Last night, after I nodded off at the table for the 3rd evening in a row, having been lost in thought and pretty detached from family dinner anyway, my son said, “Mom, just take a day, it doesn’t matter, just take a day.”
It would be nice to think he was genuinely concerned, taking care of me, wanting to pamper his mama. But the truth is, I think the emphasis might have been on the “it doesn’t matter.”
Hutch is a fledgling writer, a talented one, so it’s not that he doesn’t understand the creative impulse -- but he’s a teenager, so he
a) does not understand denying oneself sleep for any reason, and
b) has never been a slightly ragged artist/parent, so it doesn’t register for him that these few weeks, this cloister of time and space, are my lifeblood. That I need to do this. I need to be tired, sore, and insufferable, passing out in my noodles, and get up and do it again the next day.
Also he may just think, it really doesn’t matter - and to be honest, he’s probably not wrong.
I’m aware that the work that I do out here for few weeks each summer is neither the salt mines nor finding a cure for cancer. The family takes a vacation and I, somewhat arbitrarily, work harder in a certain way than I do all year round. There is, in fact, a method to my madness, but that’s not what’s important here -- what matters. What matters, of course, is simply doing it, running and writing, and putting it out there into the universe even when it feels unfinished, imperfect, raw.
I’m in the middle of week two, and I know from experience that this is when it gets hard. The body refuses, the mind is alternately too overwhelmed with random ideas to sort or shape them, and just completely blank. The writing dries up, the canyon's lips seal. The excitement, adrenaline, and fresh legs of the first week are replaced by boredom, indolence, and gams that feel like lead. It’s too early in the process to have gained significant strength or speed, too late to be running on zeal. In this phase it’s just stubbornness, and the belief -- or at least the commitment to believe, or the memory of the belief -- that it’s worth it.
The first time I woke this morning the sun wasn’t yet up over the mountain, but the sky was lighting up, and so pale that, as I squinted out the window, the black branches of the trees, still shadowed in the foreground, flattened out against the distant canyon walls, and held the bleached sky above in little V’s so that it looked like the mountain peaks were ringed with snow. I tried to bring the image into focus. For a moment, I couldn’t figure out where I was. Summer in Topanga or early spring in the Rockies?
After I’d blinked away the optical illusion, I checked the clock -- 20 minutes till my alarm. I could get up, sit on the deck and watch the canyon turn pink and gold. I could hit the trail early. Or I could “take a day” and go back to sleep.
I drifted away before I could decide. Heard my alarm, rolled over and shut it off.
The next time I woke, it was still early and everything was quiet. I grabbed my journal and pens and wandered downstairs and then outside, half asleep. It’s not too late, I haven’t missed the sunrise! It was cool, and the sky was still blue-white; a thin mist hovered out over the water, and a stocky fisherman stood on the hill in our front yard, with his line cast out in front of him. He turned and smiled at me over his shoulder and said something, and I said it’s such a beautiful morning, and then I realized I was in nothing but a sheer camisole and panties and behind me was not the house in Topanga but my family’s summer cottage at Thunder Bay on Lake Erie, where I first started writing stories as a little kid. I clutched my notebooks to my chest and dashed, barefoot, on tiptoe, up to the patio to get to my writing.
I knew I was sleeping and made an effort to climb out of it. I realized it was actually very late, we were late. I jumped out of bed and rushed into the kids’ room but they were already downstairs, so I sat down on the carpet and got to work sorting Hutch’s backpack. He came in, and asked me what I was doing and I said - Good thing I checked because as usual you don’t have the right stuff in here. You need at least one full change of clothes, including warm socks, and a sweatshirt, and long pants. And he said Why? All I need is my bathing suit and I said, Take my word for it you’ll be glad you have them, and do it quick because we’re late to meet him and if you’re going to be swimming across the ocean you’re going to need warm things at night in your cabin. And as I said it my heart staggered and a sob yanked my throat but I didn’t show it, I tried to act happy for him, and when we got to the beach I saw in his face the excitement and fright and determination and he swam away out to the boat and said hey to the gorgeous hippie surfer dude with the long streaky tangled hair and ratty shorts hanging on his stringy frame who smiled and said hey, man and reached a hand out over the hull to help Hutch climb aboard and I lay flat out in the sand at the edge of the water and ran my hands through the gravel, trying to get interested in its glitter.
I rolled over and Eric was gone from bed. I could smell coffee and everything was so still I could hear the pages of his book turning out on the deck.
Yesterday, after a morning run-hike in Red Rock Canyon with the dog, and just a couple hours of writing, we made our first trip of the year out to Point Dume.
In all seasons, all weather, at any time of day, it is my favorite beach. Mysterious, weird, and wonderful things happen to me there, sometimes; other times it’s just a beautiful, inspiring place to sit alone and think, make up stories, or play with your family.
I feel at Point Dume the way I felt at Thunder Bay as a kid -- lonely but happy, full of stories and possibility. Young, ready. Vulnerable. Awake and dreamy. Tuned in and connected to...something. If I were a big “Star Wars” fan like my son, I might say that at Point Dume, The Force is With Me.
It was a perfect afternoon, all pure sun and blue sky, not too hot, but there wasn’t, as their often is, a chilly wind, either. The waves were spectacular -- big rollers with a pummeling shore break, which, if you like that sort of thing can keep you entertained all day. They’re really too sharp and steep for surfing or boogie boarding, but offer never ending opportunity to invent new ways to ride their backs or hurl yourself into their power and let them do what they will. What’s great about this beach on such a day is that the waves will knock you silly, but always keep you close to shore. You come away a little scraped and bruised, exhausted, but exhilarated.
We picnicked, read books, snoozed in the sand. We played in the water for hours. And Hutch -- who is as big as I am now -- jumped on my back in the waves and we laughed and tumbled, snorted sea water, got a proper throttling. Sometimes I carried him, sometimes he carried me. And all day long that surly teen -- who is such a good kid, and we’ve always been close, but he knows how to push all my buttons, and is lately, especially, making a big production of pulling away from me -- was like a jubilant toddler experiencing the ocean for the first time. Making up games, telling the detailed story of every wave just like he did when he was little, eager to share it all with mommy.
He’ll move on from us so soon, I wish every remaining day could be like this.
Later, Eric and I were sitting on the beach watching him play in the ocean, and he said, Look at him. He’s so beautiful - out there, in his element.
The other day my friend who lives out here, and has an older teenage son, told me that when her kid was Hutch’s age she realized that the ocean was exactly what he needed. For one, it was the only thing that could wear him out, channel that testosterone energy. For two, as the parent of a teenage boy, you are so often the minister of NO. No you can’t drink that, smoke that; No you can’t have the car; No you can’t be on your devices all day; No you can’t speak to me like that...
But the ocean is YES. Over and over it says, You want to come at me? Come on. Go for it. I’ll push back and challenge and delight you. Hurl yourself into me every which way, you cannot tire me. I have boundless energy, imperturbable patience. Joy, sensation, thrill. Whatever you need, I have fathoms of it. I will hold you, rock you like a baby - just like you want - and no one has to know. You can let go, go wild, be free, be yourself. Yes yes yes.
No one wants to hear about other people’s dreams; I promised myself never to subject anyone to mine. But I just couldn't shed those I had this morning, and they slipped into this post. Actually, I woke up, when I finally did, with the whole essay pretty much in my head. Dreams and all.
I woke knowing how those dreams, and the time I had with Hutch at Point Dume yesterday are connected. That what’s true for my glorious, annoying, heartbreaking teenage son and his beloved Pacific, has such a strong parallel in the creative life. It is, I think, why Point Dume is such a mystical place for me; why, as partner to the canyon project, "taking a day" for ocean time like this matters --
Every writer, actor, artist of any kind faces many NOs. It’s true that often the world, the establishment, the in-crowd says No -- No we don’t want it; No, this person’s more right for the job; No we’re not buying what you’re selling; No there’s too many just like you, and a lot who are better, you’re just so regular…
But really, if you’re honest, most of the No comes from inside yourself. From doubt and shame about walking out in your skivvies in broad daylight, in front of total strangers with nothing but your tattered notebooks to hide behind, and for nothing because it doesn’t matter anyway.
You need a place where you can go and flop about, dive deep, give up control, lose your bikini bottom, rinse yourself of all that petty inner life, cast your story upon the waters, take chances, sound your barbaric yawp, and let a power, a Force, so much greater than yourself say, keep at it, keep coming back, keep coming home, come, be a child again, I got you, I get you -- yes yes yes.
Canyon’s a tease -
Lures you into sun-soaked voluptuousness
Come see what's hidden in these folds
Won't whisper sweet nothings.
Tired of giving chase, body rebels, mind darkens
Still you follow her everywhere on sore legs, heart slamming
Work so hard for so little
Punish & contort yourself
Believing in love, mystery --
She’ll open up.
This morning she draws aside her veil of fog, shows a little summit
New path to her heart
& another riddle there
Tiny labyrinth tucked inside
Single strand, no elaborate double helix.
You make it so difficult, she says
One way in, one way out -
O Mistress mine where are you roaming?
O stay and hear, your true love's coming,
That can sing both high and low.
Trip no further pretty sweeting.
Journeys end in lovers' meeting,
Every wise man's son doth know.
What is love, 'tis not hereafter,
Present mirth, hath present laughter:
What's to come, is still unsure.
In delay there lies no plenty,
Then come kiss me sweet and twenty:
Youth's a stuff will not endure.
- Feste, Twelfth Night, William Shakespeare
Pause on descent through soaring sandstone walls of Red Rock Canyon.
For real -- feel morning's copper glow on sweaty face.
No app for that.
Home to laptop! Hurry-hurry, hang on tight -- thoughts boiled to surface on ascent, like:
Canyon magic worth writing about comes from paying attention in the canyon, not pondering what needs to be said.
Too much invades, distorts, discolors experience -- plans, ambition, worry, words, eyes on path instead of view.
Where trail fades to street, parkland to property, a gift --
Floating above. Gesture firm, calm. Reminder, presence --
Only let in what gives you peace.
Where to Begin
Monday, July 9
I’m sitting on the small, shady, upper deck of the lovely Topanga home where we’re situated for three weeks this summer. It’s in a part of the canyon we haven’t stayed before. Another miraculous friend-of-friend arrangement, involving blessedly affordable rent and a charming guinea pig.
I’ve declared this little porch “my office” and, as is my ritual, took a little time this morning to set it up the way I always do for the summer -- cushion the seat, throw my favorite shawl over the chair, set my notebooks and pens and something to drink on a little mosaic table, hang a string of prayer flags across the rail -- so it feels both new and familiar.
An unusual, late-morning, straw-colored fog is rolling up the mountain off the ocean. It’s keeping the heat at bay so even at 10:30 I can sit on the deck.
We arrived on Friday afternoon a bit bedraggled from a day of travel that began at 4 am, and included a rococo game of rental car switcheroo that I’d devised to get the cheapest month-long deal, and ended in a sunset dip in the ocean, and a late snack we called dinner.
Then I sat down to make lists.
I pushed aside the little panic I always feel when we arrive -- desperation to get right to work on my summer projects, to hit the ground running. I gave myself the weekend to get settled, prepare -- ready to bust out 3 solid weeks worth of disciplined running and writing.
I made numerous grocery trips, unpacked, rearranged furniture, tried to establish summer reading/writing/guitar playing routines for the kids, collected friends to come for extended sleepovers to occupy them while I work.
Excited to explore this unfamiliar section of Topanga Canyon, I took the dog out on reconnaissance mission walks around the neighborhood, trying to get a feel for where I could run. We sought hidden gems, trail entrances wedged between blind driveways and narrow mountain roads. Friendly-looking cacti waved their open hands; baby rabbits darted into promising thickets. I got online and examined maps, found my location relative to where I’ve run before, discovered unexpected connections to familiar trails. Though I’m a considerable drive from my old haunts, as the crow flies and the coyote wanders, it’s not far at all, and a little tributary trail to one of my favorites is just at the end of our road.
Except that it’s not.
Every place there should be a trailhead there’s a No Trespassing sign, some more threatening than others. I want to be out the door by 6:30 each morning, and on the trail. I must start Monday or I won't have 3 whole weeks. I want to roll out of bed and down the lane and into the canyon. I don’t want to lose a minute. I’m desperate for my Topanga time. But it seems the journey must begin with a journey -- I’ll drive a bit to a starting place each day.
The last few weeks at home in New York were loco. I somehow managed to be both insanely busy and utterly feckless.
It's just one of those seasons when significant transitions and decisions seem to come all at once. Some anticipated and exciting, some bittersweet, some scary. For one, our family life seems to be shifting at whiplash speed, as tweens become teens and my role as female lead becomes decidedly bit part. I'm not sure exactly where I thought I'd be by this point, but I don't seem to be there.
Nobody’s sick or dying or divorcing...everyday my anxieties are juxtaposed with the atrocities in the news: families separated, children trapped in cages and caves. The world as we knew it is falling apart. My stuff is just regular stuff, big to us, nothing in the big picture. And yet, in the way of such things, it all worms its way into nightmares, overwhelms and paralyzes.
For days before we left New York I moved around in a haze, trying to get things done, take the next right step. Saying to myself over and over, I don’t know where to begin...
When I get to Topanga, I thought, my head will clear. Reboot body and mind. Everything else will come into focus -- or fade from it -- as need be.
But I’ve had a nagging fear that I won’t be able to concentrate. That worry will outweigh work, that I won’t find my groove, running or writing. That I'll get nothing done, waste these precious, longed-for weeks, have nothing to show for them, return to New York in the same shape I left.
When I arrive at the new place, and every nearby trail is closed, every road a literal dead end - it seems to echo exactly what I’ve been feeling... Where do I begin?
This morning I’m up at 6:00 and so is the whole house because I’ve forgotten to lay out my things the night before and am therefore banging about for a half hour trying to get out the door. Not totally ready yet.
One step I have decidedly not taken in the couple weeks leading up to this trip is any step in the direction of a training run. Which is to say, I am not in canyon running shape.
Oh Lord, this is going to hurt.
I slip on a bracelet I like to wear to yoga and going about my daily business. It’s a string of rosewood beads, a wrist mala. The yogis say, rosewood symbolizes the removal of obstacles. And I like how they leave a whiff of their heady scent on the arm, even after I’ve sweated in them.
I drive down the hill still not sure where I’m going. I have a sketchy map in my head of some park entrances in the immediate vicinity, ones I haven’t tried before. But I find myself on a kind of autopilot, taking the long road back to my “home trail,” that little corner of Topanga I’ve run the most; the one with the old, old rusted out car in a ditch; the one where I first heard the whistling cowboy with the haunting song; where the little white tailed rabbit disappeared into the brush; the one with the cathedral tree. The one with the labyrinth. It’s a 20 minute drive and I hate to waste the time - the sun will come up, it will get too hot. Yet that’s where I’m drawn. Not a big start, or an impressive one; a humble, safe, short run sort of a start. But a step.
I park on the street and pause at the park entrance. Me again, I tell the trail.
I start my run at a pace that might aptly be called reverse. My heart and mind are taut with care, my body, gelatinous with disuse (happens fast at 46). Topanga is where I come to invert that dynamic. Do I remember how? Can it work again? A 5th summer running?
Down the easy in-road. At the bottom of this first decline, I find a lone chip of blue and white floral pottery. I pick it up. Against a post marking the trail, someone has leant a very serviceable walking stick. I don’t need it, but I love the gesture.
The path flattens out here and then comes the first little climb. I huff and puff and get annoyed at myself for not being better prepared.
Toward the buzzing shrub and the little altar of stone, past the tiny path that leads to the labyrinth - I’m itching to see it. Get through the hard part first, the hardest climb, the first ¾ of the run. Catcha on the way out, I say.
It’s early and overcast and other than the one long steep hill, when my heart is slamming, I don’t feel half bad. My feet know this path so well, my body calibrates as I go. Ease up here, push a little there. Breathe.
As I ease into my natural rhythm with the place and pass by all my usual landmarks, looking just as they did when I was last here, I can't help wondering if in all the years of this ritual I could point to any demonstrable progress. Have I been changed by it? Have I changed anything by doing it? Gone anywhere? Aren’t I, in every quantifiable way, pretty much exactly where I was in my life/work/career when I started? Facing the same obstacles -- in fact, some that now seem to have grown higher and harder than ever? Isn’t that, in fact, the very reason this season of transitions feels so daunting? What is this summer ritual for anyway? Must I start this nonsense again?
When you’ve had a break from running, the trainers say, begin with 20 minutes.
As I jog I quickly calculate...It’s 25 minutes around the lollipop-shaped route and back to the path to the labyrinth. Then an easy stroll down to the labyrinth (I don’t run that narrow path through tall grass...rattlesnake territory), a short break to actually walk the labyrinth, then a 10-12 minute run back out -- a gentle climb, but steady uphill the whole way, and always my least favorite part of the run. I usually have to stop for a breather.
A challenging but fair start for Day One.
I turn off the main path and head down the little trail that leads to the labyrinth. At the bottom, near the entrance to the labyrinth, someone has made an altar. Placed atop two stacked rocks -- a statue of Ganesha. In Hindu and Buddhist traditions Ganesha is the deity -- the archetype, symbol -- representing the removal of obstacles. Guidance and protection on a journey, physical or creative. Ganesha is also recognized - and I only just learned this - as the patron of letters, supporter of writers.
I take this to be the labyrinth’s personal welcome. A little wink. Rattlers be damned, I knew you'd be back. Across time and space it has summoned me, expected my return.
I hold up my rosewood wrist mala.
Here I am. What do you have for me?
I step into the spiral without having crafted a proper question. My question is, what should the question be? Where to begin…?
I start to walk.
My old friends the red ants are busy building and moving their mounds within the coils and I have to step over them every few paces. There are about a thousand little black flies buzzing around me. They don’t seem to be biters but they land on me every few seconds and it freaks me out. I swat at them in growing frustration.
Concentrate, concentrate! I scold myself. I try to be slow and methodical, but I kind of want to run away.
My leg swipes against a little patch of brush growing between the stones. Suddenly my ankle gets a sharp prick and then -- fire. I curse and yank off shoe and sock to look for what’s bitten me. I blame the red ants. I can’t find anything, but holy toledo it hurts and is getting worse. I think it’s a bee sting.
I don’t want to stop. I need to make a real start! I take a breath and keep walking, try to be calm.
Please, remove the obstacles.
The ankle burns, down into the foot, up into the calf, but it’s tolerable. I start to relax. Let the flies buzz, they’re just doing their thing.
Round and round, out and back, several times, and to the center again, where I finally stoop to scratch in the sand --
WHERE TO BEGIN
I do not punctuate because I cannot choose. It’s a question and an answer. A plea and a statement of fact.
Here, in the labyrinth is where I begin this summer. Here on my home trail.
I pull the chip of pottery out of my pouch to place it on the little pile of stones at the center, where I and so many others have left talismans over the years. But then I think better of it. I’ll hang onto it, visit the labyrinth again later, maybe leave the chip here at the end of my trip, a parting offering.
I start the run back out. Along the way my legs feel a little nimbler. I make it all the way out at a run.
And I have this thought as I emerge from the trail:
Of course this is where I had to begin. This is where it all started. Four years ago in a dusty canyon I committed to run and write and just see what happened, where it lead. An unscripted summer staked on a simple framework of discipline, ritual, work, listening. I wanted to know if something would happen.
It began, as most worthwhile pursuits do, with a question.
If I don’t yet feel I have the answer, or hard proof that it is real, productive, meaningful, life-changing work; if I have to wonder if I’ve actually done something, learned something, moved forward at all; if I cower and crumple and curse along the way, feel lost and blocked; if it stings -- well, what did I expect? -- this is still, it turns out, always and ever, only the beginning.
I haven't decided yet what format The Regular Jenny will take this summer -- I have a big project to work on while I'm here in Topanga, and the blog will take a backseat to that -- perhaps short essays, or 1000 WordsWorth like last year, or maybe it will find a new form.
Stay tuned for a truly unscripted Summer | unscripted.