canyon, and lifts it right up to our windows.
It's terribly unoriginal to say you wish you could bottle the scent of something, but I'm a perfume junkie, and if I could capture Topanga in a wearable fragrance I would. Two distinct fragrances, actually -- the canyon on hot sunny days, and the canyon after a rain. Topanga wet and Topanga dry. Those are awful names for perfume. How about Topanga Rain and Topanga Shine? Topanga Mist and Topanga Sun.
The dry canyon scent is warm and straw like, with notes of sand, burnt sage, hot rock, sweet and nutmeggy, like something freshly baked. The canyon after a rain smells like mud and mint, cool stone and damp cedar.
It's that minty smell that's wafting up on the fog this morning, reminding me of my run day before yesterday-
The day after the heavy rain, I venture out on an entirely new route. I don't really know where I'm supposed to enter. I cross Topanga Canyon Blvd and find a small path behind an old fence that seems to indicate it was, at least at one time, a real trail. I've heard there's a whole network of great hikes back in here, though this doesn't seem to be a major trailhead.
I come through some bushes and out onto a tawny meadow, whose color is deepened by the damp. The ground is soft and spongy, and at first the path is mostly flat, so it's very comfortable running.
It leads me gently downhill, heading south for awhile, through clumps of wet trees and brush, still dripping from yesterday's downpour, especially when I come along and disturb the birds. I'm wet, and grass sticks to my legs. This valley, on the morning after a rain, feels more English countryside than parched SoCal canyon.
The path is so pretty and feels so kind on my legs that I want to let go into an all out downhill run, but... well, I may have understated, a couple posts ago, just how deeply phobic of spiders I really am, and how it can hamper my enjoyment of situations like these. Every time I approach a cluster of trees or thicket, I stop and panic a little, my breath short and shaky. Even when I look hard, it can be difficult to see them, the large brown widows, strung on sticky webs between the trees, or the little gray spiders in the grass. No matter how careful I am, I can always feel stringy bits stuck to my perspiring shoulders, and caught in my eyelashes.
So I came up with a system. I carry a stick, preferably with some little twigs fanning out at the end, and wave it in front of me, broom like, whenever I am approaching a danger zone, bringing down webs and their tenants. I look ridiculous and feel a little ashamed that I'm not a more intrepid and respectful outdoors woman, but there it is. I'm overcoming major fear to enter the scrub areas at all.
The path winds around, still headed generally south, then takes a sharp turn right, and heads up a hill, going north. I'm relieved to be in the open, on the grassy hill, out of arachnid territory. But here the path really shows evidence of the rain. Unlike my usual path which is sandy, this trail is dirt, and I can see where little mudslides have formed. I start chugging up the steep slope, but my legs, which had been feeling so good, soon grow sluggish, and the hill feels disproportionately hard. I look ahead; it's a long way up. I take a quick breather and get on with it. Again though, right away I feel so heavy, the incline feels unmanageable.
I'm mad at myself for tiring out so quickly; why am I not in shape to conquer these hills, right out of the gate? I want to be able to hear the Rocky theme thrumming in my head every time I summit some new slope in the canyon. Also, if possible, I'd like my legs to be demonstrably thinner and stronger every day.
I struggle up the hill, increasingly annoyed because, not only are my legs giving out on me, my running shoes are caked with mud. It's not just up in the treads, but squishing up around the outsoles and onto the mesh fabric. Every time I stop to catch my breath, I try to scrape the mud off in the grass or on a rock, but it's sticky and clings to itself -- the more I gather, the more I gather. Each shoe, no lie, is now dragging at least an extra pound of soggy dirt, and its only getting worse. I keep trundling on up, but am now seriously encumbered by the mud, and my own almost inexplicable exhaustion. I decide I must allow myself to just walk as necessary. I honestly can't figure out why this run is so hard.
The route is one of the loveliest I have taken, much more out in the open, and yet the path itself small and hidden, untravelled, with stunning views from angles I haven't seen before. The air is full of the minty smell. But I haven't really been paying attention, I've taken no pictures. I realize I've been so mired in my frustration, my disappointment in myself, that I've been missing much of the beauty on the way. I stop for a few minutes and take it in.
I've come to the the top of this hill, and as I start moving again, just fifty feet beyond where I've been standing, the path very suddenly, unexpectedly comes through some trees and out onto a broad dirt road, a major artery, a well-maintained hiking trail. I have to laugh that this has been right here all the time. It must be the trail I've heard about.
People walking dogs, joggers, day hikers with little backpacks and walking sticks go by in both directions. They seem to be taking the hills in stride. It looks like a right turn will take me back to the boulevard. I pound the mud off my shoes and turn left to follow the trail up over the crest of the hill, to learn more about where it leads. But the incline proves very difficult. I'm almost forty minutes into my run, and the last 20 really wore me out. Not knowing how long I would have to keep going up in order to see the other side is too daunting; I decide that for today, I must turn for home. I'll come back this way again soon, on a dryer day; maybe take the main road first, and venture from there down into the more adventurous trails.
On the way out, there's some relaxing downhill, and then a bunch more grueling uphill before the trail finally deposits me on the busy canyon boulevard, at the "Top of Topanga Overlook," not a half mile from home. I rest on a bench at the vista point, and make some notes. I take one picture: my muddy, scratched, tired legs to remind me of this morning.
At home, I describe the frustrations of my run to Eric and the kids, and Eric comments on the sorry state of my sneakers.
I say, "Gosh, it's really hard to run in mud."
Hutch and Eric, in perfect chorus, reply, "Of course it is."
Of course it is. Of course it is! I'm not just out of shape and lazy. That muddy hillside path was a bitch.
If I'd taken the main road, it would have been a challenge, but I probably could've made it. It's clearly marked and heavily trafficked, well-drained and maintained, navigable by GPS; and it has some great views, and probably leads to some magical places I'm eager to find. It's a good road. It's mud free. Then again, it lacks some things I cherish about the way I came: the minty wet smells, the bronzed grasses, the mysterious turns, the brambles full of songbirds, even the spider webs. They're just different kinds of challenges.
I've spent a lot of time in the last few years feeling bad about myself for not being where I think I "should" be in my creative pursuits, for not making enough money, not being able to precisely quantify my work and "career," and at the same time feeling like I've sometimes been too creatively ambitious and frustrated to be fully present with my family.
Sometimes I forget to cut myself a little slack, on account of the mud.
There are, no doubt, more straightforward paths, ones where hard work and tenacity would almost certainly lead somewhere, a known goal get accomplished. Mine is a twisty, turny, spidery, sticky unsure path, uphill a lot of the way, I can't always see where I'm going, and for long stretches, my only creative output is mud pies with the kids. Oh believe me, I want the path to lead somewhere, the journey to have a destination, demonstrable results to be achieved. But if I'm honest with myself - and this is true for me, not for everyone, and that's as it should be - isn't this exactly the way I would choose again and again?
Of course it is.
Canyon Days - Part 3
Across the road and up into the meadow. I take a trail I've done a couple times before, but follow it further now to see where it goes.
Eric has arrived, and for the first time I'm not constrained by getting home to hungry children who've been allowed to lie in bed and watch cartoons if they wake before I get home. I can take my time. I got a late start though, as we picked Eric up at the airport at almost midnight.
When I woke this morning, the sky over the canyon was dark, not with the usual foggy marine layer, but with heavy, charcoal colored clouds that definitely portended rain. I lounged about with coffee and morning pages, the kids took an early swim, Eric read Don Quixote in the hammock. Somewhere down toward the ocean there was thunder that echoed up through canyon, but it was more of a mumble than a rumble. A little rain finally came, and then the sky brightened. I thought I'd better hit the trail before it got hot.
It's already 8:30 but the familiar trail is fresh after the little sprinkle, not so dusty. I too feel fairly fresh as I start out; I'm surprised my legs aren't very sore from the tough climbs of yesterday's run.
I pass a white-tailed rabbit with very tall, pert, close-set ears who looks at me over his shoulder before darting into the brush; I wonder if he wants me to follow, like Alice. A hummingbird chases me, and, then in the meadow, I have to dodge a large number of jurassic looking, dive bombing dragon flies. Tiny lizards zig zag across the path and disappear down deep cracks in the dirt. The variety and decibel of birdsong is amazing.
I take the trail as far as I've gone before, up to a private property sign, and a beautiful, seemingly lone house at the top of a hill, with an astonishing view east across the canyon. I turn right and follow the path down a hill where, I now see, it emerges in a neighborhood. Here the path grows wide and well-tended, wood-chipped and manicured, with little covered benches for a rest, and carefully curated vista points.
The paved road of the community simply ends and becomes this trail. It's almost impossible to tell what parcels belong to individual homes, and what belongs to the canyon itself, to its visitors. I wonder what it's like to literally have Topanga Canyon as your backyard, where the lines between home and the wild are blurred.
I wind back up to the trail; I've come a ways downhill and turning around, my legs suddenly start to feel the fatigue - the shock of sudden daily trail running after a year of city streets and treadmills... (not to mention a recent 6-week break after a minor Citibike ding-up that messed up my left knee). I've probably got only a mile and a half or so to go from where I am now, but it's mostly uphill running to get out of here and back to the house.
The sun is on me, it's getting hot and I need water. But I might get it in a form I wasn't expecting... in the few minutes I've been running the opposite direction, the sky over the next crest to the east -- I think it's east, how far away is it? I have no sense of how to gauge direction or distance looking over the canyon -- has turned an ominous midnight blue-black, and I can see the broad vertical shaft of rain it's bringing with it. The mumble is now distinctly a rumble, legitimate thunder. Suddenly a sharp bolt of lightning stabs down into the canyon just on the other side of that hill. It occurs to me that I don't know exactly what the proper safety protocol would be on a Santa Monica Mountain trail should the storm catch up with me.
At the road where I cross back onto my "home base" trail, I meet a merry band of mountain bikers coming down out of the path I'm re-entering . Probably twenty in all, they're mostly middle aged bearded fellows, obviously in hearty hill-going condition, if a little paunchy. Before we speak, I have a moment where I wonder if I should feel slightly weird about this -- a woman, alone, headed into a network of narrow trails, some of which are frequented, and some not. But there's no choice, rain is coming and I have to get home; this is the only way I know. Anyhow, they turn out to be very friendly, chatty chaps, a hippie-dippie Hell's Angels, who, as they pass me, each nod or say good morning, and tell me how many more are coming along behind -- which, because I can do basic subtraction, is overkill, but kindly meant.
The second to last rider comes along; he's older than the others, with a gray beard and more of a tummy, sort of the uncle of the group, trying to keep up with the younger set, and pantingly says to me, "Mornin'. Just one more after me and then we're done. It's time for coffee and banana bread."
Nothing says badass like banana bread.
I mean to visit the labyrinth on the way back, but somehow miss the turnoff. It's just as well, because shortly after I get home and take a quick dip in the pool, the rain begins. It rains and rains, all day and far into the evening. No storm comes our way, just endless downpour. I write for hours, Eric and the kids read and play chess on the covered lanai. We have dinner on the patio too, and then, with the dishes still on the table, we all get naked, run screaming and laughing through the cool, streaming rain and jump into the pool. We don't even wait 20 minutes.
When was the last time it rained like this here? Never while I was here last summer. And I only remember a couple times in the whole year we lived here that it poured this long and hard. It's the kind of day that makes you want to stay in and bake banana bread. It's like a summer storm at my grandparents' cottage on Lake Erie. This is east coast rain. Maybe we brought it from New York, where we've so far had a an unusual number of chilly wet summer days. You're welcome, Topanga. Just my small way of giving back.
Canyon Days - part 2:
I decide to take the steep route, up to the spine of this part of the canyon.
Turn right, from the main trail, at the first small offshoot, a barely hip-wide footpath through tall a meadow, which descends into a shallow, stony gorge amidst thick brush and trees, and then climbs out again, steeply, onto another meadow and up, up, up a classic golden California hillside, and onto a rocky ridge with glorious 360 degree views of the canyon.
The paths up here are sinuous, under-traveled and unkempt. There is little shade and the highroad gets brutally hot quite some time before the trails down in the folds of the canyon do. There are confusing twists and turns and splits in the trail, and many branches off the "main" path, if there even is such a thing in this section. The paths don't seem to follow any logic, jogging off at seemingly random places, down treacherous slopes, or into thick tangles of weed and underbrush. It's a maze.
I've been lost in this section before, briefly, maybe 30 minutes, but enough to feel uncomfortable. It was strange - I knew I was never far, as the crow flies, from the neighborhood, the lovely if somewhat antiseptic gated community at Topanga's summit; I could see its rooftops, and yet there I was, lost in an authentic wilderness, where I know there are venomous snakes, mountain lions, coyotes, the occasional vagabond. And that was two years ago, when these paths, for some reason, seemed much better traversed.
I chose this path today for a different kind of challenge. It's like a HIIT (high intensity interval training) workout. Most of the climbs are not terribly long, but they're very steep. Then you have either a flat section or a nice downhill. Repeat. I jog as much of it as possible, but a number of times I have to stop and bend right over to catch my breath. I'm seriously rethinking the wisdom of this route on only my second day out. I took pictures, but none of them captures the vertiginous quality in a way that makes me seem as heroic as I actually am (perhaps marginally less heroic than the gorgeous woman I met in the canyon on my first day, who, at not a minute less than 38 weeks of gestation, was running the trail in a sports bra and hot pants, with nary a jiggle anywhere. It's LA.)
Many of these paths off the main drag seem unusually unused right now. I wonder why? As I trot along, living things stir from within the little groves of low trees and high grasses; things that don't sound like birds, that sound rather...larger. They don't seem to have been expecting me; though I can never see them, they sound startled as if from a long sleep, or like a child caught in some illicit mischief. The only thing about it I find truly frightening is that, being the first passerby some days, I may inadvertently run through a spider web, and wind up with a... passenger. Shudder.
My legs are scratched bloody from some particularly malicious wild sage bushes. I hear the whine of a coyote somewhere behind me, from down in the gorge. It suddenly occurs to me that maybe some these off-trail trails aren't people paths at all, but just the habitual routes of canyon fauna.
I know the way well enough to know that today's run will not lead me toward the labyrinth.
Yesterday, when I visited the labyrinth, I thought it might be a good idea to go there every day, walk and talk with it as a regular discipline. And that would be valid, rich. But it would also mean going the same way every day, as, for now, I know only one way to access it.
I'm torn between different approaches to my canyon encounter.
In vinyasa (flow) yoga, one returns to the same fundamental routine over and over - Surya namaskar, the Sun Salutation, forms the foundation of every practice, it's the access road into every other posture. And if it alone was your whole practice, daily, you could stay in pretty good physical condition, and would have a solid exercise of moving meditation. Consciousness transforms rote repetition into valuable, sacred ritual.
Then again, if that's all you ever did, you'd miss the benefits - the challenge, fun, frustration, and eventual joy - of exploring deeper, more complex shapes.
Likewise, there's something to be said for the idea of doing the same trail over and over, knowing it intimately, getting bored, then rediscovering it, something to be gained from communion with the same path, daily; it allows you to recognize subtle changes, tune in to the canyon as a living thing.
But Topanga is huge and full of wonders that I don't want to miss, that I'm dying to explore. I know such a small section of it. I've heard, for example, of another labyrinth nearby that I want to find.
Maybe I'll do an every other day sort of thing? I haven't decided.
Yesterday, as I was working on my post about my labyrinth experiences, I did a little research about their origin and uses. In English we often use the words "labyrinth" and "maze" interchangeably, but in contemplative circles (no pun intended) they are actually different concepts, different physical structures, serving different purposes. A labyrinth, to a purist, has only one path that through many twists and turns or inward spirals, gradually, inevitably draws you to its center, a forgone conclusion. A maze, by contrast, has multiple paths, it offers - demands - choice.
Even the broad, well-traveled, horse-trodden paths of Topanga have a maze-like quality. There are tempting tracks in every direction, that seem like the traces someone's private adventure. Even the signage along the way can be obscure. Unlike these more, you know, traditional type signs, offering actual directions --
-- today I came upon this marker, right where "two paths diverged" on a yellow hill.
Both ways seemed equally well-loved and inviting, and the post at their intersection offered unbiased -- or, depending on your point of view, unhelpful -- advice.
Is it the Yogi Berra of Topanga trail markers? An intentional koan? An homage to Robert Frost?
Make a choice the sign seems to say. Take your pick. There is no right answer, no one path, no forgone conclusion; only your gut feeling, your wanderlust, your faith, your willingness to be decisive and confront your fear, and the strength of your yearning to engage the maze, meet it on its own terms and accept whatever it has to offer.
Canyon Days - Part 1
Into the Canyon, Into the Labyrinth
My alarm goes off at 6:30 a.m. I look out the bedroom window, over Topanga Canyon; it's gray and misty. Fog - the marine layer - frequently settles over the canyon like it's sinking into a big comfy armchair, and sometimes it takes awhile to get moving. But it will only last the morning. Then it will gradually slink out to sea, and the valley sun will make its way over the mountain and burn off the remaining clouds. But I love it like this - the canyon trails can be mercilessly hot by mid-morning without the fog.
The auto timer I set on the coffee maker has not worked, and my pot is dry. I fiddle with it till I hear it perking, and then I sit down groggily with my morning pages. I write about a terrible nightmare that woke me just ahead of my alarm that's still hanging on me like the fog.
When the coffee is ready I gulp down half a cup and attempt to head out. It is already 7:15 and the kids are stirring. Shoot. This will slow me down. Hutch worries aloud that I'll be bitten by a rattlesnake and perish in the canyon; he makes sure I take my phone. Violet, as far as I can tell, is unconcerned with this eventuality. I've never encountered a snake of any description on these trails, though of course I know they're around. All I see are birds and an occasional small lizard.
This morning, ironically, considering the drastic drought California is experiencing, it's actually lightly raining when I head out - more of a mist than a genuine rain, but enough to make me feel pretty damp.
As I start my run, I quickly remember that the first leg of this journey is all downhill - which feels wonderful as a warm-up, but obviously means that the way back will suck. But my legs know that after the footbridge, the path begins to undulate in a way that's a hearty workout and still fun.
The dusty rocky path is a real ankle breaker, pitted and creviced where I imagine little rivulets of water run in wetter times. But my feet remember the territory remarkably well, and I find a familiar rhythm quickly.
I follow the main path to where it emerges on a road. On later days I will cross the road and run the wide open meadows up the hill, but today I'm headed back the way I came. I'm going to visit the labyrinth I discovered here last year. It's tucked so neatly into the hillside, it was a couple weeks of daily runs through these trails before I found it, though, I later realized it's visible from the main path if you know where to look.
I have to look hard to find the path to the labyrinth. Always narrow, it is now overgrown with tall golden straw-like grasses. They scratch at my legs lightly - I'm not really bothered by them, but they slow me down and obscure the path. It doesn't look like many people have passed this way lately.
But there's the labyrinth, right where it should be, though it, too, is overgrown with dry reeds. Clumps of tall meadow plants have shot up between the stones, and parched in the sun, and I can see right away, before I even step in, that the center stone, a taller white rock that people had left various messages and remembrances on and around is missing. Where did it go? Who ransacks a labyrinth? Steals a stone from the center of a sacred place, makes off with people's wishes and dreams and moves them or claims them? I feel a little disappointed, a little offended that my own "deep thoughts" which I left there, marked in green pen at the end of last summer have disappeared. I hope they're in good hands... then again, I suspect they are, because one of the things I wrote and hid under the stone was Return, and, well... here I am. And I'm still just so impressed that someone built this thing in the first place, had the impulse, took the time, collected the stones, plotted the circuit, maintains it somehow.
The first time I walked a labyrinth was on the grounds of Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts. Formerly a Jesuit monastery, which closed in the early 1970s, in the 1980s it was converted into an inclusive interfaith yoga/meditation/retreat center. Respected yoga teachers, Catholic priests, creativity experts, mindfulness meditation gurus, wellness counselors and so forth lead workshops and retreats, refresh their minds and spirits, challenge their bodies. It's marvelous.
I like to think that in a way, the labyrinth on the grounds of Kripalu not only represents, but actually acts as, an intersection, a meeting place, for all those faiths, seekers and journeymen; a literal, physical shared path. And indeed, disparate spiritual and contemplative traditions going back to ancient cultures, have used the labyrinth for meditation and various forms of going inward, going deeper, sojourning toward a goal; so the very notion of a labyrinth walk is inherently interfaith.
There's something powerful about a labyrinth, psychologically and spiritually. I know that now, having experienced it. But that first time at Kripalu, I really didn't know what it was all about. I just kept hearing people say, "Have you walked the Labyrinth yet? Oh, you must." So I entered with no understanding of what the whole process was about, and yet, the expectation of something to write home about.
I was at Kripalu on a brief retreat for a little R & R and writing time during the period when I was feeling most creatively barren, a bit overwhelmed by mothering toddlers, despite my deep love for - and joy in - my family. I was very, very worried that I would never find space to make meaningful artistic/career work.
Anyway, I walked down the hill to the labyrinth and stepped in, feeling a little shy, embarrassed even, having no idea what I was supposed to actually do there. So I took the first steps and sort of mentally indicated, I'm here, I'm waiting, I'm listening. No bolt of lightning came. No burning bush. Come on, come on, I said. Nothing. I really thought it was kind of a bust. But it was winter and the evergreen hedges that form the labyrinth were tall and snowy, and it was a nice enough day, a pleasant stroll, I was warm in my down coat. So I just walked, and wondered if I was going anywhere. I sincerely hoped there might be something interesting at the center.
I was about halfway into the labyrinth's coil, just beginning to sort of relax into it, when a phrase very suddenly came to my mind, fully formed. The message I received in that single moment was so distinct, for a moment I thought someone had actually spoken to me.
"You're so concerned with what's next, you're missing what's now."
I was startled - the clarity of the sentence, and the truth. It was a multilayered truth, too - I'd started by plodding so impatiently through the labyrinth trying to get somewhere, to get something from it, that I almost missed the beauty of the thing itself - its quiet, its mystery, the snowy circle, the colorful prayer flags. And it was true in my life as a mother/artist. I was always fretting about the future, the answer, the solution, the infernal "work/life balance" conundrum, instead of releasing into what is, the delicious, exasperating, ever-vanishing now.
Where did that phrase come from? What spoke? My psyche? God? The Labyrinth?
I may never know, but my perspective shifted in subtle, significant ways. So discovering the labyrinth in Topanga last summer felt like a personal, intimate gift from the canyon.
Today, when I notice from the edge of the labyrinth, that the center stone, and my little talismans, are missing, I march right in.
"Hello," I say to the labyrinth. "Nice to see you again. And by the way, where's my stuff?"
I move quickly forward into the spiral, then pause. I suppose I should ask a question, ponder something as long as I'm here.
I sigh. "Ok. What's this writing project about?" I ask. "Why do I feel... called... or compelled to do this thing?" To get up early and go into the canyon, to run and sweat, to explore, and for the love of pete, to write about it, when maybe nothing interesting will happen and no one will care?
I step forward. The labyrinth answers at once. "You're doing it again," it says. "Trying to get to the center to see if your treasures are (still) there. Anticipating the outcome of a project you've just begun. Stop obsessing over conclusions, results. Remember what I said before: Don't miss what's now. Be on the path. Take the journey. Write to find out what you need to say."
And you know what was at the center when I got there today? Nothing. It looked, in contrast to the rest of the circle, which is choked with yellow weeds, almost like it was recently swept or blown clean.
I miss the things that were there last time I was here, other people's musings, keepsakes, and my own; but there's something fresh and inviting, spare, available, optimistic about it the way it is today.
We head back across the beach, toward the car.
Violet says, “I can’t believe this is only our first day here!” She pauses. “Wait, IS this our first day here?”
“Violet!” I say. “Goose, we just got off the plane three hours ago!”
She laughs. “Oh!” she says. “I went into the water and forgot everything but the waves!”
I hear you, girlfriend.
As we drive through rush hour traffic to see friends in the Valley, the kids briefly fall asleep in the car. Their heads loll to the side and their sandy legs curl onto the car seat. They’ve already been up for 17 hours, and they sleep deeply if only for a few minutes.
I consider Violet's quip and realize that, more than just saying something cute and true, she captured something quite profound. Didn’t she simply and succinctly express the essence of my Summer | unscripted writing project? To go into the Lake, the Ocean, the Canyon and forget everything you thought you knew and just experience it? See what it has to tell you, show you?
I must consciously place myself in that mental/spiritual space, devise a writing project as catalyst; she just exists in that space, with no sense of time - in the clock sense or the life one - no ideas about what’s to come, or what ought to be. No agenda.
I was suddenly glad - well, no, not glad, but conscious that it was a good thing - that I had forgotten my camera, that I was “forced” to just be in that experience. I can see that a liability of this project is that, even as I'm making a mindful choice to experience something – the canyon, the ocean, the lake of my childhood – to just be there, to listen - I can’t un-know the fact that I have also committed to writing about it. And at some level there will always be a remove, a meta factor that my kids don’t yet have.
How to be present without being precious about it?
(if you missed the introduction to SUMMER | unscripted click here)
SUMMER | unscripted – OCEAN DAYS – part 1
a post with no photos... on purpose, kind of
And just like that, Lake Days turn to Ocean Days.
Well, not just like that.
First there are several intense and discombobulating days of travel and travel preparations… packing and repacking, cleaning, driving, rental car pick ups and returns, flights bought on the cheap and therefore taking us in quite the wrong direction in order to transfer to a plane that will take us the right direction, tired kids awake for a full 22 straight hours, terrible airport/rest stop food, one screaming match with the credit card company who decided that all my recent travel most certainly means “fraud” and that my account had been “compromised” so they took it upon themselves to cancel the card, which I only discovered at the a car rental counter in LAX (not my finest moment), one 25th high school reunion (mine), and one massive car vomit (not mine).
I haven’t posted in several days, but not for lack of writing, my friends. I have 5000 words on the subject of Lake Days that will post shortly (I know you can’t wait to get your hands on that puppy), but in the meantime, to stay current, I turn my attention to Southern California.
From the airport, we drive, famished, to Venice, to the On the Waterfront Café at the corner of Rose Ave. and the beach, for crispy shoestring French fries served with mayonnaise. It’s a slightly - delightfully - dive-y beach joint with seating on the beach side, and a courtyard in back, pool tables, pinball and dartboards inside. I don’t remember how we chose it exactly, but it became our place in Venice Beach a long time ago.
There’s always a pleasing mix of vacationers, local surfers, and bona fide Venice Beach characters hanging out there, drinking tall glasses of Erdinger with lemon wedges in the middle of the day. When I retreat to LA on my own periodically, I come here to write in the afternoons, nursing a glass or two of chardonnay until the sun goes down. An older black woman with a karaoke machine and a lawn chair sings standards in front of the café for hours at a time, and in my head she’s the soundtrack of many things I’ve written. I love her confidence, and total relaxation in doing what she knows she does well.
The kids order 7-Up and fries, and I think it’s fair to say that at this point I deserve a midday glass of wine, so I have one. We make big puddles of mayonnaise and swirl the ketchup in. We are disproportionately pleased with this fare. We are really, really happy.
I reach for my phone to take the kids’ picture, and realize I have left it in the car. I immediately think, Rats, now I won’t have pictures of today, our first moments in California. And I need them for the blog!
We finish our snack and saunter across the walkway to the beach, dodging cyclists. We take off our shoes and dig our feet the California sand. My ankles are swollen from the flight.
Violet breathes deep and says, dramatically, “Ahhhh. This is what the beach is supposed to smell like.”
“Guys, we have less than an hour,” I say, because our car is on a meter. “Today we’re just having a little wade, getting our feet wet.”
We find a spot in the sand; we have nothing with us, no towels or blankets, just our flip-flops and ourselves, a tube of sunscreen and a paper takeaway cup of leftover soda. The seagulls attack us anyway and take our 7-Up. I’m not kidding. A bird gets thirsty.
We walk to the edge of the water and wait for the first fizzy wave-edge to burble over our feet. As soon as it does, we whoop and wade in. “Don’t get your clothes wet,” I say, ”We have to get back in the car soon.”
The day is SoCal perfection. 77° and sunny, light breeze, the temperature of the water exactly right for swimming – startling for the first few seconds, then just comfortably cool.
The kids immediately go in well over their knees. “Oops,” they say flatly. Hutch’s baggy bermudas are drenched at the bottom and it’s quickly wicking upward; Violet’s cotton dress drags in the surf.
“I have to go in, Mom,” Hutch says. “Please can I go in my shorts? Please?!”
I understand completely. I want to lie right down in the soft bubbling sand here at the edge of the water and let the surf roll me… (Of course, last time Hutch did that, he wound up with sand crabs in his bathing suit that he didn’t discover until they fell out in the toilet at the restaurant where we went for lunch).
I cannot deny them a swim.
Hutch takes off his shirt, Violet removes the outer layer of her dress, leaving on its light cotton under-slip. They run into the water, laughing.
For twenty minutes they jump and dive, hurdle the white caps, let the waves tumble them like ragdolls. I stand knee deep in the ocean and watch them, and watch the clock, and again wish I could take pictures of this moment -- the moment of their return to the place that, even though they are true New Yorkers, is somehow their hearts’ equal home, as it is mine.
Kids around them have floats and sand toys, things we love, but don’t have with us today, and my kids are not wishing for those things right now. Being in the ocean is everything.
I feel my breath drop down into my belly. I mean, I actually note the moment that this involuntary shift happens. I love New York so deeply, but I wonder sometimes if it has made me a chest breather.
Too soon I have to call them out of the water. To my pleasant surprise they come with little fuss. We are here, for now, and for however many weeks it lasts; they know we will spend a lot of time at the beach.
As they wade toward me, they glow like St Elmo’s fire. It’s the sun reflecting off the surface of the water, of course... and it’s happiness. I feel like I’m seeing them in a pure state, in their element, unfiltered, unguarded -- and that something of each child’s personal essence is especially visible.
Hutch is kind of fundamentally a surfer dude. I mean that in the most positive possible sense – not some cartoonish way, of a slightly dim bleach blonde guy who uses words like “righteous” and “sick” in peculiar contexts. The surfers I know personally are intelligent, creative, sensitive, attuned people – writers and filmmakers whose experience of/respect for/relationship to the ocean is the substance of intellectual, spiritual and artistic pursuits. Hutch loves the water in general – lakes, pools, rivers - but he feels an inexorable pull to the Ocean; he recognizes (and loves to explain in excruciating detail), the individuality, potential, and splendor of each wave; he tells long stories about his “epic” encounters with them, and never tires of trying to somehow become one with them. Although at this point he's still just a body surfer and boogie boarder, you can tell he feels something in the ocean that goes well beyond mere refreshment and thrill seeking.
Violet, as she emerges now from the water, in drenched flimsy cotton, red hair dripping and windblown, looks almost unnervingly Botticellian -- like something that was just this moment born on the half-shell and raised from the depths of the sea. She is exhilarated, free, innocent… at eight, she is a child, a little girl who, despite her considerable intellect, still loves to be my baby. But her loveliness (can I say this as her mother?) is a bit beyond her years (my husband is fond of saying that "She is better than the sum of our parts," which though true, is pretty rude to say to one's wife) and there is this terrific contrast, this tension between the lithe beauty she is growing into and the coltish child clomping awkwardly out of the water, tripping and falling in the sand, laughing goofily, unselfconsciously at her own clumsiness. It’s an exquisite and sort of heartbreaking moment because it will only last this summer, maybe one more. She reaches the beach and momentarily notices how naked she looks in the wet slip, and like Venus in the myth, is suddenly modest, not yet ready to embrace and embody the fullness of her place in the world. I swoop in like one of the attending graces and offer to pull her dress on over top. Then, just as quickly, she forgets her shyness and plods across the sand as is, drying quickly in the sun and wind, the slip gradually becoming opaque again.
It’s 6:45 when I stroll out this morning. I don’t go for my run because last night I had some sort of stomach bug and I’m still feeling a little bleh. But I walk from my cousin’s cabin, two blocks south and three blocks west, down toward the public beach.
The whole community is still asleep as far as I can tell. It’s completely deserted on this cool, overcast morning. They’re calling for a whole day of heavy rain, beginning by 10 a.m., so I need to get my nature time in early, as well as my writing time. The day will be spent in the cottage with my sisters, their toddlers, my two big kids, and my parents. Fun, but not the most conducive atmosphere for concentrated writing time.
It’s completely quiet except for the birds, and the scratching sound of my Birkenstocks on the gravelly, sandy road. It occurs to me just then that this summer blog venture is essentially about listening. Stopping to listen in the hush of the morning. Listening to the places I go, their unique music, to the quality and cadence of people I meet, even when the whole point is alone time. Listening to whatever inner voice told me I should take on this project, hoping it will articulate for me why I thought this was a good idea.
“I write,” as my college poetry mentor Jill Pelaéz Baumgaertner told me, “to find out what I'm trying to say. “
I have no idea where this project is going, what it will be, and how - or if - it’s going to turn out. Which is mildly terrifying. I’ve always resisted blogging for precisely this reason. Blogging by very definition is immediate and loose. I am, by nature, long form and deliberate. I don’t traffic comfortably in the slapdash and unplanned. Then again, it’s the improvisational quality of this undertaking that makes it vital -- as in, important for me, and as in, a living thing. Then again, it may be an insufferable bore.
Along Erie Road in Crystal Beach, I pass a few pizza places and dive bars, an ice cream shop, not yet open for the day, and a lot of places that are boarded up, for sale or rent, or just, apparently, abandoned.
I wish I had a coffee. Why isn’t one of these places a hip java joint?
The beach is empty except for one man, in his 70s, flopped in a lawn chair at the edge of the water. I walk a ways down the beach so that we don’t disrupt each others’ solitude.
I come upon a large, meticulously carved alligator made of sand, right at the water’s edge. It’s wide-eyed, and seems to be staring alertly out into the lake.
Just on the other side of the “Designated Bathing Area,” 50 yards offshore, someone is swimming. A perfectly even, methodical, steady front crawl, right along the rope. The stroke is the only thing breaking the smooth surface of the water this morning. The water is a deeper shade of the sky’s same gray. I love the beach like this.
The man from the lawn chair gets up and saunters along the beach, looking out over the water, and I realize that he’s following the swimmer, watching, monitoring, not with a stop watch or anything, not coaching, just being there.
He passes by me, and then he too spots the alligator. He pauses briefly to look at it, then cocks his head 20 degrees over his shoulder in my direction.
“That’s a nice-- “ He says, and stops. He doesn’t bother reaching for the word, no noun is necessary. It is a nice.
“Someone took a long time,” I say back.
He nods, smiles. I smile. He inhales, as if he might add something, but no, it was a complete thought. We have simply shared in the pleasure of the sand reptile, and it was nice.
He walks on, seeing to the swimmer, who has gotten ahead of him now.
I sit down, open my notebook and begin my Morning Pages. I have a lot to reflect on concerning a journey I took with my kids yesterday (more on that in my next post).
After a few minutes the man is headed back my way. The swimmer is on the return lap, the home stretch.
As he passes by again, he glances down at my notebook and pen and says, “There’s a lost art. Aren’t you supposed to be texting or something?” He doesn’t stop, just drops this as he walks.
I flatter myself that to this guy, I seem young enough to be tied to my devices all day, unfamiliar with the kinesthetic rewards of actually writing by hand.
The swimmer, a woman, emerges from the water and he hands her a towel. They leave the beach at a leisurely pace.
I finish my pages. My butt is damp and chilly, and though the rain isn’t due for a couple hours, the sky is threatening now, so I leave the beach and go in search of coffee.
It’s not yet 7:30.
I wander the neighborhood of Crystal beach, some of which is a genuine ghost town. I encounter just one other person, a guy in his 40s, sitting on the front porch of what must once have been a rather grand house. He’s slumped on the porch steps, smoking, Tool blares from inside. An inviting fire burns in a fire pit, but he’s nowhere near it, it’s on the other side of the house.
Suddenly, the rain begins in earnest and I have to shove my laptop under my sweater and make a mad dash for the Tim Horton’s Doughnuts a few blocks away. Yesterday I came here and was served the single smallest iced coffee you ever saw, which was also mostly cream and sugar. I forgot that in Canada if you want unsweetened coffee you have to ask for “no base.” At home, my morning coffee concoction consists of Melitta-dripped decaf, a teaspoon of coconut oil, a sprinkle of cinnamon and some almond milk. But this doughnut shop delight tasted so good, so like a creamy milkshake, that I’ve decided that this week, while on vacation here, I will throw healthy coffee caution to the wind and be all about that base. When in Rome.
And so, hopped up on sugar, I begin typing up this morning’s notes.
It’s really pouring now, and I dearly wish I could wait out the storm and write cuddled up on the couch at the cottage where I spent my childhood summers. A mile and a half from here, it’s really just the next section of beach, but the shoreline between here and there is impassible, and these days, even by the road, it's out of reach...
To be continued
Click below if you missed the intro to the
SUMMER | unscripted
All text and images, except where credited, are © Jenny Sheffer Stevens and The Regular Jenny, 2015-2019 -- All rights reserved.