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 --