Magic.

Listen to the Mustn’ts, child.

Listen to the Don’ts.

Listen to the Shouldn’ts, the Impossibles, the Won’ts.

Listen to the Never Haves, then listen close to me.

Anything can happen, child.

Anything can be.

– Shel Silverstein

On the eighteenth day of December, I took a walk along Riverside Drive in Manhattan. The air was crisp, the trees barren, the late afternoon sun slipping low on the horizon, spreading its golden glow across the Hudson River and backlighting the New Jersey skyline. In just over twelve hours, I’d be getting in a cab bound for Newark Airport, then boarding a cross country flight back to the Pacific Northwest. I didn’t have time for a walk. I had dinner plans. I hadn’t finished packing. My alarm was set for 3:30 the following morning.

I didn’t have time for a walk, but I needed it. Walking was always when I did my best thinking, and my thoughts were, at that moment, a tangled jumble. I tossed my laundry into a dryer in the basement of my apartment building and set the timer on my phone. I had an hour. Out into the cold December day I went.

From Riverside, I took a left on 116th street and crossed Broadway, onto the campus of Columbia University. It was twilight now, and I entered a tree-lined promenade, aglow in the sparkle of white Christmas lights. The quad was largely quiet, evidence of the impending holiday. Despite my haste, I felt a measure of calm settle over me. I loved school. I had always loved school. Lately, I’d been entertaining the idea of going back for a master’s degree, but I wasn’t sure if that was something I really wanted or just a stalling technique, a costly way of putting off the inevitable reality of making big life decisions.

I had much to do, but I was in no hurry to return to my apartment. Two days earlier, the daughter of the woman I’d been subletting from had filled the living room with boxes and bags of what can best be described as “stuff.” She’d had a crisis in her living situation in Brooklyn and had to move out suddenly, and the result was now sitting in my once clean and orderly living room. My landlord apologized profusely for the disruption and promised she would deal with the mess while I was away over Christmas, but I couldn’t help feeling unsettled by the chaos. It was also a reminder of a truth that was becoming more and more apparent: my landlord’s daughter wanted to return to her old apartment. Soon, I would have to move.

I’d had a good run in New York, and I knew it. For what I’d been paying in rent, I should have been living in a shoebox in the Bronx with at least one roommate. Instead, I had a seven hundred fifty square foot, eighth-floor apartment with a balcony perched over Broadway all to myself. The space was beautiful and tranquil and safe. My cheap rent had enabled me to take writing classes and write a new play and work on my memoir without the urgency of having to look for a real job. The co-op even had a theater company in the basement of my building, a theater company that would be producing a reading of my new play in January. I’d arrived in New York with no plan, and somehow, landed exactly where I needed to be.

But now what? The question nagged at me as I trudged north along Amsterdam Avenue. I had some ideas about temporary living situations but anything even semi-permanent would require paying real rent and a renewed urgency to find a real job. Did I want to look for work in New York and try to root myself there? Or did I want to call time on the Big Apple experiment and return to the west coast? I didn’t know. I missed California and my friends something fierce, but after fifteen months in Manhattan, I wasn’t sure I belonged in L.A. any more.

I have a bad habit of assuming the worst-case scenario. When something good happens, I can’t enjoy it, because I’m already preparing myself for when it goes away. The concept of “living in the moment” is something I struggle mightily with.

I wasn’t always like this. At least, I don’t think I was. I’ve been so altered by the events of the last six years, I don’t remember the person I was before all the bad stuff happened. I don’t remember who I was before my mom’s alcoholism, my dad’s cancer, my grandmother’s dementia, my grandfather’s hospice, my divorce, and all the deaths and devastation that ensued. I know I used to feel young and carefree and that the world was open and full of possibility, but that all seems vague and ephemeral now, like a dream I woke up from after sleeping too long.

Worst-Case Scenario Sarah is not only annoying, she has profoundly affected my ability to enjoy New York. She has left me fists clenched, steeling myself through winter, sweating through summer, unable to allow myself to indulge in the most basic, touristy activities like walking the Brooklyn Bridge or taking in the city from atop the Empire State Building or marveling at the Manhattan skyline from the deck of a ferry boat.

This is a revelation about myself I’ve only come to recently. It began a few months ago, when I first learned my landlord’s daughter was applying for jobs in New York. Bemoaning my fate over whiskey on a patio in Williamsburg, my friend Kirsten waxed poetic about the New York apartment shuffle and proposed a question I couldn’t wrap my head around: “OK, so you have to move. But how do you know you won’t find something even better?”

I didn’t say it out loud, but my brain immediately spat out the following: Impossible! How could it possibly get better than what I have now? I knew this good thing would go away. It was only a matter of time.

The day after my walk, I arrived in Seattle, and some dear friends picked me up at the airport and took me out to lunch. As we caught up over Pacific Northwest seafood and pints of dark beer, I told them about the latest: I had a play reading in January, I’d signed up for a new memoir class, and soon I’d have to move and didn’t know where to go or what to do.

I may be Worst-Case Scenario Sarah, but fortunately I have the good sense to surround myself with Glass is Half Full People. As I explained my situation and my uncertainty about the future, my friend Karrin offered: “It sounds like you’re letting your creative work dictate your decisions. And that’s pretty cool.”

The next morning, writing morning pages by the fire in Grandpa’s beach house, I found myself scribbling that phrase over and over again. Let your creative work dictate your decisions. And I decided something: even if I had to move before my memoir class was over at the end of March, I would find a way to stay in New York, and finish it. I loved that class, loved the people in it, loved the instructor, and I knew it was helping me do the hard work of writing my book.

My last assignment during the last session of Memoir II was to write the reflective ending of my book. It was incredibly difficult because it meant I had to force myself to answer some big questions. What is the point of my story? How do I want the reader to feel? And what have I learned over the course of this very personal journey?

I wrote about the week before I moved to New York, when I gathered at the beach with some of my closest friends. One day, while we were getting ready for a boat ride, my friend Vim spotted a sight that is quite uncommon in the protected cove of Case Inlet: three Orca whales – two calves and their mother – swimming close to shore. Everything about the future was uncertain, but in that moment, experiencing the magic of seeing an old place through the new eyes of my visiting friends, I suddenly believed it would all be OK.

This is the last paragraph of what I wrote:

I don’t know what my life will look like in New York. I don’t know what I’ll do, or who I’ll meet, or how things will change. I just know I’m no longer afraid to face an uncertain future. Grief taught me that life unfolds as it will, whether we like it or not. And it also taught me that if one day can change your life for the worse, then it certainly can for the better. And I’m ready for that. I’m ready to embrace whatever lies ahead. Because the mystery of all the things we can’t know is what makes life exciting. It’s what makes me glad I’m alive.

I so badly want to own this. I want to abandon Worst-Case Scenario Sarah in favor of someone who not only believes good things will happen, she expects them. That’s why I wrote that passage. Call it an attempt at manifestation, call it faking it ‘til I make it, it’s my sincere hope that by the time I finish my book, I will have arrived at that last paragraph.

On my second day at the beach – December 20th – I sat in the living room, bundled up in blankets, waiting out a storm. When suddenly, I saw something that made me rush outside. It was a vibrant, unbroken rainbow, forming a perfect half circle from one end of the bay to the other. And for some reason, I thought about the poem by Shel Silverstein I began this blog post with.

Anything can happen, child. Anything can be.

I may not totally believe that yet. But man, am I working on it.

Until next time, friends.

 

Osteria Da Fortunata.

He was somewhere north of fifty, with a tanned face, chiseled jawline, and salt and pepper hair. He saw me before I saw him. I heard a voice speaking in Italian and turned around, my face a question mark. He switched to English with no discernible effort. “You are not Italian?” He asked. “No,” I admitted. He smiled, taking me in. “Ah. American. But you look Italian.”

I knew it was a line, but I blushed anyway. His eyes followed mine to the shelf of leather journals I’d been browsing, and he lifted one up to show me. It was dark purple, the lambskin soft and pliable to the touch. “It’s beautiful,” I said.

“Thank you. Is it for you, or a gift?”

“For me,” I confessed. “I’m a writer.”

“Ah, lovely. When the book is full, you can replace the pages without a problem. But this cover will last forever, I promise you. I made it myself.”

I bought it – happily – bid him farewell, and wandered off through Florence’s central market to find my friends. I knew I would never see him again, but something about the man who sold me the journal stayed with me, as though a technicolor photograph of our encounter had been imprinted on my memory. In Italy, it seemed that even a simple business transaction could take on a romantic, almost cinematic quality.

A day later, we walked Via dei Fori Imperiali, a promenade lined with ruins that cut through the center of Rome. The sky was blue, the sun surprisingly warm. When we reached the Coliseum, the sight of the ancient, towering structure caused a shooting sensation to travel up my legs and set small fires inside of my arms. Vertigo was the last thing I expected to feel – not here – but suddenly, there it was. I decided not to plunge into the panic that was sure to come if I pressed forward, and instead stayed behind to write. I carved out a space on a dirty cement ledge outside of the entrance, and began to scribble in a cheap paper notebook, occasionally pausing to glance up through the Coliseum’s arching, open windows and contemplate the sky. My head swirled with images, information, and the dulling edges of jet lag, and I craved nothing more than a respite from the constant assault of voices: the hustlers, the street vendors, the people everywhere who wanted something, be it money, information, a photograph.

It was my fifth day in Italy. I’d traveled from New York on an overnight flight to Heathrow, followed by a morning flight to Venice, to celebrate my friend Jen’s birthday. On that first, cold, damp day trudging along the canals – a day that followed a long, sleepless night – I quickly realized I’d grown accustomed to traveling solo, and the sudden need to negotiate meal times, to calculate the division of the check, and to slow my stride to match the pace of the group required an adjustment I wasn’t sure how to navigate.

So, when I could, I set off on my own. My decision to skip the Coliseum had been the third time in five days that I’d peeled off from the group, and I knew it wouldn’t be the last. It was knowledge that made me feel vaguely guilty – after all, this wasn’t my trip – but now that I was in Italy, I couldn’t deny the draw toward my usual manner of traveling: avoiding tourist sites and crowds in favor of wandering city streets like a gypsy, pausing to browse in shops and linger over a notebook in a café or a bar.

The next night – our last in Rome – capped another long day that began with a three hour tour of the Vatican, the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica, and continued on to several city highlights including the Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps. By the time dinner rolled around, it was late and I was ill-tempered. We had an early wake up call – Jen’s mother was returning to Chicago and the rest of us were traveling on to the Amalfi Coast – and the wait was long at the restaurant recommended by our hotel. We debated back and forth for a good twenty minutes, when suddenly, a busy waiter hustled over, threw down a yellow table cloth, and set a table for five. Decision made.

As we tried to decipher the Italian menu and watched with wonder as two women perched in a window seat hand rolled pasta for everyone to see – part of the draw of the restaurant, Osteria Da Fortunata – one of the members of our group, Erica, raised her glass and wished us all a Happy Thanksgiving. And then she announced, “Order whatever you want. Dinner is on me.”

Romans had been wishing us “Happy Thanksgiving” all day, but being thousands of miles from home in a country that didn’t celebrate the holiday, it scarcely felt real. That is until Erica said it, and made an offer of generosity that instantly diffused the tension of the long day, the fatigue, the hunger, and the stress of coordinating the logistics of transportation to our next destination. Suddenly, we were just five people who’d shared this journey and now sat around a table on a lovely late November evening in Rome, about to share one last thing: a meal.

And after everything I’d felt the last six days, the only thing left to feel was grateful.

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.

Grateful.

Friends, I’d like you to meet Rick Lewis and his wife, Karrin.

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Rick dated my Mom in high school and on July 20, 1969, they watched Neil Armstrong become the first man to walk on the moon, through a black and white satellite feed broadcast from space, on a tiny TV set at my Grandparents’ beach cabin in Allyn, WA; the same waterfront paradise where I’ve been staying for the past week.

After my mother died, Rick found me (ahem, Facebook stalked me) and became my pen pal, but we only met in person for the first time yesterday. He hadn’t been out to the beach since that moon landing, nearly fifty years ago. But yesterday afternoon, on a perfect August day, he and his wife came by and piloted their boat toward shore and I jumped in, and we spent the afternoon telling stories and laughing and drinking wine and eating tapas and cruising around Case Inlet, the same body of water that my mother loved her whole life, the same body of water where two summers ago, my Aunt and Uncle and I climbed into a little tin boat and went out to sea to scatter her ashes.

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These last few weeks have been a wildly euphoric magic carpet ride, capped by such an incredibly special week at the beach with my family. I almost can’t believe how wonderful it all has been, so much so that I haven’t even really been able to sleep, probably because part of me is afraid this is all some sort of crazy dream.

As I write this, I’m crying, because being this happy has made me realize that I think I’d given up on the idea that I ever would be again. I thought the old Sarah, the sunshine-eyed girl that my Dad used to teasingly call Polyanna, was gone forever. Not because I’m a negative person – quite the opposite – but because for so long everything good seemed to be followed up by something horrifying and tragic and I had spent years crushed underneath the weight of so much sorrow and grief and pain that I simply couldn’t see my way out of it.

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I don’t know if it’s God or angels or magic or karma or what, but whatever force is at work in me now, I am just so grateful, grateful, grateful. I didn’t know my heart had the capacity to hold so much joy, but at 35 years old, it feels like I’m finally waking up to the beauty of what it means to be alive.

If you’re going through something, please hold on. Do it for me. Just over a year ago, I was crying so much I developed a paranoid fear of dying from dehydration (doesn’t that sound stupid and hilarious now?), and I was so achingly sad that out of desperation, I started writing myself “Get Well Soon” cards, putting them in the mail, and sending them to myself. I have been to the brink, and I have known real darkness, and somehow, some way, I came out the other side. And life is better and more beautiful than anything I could have ever dreamed. If I can get here from there, then trust me, so can you. Nothing is permanent in this life, my friends, not even our troubles. Believe that. I am living proof.

Until next time,

xx

Sarah

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Strong in our broken places.

“Sometimes the people around you won’t understand your journey. They don’t need to. It’s not for them.”

-Unknown

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I spent Mother’s Day on a boat. The morning dawned with overcast skies and I was afraid that the marine layer would wrap itself around the coastline and not let go. To my surprise, the sun broke free from the fog’s grasp and by late morning, it was casting gentle rays of light out across the water, creating a perfect spring Southern California Sunday.

We never left the harbor. The boat was borrowed and expensive: a sleek, beautiful vessel complete with two bedrooms, a bathroom and a spacious deck. Far too valuable for any of us to pilot, even if we did know how, which of course, we didn’t. Besides, there was good food to eat and tequila to drink and – most importantly – girl talk to be had underneath that shaded canopy on the sea.

How do you celebrate a holiday when the person that holiday is built around celebrating is no longer with you? How do you continue to embrace gratitude for all that you’ve been given on an occasion that can’t help but remind you of all that you’ve lost? How do you keep moving forward, heart open, even on days when moving forward feels impossible?

I don’t know what works for other people, but here is what has been working for me, as a strategy for dealing with the difficult days: 1.) Surround yourself with your tribe. 2.) Do what feels good. 3.) Don’t apologize.

So this past Mother’s Day, that is exactly what I did. The three friends I shared that boat with are all brilliant, creative, generous, tough as nails, women. They also – like me – carry the scars of having lived on this planet long enough to have had their hearts broken. All of us have been humbled by the difficult days. And yet, it is in those difficult days that we have found our strength, our grace, and our empathy. We are, in the words of Ernest Hemingway, “Strong in our broken places.” These friends – and others like them – are my tribe. And these days, they’re the only people I feel like spending time with.

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One member of that tribe is my friend Sam. Sam is someone that I’m not sure that the old Sarah – the Sarah from before all the bad stuff happened – would have been friends with. Sam is a fiercely talented actress, and she moves through the world with an authority about who she is that the old me would have found intimidating. In truth, I still occasionally do find her intimidating, but mostly, I recognize her as a kindred spirit, someone that, through her own example, has given me permission to be the bolder, braver person that I know I am, deep down inside.

Not long after I met Sam – before we’d become the friends we are now – she invited me to a screening of a short film she co-produced and starred in, called Life Grows On*. It’s a twelve minute movie that follows the cycle of one woman’s life, illustrating how she responds to her own difficult days (and her joyful ones, too) in a way most women can relate to: by changing her hair. It’s a beautiful film, and I cried when I watched it. And I also knew that I wanted to be friends with the person who made it.

For me, these last few years have been a journey toward self-acceptance, of learning to give myself permission to be who I am. I’m not there yet, but I’m a lot further down that road than I used to be. And that is thanks in large part to friends like Sam:  friends who are teaching me that it is in our broken places where often, we are the strongest.

Surround yourself with your tribe. Do what feels good. Don’t apologize.

Until next time, friends.

*P.S. – You can watch Sam’s film Life Grows On by clicking here. I think you’ll be glad you did.

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