It took some doing. I'll say that.
Determined to spend this summer continuing last summer's writer-yogi-parent challenge of getting out of the city and into nature, running in Topanga Canyon, swimming in the Pacific, finding a way to be with my family, give them a good, healthy, engaging summer and somehow still be deeply in my work; jumping into a writing project with little sense of where it will lead, whether it will be of any interest, or be "worth it" in some larger sense; no map, no plan, no script... just flying by the seat of my pants, going someplace that relentlessly, almost inexplicably beckons me, running headlong into it to find out what it has to say. And to blog about it.
And somehow, not go to debtor's prison in the fall.
Long story short, arrangements kept getting made and falling through. And I didn't have much time to devote to sorting it all out because among other things, I was doing a play.
Finally, just three weeks before we hoped to leave, things fell remarkably well into place and through friends, and friends of friends of friends, we wound up piecing together six amazing, affordable weeks in Topanga Canyon.
The first two and a half weeks, we're staying at a place we've never been before -- an enchanted property deep in the canyon. The house is kind of my dream home, all wooden beams and a full wall of glass doors that open all the way up for total indoor/outdoor living. We hit it off immediately with the cool family who lives here.
We're doing a little pet sitting for them. Words like menagerie and zoo come to mind. Also, Iditarod.
We adore animals, and as we currently have no pets at home in NYC, it's really nice for us to get some furry love from this super sweet band of rescues, and for the kids to take responsibility for helping out with the care of various creatures; to choose a canine or feline companion and wander the sprawling property lost in their imaginations, pick fruit from the grove of citrus trees behind the house, breathe the ocean air as it sweeps up through the canyon and mixes with the eucalyptus, pepper tree and dry grass perfume of the mountain. You can see the Pacific from our deck, and just beyond the fence at the back of the property is Topanga Canyon State Park with its endless and inviting trails.
Perfection. This promised to be an even richer canyon experience than the lovely (if slightly too manicured for my wild canyon dreams) community at the very top of Topanga where we've been the last couple summers, and where we'll go for the second phase of this year's canyon adventure.
I couldn't wait to get started -- to get into the canyon and run and breathe and think and write. It was right there, waiting for me.
The first few days did not go as planned.
This new place was unfamiliar and felt very remote, which I love but my city kids found unsettling. At night, the sky is vast and starry but the dark is disorientingly deep. Sometimes at night the dogs suddenly jump up and start barking ferociously into the blackness beyond the porch and we can only guess what nocturnal creature is prowling around the house... Coyote? Mountain lion? Bear? Are there bears in Topanga? I don't even know. One of our feline friends kept bringing home disemboweled lizards, still twitching, and proudly presenting them to us as gifts. So as not to be rude, we praised her, but one kid kind of flipped. Another cat, no doubt wondering what these strangers are doing in his home, began to repeatedly "think outside the box," as an old New Yorker cartoon put it. Then he clawed a hole through a bed. One of the dogs got into the garbage and ate something rotten and got sick. Very sick. In many choice places around the house.
The kids were whiney and clingy and refused to venture beyond the deck without me. We slept together each night, all three of us in a full size bed. I didn't get much rest. They're long-limbed and restless and talk nonsense all night in their sleep. I would read to them till they drifted off and then lie there and fret over what a bust this summer was obviously going to be. What a fool I'd been, committing us to a virtual stranger's home and animals, with the harebrained idea that it was somehow in service of me being some kind of artist. Almost a week had gone and I'd not set foot on a canyon trail, nor written a word that wasn't a grocery or housekeeping to-do list. I was completely panicked. The idea of actually beginning the project seemed impossible and really, not altogether desirable, come to think of it. Last summer was charmed but, why tempt fate by attempting to continue? Leave well enough alone. Who even cares? Now look what you've done.
I could not get myself to sit down at the laptop. I carried a notebook and pen in my bag everywhere we went but never jotted a thought. I had no urge, even while I was freaking out that I could not get to it. That the urge had gone was the main thing freaking me out.
I had a very difficult time letting go of those first few days. Releasing the notion that I would hit the ground running, literally, and dive into a coveted summer of writing; that it was simply going to take some time to settle in and get everyone comfortable.
I took the kids to the ocean daily. I let them choose which beach every time, even though they never choose my favorites. There, laughing and sputtering in the waves, they seemed like themselves again, and I could kind of get my head around the idea that just being with them, getting them settled, giving them a good time was my work for now, was enough. I would get to the writing in due time. Eric would join us soon.
On Friday evening, after a boring day of doing laundry and errands, picking up (more) cleaning supplies and groceries, and other housekeeping items in preparation for Eric's arrival (I did NOT want him to know I may have botched this thing) we went down the hill to the small beach at the base of the canyon for sunset.
That afternoon, we'd stopped at a little store called the Bhutan Shop where I scooped up a strand of colorful Tibetan prayer flags, some incense, and for Violet, a mood ring.
She checked it now against the color chart. "Very relaxed," she said.
Things were looking up.
The beach warm and windless; the tide was out and large gentle rollers were cresting far off shore and coming in smooth, making perfect body surfing conditions. I lay on the beach and watched the kids delight in it. We got home after dark, ate leftover pasta and fell into bed. They were snoring before I'd read even one page of "A Wrinkle in Time".
The next morning we all woke up in a demonstrably different spirit, as if a fog of anxiety and stangeness had suddenly lifted. It was quite possibly the most beautiful morning I have ever seen, even in the canyon, and that is saying something -- though my son says I say that everyday here. The kids were suddenly completely at home. They made themselves breakfast and hand-squeezed a pitcher of lemonade, then played outside all morning, roaming the grounds with the pets as if this is what they'd been doing together every summer of their lives.
I rearranged some slightly rickety, sun-bleached porch furniture and strung up my little prayer flags. I found a cobalt vase, dusty and spidery, inside a stack of out of use clay pots, brushed it off and made it the centerpiece. I fixed myself a coffee in a pretty china cup with a cobalt and gold rim and took it outside. I slung a brightly colored blanket, bought in Venice Beach on a chilly day, over the chair to make it comfortable for long sits. I dedicated this -- my office. I took a picture, took a breath.
I sat at the desk. Just to try it out. I opened my laptop and answered some email. A cat nuzzled me, and all the dogs lay at my feet, wagging.
Sunday night, we picked up Eric at the airport. Exactly a week after we arrived.
The next morning, July 4th -- Independence Day, appropriately -- I lace up my shoes and hit the trail.
Out the gate and into the canyon. A whole area of Topanga I've never explored before.
I kind of briefly check an online guide before I go, but there are two problems with this approach.
First, while the Topanga trails are well-mapped and marked, I've found that there are lots of little tributary paths that are, as far as I can tell, undocumented. I like them best.
Second, I cannot follow a map for love or money. This situation causes no end of consternation for my husband, who simply cannot understand it. To clarify, it's not that I have no sense of direction -- I have little sense of direction, and don't really mind getting lost and feeling my way out of it slowly. It's also not that I can't read a map. It's that what I see on a map never remotely corresponds to the sense of a place which exists in my head, or where I find myself vis-a-vis my surroundings at any given time. I've tried to explain this to Eric, particularly on road trips when he is driving and I'm supposed to be the navigator: asking me to match where I am in space to a diagram on a paper or smartphone is roughly equivalent to dumping out the pieces to two different jigsaw puzzles and commanding me to put the puzzle together.
Anyway, I do not go far this first day. I wander out of the gate and jog up the street -- and by "up" I mean the first half mile is just dead uphill -- it's a hard way to start, and it will be so every day. But I soon find a small path at the end of the private road that veers off of ours, and it looks like a pretty legitimate entrance to the canyon.
Up, still, through a yellow meadow and then into some brush where the path flattens out for a bit and I find the first sign.
I'm behind some houses whose backyard is Topanga State Park. Even when I can't see the homes, I hear the wind chimes, which everyone seems to have.
Then the path hangs a hard right into a grove of oak trees and when I emerge I'm on a broad fire road that follows the crest of the mountains as far as I can see. I turn right onto the sandy road and ascend some more because it seems like this way I will overlook the ocean soon. The view from here is incredible, and even uphill running feels good because the ground is soft and sandy. It's a holiday and I meet a lot of other hikers on this "main drag." I'd kind of rather be alone today, the better to hear the quiet, listen to the canyon, calm the chatter of my panic brain telling me to I need to make up for lost time. I eavesdrop on a conversation between two hikers: "That's why I wouldn't necessarily want to live here," the man says to the woman, "it's very isolating."
At the top of a steep incline I come to a vista point with a very tempting bench. I'm not ready for a rest yet (well, honestly, I'm dying for one, but I feel pressure to bust out a hard workout after a week of slugging about) so I just take a picture of it, because it really captures what Summer | unscripted is all about.
It's good to have an ambitious blogging goal, but the real point is to be in the work -- of running, of writing, of mothering -- to be in the canyon and open to whatever comes of it.
Wind chimes and totem poles, prayer flags and offerings of stacked stones -- and of course, labyrinths -- you run across people's little alters all the time in Topanga. That's one thing I love. Sure, I'm not immune to the fact that there's an ersatz hippie element and that Topanga has its own version of Hollywood sleight of hand. Still, whether it's just the startling immensity of the canyon's beauty, or something more metaphysical -- there is a very present sense that the place is special, sacred, is indeed "a place above," as its indigenous Tongva people named it, and folks have the impulse to harness or capture or just tune in to its transcendent quality. I get it.
Later in the day we go to a 4th of July barbecue at the home of some friends who transplanted a while ago from NYC to Topanga, a family with kids almost the ages of ours. A family that I have envied no end. Turns out, they haven't been unconditionally happy here. They tell me they are leaving -- leaving Topanga, and southern California altogether, decamping to a very different version of the wild, wild west. My friend, a bit disgruntled, elucidates every downside of the area, from earthquakes to mountain lions to wildfires to dollars-per-square-foot to traffic, and one particularly unsavory interaction with the super-spoiled children of the super-rich.
I find myself definitely not envying some aspects of the experience they've had... and yet, I'm bristling, wanting to plug my ears and hum loudly like a cranky toddler. I don't want to hear this. I don't want the spell to be broken...especially since my first few days here this summer, it seemed fragile enough, tinged with doubt about the magic of the place, easily enough undermined by disagreeable children and a pet with pee problems. I'm sure that like anywhere, it's different to actually live here than to be a visitor. I suppose I know the place is probably not actually Shangri-La.
I've spent enough time here now, been intentional enough in my interaction with the canyon, that I feel that while I'm not a real local I'm not a mere visitor, either. I don't mean to be twee about it, but for whatever reason, I feel like a sort of pilgrim when I'm in the canyon, as I suspect many others do.
I have no cell service in our area of the canyon, but driving home from the barbecue texts come pinging in. A writer friend, who has retreated with me in Topanga before, texts:
"Enjoy your time in your spiritual homelands."
And so I officially begin another summer in the canyon... unscripted.