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Editor's Note: Anxiety of Influence 

  • Deborah DeGraffenreid

It's a mile and a half to the top of Shaupeneak Ridge from the trailhead on Old Post Road off Route 9W in Esopus. Starting out before first light, I've come this pleasantly cool fall morning (accompanied by my trusty canine sidekick, ever-faithful Shazam) with the explicit intention of hiking up to the overlook, watching the sunrise, and writing this column. Normally, I work in my office, staring onto the backyard out the second-story window, taking in a familiar scene—the dog toys spread across the patchy lawn, the bushes in need of trimming, the tool shed, the potted plants on the back deck.

I'm concerned that this cloistered environment may be leading to stale thoughts, pedestrian ideas, hackneyed prose. I've come to free myself of reigning influences, to imagine something new, perhaps find a new metaphor to contextualize the magazine and what it means. I've come in search of inspiration.

On the 20-minute drive here, I left the radio off, wanting to keep my mind free of unwanted stimulus. No catchy songs, no clever talk, no advertising jingles. Just my intellect, open to the universe. Leaving the parking lot with a simple notebook and pen, Shazam and I set off into mental terra incognita.

The dog noses in the marshy sides of the trail, undoubtedly trying to sniff out some small creature to throttle, while I focus on my breathing, trying to deepen it and thereby calm myself as my yoga instructor Cassandra has taught me. Ujjayi breath it's called. Part of why I started practicing yoga again was to take at least one hour each week to focus inward, to let go of my mind—and also my body. Yoga has become the yin to the yang of my exhausting workout routine of weightlifting and crunches and running. Cassandra says that we should show compassion to ourselves—a difficult concept for someone coming from the push-your-body-past-its-limit athletic tradition. It doesn't help that when I looked up "ujjayi," Wikipedia told me it means "victorious breath" in Sanskrit. Not peaceful breath, not calming breath, not the breath that passeth all understanding, but boot-on-the-neck-of-your-adversary breath. Perhaps there is another way to envision victory without adversaries crumpled underfoot. Perhaps my attitude is part of my problem.

So I practice my ujjayi breath and we amble along, paralleling the railroad tracks. After a half mile, the trail turns sharply upward. As Shazam and I start our ascent, a passing line of freight cars chuffs along, the train horn bleating persistently in a minor key. The horn sounds sour, like it's pissed to be at work at this hour. As we climb, I wonder what time normal people wake up.

Halfway up the steep trail is a short spur path to a waterfall. As I've seen it before, I decide to pass it by. This too could be part of my problem. Thinking this, I look around at the plants and birds and rocks and things for inspiration. I picture the word "inspiration." And then the mental jukebox kicks in. In this case, Madonna's '80s dancefloor rave-up "Get Into the Groove." I don't even realize why it comes to mind until the third time the chorus comes around and I seize on the lyric "you can dance for inspiration."

And I reflect on this as we near the top of the ridge.

I could dance for inspiration. Perhaps I should dance for inspiration. Why did I come to the woods at the crack at dawn? I don't know the names of the trees or the mosses or the birds that flit from branch to branch. What if I had stayed home and put "Call Me Maybe" on repeat and danced myself into a dervish-like frenzy of altered consciousness that might spur a new metaphor? Maybe that's the ticket.

Then the mental library kicks in—I'm stuck on this idea of a new metaphor—and I remember Borges once saying something about there being no such thing as new metaphors and you shouldn't try to make new ones because that would be stupid. (What the Argentine essayist and fabulist actually wrote was this: "Perhaps it is a mistake to suppose that metaphors can be invented. The real ones, those that formulate intimate connections between one image and another, have always existed; those we can still invent are false ones, which are not worth inventing.") Once the top is reached, however, perhaps I'll feel differently. This is what I've come for, after all, to look out, to expand my view.

The trail deposits us in a clearing on a ledge facing east, overlooking the short stretch of valley between the hillside and the river. Mills Norrie State Park is directly across the Hudson, which is covered in a long, low worm of fog. On the eastern shore, the fog hangs in pools of low-lying trees, the dregs spilled from a saucer. The sun ("the orange ball of fire that makes everything happen," as my friend Taylor is fond of describing it) is breaching the horizon and warms my face as I jot notes—about the distant sound of cars, about the animal exploded on the double yellow line highway we passed on the way here, about my excitement at identifying a woodpecker and wondering if there is a market for woodpecker migraine medicine, about the two cigarette butts I find in a hollow of the rock I'm sitting on. Not to mention Madonna and Borges and ujjayi breath.

And just like that, it's time to go, no a-ha moment of inspiration to speak of, no new metaphors in tow. Maybe Borges was right. Maybe the best I can do is keep a record. To paraphrase Christopher Isherwood's brilliant metaphor, I am a camera—at least of my own frenetic psyche, taking snapshots of snatches of consciousness and the surroundings that penetrate it. As Chronogram is a camera, pointing its lens at the Hudson Valley.

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  • Brian K. Mahoney treks to the top of Shaupeneak Ridge in search of inspiration.

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