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.