This past Sunday, I brought the labyrinth some big questions. Nothing deep and existential. Just Dull-but-Important. Practical matters, like how to make this life -- this writing/mothering life, this lack of "day job" life -- sustainable in the long run; the kind of questions that poke at my mind in the night, start me out of sleep, and catch my breath suddenly like stepping on something sharp.
I walked and walked the labyrinth and asked it things, and I listened hard. In and out of it's loops I wound, again and again. But nothing came, or nothing pertaining to the questions at hand -- and some of them rather urgently need answers, or so it feels to me.
Finally, I took out my little notebook and tore off a tiny scrap of paper. On it I wrote four words. Doesn't matter what they were. Believe me, they were mundane in the extreme. Just key words to aid the labyrinth, that most analog of advisers, in responding to my specific search. #regularjennypressingquestions. I buried the little paper in the dirt under a stone near the center of the labyrinth. I really have no idea why. It just felt like something concrete to do at a crucial point in a metaphysical pursuit.
I guess it reminded me of what the yoga teachers say about the breath: that it's the link between your conscious and your unconscious; it lies at the interface of your physical body and your spiritual one. Breathing is an unconscious act of your physical body; so when you tune your mind to simply hear the rhythm of your breath, and deliberately slow it it down, calm it, your frenetic brain begins to quiet, and this conscious choice to connect, to listen to something which is unconscious, leads you toward that which is under the surface, innermost. It's really not complicated or woo-woo, it's simply a tangible act that helps you go deeper and get in touch with what is intangible. In, out, in, out.
So my little paper queries are there, and whenever my mind returns to these rough-edged questions, starts tumbling them over and over like the ocean does a sharp shard of glass, hopefully having left them in the wizened whirlpool of the labyrinth will return them to me softened, smoothed, safe and even pleasant to hold, and examine.
Monday morning, I woke with a headache. Got out of bed late, didn't hit the trail. Got distracted by a problem with the pool filter. Noodled around on the internet trying to get a better rental car deal. The kids annoyed me. The dogs licked my feet which I do. not. like.
Finally, I took only a 25 minute run. Just up to the lookout over the labyrinth and back again.
"Hello labyrinth," I said from high above, "A gentle reminder that I'm waiting on some answers."
Even that short run felt hard. Why don't I feel like I'm getting stronger? On the contrary, a lot of the time my legs feel worn out, heavy, unresponsive. I somehow tripped over a stone approximately the size of a marble and almost went blotto. It wasn't pretty, I did a lot of vocalizing, but managed an extraordinary pull out; I'm still not sure how I didn't bite the dust. The whole excursion was frustrating and uninspired. With just over a week to go, it made me feel both deeply sad (how can I ever leave his place?) and overwhelmed (can I keep this process up?)
It's not the Canyon's fault.
Topanga just is...
ragged sandy misty muddy steep rough rocky redolent
It's not the path's fault either.
It just goes where the canyon allows, wherever it moves over and makes a little room.
A few days ago I passed the halfway mark in the canyon part of my unscripted summer, and now I'm stymied. This post, more than any other so far, has felt a lot like being lost in Topanga. I've been staggering around in it for four full days, trying a lot of trails, hitting a lot of dead ends. Even now, on the way out, about to click "post," I'm not sure I've found the road home. I'm not sure it's a good path I've gone down. But wasn't that the point of SUMMER | unscripted? A little uneditedness, exposure, a little fear, going somewhere at the risk of going wrong?
Sometimes, especially in the night, when the canyon is too quiet, I miss New York, and have a bout of deep homesickness. But then an owl cries in the tree just outside my window or a coyote whines and even though they're lonely sounds I feel an expansiveness here that doesn't come that often in the city anymore -- even though I really am happy there. The moon over the canyon last night was enough to keep me here forever. The idea of leaving Topanga gives me a strangling feeling, or sometimes the sensation of sliding down a gravelly slope unable to get my footing. I'm deeply in love with the canyon, even as it challenges me.
The house where we're staying is near the very top of Topanga. So the thing is, no matter what path I take into the canyon -- and where I wander, what I do, which enchantments I find in the middle -- the road home is always uphill. Sometimes slightly, sometimes sharply. Whether I'm gone thirty minutes or three hours, the way in is easy and the way out is hard.
Day after day, even as I relish the effortless lope down to the footbridge in the 7 a.m. cool, looking forward to exploring the gently rolling terrain ahead, I'm reminded of the inevitable hot sunny struggle back to the mouth of the trail, through the gate and up the road to the house.
Daily, I find myself wishing it were reversed.
Fresh out of bed and coffee'd up, I'm ready to take on anything. (Wild child that I am, I'm allowing myself 1/3 regular to 2/3 unleaded instead of my usual decaf; it's not about the caffeine, it's the coffee I love). If the first part of the trail were uphill, I'd push through it with energy and enthusiasm, I could tell myself I was earning the downhill, I could look forward to the free ride.
But that's not the path.
I can see now that the project, the figurative path, which is the experiencing and writing, is mirroring the literal path I'm traveling through Topanga.
The way in was easy.
The first week and a half of this project, words, themes, connections came flooding in, and even when the way was challenging, every footfall seemed to have a thought attached and I knew my efforts would be rewarded. I couldn't write things down fast enough.
The canyon was speaking.
I did nothing to earn the easy "in." That was a gift from Topanga. I just made myself open.
The way out is going to be a beast.
The canyon's gone a bit quiet, or it's language is too subtle. Or I've gotten a bit bored, or exhausted, or overwhelmed or something. Blah blah blah canyon, blah blah blah labyrinth. I actually gag a little on the word "path" every time I say it now. There are only so many synonyms, and they're all starting to feel worn.
I've discovered as the time's gone on that it's impossible for me to post daily. Even every-other-day feels like a push. Each essay has been more of an undertaking than I thought it would be, or ever intended. I'm enjoying that aspect. But in the short time between actual postings, even while I commune with the canyon, run and write, listen and brew ideas, the project begins to seem unfamiliar, distant, like something out there in the morning mist. I finish one essay and the next seems like too hard a hill to climb. I get mad at myself for not keeping up with the daily posts I'd planned. I wonder if I'm getting anywhere.
On the other hand, I know that the satisfaction in the running, and in the writing, comes from tackling the big hills. The way down into the canyon may be fun and free, but I never feel like I've accomplished much till I've conquered the road out.
I reminded myself that just days before, on a 2.5 hour hike, I found a whole new network of good running trails. It's a long way in even to get to the beginning of them, but when you stand at the top of this hill, you can see paths spidering out in every direction, through open yellow meadows, into concealed valleys; every trail mounts a different crest and dips over the edge into territory I haven't yet explored. That day, the possibilities felt infinite.
Topanga beckons. More to see, more to say. Keep going.
Monday afternoon we planned to go on a favorite walk in Malibu that ends at a huge natural pool among pitted and caved volcanic rock cliffs. We didn't even know if, in these serious drought conditions, the pool would be as it was on our last visit. It would be a hot walk in and out (though it's just an easy mile and 1/2), the kids would whine, but the promise of Rock Pool -- swimming, jumping into its deep, refreshing water, feeling its slippery moss between our toes -- was worth it.
As we're headed out the door, I get an email from my mom.
My grandmother had a bad stroke in the night. Hospice has come in. How long this part of her journey will last is unclear, but obviously, this is the way out, the road home. She's told them, in the words of her favorite hymn, "Now I Belong to Jesus."
She turned 92 this month. The mother of ten children, she's matriarch of a close-knit brood of grandchildren and great-grandchildren -- I can't remember the number offhand, one was just added last week, and more are on the way. She's nearly blind with advanced macular degeneration, quite deaf, and her hips are gone, no wonder. She's sometimes confused.
God knows, she deserves a rest.
I love her a lot. I haven't spent enough time visiting since I've had my own family.
I remember the smells of her house -- the "brown butter" in which she cooked everything, three hot meals a day; Shaklee cleaning products; the fresh, stinging scent of sweet grass and cow manure that wafted up the hill from the Amish farms, over the red-stained wooden deck and in through the window. I'd feel a little shy at first, arriving at their house a few times a year from Buffalo, but at the end of each visit I had to be dragged away kicking and screaming from their comfortable home in rural Pennsylvania, the land of horses and buggies, and farm stands, and Hershey park, and about a million fun cousins. And nothing was as exciting as when they'd come to stay with us, the Buick's trunk full of housewarming gifts like floral sheets, or thick, colorful bath towels, or once, a little suitcase all my own.
I cry, and the kids worry... mostly because they hate to see my tears, but also about their great grandmother, who they barely know but visited recently. Of their own volition, they go off to their room and pray together, come back and tell me they've done so.
We go in search of Rock Pool and find it in all its glory, soothing and uplifting.
On the way home, I get another email from my mom.
She tells me she's read my Canyon Days blogs to my grandma, and that she loved them. This makes me start crying again, makes me a little uncomfortable, actually. I wouldn't really think they'd be her thing. A very conservative Christian woman, I'd think my grandmother might find talk of yoga and labyrinths a little spooky, maybe even offensive, but I'm grateful and moved if she responded to anything in them.
Tuesday morning, I wake with tons of energy. I didn't sleep well, barely five hours, but inexplicably I feel fresher than I have in days.
There's a thick marine layer at 6:30, and I have my coffee on the patio, where I can actually watch puffs of fog drift spectrally across the lawn. It carries with it a heady scent of jasmine and gardenia from gardens around the neighborhood. I breathe it in for awhile, then I go.
I run my usual trail, and take the hills in stride, out across the road and up to the fork, where I pause to enjoy the early sun and cool breeze, then I turn and head back in the direction of the labyrinth.
As I run, I consider my grandma. I mentally scroll through many happy memories of her -- of how, when I was little a girl she gave me a fancy red or green velveteen Christmas dress every year; of how, even as an old woman, she loved baby dolls; of how meticulously she folded towels and how pristine they looked in the linen closet, and how, nowadays, I too have to have them just so; and of how, on my wedding day, when just a couple hours prior to the ceremony I was bitten on the eyelid by a black fly and it swelled up to postively Quasimodo effect, she had Preparation-H in her purse that shrunk it down to nothing in no time, and I was a pretty bride after all, wearing her pearls as my "something borrowed."
I also think about our one little sticking point. She's always fixated on a time, when I was very, very small, that she witnessed me run and jump into the arms of my paternal grandparents, and how she knew then that because I grew up just down the street from them, I would always be closer to them, know them better, adore them more. My protestations did not convince her. Eventually I'd just roll my eyes when I would hear it coming.
She's always been kind of a complex person, my grandma, a bit covered in certain respects, I think, though it's hard to put a finger on it precisely. And yet the woman poured herself out in ways I can hardly imagine (I repeat, ten children -- and all their progeny).
I guess, honestly, I've never really felt like we had that much in common, beyond a penchant for perfectly folded linens. Different worldviews perhaps, different ambitions. I remember once, when I was probably college age, (which would have made her only about 70), listening to a conversation between her and my mom. I don't remember the premise of their talk, but I remember my grandma saying she felt that once she was no longer able to work, to be of use, she'd be done, "ready to die and be with the Lord."
"Mother!" my mom said, "Don't talk like that."
God, what a downer, I thought, as oh, a super sophisticated twenty year old with big plans.
But as I run, it occurs to me: is that really so very different than some of my own (unhelpful) thought patterns? Don't I regularly weigh my worth against how much I'm producing creatively and whether it's being noticed in a manner I find affirming? (An arbitrary metric if ever there was one). Don't I deprecatingly describe myself as a "late-bloomer?" or more cleverly, "an underachieving overachiever." (I do like that one). Don't I feel a bit sheepish about my artistic endeavors -- and my life -- when things don't result in a fat paycheck, a boldface name, some prestigious honor? It's about assigning value to yourself based on whatever you perceive to be your work, letting that shape your identity. Not helpful.
I wonder about the parts of my grandmother's story that I don't know, that have only been hinted at. I wonder when -- if -- she started to feel like a grown-up. What was hardest, what did she really just love, really resent, really want and wish for? Did she really feel that way about the need - obligation? - to do work, or did she just think she was supposed to feel that way? Was her sense of herself wrapped up in her work as a homemaker in a negative or positive way? If she had her life to do over, which "half" would she choose, either because she loved it most, or most wanted to make changes?
92. Well over twice my age. All my grandmas and great-grandmas and great aunts have lived into their late 80s or early 90s. And truth be told, most of them were't exactly health and fitness nuts. Barring the unforeseen, I'm not even halfway into my story. I'm just now hitting the footbridge, finding Rock Pool, full and inviting.
Hold on a minute. So, has this all been the part where I'm just coasting? Just a fun downhill galumph into my 40s and now shit gets real? Because I feel like I've been working my tail off for a long time and I'm definitely anticipating tangible results.
Don't misunderstand. I love my life. I'm well aware I have a charmed life, that I have not known true hardship, that I've had certain privileges that made many of the basics comparatively easy... but there's still so much of it I'm trying to begin. I don't want to believe that the best metaphor for my next act will turn out to be the frustrating uphill path out of the canyon.
Metaphors aren't perfect. They break down. I think about the different and conflicting ways the same metaphors can be used. Don't they say about midlife "It's all downhill from here..." Not in a good way?
I think of what a hurry I'm always in; how, even though I know it's not only perverse and false but patently ass-backward, I have imbibed a narrative that our media culture feeds us -- that, as a woman, your story's kind of done-ish at 40. At least the interesting part, the sexy part, the part worth telling. Hollywood, for example, as you may have noticed, is not exactly clamoring for actresses (even female writers!) over 40, or eager to tell their stories.
My mother-in-law said to me once a few years ago, when I was lamenting some aspect of my work that just never seems to come to fruition, "The thing you don't realize in your thirties is that you have so much time."
I want to make sure the story I tell myself, my attitude -- as a woman, a mother, a creative, a runner, a yogi, a worker -- is that the path ahead is not downhill in a bad way, but uphill in a good way -- meaning it has big challenges, and I have to stay in shape to meet them, but that the results will be rich, the rewards great, the work worthwhile and satisfying unto itself. This is a commitment I need to make. That's not a criticism of other viewpoints, just the only way I can stay on the path.
I go to the labyrinth and stride in, panting from the run. As I curl inward, I tell it about my grandma, I pray for her. I scratch her name in the soil at the center, and then wind my way out and begin the climb toward home.
There's a magical morning moment in these Santa Monica Mountains, when the sun gets high enough to meet the fog, and they mingle briefly at the top of the range, and then the light begins to pour down into the canyons driving the mist back to sea. It's already happened today. From the crest of the hill I can see it's a clear, bright day now all over, but as I look back over Topanga, there are a few places, deep green and rocky canyon creases, where the fog still sits thickly. It's beautiful, eerie, mysterious.
My mom tells me that this is a hard time but my grandmother is resting and ready. I know she's had a good life, and one that was sometimes hard; she did her work well, even when she had complicated feelings; there's been a lot of love. I wish I knew more of her story, that I could tell it better.
As I run, I wish her strength in this stretch of the journey -- these final, uphill yards -- and a peaceful passage. I ask that the path deliver her out of mist and thicket and into a golden meadow, with an always rising sun.