This morning when the alarm goes off I look out the window into dense white fog.
Sometime in the night, I recall, I had to pull the covers up. Now I don a peculiar assortment of layers over my nightgown and go out on the patio.
For the first time in several weeks, a heavy marine layer has made its way up the hill and everything beyond our lawn is lost in mist. My glasses get hazy, and my hair immediately begins to extricate itself strand by strand from the ponytail holder and puff out in a tufty halo of fluff a la Albert Einstein.
I saw on the weather report that fog was coming, but until just a couple days ago, since the tail end of June Gloom, the weather has been bright cloudless blue and hot.
A misty morning here at the top of the mountain holds in it the thickened night scents of the canyon -- eucalyptus, sage, oak leaf, hay -- mixed with the cultivated garden smells of the neighborhood -- gardenia, rose, jasmine. The overall effect is a heady Persian essence, with a piquant top note of pool chlorine.
I drink my coffee at a leisurely pace. No hurry to start the run today, as it is still so cool at 8:00. I spend time enjoying this brief morning solitude.
I'm not sleeping much.
I get up early to run, and then hit the desk. When my writing is done, early to mid afternoon, we usually head to the beach with the kids, and stay until dusk. We love to be in the ocean, tumbling in the waves at the exact moment the sun disappears behind the mountain. Then we drive home through the canyon in the last light, wet and shivering, with the windows down and the heat on, having a Grateful Dead sing-along.
When the day has gone this way -- the canyon run has been hard and good, the writing has been productive, the play, vigorous, and I feel that perfect, happy, ocean tired that is always slightly blue-tinged -- I think, this is Summer | unscripted. This is what I meant to do.
A third of the way home we come to my favorite part of the canyon, high rocky cliffs that rise up diagonally out of the lower Topanga basin, as if they've been cut on the bias. Ivory and pale salmon, they catch the last vestiges of sunset in their furrows and hold onto it a little longer than seems possible. I'm heartsick as they whizz by in the rearview mirror. They are, as far as I know, inaccessible; I can never actually enter them, but worse, in nine days I'll leave them for at least another year.
It's well past 9:00 when we eat dinner; the kids are up till 11 every night. Then we get in bed and Eric reads for awhile, and I try but never make it through more than a couple pages before I drop the book on my face, out cold.
My nights have been fitful. The anxiety monster has been keeping me uncomfortably close company this week. Mostly it's talking to me about how few days I have left in the canyon and how much more work I thought I'd get done. In the daylight it doesn't sound so bad, but from 4-5:00 a.m. I'm in a sweaty nauseous panic about this and other things. Like Donald Trump. Finally I drift off into a peaceful, heavy sleep for an hour and a half, and then my alarm goes off.
What this schedule buys me is about 90-120 minutes of total privacy in the mornings, much of which I usually spend on the trail.
So today I decide to chill, literally, for an hour and absorb morning -- solitude, coffee, fog, perfumed air, bird sounds.
The mimosa tree at the edge of the property is loudly humming with hummingbirds. I watch them from across the patio for awhile and then move in for a better look.
It's the tree itself, though, that really gets my attention once I'm up close. Its silky pink and gold pompoms glow against the silver fog. I try get a decent photo of the individual blooms -- thin fan paintbrushes with just the tips dipped in a sheer rosy tint -- but it turns out the tree is actually on the downhill neighbor's property and I can't get near enough.
The tree is messy, sheds like a dog, and mucks up the pool all day long; I've read that the breed is invasive and damaging, but it's such a delicate little painted southern lady of a tree, I can't help falling in love with it, staring at it all the time -- the Blanche DuBois of the arboreal world.
Three days earlier:
You know the old adage -- can't see the forest for the trees.
I'm just the opposite.
I'm all about the forest. I specialize in forest. I wish I could keep it to a tree. I've got big picturitis.
When I started Summer | unscripted last year, the idea was simple:
- run in canyon daily (ok, almost daily)
- write reflection (pithy, somewhat entertaining, borderline insightful if lucky)
- post to blog
I didn't know whether it would "work" -- whether the canyon would offer anything, whether there would be anything to write about.
But, as I've said before, that was the whole idea -- to wander and write without map or assurance that it was a good idea, and just see what would happen. The point was the risk, and the risk its own reward. And by risk I don't mean rattlesnakes or getting lost, I mean the artistic risk of pure improvisation: put work out there, even if it's short and slapdash, even if you fall flat on your face on the path, even if no one laughs with you, or you draw a complete blank and freeze like a jackrabbit when a jogger comes loping along. Commit to the project so that you can have some small sense of creative ritual and accomplishment every day, and the rest of the time, let go into the intense domesticity, the full throttle family dynamic of summer vacation, free yourself from the strangling sensation that you'll never work again.
Might there be something inspiring, refreshing, creatively necessary in exploring how a new and gorgeously rugged environment, a physical discipline, and a daily writing practice would inform each other? The telling of the story to a reader is secondary, the priority is: slightly frayed city mom weaving the ends back together in nature and the act of writing.
You enter the forest
at the darkest point,
where there is no path.
Where there is a way or path,
it is someone else's path.
You are not on your own path.
If you follow someone else's way,
you are not going to realize
-- Joseph Campbell
I remember, as a very young child, hearing something like, "Every star you see has millions of galaxies behind it."
Now, obviously this is neither sophisticated astronomy nor accurate language to describe the concept -- it's a 5 year old's interpretation of whatever it was she actually heard -- and even so, much has been learned in the physics/quantum mechanics/cosmology community in the nearly 40 years since I grasped this particular nugget, and I know none of it, except for the little I can actually understand from some of Stephen Hawkings' lectures.
When I google search, "How many galaxies in the universe?" it turns out that what I thought as a child is not exactly wrong, but I misunderstood its meaning. I took literally what is essentially an illustration for a mathematical calculation.
On the website Universe Today I read that "...there could be a galaxy out there for every star in the Milky Way." About 5000 stars are visible to the naked eye, but only 2500 at any given time due to our vantage point on earth blocking out half of them. Pesky hemispheres. The Milky Way alone has 200-400 billion stars, and estimates for total galaxies in the observable universe run from 100-500 billion. So for each star in the Milky Way there is in fact a galaxy out there. But for each star you can see, by even a middling estimate, there are actually 160,000,000 galaxies.
The point, though, is that what I thought it meant as a child was that each visible star in the night sky was like a doorway, an entry point to not only millions of other stars, but whole hidden galaxies. Like on Let's Make a Deal. Show us what's behind Lalande 21185!
Each star was a keyhole of light into an alternate reality. If I could only touch or visit even one star, I'd be able to peel back a piece of night sky and reveal another galaxy, an unseen world, an infinite flipside.
While I was out of town for a few days, Eric took the kids on a hike. They visited the Labyrinth.
When I got back, Violet told me she'd been there.
"Did you like it?" I asked her.
"I thought it would be bigger," she said.
I entered the forest, the canyon, with a hope that it would somehow speak to me. Perhaps rocks and trees would identify themselves as totems, little signposts along the way, trail markers to help me find my way into the project. The job of Summer | unscripted, as I originally envisioned it, was to talk about the "trees" as I came to them. Whether it's because I default to the assumption that there are hidden dimensions everywhere, or because Topanga really is a hotbed of mystery, wisdom and symbol, the canyon has been fruitful... and confusing.
Each "tree" on the path seems to unfold a whole forest of ideas I can't help but run headlong into.
Each stone reveals a labyrinth.
When I run I think better: a fertile, easy-flowing thought process, as opposed to the noisy frenetic washing machine mind in the middle of the night or when seated at my laptop with Facebook and email reminders chiming in. The misery of running sort of absorbs any negative, obsessive, circular thoughts and the static of my mind is calmed, making room for more productive thoughts.
What's that you say?
Did I never mention before that I hate running?
Oh please, it's torture. And yet I go to bed looking forward to it in the morning.
Like Dorothy Parker said, "I hate writing, I love having written." Same for running.
This showed up in my email today - from the Frederick Buechner Center...
Jogging is supposed to be good for the heart, the lungs, the muscles, and physical well-being generally. It is also said to produce a kind of euphoria known as joggers' high.
The look of anguish and despair that contorts the faces of most of the people you see huffing and puffing away at it by the side of the road, however, is striking.
If you didn't know directly from them that they are having the time of their lives, the chances are you wouldn't be likely to guess it.
~originally published in Whistling in the Dark and later in Beyond Words
When I run -- especially in the canyon or on the beach, away from the city streets -- almost as soon as I begin, a stream of unusually clear ideas begins: intriguing fragments, solutions to textual conundrums, associations I haven't identified before, sometimes complete sentences or whole finished paragraphs. Part of the challenge is to hang onto them until I get back to the house and can write them down. As I run, I work them over footfall by footfall till they feel organic, visceral. Sometimes it helps to link the words with the rhythm of the breath. Often I record them, pantingly, into my phone so I'll remember, but I can't always decipher them later.
What interests me most, in both a spiritual and artistic sense, is the unassailable Interconnectedness of Things; sometimes dazzling, sometimes cryptic, it is part and parcel of my experience of the canyon and ocean, and I'm unable to divorce it from the written account, even if I sometimes feel I'm waving a flag or making too big a case for it, pointing it out too directly.
A writer friend and I laugh about the fact that she, with her background in journalism, thinks in segments of 800-1000 words, and I think in chunks of 3000-5000. Anyone who knew me as a child will attest that this has always been the case -- as will my husband -- because I also talk in chunks of 5000 words.
I envy those writers who get at the mystery of the universe in a single concrete image. One that seems almost wholly unembellished -- although it no doubt takes extraordinary vision, restraint, and elbow grease to make it seem so simple. William Carlos Williams is the prime example of course, with his Red Wheelbarrow.
He tells us that "so much depends on" this simple red and white visual image: a wheelbarrow, chickens. Just as they are.
The question, if we're being mechanical about it, is what depends on that? This is subject for debate in high school English classes everywhere, and there's no right answer. But at the moment, what strikes me in that poem is its meta factor -- that it is, in a sense, a poem about poetry, and writing on the whole, an image that circumscribes image itself -- that so much depends on just the simple thing, as it is, without explanation.
Sometimes I stumble on an image in the natural, human, or constructed world that is just that - a thing so simply, intrinsically eloquent, it invites no comment.
In these moments, I think, screw writing, I just wish I were a better photographer.
Sometimes I've gotten lucky with an actual tree that is such a perfect microcosm, it speaks for itself and I've been gratefully dumbfounded, able to sort of mention it in a single post and be done. More often than not though, the canyon leads me into a thick forest, a narrative tangle. I would like the clarity of vision, the reserve to simply describe the single tree, and then leave it the heck alone.
But as I run I'd swear the canyon is actually speaking - things to consider and write about that simply didn't exist 50 yards ago show up as I travel the path. I'm always second guessing, editing as I go --
For Pete's sake don't point it out! Keep it simple, keep it clean, don't explain. You obviously have an overactive imagination.
But the canyon waves its sagebrush and scrub oak arms, and sometimes whispers, sometimes hollers, Over here! Over here! Don't miss the metaphor!
Enough already, I say. I get it, I get it. This is a path with a capital P.
My biggest fear in these "woods" isn't the snakes, or the grass spiders peeking at me from their silken funnels along the path --
it's catching my foot in the bloody obvious and terribly earnest.
But the canyon's images spin together like the arms of the labyrinth or the milky way, an inexorable centripetal pull of disparate strands into a seemingly unending dissertation on how running in Topanga Canyon and writing about it somehow helps sort out the vagaries and vexing questions about what it means to be a mother, an artist, a mystic, an urbanite, a country girl, seriously domesticated with a wanderer's heart, a feminist who worries she's a 50s housewife, a clean living yogi and New York neurotic, early riser, late bloomer, an east coaster who yearns for the west with almost archetypal fervor.
As last summer's project went on, I wrote more and more but posted less and less often. Little daily reflections swelled into essays that spilled over their own edges, and the project's parameters, outgrew the blog form, certainly.
And that's where I started from this year.
The other day I posted what turned out to be "chapter one" of Into the Canyon 2016 - Part 5, an installment called Familiar Territory, Wild Imagination.
The concept was so simple: within just a few days, I returned to my hometown of Buffalo and to what I call my "home" trail in Topanga, after being in a different location deeper in the canyon for a couple weeks. This coincided with a letter I received from an old friend about what it means to be a woman of the wild. The post started out in my mind as a little ditty, a vignette - something so clear and short and easy...
and then I started actually writing it.
I've already posted that lengthy chapter and I still haven't gotten as far as what I thought would be the beginning of the post, nor begun to weave in the Wild Imagination thread.
Through it, however, I think I may have stumbled onto a path that leads much deeper into the canyon, so to speak; a star that is an actual gateway into the galaxy I've been trying to write about, the tree that becomes the wardrobe into Narnia. I think I may be getting to the crux of why this whole canyon thing is so vital, how Summer | unscripted, as a project, connects the dots, weaves together the threads, zooms in on the warp and weft of a regular Jenny's life: a doofy child who was a little haunted, a little off; a creatively driven city mom who's a bit on the verge; a yogi and runner craving a deeper connection with the outdoors.
It's about who we are when we are where we are, and how we come to accept - and fully inhabit - our regular selves.
A good traveler, Lao Tzu says, has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving.
So, in the ultimate unscripted move, I'm going totally off script - at least for the next few weeks of my summer: I'm going to continue the canyon project, but not in blog form - at least not as a regular deadline.
I'm going to follow this thread and see where it goes, let it be long form. Five thousand words may be only the beginning.
Having decided as much, this morning I jogged the path feeling looser and lighter than I have in days. The post-travel bloat has gone, PMS has passed, a weeklong heatwave has abated. There's a light wind and a bit of mist. I love how a little moisture changes and intensifies the canyon's perfume, and the breeze lifts it right to you. This morning it's spicy pipe tobacco and pancakes. I read in a California parks guide that the maple syrup smell comes from a plant in the sunflower family called California Everlasting. Ah, yes.
After a run and a couple spins through the labyrinth, I even completed the final slow uphill stretch of the trail without pausing for a breather and a hoarse string of expletives.
As I came around the last bend -- back to the trail head, the exit/entrance, the beginning and the end -- I startled a little white tailed rabbit on the path.
He darted out ahead of me and leapt into a thick tangle of underbrush behind a lone tree.
8/3/2016 04:08:06 pm
I will miss the posts but wait excitedly to see where the rabbit goes. I used to tell my 7th graders and remind myself, If you want to know God's will for you look at your feet. I would now add "now look up". Wonders to be told and you tell them so well. What a rich experience, what a liberating joy to be included in your journey.
8/3/2016 04:12:58 pm
As always your writing is a pleasure to read and I will miss your blog when you return home! Enjoy the rest of your time here!
1/29/2019 05:54:45 pm
Personally, being in the forest and being surrounded with a lot of trees is my way of reconnecting with the nature and to myself. It enables me to think with a wide perspective and understanding. I guess, it's really important for all of us to do such matter once in a while. There are other people who have the same thinking as mine and they see this activity as an important one. I've been longing to reconnect with nature once again! I am so excited to try it as soon as possible!
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SUMMER | unscripted
All text and images, except where credited, are © Jenny Sheffer Stevens and The Regular Jenny, 2015-2019 -- All rights reserved.