Canyon Days - Part 8 - the last part: Perspective
My last day in the canyon, I walk instead of running.
I don't want to be distracted by my pounding heart, straining breath, griping legs. I don't want my vision clouded by the sweat dripping in my eyes. I go early so the pitiless sun, which has quickly browned and etched my face, parched my arms, revealed my roots and split my ends, doesn't force me out. I want to take my time and notice every moment in the canyon, really be there, and try not to be too sad to enjoy it.
At a jog, I know every step of the path: every twist and fallen tree, and where the road starts to climb, where each foot has to land to avoid the ankle-turners. I've crouched to pee behind many of these bushes, hoping no cowboys, whistling or otherwise (see Canyon Days part 5 ) would come along.
But the trail looks remarkably different to me at this strolling pace. Today, at points, I'm surprised to find myself a little disoriented. It seems impossible, but here, on a route I've run almost every day for three weeks, my surroundings are suddenly unfamiliar. Even though I know I'm on the main path, I'm looking for landmarks. Shouldn't I have come to the footbridge by now? Where's that gorge with the improbable rusted out car? Before or after the sandpit? Did I miss the turnoff to the labyrinth?
"I'm not lost," as my mother often had occasion to say on the meandering country roads we took back to her hometown, three or four times a year, "I just don't know exactly where I am right now."
I don’t know why I feel such strong connection to this canyon, the longing I’ve felt for it since the first run I took on this very path two years ago.
When I'm not here, the thought of the place grabs my breath on the intake, makes an audible huff on the exhale.
There are other beautiful canyons -- more beautiful, I'm sure. I don’t live here, own a piece of it. I didn’t grow up in this or any canyon. I don't have a wistful nostalgia, or the tug of sentiment; it's something altogether current and urgent, like a physical hunger -- a spiritual need that's taken up lodging in my solar plexus.
The place is sacred to me.
Though it lies near the western border, Topanga, for better or worse, is part of LA.
In a city built on artifice, you come to distrust your senses. Is this canyon/ocean/beach/face real, authentic, or Hollywoodized? Is it live or is it Memorex? Even nature feels like a film set -- and it often is. All the world's a soundstage. Wander into the vast raw beauty of Malibu Creek State Park and you stumble upon the rusty remains of the old M*A*S*H set (and don't get me wrong, that is a holy shrine), but it can give you the sneaking feeling you've been snookered.
Topanga somehow feels separate, un-retouched, like the real deal, the genuine article. Not all of it, not always. But in practical, geographical and therefore psychological ways, it's shielded from the oil slick sheen of Los Angeles. It's an at least quasi off-the-grid hippie outpost, with Tibetan prayer flags strung in trees and across porches; if there’s a Beamer in every odd driveway, there’s a rusted out VW minibus or dinged-up horse trailer in every even one. There's a downside to its isolated beauty -- for example, it seriously lacks diversity, and is very expensive. But the canyon's human culture is less my concern here than the canyon itself.
There's a blessed sense of cut-offness here because Topanga Canyon Blvd is pretty much the only way in or out. From north to south, valley to ocean, the boulevard jigsaws over the mountain, connecting the San Fernando Valley to the Pacific Coast Highway. Heading south from the summit, you're headed almost inexorably for the ocean. Turn left off the boulevard onto PCH and it's the Palisades, then Santa Monica; turn right and you're in Malibu. It's the interface of several worlds with very different textures. Mulholland drive, which snakes east/west along the undulating spine of the Hollywood hills into the Santa Monica mountains proper, linking canyon to canyon along the way -- Runyan, Laurel, Fryman, Coldwater... – is a heavily commuted scenic alternative to Highway 101, which makes those canyons feel more cosmopolitan, more a part of the city, more in step with its pulse. But that road becomes the traffic-impassible "dirt Mulholland" for a space of seven miles before it reaches and crosses Topanga, where it then picks up again as Mulholland Highway,
On one of our final days together in LA this summer, when the kids were off with friends, Eric and I went on an outing.
From our borrowed digs near the Top of Topanga overlook, we ventured south, down into the canyon toward the ocean, to the village of Topanga, where we turned right and headed back uphill on a favorite drive along Old Topanga Canyon Road, then down to Mulholland Highway, and west into Malibu. We wound high up Stunt road and veered off at Piuma Road, stopping at the Piuma Overlook, where even on a hot day the ocean breeze sweeps up the mountain and makes the 1500' elevation cool and windy, and you feel you could fall right off the edge of the earth into the Pacific.
From there, the panoramic view encompasses the nearby Las Virgenes Valley, Conejo Valley, Malibu Canyon, the Pacific Ocean; the peaks of the Santa Monica range fade into the distance, green to charcoal to a pale blue-gray that merges mountain, ocean, sky.
The view is humbling...
i ...especially if you've been, say, blogging rather self-importantly about your triumphant conquest of some little corner of one canyon.
Suddenly my project – an unscripted summer of full-on mothering, running, listening, writing, daily encounters with Topanga (One measly canyon! In Los Angeles! I mean, really. I haven't climbed Mount Everest, or hiked the Pacific Crest Trail) -- feels so insignificant, small. Topanga feels small. And I've hardly touched Topanga -- the largest park in the Santa Monica Mountains, and one of the largest open space preserves within municipal boundaries in the world: 36 miles of trails, of which I've covered only a handful of neighborhood paths. I’m not even sure, to be honest, if I’ve entered the bona fide park – I think it’s all been little auxiliary trails that kind of lead to nowhere; essentially reflexive paths, that give you a taste, or even just the impression of adventure, but always wrap back to home, never really going deep or dangerous, never abandoning you in the true wilderness.
Honestly, I was thinking of myself as being on quite intimate terms with this area. Considering it, in fact, my own, in some way, though of course it's not my own at all; I'm housesitting. Not that the canyon belongs to its residents either. It belongs to its tangled chaparral and hungry coyotes, its enveloping mists and baking sun. It certainly doesn't seem to belong to LA. Perhaps it belongs to the vast Transverse Ranges, or the fault lines -- Raymond, San Andreas -- which created and encompass it all, and which surely, sooner or later will reclaim it. Certainly it belongs, (if only, tragically) at the metaphysical level, to the Tongva, the native people who populated it for thousands of years before the Spanish. Perhaps Topanga just belongs to Topanga, and that's why it offers itself to the random blogger who spends a few weeks there, letting you in on its secrets, sometimes with a wink, sometimes blowing your mind, sometimes leaving you wrung out and idea-less, and wondering if its all been so much nonsense.
Brilliant, I think. Way to have it all. So what if I turned out 30,000 words in 3 weeks, managed to hunker down and work hard while still enjoying my family and, I think, to be fair, giving them a fairly awesome summer -- what does it amount to? The volumes that already exist, the tomes on "work-life balance" or whatever you want to call it, could fill my little corner of the canyon. It’s all the rage to write about this stuff. And yet I don't really subscribe to any of the theories. No one has it figured out, least of all me. I'm just trying to be present for it all. And even that can seem so precious, amorphous, easy to manipulate. Presence.
I'm just trying to breathe. How's that? To write, create, and care for my family... and breathe deep. And somehow, right now, it feels easier here. But what can my little venture add to the conversation? Do I need to offer real insights? Is it enough to go on the journey and share it for whatever it’s worth? Is it even my job to care? What on earth is this about?
To do the work, to practice, without an eye to results -- without the reassurance of foresight, or the perspective of hindsight -- is the main teaching of yoga.
When I packed to come out here, I brought my journal from the previous summer, my Morning Pages, which are about as unscripted as you can get. Bare, raw, unfiltered, stream of consciousness -- nonsensical dream journal and checklist sort of dreck.
I'm not sure why I packed them. I guess I figured that if I ran out of things to say in the blog, if the canyon went silent on me, I could cheat a bit and mine the old journal hoping to find nuggets of last summer’s Topanga gold.
But I didn't even crack them open until near the end of my time here, and then I almost wished I hadn't.
So much of what I wrote twelve full months ago, could have been penned in the last three weeks. So many of my worries, questions and neuroses are just the same; so many projects are -- at least to the naked eye-- in exactly the same stage of development as they were last year. The to-do lists could have been ripped off the refrigerator this morning – the emails to send, phone calls to make, various "initiatives" (oh, you bet, I use that word when I need to feel like I'm doing good business) that are still waiting on me to initiate them.
Have I gone literally nowhere? Has all my work come to nothing? Do I just keep running the same small route in circles? Am I lost? Was I ever on a real path, I wonder?
Whereupon, I swing a U-y in this summer’s forward creative trajectory and head straight down the rabbit hole.
The day after our scenic drive, I resolve to consciously spend my last few days looking at the little things, noticing the details; to take my attention off the immensity of the sweeping canyon and focus on the gifts of the trail itself, the little surprises along the way.
Here are some things I saw:
I found this (with small edits here) in my journal, from my last day in Topanga, summer 2014:
divulges its secrets
in slow subtle ways
in stones and straw
scents and songs
everything thrums --
the drowsy bees
and droning flies
the traffic on the boulevard
as people snake their way
from the parched valley
towards the freshness of the ocean
scoot out of the way
and share the sun-cracked trail
this place is nicknamed "the snake pit"
I’ve heard there are
the tall summer grasses
but I don’t hear them
only the wind in the grass speaks
shhhhhh shhhhhh --
the purling of crickets and beetles
the whiffle of moth flight
the little wrens saying
sweet sweet sweet
from high on a trail
I saw a spiral of stones below
meticulously, reverently placed
by some contemplative soul
who, like me
was overcome by
the beauty the canyon
puts on offer
in every direction
and could not take it in
and so built this labyrinth
to draw it all into one place
to gain access
i wanted to walk in it
but couldn't find
the way down
how to enter
its circle of quiet
running a different trail
i make a wrong turn
and find myself in
a yellow valley
with groves of dry trees
and thorny thickets
and suddenly they were
those pale stones
in their perfect whorl
like the graphic map of a hurricane
and in its center
a place of silence
the heart of the rose
I paced dusty-legged
into its coils
and tried to hear
what is the key
i asked it
that will unlock this stage
of my life
how do i take the next step?
when i reached the center
my legs buckling from
the strenuous run
the scorching sun
i knelt and said
thank you, thank you
you haven't given
any answer yet
and then the labyrinth laughed
but don't you see
you have the answer
that is the answer
so i wrote it on a small stone
in green pen
and closed it in my hand
Since my first visit, this place has felt like hallowed ground.
A couple years ago, I came out to LA on a self-imposed writing retreat -- eight days alone, a looming chapter deadline, and just one wee snag -- no place to stay. I mean, I have a goodly number of generous friends in Los Angeles, who for some reason are always willing to host me, but I hadn't actually lined up anything other than some preliminary couch surfing.
I arrived at LAX on a bright May morning and, while standing in line at the rental car counter, just ten minutes after touchdown, I received a voicemail from a friend (Victoria O'Toole, creator of the marvelous kids' series Molly Moccasins) saying she was going out of town unexpectedly and was awfully sorry to miss me, but did I want their place in Topanga and the company of a couple sweet, drooly yellow labs for the week?
Hmmm, let me think about that. Uh, yeah. Yeah, I‘ll take it.
I didn’t really know Topanga at all at that point, I’d taken a couple drives through it, nothing more.
That evening I found "my" path and jogged into the canyon for the first time.
I remember discovering a tiny clearing atop a hill (one that now I could hike blindfolded), and staring slack-jawed out across the mountains. I plunked down in the dirt and cried -- for the serendipitous way this perfect retreat arrangement had come to me, for gratefulness, and for the love and ache the canyon filled me with that very moment, which I’ve never since been able to quell.
I was on retreat expressly to work on an essay, which would be published shortly thereafter, about the very substance of my spiritual self. It was a time of giving language -- breath, voice and clear light of day -- to things I had long known but little said. It was necessary and enormously freeing, but also lonely, arduous, vulnerable. (I wrote about it here). In the end, that piece, about my very personal faith path, drew ardent thanks and commendation from some, and fire from others; one close friend grieved the realization that we were not, after all, part of the same "tribe."
At the time though, I only knew I had to tell the truth, and that's not always comfortable. The canyon and the ocean were a refuge, a reassurance, a palpable connection to Source, and motivation to just get on with it, engage, practice. To experience Creation and the Great Mystery in as authentic a way as possible. Stop fretting over what anyone will think, and keep perspective.
I'm not alone in feeling that this region holds something significant for the soul.
The Chumash tribe, coastal people whose territory for thousands of years stretched north through Malibu to Paso Robles, considered the lower Topanga area, where the canyon meets the ocean, sacred ground.
At Topanga, the Chumash lands intersected with the land of the Tongva nation.
The Tongva first settled the canyon, the western border of their lands, more than 3500 years ago. It was they who named the place Topaa’nga, believed to mean "a place above." Ah. Yes.
I read a fascinating 2014 article by UCLA linguist, Pamela Munro. Although the Tongva language, sadly, was almost entirely out of use by the early 1900s -- no fluent speakers could be verified by mid-century -- Munro had, over many years, compiled an academic lexicon of 1000 Tongva words. She wanted to know how it might be put to use now; what would give it context and life?
So in 2004, Munro began meeting with a group of Tongva people who wanted to learn to speak their ancestral language.
It turned out that what they most desired from such a program was to be able
to pray in their native tongue.
I pay the labyrinth a final visit.
It's still early and the sun is just breaking over the mountain. I watch it's light ooze across the stone spiral, and move the shadows slowly over. At the halfway point, for a few moments it turns the labyrinth into a perfect yin and yang. I try to get a photo of this phenomenon, but it's hard at such close range.
At sunset, I drive down the hill to the little beach at the base of Topanga Canyon Blvd. I walk along the sand to a jaggy promontory that a woman I met calls "the wishing rocks."
Summer 2014, I was at an event in Malibu. The speaker, a woman (Kathy Eldon), told the group about these wishing rocks, said that we must visit them, go spend some time, think and pray; but she cautioned, "They're powerful! Use them wisely."
So one evening, a few days later, I went and found these so-called wishing rocks. I climbed up, sat there awhile, wrote in my journal, watched the tide come in. Clambering over the boulders looking for better and better seats, more astonishing views, greater privacy, I lost my balance, fell and scored a pretty impressive shiner on my left thigh.
Afterwards, I stopped at the grocery store at the corner of Sunset and PCH. And right there in Vons, I ran into the very woman who'd told us about the wishing rocks. She smiled warmly at me as we pushed our carts past each other in the aisle, total strangers, and I was so jolted by seeing her at that precise moment that I approached her in the check out line, like a common stalker.
I told her I'd just that moment come from her wishing rocks, that I'd done as she'd said. She reached out and squeezed my arm. "Yes," she said brightly, as if it made perfect sense that we would be here together now, and then, with a certain ardor, "Thank you for telling me that."
I have no idea what this story means... it's just another example of the bizarre instances of some sort of crazy electric kismet synchronicity that I always sense buzzing through the air around me when I'm here.
So anyway, on my last night this summer, I sit at the wishing rocks and just try to breathe. I write in my journal and wonder aloud to the waves what the heck is wrong with me. What am I looking for? Why is it that no matter how hard I work, some holy grail of fulfilled artistic living feels always elusive... and why do I feel like I'm closer to... not possessing, but... communing with it when I'm here? I so thoroughly identify as a New Yorker, and yet...
here I am again, sitting on some fool pile of rocks, with my feet in the Pacific, and looking up at that "place above" and wanting to have my family back here with me, because this summer did feel like having it all somehow, or my version of it, and though it makes no explicable sense, this, right here, feels like the nexus, the hotbed of my creative universe...
It's an exceptional sort of person who can get lost on a route that's just a straightaway, with almost no choices or turns -- a road driven a dozen times before –- but, as on my familiar path through the canyon, that's just what happened as I crept through the congestion getting out of LA, headed north to be reunited with my family.
Up I climbed on Interstate 5, from Los Angeles into the Grapevine, the steep and always slightly disconcerting Tejon Pass (the only thing I hate more than the idea of the need for those “Runaway Truck Ramps” is the fact that some of them are closed) and down into California's central valley -- a place as geographically and culturally distinct from LA as I can possibly imagine.
Mired in heavy truck traffic -- and my own lurching, longing melancholy -- it took me over an hour to realize that things didn't look familiar. I had not merged left to remain on Rt 5, but instead, had drifted into the right lane and was well on my way along Rt 99.
My cell signal disappeared and I couldn't use the map function.
This road, though a bit slower, also ends up in Sacramento, but passes through authentic farm country, America’s Salad Bowl. It's actually a more interesting route than the gruelingly monotonous I-5; it provides pleasant, drowsy rest stops with a lot of old people picnicking, or strolling to relieve their cramped legs; faded displays chronicle local history. This road travels through all the little towns of the San Joaquin valley, bestowing an organic, if cursory, sense of the agricultural world, the rural poor, the effects of a devastating drought. This is the route the fictional Joads took in Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, and it still feels like it. (This was a bit of synchronicity, since I’d just been reading Steinbeck, as it is my tradition to do nearly every summer. Last summer I reread Grapes, and this summer, I revisited the very first Steinbeck I ever read, The Red Pony).
Along 99, I passed the exits for things I’ve waited my entire life to see:
From Fresno, I could take 180 east into Sequoia National Park, which I've wanted to visit since third grade, when I studied its green giants for my first real research project. Eric and I actually went once, early in our marriage. Although it was late March, warm and sunny, the air perfumed with orange blossoms, there had been a snow squall in the mountains, and we ventured far into the park only to be turned away at the gateway to the Sequoias because we had no chains on our tires. But here's my chance!
Or I could go north from Fresno on 41 to Yosemite. I’ve had a little Yosemite bauble on my charm bracelet since the mid 1980s when my grandparents took a month long road trip out west. How I've longed to see its waterfalls -- Bridalveil, Horsetail, Ribbon... -- and I bet it could show me a thing or two about canyons.
Wouldn't it be nice and neat and round and satisfying, in a journal of unscripted self-discovery on a California summer adventure, to say that a wrong turn led me on a journey of unexpectedly fulfilled dreams? That I called my husband and said, "I’ll be there tomorrow. Today I’m going to see the Big Trees!"
But no, I came all the way to The Great Valley and still, all I’ve got is this lousy charm bracelet.
I was running late to return the rental car and this little detour was really messing me up; I didn’t want to get slapped with a big fine, so I put the pedal to the metal and sped toward Sacramento, where, naturally, I missed another exit and had to pay the extra day on the car anyway, which in the end amounted to 19 dollars.
I saved 19 bucks and missed the Sequoias. Again.
Man, was I in a mood when I arrived.
Over the next few days, while the kids played highly competitive corn hole with their grandparents, and swam in the lake, I sat and stared at my laptop and tried to write this essay. I didn’t get very far. Then we started several weeks of heavy travel (posts coming!).
And suddenly we were back in New York, and school was starting and there were forms to fill out, lunches to pack, lessons and practices and playdates to arrange, and a house to get back in shape (how did it get so dirty when no one lived here all summer?).
The city felt cramped, hot, noisy, crowded and yet somehow lonely; my desk became piled with junk and no writing happened. And then three more weeks were gone, and it felt exactly like one of those dreams where you’re back in high school and you’re late to class and you don’t have your books and you cannot for the life of you find your locker, and even if you could, you’ve forgotten your combination...
I’d lost the key.
Almost two months went by.
And all the time - I think it’s fair to say, every day – I’ve longed for Topanga. Missed it like home, like a loved one. I daydream of going back; it makes my heart pound.
I’ve thought a lot about why that is.
What do I want from it? What am I craving?
I love my New York life! But here is this thing my heart is swerving toward like a big rig run amok in the Tejon pass…
Whatever gave me the idea that I should run those trails over and over, and write about it? And why do I yearn to go back and do it all again... or rather, continue? What's the unfinished business? Why do I return over and over to a circle of stones arranged by a stranger -- talk to it, ask it questions and think I get answers? Why does a place that never belonged to me to begin with call me back again and again, and ask that I listen to it, experience it, tell about it?
It's impossible to say, I guess, whether there actually is something special, something spiritually super- charged, about Topanga and that particular space of shoreline called Malibu, and I'm just tuning in; or whether it's simply the frame of mind, the perspective I bring to it as an east coast city dweller intentionally opening to (desperate for) true communion with something so other.
Or maybe it's simply the dedication to a certain kind of practice I do in that space - awareness, physical exertion, family life, and creative expression all lumped into one -- which is what Summer | unscripted was really all about, and which, ultimately, I think, is just a form of yoga -- that I do better in the canyon and the ocean than at home in NYC.
I can’t explain, but when I'm there and in my practice, the sense of it is unmistakable --
I'm praying in my native tongue.
I know this about my journey, my practice, my life, my work...myself:
Sometimes I get so obsessed with the big picture, the need to grasp or shape a larger narrative, that I forget to enjoy the storyline.
Sometimes I'm so busy taking stock, I neglect to take notice.
This morning I went to a new yoga class. I didn't know the teacher (Jillian / Yogaworks Soho), and to be honest, I'd had in mind a vigorous practice, something that would make me feel like I'd worked really hard, accomplished something hefty by 10 a.m. But she had the marvelously calm, soothing, assured demeanor of a veteran teacher that allows you to trust where you're going; we moved slowly, with a lot of focus but not a lot of sweat.
As we practiced, she continually reminded us to be dynamically inside the posture with the breath, always feeling around for the details of the body inside the shape; but not in an effort to reach some ultimate pose or goal, or get somewhere particular, or achieve some static idea of the perfect form. It's not about landing it. It's about continuing to explore an ever deeper, richer experience, being available and present, and always open to a new perspective.
This is the end of Canyon Days - but there are still a few more posts on the way to round out
Summer | unscripted...
10/20/2015 09:53:44 am
Jenny it's always a treat to read your blog. What a wonderful summer - packed with all the things you love!!
10/20/2015 07:44:50 pm
I transport myself in longing and dreams to another place, London, late sixties. I feel this is a longing for the artistic fulfillment of two years. I admire your solitary walks in the Canyon, as this takes courage. I have times alone by the Lake, quiet, no music, no food prep nor phone calls. I like the focus on little things and your pictures.
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SUMMER | unscripted
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