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.
Summer | unscripted part 5 - Familiar Territory, Wild Imagination
the first chapter
for The Greens*
all of them, even if some get special mention here
*Names of people and pets have been changed (except in cases where I've already embarrassed them elsewhere in the blog, and it's too late now). And I have obscured the names of certain Topanga trails that treated me rather shabbily.
They know who they are.
These things do not mix well:
This morning when I head out, I carry with me approximately ten pounds of excess water weight – mostly in my eyelids and ankles.
I've spent the last couple days in my hometown of Buffalo for a cousin’s wedding.
It was disorienting to leave the canyon, right at the midway point in my summer project. And I’ll be honest, it gave me a panicky feeling to have to brush off the dust, sand, and salt, wash my hair, paint my nails and get on a plane. Act civilized. I guard my unscripted days like an otherwise affectionate cat growls you away from its mouse catch.
But this is a wedding I wouldn't skip. (To my one Buffalo cousin whose wedding I did miss, in my lame defense, we were actually moving cross country that week.)
The bride is, if I’m calculating correctly, my third cousin. Our large extended family grew up together within a few blocks’ radius, the generations interweaving, blending like a rainbow. We're immediate family, or might as well be, right out to many “removals,” and sometimes I have to think hard to get clear on our precise relationship.
The bride’s great-grandfather and my great-grandmother were brother and sister. They each had a daughter, Ann and Shirley (my grandmother). The girls, first cousins, were raised practically as sisters, and when they grew up and had their own families, they lived just a few doors down the road from one another and stayed there till old age.
Ann and her husband Bill had four children; Shirley and her husband John had three, including my father.
The street was beautiful. Most of the houses in the neighborhood were built in the mid 1800s, with rambling back yards that sloped down to a creek that ran behind them. The grass was squishy and lush down by the water, and the property lines were marked with very old, towering trees.
When I was little, my parents bought a house in between on the same street. So I grew up right next door to my second cousins once removed. Technically my dad’s generation, they bridged us in age, and became adored aunt/uncle/cousin/sibling-hybrids to me. I pretty much helped myself to their good graces and thought nothing of barging in on them naked, rummaging through their dresser drawers, stealing their gum, and generally talking them into an eye-rolling torpor. They toted me along everywhere they went, and I thought of myself as one of them.
As the first child of my generation, until I was three and a half I enjoyed pretty much everyone’s full focus at all times. Till my sister was born. Then it all goes kind of murky for a few years. I'd gotten rather accustomed to the whole center-of-attention thing and did not go gently.
The bride’s father, my cousin Todd, was the third child in Ann's family, 16 years old when I was born. When I was little, he'd come home from high school and play with me almost every day. (Why he took this upon himself I will never know, but I've noticed, happily, that my own son favors him in this way, and is forever cheerfully chaperoning random toddlers at the park). My mom would feed Todd a snack and he’d let me climb all over him like a monkey, jump on the bed, wet-style his hair for hours. He played Chutes and Ladders with me, took me to the playground and Dairy Queen, and always had his pockets full of Smarties. He introduced me to The Three Stooges and Gilligan's Island. He taught me Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on my Head, and I’d sing, ”Cryin’s not for me.…because I’m three.”
When I was four, he got me to memorize a whole table of square roots as a sort of party trick, and come to think of it, that was my crowning achievement in the mathematical arts. He read me his research paper disproving the Lochness Monster legend, which I found both calming and disappointing.
He brought me shells from a Florida vacation and showed me how you can hear the ocean in them.
He taught me to say, “You can pick your friends, and you can pick your nose, but you can’t pick your friend’s nose.” As far as I can learn on the internet, the precise origin of that particular aphorism is disputed, but I always thought Todd made it up and it delighted me. Actually, it was the first rhetorical form I knew and is probably responsible in some part for my love of turning a phrase.
Once, when I was about seven or eight, Todd and I were playing in the back yard, the "way back" as we called it, down by the creek. I was turning inartful cartwheels and making clumsy tumbling passes on the forgiving turf; he was patiently pretending to be my gymnastics coach.
And then --
I remember registering a noise, unfamiliar and improbable: like very loud popcorn at first, and then something indescribable -- a rumble, a screeching of car breaks, a thousand hands clapping, all mixed together -- an earsplitting crack – and almost at that very instant, the thud of Todd’s arm against my back, right at my waist, scooping me up at a dead run, and carrying me, limbs flailing, into the neighbor’s yard just as there’s a tremendous whooshing sound, a rush of air, and the ground vibrating beneath our feet.
A giant tree, rotten to the root, had broken off at its base and fallen clear across the yard right where I’d been playing.
I’ve thought back on that moment so many times in my life. I remembered it the time I heard an odd sound, and spun and dashed at just the moment my two year old daughter was slipping off the end of the picnic bench she'd climbed onto, catching the back of her head on a stone wall and her chin on the table, and hanging there, by her cervical spine, feet dangling.
I'll never know what animal instinct told Todd what that cracking sound was, what primal reflex made him think and move so quickly.
I was grown and gone -- off to college and then New York -- while Todd’s girls were still babies. We love each other, but I’ve never been involved in their lives the way he was in mine; never saved their lives, certainly, from falling trees or anything else.
I’ve always had a little FOMO about the relationship among all the younger cousins. I was their babysitter; age wise, I am to them what their parents are to me. Now we’re all adults and have so much fun together, but still, I occupy a bit of a no man's land generationally. Even my somewhat younger sisters more clearly belong in that group.
The wedding ceremony took place at the church I grew up in, a physical structure that felt to me, from babyhood through high school, as much my home as my own pink and green bedroom. I happily spent half my waking life there: two services plus Sunday school each week, youth group and choir practice, prayer meetings and mission suppers, as well as seasonal extra-curriculars like the church band and sports teams.
Besides being our extended family’s place of worship for generations, the church was the undisputed epicenter of my social and puppy love life, and to a rather unfortunate degree shaped my fashion sense for my entire childhood. I did love an Easter bonnet. Long before I was baptized, I’d been in the font during countless games of hide and seek with other Junior Church escapees. As a teenager, I changed the diapers of all my younger cousins in the nursery downstairs, filled their sippy cups with apple juice in the toddler room, fed them Nilla wafers to stop their fussing.
Although as an adult my faith – my whole understanding and experience of spiritual life – differs markedly from what I learned in that sanctuary, I somehow long for the building to feel like it did back then.
When I go there now, it’s like one of those dreams where you know what place you’re in and yet it’s not that place, looks nothing like it, and you can't make sense of it, get your bearings. The building has been modernized and reconfigured; mega-churched in style if not in congregation. I can’t put my finger on what’s missing, but it feels larger and emptier, oversimplified, like an avatar of itself. I sit there, between its bright white walls, wishing it still had the warm meadow yellow carpet and pew cushions of the 1970s and 80s, when it was my favorite place to be, when I felt safe and comfortable and certain there. At the same time, I feel the freedom of detachment, relief that so much has changed.
My cousin was a gorgeous bride, in a stunning black and white gown, which I'm pretty sure would have been scandalous in this hallowed hall not that long ago. Upside of sanctuary redecoration? The current color scheme was definitely a better backdrop for her dress than the harvest gold.
The reception was held at a fancy old Buffalo hotel that was recently restored to former glory. I remember going there as a kid on election night when my dad was in the legislature. He was a Republican -- the kind with whom my liberal adult self would have been able to disagree on a lot of things, and still have interesting, lively, constructive conversations. The whole Buffalo contingent is, to my knowledge, conservative GOPers, and we make lighthearted jabs at each other about our differences, but in general I know enough not tarnish our rare times together by discussing anything to do with the dat gum government. However, one of them told me this hilarious quasi-political story at the wedding:
It seems that back in the day, both Republicans and Democrats in the Buffalo area held their election night festivities at this same hotel. On one such evening, my teetotaling Baptist grandmother whispered to a cousin that the Democrats seemed to be having more fun, but she dare not join them for fear of offending her son on his big night.
I can hardly believe that this story is true. But I hope it is. Like The Lochness Monster.
For the record, at the wedding, all the cousins, regardless of political affiliation, partied like proper Democrats. (I'm joking, I have no idea what that means). But the food was too good and I indulged in brown liquor and fountain soda (“pop” as we say in Buffalo), salty meats, and cinnamon ice cream and chocolates from Antoinette's. All tastes of my childhood...well, except the liquor.
I got to the airport with two hours sleep, a mild Prosecco headache, and the nagging sadness I always feel when I leave there. Still, I couldn’t get off the ground quick enough.
As my scratchy eyes fell shut on the plane, long before we reached cruising altitude, I remembered a funny feeling I had in my stomach at the end of the reception as the lights came up. The DJ played Sinatra’s New York, New York (why do we have this custom, as if every new couple is headed off to the Big Apple?), and we all did our best tipsy Rockette.
Usually that song makes me kind of proud – No need to start spreadin' the news, ol' blue eyes, I’ve been makin’ it there for over 20 years – but this time it made me feel sort of anxious and melancholy. I love my family, and my time with them is always too compressed, too fly-by, but all too soon I’ll be back in my regular real life, in the city that never sleeps, and I've just missed 72 unscripted hours in Topanga...
I have to get back to the canyon, the ocean. My “spiritual home,” as my friend Jen called it.
Just three days away and already it feels unreal. Was I running in the canyon and writing about it? How is it possible -- looking out the window at Lake Erie, where I spent my childhood summers, learned to love the water, the sound of the waves, learned to like the lonely feeling of a beach walk, to tell myself stories and listen for the language in the seashell -- that I've really only just left Topanga and will be there again when I wake up?
When I was a kid I used to wonder how we knew what was our dream life and what was reality. Actually, along with the concepts of eternity and spontaneous combustion, this question really freaked me out. I regularly spiraled down this sort of ontological rabbit hole in the boring hours after morning kindergarten. What if I'm dreaming right now? What if all of this is just a dream, even my parents, my dog, my cousins. What if it's not even my dream? What if I'm just part of someone else's dream? What if I die in your dream? How do I know if I'm alive at all? What is real?
Which brings me to my bloated legs and slightly miserable run.
The day after I get back from Buffalo, I take one of my favorite hikes from last summer. It begins at the Top of Topanga overlook, crosses the Blvd, and follows the “Summit to Summit” road up across the western side of the canyon. Rather than follow the trail all the way over to Old Topanga Canyon Road where it ends, I’ll jog off to the left on a small trail that affords an amazing view of Red Rock Canyon.
I'm of bed before 7:00, looking forward to this run, these views, so relieved to be back.
Yet, from the very beginning -- a steep paved incline that gives way to the dirt road -- it is clear:
I got nothin’ today.
Contrary to my expectation that a couple days of no running would leave me rested and ready to roll, my puffy, depressurized, sausage stuffed premenstrual bod is like,
The spirit is willing, but the flesh, she is very weak.
How do I know I’m not dreaming right now? I think. I sure hope I am, because this run feels exactly like one of those nightmares where you’re trying to run and cannot move your limbs.
There’s no shade on the road whatsoever and the 8 a.m. sun is already pitiless. WHY can I not seem to get into the early rising rhythm of summers past? (I mean, all summer, not just today, which doesn't really count since I had no sleep all weekend.)
Today marks four weeks that I've been here, and three weeks of the Canyon Practice. Over halfway through, and I feel less in shape than when I started. How does that work?
I come across only four other people on the trail, which is nice, but strange for a Sunday morning. The Santa Clarita fire rages in the distance, and I’m eager to credit/blame air quality for my aloneness, breathlessness and unresponsive muscles. (When I check online later this area is apparently smoke free. Damn.)
It's over two miles to the start of the trail I love, so, feeling the way I do this morning, I know I better conserve my energy. I allow myself a pattern of running for a few minutes then walking one. I frequently pause and sip water from the nifty little bottles in my new hydration belt. Still, every hill I hit stops me dead half way up. What is wrong with me? I decide to run the flats and gentle undulations, and walk the steeper ups and downs.
Whenever the opportunity presents itself, I stop for a brief photo op -- like these, of the little piled stone shrines that one finds all over on Topanga trails:
Humans of nearly every culture in every era have made piles of rocks. There's an urge to stack stones that seems to lie at the nexus of the physical and the spiritual. When I come across these simple sculptures, I'm struck by their beauty and moved by the shared desire, this tacitly agreed upon symbol. Yes, something inside me says, I feel you. I cannot capture it in words either! I try! I add my little stone to the proverbial pile.
So, in this herky jerky way I make it to the trail and feel better just to be on it. After a short steep decline it's a gentle rolling path with beautiful views in every direction. There are a few farms in this valley; a rooster is crowing and a cowbell clanging.
Just below the trail is a dirt road that leads to one of the farms and I know this trail dead-ends overlooking it, just beyond a summit with a dog grave that I found up there last year.
I come to the dog grave and just a few feet away from it is a case of water. A Costco pack of 24 individual bottles. Their shrink-wrap casing is lined with beads of condensation, and I imagine the water in the bottles is hot and plastic tasting. Nonetheless, I’m so charmed by this simple kindness; someone did this thing. Left water up here. It’s probably from the dog owner and meant for dogs, but still.
I crack one of the bottles open (after neurotically assessing the cap's seal). The water inside is cool and good.
One small tree makes a patch of shade and the breeze kicks up a little. It's good to just sit here and look around. From here, though, I can see many other paths but not how to access them. This makes me ache. For more trails, more knowledge, more experience, more access, more leg strength, more time.
Later in the morning I'm sitting at my desk and Eric is next to me. He's reading the last couple blog installments.
He looks up and says, “Huh. It’s almost like this is your real life and the rest of the year is just building up to it."
To be continued.
First week -- 3 runs in the canyon, 2 on the beach, and a hike through Malibu Creek State Park.
Day 7. Sunday. A day of rest, so they say.
I head out early - well, early for a Sunday - just for a quickie, because I haven't been in the canyon in two days. I start feeling out of touch, the whole project seems kind of foggy, unreal and far away if I'm not out there almost every day. But I want to try something new, something easy, deliberately calm and meditative.
My friend told me of another labyrinth, across the canyon from the one I know so well. Sunday morning seems the perfect time to take it for a spin.
"The trail's just up the hill," she said the other day, waving offhandedly in its direction, "you'll see it."
I drive around for an hour looking for the trail head, up in the steep and serpentine streets of the west side of the canyon.
No luck. It's 9 by now, and getting very warm.
I wind back down the mountain, back across Rt. 27, Topanga Canyon Blvd, and up the hill to a major park entrance near where we're living on the east side of the canyon. It's a weekend, so I know this part of the park will by highly trafficked -- not the relaxed, contemplative labyrinth experience I was hoping for -- and I 'll have to shell out 10 bucks to park, just for a short run.
Is it even worth it today?
I get lucky and find one spot of slightly iffy - but free - street parking, only 1/4 mile outside the park. I get out of the car and clip on my running belt, which holds, for all my canyon runs: a tiny notebook and stub of pencil, my car key, a sunscreen stick, and my phone (for taking pictures). As I zip it closed the zipper pull comes off in my hand and the bulging pouch reopens itself quickly tooth by tooth. My stuff tumbles out.
With a grungy ponytail holder found on floor of car I band the stuff together inside the broken pouch. This looks very classy and will probably hold for all of 15 minutes.
I set out, walk into the park and take the first trail I see.
Within five minutes I meet two women on mountain bikes, taking a breather at the junction of several trail heads. One of them is complaining elaborately about her boss at work and the other is nodding with, it's very clear to me, feigned patience.
I pick a direction, any direction, to escape this conversation. I jog the fire road till a narrow path with no sign juts off to the right. It's rocky and mostly downhill, which means an uphill climb on the way out, but again -- just going for a quickie, so no big deal. I can walk it if I want.
A small pack of hikers appears just ahead of me, two men and a woman, moving at a very relaxed pace. They move aside to let me pass. They're stymied at a small and unmarked crossroads at the top of a hill.
"Do you know which way to the waterfall?" they ask.
"Mmm. I'm not really familiar with this area of the canyon, but I wouldn't think it's this way," I say, pointing to the right, uphill, into an even smaller path.
They head left, downhill, and I go right to be alone. Immediately I realize that this trail is much too small and untended to run, so I turn around and head down after the hikers.
I excuse myself and pass by.
"Good to see you again," they say.
And I say, "That definitely was not the path."
I pass a man, a hefty guy, who is huffing up the hill, in a heavy sweat.
After only a short while, the trail begins to seem oddly familiar; I feel like I recognize the view from here, I've seen the canyon from this angle before. The path dodges left and ahead of me the rounded pate of a white rock outcropping appears. Around the bend, there it is -- the Quiet Place. I must have entered the same trail from the opposite direction.
I wedge myself against the rock and just relax, enjoy the breeze, the echo of nothing against my ears. I'm in a tiny spot of shade and perfectly comfortable. A mourning dove calls nearby, and is answered by a very noisy, talkative crow.
I sit still and think about how - having not found the labyrinth - the Quiet Place is a gift - a lovely little sacred spot for a Sunday morning. I can rest here awhile, write a few notes, then turn around go home, not having gotten much exercise, but having received an unexpected canyon encounter.
The three hikers finally catch up, smile at me as I sit there, and make their way on down the trail. Their voices disappear as they round the next bend. Just a few minutes later though, I hear talking again, and I look behind me for who is coming next. No one appears. I wait. Two female voices, loud and clear, but nobody on the path. I scan the canyon.
Far cross the gorge, a few hundred yards, "as the crow flies," as my mom says, of pure airspace, I see two small figures on the path -- and yet I can hear every word they're saying.
The Quiet Place, it turns out, is a sort of whispering chamber.
These women are coming from somewhere. So was the large man. The three hikers are headed to a waterfall. I've heard that there's one in here, improbable as it seems, and I kind of remember, back at the junction with the complaining woman, reading a sign that listed Waterfall 1.5 Miles along one of these trails.
And suddenly, as much as I have no real inclination to run any more this morning, I also cannot bring myself to stop here, to let others do more, see more, have an experience I wimped out of having for myself. I do love a waterfall. I mean, having grown up in Buffalo, nothing compares very favorably to Niagara, but still. 1.5 miles. It's nothing.
So off I go, down into the canyon, with no idea where I'm going, no actual directions, only hearsay that somewhere along this road there's supposed to be something wonderful.
It's actually a really nice jog for a piece, and of course I run into my hiker friends again.
"We have to stop meeting like this," I say, but since they had the destination in mind all along, I trust they have at least some sense where they're headed, and I'm glad to run slowly and keep them within earshot as the path goes deeper into the canyon.
Down quite a ways, the landscape changes from dusty and scrubby to relatively verdant. A rocky creek bed runs through the gorge - though completely dry. It seems impossible that there's a waterfall back here at this time of year, let alone after several years of drought. Still, I hear the hopeful hikers behind me just as I come upon a trail marker that says WATERFALL. With an arrow.
So I follow the arrow.
Remember what I said a few posts ago about my relationship to maps? Apparently the same is true of arrows.
After a few minutes the trail I'm on somehow doesn't feel quite right -- but I followed the arrow! And I hear the hikers behind me, so this must be the way.
The path is increasingly narrow and choked with overgrowth. And by overgrowth I mean, in the main, Poison Oak. I am Very, Very Allergic, so my run slows to a walk and then to a paranoid, sidestepping, make-myself-as-skinny-as-possible, vaguely forward motion. I break a branch off a fallen tree and beat back the vines before each step. It's slow going.
It occurs to me after a bit that if those women and that big guy had been this way within the hour the path would not look like this, and now I realize, I don't hear those hikers anymore.
I am clearly not "exactly where I need to be."
What the heck? I couldn't have gone so far wrong -- did I or did I not follow the arrow? And I'm not far from the creek bed, which I feel it's reasonable to assume, should have some relationship to the waterfall. It's just over there to my right... somewhere.
The wind in the trees can sound deceptively like rushing water, and this soothing noise becomes my Fool's Gold, an auditory mirage drawing me onward. Yes! I think I hear it! Right beyond this curve.
There are definitely no fresh footprints at this point. But I'm way in. Should I turn around now and take that same blamed path in reverse, fight the poison oak the whole way back? Give up on seeing the waterfall? (Seriously though, there's no way there's a waterfall back here. The creek is dry, baby.)
And speaking of dry, I set out only for a quickie, remember? I didn't bring water and I'm getting quite thirsty and now it's 10:30 and the way out is going to be very hot. And not for nothing but I'm quite sweaty and my underwear is bunching up in a very unpleasant manner indeed.
I'd really like to hear some people about now. I'd settle for the complaining woman.
I come to an intriguing small hollow in a huge rock. There's some graffiti inside, including what I'm pretty sure are my initials.
Thanks, Topanga, that's thoughtful. Almost as if you knew I'd get lost this morning. Send me way wrong with some unclear signage and then let me know you were expecting me, Jenny Elizabeth Sheffer(-Stevens) here in the middle of nowhere. Cheers, mate.
I keep walking. Eventually this useless path dumps me off at the creek bed again, and though there's still no sign of the other hikers, I feel a bit more confident.
And then sure enough, there is a little dampness at my feet.
What? Really?! Have I taken the road less traveled and somehow still made it to the waterfall? Or the water trickle as the case may be? At this moment, any vaguely dripping geologic formation would be to me the 8th Wonder of the World.
I follow the damp ground, littered with mucky fallen leaves. The ground beneath my feet feels firm. I realize then I'm standing on... cement. I look around. The whole area is paved.
To my left, there is a faint dribbly sound and I follow it. Though there's still no running water to be found, the concrete ground is wet.
And then I see it.
Not a waterfall but a watershed. An ugly, manmade, municipal, mudslide prevention system, with a fetid pool of slime and weeds and mosquito larvae at its base.
You've got to be kidding me. Is this it? The apocryphal waterfall? Where are the hikers, those poor deceived suckers?
I leave in a huff and keep going in the same direction because I hear voices up ahead. A hundred yards later I pop out in a posh neighborhood in the Pacific Palisades. Some enthusiastic folks have just parked along the road and are applying sunscreen, donning hats, adjusting their fanny packs and stuffing in water bottles.
Almost comically dejected, I turn around and my exit is now an entrance. There's a sign at the beginning of this path that says
Waterfall 1.8 miles.
WTF? Is this some kind of joke? A koan?
There ought to be a sphinx sitting here.
I consider the possibilities:
a) I inadvertently ingested some funky mushroom spores along the path and am having a bona fide Alice in Wonderland moment.
b) I am on the set of a David Lynch film.
c) I am in an updated version of my recurring childhood nightmare, in which I find myself in the parking lot behind a mysterious building on Main Street, where the Methodist church should be; it has two points of entry both of which say "entrance only," and being a hopelessly literal child, afraid of violating any of the Rules, I realize I am stuck for all eternity, and may in fact have been kidnapped. (We can unpack all this in a Jungian context at a later date.)
Forget it. I've missed it, whatever or wherever it is or is not. The Waterfall. The big attraction.
I have no choice but to turn around and go back the way I came, though this time I follow the broad creek bed and not the poison oak path.
I'm thirsty and grouchy, and there's the thing with the underpants, but otherwise the way out is not too bad. A lot of it is shaded, and only the last part will be a genuinely hikey kind of hike. I even run some.
Unencumbered any longer by the onus of searching for the improbable or impossible -- even the remote prospect that I'll discover a big Wonder along the way -- the hike out is just an invigorating jog in the park, time to be alone, ponder something or nothing, enjoy the canyon. Somehow, a relief.
When I leave the creek bed and emerge onto the hot, sunny, sandy trail, I can see the Quiet Place across the air and high above me.
"Hey!" I say, in a normal tone of voice, just in case anyone up there can hear me.
This much is clear: I need new sneakers.
The running shoes I’ve been wearing are comfortable on the city streets, but out here, in the heat, on the stony, uneven path, especially going downhill, my feet swell. I’ve started noticing a pressure point on my right pinky toe. Moreover, it seems to be causing that toe to rub unnaturally up against the next one, and the upshot is I have two very raw spots.
It’s possible that in choosing these particular shoes my opinion of their comfort was swayed ever so slightly by the fetching color combination – pink and green – my favorite since I was a fourth grade preppy. And I mean...green shoes.
I first noticed real discomfort when we went for a hike in Malibu Creek State Park, out to the old M*A*S*H filming location (a pilgrimage to a holy shrine if ever there was one). We went with friends from college and their kids. To be fair, nothing will leave you burnt and blistered like a five mile hike with five kids under twelve at high noon in the SoCal summer, to visit the shoot site of a vintage television show they’ve never heard of, the cast of which did not boast Chris Pratt.
Still, I think the kicks are a problem.
Must go shopping later.
But first, Topanga:
I slather the offending toes with generous gobs of coconut oil and set out.
I make a right onto the fire road as I did the first day, promising myself I’d go a bit further today. Near the top of the first ascent, I hear some people approaching from behind. A pair of runners, male and female, come up alongside me. We run more or less together for a minute or two, but their pace is just a hair faster than mine and step by step they pull ahead.
I get a better look at their gear from behind. They’re both decked out in long sleeve tech shirts and shorts and tall compression socks; they carry hydration packs on their backs, and wear broad brimmed hats that look terribly cumbersome to run in. They’re protected from the elements and obviously in it for the long haul. Probably ultra-runners, putting in many long miles today. They run in silence, absolutely in tandem, with no variation in gate whatever the grade, uphill or down. It’s methodical and perfect, and looks essentially joyless, but since they’re going faster than I am on a run that’s probably hours to my 45 minutes, this interaction does not make me feel good about myself.
It’s only 9:15, but the fog had cleared by 7:30 this morning, and the sun is baking the mountain.
After the first sharp uphill climb, the trail flattens out for a while, then climbs steadily for a long time – not steep, but daunting in its constancy.
On the long slow uphill I pass a man – a truly, beautifully buff man, in his 40s, shirtless, sweaty shoulders shining in the sun – hiking the trail with a stick and a day pack. We say a friendly good morning as we pass, he on the way down, I, chugging upward.
True confession: I pick up speed and improve my form… momentarily.
The toes are bothering me, and I’m a little tired and frayed today.
I didn’t sleep well. I kept having minor panic attacks in the night. This is not unusual for me. I have a tendency toward nocturnal anxiety; at least three times a week I’m awake from roughly 4-5:30 a.m. worrying about total nonsense.
The hallmark of these intensely fretful periods is their illogic and disproportion. Thoughts such as “Some terrible accident/disease/heartbreak will befall my children,” and “I will never, ever, ever finish [fill-in-the-blank] and surely perish penniless and discouraged” and “Did I forget to send a proper thank you note?” carry equal weight and have an identical stranglehold on my breath and heart rate.
Nighttime anxiety attacks are a common phenomenon, and it’s not really known what causes them. I’ve read that it could be plummeting blood sugar, and I could perhaps help myself by eating a high protein snack before bed. And never drink wine in the evening, but let’s not get crazy. According to my mother, it’s the early signs of peri-menopause… then again, if I have a hangnail she says it's the change, so.
I joke about it, but in truth, the world can seem very dark when I’m in the grip of these psychological spasms. However preposterous, I cannot talk myself out of it in the moment. Yoga and meditation techniques help some. And something I learned from my acting teacher, Michael Howard – to step outside it as much as possible and just observe what’s happening – the heart beat, the breath, the thoughts - say, huh, isn’t that interesting that that’s happening.
It strikes me that the anxiety has virtually nothing to do with the actual thoughts. I believe it’s just a physical event with an opportunistic nature. Nevertheless, my nighttime anxiety has taken on a persona -- it’s almost a character, a being that hides out in the corner of the room. I can’t make it out exactly. Alien, reptilian, feline, it’s mostly a dark specter, the shape and color of the darkness itself. It crouches, making itself small and nearly invisible, and waits for a moment when I emerge ever so slightly from deep sleep, float a little closer to the surface, my heart beats a little faster and my breath catches, and then it pounces. Whatever thoughts pop into my head at that moment, they are its food. And as it feeds it takes on their shape, and they become the monster. It spreads out, gets bigger and heavier, sometimes nearly filling the room. Sometimes it feels like it's smothering me, other times it takes me in its teeth and shakes me like one of the cats here does to the lizards she catches each day. Just about lets me go, then presses down with a firm paw.
In the daylight hours the same thoughts exist but never feel unmanageable. I’m healthy and happy – albeit ambitious and discontent. Neurotic but not quite clinical, a little desperate but not depressive. In those moments however, I have had the feeling that if those periods of heavy dread were to grow and elbow their way out of the dark hours, nudge aside my normal daytime emotional state, take over as my perceived reality, it would be devastating. My mind's total inability to sort thoughts and information in those moments is disturbing.
Another troubling distinction of these worry events is how great a percentage of them are rooted in what people think. Or worse, what I think people will think, when in fact almost no one is thinking anything, most likely. In fact, I’d say a hearty helping of my obsessing boils down to what a hopeless ass I’ve made of myself in someone’s eyes, and I can be rather undiscerning as to whose eyes.
I can pretty much count on it happening when I’ve posted or published anything.
The other night the big worry was that in my most recent post – telling stories of mystical encounters with the Ocean – I inadvertently painted myself as not only completely nutsoid, but ickily precious and entitled, either out-of-touch with reality or callous to it.
I thrashed around and got increasingly uncomfortable with having revealed those things. I considered deleting large portions.
Tell all the truth but tell it slant, wrote Emily Dickinson.
Should I perhaps have erred on the side of a little more slant?
I emailed a friend to say, Be honest, was that a nauseating overshare?
I love a lot of different kinds of books, about all kinds of people. I love to read about people who are vastly different than myself, but I also take comfort in reading about familiar experience. There are a number of authors whose work really resonates with me, who happen to be educated women from relative privilege, many of them mothers, who write about their lives – their domestic discord, their conflicting feelings of trappedness and tenderness, frustration and love and guilt, identity struggles, insatiable spiritual and artistic hunger. Divine dissatisfaction, to use Martha Graham’s term. But I’ve read some of the most vicious criticism of these women for simply telling the truth about their experience – from other women! The things they accuse them of! The blame and shame! The epithets!
The implication is that they have no right to discontent because they are not destitute or alone; that the subjects they write about are not (on the surface anyway) importantly political, or focus on nonexistent personal “problems” and miss how easy they’ve got it in the scheme of things, or are otherwise unworthy. If one has the opportunity to write about their blah blah blah creative life blah blah, they necessarily have it really good.
I understand that point of view, and have accused myself of same. That it would be very easy to level that type of criticism at me is terrifying; I would take it too much to heart.
I’m aware -- as I have written before (here and here) -- that my life is good and full. If a few of the logistics are tricky at times, it’s mostly due to choices we’ve made.
In the night, the fear that writing about motherhood, creative life and personal canyons is fundamentally small can be disheartening, overwhelming. All too juicy a host for the anxiety monster.
In the morning, I cower before the implacable page. Everything I write down seems too vulnerable, silly or selfish. The idea of revealing it to anyone makes me feel bare, sunburnt, chafed, raw.
I grill myself. (pun not intended, but acknowledged)
Did I seem not only slightly unhinged but presumptuous and twee to imply that I have a special relationship – some kismetty kumbaya – with a certain stretch of shoreline in Malibu? (Malibu! Of all the pretentious places!)
Did I really have the gall to suggest that the Great Ocean gave me Ray-bans to ease my creative angst?
Well, yes and no.
The very day I put up that last post we went to a different beach and the waves coughed up a pair of Kenneth Cole aviators. Did I think they were for me? A spiritual emblem?
Of course not.
For one thing, I look ridiculous in aviators.
I thought, Aw, someone lost their nice sunglasses.
I thought, Gee, you can see how that would happen a lot out here.
And then I thought, What if they have a story?
What if these are someone else’s gift or sign, talisman, clue, or reminder? What if they’re someone’s last hope? I don’t know why. Maybe what someone needs most just now is a little shade because the sun on the ocean is too bright, the whole world seems overexposed, their eyes are raw with tears or wind or light.
We left them there. I hope they found their person.
It’s not the object that counts. The thing is not the thing; that can as easily be vulgar as profound.
The thing is that to the journeyman for whom they mean something, they do.
Julia Cameron, in her book The Artist’s Way calls this principle synchronicity – the way the universe can seem to align to aid the creative process when a person commits to it.
Let’s be clear. Synchronicity – whatever it is, is big to the person who experiences it, but small on the grand scale. It does not solve the problem of pain. It doesn’t cure cancer, end gun violence; it is no unguent for our searing racial wounds or gaping poverty problem.
I have no idea how it fits in with fuller, deeper concepts of God, Truth, Love, Justice.
I cannot say what it is – only that you know it when you see it. And sometimes it bolsters you a little. The ocean’s gift floats you for a while.
Art is born of alertness. Or, I should say, at least for me, the impulse to make something comes from the awareness -- and the faith -- that there is something to be seen, to unearth, discover, tap into. That something exists far beyond myself, and yet is right here -- in the canyon and the ocean and at home in New York City -- and that I somehow get a little closer to it when I write about it.
Talent is a limited resource. You have what you have, and there’s nothing much to be done about it, so there’s no use wondering. Anyway, someone will always have more. I have no idea how much I have (I’m not fishing). I think I have a certain turn of phrase, an eye for the mystery in the mundane, the metaphysical connection between seemingly disparate elements. The rest just is what it is.
Skill is simply a matter of time. Practice.
I think the main thing in writing – and maybe I’m just now identifying the direct relationship between writing and running in Topanga and why those things are partners for me – is simply willingness. To be out there, alone, to put in the time, log the miles, the uphill and the down, even a little bit a day; to expose yourself to the elements and the readers (if you have any), to face the fear, the risk -- the rattle of the snake, the howl of the coyote, the bite of the critic. To feel the foot inside the shoe, the blister as it’s being made.
There’s nothing heroic about it because you don’t do it for anyone else. Then again, there’s nothing especially selfish about it because the whole point is to touch something larger, universal, electric. You hope your account of your experience connects with someone, but you can't make it happen. As soon as you try to force it, shape it to someone’s liking, it crumbles like a clot of red canyon sand in your hands.
It’s not about the need to “express yourself” – an idiom I find a bit reductive and essentially meaningless – but to express... something. And first, to find out what it is that needs to be expressed. You create a discipline of paying attention. You scratch away in the notebook. Maybe the canyon will talk to you. Maybe, if you’re lucky, it will speak through you – to even one person.
Writing – I mean the process of it -- the search for the words to describe the ineffable -- the experience of being alive on the planet, knowing I have one life and wanting to squeeze every drop out of it, recognizing the times I come into contact with something that seems beyond -- is how I connect to the cosmic questions. How I sort the real from the unreal, the meaningful from the meaningless, the merely witty from the divinely hilarious.
And mostly, I’m willing to tell it, even if it makes me look crazy or affected or petty.
Of course I hope you will read it and they will like it, but I can’t bother about what anyone will read into it or how they’ll judge me by it. Well, I do care, but I mean, it's out of my hands, and I have to write, regardless.
Michael Howard also said, “As an actor, when you’re working well you are in danger. Notice the quickened pulse, shortened breath, ringing in your ears. Fight or flight. Learn to like that feeling.”
The fire road curves to the right and suddenly, as if I’ve crossed an invisible climate line, the weather up here is cool, moist and breezy. The ocean splays out in front of me.
That’s far enough for today. Even with the wind, I would need better protective gear to keep going.
On my back home I run into that good-looking guy again. He’s 50 yards in front of me, about to begin the last, short, steep climb on the way out to the main entrance in this part of the park.
I think I hear him singing, and then he makes a whooping sound, a sort of rah-rah noise of self-encouragement. Only a little bit more to go.
I want to just walk it, but I’m infernally proud and vain so I commit to jogging that last hill.
“Got hot early today,” I say as I pass by him.
He looks over his shoulder at me, laughs. He answers, “Oh my God, will you just stop?”
This gives me almost as much satisfaction and encouragement as the ocean breeze up top.
No sir. Gotta keep at it. Feel the burn, as Jane Fonda used to say.
Tell all the truth but tell it slant --
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth's superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind --
A Quiet Place
My second day of canyon independence. I try a new run: start out the same way, but go left when I hit the fire road. It heads downhill for a very short time and then climbs, and looks as if it will continue to climb for a long ways. At the top of the first ascent, there's a sign listing different trails and destinations that all seem very appealing. One leads to a waterfall not far from here; that's definitely high on my list. But as it's late morning and already getting hot, I'm going to stay closer to home today.
I turn onto the first trail I come to, a narrow rocky path that leads off almost perpendicularly to the fire road and down into a fold in the mountain. By the time I'm 200 yards in, the main drag has disappeared and it's as if there's nothing else anywhere nearby. This could be the moon. It's unbelievably quiet. So quiet, I can't quite tell what it is I'm hearing. The sound of my own ears is like the "ocean" in a seashell. (I can imagine Eric's wry smile, saying that must be the sound the wind makes as it passes through my head). I can hear my heartbeat.
When lizards skitter in the dry grass just ahead of my footfalls I sometimes do a double take, as the sound can be creepily rattle-like.
A breeze passes through tall dry reeds and brush, and it's not a "whisper" as we often say -- that's what you hear if you're hearing it as a part of ambient noise -- out here it's as if I am hearing the individual blades of grass brush against each other all at once, picking out each note in a chord, every single voice in a choir. It's not one overall swishy sound, but a soft hubbub of many tiny clacks and clicks happening all at once. It's eerie and beautiful.
I go as far as a steep rocky outcropping full of wind holes and pause... just do nothing for awhile.
When I head back, the way out is steeper than I remembered...this is always more noticeable going up than down. But this is a trail I'm eager to explore again, longer and farther. This is a quiet place, good for listening.
the ocean has abundant mystery... and a cosmic sense of humor
You can't make this stuff up. If I were creating a work of fiction - or just telling lies - I'd come up with something more plausible.
This story can stand on its own, but you'll get more of a sense of just how weird it is if you've first read The Button Jar and the Green Shoes.
I have to go back a ways... so I'm excerpting from a longer piece I've been working on.
the kids and I visit Eric in LA, where he's working...
One afternoon, we drove out to Malibu. We wanted to show the kids Point Dume, let them climb the rocks, play on the beach, look for dolphins.
The section of Zuma Beach that leads out to Point Dume can be almost unrecognizable from day to day, and it shifts significantly with the seasons. In the winter months, a bank of sand forms a substantial shelf on the beach, and along the surf line there’s a treasure trove of shells and stones and sea glass.
The kids ran barefoot in the sand, jumping off the sand “cliff,” and letting the sea foam burble over their feet and soak their pant legs, which dried crunchy with salt in the sun. They lured the seagulls with cheesy popcorn, then chased them into huge whirling clouds.
We stayed until it was almost dark. I tried to picture what Point Dume must have been like before modest midcentury homes were replaced with sleek modernist mansions. Even before that. Way before. Point Dume was still completely wild at the turn of the 20th century. What was it like when a person could walk all the way out through tall grasses, stand in the wind on the cliffs and watch the sun set fire to the clouds and the waves as it goes down, when there was nothing but the mountains, ocean, sky, and sea creatures around her? Before the very name Malibu connoted fancy people, plastic surgeons and foreign cars. Who lived here then?
I took a walk down toward the Point, and wondered what a life in LA might look like for us. Obviously, there's a lot that's appealing. But as I strolled past bleached and browned surfer types and families of kids building sandcastles, I wore my ubiquitous Northeast-Urbanite-in-February pallor like a badge of honor. As if it proved I was working tormentedly in darkened black box theaters, or toiling in the wee hours by the blue glow of a laptop; as if it validated me as an artist of some seriousness.
Who would I be if I weren’t a New Yorker?
In truth, I was mostly an at-home mom, struggling to find space in my life to be an artist – actor or writer - at all. Part of me wanted to take a huge leap just to shake things up – maybe this was the time to make a move, and maybe LA would be good for us. I was attracted to the idea (or was it just the weather?). I certainly felt a sense of spaciousness here, of breath, of possibility -- but an actress who moves to LA at 39? Hm. Would I be happy writing here?
Suddenly a large wave rolled in and soaked my boots, filling them with salt and sand. I slid my feet out, peeled off my socks.
The tide was out and the beach was gritty with shells and stones. I stooped frequently to rake my fingers through the glimmering gravel, collecting handfuls of smooth, cloudy shards of green, brown and white sea glass -- plus two pieces that seemed particularly special -- one cobalt blue and one deep red. I decided those two were my talismans -- reminders of all that’s wonderful about this place, assurances that I could make a life here. It would be a good move for Eric, and for me too. I could be here and still be…myself.
I slipped my treasures into my pocket with the other shells and things and headed back to our beach blanket.
When we got back to the apartment I emptied the contents of my pockets; Violet and I compared loot. I had tons of sea glass, but no blue and no red.
Those two had gone missing.
Not long after the kids and I got back to New York, Eric booked a pilot.
A month later the show was picked up, and exactly six months after our trip, we had moved. We found a house on the fly, a quirky little place, built into the hills of Studio City.
I fell madly in love with southern California that year. My actor life was non-existent, but I started writing up a storm. I wasn't sure where any of it was going... but it was sunny every day, my energy soared and my spirit felt surprisingly at home.
I ran on the beach at least once a week, swam in Malibu year round; and I had extraordinary, almost mystical moments there, like the one I told about in The Button Jar and the Green Shoes.
And this one:
While we were living in LA, my pregnant sister, in New York, developed severe preeclampsia at 29 weeks.
In the middle of the night ten days later, my wee niece was born and moved into high level NICU. Three pounds. Healthy -- but still, things were very scary, and I felt so far away. We went to bed, and in the morning I said, “I need to be at the ocean.” To celebrate. And to pray.
We were hanging out on the beach at Point Dume, when all of sudden there was a big commotion.
Sunbathers were jumping up and grabbing their cameras, everyone running to the edge of the water, laughing and amazed, crying, “Oh! Wow!”
Just beyond the breakers were about a dozen dolphins, putting on quite a show: cresting and jumping in the surf, swimming in circles together, serious bottlenose gamboling for all to see. It was late afternoon, the tide was in, and the sun was still high and pale. The waves were huge, making lofty curls and breaking twenty yards or so off shore.
An enormous wave rose out of the foam, the late afternoon sun shining through it. Silhouetted in its perfect, clear, blue-green barrel, riding in tandem, surfing the wave, were a pair of dolphins, big and small – a mother and her baby.
Eric’s show only lasted one season, and we returned to NYC -- but I left kicking and screaming.
Now I try to retreat to southern California at least once a year to write, to work uninterrupted all day, without laundry or school pick ups or meals to prepare. To be mindfully -- sometimes uncomfortably -- alone. To be at the beach and walk or run and get in the ocean. But mainly, to be without the high frequency vibration of NYC around me. I breathe differently, and find a different kind of internal space in this external space.
On one such trip, I was working on something that felt…important for me, like a breakthrough as a writer, but it was driving me crazy. I went on retreat to make a final push to finish it.
After a long day of writing, I drove out to Zuma and walked down to Point Dume, mulling over ideas, possible solutions to vexing holes in the text, questioning whether the thing actually held any promise. And as I strolled, I looked, as always, for little gems in the sand. I didn’t expect to find much because it was June, and in my experience, summer isn’t the time for finding shells and sea glass at Zuma. It holds onto its best treasures till winter.
So I walked and combed and mulled. By the time I turned and started home, I’d pretty much concluded that my whole project was a bust, that I’d wasted months of my life, and that maybe, after all, I just was not doing the right thing with my life. That I really should throw in the towel and get a damn day job. These are not unusual feelings, but I was particularly mired in them that day.
I said, sort of out loud, though I hate to say prayed, not because I don’t believe in prayer, but because whether or not this is theologically sound, I sort of feel that Prayer should be reserved for the real things, the important stuff, personally and globally -- for the health and safety of my family, for the refugees, for clean water resources around the world, for an end to our out of control gun issues. I’m frankly troubled by the notion that God would bother to help an artist and yet not intervene when there’s a deadly tsunami or terror attack or cancer.
But anyway, let’s say I gave voice to the silly thought that if I could just have a sign that I was on the right track I would feel better. I could keep going. And then I sort of sheepishly said, I wish I had a piece of cobalt glass like the special one I found and lost here a few years back.
I mean, that’s stupid, but afterall, this is where the green shoe turned up.
I immediately caught myself in this foolishness and thought, oh boy, that was really dumb, and totally self-defeating, because now if I don’t find one, I’ll have to assume that I’m, like, cosmically on the wrong track, and just give up.
“Haha. Just kidding. Didn't mean it!” I told the ocean, or whoever.
I took about two steps forward and there, at my feet in the sand, was a little piece of cobalt glass.
I snatched it out of the wet sand with the jealousy of a side-glancing seagull darting for a piece of cheesy popcorn; like, if I didn’t snare it that instant, some other hungry, superstitious, desperate, slightly ashamed artist would swoop in and take it.
“Thanks,” I whispered.
I had no sooner stood up and taken a step, than a wave washed over my feet and deposited, I kid you not, a big-ass piece of cobalt sea glass right on my toe.
The sophisticated and prosperous Chumash -- “seashell people” -- lived in Malibu for thousands of years before the mission system devastated their culture.
I became fascinated with them when we were living out here and came upon some Chumash history placards in Malibu Creek State Park.
The word Malibu is thought to have originated with the name of a Chumash Village -- (hu-)mal-iwu (pronounced “Umalibu” by the Spanish), which means, “The surf makes a lot of noise all the time over there.”
Though the origin of the name Point Dume is uncertain, there’s no doubt that the point was culturally significant for the Chumash. Fernando Librado, a Chumash elder in the early 1900s reported that Point Dume was a sun shrine, and that its name stems from “sumo” the Chumash word for abundance.
Shortly after I got back to NYC from this last summer’s “unscripted” adventures, I was invited to lead yoga on a women’s retreat -- In Malibu. Right on Point Dume.
Almost too good to be true.
This group of dynamic, accomplished women – mostly creative types, all of them mothers -- gathered for a little R&R, time to talk about their projects, do some yoga, eat cheese, drink wine, and spend some quality hours in what came to be known as The Hot Tub of Truth.
I was so thrilled just to be invited, to be part of the retreat. But in my capacity as yoga teacher, I really wanted to show up as someone who has her shit together, at least enough to appear to have something legit to offer in the way of yogic wisdom for mothers and artists.
Each woman there was in a period of transition; a kid going off to college, a new business, an emerging artistic endeavor. And we were all also, I realized, people who have a somewhat complicated relationship to the concept of success – which is to say, each of us has very specific notions about what succeeding would look like in her specific field, and a sense of urgency about it, be it motherhood, art, marriage, entrepreneurship.
For me, one of the most powerful benefits of yoga practice has always been that when I practice regularly, even on the most hectic, exhausting, depleting of days, it brings me back to myself in a place of groundedness, a feeling of connection to Source, to prana (life force), to breath, to my creative heart, to the voice of God, the mystery in the everyday, and to a blissful stillness that is present and available even as life swirls and churns around me if I’m just willing to let go of the crazy for a few minutes. At its best, it feels unto itself like a kind of success – in the sense that true success is not an end point, but joy and awareness on the way. (See: bench on Topanga trail from yesterday's post)
I wanted to bring something centering, calming and encouraging, some yoga tool for these women to use on their own journeys.
In yogic thought, the root chakra, at the base of the spine, corresponds to your sense of stability, security -- physically, emotionally, spiritually – it helps you feel grounded. And so, I used as the frame of our practice an affirmation that can help find balance in the root chakra –
I am exactly where I need to be.
I have this phrase posted above my desk and consult it regularly as a reminder to let go of hurry and comparison and expectation, and just be in the work, the practice. I believe it in a fundamental way. I was excited to share how this idea can inform not only the physical practice of yoga, but the way we live our lives, and feel about ourselves.
We practiced in a peaceful white room, with the doors open on a cliff overlooking the ocean, the sound of the waves setting the rhythm of our inhales and exhales. (hu-)mal-iwu!
The weather was divine.
Our first morning, I went out for a jog along the water. It was only early fall, but the beach seemed already to be transitioning toward it’s winter shape; the rising ledge of sand was too soft for a good run, so I ran right in the edge of the surf.
All of a sudden a big wave came and knocked me right off my feet. I went tumbling into the water, gasping, my sports bra filling with gravelly sand, my knee scraped. It wasn’t till I righted myself that I realized my Ray-bans had been ripped off my face and pulled out to sea. My $7 H&M sunglasses rested comfortably on my nightstand back at home, and the only expensive pair of shades, classic tortoiseshell wayfarers, I ever owned now swam with the fishes. (That I had not bought these sunglasses in the first place but found them on the subway 10 years ago seemed entirely beside the point).
Point Dume giveth and Point Dume taketh away.
I stood there panting, soaked and sandy, staring sunglass-less at the bright ocean. I had to laugh.
A feeling gripped me, I cannot leave here.
The second morning, I again went down to the beach early. It was overcast, but warm.
I did yoga out by the Point. As I practiced, I spent a long time developing language for the postures and concepts I wanted to explore with the women that day, finding ways to give deeper and more precise instruction.
Honestly, I didn’t feel good about the way I’d taught the day before. Didn’t feel like I’d communicated well, or even sounded like I knew what the hell I was doing.
As I practiced on the beach that morning, I asked myself, in these words, “Why am I fighting the failure demon so hard right now?”
That afternoon, after yoga, we all gathered together for a long gab session. One of the members of the group, who is very intuitive, helped guide the discussion by asking evocative questions and offering the kind of wisdom that feels when you hear it like it should have been obvious all along.
As we sat there I found myself becoming very introverted and quiet and not wanting to participate. In truth, I was feeling kind of pissy and closed off.
Now, believe me, I know I had not one thing to be pissed off about in that moment. Only 6 weeks after I left beloved Topanga, here I was, back at the ocean, at my favorite beach in the world, with these fantastic women who will now be eternal friends, leading yoga for creative types and mothers which is the perfect nexus for me, my sweet spot as a teacher, hunkered down together with wine or coffee, under plush blankets in a room made of windows, watching a gorgeous storm gather out over the pacific.
What is wrong with me? I wondered. Why do I have this knot in my stomach?
Because I’m a fraud, I thought. I have nothing figured out. I never finish anything. I’m the slowest worker, the latest bloomer. I have so many projects, whole genres, in various stages of development. I’m a Jill of all trades master of none. I never make much money. I’m in my early 40s and still don’t have a proper career. I have a great life in New York, and yet I’m so restless. All I can think about is being out here again, but I’m scared to leave my home of 20 years. Being a New Yorker is the only thing that makes me even a little cool.
These thoughtful women were opening their hearts and lives and secrets to each other, and I wanted to be a part of the conversation but I felt like I couldn’t say these things and still be taken seriously.
How can I admit that the very thing I’ve been teaching them – the mantra “I am exactly where I need to be” -- while I believe it to be True, isn’t working for me right now? That in fact, both in a literal, physical sense and a creative one I didn’t feel at all that, at 43, I am where I should be?
Dare I confess this?
The woman leading the group turned to me, suddenly, directly and said, “Jenny. Yes. I don’t know what this means exactly, but just… Yes.”
I was startled. “Well, I guess it means I should say what I’m thinking, which is that… I’m full of shit. None of what I'm teaching feels true to me. Not only am I not exactly where I need to be, I don’t know where I am, and I think I may be… nowhere.” My face burned.
“You have let go of your demons of failure,” she said.
Just like that.
Then one of the women in the group, a dear friend, remarked that she felt like sometimes I hold things a little too tightly, that maybe I have to not be such a "perfectionist" – (I hate that word, because it’s usually just an insufferable humblebrag – so lets just say, I need to stop obsessing over details…) and be more willing to just put things out there and start the flow.
“You don’t understand,” I lashed out. “I’m not afraid to fail, I’m afraid I have failed. At almost everything I set out to do. I’m overwhelmed and scattered all the time. Nothing ever really seems to take hold, make demonstrable progress, find success, whatever than means. Every new project is exciting at first and pretty soon just feels like one more thing.
I started crying, big gasping sobs. I felt nauseated. I was so embarrassed. Bad yoga teacher, I scolded myself. Bad, bad yoga teacher.
I went down to the beach afterward and took a walk. It was raining now, and very gray. Out over the ocean, the black clouds hung heavy and I could see a broad shaft of rain moving along the coast, passing into the mountains to the east.
“Sorry to be so difficult, so... grabby” I said to my old friend the ocean, “But here I am again, and I really need a reassurance… again… that I’m on the right path, or ANY path, really, that I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing, that I am exactly where I need to be. I’m not asking for anything specific – I’m not fussy about green shoes or blue glass or whatever. Just, you know… I’ll know it when I see it.”
Down near the point, the beach was littered with knots of black-green kelp, broken driftwood; it looked like the ocean had vomited up everything dark and tangled within it. The storm at sea had wreaked havoc in the space of a few hours. The surf line was an entirely different shape than it had been that very morning and the beach was black and damp far up onto shore. The ridge of sand was high and jagged.
And then I saw them. Within a space of fifty yards, right along the ledge of sand -- three dead birds.
Seagulls, right in a row. And not just dead, but mangled: gray and oily, deflated, slender necks broken and wrenched at odd angles, wings twisted, beaks open. They were plastered up against the sand shelf as if they had been just sitting there, maybe sleeping or preening, when a sneaker wave swelled ashore and slammed their light bodies, their fragile bones, brutally into the ridge.
“Seriously?” I cried out. “DEAD BIRDS?! That’s what you’ve got for me? I ask for a small token of encouragement, a little Malibu magic and I get DEAD BIRDS? No green shoe, no blue glass, no dolphin families? Just three violently deceased seagulls?”
That night I couldn’t sleep.
It was like, a fully Dickensian haunting. The ghosts of essays past and blog posts present, the black-cloaked specter of careers that will never be because I couldn’t get my damn act together. The rag pickers, the laundresses and charwomen, laughing as they sorted through the worst drafts of my old poems, work I was too precious about, auditions I blew, collaborations I botched.
“Open my bundle, Old Joe, and let me know the value of it!”
All the things I should have been by now. Every time I upbraided my children undeservedly. My envy. My lofty yogic pontifications. My selfishness and discontent. My naval gazing.
"That's your account," said Joe, "and I wouldn't give another sixpence, if I was to be boiled for not doing it.”
I tossed and turned and sweated. The ocean outside my shuttered door sounded rough and endless, dreadful.
Somehow I finally fell asleep I guess, because suddenly I was waking up, not to the sound of Christmas church bells, like Scrooge, but to peacefully lapping waves, chirping birds, and early sunlight streaming through the slatted window. Everyone else was still asleep.
I took my journal, a pen, and a towel and tiptoed out the door and down the long steep path to the beach. It was an absolutely clear, blue, mistless, smogless morning. A Monday. The beach was empty.
I sat on the beach and wrote in my journal for a long time. I recounted the strange events of the day before. And I felt, actually, at peace. Like everything was ok. Like, in Rilke's famous words --
“In this there is no measuring with time, a year doesn’t matter, and ten years are nothing. Being an artist means: not numbering and counting, but ripening like a tree, which doesn’t force its sap, and stands confidently in the storms of spring, not afraid that afterward summer may not come. It does come. But it comes only to those who are patient, who are there as if eternity lay before them, so unconcernedly silent and vast. I learn it every day of my life, learn it with pain I am grateful for: patience is everything!”
I went for a long run. I felt inexplicably light, viscerally unburdened.
I ran all the way down Zuma, along PCH, then turned and ran back out toward the Point.
The beach was unrecognizable from the day before. As I neared the Point, I noticed that the whole area, which yesterday had been like something out of a Hitchcock film, was pristine. No seaweed, no foul fowl corpses. Just flat, white, clean sand –
and glittering with a gravel of small stones and sea glass.
I ended my run and bent down to look for little goodies. Before long I had a large handful of sea glass, the usual green, brown, white. I also found a very interesting orange one.
In my head, I started writing about all this, amusing myself with a debate over which outcome would make a better ending to the story? She finds a beautiful piece of cobalt glass... or not? A little too neat, maybe? Too big-red-bow-ish? Or, what if something truly implausible happened… a seagull drops a piece of cobalt glass at my feet. Oh, better yet – surprise twist – my Ray-bans wash up. A dolphin, wearing my sunglasses swims by. I was rather entertained by these thoughts, but also, given my history with the place, aware that anything can happen.
Just then, someone spoke.
“Did you come out at dawn to get all the good ones?”
I looked up. A jogger was coming toward me; a man, probably in his fifties.
I laughed and said, “Hey, I got up really early to be the first one here.”
He stopped near me, and wiped sweat from his brow with the back of his arm. “You know,” he said, “it only counts if you find the blue or the red ones.”
I jumped up, whirled around and punched this perfect stranger; socked him square in the shoulder.
“That’s exactly what I’m looking for,” I exclaimed.
“Sure,” he said, not seeming to find any of this strange, even getting clocked by a strange woman at the beach. “Those are the most special. The blue are very old bottles and the red are the taillights of cars from the 1950s and 60s.”
He told me about his huge collection of sea glass. Jars and jars full of every color. And about a woman he met on the beach one day who had just found a large pink sea glass egg.
“Don’t worry,” he said, “You’ll find some.” And he jogged on.
Naturally, I found a little blue sliver just a few minutes after he passed by. But really the magic was in the moment with the jogger.
About a half hour later, I was getting ready to climb back up to the house. It was past time to pack and go to the airport. I stood at the edge of the water and had that thought again – I cannot leave here.
I debated whether to get in the water and swim. While I stood there weighing the relative merits of no last swim vs. a five-hour flight with sand in my hair, the jogger came by again.
“Hey - I found one!” I called out to him.
He nodded as if this was obvious. Then he stopped and came over to me.
“Live around here?” He asked
“No,” I said, “New York. I used to live out here though. And this was my favorite beach. I come back whenever I can.”
He asked what had brought me there now, and I told him about the retreat. Then, inexplicably, I went into confessional mode. “Sometimes when I’m here, on this beach, I get this feeling that -- I physically cannot leave.”
He nodded, as if this too, were a simple, plain truth.
Then he said, “A member of the Chumash Nation told me, ‘Once you have heard the call of the dolphins of Malibu you are changed. You can try to explain it to people, but…” he shook his head knowingly, “they won’t understand.’”
He shrugged, and went on. “The ocean is calling your heart back to it, and now -- you need to be here.”
I stood in stunned silence. My heart was pounding, and I could barely breathe but for some reason I felt compelled to act nonchalant. I’d already punched the guy, how much weirder could I seem?
He held up his hand for a high five. “We have a saying at Zuma beach – girls don’t leave till they take a swim. Now get in the water.” He jogged away with a wave.
After a moment, I called out after him. “My name is Jenny,” I said. “I write a blog. You’re going to show up in it.”
He yelled his name over his shoulder and said, “I’m on Facebook. You’ll find me...”
I’ve only told that story to a couple people. I’m afraid it makes me sound just a wee bit... touched. I’ve been eager to share it with the women who were on the retreat with me, but it’s been so difficult to get it all written down.
One day, weeks after the retreat, as I was going over it all again, trying to figure out how to write about it without sounding hopelessly precious and possibly insane, I got a surprise package in the mail from one of those very women. It sat all day in a pile of mail.
That evening, I was in the kitchen, dinner on the stove, kids at the dining table doing homework and squabbling. My laptop was perched on the counter, on top of the mail pile and permission slips and homework with milk spilled on it, where in the midst of the suppertime chaos I was trying to squeeze in a few more minutes of writing. Yoga retreats, Topanga Canyon, the glittering Pacific...they all seemed far away, and here I was, in my real, messy, full, frustrating, good life.
I slipped the package out from under my computer and opened it.
Inside was a slim, shiny silver bracelet, inscribed on the back --
I am exactly where I need to be
July 2016... Tuesday
After my morning run in the canyon and some writing time, we head out to the beach. It's Eric's first visit to the ocean since he arrived, and his turn to choose. He wants to go out to Malibu. It's my first trip to Point Dume since we got here, and my stomach flutters as we drive toward it along PCH.
The water is unusually calm, and the kids swim and boogie board for awhile, then Eric and Hutch take off down the beach to go out to the Point.
I'm watching Violet play at the edge of the water. She's a little scavenger and creature seeker, forever digging up sand crabs, naming them things like Sandy and Crabby and Harold, making them temporary pets.
I sit there remembering the craziness of my last visit, and going over the essay I still had not finished about what happened on the beach that weekend. I recall the silly ideas I'd had about what would make the best ending to the story. I think about the green shoe, and the cobalt glass and the dolphins.
Violet has been intently fishing around in one spot for a while. Now she gets up and runs over to me with something in her hand. I expect to be introduced to a new friend, maybe Salty or Muffin this time.
"I thought maybe you would want these," she says, and hands me -- pinky swear -- a perfect pair of Ray-ban wayfarers, dripping wet and sandy, right out of the ocean.
I wear them on my second run that day, along the edge of the water, down to the Point and back.
It took some doing. I'll say that.
Determined to spend this summer continuing last summer's writer-yogi-parent challenge of getting out of the city and into nature, running in Topanga Canyon, swimming in the Pacific, finding a way to be with my family, give them a good, healthy, engaging summer and somehow still be deeply in my work; jumping into a writing project with little sense of where it will lead, whether it will be of any interest, or be "worth it" in some larger sense; no map, no plan, no script... just flying by the seat of my pants, going someplace that relentlessly, almost inexplicably beckons me, running headlong into it to find out what it has to say. And to blog about it.
And somehow, not go to debtor's prison in the fall.
Long story short, arrangements kept getting made and falling through. And I didn't have much time to devote to sorting it all out because among other things, I was doing a play.
Finally, just three weeks before we hoped to leave, things fell remarkably well into place and through friends, and friends of friends of friends, we wound up piecing together six amazing, affordable weeks in Topanga Canyon.
The first two and a half weeks, we're staying at a place we've never been before -- an enchanted property deep in the canyon. The house is kind of my dream home, all wooden beams and a full wall of glass doors that open all the way up for total indoor/outdoor living. We hit it off immediately with the cool family who lives here.
We're doing a little pet sitting for them. Words like menagerie and zoo come to mind. Also, Iditarod.
We adore animals, and as we currently have no pets at home in NYC, it's really nice for us to get some furry love from this super sweet band of rescues, and for the kids to take responsibility for helping out with the care of various creatures; to choose a canine or feline companion and wander the sprawling property lost in their imaginations, pick fruit from the grove of citrus trees behind the house, breathe the ocean air as it sweeps up through the canyon and mixes with the eucalyptus, pepper tree and dry grass perfume of the mountain. You can see the Pacific from our deck, and just beyond the fence at the back of the property is Topanga Canyon State Park with its endless and inviting trails.
Perfection. This promised to be an even richer canyon experience than the lovely (if slightly too manicured for my wild canyon dreams) community at the very top of Topanga where we've been the last couple summers, and where we'll go for the second phase of this year's canyon adventure.
I couldn't wait to get started -- to get into the canyon and run and breathe and think and write. It was right there, waiting for me.
The first few days did not go as planned.
This new place was unfamiliar and felt very remote, which I love but my city kids found unsettling. At night, the sky is vast and starry but the dark is disorientingly deep. Sometimes at night the dogs suddenly jump up and start barking ferociously into the blackness beyond the porch and we can only guess what nocturnal creature is prowling around the house... Coyote? Mountain lion? Bear? Are there bears in Topanga? I don't even know. One of our feline friends kept bringing home disemboweled lizards, still twitching, and proudly presenting them to us as gifts. So as not to be rude, we praised her, but one kid kind of flipped. Another cat, no doubt wondering what these strangers are doing in his home, began to repeatedly "think outside the box," as an old New Yorker cartoon put it. Then he clawed a hole through a bed. One of the dogs got into the garbage and ate something rotten and got sick. Very sick. In many choice places around the house.
The kids were whiney and clingy and refused to venture beyond the deck without me. We slept together each night, all three of us in a full size bed. I didn't get much rest. They're long-limbed and restless and talk nonsense all night in their sleep. I would read to them till they drifted off and then lie there and fret over what a bust this summer was obviously going to be. What a fool I'd been, committing us to a virtual stranger's home and animals, with the harebrained idea that it was somehow in service of me being some kind of artist. Almost a week had gone and I'd not set foot on a canyon trail, nor written a word that wasn't a grocery or housekeeping to-do list. I was completely panicked. The idea of actually beginning the project seemed impossible and really, not altogether desirable, come to think of it. Last summer was charmed but, why tempt fate by attempting to continue? Leave well enough alone. Who even cares? Now look what you've done.
I could not get myself to sit down at the laptop. I carried a notebook and pen in my bag everywhere we went but never jotted a thought. I had no urge, even while I was freaking out that I could not get to it. That the urge had gone was the main thing freaking me out.
I had a very difficult time letting go of those first few days. Releasing the notion that I would hit the ground running, literally, and dive into a coveted summer of writing; that it was simply going to take some time to settle in and get everyone comfortable.
I took the kids to the ocean daily. I let them choose which beach every time, even though they never choose my favorites. There, laughing and sputtering in the waves, they seemed like themselves again, and I could kind of get my head around the idea that just being with them, getting them settled, giving them a good time was my work for now, was enough. I would get to the writing in due time. Eric would join us soon.
On Friday evening, after a boring day of doing laundry and errands, picking up (more) cleaning supplies and groceries, and other housekeeping items in preparation for Eric's arrival (I did NOT want him to know I may have botched this thing) we went down the hill to the small beach at the base of the canyon for sunset.
That afternoon, we'd stopped at a little store called the Bhutan Shop where I scooped up a strand of colorful Tibetan prayer flags, some incense, and for Violet, a mood ring.
She checked it now against the color chart. "Very relaxed," she said.
Things were looking up.
The beach warm and windless; the tide was out and large gentle rollers were cresting far off shore and coming in smooth, making perfect body surfing conditions. I lay on the beach and watched the kids delight in it. We got home after dark, ate leftover pasta and fell into bed. They were snoring before I'd read even one page of "A Wrinkle in Time".
The next morning we all woke up in a demonstrably different spirit, as if a fog of anxiety and stangeness had suddenly lifted. It was quite possibly the most beautiful morning I have ever seen, even in the canyon, and that is saying something -- though my son says I say that everyday here. The kids were suddenly completely at home. They made themselves breakfast and hand-squeezed a pitcher of lemonade, then played outside all morning, roaming the grounds with the pets as if this is what they'd been doing together every summer of their lives.
I rearranged some slightly rickety, sun-bleached porch furniture and strung up my little prayer flags. I found a cobalt vase, dusty and spidery, inside a stack of out of use clay pots, brushed it off and made it the centerpiece. I fixed myself a coffee in a pretty china cup with a cobalt and gold rim and took it outside. I slung a brightly colored blanket, bought in Venice Beach on a chilly day, over the chair to make it comfortable for long sits. I dedicated this -- my office. I took a picture, took a breath.
I sat at the desk. Just to try it out. I opened my laptop and answered some email. A cat nuzzled me, and all the dogs lay at my feet, wagging.
Sunday night, we picked up Eric at the airport. Exactly a week after we arrived.
The next morning, July 4th -- Independence Day, appropriately -- I lace up my shoes and hit the trail.
Out the gate and into the canyon. A whole area of Topanga I've never explored before.
I kind of briefly check an online guide before I go, but there are two problems with this approach.
First, while the Topanga trails are well-mapped and marked, I've found that there are lots of little tributary paths that are, as far as I can tell, undocumented. I like them best.
Second, I cannot follow a map for love or money. This situation causes no end of consternation for my husband, who simply cannot understand it. To clarify, it's not that I have no sense of direction -- I have little sense of direction, and don't really mind getting lost and feeling my way out of it slowly. It's also not that I can't read a map. It's that what I see on a map never remotely corresponds to the sense of a place which exists in my head, or where I find myself vis-a-vis my surroundings at any given time. I've tried to explain this to Eric, particularly on road trips when he is driving and I'm supposed to be the navigator: asking me to match where I am in space to a diagram on a paper or smartphone is roughly equivalent to dumping out the pieces to two different jigsaw puzzles and commanding me to put the puzzle together.
Anyway, I do not go far this first day. I wander out of the gate and jog up the street -- and by "up" I mean the first half mile is just dead uphill -- it's a hard way to start, and it will be so every day. But I soon find a small path at the end of the private road that veers off of ours, and it looks like a pretty legitimate entrance to the canyon.
Up, still, through a yellow meadow and then into some brush where the path flattens out for a bit and I find the first sign.
I'm behind some houses whose backyard is Topanga State Park. Even when I can't see the homes, I hear the wind chimes, which everyone seems to have.
Then the path hangs a hard right into a grove of oak trees and when I emerge I'm on a broad fire road that follows the crest of the mountains as far as I can see. I turn right onto the sandy road and ascend some more because it seems like this way I will overlook the ocean soon. The view from here is incredible, and even uphill running feels good because the ground is soft and sandy. It's a holiday and I meet a lot of other hikers on this "main drag." I'd kind of rather be alone today, the better to hear the quiet, listen to the canyon, calm the chatter of my panic brain telling me to I need to make up for lost time. I eavesdrop on a conversation between two hikers: "That's why I wouldn't necessarily want to live here," the man says to the woman, "it's very isolating."
At the top of a steep incline I come to a vista point with a very tempting bench. I'm not ready for a rest yet (well, honestly, I'm dying for one, but I feel pressure to bust out a hard workout after a week of slugging about) so I just take a picture of it, because it really captures what Summer | unscripted is all about.
It's good to have an ambitious blogging goal, but the real point is to be in the work -- of running, of writing, of mothering -- to be in the canyon and open to whatever comes of it.
Wind chimes and totem poles, prayer flags and offerings of stacked stones -- and of course, labyrinths -- you run across people's little alters all the time in Topanga. That's one thing I love. Sure, I'm not immune to the fact that there's an ersatz hippie element and that Topanga has its own version of Hollywood sleight of hand. Still, whether it's just the startling immensity of the canyon's beauty, or something more metaphysical -- there is a very present sense that the place is special, sacred, is indeed "a place above," as its indigenous Tongva people named it, and folks have the impulse to harness or capture or just tune in to its transcendent quality. I get it.
Later in the day we go to a 4th of July barbecue at the home of some friends who transplanted a while ago from NYC to Topanga, a family with kids almost the ages of ours. A family that I have envied no end. Turns out, they haven't been unconditionally happy here. They tell me they are leaving -- leaving Topanga, and southern California altogether, decamping to a very different version of the wild, wild west. My friend, a bit disgruntled, elucidates every downside of the area, from earthquakes to mountain lions to wildfires to dollars-per-square-foot to traffic, and one particularly unsavory interaction with the super-spoiled children of the super-rich.
I find myself definitely not envying some aspects of the experience they've had... and yet, I'm bristling, wanting to plug my ears and hum loudly like a cranky toddler. I don't want to hear this. I don't want the spell to be broken...especially since my first few days here this summer, it seemed fragile enough, tinged with doubt about the magic of the place, easily enough undermined by disagreeable children and a pet with pee problems. I'm sure that like anywhere, it's different to actually live here than to be a visitor. I suppose I know the place is probably not actually Shangri-La.
I've spent enough time here now, been intentional enough in my interaction with the canyon, that I feel that while I'm not a real local I'm not a mere visitor, either. I don't mean to be twee about it, but for whatever reason, I feel like a sort of pilgrim when I'm in the canyon, as I suspect many others do.
I have no cell service in our area of the canyon, but driving home from the barbecue texts come pinging in. A writer friend, who has retreated with me in Topanga before, texts:
"Enjoy your time in your spiritual homelands."
And so I officially begin another summer in the canyon... unscripted.