Dawn in Topanga—last day.
I stand at the edge of the property, an old chain link fence beyond which
there’s just canyon and more canyon,
slopes & folds enveloped in bright marine fog
impossible gradations of slate, silver, white
fuzzy Rothko-esque layers,
the barest suggestion of Pacific fathoms beyond, below
Sitting with pencil poised over paper
I wish things would come through clear
A fine line reveal itself
The ocean appear, unambiguous
I look down, tired of squinting
A drop of coffee slops on my page like a Rorschach blot--
What do you see?
What are you looking for?
I rise early to run but spend 30 minutes on the toilet—drafting choice words for McConnell
(location, location, location!)
Leave late. Pause—photograph bucolic Topanga scene:
Horse at Fence.
An old-timer outstripping ravages of stroke moseys down the driveway,
...so, anyway, I was born in Santa Monica, service, got married, this that and the other thing, she’s dead, been here close on 60 years. Don’t know where you are on the spectrum—eh, doesn’t matter, tight-knit neighbors here...
Welcomes me, unvetted, with 45 minutes of friendly filibuster.
The soft-eyed gelding stands between us, shifting his weight, swishing flies.
* A while back, a Topanga friend of mine noted an endearing and exhausting feature of canyon life: far-right and far-left countercultures (she used other epithets) co-exist here; sometimes there's harmony, other times an uncomfortable clash of ideals. (One thing they usually agree on -- an only-half-kidding suspicion of New Yorkers.)
Spread the Light
Be the Light
-Yogi Bhajan...via tea bag tag
I run in the canyon to divest myself of what’s not useful, unnecessary, gets in the way;
pour until empty, ready to refill—then spill again, paper and pen.
I oughtn’t to need any baggage—or have any. Life's good.
Still, sometimes it seems the thing getting in the way of writing about running in the canyon
is running in the canyon—discipline backfires.
So much to fit into small crevasses in the family’s day.
So much to say in 100 words.
And so much instruction from a tea bag tag-–
good heavens, don't read the leaves!
Sip and breathe.
By the side of the road, near the trailhead, a reminder--
You could simply hang it up, abandon the effort.
Who cares if you kick off your shoes, leave them to parch and shrivel in the sun--
dawn to dusk, dust to dust? Put down the pen, the whole foolish venture to rest?
But you never could resist a mystery--
hidden in canyon or shoe--
love letter, last will, ransom note, clue,
an explanation, shattering and simple.
A barefoot wanderer in the canyon, eating locusts and honey.
Boots shuffled off,
nothing held back,
the layers peel away.
Part way up, the sign offers a pleasing alternative, sensible solution—a gentle descent, a tawny valley of rippling grasses and bleached stone walls.
Sunrise scorches the backside of the mountain. I slog up, and up.
Today I need a high vista, crave the moment when I’ll round a bend, cross the invisible line where Pacific wind funnels skyward and the heartbreaking ocean splays wide, 1500 feet below.
Ambition’s a feisty little terrier, nipping my heels—a rough playmate that keeps me running. Helps me see some things, miss others.
Always just around the next curve—better view, bigger reward.
Stubborn CJ barely breaks a trot. Sniff, pee. Pounce lizard. Lie down. Like dragging a cinderblock on a leash. He runs if the path is wide and clear; narrow, rocky, steep, brambly—no go. His legs are moving but his heart ain’t in it.
Today we walk—notice, incubate.
I require running’s kinesthetics: body-creativity connection charged with rhythm of faster footfall, full bellows of breath—precursor to language.
Are you waiting for work conditions to be ideal? My husband says. Ouch.
My constant challenge: give in to the erratic metronome of life, ignore the insistent clock.
Take the next step.
1. : an expedition or journey into unexplored territory
Still, two days later, paralysis. Writing is an exercise in futility, like trying to sneeze with your eyes open.
The canyon glows with sunshine, the signs all point to boundless trails. Nothing registers—Topanga’s giving me the silent treatment.
The dog blinks in morning brightness, whines impatiently. We venture a neighborhood walk, up our steep, snaking street, called Entrada.
“Please. Talk.” I say.
Thirty minutes later, around a bend, a startling sweetness slaps me like a newborn—inhale!
I cry. (Why?)
Star jasmine and magnolia flank a high wood fence with a hand-painted sign reading--
YOU ARE HERE.
We move into endearingly ramshackle Topanga quarters.
Time to begin work in earnest.
Then—the canyon turns on me.
Something settles on my chest, a palpable weight, nausea, dread, and finger-trembling fear. The spirit and beauty of Topanga vanish. Like upside down in Stranger Things, it’s right there—and not. The bright flipside’s inaccessible. I trip a light switch and silverfish scatter into shadows. Something stinks under the sink. Two strangers warn me of rattlers. Big dogs snarl behind a low fence.
Like stage fright, I cannot write. No desire, visceral terror, revulsion.
All I can think is run—away.
A little girl friend of mine—a fraternal twin—rises early daily to do an hour of eye exercises; training her brain to integrate, interpret the double view—twin, but not identical—her eyes collect, make one cohesive picture. Sort overwhelming information.
Morning runs in Topanga, I take quick photos, whatever shimmers, things to hold onto, jog my memory. That hour in the canyon, dueling selves make peace, make sense, merge into one clear(er) image.
Then too, it helps me tune out, blur, and muffle what doesn't belong.
Turn off newsfeeds, be in the canyon. Shift focus.
Get the picture?
Unless I’m in tip-top shape, daily canyon runs are grueling.
Two weeks before leaving New York for LA, not Topanga-ready, I force myself out the door for a run in the rain. It turns monsoon. Far from home, one sopping sneaker catches a crack; I splatter on the sidewalk. Skin is lost (some in unmentionable places), knee and elbow are swollen and bruised.
86 the last-minute training plan.
Day one in the canyon, mended and remarkably plucky! CJ, however, is equivocating on the whole bloomin’ exercise: the trail run and my bright idea of the 900-word picture --
epic photo bomb.
Thanks to a generous and sanity saving Lincoln City Fellowship, I'm back in the canyon for a few weeks this summer. I'm here to work on a longer-form project based on The Regular Jenny and the Summer | unscripted series, in particular. I won't be posting lengthy essays on the blog this time, but I'm keeping up the discipline of my daily canyon runs, and written reflection as a practice.
They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but I'm not that confident in my photography. So this summer, like before, I'll be taking pictures (smartphone style, I'm not getting fancy) as I run and write and listen and breathe deep in Topanga. Every few days, I'll choose one image - redolent or ridiculous - to represent 900 words... leaving me 100 in which to say something about my trail adventures, work in progress, or whatever the canyon reveals this time around. I'm calling the series 1000 Words Worth.*
I'm also adding a scrappy little rescue mutt to the mix - meet CJ! They tell us he's a Yorkie mix - we think he's got a bit of Jack Russell, maybe some chihuahua, and, if I had to guess, a pinch of coyote somewhere in his bloodline, so he should fit right in in Topanga. If he cooperates, he'll be my running buddy, and sounding board for whatever I'm mulling over or writing that day. He joined our family at Christmas, so he's had time to get used to me talking to myself a lot, and he listens very intently when I bounce ideas off him, with his scruffy head cocked and his sweet brown eyes staring deep into mine. I think he looks a little like Kurt Vonnegut - all professorial eyebrows and tufty moustache - which strikes me as very auspicious. Also, he's got really big ears... the better to hear you with, Topanga, dear... so I think he'll be a formidable partner in this slightly-more-scripted summer.
Happy trails and happy tails.
*Check out the work of my friend, the brilliant Ninja Poet, Maya Stein, who's a master of short-form ritual writing practices - her 10-Line Tuesdays, which rock my world weekly with the "damn, I wish I'd written that," feeling, were part of the inspiration for this new way of handling the canyon's bounty. Do yourself a favor and sign up for them.
Click below if you missed the intro to the
SUMMER | unscripted
All text and images, except where credited, are © Jenny Sheffer Stevens and The Regular Jenny, 2015-2019 -- All rights reserved.