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Column: Unplugging from ‘L.A. me’ once a year lets me plug back in refueled to see life anew

Maine
The view — when there’s no fog — from the deck of columnist Nita Lelyveld’s cabin on the coast of Maine.
(Nita Lelyveld / Los Angeles Times)

Just a blink or two ago, I was fully unplugged — on the flip side of the continent from my workaday world.

I was opening my eyes most mornings to watch the sun rise over the Atlantic, then shutting them again until the sound of lobster boats sent me out on the deck to see traps pulled up and scan the water for whales.

Time unspools slowly in the summertime stretch that I spend in my cabin in Maine — slowest of all when downpours drum the roof and fog drops its curtain on the ocean.

Slow is how I like my annual break not just from L.A. but from “L.A. me,” the one who can be traffic tense, overbooked, chained to her cellphone, the one who I’m guessing might share traits with L.A. you.

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Modern fingers are twitchy. So are modern minds. They jump and flop, thoughts tumbling into each other like over-sugared kids in a bounce house.

On vacation, my mind still wanders, but at its natural pace. I put down my gadgets, slip away from my social networks, defy the digital come-ons designed to distract.

I crawl into novel after novel. I always save the longest for these uninterrupted summer plunges. My favorite this year was “The Overstory,” which centers on trees — and moved me all the more since I read it in the woods.

I always knit. It doesn’t matter what. I like the way it occupies my hands while my thoughts float free. So too with my cabin cooking. I make Bolognese and mac and cheese and other comfort food for which I long since stopped needing recipes. When it gets chilly, as it often does, I curl up the way I might at home with a TV show and watch logs crackle in the wood stove.

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I guard this time fiercely. It’s my refueling. I draw on it all year long. I think that over the years this time away from busyness has helped train me to stay steady and to take notice.

It’s probably partly why I like to walk Los Angeles and observe it closely at strolling pace, why I like to travel its streets without earbuds in my ears to muffle its sounds, why I’ve long been a collector and chronicler of small shifts in the city’s fabric that go unnoticed by many.

In my tiny harbor town, I visit with people who have known me since I was a girl and whose families have lived there for generations. There’s nowhere to shop, except for lobsters at the wharves. I stop in at the town office to scan the shelves of the small library and to buy cartons of fresh eggs from the same counter where I pay my property tax.

I am so lucky, I know, to have a place to escape to, lucky that my parents long ago claimed this slice of coast and woods for our family. Lucky that their vision for the spot was not to re-create year-round creature comforts — as some other summer people in the area did, with their stereos and microwaves. Lucky that because of these choices, unplugging requires no will since — while propane provides soft light, powers our stove and our fridge and heats our showers — there never has been anything in the cabin to plug into.

The poles that carry phone and power lines on the paved, two-lane main road stop well before the turnoff to our dirt one. And from that turnoff, it’s still another mile and a half to reach our rocky point. I could drive around chasing for a cellphone signal as some do, but I prefer to let my phone die and forget about it. (That’s possible anywhere, of course, if you see the benefits. Believe me, they’re great — even for a few hours’ breathing space.)

My husband and I try to walk up to the main road and back most days. Our city dog bounds in and out of the woods alongside us, untethered by a leash. Along the way, we pick juicy wild strawberries and blackberries and admire wildflowers, birch bark, pine cones and mushrooms sprouting from moss. We stop to listen to the wind rustling leaves above our heads and to study the berry-filled scat left by well-hidden bears.

Often that walk is our biggest daily event. Our days are loose, full of unscheduled space.

In Maine, seagulls caw and a bald eagle perches on a pine tree right in front of my cabin. The other night, a helicopter hovered over my old Craftsman, thwack-thwack-thwacking me into a new dawn.

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At home in Hollywood, I trade in ocean waves for the wave-like whoosh of the nearby 101.

On my walks, I swap the woods for the sidewalks, full of people-watching, obscure messages and odd juxtapositions. I see how a thick palm frond fit for a rainforest has flattened a tidy garden plot of geraniums, how a stretch of street that has just lost a beautiful old house now looks newly gap-toothed.

I always cry when I leave Maine.

But I’m always glad, too, to reunite with Los Angeles.

When I first arrive at the cabin each year, it can take days to unkink — to remember that the phone won’t ring, that I am no longer facing deadlines. This year I felt the wrench of leaving my new column, and my midnight newsroom visions took a while to let go.

Strangely enough, it’s usually easier adjusting back to L.A.

I return eager to go out exploring and soak up my surroundings. Even the familiar now looks fresh and funny. I have never once in Maine, for instance, seen a woman drive while simultaneously putting on mascara. I witnessed this L.A. ritual on Franklin Avenue the very first time I walked out after I got home.

A few minutes later as I navigated the blind curves of a street in the hills, I had to flatten myself to a fence to avoid a man driving through the narrow space between me and two construction trucks — steering with just a couple fingers of his right hand while shouting into the phone he clutched in his left.

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I noticed these two people, though they did not notice me back. I have no way of knowing their summer plans. Still, I wish for “L.A. them” some of what I require for L.A. me — time to unplug and slow down and look around.


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