Last week, while walking a lazy lap around Echo Park Lake, I overheard a lady scolding her dog as she fed the ducks. “No, that’s not for you. Stop that,” she said to her boisterous companion: a handsome black Lab with a puppy’s playful eyes. The lady’s hair was bleached blonde. She wore cat-eye glasses and dragged a colorful suitcase behind her. I smiled and strolled. I was back on the East Side of Los Angeles, a visitor in the city where I had previously lived for over a decade. Clouds enshrouded the sky and drops of water began to fall. Over the past three years, Seattle sensibilities have transformed my relationship to the weather. Oh, this is so cute, I thought. LA is getting a little rain.
Then came a shocking splash, and: “Lenny, get back here right now!” Soon Lenny was in middle of the lake, submerged up to his neck, doing a vigorous dog paddle toward the ducks, who scattered, their afternoon idyll interrupted by the boorish intruder. I whipped out my camera and snapped one picture after another. I felt inspired, delighted, alive.
The dog may have had nefarious intent (none of the fowl appeared confused about his motives) but oh, what life force. Lenny couldn’t be called back to land. He swam and swam, that sweet head of his the only thing showing above the lake’s surface.
Lenny was fully and truly present.
A tall, thin man with glasses and a tidy beard walked toward me from the opposite direction on the path. Unaware of my photographic spree, he stopped to ask if I had seen the dog jump into the water. “Look at him,” the man said. “He doesn’t know what he’s doing out there.” My new acquaintance was more amused than impressed by Lenny’s fearless cowabunga into the marshy wildlife refuge of the lake. I smiled and kept moving, anxious to return to my thoughts.
As I continued walking the circumference of the lake, I passed the bearded gentleman, now laughing with a young woman in Nike jogging gear. Maybe a friend of his? More likely, a stranger such as me. He recounted Lenny’s story, this time in Spanish: “…perro loco saltó en el lago…quería coger un pato…” She beamed at him from behind her shades, seeming to enjoy their spontaneous conversation. At that moment, I loved people’s innate ability to connect over events humorous and tragic.
Soon, I was on the other side of the lake, taking in the lily pads and lotus flowers. Like magic, the longer I looked, the more flowers appeared. Some were tight and closed, others in the slow process of opening. There were even a few in full bloom, their petals as exposed to the overcast sky as they would be to typical LA sunshine. It was difficult to stop taking pictures.
* * *
I’m in Los Angeles for the second residency of my MFA program, and am surrounded by other writers: passionate, opinionated, young, old, middle-aged, funny, political, serious, tattooed, tattoo-less writers. We are here because we want to hone our craft, change the world, and perhaps reclaim some lost part of ourselves in the process. As my literary community swaddles me for a week straight, I become giddy. I get high. I smile until my cheeks hurt. I drink coffee and think deeply about the way we use and order our words for maximum effect. Sometimes I’m surprised by how involved I become in my peers’ manuscripts.
I want to advocate for them, make them see, steer them away from their pitfalls.
That’s our mandate as students: pay close attention and critique each other constructively. Sometimes the feedback hurts so good; other times, it just hurts. We are handling precious cargo. Still, the simple knowledge that our fellows take our writing seriously can be encouragement enough.
In such a stimulating environment, I become like Lenny. I want everything. Give me all the ducks, all the restaurants, the galleries, the neighborhoods, the natural beauty, the sexy, self-possessed people. Pass me that alternative newspaper. What bands are playing? Let’s see what the local arts scene is like. I’m greedy for life. There is so much to absorb that I exhaust myself.
Like Lenny, I dive right in. It’s a good thing. Usually.
Three days of the intense residency atmosphere and burnout sets in. After so many lectures and readings and presentations and social interactions, it’s difficult to think straight. Savoring the moment becomes a struggle. I lose my Lenny-like abandon. I am self-conscious and overwhelmed. Nothing feels right. A master poet reads and I wonder why I even bother. Poor. Me.
So I recharge. Alone. In a hotel room. Or at the lake.
This is important. Because this year—this upcoming year, this crucial year, this year that will test us all, force us to become who we are meant to be, to stand up for things that we shouldn’t have to—is the one. Everything is heightened, everything is on fire, everything is different now. There is so much to do. We have action to demand, civil rights to defend, stories to write, friends to love and support. But we need our rest, too. We must occasionally reboot our operating systems. Put on some John Coltrane or Phantogram or Solange instead of the news. Take a walk around town to clear our heads.
We might even consider lying down, closing our eyes, and listening to the rain. Last week it came down heavily over Los Angeles, a rare treat. Bucket-loads of loud, warm rain fell from the gray sky, washing away the past and ushering in a fresh start. Maybe December 31 will do the same, scrub away this last year—this loss-filled, polarizing year.
Rest up. Because we all deserve it right now. Because we need to be at our best.
Because it’s nearly 2017, the Chinese year of the rooster, and we have to wake up to its call. This is no time to expect someone else to volunteer, sign the petition, donate, be an ally, raise awareness, have an opinion, start a meeting group, or write a blog. Each of us has important work to do and our own unique tools and perspectives to help us contribute to the solution. We are, all of us, activists.
Because it’s nearly 2017 and we are in uncharted territory politically, socially, and environmentally. Things are out of control right now. There is no more stable ground. I don’t know what I’m doing out here and I’m okay with that. I’m diving in. I’m getting soaked. I’m chasing the ducks. I’m swimming out too far.
Today I’m thinking of my cohort, my fellow humans, the ducks, Lenny, Lenny’s person, the students I’ve taught, and the mentors and teachers who have taught me. We are all abloom, all at different points in the process of awakening to this grave new word. What will we do? What can we change? My intention is to wake up and start kicking. Then I’m going to rest until I regain my strength and do it again.