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.