Forward.

On the January day when thousands of people marched in the streets of New York – the day when thousands of people marched in streets all over America – I awoke to find that a strange heaviness had settled over me. My muscles burned, sending small fires shooting throughout my body. My head throbbed. My stomach heaved. My breaths came shallow, and the world spun. “No,” I thought. “I never get sick.”

But apparently, I do, because for the next four days the only time I left my apartment was to drag myself to the corner drug store for cold medicine, returning from that short trip gasping for air, my clothes soaked to the skin. Back inside, I stayed bundled in blankets, pillows propped behind my aching back, a double-spaced printed draft of my play War Stories resting beside me.

Illness is never convenient, but the timing of this virus struck me as particularly cruel. I had booked a space to hold two play readings in February, the dates of which were rapidly approaching. What I thought would be minor script rewrites turned into something much larger once I sat down to edit, and instead, I had opened up a Pandora’s box of new character development that I couldn’t turn back from. A dear friend who had – angel that she is – offered to help me cast actors and find a director for the readings needed the new draft in order to get started, but I was nowhere near done with it.

For the next twenty-four hours, I couldn’t get out of bed. Every time I tried to write, fever or nausea would overtake me and I’d have to stop. But on the second day, I began to feel better. The fire subsided. The room stopped spinning. I picked up my script and began to leaf through it, forcing myself to form the fog in my brain into something resembling focus.

And then, something funny happened. As I stared at the printed pages, overwhelmed at the seemingly insurmountable task before me, exhaustion collided with frustration and I began to cry. I bawled for several minutes – big, crocodile tears – and I felt so utterly hopeless and so entirely sorry for myself that eventually, I started to get angry. And in that anger, I opened up my script and I began to write. Before I knew it, I had scribbled entire passages of new text into the margins of the double-spaced pages.

This went on for two days. Crying and writing. Writing and crying. I would work for as long as my body would allow it, and then, I would sleep. It was not what I would call pleasant. I had no idea if anything I wrote was any good, only that it felt as though some unseen hand had lifted me up and was propelling me forward, and I had no choice but to keep going.

I finished the new draft on a Wednesday, four days after I woke up with the flu. I’m still not sure how I did it. In retrospect, it feels like some sort of miracle. But perhaps it’s just a testament to my own stubbornness, or to the fact that my only option was to finish and so, somehow, I did.

Or it could be that I’m finally internalizing the best piece of advice I’ve received about how to survive in New York, given to me by my friend Katherine (an L.A. transplant herself): Keep moving. Even if you don’t feel like it. Even if you don’t think you can. Even if all you can do is crawl.

Keep moving.

Until next time, friends.

Winter.

It was well after midnight when the taxi left Newark Airport and sped along I-95 toward Manhattan. As we approached the city, an enormous half-moon hung in the sky, and the Empire State Building – lit up like a Christmas tree in red and green – sparkled in the distance. My eyes, tired yet watchful, remained ever forward.

After I had unpacked my suitcase, sorted through a stack of mail, and inventoried the contents of the kitchen, I crawled wearily into bed. My body was exhausted, but to my dismay my wired brain simply wouldn’t shut down. It wasn’t until the sun threatened to rise that I finally fell asleep.

A day and a half later, I boarded a subway train bound for downtown. I didn’t want to go. The fog of jet lag was still thick, the temperature had dropped into the teens, and snow was in the forecast. But, at the urging of a friend, I’d signed up for an intuitive reading at a placed called The Alchemist’s Kitchen in the East Village, and it was too late to get my money back. Besides, I needed an excuse to leave my apartment. So, I went.

Once there, I took my seat across from a woman named Victoria. She jotted down my name on a piece of white, unlined paper, then proceeded to look at me in that unnerving way “spiritual” people sometimes do when they’re trying to read your mind. Or maybe it was just unnerving to me, concerned as I was about what someone might find in those dark recesses.

“I keep hearing the word move,” she said. “What does that mean to you?”

“Uh, I just moved here. About three months ago.”

“That’s great. Welcome.”

“Thanks.”

“Is there something you want me to ask your spirit guides?”

“Well. . . I’m not really happy here. I think maybe. . . I made a mistake.”

She looked at me and smiled.

“I felt that way, too, when I first came here from Ohio. But three months is nothing. You’re still in the adjustment period. Wait until spring before you decide anything.”

Wait until spring. If there’s one theme that’s been running through my life lately, it’s that: Wait until spring.

It was last spring when I decided to move to New York. I’d rented a tiny apartment on the seventh floor of an old building in Greenwich Village, and spent my days covering miles of Manhattan on foot. I toured theaters and talked art and literature with friends and strangers. I held meetings over delicious meals and cocktails and coffee. All the while, the weather ran hot, then cold. One day, it rained. Another day, a lightning storm. But even the unpleasantries were somehow beautiful, perhaps because they were short-lived. Tulips bloomed on street corners, and friends gathered to share news on park benches, and everything felt hopeful and full of possibility.

I moved to New York because I wanted to change my life. Because as much as I love Los Angeles, I was too comfortable there. I was coasting through my days with no clear sense of direction, no real feeling of purpose, no evidence of personal growth. And I was terrified that I’d wake up one day and find that I’d spent a decade that way, without having challenged myself, or accomplished anything I was proud of.

So now I’m here. The trees are barren. The snow is falling. The wind chill is well below freezing. And there’s no relief in sight. And in the heart of winter, I’m finally realizing a truth that should have been obvious all along: you don’t change your life by changing your address. You change it by looking within, by asking yourself difficult questions, and by finding the courage to answer them. For me, most of those questions revolve around what I’ve been holding on to that I need to let go of. My guilt for all the ways I’ve failed, both myself and others. My attachment to a past that’s not coming back. And the story I’ve been telling myself that there are things for other people that aren’t for me; that “almost” is good enough.

As I write this, I’m sitting in my living room, looking out over the Morningside Heights neighborhood of Manhattan. It’s January fourth. The sky is white, the snow relentless. But every few minutes, a subway train rattles past my eighth-floor window, some brave soul in a puffy neon jacket clears the sidewalk with a snow plow, and life goes on.

And on the eighth floor of an old brick building on La Salle Street, wrapped in a blanket, note pad and pen in hand, lucky enough to have nowhere to go and nothing to do except watch the snowfall and write, I made myself a promise: I won’t move again until I’ve answered the difficult questions. No matter how hard it gets, no matter how uncomfortable it is.

And if, in the process of answering those questions, life leads me elsewhere, that’s fine. But for now, it has led me here. To New York, in the winter, a place where – despite the cold and discomfort – countless doors have been opened for me, if only I can be humble enough to recognize them, and brave enough to walk through them.

Eventually, winter will end. Spring will come again. And I’ll be here, waiting.

Until next time, friends.

Instructions.

“Instructions for living a life.
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.”

― Mary Oliver

The sea was rough on the crossing to Bremerton. I sat in a booth near the window and watched as whitecaps broke across dark blue water. The ferry rocked and swayed but chugged resolutely onward, the Seattle skyline slowly disappearing behind us. Despite the chop, the day was glorious on all accounts, with nary a cloud in the clear blue December sky.

The next morning, the winter solstice, I dug myself out from underneath a pile of blankets and padded into the kitchen to make coffee. The view that greeted me from outside the wall of inlet-facing windows was pure white; the fog that blanketed the landscape so thick I couldn’t tell where the sky ended and the sea began. There was no snow on the ground, but the grass and evergreen trees had been dusted with a layer of frost, looking as though someone had painted them with a great big silvery brush. It was four days before Christmas, and I was home.

A couple of weeks earlier – more than two, but less than three – on the evening of my birthday, I sat in a friend’s kitchen in North London, drinking wine. My friend told me that she was worried that my writing was so sad, that she sometimes found it difficult to read my blog. This friend had known me a long time; we’d first met when I was a twenty-one-year-old college student on a semester abroad. How different my life looked then, when I attended class three days a week, lived in a beautiful flat in central London, and my biggest concern was which European country I’d travel to over the next four-day weekend.

I remember that girl well, how she sang through the streets of Berlin, and cheered a royal wedding in Amsterdam, and crashed a party at a film festival in the south of France. She’d been liberated from an unhappy adolescence by her acceptance into a prestigious university in Los Angeles, and once there, everything seemed possible. She threw herself into life with abandon, without fear of loss. And why not? Nothing bad had happened to her yet.

When I began this blog, I didn’t set out to write about sad things. I didn’t set out to do anything, really, other than try to survive an all-encompassing darkness that descended unexpectedly at the age of thirty-one. Writing helped. It helped make sense of tragedy. It helped connect me with other people and realize that I didn’t have to suffer alone. It helped me find a voice and a purpose.

I’m on the other side of that darkness now. I still write about sad things. But mostly, I try to write what’s true. And the truth is, my life looks very different than it did before the darkness visited me.

How I loved that twenty-one-year-old college student, off having the time of her life in London. Every time I return to that city – as I did just a few weeks ago – I’m reminded of her. I miss her enthusiasm and her innocence. I miss her, but I know she isn’t coming back. And I don’t want her to.

That girl never would have been brought to tears by the sight of baby Orca whales and their mother hunting for food off the shores of Case Inlet. She never would have been leveled by a tangerine sun setting over cobblestone streets in the Marais neighborhood of Paris, or seen the poetry in the changing autumn foliage in the Hudson River Valley. She would have tried to appreciate those things, but their beauty would have been lost on her.

I am not naïve anymore, not fearless. I know what it’s like to lose. I no longer throw myself into the world with abandon, but I do live in it. I take that fear, and that awareness of how fragile everything is, and I carry it with me out into the world. I see what’s beautiful, and what’s sad, and what’s true, and I write it all down.

And in doing this, little by little, I am re-making my life.

Until next time, friends.

Veterans Day.

“I know why we try to keep the dead alive: we try to keep them alive in order to keep them with us. I also know that if we are to live ourselves there comes a point at which we must relinquish the dead, let them go, keep them dead.”

– Joan Didion

One year ago, on Veterans Day, I sat on a bench in Tompkins Square Park, watching amber leaves follow their gentle spiral toward earth. I’d spent the morning in a nearby East Village coffee shop, pretending to write but instead just eavesdropping, allowing the hushed voices of the people nearby to run through my body, causing my mind to wander to places both foreign and familiar.

I was not what you’d call “happy.” It was three days after a bitterly contested U.S. presidential election, and my candidate – a candidate I campaigned hard for – had lost. I was in the grips of severe writer’s block, well past a self-imposed deadline to submit rewrites of my play to its director. We’d posted casting notices and were preparing to audition actors upon my return to L.A., but I still hadn’t completed the script, a fact that filled me with anxiety and made me feel like a failure.

Veterans Day also marked the one-year anniversary of the death of one of my favorite people: my grandpa Gerry. With so much around me feeling dark and heavy, the absence of the light and joy and laughter he had always brought to my life was like an open wound.

Yet as I sat on that park bench watching the leaves fall, something funny happened. I felt. . . hope. I don’t know where it came from – there was certainly no reason for it – all I know is that in the midst of sorrow, there was a sense of peace, and somehow, I knew that everything would be all right.

There are many reasons why I decided to move to New York, but if I can pinpoint the moment when “maybe” shifted to “yes,” it was there, on that day, on that park bench. It was that quiet, confident voice that said simply, “You’re OK here.” And I listened.

One year later, I am OK here. The cross-country move didn’t shield me from sorrow or from the anniversaries of loved ones lost. But one year later, on Veterans Day, as I walked south along the edge of Morningside Park, watching the late afternoon sun set over Harlem, I didn’t feel sad as I thought about my grandfather. I felt grateful. Grateful for the tremendous gifts he and the rest of my family gave me, not the least of which is my awareness of the ephemeral nature of life. Because of them, I made promises to myself about the things I wouldn’t wait to do. Because of them, I am getting better at keeping them.

As I’m writing this, it’s November 14th, the two-month anniversary of my move to New York. Truth be told, I thought I would have accomplished more in these first two months. I thought I would have had a reading of my play by now, and would be preparing for its production. I thought I would have seen more people, would have done more things, would have checked more items off my to-do list.

But I have found that everything is taking longer than I expected, because just being in this city is exhausting. It’s exhausting, and it’s exhilarating, too: all the people, all the stories, all the humanity and heartbreak and hope all around. It makes me want to write all the time. It makes me feel things I’ve never felt before. And it wears me out.

In many ways, I’m still the girl in that East Village coffee shop from a year ago, eavesdropping, allowing the stories of other people to run through me. I am learning to relinquish my need to constantly produce work, and instead to surrender to this moment, finding faith that the words I need to write will find their form in their own time.

Because this moment is not really about work: it’s about finding my footing in a new place. It’s about letting go of old wounds and bidding a gentle farewell to a past that used to own me. It’s about understanding that the greatest act of rebellion – the greatest act of liberation – can be as simple as sitting on a park bench and believing in the quiet, confident voice that says, “You’re OK here.”

I am OK here.

Until next time, friends.

The loneliest place.

“When you recognize that you will thrive not in spite of your losses and sorrows but because of them,

that you would not have chosen the things that happened in your life, but you are grateful for them,

that you will hold the empty bowls eternally in your hands but that you also have the capacity to fill them?

The word for that is healing.”

– Cheryl Strayed

I didn’t cry on the way to the airport. Julio, my Lyft driver, wouldn’t allow it. His questions began the moment he loaded my suitcase into the trunk of his Kia Optima.

“Sarah, why you leaving? You no like Miami?”

I explained to him that I did like Miami, but I had come there for a film festival and now that it was over, it was time to return to New York.

The questions continued. Did I like Reggaeton music? Did I have a boyfriend? Did I know how to dance? “Next time you come to Miami,” he said, “I will teach you how to dance Reggaeton.”

I laughed, but wondered if I should be worried. Who was this guy? What did he want from me? But a few minutes later, we were at the airport, and as Julio bid me a cheerful farewell, I realized it had all just been playful banter. And I felt grateful, because I had been too busy deflecting his questions to cry.

It wasn’t until much later, after the flight to LaGuardia, after the cab ride to Morningside Heights, after picking up the mail, unpacking my suitcase, and grabbing dinner at my favorite speakeasy on Broadway, that – safely inside my eighth-floor apartment, the door bolted behind me – the tears I had been holding began to fall.

I had been holding them since the night before, since the Casablanca-themed awards ceremony for the Bogart Film Noir Shorts Competition, where we had accepted an award for our film Speak No Evil and my soon to be ex-husband dedicated that award to my dead parents. Emotions rising, he choked on the words, and I pressed my lips together and looked away. I’m one of the most sensitive people you will ever meet, but sometimes, I avert my eyes. I have to.

He was right. We never would have been there, at that film festival in Coral Gables, if my parents hadn’t died. More accurately, we never would have been there if I hadn’t used money I inherited from them to help finance our film. So, when he spoke this truth – more elegantly than I just did – I averted my eyes. I had to.

I’ve played the “If my parents hadn’t died” game many times over the last few years. It’s a self-destructive game, but one that I’m quite good at. If my parents hadn’t died, I never would have produced that film. If my parents hadn’t died, I never would have written that play. If my parents hadn’t died and we hadn’t sold their house in Olympia, I never would have gone on that exhaustive search looking for a place called home, the one that led me to wander cobblestone streets in Prague at winter, and hike a sweltering trail through a Mexican jungle, and take a ferry boat to a remote island in the Pacific Northwest to sit in a circle with strangers and share intimate stories from my life. And if my parents hadn’t died, I most certainly never would have trashed most of my belongings, sold my car, packed up what remained of my life, and moved to New York.

A couple of weeks ago, I sat on a patio near Lincoln Center with a friend from L.A. and tried to analyze why New York – a city of eight million people – felt so lonely. “It’s the loneliest place on earth,” she declared. I had only been in town for a few weeks and yet, I couldn’t disagree with her. “I guess there are so many people here it just desensitizes you,” I offered. And then I repeated something that I’d heard someone say: “Apparently, you can cry in public and no one will look twice at you.”

My friend paused, taking me in. “Wait,” she said, “You haven’t cried in public yet?”

I hadn’t. Just like my return trip from Miami, I had been holding in the tears. But sure enough, shortly after she said it, it happened. It was late at night, and I was headed home on the subway after a long day. A busker boarded the train. “Ugh,” I thought. Another stranger asking for money, another reason to avert my eyes. But to my surprise, he lifted a violin to his chin and began to play one of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard. It was a sweet, plaintive melody that sliced right through me; the type of music that reminds you you’re alive. When he finished, I handed him a dollar, and he looked at me with such sincerity and said, “God bless you my dear,” that my eyes immediately filled up and spilled over. I got off the train, tears running down my face, too tired to wipe them away, and I walked home. And as I passed two police officers who barely acknowledged me, I realized what I’d heard was true: you can cry in public here, and no one will look twice at you.

I’m glad I came to New York. As homesick as I am for people I love and places I miss, it feels right to be here. Even the fact that it’s lonely feels – somehow – right. Maybe, paradoxically, the “loneliest place on earth,” is exactly where I need to be to feel less alone. Because in a city of eight million people, my worries and problems and fears seem less significant. In New York, I can be as odd and as quirky and as real as I want and all it means is that someone may pause for a minute, shake their head at me, and then go on about their day.

If my parents hadn’t died, I wouldn’t be here. And here is a place where I’m learning that maybe, I don’t have to avert my eyes. Here is a place where everything feels acceptable, which also makes anything seem possible. Here is a place where my writing is growing riskier and more honest and more dangerous, and I like that. Here is a place where I’m finally giving myself permission to be who I am and say what I feel.

Here may be the loneliest place on earth. But here – at least, for now – might be the only place for me to be.

Until next time, friends.

Burning the boats.

Dear friends,

This essay was originally published on the blog Bottle + Heels, but, as I thought it might have interest to readers of Extra Dry Martini, I’m re-sharing it below. Tomorrow, I’ll travel by train through the Hudson River Valley and the Adirondack Mountains to Montreal. It’s a long journey, but I look forward to watching the changing fall colors from outside my window, and some quiet time to write. I’ll report back upon my return.

Until next time,

Sarah

It was blazing hot on the late August day when I left Los Angeles. It didn’t help that – rather than pack them – I had worn my favorite knee-high leather boots, and was transporting three heavy suitcases. High in the hills above L.A., I made the left turn off Sepulveda Boulevard, rounded the corner, and pulled my silver Prius into the driveway of my friend Vim’s parents’ house. I called a Lyft bound for LAX, unloaded my bags, backed my car onto the street and parked it alongside the curb, then sealed both sets of my car keys into an envelope and slipped it inside the white mailbox at the end of the driveway.

Two days later, in the tiny western Washington town of Allyn, from the living room of the beach-front home that used to belong to my grandparents, I called my insurance company to inform them that I would no longer be needing my policy. And what should have been a mundane conversation quickly evolved into something more. Before I knew it, I was pouring out my life story to Donna from Texas, the customer service agent on the other end of the line. Was I sure that I wouldn’t be needing a new policy? Yes, I was sure. I wasn’t getting a new car. I no longer needed one, because I was moving to New York. No, I didn’t need renter’s insurance, at least, not yet, because I didn’t yet know where I was going to live. Was I moving for a job? No, I didn’t have one of those, either. I was planning to produce a play that I wrote, but beyond that, I had no idea what I was going to do. I had simply decided to go, and that was that.

There’s a famous story about Hernán Cortés’ 1519 conquest of Mexico. Vastly outnumbered and facing seemingly insurmountable odds – every previous attempt to colonize the Yucatan Peninsula in the last 600 years had failed – Cortés gave his men an order: “Burn the boats.” Destroying their ships meant that if they faced defeat, they would have no exit strategy, no way to retreat and save their lives. There were only two options: win or die. Guess what? They won.

Today, the phrase “burn the boats” has come to represent a decision from which there is no going back. It means taking a bold, decisive action. It means that “Plan B” is no longer an option.

I am a meticulous planner and “burning the boats,” is far from comfortable for me. It’s scary to cut ties with the past and take a leap of faith into an uncertain future. But it’s liberating, too. For the last few months, as I’ve sold, given away or thrown out most of my belongings, I have felt lighter, as though I have been shedding old skin, and paring down to my essential elements.

More than once these last few years, I have experienced the feeling of the rug being pulled out from under me. I had job security until the company I worked at for eleven years was sold. I had parents until one terminal cancer diagnosis and one earth-shattering Sunday morning phone call.

And what I have learned through those experiences is this: nothing is guaranteed. And nothing – not the good stuff or the bad – lasts forever. Life is a constant swirl of change, and if we don’t adapt and change with it, we’ll get left behind. It would have felt safe and comfortable to stay in L.A., in my rent-controlled apartment, with my wonderful neighbors, and loving community of long-time friends. But that safety was an illusion, and my comfort came at the price of personal and creative growth.

I was scared to move to New York, and daunted at the prospect of reestablishing myself in a new city. But what I feared more than anything was regret. I didn’t want to spend my life on the sidelines, talking about the things I was going to do but never doing them.

A few days after the phone call to my insurance company, I received another call: I had a place to live. The dream apartment a friend put me up for had come through, and my new landlord was expecting me in mid-September.

And so, from the stretch of rocky beach where I had spent every childhood summer, and where I had steadily, deliberately, burned each and every last one of my metaphorical boats, I purchased a one-way plane ticket.

And I didn’t look back.

Morningside.

“We all get stuck in place on occasion. We all move backward sometimes. Every day we must make the decision to move in the direction of our intentions. Forward is the direction of real life.”

– Cheryl Strayed

I was sitting cross-legged on my bed, laptop on lap, surfing the internet for a new dresser when the call came through. The number was familiar, but not in a way that brought comfort. My body tensed. My breaths came shallow. I thought about answering the phone, then thought better of it. I didn’t want to be blindsided by bad news. Let them leave a message, I thought. At least then I’d have an idea of what I was in for.

The voicemail notification flashed across the screen, and I gingerly pressed play and held the phone up to my ear.

“Hi Sarah,” came a polite, though somewhat timid, voice on the other end.

“This is Katherine, from Joe’s office. We have some documents to send you, and I just wanted to confirm that we still have your correct address.”

Documents. That sounded innocuous enough, but as I’d just spent the better part of the summer sorting through five years’ worth of paperwork covering such weighty topics as death, divorce and identity theft, paring a painful paper trail down to its essentials and depositing the rest into a large plastic bin that I delivered to an industrial shredding facility in the shadow of Los Angeles International Airport, the last thing I wanted was to acquire more documents. I had begun a new life. And I intended to travel light.

I sighed, pressed “call back,” and was surprised to hear Joe’s voice – my parents’ lawyer – on the other end. I had assumed he had retired, due to advancing age and a recent bypass surgery. But there he was, answering the phone. His tone was kind, grandfatherly, almost.

“Well, Sarah, it looks like we’re finally ready to close your parents’ estate, and I have some final documents for you to sign. We’re going to send them to your sister Marion first, then to you, and then we should be good to go.”

Really? Five years of bank statements and legal documents and insurance forms? Five years of producing death certificates with as much normalcy as I produced my driver’s license? Five years of always another form to sign, always another stack of papers to file bearing the red “For your Information” stamp? Could it really be true that after five years, this phase of life that I’d become so accustomed to was finally drawing to a close?

“That’s great news, Joe. I’m glad you called because I actually just moved. Let me give you my new address.”

If Joe was surprised by my New York zip code, he didn’t let on. Maybe he thought people packed up and moved their lives across the country every day. Or maybe after five years, he was ready to be done with me, too. Either way, we said our goodbyes, and I collapsed back onto my bed, a wave of exhaustion washing over me. I had only been in New York for three days, but I knew that it was more than just the force of jet lag hitting me. It was something like releasing a breath that I had long been holding. Something like the realization that after all these years, I might finally be turning a page.

Five days later, on a still warm September afternoon – the second day of fall – I swept the floors, rearranged the furniture, stocked the fridge and assembled a spread of snacks and drinks on my kitchen table. As a handful of guests arrived and day faded into indigo night, lit by the New York skyline and the three strings of twinkle lights I’d hung from the eighth-floor balcony of my Morningside Heights apartment, I realized that I had barely thought about the fact that this day, September 23rd, marked the fifth anniversary of the death of my mother. I had remembered it, of course, but I had – for once – been too busy to dwell on it. And when I did think of it, I didn’t feel sad. Instead, I felt lucky. I felt lucky that I had a mother who always told me that I could do and be anything that I wanted. I felt lucky that because of that, I had been brave enough to take a leap, and had been rewarded with a new apartment in a new city, one that was beautiful, priced well under market value, and in a prime Manhattan neighborhood. I was lucky to be surrounded by interesting, kind, creative people, who, like me, also wanted to tell stories and make art. And I was lucky to realize that as painful as it had been, it was the jagged, twisted, perilous path that had brought me here, to a time and a place where I finally felt, for the first time in a long time, that I was where I was supposed to be.

Until next time, friends.

The salt and the sea.

It was well after 11 p.m. when we made the left turn on to Grapeview Loop Road from Washington State’s Highway Three. The drive in had been quiet; the late hour meant that the rural highways we traveled were sparsely populated, and our rental car pressed quickly forward into the inky black night, following winding roads over waterways too dark to see.

“Wow,” came the response when we arrived at the beach. Even in darkness, my friends could tell that the place was special. I gave them a brief tour and then began to unpack, tired from the long day and hoping to head straight to bed. But as they climbed the spiral staircase to the loft and stood out on the upstairs balcony, transfixed by the smell of saltwater and the sound of the sea, I realized I had underestimated the ability this place still had to stagger first-time visitors.

It continued all weekend: my re-initiation to the beach. After spending so much of my life there, I had grown accustomed to the densely-forested walk along the loop road, the silver, flat-as-a-mirror inlet with its fluctuating tides, the fresh air, the ever-present Mt. Rainier, standing snowcapped over a great bank of evergreen trees. I had forgotten that not everyone spends their summers digging clams at low tide, or building bonfires on the beach, or watching playful seals hunt for food just outside of their front door. I suppose it isn’t normal to pick wild blackberries in the woods on the walk to Treasure Island, or to admire the sailboats docked in Fair Harbor Marina, while tracing a map of the inland waterways of Puget Sound.

The truth is, the beach still has the power to amaze me. Every summer, when I make the left turn from Grapeview Loop Road on to the property that my Grandfather bought in 1959, the sight of Case Inlet stretching out across the landscape still levels me. But along with that feeling of awe comes something else: grief. Every advancing summer takes me further away from the carefree days of childhood, serving as a reminder of how much has changed, how much has gone. Of all the places I’ve traveled, the beach is the place I love the most, but it is also a repository for some of my darkest and most painful memories. I wish it wasn’t so, but I can’t help it: every time I return there, so do the flood of images of happier times, and of loved ones lost.

We planned a Saturday morning boat ride, and though the day dawned cold and cloudy, we pressed forward anyway, undeterred. As we bundled up into flannels and fleeces, my friend Vim spotted an unusual sight from just outside the living room window: a dorsal fin. We gathered on the deck, the four of us passing around two sets of binoculars, and I saw something I had never witnessed in all my summers on Case Inlet: Orca whales. They were hundreds of miles from the ocean, swimming very close to shore, and seemingly in no hurry to reach their destination. As the trio – two babies and their mother – traveled slowly south, spouting water and occasionally breaking the surface, I felt a lump rise in my throat. This moment, amidst all that was familiar, was entirely new.

In the end, I couldn’t have imagined a better way to spend my last few days before moving to New York than by sharing the place I grew up with some of my closest friends. I have come to accept the fact that there will always be sad memories contained along the rocky shores of Case Inlet. I can no more extract them from that place than I can the salt from the sea. But there are happy memories, too. Plenty of them, and even more so after this past weekend. After our boat ride, a group of friends and family gathered for a potluck lunch at my Grandfather’s house, and I thought about how he would have loved to hear the sound of laughter reverberating off the deck and out into the late summer afternoon. I thought about how the sight of those Orca whales proved one thing: despite all that’s happened, I haven’t lost my capacity for wonder. I think I just needed to see this old place again, but this time, through new eyes.

Until next time, friends.

September.

The first sunrise of September was a subtle affair. While still lovely, with brushstrokes of tangerine and topaz painted across a watercolor sky, the dawn was decidedly gentler than the ferocious fuchsia that – just a few days prior – had set the heavens aflame with a vibrancy bordering on violence. Summer was not yet gone, and the rising mercury proved it, but the golden glow that backlit Mt. Rainier and spread its warmth across the sea was a harbinger of the rapidly approaching season. Soon, it would be fall.

Still wearing my pajamas, wrapped in my Grandmother’s timeworn yellow afghan, I watched the changing colors move across the sky until I decided it was time to stumble out onto the rocky beach and capture them. Once back inside, I brewed coffee – strong and dark – and sat down with my yellow legal pad to scribble out my morning routine: three longhand pages.

It was the sixth morning I’d awoken in the house on Case Inlet, and the third I’d risen before daybreak. I had arrived on a sweltering Saturday evening in late August: tired, sweaty, and carrying the heavy weight of a month full of farewells. I had spent the first few days moving slowly through the house that used to belong to my Grandparents, half-heartedly working on a seemingly insurmountable to-do list, and fighting the fatigue I felt settling into my bones.

But this morning was different, and I knew it. The last few days I had been too comfortable. Lazy, even. Now an urgency arose within me, one that I felt in my body as much as I saw reflected in the sky. It was time to shake off the doldrums, and get to work.

I started a load of laundry, then sat down at the dining room table by the window. Looking over my list, I decided to start with the most dreaded items first. Before I began, I penned myself a note of encouragement:

The space between here and the life you want is filled with all the things you’re putting off. . .  

In truth, there was no hurry to leave the beach. My deadlines were my own, entirely self-imposed. As a bridge between one big, chaotic city and another, as a place to rest, regroup, and plan a cross country move, there was no better location. And there was something reassuring about being here: a place so familiar, among people who shared my history.

No, the need to go was a purely psychological one. Because as soon as the calendar turned to September, a date that may as well have been circled in scarlet stared out at me from the page. September 23rd. It was on that day, five years ago, that I received the worst phone call of my life: my mother was dead. Now I was here – in her favorite place – looking out at the inlet where three summers earlier we had climbed into a little tin boat, went out to sea, and scattered her ashes. And as I sat by a picture window, watching the receding tide, I made a promise: I would not mark the anniversary of her death here. I would be in New York, having already begun my new life in a new city. I would honor my mother’s memory the best way I knew how: by not ending up like her. I would not defer my dreams to a tomorrow that would never come, would not spend my life wandering down a rabbit hole of regret.

After the emails had been sent and the phone calls had been placed, I waited for high tide, put on a swimsuit and walked down to the water’s edge. Case Inlet was colder than I remembered, but then again, it had been a year since I’d last dipped my toes in that saltwater. There was only one thing to do. I threw myself into the bay, absorbing the shock of bracing cold. But as I paddled through the water, my Grandmother’s faded orange swim fins emerging and submerging with each stroke, my body slowly began to adjust. And I was OK.

I would always be OK.

Until next time, friends.

Los Angeles.

I’m so tired, but I can’t sleep

Standing on the edge of something much too deep

It’s funny how we feel so much but cannot say a word

We are screaming inside but can’t be heard

 And I will remember you

Will you remember me?

Don’t let your life pass you by

Weep not for the memories.

 

On an early morning in the summer of 1999, a yellow school bus pulled into the parking lot of Capital High School in Olympia, Washington. I sat near the back, resting my head against the seat, softly singing the lyrics to a bittersweet Sarah McLachlan song. My head was light – the result of a sleepless night spent in Seattle, celebrating the Class of ‘99 and our newly-earned diplomas – but my heart was heavy. Graduation meant that in less than two months, I’d be leaving home to attend college in Los Angeles, a city I’d visited only once and where I knew no one. The thought of chasing my Hollywood dreams thrilled me, but I was scared too, possessed of the vague but certain knowledge that soon, everything in my life was going to change.

I waited until it was safe. As soon as I was sure that the solar eclipse that had been making its way eastward across the United States had passed over Los Angeles, I got into my car. As I merged on to that familiar stretch of the 405 freeway, I thought about that eighteen-year-old girl, half a life away, who was only just beginning her story. How could she have known how it would all unfold?

My mother watched from the third-floor window of the Radisson Hotel as – sirens blaring, strobe lights pulsating – fire trucks charged down Figueroa Street. Turning to me, face drawn with concern, fear in her aquamarine eyes, she asked earnestly:

“Sar, are you sure you want to go to school here?”

I was sure. From the minute I set foot onto USC’s University Park Campus I knew that I belonged there. Its proximity to the infamous “South Central” neighborhood of Los Angeles, the seemingly never ending parade of emergency vehicles exiting the nearby fire station, the metal bars encasing every apartment and store window. . . none of those things deterred me. In fact, they only strengthened my resolve. A girl who split her childhood between Anchorage, Alaska and small towns in the Pacific Northwest should have been a fish out of water in such a gritty, urban place. But I wasn’t. I was home.

Nearly eighteen years later, that exact same feeling settled in my chest, but this time, in a different place. Walking along Sixth Avenue in New York’s West Village, my eyes found the Freedom Tower, a beacon of steel blue standing strong and stoic in the distance, and something that can best be described as hope swelled within me. Home, cried a familiar voice, sure and steady. I listened.

I checked in to the Surf and Sand Hotel just after two p.m., changed into a bikini, and headed straight for the beach. Later, sandy and sleepy, I sat beneath a large white umbrella, stared out at the Pacific, and wrote. After an early dinner of cheap tacos and expensive wine, I headed back to the beach and waded into the ocean just in time to watch a blazing sun sink below the horizon, spreading coral and tangerine across a tranquil sky. Once it was dark, I opened up two old notebooks that I’d brought along for the journey and re-read their contents. I barely recognized the person who had written them, and so, I carefully shredded their pages and deposited them into a hotel garbage can.

As I crawled beneath white sheets, a feeling of calm settled over me. What a difference from the last time I came here, I thought. It had been December of 2015, a few days after my thirty-fifth birthday, a few weeks after my grandfather died and I had returned to L.A. from a month-long stay in tiny Allyn, Washington to oversee his hospice care, only to find that the company I had worked at for eleven years had been sold, and I had a decision to make: relocate to Seattle and take a job with the new company, or stay in L.A. and face an uncertain future. I chose to stay in L.A. I chose to trust the steady, sure voice that told me I would be OK. I have never regretted that decision.

Eighteen years after moving to Los Angeles and making it my home, it is impossible to describe how it feels to leave it. When I arrived here in the late summer of 1999, I was a girl on the edge of becoming a woman. A girl who thought she knew so much, but who had no idea how innocent she truly was. I had never been in love. I had never traveled to the Eastern United States to sink my toes into an Atlantic beach, let alone crossed that vast ocean to visit (and live in) the continent on the other side. I didn’t know that terrorists could fly airplanes into tall buildings. I didn’t know what it would feel like to hold the hand of someone I loved as they died.

What would I tell that girl now, all these years later, as I prepare to once again begin my life anew? I would tell her a great many things, but mostly I would tell her that she is allowed to make her own choices. She is allowed to let two conflicting emotions reside in her body at the same time. She is allowed to love a place and leave it, and she is allowed to love people and leave them, too. She is allowed to be both brave and afraid, allowed to be both as fragile as a paper doll and the owner of the fiercest heart imaginable. She is allowed to write her own story, without knowing how it’s going to end.

When I moved to Los Angeles, I never could have imagined how much this city would change me, how much it would shape me, how much it would open up my life. Somewhere among the boulevards and the beaches, among the wannabes and the celebrities, I found myself. I made lifelong friends. And I grew up.

Moving here was the right thing. I knew it, and I did it. And now, eighteen years later – as hard as it may be – I also know that it is the right thing to leave.

Until next time, friends.

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