Where to Begin
Monday, July 9
I’m sitting on the small, shady, upper deck of the lovely Topanga home where we’re situated for three weeks this summer. It’s in a part of the canyon we haven’t stayed before. Another miraculous friend-of-friend arrangement, involving blessedly affordable rent and a charming guinea pig.
I’ve declared this little porch “my office” and, as is my ritual, took a little time this morning to set it up the way I always do for the summer -- cushion the seat, throw my favorite shawl over the chair, set my notebooks and pens and something to drink on a little mosaic table, hang a string of prayer flags across the rail -- so it feels both new and familiar.
An unusual, late-morning, straw-colored fog is rolling up the mountain off the ocean. It’s keeping the heat at bay so even at 10:30 I can sit on the deck.
We arrived on Friday afternoon a bit bedraggled from a day of travel that began at 4 am, and included a rococo game of rental car switcheroo that I’d devised to get the cheapest month-long deal, and ended in a sunset dip in the ocean, and a late snack we called dinner.
Then I sat down to make lists.
I pushed aside the little panic I always feel when we arrive -- desperation to get right to work on my summer projects, to hit the ground running. I gave myself the weekend to get settled, prepare -- ready to bust out 3 solid weeks worth of disciplined running and writing.
I made numerous grocery trips, unpacked, rearranged furniture, tried to establish summer reading/writing/guitar playing routines for the kids, collected friends to come for extended sleepovers to occupy them while I work.
Excited to explore this unfamiliar section of Topanga Canyon, I took the dog out on reconnaissance mission walks around the neighborhood, trying to get a feel for where I could run. We sought hidden gems, trail entrances wedged between blind driveways and narrow mountain roads. Friendly-looking cacti waved their open hands; baby rabbits darted into promising thickets. I got online and examined maps, found my location relative to where I’ve run before, discovered unexpected connections to familiar trails. Though I’m a considerable drive from my old haunts, as the crow flies and the coyote wanders, it’s not far at all, and a little tributary trail to one of my favorites is just at the end of our road.
Except that it’s not.
Every place there should be a trailhead there’s a No Trespassing sign, some more threatening than others. I want to be out the door by 6:30 each morning, and on the trail. I must start Monday or I won't have 3 whole weeks. I want to roll out of bed and down the lane and into the canyon. I don’t want to lose a minute. I’m desperate for my Topanga time. But it seems the journey must begin with a journey -- I’ll drive a bit to a starting place each day.
The last few weeks at home in New York were loco. I somehow managed to be both insanely busy and utterly feckless.
It's just one of those seasons when significant transitions and decisions seem to come all at once. Some anticipated and exciting, some bittersweet, some scary. For one, our family life seems to be shifting at whiplash speed, as tweens become teens and my role as female lead becomes decidedly bit part. I'm not sure exactly where I thought I'd be by this point, but I don't seem to be there.
Nobody’s sick or dying or divorcing...everyday my anxieties are juxtaposed with the atrocities in the news: families separated, children trapped in cages and caves. The world as we knew it is falling apart. My stuff is just regular stuff, big to us, nothing in the big picture. And yet, in the way of such things, it all worms its way into nightmares, overwhelms and paralyzes.
For days before we left New York I moved around in a haze, trying to get things done, take the next right step. Saying to myself over and over, I don’t know where to begin...
When I get to Topanga, I thought, my head will clear. Reboot body and mind. Everything else will come into focus -- or fade from it -- as need be.
But I’ve had a nagging fear that I won’t be able to concentrate. That worry will outweigh work, that I won’t find my groove, running or writing. That I'll get nothing done, waste these precious, longed-for weeks, have nothing to show for them, return to New York in the same shape I left.
When I arrive at the new place, and every nearby trail is closed, every road a literal dead end - it seems to echo exactly what I’ve been feeling... Where do I begin?
This morning I’m up at 6:00 and so is the whole house because I’ve forgotten to lay out my things the night before and am therefore banging about for a half hour trying to get out the door. Not totally ready yet.
One step I have decidedly not taken in the couple weeks leading up to this trip is any step in the direction of a training run. Which is to say, I am not in canyon running shape.
Oh Lord, this is going to hurt.
I slip on a bracelet I like to wear to yoga and going about my daily business. It’s a string of rosewood beads, a wrist mala. The yogis say, rosewood symbolizes the removal of obstacles. And I like how they leave a whiff of their heady scent on the arm, even after I’ve sweated in them.
I drive down the hill still not sure where I’m going. I have a sketchy map in my head of some park entrances in the immediate vicinity, ones I haven’t tried before. But I find myself on a kind of autopilot, taking the long road back to my “home trail,” that little corner of Topanga I’ve run the most; the one with the old, old rusted out car in a ditch; the one where I first heard the whistling cowboy with the haunting song; where the little white tailed rabbit disappeared into the brush; the one with the cathedral tree. The one with the labyrinth. It’s a 20 minute drive and I hate to waste the time - the sun will come up, it will get too hot. Yet that’s where I’m drawn. Not a big start, or an impressive one; a humble, safe, short run sort of a start. But a step.
I park on the street and pause at the park entrance. Me again, I tell the trail.
I start my run at a pace that might aptly be called reverse. My heart and mind are taut with care, my body, gelatinous with disuse (happens fast at 46). Topanga is where I come to invert that dynamic. Do I remember how? Can it work again? A 5th summer running?
Down the easy in-road. At the bottom of this first decline, I find a lone chip of blue and white floral pottery. I pick it up. Against a post marking the trail, someone has leant a very serviceable walking stick. I don’t need it, but I love the gesture.
The path flattens out here and then comes the first little climb. I huff and puff and get annoyed at myself for not being better prepared.
Toward the buzzing shrub and the little altar of stone, past the tiny path that leads to the labyrinth - I’m itching to see it. Get through the hard part first, the hardest climb, the first ¾ of the run. Catcha on the way out, I say.
It’s early and overcast and other than the one long steep hill, when my heart is slamming, I don’t feel half bad. My feet know this path so well, my body calibrates as I go. Ease up here, push a little there. Breathe.
As I ease into my natural rhythm with the place and pass by all my usual landmarks, looking just as they did when I was last here, I can't help wondering if in all the years of this ritual I could point to any demonstrable progress. Have I been changed by it? Have I changed anything by doing it? Gone anywhere? Aren’t I, in every quantifiable way, pretty much exactly where I was in my life/work/career when I started? Facing the same obstacles -- in fact, some that now seem to have grown higher and harder than ever? Isn’t that, in fact, the very reason this season of transitions feels so daunting? What is this summer ritual for anyway? Must I start this nonsense again?
When you’ve had a break from running, the trainers say, begin with 20 minutes.
As I jog I quickly calculate...It’s 25 minutes around the lollipop-shaped route and back to the path to the labyrinth. Then an easy stroll down to the labyrinth (I don’t run that narrow path through tall grass...rattlesnake territory), a short break to actually walk the labyrinth, then a 10-12 minute run back out -- a gentle climb, but steady uphill the whole way, and always my least favorite part of the run. I usually have to stop for a breather.
A challenging but fair start for Day One.
I turn off the main path and head down the little trail that leads to the labyrinth. At the bottom, near the entrance to the labyrinth, someone has made an altar. Placed atop two stacked rocks -- a statue of Ganesha. In Hindu and Buddhist traditions Ganesha is the deity -- the archetype, symbol -- representing the removal of obstacles. Guidance and protection on a journey, physical or creative. Ganesha is also recognized - and I only just learned this - as the patron of letters, supporter of writers.
I take this to be the labyrinth’s personal welcome. A little wink. Rattlers be damned, I knew you'd be back. Across time and space it has summoned me, expected my return.
I hold up my rosewood wrist mala.
Here I am. What do you have for me?
I step into the spiral without having crafted a proper question. My question is, what should the question be? Where to begin…?
I start to walk.
My old friends the red ants are busy building and moving their mounds within the coils and I have to step over them every few paces. There are about a thousand little black flies buzzing around me. They don’t seem to be biters but they land on me every few seconds and it freaks me out. I swat at them in growing frustration.
Concentrate, concentrate! I scold myself. I try to be slow and methodical, but I kind of want to run away.
My leg swipes against a little patch of brush growing between the stones. Suddenly my ankle gets a sharp prick and then -- fire. I curse and yank off shoe and sock to look for what’s bitten me. I blame the red ants. I can’t find anything, but holy toledo it hurts and is getting worse. I think it’s a bee sting.
I don’t want to stop. I need to make a real start! I take a breath and keep walking, try to be calm.
Please, remove the obstacles.
The ankle burns, down into the foot, up into the calf, but it’s tolerable. I start to relax. Let the flies buzz, they’re just doing their thing.
Round and round, out and back, several times, and to the center again, where I finally stoop to scratch in the sand --
WHERE TO BEGIN
I do not punctuate because I cannot choose. It’s a question and an answer. A plea and a statement of fact.
Here, in the labyrinth is where I begin this summer. Here on my home trail.
I pull the chip of pottery out of my pouch to place it on the little pile of stones at the center, where I and so many others have left talismans over the years. But then I think better of it. I’ll hang onto it, visit the labyrinth again later, maybe leave the chip here at the end of my trip, a parting offering.
I start the run back out. Along the way my legs feel a little nimbler. I make it all the way out at a run.
And I have this thought as I emerge from the trail:
Of course this is where I had to begin. This is where it all started. Four years ago in a dusty canyon I committed to run and write and just see what happened, where it lead. An unscripted summer staked on a simple framework of discipline, ritual, work, listening. I wanted to know if something would happen.
It began, as most worthwhile pursuits do, with a question.
If I don’t yet feel I have the answer, or hard proof that it is real, productive, meaningful, life-changing work; if I have to wonder if I’ve actually done something, learned something, moved forward at all; if I cower and crumple and curse along the way, feel lost and blocked; if it stings -- well, what did I expect? -- this is still, it turns out, always and ever, only the beginning.
I haven't decided yet what format The Regular Jenny will take this summer -- I have a big project to work on while I'm here in Topanga, and the blog will take a backseat to that -- perhaps short essays, or 1000 WordsWorth like last year, or maybe it will find a new form.
Stay tuned for a truly unscripted Summer | unscripted.