Summer | unscripted part 5 - Familiar Territory, Wild Imagination
the first chapter
for The Greens*
all of them, even if some get special mention here
*Names of people and pets have been changed (except in cases where I've already embarrassed them elsewhere in the blog, and it's too late now). And I have obscured the names of certain Topanga trails that treated me rather shabbily.
They know who they are.
These things do not mix well:
This morning when I head out, I carry with me approximately ten pounds of excess water weight – mostly in my eyelids and ankles.
I've spent the last couple days in my hometown of Buffalo for a cousin’s wedding.
It was disorienting to leave the canyon, right at the midway point in my summer project. And I’ll be honest, it gave me a panicky feeling to have to brush off the dust, sand, and salt, wash my hair, paint my nails and get on a plane. Act civilized. I guard my unscripted days like an otherwise affectionate cat growls you away from its mouse catch.
But this is a wedding I wouldn't skip. (To my one Buffalo cousin whose wedding I did miss, in my lame defense, we were actually moving cross country that week.)
The bride is, if I’m calculating correctly, my third cousin. Our large extended family grew up together within a few blocks’ radius, the generations interweaving, blending like a rainbow. We're immediate family, or might as well be, right out to many “removals,” and sometimes I have to think hard to get clear on our precise relationship.
The bride’s great-grandfather and my great-grandmother were brother and sister. They each had a daughter, Ann and Shirley (my grandmother). The girls, first cousins, were raised practically as sisters, and when they grew up and had their own families, they lived just a few doors down the road from one another and stayed there till old age.
Ann and her husband Bill had four children; Shirley and her husband John had three, including my father.
The street was beautiful. Most of the houses in the neighborhood were built in the mid 1800s, with rambling back yards that sloped down to a creek that ran behind them. The grass was squishy and lush down by the water, and the property lines were marked with very old, towering trees.
When I was little, my parents bought a house in between on the same street. So I grew up right next door to my second cousins once removed. Technically my dad’s generation, they bridged us in age, and became adored aunt/uncle/cousin/sibling-hybrids to me. I pretty much helped myself to their good graces and thought nothing of barging in on them naked, rummaging through their dresser drawers, stealing their gum, and generally talking them into an eye-rolling torpor. They toted me along everywhere they went, and I thought of myself as one of them.
As the first child of my generation, until I was three and a half I enjoyed pretty much everyone’s full focus at all times. Till my sister was born. Then it all goes kind of murky for a few years. I'd gotten rather accustomed to the whole center-of-attention thing and did not go gently.
The bride’s father, my cousin Todd, was the third child in Ann's family, 16 years old when I was born. When I was little, he'd come home from high school and play with me almost every day. (Why he took this upon himself I will never know, but I've noticed, happily, that my own son favors him in this way, and is forever cheerfully chaperoning random toddlers at the park). My mom would feed Todd a snack and he’d let me climb all over him like a monkey, jump on the bed, wet-style his hair for hours. He played Chutes and Ladders with me, took me to the playground and Dairy Queen, and always had his pockets full of Smarties. He introduced me to The Three Stooges and Gilligan's Island. He taught me Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on my Head, and I’d sing, ”Cryin’s not for me.…because I’m three.”
When I was four, he got me to memorize a whole table of square roots as a sort of party trick, and come to think of it, that was my crowning achievement in the mathematical arts. He read me his research paper disproving the Lochness Monster legend, which I found both calming and disappointing.
He brought me shells from a Florida vacation and showed me how you can hear the ocean in them.
He taught me to say, “You can pick your friends, and you can pick your nose, but you can’t pick your friend’s nose.” As far as I can learn on the internet, the precise origin of that particular aphorism is disputed, but I always thought Todd made it up and it delighted me. Actually, it was the first rhetorical form I knew and is probably responsible in some part for my love of turning a phrase.
Once, when I was about seven or eight, Todd and I were playing in the back yard, the "way back" as we called it, down by the creek. I was turning inartful cartwheels and making clumsy tumbling passes on the forgiving turf; he was patiently pretending to be my gymnastics coach.
And then --
I remember registering a noise, unfamiliar and improbable: like very loud popcorn at first, and then something indescribable -- a rumble, a screeching of car breaks, a thousand hands clapping, all mixed together -- an earsplitting crack – and almost at that very instant, the thud of Todd’s arm against my back, right at my waist, scooping me up at a dead run, and carrying me, limbs flailing, into the neighbor’s yard just as there’s a tremendous whooshing sound, a rush of air, and the ground vibrating beneath our feet.
A giant tree, rotten to the root, had broken off at its base and fallen clear across the yard right where I’d been playing.
I’ve thought back on that moment so many times in my life. I remembered it the time I heard an odd sound, and spun and dashed at just the moment my two year old daughter was slipping off the end of the picnic bench she'd climbed onto, catching the back of her head on a stone wall and her chin on the table, and hanging there, by her cervical spine, feet dangling.
I'll never know what animal instinct told Todd what that cracking sound was, what primal reflex made him think and move so quickly.
I was grown and gone -- off to college and then New York -- while Todd’s girls were still babies. We love each other, but I’ve never been involved in their lives the way he was in mine; never saved their lives, certainly, from falling trees or anything else.
I’ve always had a little FOMO about the relationship among all the younger cousins. I was their babysitter; age wise, I am to them what their parents are to me. Now we’re all adults and have so much fun together, but still, I occupy a bit of a no man's land generationally. Even my somewhat younger sisters more clearly belong in that group.
The wedding ceremony took place at the church I grew up in, a physical structure that felt to me, from babyhood through high school, as much my home as my own pink and green bedroom. I happily spent half my waking life there: two services plus Sunday school each week, youth group and choir practice, prayer meetings and mission suppers, as well as seasonal extra-curriculars like the church band and sports teams.
Besides being our extended family’s place of worship for generations, the church was the undisputed epicenter of my social and puppy love life, and to a rather unfortunate degree shaped my fashion sense for my entire childhood. I did love an Easter bonnet. Long before I was baptized, I’d been in the font during countless games of hide and seek with other Junior Church escapees. As a teenager, I changed the diapers of all my younger cousins in the nursery downstairs, filled their sippy cups with apple juice in the toddler room, fed them Nilla wafers to stop their fussing.
Although as an adult my faith – my whole understanding and experience of spiritual life – differs markedly from what I learned in that sanctuary, I somehow long for the building to feel like it did back then.
When I go there now, it’s like one of those dreams where you know what place you’re in and yet it’s not that place, looks nothing like it, and you can't make sense of it, get your bearings. The building has been modernized and reconfigured; mega-churched in style if not in congregation. I can’t put my finger on what’s missing, but it feels larger and emptier, oversimplified, like an avatar of itself. I sit there, between its bright white walls, wishing it still had the warm meadow yellow carpet and pew cushions of the 1970s and 80s, when it was my favorite place to be, when I felt safe and comfortable and certain there. At the same time, I feel the freedom of detachment, relief that so much has changed.
My cousin was a gorgeous bride, in a stunning black and white gown, which I'm pretty sure would have been scandalous in this hallowed hall not that long ago. Upside of sanctuary redecoration? The current color scheme was definitely a better backdrop for her dress than the harvest gold.
The reception was held at a fancy old Buffalo hotel that was recently restored to former glory. I remember going there as a kid on election night when my dad was in the legislature. He was a Republican -- the kind with whom my liberal adult self would have been able to disagree on a lot of things, and still have interesting, lively, constructive conversations. The whole Buffalo contingent is, to my knowledge, conservative GOPers, and we make lighthearted jabs at each other about our differences, but in general I know enough not tarnish our rare times together by discussing anything to do with the dat gum government. However, one of them told me this hilarious quasi-political story at the wedding:
It seems that back in the day, both Republicans and Democrats in the Buffalo area held their election night festivities at this same hotel. On one such evening, my teetotaling Baptist grandmother whispered to a cousin that the Democrats seemed to be having more fun, but she dare not join them for fear of offending her son on his big night.
I can hardly believe that this story is true. But I hope it is. Like The Lochness Monster.
For the record, at the wedding, all the cousins, regardless of political affiliation, partied like proper Democrats. (I'm joking, I have no idea what that means). But the food was too good and I indulged in brown liquor and fountain soda (“pop” as we say in Buffalo), salty meats, and cinnamon ice cream and chocolates from Antoinette's. All tastes of my childhood...well, except the liquor.
I got to the airport with two hours sleep, a mild Prosecco headache, and the nagging sadness I always feel when I leave there. Still, I couldn’t get off the ground quick enough.
As my scratchy eyes fell shut on the plane, long before we reached cruising altitude, I remembered a funny feeling I had in my stomach at the end of the reception as the lights came up. The DJ played Sinatra’s New York, New York (why do we have this custom, as if every new couple is headed off to the Big Apple?), and we all did our best tipsy Rockette.
Usually that song makes me kind of proud – No need to start spreadin' the news, ol' blue eyes, I’ve been makin’ it there for over 20 years – but this time it made me feel sort of anxious and melancholy. I love my family, and my time with them is always too compressed, too fly-by, but all too soon I’ll be back in my regular real life, in the city that never sleeps, and I've just missed 72 unscripted hours in Topanga...
I have to get back to the canyon, the ocean. My “spiritual home,” as my friend Jen called it.
Just three days away and already it feels unreal. Was I running in the canyon and writing about it? How is it possible -- looking out the window at Lake Erie, where I spent my childhood summers, learned to love the water, the sound of the waves, learned to like the lonely feeling of a beach walk, to tell myself stories and listen for the language in the seashell -- that I've really only just left Topanga and will be there again when I wake up?
When I was a kid I used to wonder how we knew what was our dream life and what was reality. Actually, along with the concepts of eternity and spontaneous combustion, this question really freaked me out. I regularly spiraled down this sort of ontological rabbit hole in the boring hours after morning kindergarten. What if I'm dreaming right now? What if all of this is just a dream, even my parents, my dog, my cousins. What if it's not even my dream? What if I'm just part of someone else's dream? What if I die in your dream? How do I know if I'm alive at all? What is real?
Which brings me to my bloated legs and slightly miserable run.
The day after I get back from Buffalo, I take one of my favorite hikes from last summer. It begins at the Top of Topanga overlook, crosses the Blvd, and follows the “Summit to Summit” road up across the western side of the canyon. Rather than follow the trail all the way over to Old Topanga Canyon Road where it ends, I’ll jog off to the left on a small trail that affords an amazing view of Red Rock Canyon.
I'm of bed before 7:00, looking forward to this run, these views, so relieved to be back.
Yet, from the very beginning -- a steep paved incline that gives way to the dirt road -- it is clear:
I got nothin’ today.
Contrary to my expectation that a couple days of no running would leave me rested and ready to roll, my puffy, depressurized, sausage stuffed premenstrual bod is like,
The spirit is willing, but the flesh, she is very weak.
How do I know I’m not dreaming right now? I think. I sure hope I am, because this run feels exactly like one of those nightmares where you’re trying to run and cannot move your limbs.
There’s no shade on the road whatsoever and the 8 a.m. sun is already pitiless. WHY can I not seem to get into the early rising rhythm of summers past? (I mean, all summer, not just today, which doesn't really count since I had no sleep all weekend.)
Today marks four weeks that I've been here, and three weeks of the Canyon Practice. Over halfway through, and I feel less in shape than when I started. How does that work?
I come across only four other people on the trail, which is nice, but strange for a Sunday morning. The Santa Clarita fire rages in the distance, and I’m eager to credit/blame air quality for my aloneness, breathlessness and unresponsive muscles. (When I check online later this area is apparently smoke free. Damn.)
It's over two miles to the start of the trail I love, so, feeling the way I do this morning, I know I better conserve my energy. I allow myself a pattern of running for a few minutes then walking one. I frequently pause and sip water from the nifty little bottles in my new hydration belt. Still, every hill I hit stops me dead half way up. What is wrong with me? I decide to run the flats and gentle undulations, and walk the steeper ups and downs.
Whenever the opportunity presents itself, I stop for a brief photo op -- like these, of the little piled stone shrines that one finds all over on Topanga trails:
Humans of nearly every culture in every era have made piles of rocks. There's an urge to stack stones that seems to lie at the nexus of the physical and the spiritual. When I come across these simple sculptures, I'm struck by their beauty and moved by the shared desire, this tacitly agreed upon symbol. Yes, something inside me says, I feel you. I cannot capture it in words either! I try! I add my little stone to the proverbial pile.
So, in this herky jerky way I make it to the trail and feel better just to be on it. After a short steep decline it's a gentle rolling path with beautiful views in every direction. There are a few farms in this valley; a rooster is crowing and a cowbell clanging.
Just below the trail is a dirt road that leads to one of the farms and I know this trail dead-ends overlooking it, just beyond a summit with a dog grave that I found up there last year.
I come to the dog grave and just a few feet away from it is a case of water. A Costco pack of 24 individual bottles. Their shrink-wrap casing is lined with beads of condensation, and I imagine the water in the bottles is hot and plastic tasting. Nonetheless, I’m so charmed by this simple kindness; someone did this thing. Left water up here. It’s probably from the dog owner and meant for dogs, but still.
I crack one of the bottles open (after neurotically assessing the cap's seal). The water inside is cool and good.
One small tree makes a patch of shade and the breeze kicks up a little. It's good to just sit here and look around. From here, though, I can see many other paths but not how to access them. This makes me ache. For more trails, more knowledge, more experience, more access, more leg strength, more time.
Later in the morning I'm sitting at my desk and Eric is next to me. He's reading the last couple blog installments.
He looks up and says, “Huh. It’s almost like this is your real life and the rest of the year is just building up to it."
To be continued.
First week -- 3 runs in the canyon, 2 on the beach, and a hike through Malibu Creek State Park.
Day 7. Sunday. A day of rest, so they say.
I head out early - well, early for a Sunday - just for a quickie, because I haven't been in the canyon in two days. I start feeling out of touch, the whole project seems kind of foggy, unreal and far away if I'm not out there almost every day. But I want to try something new, something easy, deliberately calm and meditative.
My friend told me of another labyrinth, across the canyon from the one I know so well. Sunday morning seems the perfect time to take it for a spin.
"The trail's just up the hill," she said the other day, waving offhandedly in its direction, "you'll see it."
I drive around for an hour looking for the trail head, up in the steep and serpentine streets of the west side of the canyon.
No luck. It's 9 by now, and getting very warm.
I wind back down the mountain, back across Rt. 27, Topanga Canyon Blvd, and up the hill to a major park entrance near where we're living on the east side of the canyon. It's a weekend, so I know this part of the park will by highly trafficked -- not the relaxed, contemplative labyrinth experience I was hoping for -- and I 'll have to shell out 10 bucks to park, just for a short run.
Is it even worth it today?
I get lucky and find one spot of slightly iffy - but free - street parking, only 1/4 mile outside the park. I get out of the car and clip on my running belt, which holds, for all my canyon runs: a tiny notebook and stub of pencil, my car key, a sunscreen stick, and my phone (for taking pictures). As I zip it closed the zipper pull comes off in my hand and the bulging pouch reopens itself quickly tooth by tooth. My stuff tumbles out.
With a grungy ponytail holder found on floor of car I band the stuff together inside the broken pouch. This looks very classy and will probably hold for all of 15 minutes.
I set out, walk into the park and take the first trail I see.
Within five minutes I meet two women on mountain bikes, taking a breather at the junction of several trail heads. One of them is complaining elaborately about her boss at work and the other is nodding with, it's very clear to me, feigned patience.
I pick a direction, any direction, to escape this conversation. I jog the fire road till a narrow path with no sign juts off to the right. It's rocky and mostly downhill, which means an uphill climb on the way out, but again -- just going for a quickie, so no big deal. I can walk it if I want.
A small pack of hikers appears just ahead of me, two men and a woman, moving at a very relaxed pace. They move aside to let me pass. They're stymied at a small and unmarked crossroads at the top of a hill.
"Do you know which way to the waterfall?" they ask.
"Mmm. I'm not really familiar with this area of the canyon, but I wouldn't think it's this way," I say, pointing to the right, uphill, into an even smaller path.
They head left, downhill, and I go right to be alone. Immediately I realize that this trail is much too small and untended to run, so I turn around and head down after the hikers.
I excuse myself and pass by.
"Good to see you again," they say.
And I say, "That definitely was not the path."
I pass a man, a hefty guy, who is huffing up the hill, in a heavy sweat.
After only a short while, the trail begins to seem oddly familiar; I feel like I recognize the view from here, I've seen the canyon from this angle before. The path dodges left and ahead of me the rounded pate of a white rock outcropping appears. Around the bend, there it is -- the Quiet Place. I must have entered the same trail from the opposite direction.
I wedge myself against the rock and just relax, enjoy the breeze, the echo of nothing against my ears. I'm in a tiny spot of shade and perfectly comfortable. A mourning dove calls nearby, and is answered by a very noisy, talkative crow.
I sit still and think about how - having not found the labyrinth - the Quiet Place is a gift - a lovely little sacred spot for a Sunday morning. I can rest here awhile, write a few notes, then turn around go home, not having gotten much exercise, but having received an unexpected canyon encounter.
The three hikers finally catch up, smile at me as I sit there, and make their way on down the trail. Their voices disappear as they round the next bend. Just a few minutes later though, I hear talking again, and I look behind me for who is coming next. No one appears. I wait. Two female voices, loud and clear, but nobody on the path. I scan the canyon.
Far cross the gorge, a few hundred yards, "as the crow flies," as my mom says, of pure airspace, I see two small figures on the path -- and yet I can hear every word they're saying.
The Quiet Place, it turns out, is a sort of whispering chamber.
These women are coming from somewhere. So was the large man. The three hikers are headed to a waterfall. I've heard that there's one in here, improbable as it seems, and I kind of remember, back at the junction with the complaining woman, reading a sign that listed Waterfall 1.5 Miles along one of these trails.
And suddenly, as much as I have no real inclination to run any more this morning, I also cannot bring myself to stop here, to let others do more, see more, have an experience I wimped out of having for myself. I do love a waterfall. I mean, having grown up in Buffalo, nothing compares very favorably to Niagara, but still. 1.5 miles. It's nothing.
So off I go, down into the canyon, with no idea where I'm going, no actual directions, only hearsay that somewhere along this road there's supposed to be something wonderful.
It's actually a really nice jog for a piece, and of course I run into my hiker friends again.
"We have to stop meeting like this," I say, but since they had the destination in mind all along, I trust they have at least some sense where they're headed, and I'm glad to run slowly and keep them within earshot as the path goes deeper into the canyon.
Down quite a ways, the landscape changes from dusty and scrubby to relatively verdant. A rocky creek bed runs through the gorge - though completely dry. It seems impossible that there's a waterfall back here at this time of year, let alone after several years of drought. Still, I hear the hopeful hikers behind me just as I come upon a trail marker that says WATERFALL. With an arrow.
So I follow the arrow.
Remember what I said a few posts ago about my relationship to maps? Apparently the same is true of arrows.
After a few minutes the trail I'm on somehow doesn't feel quite right -- but I followed the arrow! And I hear the hikers behind me, so this must be the way.
The path is increasingly narrow and choked with overgrowth. And by overgrowth I mean, in the main, Poison Oak. I am Very, Very Allergic, so my run slows to a walk and then to a paranoid, sidestepping, make-myself-as-skinny-as-possible, vaguely forward motion. I break a branch off a fallen tree and beat back the vines before each step. It's slow going.
It occurs to me after a bit that if those women and that big guy had been this way within the hour the path would not look like this, and now I realize, I don't hear those hikers anymore.
I am clearly not "exactly where I need to be."
What the heck? I couldn't have gone so far wrong -- did I or did I not follow the arrow? And I'm not far from the creek bed, which I feel it's reasonable to assume, should have some relationship to the waterfall. It's just over there to my right... somewhere.
The wind in the trees can sound deceptively like rushing water, and this soothing noise becomes my Fool's Gold, an auditory mirage drawing me onward. Yes! I think I hear it! Right beyond this curve.
There are definitely no fresh footprints at this point. But I'm way in. Should I turn around now and take that same blamed path in reverse, fight the poison oak the whole way back? Give up on seeing the waterfall? (Seriously though, there's no way there's a waterfall back here. The creek is dry, baby.)
And speaking of dry, I set out only for a quickie, remember? I didn't bring water and I'm getting quite thirsty and now it's 10:30 and the way out is going to be very hot. And not for nothing but I'm quite sweaty and my underwear is bunching up in a very unpleasant manner indeed.
I'd really like to hear some people about now. I'd settle for the complaining woman.
I come to an intriguing small hollow in a huge rock. There's some graffiti inside, including what I'm pretty sure are my initials.
Thanks, Topanga, that's thoughtful. Almost as if you knew I'd get lost this morning. Send me way wrong with some unclear signage and then let me know you were expecting me, Jenny Elizabeth Sheffer(-Stevens) here in the middle of nowhere. Cheers, mate.
I keep walking. Eventually this useless path dumps me off at the creek bed again, and though there's still no sign of the other hikers, I feel a bit more confident.
And then sure enough, there is a little dampness at my feet.
What? Really?! Have I taken the road less traveled and somehow still made it to the waterfall? Or the water trickle as the case may be? At this moment, any vaguely dripping geologic formation would be to me the 8th Wonder of the World.
I follow the damp ground, littered with mucky fallen leaves. The ground beneath my feet feels firm. I realize then I'm standing on... cement. I look around. The whole area is paved.
To my left, there is a faint dribbly sound and I follow it. Though there's still no running water to be found, the concrete ground is wet.
And then I see it.
Not a waterfall but a watershed. An ugly, manmade, municipal, mudslide prevention system, with a fetid pool of slime and weeds and mosquito larvae at its base.
You've got to be kidding me. Is this it? The apocryphal waterfall? Where are the hikers, those poor deceived suckers?
I leave in a huff and keep going in the same direction because I hear voices up ahead. A hundred yards later I pop out in a posh neighborhood in the Pacific Palisades. Some enthusiastic folks have just parked along the road and are applying sunscreen, donning hats, adjusting their fanny packs and stuffing in water bottles.
Almost comically dejected, I turn around and my exit is now an entrance. There's a sign at the beginning of this path that says
Waterfall 1.8 miles.
WTF? Is this some kind of joke? A koan?
There ought to be a sphinx sitting here.
I consider the possibilities:
a) I inadvertently ingested some funky mushroom spores along the path and am having a bona fide Alice in Wonderland moment.
b) I am on the set of a David Lynch film.
c) I am in an updated version of my recurring childhood nightmare, in which I find myself in the parking lot behind a mysterious building on Main Street, where the Methodist church should be; it has two points of entry both of which say "entrance only," and being a hopelessly literal child, afraid of violating any of the Rules, I realize I am stuck for all eternity, and may in fact have been kidnapped. (We can unpack all this in a Jungian context at a later date.)
Forget it. I've missed it, whatever or wherever it is or is not. The Waterfall. The big attraction.
I have no choice but to turn around and go back the way I came, though this time I follow the broad creek bed and not the poison oak path.
I'm thirsty and grouchy, and there's the thing with the underpants, but otherwise the way out is not too bad. A lot of it is shaded, and only the last part will be a genuinely hikey kind of hike. I even run some.
Unencumbered any longer by the onus of searching for the improbable or impossible -- even the remote prospect that I'll discover a big Wonder along the way -- the hike out is just an invigorating jog in the park, time to be alone, ponder something or nothing, enjoy the canyon. Somehow, a relief.
When I leave the creek bed and emerge onto the hot, sunny, sandy trail, I can see the Quiet Place across the air and high above me.
"Hey!" I say, in a normal tone of voice, just in case anyone up there can hear me.
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 --
A Quiet Place
My second day of canyon independence. I try a new run: start out the same way, but go left when I hit the fire road. It heads downhill for a very short time and then climbs, and looks as if it will continue to climb for a long ways. At the top of the first ascent, there's a sign listing different trails and destinations that all seem very appealing. One leads to a waterfall not far from here; that's definitely high on my list. But as it's late morning and already getting hot, I'm going to stay closer to home today.
I turn onto the first trail I come to, a narrow rocky path that leads off almost perpendicularly to the fire road and down into a fold in the mountain. By the time I'm 200 yards in, the main drag has disappeared and it's as if there's nothing else anywhere nearby. This could be the moon. It's unbelievably quiet. So quiet, I can't quite tell what it is I'm hearing. The sound of my own ears is like the "ocean" in a seashell. (I can imagine Eric's wry smile, saying that must be the sound the wind makes as it passes through my head). I can hear my heartbeat.
When lizards skitter in the dry grass just ahead of my footfalls I sometimes do a double take, as the sound can be creepily rattle-like.
A breeze passes through tall dry reeds and brush, and it's not a "whisper" as we often say -- that's what you hear if you're hearing it as a part of ambient noise -- out here it's as if I am hearing the individual blades of grass brush against each other all at once, picking out each note in a chord, every single voice in a choir. It's not one overall swishy sound, but a soft hubbub of many tiny clacks and clicks happening all at once. It's eerie and beautiful.
I go as far as a steep rocky outcropping full of wind holes and pause... just do nothing for awhile.
When I head back, the way out is steeper than I remembered...this is always more noticeable going up than down. But this is a trail I'm eager to explore again, longer and farther. This is a quiet place, good for listening.
the ocean has abundant mystery... and a cosmic sense of humor
You can't make this stuff up. If I were creating a work of fiction - or just telling lies - I'd come up with something more plausible.
This story can stand on its own, but you'll get more of a sense of just how weird it is if you've first read The Button Jar and the Green Shoes.
I have to go back a ways... so I'm excerpting from a longer piece I've been working on.
the kids and I visit Eric in LA, where he's working...
One afternoon, we drove out to Malibu. We wanted to show the kids Point Dume, let them climb the rocks, play on the beach, look for dolphins.
The section of Zuma Beach that leads out to Point Dume can be almost unrecognizable from day to day, and it shifts significantly with the seasons. In the winter months, a bank of sand forms a substantial shelf on the beach, and along the surf line there’s a treasure trove of shells and stones and sea glass.
The kids ran barefoot in the sand, jumping off the sand “cliff,” and letting the sea foam burble over their feet and soak their pant legs, which dried crunchy with salt in the sun. They lured the seagulls with cheesy popcorn, then chased them into huge whirling clouds.
We stayed until it was almost dark. I tried to picture what Point Dume must have been like before modest midcentury homes were replaced with sleek modernist mansions. Even before that. Way before. Point Dume was still completely wild at the turn of the 20th century. What was it like when a person could walk all the way out through tall grasses, stand in the wind on the cliffs and watch the sun set fire to the clouds and the waves as it goes down, when there was nothing but the mountains, ocean, sky, and sea creatures around her? Before the very name Malibu connoted fancy people, plastic surgeons and foreign cars. Who lived here then?
I took a walk down toward the Point, and wondered what a life in LA might look like for us. Obviously, there's a lot that's appealing. But as I strolled past bleached and browned surfer types and families of kids building sandcastles, I wore my ubiquitous Northeast-Urbanite-in-February pallor like a badge of honor. As if it proved I was working tormentedly in darkened black box theaters, or toiling in the wee hours by the blue glow of a laptop; as if it validated me as an artist of some seriousness.
Who would I be if I weren’t a New Yorker?
In truth, I was mostly an at-home mom, struggling to find space in my life to be an artist – actor or writer - at all. Part of me wanted to take a huge leap just to shake things up – maybe this was the time to make a move, and maybe LA would be good for us. I was attracted to the idea (or was it just the weather?). I certainly felt a sense of spaciousness here, of breath, of possibility -- but an actress who moves to LA at 39? Hm. Would I be happy writing here?
Suddenly a large wave rolled in and soaked my boots, filling them with salt and sand. I slid my feet out, peeled off my socks.
The tide was out and the beach was gritty with shells and stones. I stooped frequently to rake my fingers through the glimmering gravel, collecting handfuls of smooth, cloudy shards of green, brown and white sea glass -- plus two pieces that seemed particularly special -- one cobalt blue and one deep red. I decided those two were my talismans -- reminders of all that’s wonderful about this place, assurances that I could make a life here. It would be a good move for Eric, and for me too. I could be here and still be…myself.
I slipped my treasures into my pocket with the other shells and things and headed back to our beach blanket.
When we got back to the apartment I emptied the contents of my pockets; Violet and I compared loot. I had tons of sea glass, but no blue and no red.
Those two had gone missing.
Not long after the kids and I got back to New York, Eric booked a pilot.
A month later the show was picked up, and exactly six months after our trip, we had moved. We found a house on the fly, a quirky little place, built into the hills of Studio City.
I fell madly in love with southern California that year. My actor life was non-existent, but I started writing up a storm. I wasn't sure where any of it was going... but it was sunny every day, my energy soared and my spirit felt surprisingly at home.
I ran on the beach at least once a week, swam in Malibu year round; and I had extraordinary, almost mystical moments there, like the one I told about in The Button Jar and the Green Shoes.
And this one:
While we were living in LA, my pregnant sister, in New York, developed severe preeclampsia at 29 weeks.
In the middle of the night ten days later, my wee niece was born and moved into high level NICU. Three pounds. Healthy -- but still, things were very scary, and I felt so far away. We went to bed, and in the morning I said, “I need to be at the ocean.” To celebrate. And to pray.
We were hanging out on the beach at Point Dume, when all of sudden there was a big commotion.
Sunbathers were jumping up and grabbing their cameras, everyone running to the edge of the water, laughing and amazed, crying, “Oh! Wow!”
Just beyond the breakers were about a dozen dolphins, putting on quite a show: cresting and jumping in the surf, swimming in circles together, serious bottlenose gamboling for all to see. It was late afternoon, the tide was in, and the sun was still high and pale. The waves were huge, making lofty curls and breaking twenty yards or so off shore.
An enormous wave rose out of the foam, the late afternoon sun shining through it. Silhouetted in its perfect, clear, blue-green barrel, riding in tandem, surfing the wave, were a pair of dolphins, big and small – a mother and her baby.
Eric’s show only lasted one season, and we returned to NYC -- but I left kicking and screaming.
Now I try to retreat to southern California at least once a year to write, to work uninterrupted all day, without laundry or school pick ups or meals to prepare. To be mindfully -- sometimes uncomfortably -- alone. To be at the beach and walk or run and get in the ocean. But mainly, to be without the high frequency vibration of NYC around me. I breathe differently, and find a different kind of internal space in this external space.
On one such trip, I was working on something that felt…important for me, like a breakthrough as a writer, but it was driving me crazy. I went on retreat to make a final push to finish it.
After a long day of writing, I drove out to Zuma and walked down to Point Dume, mulling over ideas, possible solutions to vexing holes in the text, questioning whether the thing actually held any promise. And as I strolled, I looked, as always, for little gems in the sand. I didn’t expect to find much because it was June, and in my experience, summer isn’t the time for finding shells and sea glass at Zuma. It holds onto its best treasures till winter.
So I walked and combed and mulled. By the time I turned and started home, I’d pretty much concluded that my whole project was a bust, that I’d wasted months of my life, and that maybe, after all, I just was not doing the right thing with my life. That I really should throw in the towel and get a damn day job. These are not unusual feelings, but I was particularly mired in them that day.
I said, sort of out loud, though I hate to say prayed, not because I don’t believe in prayer, but because whether or not this is theologically sound, I sort of feel that Prayer should be reserved for the real things, the important stuff, personally and globally -- for the health and safety of my family, for the refugees, for clean water resources around the world, for an end to our out of control gun issues. I’m frankly troubled by the notion that God would bother to help an artist and yet not intervene when there’s a deadly tsunami or terror attack or cancer.
But anyway, let’s say I gave voice to the silly thought that if I could just have a sign that I was on the right track I would feel better. I could keep going. And then I sort of sheepishly said, I wish I had a piece of cobalt glass like the special one I found and lost here a few years back.
I mean, that’s stupid, but afterall, this is where the green shoe turned up.
I immediately caught myself in this foolishness and thought, oh boy, that was really dumb, and totally self-defeating, because now if I don’t find one, I’ll have to assume that I’m, like, cosmically on the wrong track, and just give up.
“Haha. Just kidding. Didn't mean it!” I told the ocean, or whoever.
I took about two steps forward and there, at my feet in the sand, was a little piece of cobalt glass.
I snatched it out of the wet sand with the jealousy of a side-glancing seagull darting for a piece of cheesy popcorn; like, if I didn’t snare it that instant, some other hungry, superstitious, desperate, slightly ashamed artist would swoop in and take it.
“Thanks,” I whispered.
I had no sooner stood up and taken a step, than a wave washed over my feet and deposited, I kid you not, a big-ass piece of cobalt sea glass right on my toe.
The sophisticated and prosperous Chumash -- “seashell people” -- lived in Malibu for thousands of years before the mission system devastated their culture.
I became fascinated with them when we were living out here and came upon some Chumash history placards in Malibu Creek State Park.
The word Malibu is thought to have originated with the name of a Chumash Village -- (hu-)mal-iwu (pronounced “Umalibu” by the Spanish), which means, “The surf makes a lot of noise all the time over there.”
Though the origin of the name Point Dume is uncertain, there’s no doubt that the point was culturally significant for the Chumash. Fernando Librado, a Chumash elder in the early 1900s reported that Point Dume was a sun shrine, and that its name stems from “sumo” the Chumash word for abundance.
Shortly after I got back to NYC from this last summer’s “unscripted” adventures, I was invited to lead yoga on a women’s retreat -- In Malibu. Right on Point Dume.
Almost too good to be true.
This group of dynamic, accomplished women – mostly creative types, all of them mothers -- gathered for a little R&R, time to talk about their projects, do some yoga, eat cheese, drink wine, and spend some quality hours in what came to be known as The Hot Tub of Truth.
I was so thrilled just to be invited, to be part of the retreat. But in my capacity as yoga teacher, I really wanted to show up as someone who has her shit together, at least enough to appear to have something legit to offer in the way of yogic wisdom for mothers and artists.
Each woman there was in a period of transition; a kid going off to college, a new business, an emerging artistic endeavor. And we were all also, I realized, people who have a somewhat complicated relationship to the concept of success – which is to say, each of us has very specific notions about what succeeding would look like in her specific field, and a sense of urgency about it, be it motherhood, art, marriage, entrepreneurship.
For me, one of the most powerful benefits of yoga practice has always been that when I practice regularly, even on the most hectic, exhausting, depleting of days, it brings me back to myself in a place of groundedness, a feeling of connection to Source, to prana (life force), to breath, to my creative heart, to the voice of God, the mystery in the everyday, and to a blissful stillness that is present and available even as life swirls and churns around me if I’m just willing to let go of the crazy for a few minutes. At its best, it feels unto itself like a kind of success – in the sense that true success is not an end point, but joy and awareness on the way. (See: bench on Topanga trail from yesterday's post)
I wanted to bring something centering, calming and encouraging, some yoga tool for these women to use on their own journeys.
In yogic thought, the root chakra, at the base of the spine, corresponds to your sense of stability, security -- physically, emotionally, spiritually – it helps you feel grounded. And so, I used as the frame of our practice an affirmation that can help find balance in the root chakra –
I am exactly where I need to be.
I have this phrase posted above my desk and consult it regularly as a reminder to let go of hurry and comparison and expectation, and just be in the work, the practice. I believe it in a fundamental way. I was excited to share how this idea can inform not only the physical practice of yoga, but the way we live our lives, and feel about ourselves.
We practiced in a peaceful white room, with the doors open on a cliff overlooking the ocean, the sound of the waves setting the rhythm of our inhales and exhales. (hu-)mal-iwu!
The weather was divine.
Our first morning, I went out for a jog along the water. It was only early fall, but the beach seemed already to be transitioning toward it’s winter shape; the rising ledge of sand was too soft for a good run, so I ran right in the edge of the surf.
All of a sudden a big wave came and knocked me right off my feet. I went tumbling into the water, gasping, my sports bra filling with gravelly sand, my knee scraped. It wasn’t till I righted myself that I realized my Ray-bans had been ripped off my face and pulled out to sea. My $7 H&M sunglasses rested comfortably on my nightstand back at home, and the only expensive pair of shades, classic tortoiseshell wayfarers, I ever owned now swam with the fishes. (That I had not bought these sunglasses in the first place but found them on the subway 10 years ago seemed entirely beside the point).
Point Dume giveth and Point Dume taketh away.
I stood there panting, soaked and sandy, staring sunglass-less at the bright ocean. I had to laugh.
A feeling gripped me, I cannot leave here.
The second morning, I again went down to the beach early. It was overcast, but warm.
I did yoga out by the Point. As I practiced, I spent a long time developing language for the postures and concepts I wanted to explore with the women that day, finding ways to give deeper and more precise instruction.
Honestly, I didn’t feel good about the way I’d taught the day before. Didn’t feel like I’d communicated well, or even sounded like I knew what the hell I was doing.
As I practiced on the beach that morning, I asked myself, in these words, “Why am I fighting the failure demon so hard right now?”
That afternoon, after yoga, we all gathered together for a long gab session. One of the members of the group, who is very intuitive, helped guide the discussion by asking evocative questions and offering the kind of wisdom that feels when you hear it like it should have been obvious all along.
As we sat there I found myself becoming very introverted and quiet and not wanting to participate. In truth, I was feeling kind of pissy and closed off.
Now, believe me, I know I had not one thing to be pissed off about in that moment. Only 6 weeks after I left beloved Topanga, here I was, back at the ocean, at my favorite beach in the world, with these fantastic women who will now be eternal friends, leading yoga for creative types and mothers which is the perfect nexus for me, my sweet spot as a teacher, hunkered down together with wine or coffee, under plush blankets in a room made of windows, watching a gorgeous storm gather out over the pacific.
What is wrong with me? I wondered. Why do I have this knot in my stomach?
Because I’m a fraud, I thought. I have nothing figured out. I never finish anything. I’m the slowest worker, the latest bloomer. I have so many projects, whole genres, in various stages of development. I’m a Jill of all trades master of none. I never make much money. I’m in my early 40s and still don’t have a proper career. I have a great life in New York, and yet I’m so restless. All I can think about is being out here again, but I’m scared to leave my home of 20 years. Being a New Yorker is the only thing that makes me even a little cool.
These thoughtful women were opening their hearts and lives and secrets to each other, and I wanted to be a part of the conversation but I felt like I couldn’t say these things and still be taken seriously.
How can I admit that the very thing I’ve been teaching them – the mantra “I am exactly where I need to be” -- while I believe it to be True, isn’t working for me right now? That in fact, both in a literal, physical sense and a creative one I didn’t feel at all that, at 43, I am where I should be?
Dare I confess this?
The woman leading the group turned to me, suddenly, directly and said, “Jenny. Yes. I don’t know what this means exactly, but just… Yes.”
I was startled. “Well, I guess it means I should say what I’m thinking, which is that… I’m full of shit. None of what I'm teaching feels true to me. Not only am I not exactly where I need to be, I don’t know where I am, and I think I may be… nowhere.” My face burned.
“You have let go of your demons of failure,” she said.
Just like that.
Then one of the women in the group, a dear friend, remarked that she felt like sometimes I hold things a little too tightly, that maybe I have to not be such a "perfectionist" – (I hate that word, because it’s usually just an insufferable humblebrag – so lets just say, I need to stop obsessing over details…) and be more willing to just put things out there and start the flow.
“You don’t understand,” I lashed out. “I’m not afraid to fail, I’m afraid I have failed. At almost everything I set out to do. I’m overwhelmed and scattered all the time. Nothing ever really seems to take hold, make demonstrable progress, find success, whatever than means. Every new project is exciting at first and pretty soon just feels like one more thing.
I started crying, big gasping sobs. I felt nauseated. I was so embarrassed. Bad yoga teacher, I scolded myself. Bad, bad yoga teacher.
I went down to the beach afterward and took a walk. It was raining now, and very gray. Out over the ocean, the black clouds hung heavy and I could see a broad shaft of rain moving along the coast, passing into the mountains to the east.
“Sorry to be so difficult, so... grabby” I said to my old friend the ocean, “But here I am again, and I really need a reassurance… again… that I’m on the right path, or ANY path, really, that I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing, that I am exactly where I need to be. I’m not asking for anything specific – I’m not fussy about green shoes or blue glass or whatever. Just, you know… I’ll know it when I see it.”
Down near the point, the beach was littered with knots of black-green kelp, broken driftwood; it looked like the ocean had vomited up everything dark and tangled within it. The storm at sea had wreaked havoc in the space of a few hours. The surf line was an entirely different shape than it had been that very morning and the beach was black and damp far up onto shore. The ridge of sand was high and jagged.
And then I saw them. Within a space of fifty yards, right along the ledge of sand -- three dead birds.
Seagulls, right in a row. And not just dead, but mangled: gray and oily, deflated, slender necks broken and wrenched at odd angles, wings twisted, beaks open. They were plastered up against the sand shelf as if they had been just sitting there, maybe sleeping or preening, when a sneaker wave swelled ashore and slammed their light bodies, their fragile bones, brutally into the ridge.
“Seriously?” I cried out. “DEAD BIRDS?! That’s what you’ve got for me? I ask for a small token of encouragement, a little Malibu magic and I get DEAD BIRDS? No green shoe, no blue glass, no dolphin families? Just three violently deceased seagulls?”
That night I couldn’t sleep.
It was like, a fully Dickensian haunting. The ghosts of essays past and blog posts present, the black-cloaked specter of careers that will never be because I couldn’t get my damn act together. The rag pickers, the laundresses and charwomen, laughing as they sorted through the worst drafts of my old poems, work I was too precious about, auditions I blew, collaborations I botched.
“Open my bundle, Old Joe, and let me know the value of it!”
All the things I should have been by now. Every time I upbraided my children undeservedly. My envy. My lofty yogic pontifications. My selfishness and discontent. My naval gazing.
"That's your account," said Joe, "and I wouldn't give another sixpence, if I was to be boiled for not doing it.”
I tossed and turned and sweated. The ocean outside my shuttered door sounded rough and endless, dreadful.
Somehow I finally fell asleep I guess, because suddenly I was waking up, not to the sound of Christmas church bells, like Scrooge, but to peacefully lapping waves, chirping birds, and early sunlight streaming through the slatted window. Everyone else was still asleep.
I took my journal, a pen, and a towel and tiptoed out the door and down the long steep path to the beach. It was an absolutely clear, blue, mistless, smogless morning. A Monday. The beach was empty.
I sat on the beach and wrote in my journal for a long time. I recounted the strange events of the day before. And I felt, actually, at peace. Like everything was ok. Like, in Rilke's famous words --
“In this there is no measuring with time, a year doesn’t matter, and ten years are nothing. Being an artist means: not numbering and counting, but ripening like a tree, which doesn’t force its sap, and stands confidently in the storms of spring, not afraid that afterward summer may not come. It does come. But it comes only to those who are patient, who are there as if eternity lay before them, so unconcernedly silent and vast. I learn it every day of my life, learn it with pain I am grateful for: patience is everything!”
I went for a long run. I felt inexplicably light, viscerally unburdened.
I ran all the way down Zuma, along PCH, then turned and ran back out toward the Point.
The beach was unrecognizable from the day before. As I neared the Point, I noticed that the whole area, which yesterday had been like something out of a Hitchcock film, was pristine. No seaweed, no foul fowl corpses. Just flat, white, clean sand –
and glittering with a gravel of small stones and sea glass.
I ended my run and bent down to look for little goodies. Before long I had a large handful of sea glass, the usual green, brown, white. I also found a very interesting orange one.
In my head, I started writing about all this, amusing myself with a debate over which outcome would make a better ending to the story? She finds a beautiful piece of cobalt glass... or not? A little too neat, maybe? Too big-red-bow-ish? Or, what if something truly implausible happened… a seagull drops a piece of cobalt glass at my feet. Oh, better yet – surprise twist – my Ray-bans wash up. A dolphin, wearing my sunglasses swims by. I was rather entertained by these thoughts, but also, given my history with the place, aware that anything can happen.
Just then, someone spoke.
“Did you come out at dawn to get all the good ones?”
I looked up. A jogger was coming toward me; a man, probably in his fifties.
I laughed and said, “Hey, I got up really early to be the first one here.”
He stopped near me, and wiped sweat from his brow with the back of his arm. “You know,” he said, “it only counts if you find the blue or the red ones.”
I jumped up, whirled around and punched this perfect stranger; socked him square in the shoulder.
“That’s exactly what I’m looking for,” I exclaimed.
“Sure,” he said, not seeming to find any of this strange, even getting clocked by a strange woman at the beach. “Those are the most special. The blue are very old bottles and the red are the taillights of cars from the 1950s and 60s.”
He told me about his huge collection of sea glass. Jars and jars full of every color. And about a woman he met on the beach one day who had just found a large pink sea glass egg.
“Don’t worry,” he said, “You’ll find some.” And he jogged on.
Naturally, I found a little blue sliver just a few minutes after he passed by. But really the magic was in the moment with the jogger.
About a half hour later, I was getting ready to climb back up to the house. It was past time to pack and go to the airport. I stood at the edge of the water and had that thought again – I cannot leave here.
I debated whether to get in the water and swim. While I stood there weighing the relative merits of no last swim vs. a five-hour flight with sand in my hair, the jogger came by again.
“Hey - I found one!” I called out to him.
He nodded as if this was obvious. Then he stopped and came over to me.
“Live around here?” He asked
“No,” I said, “New York. I used to live out here though. And this was my favorite beach. I come back whenever I can.”
He asked what had brought me there now, and I told him about the retreat. Then, inexplicably, I went into confessional mode. “Sometimes when I’m here, on this beach, I get this feeling that -- I physically cannot leave.”
He nodded, as if this too, were a simple, plain truth.
Then he said, “A member of the Chumash Nation told me, ‘Once you have heard the call of the dolphins of Malibu you are changed. You can try to explain it to people, but…” he shook his head knowingly, “they won’t understand.’”
He shrugged, and went on. “The ocean is calling your heart back to it, and now -- you need to be here.”
I stood in stunned silence. My heart was pounding, and I could barely breathe but for some reason I felt compelled to act nonchalant. I’d already punched the guy, how much weirder could I seem?
He held up his hand for a high five. “We have a saying at Zuma beach – girls don’t leave till they take a swim. Now get in the water.” He jogged away with a wave.
After a moment, I called out after him. “My name is Jenny,” I said. “I write a blog. You’re going to show up in it.”
He yelled his name over his shoulder and said, “I’m on Facebook. You’ll find me...”
I’ve only told that story to a couple people. I’m afraid it makes me sound just a wee bit... touched. I’ve been eager to share it with the women who were on the retreat with me, but it’s been so difficult to get it all written down.
One day, weeks after the retreat, as I was going over it all again, trying to figure out how to write about it without sounding hopelessly precious and possibly insane, I got a surprise package in the mail from one of those very women. It sat all day in a pile of mail.
That evening, I was in the kitchen, dinner on the stove, kids at the dining table doing homework and squabbling. My laptop was perched on the counter, on top of the mail pile and permission slips and homework with milk spilled on it, where in the midst of the suppertime chaos I was trying to squeeze in a few more minutes of writing. Yoga retreats, Topanga Canyon, the glittering Pacific...they all seemed far away, and here I was, in my real, messy, full, frustrating, good life.
I slipped the package out from under my computer and opened it.
Inside was a slim, shiny silver bracelet, inscribed on the back --
I am exactly where I need to be
July 2016... Tuesday
After my morning run in the canyon and some writing time, we head out to the beach. It's Eric's first visit to the ocean since he arrived, and his turn to choose. He wants to go out to Malibu. It's my first trip to Point Dume since we got here, and my stomach flutters as we drive toward it along PCH.
The water is unusually calm, and the kids swim and boogie board for awhile, then Eric and Hutch take off down the beach to go out to the Point.
I'm watching Violet play at the edge of the water. She's a little scavenger and creature seeker, forever digging up sand crabs, naming them things like Sandy and Crabby and Harold, making them temporary pets.
I sit there remembering the craziness of my last visit, and going over the essay I still had not finished about what happened on the beach that weekend. I recall the silly ideas I'd had about what would make the best ending to the story. I think about the green shoe, and the cobalt glass and the dolphins.
Violet has been intently fishing around in one spot for a while. Now she gets up and runs over to me with something in her hand. I expect to be introduced to a new friend, maybe Salty or Muffin this time.
"I thought maybe you would want these," she says, and hands me -- pinky swear -- a perfect pair of Ray-ban wayfarers, dripping wet and sandy, right out of the ocean.
I wear them on my second run that day, along the edge of the water, down to the Point and back.
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.
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...
...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. Maybe it belongs, especially 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...
My favorite joke -- Violet found it in a book -- goes like this:
Control freak. Now, you say, "control freak who?"
This post is an unwieldy thing. My thoughts are all over the place, and even though I know it's all related somehow, I can't seem to tie things together, get a grip on a cohesive whole.
It's like knitting a sweater that unravels in my hands even as my needles click along.
I've had to just let go and write, try to release my notions of neatness, completeness.
This morning, Eric and the kids left Topanga. They're driving up north to visit his family. I'll join them in a few days, but for now, I'm on my own in the canyon.
Where have two and half weeks gone?
As they packed up, loaded the car, took a last dip in the pool, bid the doggies goodbye, a heaviness settled over me. I miss them, achingly, already. And, too, their departure forces me to face the fact that my own prized time here is winding down.
When Eric first told me his plan to leave early, I resisted. I clung to the idea of a full three weeks in Topanga together, not just as a timeframe, but as a concept, part and parcel of my SUMMER | unscripted project: fully present with my work and fully present with my family. To cut it even a little bit short felt foolish, wasteful, like cheating the kids, squandering a perfect gift.
But there's a family reunion up there that he doesn't want to miss, and I have the dogs to care for here and work to do, so I can't leave yet.
And whether or not this was part of the reasoning behind it, it was an act of generosity on his part, toward me and my writing.
I had to let them go, and graciously.
The first time I ever heard the term control freak was in reference to me.
I'm a freshman in college. A senior guy is paying some attention to me. I don't know him very well; I've been cast in a scene for his first semester final in Directing class, Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf? He seems nice enough; he's attractive, with scrunchy eyes, bushy brows and thick brown hair that sticks up in tufts. He's kind of a sweaty sort, self-consciously earnest and sensitive, perhaps cultivating the tortured soul vibe. If asked to describe himself in one word, he might choose intense, or maybe even iconoclast. I can tell he thinks he has a lot to teach me, just a shit-ton of 22-year old wisdom about things like Life, The Theatre, and Edward Albee to impart.
We work through the scene a few times and he wraps up rehearsal for the day. The guy playing "George" leaves. I sit down on a bench and look over my script, eager to impress, to please, with my assiduous good student-actor overtime. The student-director sits down behind me, straddling the bench, and pulls me close so that I'm leaning back almost against him; he begins massaging my shoulders in an exaggeratedly supportive gesture. His touch is warm and maybe just slightly skeevy, very firm, to show me he knows what he's doing.
"Feel that?" he asks.
"Uh, yeah," I wince. He's digging really hard, but I don't want him to think I can't take it, can't match his intensity.
"That's a biiiig knot right there."
He makes small talk while kneading my left trapezius, first with his thumb, then his elbow, asking me about my classes, my roommate, where I'm from. He compliments my outfit, tells me I'm "a very mature actress for a freshman."
"Not a lot of 19-year old women can play 'Martha,'" he continues.
Now, to be sure, no 19-year old has any business playing 'Martha,' and deep down I suspect this, even in the moment, but all I can think is, Oh my gosh, that's the first time anyone ever called me a woman.
"Thanks," I say, trying to be cool about it, thinking I must be awfully good in the scene.
I can hear the wry smile in his voice. "It's because you're such a control freak."
I instantly register that this is not a compliment, certainly not in artistic circles; it doesn't sound very actressy. Aren't I supposed to be a free spirit, someone who can let it all hang gloriously out?
Control freak sounds like a tax attorney.
I feel my shoulders springing up toward my ears, but I laugh to let him know he doesn't get to me, "Oh, really?"
He wedges the heel of his hand against a tense spot along my thoracic spine and makes little niggling circles, speaks in an irritatingly gentle voice, "You don't have to get defensive."
Defensive? Who's defensive?
"It's ok," he says, "I'm a control freak too." This has a vaguely lascivious undertone, intended, I gather, to suggest that in all his maturity, he has learned how to channel this natural proclivity not only into good art but also good sex.
I left Eric and the kids at an Avis rental place on Ventura Blvd. at 10 a.m. and turned toward home to start working.
I'm breathless, my heart is riding suffocatingly high in my chest with the sense of my own aloneness, the yawning span of usable time before me. Also I feel inexplicably hungry, ravenous. I'm thrilled and grateful for the time to myself, but it feels, paradoxically, way too big and empty, and way too short.
Because now I really have to produce something.
It's only three days. I can hardly be expected to turn out The Brothers Karamazov. But suddenly the freedom feels like a kind of pressure.
I have a lot of things I want to squeeze into three days of solitude:
Write, at length, daily
Run canyon trails
Run on beach
Explore the little village of Topanga
Study the geological and anthropological history of Topanga
Spend time at Point Dume, looking for signs and wonders
Spend hours writing at favorite cafe in Venice
Swim in pool under the stars, while contemplating meaning of existence, or at least of this project
Swim in ocean, while contemplating ways to become full time beach bum
One brief social engagement (preplanned; still a maybe)
But first, I thought I ought to do these things:
Stop in Target; buy mascara, toilet paper, 2 new swimsuits for Hutch so he can choose, gum, Liquid Plumber
Stop at Ralphs, Trader Joes, and Sprouts to grocery shop for a few items I need to replenish for hosts
Start a load of laundry
Make decadent dirty vodka martini with gorgonzola-stuffed olives bought at Sprouts; drink it at laptop
Take nap at laptop
Stalk the control freak guy on FB, see what he's up to these days
I've literally done everything I can think of to avoid doing the one thing I should be doing, which of course, is writing.
This futile and counterproductive self-soothing process is interspersed with excruciating spells at the desk, actually writing, or trying to, until approximately 6 pm, when, neck stiff, ankles swollen, very little of any value on the page yet, and all hope generally lost, I decide I must repair to the beach to run and swim.
Damn, one day gone and now I just feel truly panicked. I can't seem to get settled, to bring anything into focus. Nothing I'm thinking, writing, feeling makes any sense. I can't get control of the moment or the story.
Unscripted alone time, as any parent of young kids (without full-time help) will tell you, is very hard to come by, a precious commodity.
The need to go off on my own and write in total privacy, to find a rhythm not dictated by three square meals, the school day, errands, bedtimes, sometimes makes me quite desperate. It's the impetus behind the retreat (two, if possible) I take each year. I blissfully write for 8, 10, 12 hours at a stretch for a week or so. I plan my away days in strict detail; I'll bang out five hours of writing on the airplane getting to the retreat.
Normal, day-to-day discipline is vital, of course, but even when I'm actually disciplined, which isn't always, I've found I can take a project only so far on that; then I really require a period of isolation to let everything else go and just disappear into the work at hand. If I can't carve out that time, I get a little crazy, a little despondent, the project loses steam and appeal.
There's a cyclical endlessness to homemaking, (even those aspects that I genuinely love), and when it comes between me and the creative work I'm for some reason compelled to do, I either give up or get extendedly pissed off. It's always the writing that goes out the window, not the vacuuming. And it's not just about what the house looks like, it's what the inside of my head looks like when my home is in chaos. When I sit down to work, the first thing I do is dust my desk. There you have it.
If I really allow myself to get lost in the work, I'm irritable when I'm interrupted, impatient with the children, snappish at Eric. Sometimes my hands actually shake. Or, if I keep up with all that needs to be done at home, I shortchange my work by never really digging in, which means I never finish anything, and that makes me frustrated and resentful, impatient with the children, and snappish at Eric.
A decade into motherhood, I've not yet mastered the art of switching gears quickly, making the most of short snatches of time.
I feel terrible when I'm not truly present for my sweet kids, and know I will regret it; and I feel terrible if I'm not producing anything worthwhile creatively, and know I will regret it.
I hold it all rather tightly.
I haven't written much under the SUMMER | unscripted subheading of Ocean Days, but we've spent a lot of afternoons at various beaches, after I've finished my canyon encounter and subsequent writing for the day.
Maybe, subconsciously, the Canyon Days writing feels like the real work, while the Ocean Days writing, which in a sense reflects our playtime, doesn't seem legit, though I always intended it to be a significant part.
The reality, as any kind of artist, is that you’re never off the clock, never feel like you can take a vacation -- partly because your passion for work drives you and you see everything though that lens, partly because you don't want to miss any opportunity that might be important (a submission deadline, an audition)…
and partly because you secretly worry that everyone thinks you're perpetually on vacation.
(Defensive? Who's defensive?)
The Pacific ocean draws me toward it, like an irresistible psychic low tide with all the gravitational force of the full, shining moon. I can feel it from way up here on the mountain; it tugged at me constantly when we lived in the San Fernando Valley; and clear across the country, at my desk in New York City, it laps at my consciousness, leaves a wet, salty film that clouds my existence there.
Our whole family, to some degree -- perhaps Hutch and I most of all -- feel like the Southern California coast is our natural habitat. This is as powerful as it is inexplicable; I was born in Buffalo, for pete's sake. Sometimes it feels like our unaccountably good life in New York City -- ties strong and real, both emotional and practical -- is, in a way, the velvet handcuffs.
Hutch and I are the early risers in the family. I get up and make coffee, do my morning pages, spend a half hour alone, quiet before the morning madness begins.
When he comes up to join me, he tells me how long he's been awake... Since 6. Since 5:30. Or all night, never slept a wink. (uh-huh).
"Well, what have you been doing all this time?" I ask.
The answer is always the same.
"Telling myself a story."
Venice Beach is sprawling and flat, the slope out to sea long and shallow. Big combers crest some 50 yards offshore and come rolling in slowly to tumble you in a salty milkshake of soft froth. It's a young boogie boarder's dream.
Hutch wants to be in the water every minute. He can entertain himself for hours, but much prefers to have the whole family in all at once. He and I swim together a lot, having body surfing contests and laughing our heads off when one of us face plants. We happily suffer skinned knees and swimmer's ear for the visceral and spiritual pleasure of pure abandonment to the water.
You do have to be careful. Rip tides crop up quickly in unexpected places and if you go in too far you can find yourself suddenly in a whorl of crisscrossing currents, paddling away and going nowhere.
Hutch had that experience once last week. He was never in real danger; it wasn't deep, the pull lasted only few seconds, and Eric was right there with him, but for a moment he had that feeling of helplessness, loss of control.
He got over the scare quickly, lesson learned, and described the experience to me in excruciating detail. Twice.
Now, each time we catch a wave and pop up out of the bubbling surf, he says, “So, mom, that one…” and then proceeds to illuminate the finer points of his interaction with that particular breaker.
Usually, by the time I take a writing retreat -- once every six months at most, and this last time, a whole year got away in between -- things have reached a kind of critical mass. I simply cannot wait a second longer.
But this time feels different.
I'd found a rhythm here, with the family hanging around. If I sometimes I found myself fighting to finish an essay, and the kids were impatient, and I shooed them away, put them off, scolded them -- well, they know that the writing is why we're here; it's why they have the pool and the yard now, and the ocean later. That was the plan, the control in the experiment, the script in unscripted. It was almost as if having that inertia, the pushback, was giving my daily writing necessary, productive urgency.
Then off they went, of their own volition, and left me without a prefab frame for my day, without a new idea burning a hole in my notebook, and all alone to do the slow letting go of Topanga.
I'm surprised what a hard time I'm having getting my bearings, how adrift I feel in the circumstances... and in the day's (days') writing... which, it turns out, is about that very issue.
Family. Can't work with 'em, can't work without 'em.
Sometimes I think about the time before I had kids. I know I felt very busy, but I literally cannot remember what I was doing. Why didn't I write my Brother's Karamazov while I had the chance?
Maybe the reason I feel like I'm not getting anywhere a lot of the time is that I wait for the muse to speak to make a real start. Maybe I haven't really disciplined myself to work with or without a plan. Maybe it's all well and good when the canyon feels chatty, but I don't really know how to dive headlong into uncharted waters-- unstructured free time, an unplanned essay, a genuine improvisation -- and just keep treading till the lifeboat arrives.
Perhaps I need to consider whether the obstacles -- and their doppelgänger, artistic agoraphobia -- aren't about my family at all, but are within me.
At some point in college, I had to take one of those quasi Myers Briggs tests designed to tell you something profound about yourself. This one, apparently, was some psychometric meant to help me choose a major and commensurate Life's Work.
I labored over the obscure and seemingly unrelated questions, answering as honestly as I could, though probably with an eye toward a certain desired result -- thinking it would probably return career suggestions falling somewhere on the artistic spectrum between Bohemian Goddess and Poet Laureate. Or simply and clearly, Sarah Bernhardt.
When the points were tallied, the verdict in, you know what my best career match was?
Air Traffic Controller.
The point is, it's damn hard work for me to be a free spirit.
Point Dume, in Malibu, is my favorite beach. I have a weird kismet with the place -- even as I find the idea absurd, magical things seem to happen to me there, signs and wonders I find hard to ignore. (Read the Button Jar and the Green Shoes)
Plus, there are often dolphins, sea lions, even whales remarkably close to shore. The sunsets are astonishing.
The surf is a little rough, though. The beach banks sharply toward the water, and the waves crest just before they hit the sand in a cloud of gravelly foam. They're at full force only a few feet offshore.
If you wade in just shin deep, the powerful surges come and crash over you; they can knock you down if you're not prepared. And the undertow right there is strong; it grabs at your legs and if your feet are planted in the sand, the force of the pull can hurt your knees.
It's intimidating water.
When I'm there with the kids, I can't really relax. I'm helicoptering the whole time.
Despite the lushy sound of a gorgonzola olive martini alone at noon on Saturday, I'm not much of a drinker. I don't like the feel of slurred words on my tongue, the room swaying, or that sense that my brain is encased in feathers. I'm clumsy enough without adding inebriation; I've spent half my life just trying to figure how to stay vertical and not fall over randomly, which I still do pretty frequently. That’s one of the reasons I love yoga -- its the only area in my life where I have achieved a measure of success in balancing.
I like to feel in possession of my faculties. Relaxing, to me, letting go, is a grueling yoga workout, followed by a good sweaty melt in savasana.
To be a "freak" about anything, including control, has such unpleasant connotations.
I prefer to think of myself as attentive to detail, or as having a strong sense of coherent narrative.
If I tend to hold on a bit tightly, well, that's just an occupational hazard for someone compelled to make stuff she feels passionate about, safely raise two decent children, and, you know, keep the planet on its axis.
A few days after the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, a parent at school -- I honestly can't even remember who it was anymore -- came up to talk to me.
She spoke in a low tone. "I just thought you'd want to know," she said, "that your son is... telling stories about the shooting."
Her words were gentle, but there was a detectable undercurrent of reproach in her voice.
"Of course it's all very confusing for them, but apparently he's telling other kids that he knows someone that was there and saw the whole thing." She gave more detail, recoiling. "You might want to talk to him."
I didn't know what to do. In the moment, I was mortified. The implication was that my 8-year old was sensationalizing, getting a perverse thrill somehow out of exaggerating his knowledge of and connection to an incomprehensible tragedy. And, by proxy, that I, as a parent, had perhaps not dealt with the situation appropriately.
But I know my kid, his almost worrisome sensitivity, his emotional intelligence; I knew instinctively that he wasn't doing something gratuitous. I wanted to understand, and I knew I had to tread very gingerly.
The fact is, we have family in Newtown. Hutch's "twin" cousin (7 days apart, almost to the hour), attends the elementary school across town, and was on lockdown for hours, so sickeningly close, and yet, not there.
I realized that for Hutch, struggling to digest not only the facts, the horror of what had happened, but the disturbingly few degrees of separation, telling a story was a way of trying to gain some infinitesimal measure of power over a darkness that, he suddenly saw, might otherwise engulf him.
What I understood then is that sometimes storytelling, even erroneous, even exaggerated, is our only handle on something too huge to hold.
Didn't we all cling to -- tell and retell -- the story of the person -- "my coworker knows someone who knows..." a woman? a man? a survivor -- who, on 9/11, as the tower collapsed -- was it the north? the south? -- surfed a wave of rubble to safety dozens of stories below. It was, I believe, 11 years before a version of that story was corroborated by a structural engineer who worked in the towers and had actually fallen, softly enough to live, twenty stories in some sort of miraculous updraft of air and debris.
For most of us, most of what we deal with in life is nothing like the immeasurable sorrow and loss, the bottomless letting go that those Newtown and World Trade Center families faced -- a chasm beyond the reach of art.
But when we're the ones on the fringes of those cataclysmic events -- or just, day to day, simply left breathless, speechless by the enormity of life's possibility and peril -- if we can find a way to shape the narrative, we feel we can manage it a little. If I'm an author in some way, I'm not just a character in a story with an unreliable, capricious, sadistic -- or even benevolent -- narrator. To be able to say that someone -- yourself or your acquaintance -- came thisclose to catastrophe or splendor and somehow made it though, "lived to tell the tale," means there is hope, there is order, there is something to hold onto. You can break off a little piece of the vast canyon and squeeze it in your hand. Stories are touchstones. It's the common thread of myth, religion, art -- to reach for a way to translate that which is transcendent, in good ways or bad, into something we can, literally, handle - a book, a painting, a relic. If we can tell a story about something, we have some kind of control, however illusory, over it.
Which of course is what it is -- illusion. We have no control. The unfathomable abyss always surrounds us on all sides. But so does inexhaustible mystery and magnificence.
Sometimes we know we have had a brush with one or the other.
Sometimes, as with the great ocean, they're one and the same.
A year ago right now, I was on plane back to New York, with the kids, after a month in Topanga. We'd been apart from Eric the whole time and couldn't wait to get back to him.
At the same time, I remember how my heart was lurching that morning. Knowing my much wished-for month in the canyon and ocean, my near-perfect summer set-up for side-by-side work and family life, my big creative plan, was over, I couldn't get out fast enough.
Run away, run away before the tide pulls you under and you cannot return to city life.
But that's part of the project too - to do this piece of it, give over to it fully and then say goodbye, close the chapter, let it go.
Time - and not just clock or calendar time - but this particular shrine of time that was circumscribed to be about the work, the canyon, the ocean, the things I cannot get a handle on; the time to tell a story that hopefully somehow holds together, holds me together, makes sense of what in heaven's name I'm trying to do with my life -- 21 days -- is drawing to a close.
Last summer, the first time I did this trip, I sat on the patio with my good friend Genevieve and told her about my high (unrealistic) aspirations for the time -- the need that I felt to justify it, to make it meaningful in some artistic and career sense, how I'd undertaken a ridiculous number of random creative projects, from writing to cooking to making a daily bouquet from the rose garden. I said I didn't really know what it was all about.
"I understand exactly what you're doing," she said, "It’s about finding the beauty in every moment."
I think Hutch needs to tell me the story of each wave because, having come into contact with its unbridled energy and power, he has to translate it into words or be cowed.
What we love best and what scares us most are always tied.
Is it any wonder that Hutch is obsessed with Tsunamis? Could it happen? Will it happen? What happens when one does happen? What are those "Evacuation Route" signs down on Pacific Coast Highway?
Then he explains his elaborate tsunami survival plan.
When I'm In the ocean, without my children around, I close my eyes and swim and float. I don't pop up like a sea lion after every wave and look around, make a headcount.
It's important for me to spend time in the water by myself, to let the big waves lift me and knock me down, and not talk to anyone about it. To actually go in deeper, lose control -- if I let my body do it, then perhaps my mind, heart, breath, and work will follow freely into the churning ocean of unscriptedness.
Whether I'd be better suited or more content as an air traffic controller or tax lawyer than I am as a writer or actor is immaterial.
Creative people aren't different or special or weird, they just have a certain way of processing the universe. Every storyteller, every artist -- despite their persistent cultural stereotype as freewheeling, freeloading, loosey-goosey, hippie-dippie -- is essentially a control freak, with a driving need to make something very exact because it's the only way they can confront the supernovas.
Hutch is a storymaker if ever there was one. Sometimes he wants to tell them to me; sometimes he keeps them to himself, and I wonder what worlds are spinning in that head of his.
I'm always saying, "You need to write these stories!"
But he struggles hard with a blank page; I have seen how lost and overwhelmed and shut down it can make him feel if it's forced on him. Sometimes his hands actually shake.
I'll go out to Point Dume this evening. It's a mystical time of day there. The sea color deepens, and the white caps turn pink, the cliffs glow gold in the setting sun.
I'll run in the sand till I'm hot and sweaty, and then get in the ocean and let the waves work me over.
I think I've got mermaid blood. I'm never afraid of the water. But for a long time, I couldn't bring myself to get in and swim at Point Dume. I'd stand at the edge and splash around, look for shells, micromanage my kids and Eric. I'd pretend I was content with that experience. It was my favorite beach, but truly, it brought out my fear, the control freak in me.
But I've discovered - (well, full disclosure, Eric showed me) - that just beyond the break point of the waves, the water is calm and shallow, almost currentless, the swimming divine.
You have to get past the heaving water's edge; you have to go all in. It's not for the timid, no place for those who don't want to get their hair wet and tangled, their pants full of gravel.
Very tall waves begin to swell and curl just a little further out; they look scary. But if you relax and let go, lift your feet, stop resisting the wave and go with it, it will curl you into its roiling belly and give you a breathtaking thrill ride; it's not gentle, it's not neat and clean, but it will carry you all the way in, depositing you, sandy and sputtering, safely on shore.
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.
Canyon Days - Part 6:
Lord, is it I?
There's a funny story in my family about my grandmother (you can read more about her in my STYLE post, The Button Jar & the Green Shoes). Sometime in the 1950s I think, when her kids were little and before there were immunizations for such things, she got a whopping case of the mumps.
She woke one morning, feeling very unwell, and in her aching and feverish state, wandered into the bathroom, where my grandfather was shaving. Observing herself in the vanity mirror, swollen and lumpy, she is rumored to have said, in a hoarse whisper, "Lord, is it I?"
On my morning run, I'm drenched. Literally dripping sweat all over the place only a few minutes in. It's not too hot, but very sticky - New York City humid - in the canyon as the late morning sun begins, here and there, to poke through a heavy marine layer.
The gray morning has made me sluggish and groggy, and as I slog along the trail, some very determined flies buzz around me, which I take to mean that either I have, in fact, perished in the canyon and just haven't realized it yet; or, more likely, that I've perhaps lately been wearing somewhat less deodorant than is technically necessary to get the job done properly.
No buzzards seem to be hovering, so I trust it's the latter.
I get home from the run and hop, sweaty and dusty, into the car for a quick and very necessary grocery store trip. Trader Joe's is fairly empty at this time on a weekday morning, so I don't worry too much about my disheveled state. (This backfired on me terribly one time when I went to yoga basically in my pajamas, with last night's mascara stuck to my lids and lashes, got real sweaty and smeared it around some more, stopped at the store and ran smack into Jason Bateman in the milk aisle.) But I just don't have time to get gorgeous for grocery shopping and write anything worth writing.
Back home, still unwashed but at least mostly dried off, I put on a comfy sundress and plunk down at my laptop with a cup of coffee. I fish my little notebook out of the fanny pack I take with me in the mornings, and start pulling together my notes into something that might possibly pass for a blog post.
I look up and it's six hours later.
Mad scramble. Must assemble provisions for romantic picnic under the stars at the Hollywood Bowl for Sinatra's 100th Birthday Celebration, which I gave to Eric for his birthday last month. (If you've never been to a concert at the Bowl, add it to your bucket list right now.)
In the morning I bought cheese and crackers, various dips and spreads, and wine (though Eric rightly pointed out, too late, that the occasion really called for highballs). It was all in the fridge, waiting to be organized, properly prepared and put in the cooler, but the day sort of got away from me and suddenly I have no time to get it - or myself - ready.
I leave on my sundress, change from flip flops to wedges, throw the food in a bag and out we go, dropping the kids at sleepovers en route. In the car I put on red lipstick. That's the extent of my primping for date night. Classy. Fortunately the Bowl is casual, though if I 'd known we'd run into Allison Janney in the parking lot I might have taken more care to be sure I looked and smelled good enough to rub elbows.
I have two favorite songs I'm really hoping to hear - Come Fly with Me and In the Wee Small Hours - they're # 2 & 3 in the lineup tonight. My life is charmed.
When the Count Basie Orchestra plays You Make Me Feel So Young, I turn to Eric lovingly and chime in, "Even when I'm old and gray, I'm going to feel the way I dooooo today," to which he deadpans, "You are old and gray."
I glower at him, annoyed, kind of horrified. Way to kill the moment, dude.
"I'm kidding!" he says. This, from the guy who is always saying things like, "Natural is beautiful."
In the second half they play a lot of warm, sexy, soothing bossa nova numbers. I love these songs, but with the starry night and the cool breeze and the wine, I keep nodding off and falling over onto Eric's shoulder and then waking up to applaud each number, acting like I remember what it was.
I simply cannot keep my eyes open.
To be fair, I've only been sleeping five, maybe six hours a night, taking long run/hike sessions every morning, writing till mid-afternoon, then starting the daily playdate with the family. We eat dinner really late, then there's baths and stories and songs, and the dishwasher to load and the dogs to put out. And then, for some reason I'm just not sleepy. I read till I drift off. I'm in love with the rhythm of these summer days - I feel tried, but productive, challenged creatively and inspired, strong and healthy, happy, fulfilled, in my element. I feel, in fact, beautiful. I imagine myself looking like some wild wood nymph or sun-streaked earth mother.
Then again, I haven't really seen myself in days.
The next morning I take a good hard gander in the mirror. We're having dinner with old friends tonight, and I simply must be presentable.
My face is tan, with white raccoon eyes where the sunglasses have been. I like my rosy glow, but at my age the tan is very naughty. I'm maniacal about sunscreen, but I can see crinkles where I've been squinting. My eyes are puffy because I ate a lot of salty potato chips at the concert. My legs are scratched and scabby, and I have all sorts of bizarre tan lines from sports clothing - the worst of which is very bronze lower legs and glowing white thighs. Not a look.
I take my hair out of the messy bun it's been knotted into for... how many days? At first it doesn't move. It just sort of stays up on it's own, like the Bride of Frankenstein. It's stiff and resists heartily when I attempt to manipulate it downward; maybe it doesn't want me to see its truly shocking roots. I AM old and gray! The California sun does a number on hair color. But it's not just that; my head, at what was once sort of my part, is crusty with Malibu sand, sea salt, sweat, and just general scalpishness.
Lord, is it I?
I look crazy! What has happened to me? I'm hardly high-maintenance, but I've been so deep in this project, I seem to have neglected every basic tenet of personal hygiene and good grooming. I love what I'm working on, and even though I don't know exactly what it's meant to be in the end, it feels right. Maybe this is a necessary part of the journey, but the path, literal and figurative, seems to have led me far away from my image of myself... at least the one I want to present to the world.
I bust out a box of hair color and really go to town. I give myself a right loofah-ing. I deep condition. I put on mascara. Use one spritz too many of perfume. Pull a real outfit out of my suitcase, accessorize. Don the peep-toe booties that trumped proper trail shoes when I packed.
I look like me again.
But from time to time throughout the evening with our dear and lovely, sophisticated, accomplished, creative, generous friends, I find myself distracted, wondering if the crazy lady I met in the mirror this morning is showing. I don't want them to see me that way, unkempt, au naturel, out of control. These are people who happily made a mindful and absolutely reasonable, respectable decision not to have children; I feel an immense amount of self-imposed pressure to demonstrate that as a mother/artist I can do it all, have it all, keep it together, and look damn good doing it. Which it's clear to me is simply not the case.
I feel a little jealous of their house and two car garage with two cars in it. Their quantifiable careers. Their dishwasher. I cover by acting just terrifically bougie, discussing real estate I can't afford, and throwing around the names of cuts of meat I've never tried.
Then they ask me about what I'm working on and I'm unusually inarticulate... though unfortunately that doesn't make me less talkative.
Describing my blog I sound, in my own ears, like a blithering idiot. Worse, like I don't really know, at 43, what the hell I'm doing in my life and work. All my projects, these things I'm losing sleep over, come across as unformed, cockamamie, boring and hopelessly twee. I think one screen-fatigued eye is twitching. I'm not the least bit drunk, but what difference does it make? I'm acting like I am. I giggle nervously and also feel like I might go in the bathroom and cry. Is it this morning's canyon fog hanging around me, clouding everything?
We have an ironic conversation about some "reality" shows for which reasonably normal people make themselves out to be genuine weirdos just to be on TV. (Of course it could be argued that that itself makes one fundamentally not normal, but you get my point.)
I said, "Oh, I could never do that, I'm way too vain! I couldn't humiliate myself by putting on some truly ridiculous persona just because I thought it would make me famous."
And yet - I have to laugh - for some reason I'm perfectly willing to reveal all kinds of embarrassing actual things about myself, not because I think it'll make me famous, but because I'm trying to zero in on what it is to be a "regular Jenny," to maybe get closer to something that might ring true in an everywoman way. And ironically enough I called this iteration of it, Summer | unscripted.
I love funny and honest, I hate precious. But I can't concern myself with that here. I just have to tell the truth.
One of the things I loved about Sinatra's 100th Birthday concert (I was awake for this part) is that Seth MacFarlane -- a prodigiously talented writer, comedian, voice artist who has made a career out of his hilariously sardonic point of view, and who it turns out is also a wonderful musician -- sang a bunch of "charts." Now, as way cool as the Rat Pack were, their music was never cynical; it was heartfelt and schmaltzy and vulnerable, and I love that Seth totally went there, revealed something, waxed sentimental in song. I love that he puts himself out there like that. It takes more guts in a way than being a smart ass, even a brilliant one.
I think, if I may be so bold, that if I have a strength as a creative person, it's in seeing the connections between things that aren't obviously related. Little by little, that's what my encounter with the canyon is revealing itself to be about. And sometimes it's dirty work -- uncomfortable, vulnerable, embarrassing, even a little precious -- to reveal, in words what the canyon has to "say." Sometimes I come away muddy and bleeding, with bad hair and sunburn. Sometimes it leaves me with a mump-sized lump in my throat, and I don't look good doing it.
I have to be okay with that
It is I.
Canyon Days - Part 5:
Beyond the Labyrinth
Back to my regular path today.
It's time to revisit the labyrinth.
Although there's been another afternoon of heavy rain, this path, unlike yesterday's, has no mud issues. I can see where the water ran, and the path feels stonier, so maybe some sand has been washed away, but the trail is perfectly serviceable, and I'm glad to be back on it.
A short way along the path a tree is down. There was no lightning storm here, so it must have just been the hours and hours of heavy rain. What a shock to the system of this dry gray tree.
It's humid and buggy this morning; things land on me, stick to me. I'm not sure how far I'll go. My feet are tired and complaining. I have real trail running shoes at home in New York; I even had them in my suitcase for awhile. But they're bulky and packing them would've meant leaving behind a rockin pair of peep toe booties, so out came the trail shoes and in went lightweight running shoes and the booties. The rocky path is hard on my feet without a sturdy tread, but... fish gotta swim.
I decide to go down the labyrinth path first, instead of on the home stretch. This is slightly lazy, but I promise myself I'll put in a real run afterward. Right before the turn off I discover something extraordinary. Someone has built a rock sculpture, a sort of altar of stones and shiny objects, on a boulder right at the edge of the trail. Could this have been here all along and I missed it? Would it even have stood the heavy rain? Did someone actually build this thing this morning, before 8:00?
At first glance it's just some piles of stones, but look close: the way they're structured and balanced is quite intricate and deliberate, at places, a feat of physics I don't quite understand.
And whimsical features have not been spared. A pair of broken sunglass stems with little rhinestones flank a large shard of blue mirror glass; they catch the sunlight, flicker as you move past. Wink wink. I wonder if this is the work of the labyrinth maker. Seeing this reminds me to take more interest in the beauty of the different types of canyon rock. Especially the smooth, soft-feeling, red- and orange-veined sandstone.
I turn down the path toward the labyrinth, but realizing that I've never followed this trail beyond it, I pass by the labyrinth and keep going. It doesn't actually go much further. The trail peters out; little branches that at first seem promising reveal only a few small clearings where it looks like people sit sometimes, maybe spread a blanket and rest or eat. Or coyotes make a nest or something.
The main thing that stops the path is a tree. From up the trail it looks quite large, I guess, but much like any other tree around here. But since the path dead-ended here, I thought I better see if the tree was some sort of destination.
I walk beneath a low hanging branch and into the canopy of a vast, majestic cathedral of an oak tree. I can't figure out how its size is so deceiving from the outside. I walk around inside its cool canopy, snapping photos from every angle, but none of them comes close to capturing the scope of the thing. I wish I had something better than a little point and shoot camera, but then, anything more would be too cumbersome on a run.
Last year, on a Topanga writing retreat with my dear friend, the marvelous author/mother/shining spirit Jennifer Grant, I took her down to visit the labyrinth. She ventured off on her own after a bit, then came back and summoned me to a tree, just up the path from this one. It too had branches that touched the ground all around, creating a dome, but underneath were two rather primitive swings - one fashioned from a length of pipe and some heavy rope, the other, just a small log hanging from a rope tied at it's center. It was a magical place, and the tree very impressive, but still intimate, familiar somehow, a place for children to play.
This tree is solemn and stately. It welcomes you in, warm but authoritative, invites you to stay, but commands respect and library quiet. I can't help feeling it's a conscious being, with wisdom to impart; I strongly suspect it can talk, and just chooses not to at the moment. I've had this feeling before, in the Redwood Forest.
I spend a long time with the tree, and then apologize to it for doing something as gauche as spending several minutes racing around trying to get a selfie that will express even a fraction of its grandeur.
Eventually, I pull myself away from the tree and head for the labyrinth with the intention of sitting down within its spiral and doing a little writing there, just breathing, listening, waiting for...something.
I enter the labyrinth from the opposite side today, to see if spiraling in the other direction will yield any new ideas. In yoga, you stand on your head to get the blood flow going, but also, to turn your world upside down, which sometimes helps you see things from a new perspective, breaks habitual patterns of perception.
I don't get far before I realize it will be impossible to sit down in the labyrinth, to think and write, meditate, pray, do yoga. A colony of savage looking red ants have invaded. From a small doughnut shaped mound within the spiral, they scurry all over, fanning out in every direction, crossing the labyrinth's paths any which way. They obviously have no respect for the order of things here, or the vibe of the place. I saw a few of them here last year, but nothing like this. Perhaps the rain forced them out of hiding.
I can't stand still even momentarily, for fear they'll swarm my shoes, bite my ankles.
I'm very annoyed and I tell them so. I'm like --
It may interest you creepy little bastards to know that, in addition to seriously crashing my private party, you are desecrating a shrine.
Ants, come to find out, are cheeky buggers. One of them plants a sassy hand on her gaster and says,
Get over yourself, lady. We have as much right to this place as you do. You think you know from labyrinths because a couple times a year you come here and walk through this one with a lot of pretentious reverence? I built ten of these underground before breakfast today, carrying 50 times my own weight.
Ooooh, snap. Honestly, the nerve.
The labyrinth says,
Ok. Break it up, girls. Everybody back to work. Move along now.
So, off I go in search of a new trail.
I run down to the road and cross it, heading for that trail marker that points in no particular direction; today I go left at the fork.
It's a good place to run, soft and sandy, long and gently rolling. It winds toward the hill where the lightning went down the other day. Suddenly I'm running along a high rock cliff; it makes me a little dizzy. I feel like I'm in a very remote place, deep in the canyon, it's so quiet, so secluded; but here the hoof prints of horses, which I find fresh, daily, all along the trail, are denser, so I must be getting close to the source.
The path makes a sharp left where there's a ravine on the right, and begins a steep climb. Close by, I hear someone whistling; the tune isn't familiar to me, but the whistler knows it well and warbles along assuredly.
Where's it coming from? I don't hear the footfalls of any other hiker. I peer through some bushes. On the other side of the gulch, tucked deep into a white rock wrinkle of the canyon, is a stable with a paddock. The whistler is a man in a stetson, grooming a horse. I can only see him from the back; is he young or old? Are these his horses or is he the help? He doesn't turn. Does he know someone is here?
The animal makes a breathy snort; the man clucks at it and says something softly, then goes back to his whistling. His tune, maybe just some silly pop song, doesn't know if it wants to be happy or sad; in the cavernous acoustic mouth of the canyon, it takes on a wistful tremolo that follows me up over the hill and out to the road, which, I'm pretty sure, is the one that will lead back to my home trail.
Wait a minute, you may say.
Whistling cowboys. You're venturing into a treacherous no man's land between Steinbeck novel and David Lynch film. Are you making this shit up?
The feeling of solitude out here is powerful, transporting, even if it's partly illusory. I must be hardly a stone's throw from a neighborhood, but it's hard to remember, as it's nowhere visible. Even just this little corner of Topanga offers endless opportunities to roam, hear unexpected voices, and imagine a backstory for the lonely ranch hand with a haunting song.
The canyon gives what the canyon gives. You never know what you're going to find -- out beyond the labyrinth.
July 20 - Canyon days - Part 4:
After the Rain
When I wake this morning, the canyon is missing.
Has David Copperfield come in the night and made it disappear?
The fog is so thick I can't see much beyond the back yard. The mist is at the window, in a thin white film. The larger window is wide open; it doesn't seem like a screen could keep this fog out, so I look around the room half expecting to see a cloud drifting across the bedroom.
It's 6:45. The whole house is sound asleep. Not even the dogs want to get up this morning. They lift their heads slightly and snuffle at me as I pad by them in my bare feet, thump their tails a time or two, then fall immediately back to snoring.
I take my coffee and my lap top out on the patio. The air is cool, and all is wonderfully still. The fog seems to muffle the morning sounds, even while it intensifies the particular smell of the wet canyon, and lifts it right up to our windows.
It's terribly unoriginal to say you wish you could bottle the scent of something, but I'm a perfume junkie, and if I could capture Topanga in a wearable fragrance I would. Two distinct fragrances, actually -- the canyon on hot sunny days, and the canyon after a rain. Topanga wet and Topanga dry. Those are awful names for perfume. How about Topanga Rain and Topanga Shine? Topanga Mist and Topanga Sun.
The dry canyon scent is warm and straw like, with notes of sand, burnt sage, hot rock, sweet and nutmeggy, like something freshly baked. The canyon after a rain smells like mud and mint, cool stone and damp cedar.
It's that minty smell that's wafting up on the fog this morning, reminding me of my run day before yesterday-
The day after the heavy rain, I venture out on an entirely new route. I don't really know where I'm supposed to enter. I cross Topanga Canyon Blvd and find a small path behind an old fence that seems to indicate it was, at least at one time, a real trail. I've heard there's a whole network of great hikes back in here, though this doesn't seem to be a major trailhead.
I come through some bushes and out onto a tawny meadow, whose color is deepened by the damp. The ground is soft and spongy, and at first the path is mostly flat, so it's very comfortable running.
It leads me gently downhill, heading south for awhile, through clumps of wet trees and brush, still dripping from yesterday's downpour, especially when I come along and disturb the birds. I'm wet, and grass sticks to my legs. This valley, on the morning after a rain, feels more English countryside than parched SoCal canyon.
The path is so pretty and feels so kind on my legs that I want to let go into an all out downhill run, but... well, I may have understated, a couple posts ago, just how deeply phobic of spiders I really am, and how it can hamper my enjoyment of situations like these. Every time I approach a cluster of trees or thicket, I stop and panic a little, my breath short and shaky. Even when I look hard, it can be difficult to see them, the large brown widows, strung on sticky webs between the trees, or the little gray spiders in the grass. No matter how careful I am, I can always feel stringy bits stuck to my perspiring shoulders, and caught in my eyelashes.
So I came up with a system. I carry a stick, preferably with some little twigs fanning out at the end, and wave it in front of me, broom like, whenever I am approaching a danger zone, bringing down webs and their tenants. I look ridiculous and feel a little ashamed that I'm not a more intrepid and respectful outdoors woman, but there it is. I'm overcoming major fear to enter the scrub areas at all.
The path winds around, still headed generally south, then takes a sharp turn right, and heads up a hill, going north. I'm relieved to be in the open, on the grassy hill, out of arachnid territory. But here the path really shows evidence of the rain. Unlike my usual path which is sandy, this trail is dirt, and I can see where little mudslides have formed. I start chugging up the steep slope, but my legs, which had been feeling so good, soon grow sluggish, and the hill feels disproportionately hard. I look ahead; it's a long way up. I take a quick breather and get on with it. Again though, right away I feel so heavy, the incline feels unmanageable.
I'm mad at myself for tiring out so quickly; why am I not in shape to conquer these hills, right out of the gate? I want to be able to hear the Rocky theme thrumming in my head every time I summit some new slope in the canyon. Also, if possible, I'd like my legs to be demonstrably thinner and stronger every day.
I struggle up the hill, increasingly annoyed because, not only are my legs giving out on me, my running shoes are caked with mud. It's not just up in the treads, but squishing up around the outsoles and onto the mesh fabric. Every time I stop to catch my breath, I try to scrape the mud off in the grass or on a rock, but it's sticky and clings to itself -- the more I gather, the more I gather. Each shoe, no lie, is now dragging at least an extra pound of soggy dirt, and its only getting worse. I keep trundling on up, but am now seriously encumbered by the mud, and my own almost inexplicable exhaustion. I decide I must allow myself to just walk as necessary. I honestly can't figure out why this run is so hard.
The route is one of the loveliest I have taken, much more out in the open, and yet the path itself small and hidden, untravelled, with stunning views from angles I haven't seen before. The air is full of the minty smell. But I haven't really been paying attention, I've taken no pictures. I realize I've been so mired in my frustration, my disappointment in myself, that I've been missing much of the beauty on the way. I stop for a few minutes and take it in.
I've come to the the top of this hill, and as I start moving again, just fifty feet beyond where I've been standing, the path very suddenly, unexpectedly comes through some trees and out onto a broad dirt road, a major artery, a well-maintained hiking trail. I have to laugh that this has been right here all the time. It must be the trail I've heard about.
People walking dogs, joggers, day hikers with little backpacks and walking sticks go by in both directions. They seem to be taking the hills in stride. It looks like a right turn will take me back to the boulevard. I pound the mud off my shoes and turn left to follow the trail up over the crest of the hill, to learn more about where it leads. But the incline proves very difficult. I'm almost forty minutes into my run, and the last 20 really wore me out. Not knowing how long I would have to keep going up in order to see the other side is too daunting; I decide that for today, I must turn for home. I'll come back this way again soon, on a dryer day; maybe take the main road first, and venture from there down into the more adventurous trails.
On the way out, there's some relaxing downhill, and then a bunch more grueling uphill before the trail finally deposits me on the busy canyon boulevard, at the "Top of Topanga Overlook," not a half mile from home. I rest on a bench at the vista point, and make some notes. I take one picture: my muddy, scratched, tired legs to remind me of this morning.
At home, I describe the frustrations of my run to Eric and the kids, and Eric comments on the sorry state of my sneakers.
I say, "Gosh, it's really hard to run in mud."
Hutch and Eric, in perfect chorus, reply, "Of course it is."
Of course it is. Of course it is! I'm not just out of shape and lazy. That muddy hillside path was a bitch.
If I'd taken the main road, it would have been a challenge, but I probably could've made it. It's clearly marked and heavily trafficked, well-drained and maintained, navigable by GPS; and it has some great views, and probably leads to some magical places I'm eager to find. It's a good road. It's mud free. Then again, it lacks some things I cherish about the way I came: the minty wet smells, the bronzed grasses, the mysterious turns, the brambles full of songbirds, even the spider webs. They're just different kinds of challenges.
I've spent a lot of time in the last few years feeling bad about myself for not being where I think I "should" be in my creative pursuits, for not making enough money, not being able to precisely quantify my work and "career," and at the same time feeling like I've sometimes been too creatively ambitious and frustrated to be fully present with my family.
Sometimes I forget to cut myself a little slack, on account of the mud.
There are, no doubt, more straightforward paths, ones where hard work and tenacity would almost certainly lead somewhere, a known goal get accomplished. Mine is a twisty, turny, spidery, sticky unsure path, uphill a lot of the way, I can't always see where I'm going, and for long stretches, my only creative output is mud pies with the kids. Oh believe me, I want the path to lead somewhere, the journey to have a destination, demonstrable results to be achieved. But if I'm honest with myself - and this is true for me, not for everyone, and that's as it should be - isn't this exactly the way I would choose again and again?
Of course it is.
Canyon Days - Part 3
Across the road and up into the meadow. I take a trail I've done a couple times before, but follow it further now to see where it goes.
Eric has arrived, and for the first time I'm not constrained by getting home to hungry children who've been allowed to lie in bed and watch cartoons if they wake before I get home. I can take my time. I got a late start though, as we picked Eric up at the airport at almost midnight.
When I woke this morning, the sky over the canyon was dark, not with the usual foggy marine layer, but with heavy, charcoal colored clouds that definitely portended rain. I lounged about with coffee and morning pages, the kids took an early swim, Eric read Don Quixote in the hammock. Somewhere down toward the ocean there was thunder that echoed up through canyon, but it was more of a mumble than a rumble. A little rain finally came, and then the sky brightened. I thought I'd better hit the trail before it got hot.
It's already 8:30 but the familiar trail is fresh after the little sprinkle, not so dusty. I too feel fairly fresh as I start out; I'm surprised my legs aren't very sore from the tough climbs of yesterday's run.
I pass a white-tailed rabbit with very tall, pert, close-set ears who looks at me over his shoulder before darting into the brush; I wonder if he wants me to follow, like Alice. A hummingbird chases me, and, then in the meadow, I have to dodge a large number of jurassic looking, dive bombing dragon flies. Tiny lizards zig zag across the path and disappear down deep cracks in the dirt. The variety and decibel of birdsong is amazing.
I take the trail as far as I've gone before, up to a private property sign, and a beautiful, seemingly lone house at the top of a hill, with an astonishing view east across the canyon. I turn right and follow the path down a hill where, I now see, it emerges in a neighborhood. Here the path grows wide and well-tended, wood-chipped and manicured, with little covered benches for a rest, and carefully curated vista points.
The paved road of the community simply ends and becomes this trail. It's almost impossible to tell what parcels belong to individual homes, and what belongs to the canyon itself, to its visitors. I wonder what it's like to literally have Topanga Canyon as your backyard, where the lines between home and the wild are blurred.
I wind back up to the trail; I've come a ways downhill and turning around, my legs suddenly start to feel the fatigue - the shock of sudden daily trail running after a year of city streets and treadmills... (not to mention a recent 6-week break after a minor Citibike ding-up that messed up my left knee). I've probably got only a mile and a half or so to go from where I am now, but it's mostly uphill running to get out of here and back to the house.
The sun is on me, it's getting hot and I need water. But I might get it in a form I wasn't expecting... in the few minutes I've been running the opposite direction, the sky over the next crest to the east -- I think it's east, how far away is it? I have no sense of how to gauge direction or distance looking over the canyon -- has turned an ominous midnight blue-black, and I can see the broad vertical shaft of rain it's bringing with it. The mumble is now distinctly a rumble, legitimate thunder. Suddenly a sharp bolt of lightning stabs down into the canyon just on the other side of that hill. It occurs to me that I don't know exactly what the proper safety protocol would be on a Santa Monica Mountain trail should the storm catch up with me.
At the road where I cross back onto my "home base" trail, I meet a merry band of mountain bikers coming down out of the path I'm re-entering . Probably twenty in all, they're mostly middle aged bearded fellows, obviously in hearty hill-going condition, if a little paunchy. Before we speak, I have a moment where I wonder if I should feel slightly weird about this -- a woman, alone, headed into a network of narrow trails, some of which are frequented, and some not. But there's no choice, rain is coming and I have to get home; this is the only way I know. Anyhow, they turn out to be very friendly, chatty chaps, a hippie-dippie Hell's Angels, who, as they pass me, each nod or say good morning, and tell me how many more are coming along behind -- which, because I can do basic subtraction, is overkill, but kindly meant.
The second to last rider comes along; he's older than the others, with a gray beard and more of a tummy, sort of the uncle of the group, trying to keep up with the younger set, and pantingly says to me, "Mornin'. Just one more after me and then we're done. It's time for coffee and banana bread."
Nothing says badass like banana bread.
I mean to visit the labyrinth on the way back, but somehow miss the turnoff. It's just as well, because shortly after I get home and take a quick dip in the pool, the rain begins. It rains and rains, all day and far into the evening. No storm comes our way, just endless downpour. I write for hours, Eric and the kids read and play chess on the covered lanai. We have dinner on the patio too, and then, with the dishes still on the table, we all get naked, run screaming and laughing through the cool, streaming rain and jump into the pool. We don't even wait 20 minutes.
When was the last time it rained like this here? Never while I was here last summer. And I only remember a couple times in the whole year we lived here that it poured this long and hard. It's the kind of day that makes you want to stay in and bake banana bread. It's like a summer storm at my grandparents' cottage on Lake Erie. This is east coast rain. Maybe we brought it from New York, where we've so far had a an unusual number of chilly wet summer days. You're welcome, Topanga. Just my small way of giving back.
Canyon Days - part 2:
I decide to take the steep route, up to the spine of this part of the canyon.
Turn right, from the main trail, at the first small offshoot, a barely hip-wide footpath through tall a meadow, which descends into a shallow, stony gorge amidst thick brush and trees, and then climbs out again, steeply, onto another meadow and up, up, up a classic golden California hillside, and onto a rocky ridge with glorious 360 degree views of the canyon.
The paths up here are sinuous, under-traveled and unkempt. There is little shade and the highroad gets brutally hot quite some time before the trails down in the folds of the canyon do. There are confusing twists and turns and splits in the trail, and many branches off the "main" path, if there even is such a thing in this section. The paths don't seem to follow any logic, jogging off at seemingly random places, down treacherous slopes, or into thick tangles of weed and underbrush. It's a maze.
I've been lost in this section before, briefly, maybe 30 minutes, but enough to feel uncomfortable. It was strange - I knew I was never far, as the crow flies, from the neighborhood, the lovely if somewhat antiseptic gated community at Topanga's summit; I could see its rooftops, and yet there I was, lost in an authentic wilderness, where I know there are venomous snakes, mountain lions, coyotes, the occasional vagabond. And that was two years ago, when these paths, for some reason, seemed much better traversed.
I chose this path today for a different kind of challenge. It's like a HIIT (high intensity interval training) workout. Most of the climbs are not terribly long, but they're very steep. Then you have either a flat section or a nice downhill. Repeat. I jog as much of it as possible, but a number of times I have to stop and bend right over to catch my breath. I'm seriously rethinking the wisdom of this route on only my second day out. I took pictures, but none of them captures the vertiginous quality in a way that makes me seem as heroic as I actually am (perhaps marginally less heroic than the gorgeous woman I met in the canyon on my first day, who, at not a minute less than 38 weeks of gestation, was running the trail in a sports bra and hot pants, with nary a jiggle anywhere. It's LA.)
Many of these paths off the main drag seem unusually unused right now. I wonder why? As I trot along, living things stir from within the little groves of low trees and high grasses; things that don't sound like birds, that sound rather...larger. They don't seem to have been expecting me; though I can never see them, they sound startled as if from a long sleep, or like a child caught in some illicit mischief. The only thing about it I find truly frightening is that, being the first passerby some days, I may inadvertently run through a spider web, and wind up with a... passenger. Shudder.
My legs are scratched bloody from some particularly malicious wild sage bushes. I hear the whine of a coyote somewhere behind me, from down in the gorge. It suddenly occurs to me that maybe some these off-trail trails aren't people paths at all, but just the habitual routes of canyon fauna.
I know the way well enough to know that today's run will not lead me toward the labyrinth.
Yesterday, when I visited the labyrinth, I thought it might be a good idea to go there every day, walk and talk with it as a regular discipline. And that would be valid, rich. But it would also mean going the same way every day, as, for now, I know only one way to access it.
I'm torn between different approaches to my canyon encounter.
In vinyasa (flow) yoga, one returns to the same fundamental routine over and over - Surya namaskar, the Sun Salutation, forms the foundation of every practice, it's the access road into every other posture. And if it alone was your whole practice, daily, you could stay in pretty good physical condition, and would have a solid exercise of moving meditation. Consciousness transforms rote repetition into valuable, sacred ritual.
Then again, if that's all you ever did, you'd miss the benefits - the challenge, fun, frustration, and eventual joy - of exploring deeper, more complex shapes.
Likewise, there's something to be said for the idea of doing the same trail over and over, knowing it intimately, getting bored, then rediscovering it, something to be gained from communion with the same path, daily; it allows you to recognize subtle changes, tune in to the canyon as a living thing.
But Topanga is huge and full of wonders that I don't want to miss, that I'm dying to explore. I know such a small section of it. I've heard, for example, of another labyrinth nearby that I want to find.
Maybe I'll do an every other day sort of thing? I haven't decided.
Yesterday, as I was working on my post about my labyrinth experiences, I did a little research about their origin and uses. In English we often use the words "labyrinth" and "maze" interchangeably, but in contemplative circles (no pun intended) they are actually different concepts, different physical structures, serving different purposes. A labyrinth, to a purist, has only one path that through many twists and turns or inward spirals, gradually, inevitably draws you to its center, a forgone conclusion. A maze, by contrast, has multiple paths, it offers - demands - choice.
Even the broad, well-traveled, horse-trodden paths of Topanga have a maze-like quality. There are tempting tracks in every direction, that seem like the traces someone's private adventure. Even the signage along the way can be obscure. Unlike these more, you know, traditional type signs, offering actual directions --
-- today I came upon this marker, right where "two paths diverged" on a yellow hill.
Both ways seemed equally well-loved and inviting, and the post at their intersection offered unbiased -- or, depending on your point of view, unhelpful -- advice.
Is it the Yogi Berra of Topanga trail markers? An intentional koan? An homage to Robert Frost?
Make a choice the sign seems to say. Take your pick. There is no right answer, no one path, no forgone conclusion; only your gut feeling, your wanderlust, your faith, your willingness to be decisive and confront your fear, and the strength of your yearning to engage the maze, meet it on its own terms and accept whatever it has to offer.
Canyon Days - Part 1
Into the Canyon, Into the Labyrinth
My alarm goes off at 6:30 a.m. I look out the bedroom window, over Topanga Canyon; it's gray and misty. Fog - the marine layer - frequently settles over the canyon like it's sinking into a big comfy armchair, and sometimes it takes awhile to get moving. But it will only last the morning. Then it will gradually slink out to sea, and the valley sun will make its way over the mountain and burn off the remaining clouds. But I love it like this - the canyon trails can be mercilessly hot by mid-morning without the fog.
The auto timer I set on the coffee maker has not worked, and my pot is dry. I fiddle with it till I hear it perking, and then I sit down groggily with my morning pages. I write about a terrible nightmare that woke me just ahead of my alarm that's still hanging on me like the fog.
When the coffee is ready I gulp down half a cup and attempt to head out. It is already 7:15 and the kids are stirring. Shoot. This will slow me down. Hutch worries aloud that I'll be bitten by a rattlesnake and perish in the canyon; he makes sure I take my phone. Violet, as far as I can tell, is unconcerned with this eventuality. I've never encountered a snake of any description on these trails, though of course I know they're around. All I see are birds and an occasional small lizard.
This morning, ironically, considering the drastic drought California is experiencing, it's actually lightly raining when I head out - more of a mist than a genuine rain, but enough to make me feel pretty damp.
As I start my run, I quickly remember that the first leg of this journey is all downhill - which feels wonderful as a warm-up, but obviously means that the way back will suck. But my legs know that after the footbridge, the path begins to undulate in a way that's a hearty workout and still fun.
The dusty rocky path is a real ankle breaker, pitted and creviced where I imagine little rivulets of water run in wetter times. But my feet remember the territory remarkably well, and I find a familiar rhythm quickly.
I follow the main path to where it emerges on a road. On later days I will cross the road and run the wide open meadows up the hill, but today I'm headed back the way I came. I'm going to visit the labyrinth I discovered here last year. It's tucked so neatly into the hillside, it was a couple weeks of daily runs through these trails before I found it, though, I later realized it's visible from the main path if you know where to look.
I have to look hard to find the path to the labyrinth. Always narrow, it is now overgrown with tall golden straw-like grasses. They scratch at my legs lightly - I'm not really bothered by them, but they slow me down and obscure the path. It doesn't look like many people have passed this way lately.
But there's the labyrinth, right where it should be, though it, too, is overgrown with dry reeds. Clumps of tall meadow plants have shot up between the stones, and parched in the sun, and I can see right away, before I even step in, that the center stone, a taller white rock that people had left various messages and remembrances on and around is missing. Where did it go? Who ransacks a labyrinth? Steals a stone from the center of a sacred place, makes off with people's wishes and dreams and moves them or claims them? I feel a little disappointed, a little offended that my own "deep thoughts" which I left there, marked in green pen at the end of last summer have disappeared. I hope they're in good hands... then again, I suspect they are, because one of the things I wrote and hid under the stone was Return, and, well... here I am. And I'm still just so impressed that someone built this thing in the first place, had the impulse, took the time, collected the stones, plotted the circuit, maintains it somehow.
The first time I walked a labyrinth was on the grounds of Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts. Formerly a Jesuit monastery, which closed in the early 1970s, in the 1980s it was converted into an inclusive interfaith yoga/meditation/retreat center. Respected yoga teachers, Catholic priests, creativity experts, mindfulness meditation gurus, wellness counselors and so forth lead workshops and retreats, refresh their minds and spirits, challenge their bodies. It's marvelous.
I like to think that in a way, the labyrinth on the grounds of Kripalu not only represents, but actually acts as, an intersection, a meeting place, for all those faiths, seekers and journeymen; a literal, physical shared path. And indeed, disparate spiritual and contemplative traditions going back to ancient cultures, have used the labyrinth for meditation and various forms of going inward, going deeper, sojourning toward a goal; so the very notion of a labyrinth walk is inherently interfaith.
There's something powerful about a labyrinth, psychologically and spiritually. I know that now, having experienced it. But that first time at Kripalu, I really didn't know what it was all about. I just kept hearing people say, "Have you walked the Labyrinth yet? Oh, you must." So I entered with no understanding of what the whole process was about, and yet, the expectation of something to write home about.
I was at Kripalu on a brief retreat for a little R & R and writing time during the period when I was feeling most creatively barren, a bit overwhelmed by mothering toddlers, despite my deep love for - and joy in - my family. I was very, very worried that I would never find space to make meaningful artistic/career work.
Anyway, I walked down the hill to the labyrinth and stepped in, feeling a little shy, embarrassed even, having no idea what I was supposed to actually do there. So I took the first steps and sort of mentally indicated, I'm here, I'm waiting, I'm listening. No bolt of lightning came. No burning bush. Come on, come on, I said. Nothing. I really thought it was kind of a bust. But it was winter and the evergreen hedges that form the labyrinth were tall and snowy, and it was a nice enough day, a pleasant stroll, I was warm in my down coat. So I just walked, and wondered if I was going anywhere. I sincerely hoped there might be something interesting at the center.
I was about halfway into the labyrinth's coil, just beginning to sort of relax into it, when a phrase very suddenly came to my mind, fully formed. The message I received in that single moment was so distinct, for a moment I thought someone had actually spoken to me.
"You're so concerned with what's next, you're missing what's now."
I was startled - the clarity of the sentence, and the truth. It was a multilayered truth, too - I'd started by plodding so impatiently through the labyrinth trying to get somewhere, to get something from it, that I almost missed the beauty of the thing itself - its quiet, its mystery, the snowy circle, the colorful prayer flags. And it was true in my life as a mother/artist. I was always fretting about the future, the answer, the solution, the infernal "work/life balance" conundrum, instead of releasing into what is, the delicious, exasperating, ever-vanishing now.
Where did that phrase come from? What spoke? My psyche? God? The Labyrinth?
I may never know, but my perspective shifted in subtle, significant ways. So discovering the labyrinth in Topanga last summer felt like a personal, intimate gift from the canyon.
Today, when I notice from the edge of the labyrinth, that the center stone, and my little talismans, are missing, I march right in.
"Hello," I say to the labyrinth. "Nice to see you again. And by the way, where's my stuff?"
I move quickly forward into the spiral, then pause. I suppose I should ask a question, ponder something as long as I'm here.
I sigh. "Ok. What's this writing project about?" I ask. "Why do I feel... called... or compelled to do this thing?" To get up early and go into the canyon, to run and sweat, to explore, and for the love of pete, to write about it, when maybe nothing interesting will happen and no one will care?
I step forward. The labyrinth answers at once. "You're doing it again," it says. "Trying to get to the center to see if your treasures are (still) there. Anticipating the outcome of a project you've just begun. Stop obsessing over conclusions, results. Remember what I said before: Don't miss what's now. Be on the path. Take the journey. Write to find out what you need to say."
And you know what was at the center when I got there today? Nothing. It looked, in contrast to the rest of the circle, which is choked with yellow weeds, almost like it was recently swept or blown clean.
I miss the things that were there last time I was here, other people's musings, keepsakes, and my own; but there's something fresh and inviting, spare, available, optimistic about it the way it is today.
We head back across the beach, toward the car.
Violet says, “I can’t believe this is only our first day here!” She pauses. “Wait, IS this our first day here?”
“Violet!” I say. “Goose, we just got off the plane three hours ago!”
She laughs. “Oh!” she says. “I went into the water and forgot everything but the waves!”
I hear you, girlfriend.
As we drive through rush hour traffic to see friends in the Valley, the kids briefly fall asleep in the car. Their heads loll to the side and their sandy legs curl onto the car seat. They’ve already been up for 17 hours, and they sleep deeply if only for a few minutes.
I consider Violet's quip and realize that, more than just saying something cute and true, she captured something quite profound. Didn’t she simply and succinctly express the essence of my Summer | unscripted writing project? To go into the Lake, the Ocean, the Canyon and forget everything you thought you knew and just experience it? See what it has to tell you, show you?
I must consciously place myself in that mental/spiritual space, devise a writing project as catalyst; she just exists in that space, with no sense of time - in the clock sense or the life one - no ideas about what’s to come, or what ought to be. No agenda.
I was suddenly glad - well, no, not glad, but conscious that it was a good thing - that I had forgotten my camera, that I was “forced” to just be in that experience. I can see that a liability of this project is that, even as I'm making a mindful choice to experience something – the canyon, the ocean, the lake of my childhood – to just be there, to listen - I can’t un-know the fact that I have also committed to writing about it. And at some level there will always be a remove, a meta factor that my kids don’t yet have.
How to be present without being precious about it?
(if you missed the introduction to SUMMER | unscripted click here)
SUMMER | unscripted – OCEAN DAYS – part 1
a post with no photos... on purpose, kind of
And just like that, Lake Days turn to Ocean Days.
Well, not just like that.
First there are several intense and discombobulating days of travel and travel preparations… packing and repacking, cleaning, driving, rental car pick ups and returns, flights bought on the cheap and therefore taking us in quite the wrong direction in order to transfer to a plane that will take us the right direction, tired kids awake for a full 22 straight hours, terrible airport/rest stop food, one screaming match with the credit card company who decided that all my recent travel most certainly means “fraud” and that my account had been “compromised” so they took it upon themselves to cancel the card, which I only discovered at the a car rental counter in LAX (not my finest moment), one 25th high school reunion (mine), and one massive car vomit (not mine).
I haven’t posted in several days, but not for lack of writing, my friends. I have 5000 words on the subject of Lake Days that will post shortly (I know you can’t wait to get your hands on that puppy), but in the meantime, to stay current, I turn my attention to Southern California.
From the airport, we drive, famished, to Venice, to the On the Waterfront Café at the corner of Rose Ave. and the beach, for crispy shoestring French fries served with mayonnaise. It’s a slightly - delightfully - dive-y beach joint with seating on the beach side, and a courtyard in back, pool tables, pinball and dartboards inside. I don’t remember how we chose it exactly, but it became our place in Venice Beach a long time ago.
There’s always a pleasing mix of vacationers, local surfers, and bona fide Venice Beach characters hanging out there, drinking tall glasses of Erdinger with lemon wedges in the middle of the day. When I retreat to LA on my own periodically, I come here to write in the afternoons, nursing a glass or two of chardonnay until the sun goes down. An older black woman with a karaoke machine and a lawn chair sings standards in front of the café for hours at a time, and in my head she’s the soundtrack of many things I’ve written. I love her confidence, and total relaxation in doing what she knows she does well.
The kids order 7-Up and fries, and I think it’s fair to say that at this point I deserve a midday glass of wine, so I have one. We make big puddles of mayonnaise and swirl the ketchup in. We are disproportionately pleased with this fare. We are really, really happy.
I reach for my phone to take the kids’ picture, and realize I have left it in the car. I immediately think, Rats, now I won’t have pictures of today, our first moments in California. And I need them for the blog!
We finish our snack and saunter across the walkway to the beach, dodging cyclists. We take off our shoes and dig our feet the California sand. My ankles are swollen from the flight.
Violet breathes deep and says, dramatically, “Ahhhh. This is what the beach is supposed to smell like.”
“Guys, we have less than an hour,” I say, because our car is on a meter. “Today we’re just having a little wade, getting our feet wet.”
We find a spot in the sand; we have nothing with us, no towels or blankets, just our flip-flops and ourselves, a tube of sunscreen and a paper takeaway cup of leftover soda. The seagulls attack us anyway and take our 7-Up. I’m not kidding. A bird gets thirsty.
We walk to the edge of the water and wait for the first fizzy wave-edge to burble over our feet. As soon as it does, we whoop and wade in. “Don’t get your clothes wet,” I say, ”We have to get back in the car soon.”
The day is SoCal perfection. 77° and sunny, light breeze, the temperature of the water exactly right for swimming – startling for the first few seconds, then just comfortably cool.
The kids immediately go in well over their knees. “Oops,” they say flatly. Hutch’s baggy bermudas are drenched at the bottom and it’s quickly wicking upward; Violet’s cotton dress drags in the surf.
“I have to go in, Mom,” Hutch says. “Please can I go in my shorts? Please?!”
I understand completely. I want to lie right down in the soft bubbling sand here at the edge of the water and let the surf roll me… (Of course, last time Hutch did that, he wound up with sand crabs in his bathing suit that he didn’t discover until they fell out in the toilet at the restaurant where we went for lunch).
I cannot deny them a swim.
Hutch takes off his shirt, Violet removes the outer layer of her dress, leaving on its light cotton under-slip. They run into the water, laughing.
For twenty minutes they jump and dive, hurdle the white caps, let the waves tumble them like ragdolls. I stand knee deep in the ocean and watch them, and watch the clock, and again wish I could take pictures of this moment -- the moment of their return to the place that, even though they are true New Yorkers, is somehow their hearts’ equal home, as it is mine.
Kids around them have floats and sand toys, things we love, but don’t have with us today, and my kids are not wishing for those things right now. Being in the ocean is everything.
I feel my breath drop down into my belly. I mean, I actually note the moment that this involuntary shift happens. I love New York so deeply, but I wonder sometimes if it has made me a chest breather.
Too soon I have to call them out of the water. To my pleasant surprise they come with little fuss. We are here, for now, and for however many weeks it lasts; they know we will spend a lot of time at the beach.
As they wade toward me, they glow like St Elmo’s fire. It’s the sun reflecting off the surface of the water, of course... and it’s happiness. I feel like I’m seeing them in a pure state, in their element, unfiltered, unguarded -- and that something of each child’s personal essence is especially visible.
Hutch is kind of fundamentally a surfer dude. I mean that in the most positive possible sense – not some cartoonish way, of a slightly dim bleach blonde guy who uses words like “righteous” and “sick” in peculiar contexts. The surfers I know personally are intelligent, creative, sensitive, attuned people – writers and filmmakers whose experience of/respect for/relationship to the ocean is the substance of intellectual, spiritual and artistic pursuits. Hutch loves the water in general – lakes, pools, rivers - but he feels an inexorable pull to the Ocean; he recognizes (and loves to explain in excruciating detail), the individuality, potential, and splendor of each wave; he tells long stories about his “epic” encounters with them, and never tires of trying to somehow become one with them. Although at this point he's still just a body surfer and boogie boarder, you can tell he feels something in the ocean that goes well beyond mere refreshment and thrill seeking.
Violet, as she emerges now from the water, in drenched flimsy cotton, red hair dripping and windblown, looks almost unnervingly Botticellian -- like something that was just this moment born on the half-shell and raised from the depths of the sea. She is exhilarated, free, innocent… at eight, she is a child, a little girl who, despite her considerable intellect, still loves to be my baby. But her loveliness (can I say this as her mother?) is a bit beyond her years (my husband is fond of saying that "She is better than the sum of our parts," which though true, is pretty rude to say to one's wife) and there is this terrific contrast, this tension between the lithe beauty she is growing into and the coltish child clomping awkwardly out of the water, tripping and falling in the sand, laughing goofily, unselfconsciously at her own clumsiness. It’s an exquisite and sort of heartbreaking moment because it will only last this summer, maybe one more. She reaches the beach and momentarily notices how naked she looks in the wet slip, and like Venus in the myth, is suddenly modest, not yet ready to embrace and embody the fullness of her place in the world. I swoop in like one of the attending graces and offer to pull her dress on over top. Then, just as quickly, she forgets her shyness and plods across the sand as is, drying quickly in the sun and wind, the slip gradually becoming opaque again.