Labor Day.

“Something good will come of all things yet.”
– Jack Kerouac

It was a hot, humid morning when I left New York, every bit as hot as it had been eight weeks prior, the last time I fled the city to seek the sanctuary of a rocky beach in the Pacific Northwest.

And yet, even as I settled my tired body – already sweaty at seven thirty in the morning – into the back seat of a taxi cab and we drove east through Harlem, I could feel the summer waning, feel the drumbeat of autumn, feel the looming threat of barren trees and crisp days and  – before long – fresh snowfall. I had felt it the day before too, trudging along Amsterdam Avenue on my way to the Morningside Heights post office, as the influx of new Columbia students poured out onto the city streets. Something about their wide eyes and dewy faces screamed “Fall is coming!” And I realized as much as I’d grown weary of my swampy apartment, the mosquito bites dotting my legs and my impossible-to-tame hair, I wasn’t ready to say goodbye to summer yet. It had gone too fast.

I have a keen awareness of time passing that I didn’t have before I moved to New York. Years ago, I remember being told by east coast friends that the lack of seasons in Los Angeles skews your sense of time, something akin to spending too long in a Vegas casino. Think glittering lights, pumped-in oxygen, absent clocks. I pretended to understand what they meant, but the truth is, I didn’t. I was eighteen years old when I moved to L.A., and before that, I’d lived in Washington State and Alaska. Places with weather for sure, but not the sharp swing of extremes I had already experienced during my first year on the east coast. The lightning storms, the Nor’easters, the way the sky would suddenly open up and pour out buckets of rain, all of this was new to me. All of it seeming to signify the impermanence of the present moment, that this, too – be it good or bad – shall pass.

As I write this blog, it’s Labor Day weekend, and I’m exactly where I was this time last year, staring out at the silver mirror of Case Inlet from the living room of the beach house where my grandparents lived for most of my life. This house – once a buzz of activity – sits largely empty now. Each time I return, I do my best to fill up the lonely spaces. I brew strong coffee and drink too much of it. I unfurl my red sticky mat and practice amateur yoga in the living room. I watch as much Mariners baseball as I can, occasionally (often) yelling at the TV. I wrap myself in my grandmother’s old yellow afghan and watch the sunset from the same weathered porch swing I used to climb on as a child. And sometimes, in the morning, I’ll put on my grandfather’s enormous emerald green bathrobe – still hanging from the hook on the back of the door of his old room – and find comfort in the weight of its heavy cotton against my skin.

This place, this beach, is my anchor. It’s my back up plan if everything else goes wrong. Three of the four times I’ve traveled west since I moved to New York, I’ve returned here. To see my family. To remind myself where I come from. During an often confusing and challenging year, it has been my safe harbor. My true north. For a while, as I struggled through seasonal depression and various physical ailments, I was convinced I had made a mistake by leaving L.A. It’s only now, returning to the very spot where I planned my move a year ago, that I can see that everything I did was right. That the adventure I began back then is not ending but beginning.

The day before I flew to Seattle, I finally had a conversation I’d been dreading. The year lease on my Morningside Heights sublet was almost up, and I wasn’t sure if my landlord would allow me to stay beyond the twelve-month period we’d agreed to. Technically, I had been living in someone else’s apartment – my landlord’s daughter – who could choose to return at any time.

“I’m not sure what your plans are,” I wrote, “But I’d love to stay until Christmas, and then we could reassess from there?”

“No problem,” she replied, adding that her daughter had no immediate plans to return to New York, and that, when she did, she wanted to live in Brooklyn “for a while.”

“Let’s see what develops,” she added.

I suppose “seeing what develops” is exactly what I’ve been doing this past year. And now that it finally feels like it’s working out, I see no reason to stop. After all, if everything goes wrong, the beach will still be here.

Until next time, friends.

Ever.

“And I asked myself about the present: how wide it was, how deep it was, how much was mine to keep.”

– Kurt Vonnegut

They’re making changes to the beach house. Glenn told me about them on the drive in from Sea-Tac airport, as we coasted in and out of the carpool lane, trying and failing to beat the crush of holiday traffic and all the people fleeing the city, bound for barbecues and bonfires somewhere pretty with a water view, somewhere – I’m certain – not as pretty as our place with a water view.

We made the left turn off Grapeview Loop Road sometime after two-thirty and there she was: Mt. Rainier, standing tall above a sparkling blue Case Inlet and that familiar bank of evergreen trees. We have a saying in Western Washington when the weather is good: “The mountain is out.” The mountain was out, and I felt better about my somewhat optimistic decision not to pack an umbrella.

The beach house was the same but not. The built-in wooden cabinet that used to house Grandpa’s liquor bottles, assorted pens, knick knacks and puzzle books had been pulled from the wall, leaving behind a blank white space that only made the already bright and airy living room feel even more open and inviting.

Gone was the railing around the deck, with its slack and dirty rope threaded through splintered wooden posts, replaced by something solid, secure and decidedly modern: squares of sinewy metal framed by handsome polished maple.

Above the bar, a cheerful sign proclaimed: “The beach fixes everything.” As I settled my tired, up-before-dawn body into a seat on the weathered old porch swing, the breeze off Case Inlet gently tickling my skin, I had to agree.

Every time I return here, I think about a letter my grandfather wrote to me just before my college graduation in 2003. He predicted great things for my future, told me I could do and be whatever I wanted, and asked that I not let too much time pass between visits. “Don’t forget where you came from,” he wrote. “The beach never changes. ‘Tis only we who change.”

I used to take issue with the second part of that statement. Of course, the beach changes, I had wanted to scream during the dark periods of loss and upheaval that left their dirty thumb prints all over the last decade. Change was everywhere here. The strange new neighbors. The gaudy, imposing mansions springing up on what used to be vacant land. The laughter of loved ones echoing off the rocks and out into warm summer nights now confined only to my memories.

And yet. Every day without fail, the tide goes in and out. The mountain still appears, with the sun, above the tops of unchanging evergreens. Every year when the weather turns to autumn, a flock of Canada geese arrive and take up residence on the neighbor’s lawn. And the granite formation better known as Grandpa’s “magic rock” still stands on the beach like a strong, silent beacon, though Grandpa himself can no longer swim circles around it at high tide.

I think my grandfather was right: the beach hasn’t changed so much as it has reflected the change in all of us. This beach is certainly different than the place I remember from my happiest childhood memories. But that’s because I am different. And as the persistent drumbeat of time marches on, perhaps the biggest change I have experienced is the recognition that nothing is meant to remain as it is. That in this enormous, beautiful, rapidly unfolding thing we call life, the best lesson we can learn is to appreciate everything and cling to nothing.

The beach never changes. ‘Tis only we who change.

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.

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.

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.

The beach house.

It will be the past

and we’ll live there together.

Not as it was to live

but as it is remembered. 

It will be the past.

We’ll all go back together.

Everyone we ever loved,

and lost, and must remember.

It will be the past.

And it will last forever.

– Patrick Phillips

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I found the box in a small, seaside boutique in Laguna Beach, CA, a few days before Christmas.  It was compact, rectangular in shape, and carved out of curly maple.  On the lid, an inscription: “Our memories of the ocean will linger on long after our footprints in the sand are gone.”  Perfect, I thought, as the saleswoman carefully wrapped it in tissue and secured it into the cardboard gift box that I would place into my carry-on and take with me on my flight to Seattle.

Except that it wasn’t perfect, as I discovered upon my arrival at my grandparents’ beach house two days later.  It was too small.  We had kept more of her than I had remembered.  I wasn’t sure what to do, but I knew I had to do something.  The hideous black box was no longer an option.

The next day, feeling determined, I pawed through boxes labeled “Sarah” in what had once been my grandparents’ dog kennel and now served as a repository for all the items that remained from my parents’ Olympia house.  There must be something in here that will work, I thought.

And then, among the photo albums and mementos from my high school bedroom, I found it.  I paused for a minute, thinking, running my fingers along the ridges in the dark wood.  The words “A Scientific Cigar,” and “Aromatic – Mild – Satisfying” made me giggle.  No, I couldn’t possibly. . . Could I?

I opened the box to find a treasure trove of items contained inside.  A handwritten note my dad had written to my mom, years ago, penned in his messy scrawl.  A gold ID bracelet that had once fit my child wrist perfectly, now too small, my name engraved in cursive next to a tiny diamond star.  A trio of pink Elvis Presley postage stamps (Mom’s favorite singer).  A photograph of our beloved West Highland Terrier, Max.  And an amber colored agate stone found – by me – on the shores of Case Inlet.

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I carried the box into my grandparents’ bedroom and set it down on the nightstand.  I opened the hated black receptacle and removed the thick plastic bag, surveying its contents.  For a moment, it struck me how squeamish I’d once been about handling this bag, how afraid I’d been the first time I’d pried open the black box.  But now, I was almost businesslike in my approach.  Isn’t it bizarre how the passage of time can make even the strangest things seem normal?

Inside my suitcase, I retrieved a small lavender (her favorite color) pouch, emptied out its contents (my jewelry) and gently folded the thick plastic bag inside, zipping it closed.  Secured inside that soft purple bag, nestled among the items already living within the cigar box, all that remained of my mother – that we hadn’t already scattered into the sea – just fit.

Now, I can understand why a weathered old cigar box might seem like an odd place to store my mother’s ashes.  But believe me when I tell you:  it is not just any cigar box.  Clean and without any trace of cigar smell, it once belonged to my great uncle Vernon, who died when I was twelve.  He and my mother were very close, and for much of his life he served as a gentle buffer between her and her mother (his sister), a domineering and frequently emotionally abusive woman.  When Vernon died, the cigar box was one of a handful of things that my mother salvaged from his house in San Francisco, and she – perhaps inexplicably – gave it to me as a present.  Maybe because it felt like a relic from a bygone era and I’d always been drawn to all things vintage, I loved that box.  Over the years, I’d used it to store everything from trinkets to art supplies to photographs.  And now it would contain the last of my mother, along with a handful of cherished items that reminded me of her.  As I placed the box on a window ledge overlooking the sea, I smiled and thought, “Perfect.”

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The next morning, Christmas Day, dawned bright and beautiful.  I sat at the living room table, in the same spot where Grandpa used to park his wheelchair, spending hours watching the tides roll in and out, never tiring of the view.  As I drank coffee, marveling at how blue the sky was for December, how serene and still Case Inlet was, like some enormous silvery mirror reflecting the heavens back upon themselves, a large flock of Canada geese descended from the sky and gracefully alighted onto the surface of the water.  “Look Grandpa,” I found myself saying aloud, “Your favorite.”  And then I smiled again.

For now, my grandparents’ beach house sits empty.  But I know that someday, this house will once again bustle with activity.  There will be summer potlucks and clambakes and bonfires on the beach, just like there were in the old days.  People will gather for parties on the deck and they’ll swim in the sea and have sleepovers on the outdoor balcony, and laughter and love and life will once again pulsate through these walls.  It will look different than it once did, but it will be just as joyful.  Those of us that remain, and who remember, will make sure of that.

But sometimes, before you can move forward, you have to go back.  Not to dwell in the past, but simply to make peace with it.  To look every monster that has held you in its grip square in the face and say, “Enough.”

And that black plastic box?  That soulless, impenetrable, ugly receptacle with a faded sticker bearing my mother’s name slapped across the front?  I happily, and with great joy, threw it into the trash.  And I didn’t look back.  Not once.

Until next time, friends.

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Falling or Flying.

There was nothing particularly special about that Wednesday, other than the fact that it was the day that I would drive my Grandfather’s old powder blue Honda CR-V along curving country highways, eventually leading to a bridge, and that I’d drive over that bridge, and I’d cross that body of water, and then, once on the other side, I’d go to a business meeting, followed by a much-anticipated dinner with a dear friend. There was nothing particularly special about the minute or so that I’d spend up high, suspended over water, moving fast. After all, I’d done it dozens and dozens of times before. There was nothing special about it at all, except for the fact that it terrified me, and the night before I was due to make that drive, I couldn’t sleep, and I rose early, well before the sun came up.

Rowboat Sunset

In retrospect, the details of how I crossed that bridge don’t seem all that important. What is important is that I had to do it, and so, I did. I did it even though my palms sweat and my heart raced and my legs were wobbly and strangely on fire. I turned up the song on the radio, and I focused on the exhale and the inhale of my breath, and I thought about how Mount Rainier – standing strong and snowcapped and stunning just out my driver’s side window – felt like an old friend. And before I knew it, I was over that bridge, and I had steered Grandpa’s car from the highway on to the crush of Interstate-5, and I was relieved.

The next day, on the way to meet some friends for lunch, I followed different winding country highways to Olympia, the town where I went to high school, the town where I’d learned to drive, the town where I’d first dreamed my biggest dreams and made the plans that sent me to Los Angeles to pursue them. And this time, I felt better, almost normal, in fact, because the sun was shining and the water was sparkling and I felt happy. And I barely thought about that other time, that December, driving those exact same roads, hurtling through the darkness, Dad next to me, drifting in and out of consciousness, the wind pummeling my mother’s SUV and the rain spitting buckets, so much rain that the windshield wipers couldn’t keep up, and I gripped the steering wheel with everything I had just to keep us on the road, all the while stealing glances at my father, wondering if he was sleeping or dying, saying a silent prayer with every mile marker we passed, because every mile brought us closer to home, even though it wasn’t home any more, not since Mom died, not since Dad got sick.

I came of age driving Washington State’s rural highways, snaking over waterways and crossing bridges and winding through forests, so how could it be that the thing that raised me had now become the thing that frightened me? I suppose that’s the power of post traumatic stress, the way that it can shake you and alter your consciousness, making you feel like a stranger in your own body, making you doubt everything you thought you knew. I’m not a solider. I’ve never served in the military. But I’ve been to war. And I won; or at least I think that I have. But on some days, and in some ways, those battles still rage on.

Puget Sound

I recently told a friend that I didn’t think I’d ever feel safe again. The remark was off the cuff and meant to be a sort of joke, but in truth, I meant it. My whole life, I’ve struggled with anxiety, but I didn’t know how to name it, or how to talk about it. Instead, I tried to control it, to deny it, to tamp it down. And for a while, I was convinced that I had beaten my fears into submission. But then along came a tornado of tragedy, a violent storm of death and loss that quickly and swiftly eviscerated my carefully constructed façade that I was brave and strong and that I had it all together.

The storm taught me that nothing in life is certain, a scary prospect for a control freak like myself. But it also taught me that the only way out is through, and that if I don’t want my fears to control me, I have to surrender to them, to walk into them, and to thank them for being here, for reminding me of what’s important.

I had been staying at the beach for almost a week when something rather strange happened. I was paddling around Case Inlet, soothed by saltwater, utterly tranquil, when not far away, a curious seal popped his head above the water. He stared at me and I stared back at him, and before logic or reason could intervene, I began to swim towards him. Sensing a threat, he dove beneath the surface of the water. But I kept on swimming, and as I did, I made my voice a song and cast it out across the sea. “Hello, Mr. Seal,” I said. “Don’t worry, I won’t hurt you.” And he seemed to understand, because he popped his head above the surface again, and froze there for a minute, just looking at me.

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This went on for several minutes, our water dance, the diving and re-emerging, both of us circling each other, watching, considering, keeping a safe distance but drawing ever closer. I wondered what he made of me, this strange fish in black and white bikini bottoms and ruby red rash guard and faded orange swim fins. And when we were quite close to each other, he dove under again, and as I treaded water, looking for him, I suddenly realized something: I was a long way from shore, and I was alone, and in the murky saltwater, clouded up as it was by sand and seaweed, I wouldn’t be able to see the seal coming, wouldn’t know where he’d emerge next, and if he decided to attack me, or bite me, or pull me under the water, I wouldn’t be able to escape.

And there it was, that fear again, pulsing through my veins like a jolt of ice water. I turned toward the shore and I swam as fast as I could, legs pumping, swim fins slicing though the bay. And several moments later I turned back and I saw my seal again, further away now, but still watching me. He cast one last curious glance my way – a sort of sad farewell – and then turned to swim off in the opposite direction. And in that moment, I knew that he had never meant to hurt me, just like I had never meant to hurt him.

I’m a realist. I know that I’ll never fully be free from the fears that plague my worried mind. On some days, I feel pretty good, like I could do just about anything. And on other days, like the Wednesday when I drove over that bridge, it was all I could do just to get through it. I used to think that soldiering on and suffering in silence was brave. It’s not. It only makes the fear worse. What is brave is being vulnerable enough to talk about the places that scare me, and to run the risk that by telling you that sometimes, when I’m driving my car on the freeway, I feel like I’m moving so fast I won’t be able to stop and I’ll fly through the windshield and hurtle into space, that you’ll think I’m crazy and irrational. And maybe you will. But then again, maybe you won’t. Maybe you’ll read this and think, “Oh my God, I thought I was the only one,” and you’ll realize – as I’m realizing – that none of us are truly ever alone in this strange and beautiful experiment we call life.

Can we ever really know if we’re falling or flying? I’m not sure. But maybe the answer to that question is simple. Maybe it’s the ones who decide to fly – in spite of their fears – that are the ones who do.

Until next time, friends.

Sarah Black and White

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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Off the record.

Late in the evening on July 4th, I sat alone on an expansive wooden deck overlooking the water, a cinnamon-scented candle glowing beside me, breathing in the stars and gunpowder as fireworks exploded and unfurled their brilliant colors across the night sky.

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Our own little family celebration on the rocky shores of Case Inlet had just ended. My aunt and uncle had gone to bed; my cousins had gone home. It was a subdued holiday – nothing like the ruckus of previous years – but we built a bonfire on the beach and watched the colored lights boom and sparkle above the bay, and that was enough for me.

I have spent countless Fourth of July holidays on that beach and each one of them has been different. My grandfather – who bought the land all the way back in 1959 – had a saying that he wrote to me, years ago, in a letter, which I’ve cited on this blog more than once: “The beach never changes, ‘tis only we who change.”

He’s right, and he isn’t. The beach is very different than the magical place I remember from childhood; both the passage of time and the passing of loved ones have seen to that. But more than fifty years after my grandparents cemented this spot as a permanent part of our family’s legacy, placing a sign reading, Popelkas: Off the Record, at the entrance to the property – a nod to their careers as court reporters – its fundamentals remain the same: it’s still a small slice of heaven tucked away on one of Puget Sound’s inland waters, the saltwater bay framed by banks of evergreen trees, the stately Mount Rainier towering above, keeping watch over us all.

This Fourth of July placed me in uncharted territory. It was my first visit to the beach since Grandpa’s hospice last fall, my first time ever being there without him. My decision to go was last minute – ticket booked a few days before travel – and this visit would be in addition to another, longer trip I’d already planned just five weeks later, in August. But the last few months in Los Angeles had left me exhausted and in need of a spiritual reboot, and the beach had always had the power to ground me in a way that the gritty, noisy, crowded, city never could. And so I went.

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It was not a perfect trip, not by any means. Unexpected family drama bubbled to the surface, reopening wounds that I thought had closed. I spent much of the emotionally charged four-day visit feeling nostalgic for a past that no longer existed.

But I slept. And I wrote. And I wandered the beach, searching for seashells and agate stones. I ran three miles on the shoulder of the heavily forested Grapeview Loop Road, and was impressed – as I always am – by the friendliness of the locals. (One motorist even stopped, rolled down her window, and offered me a bottle of water. City girl that I am, I declined.) One morning, I arose early, drank coffee, and watched through my window as the sun stubbornly pushed through layers of clouds, slowly turning the morning from grey to blue as slivers of light danced across the sound, causing the water to glimmer and dance like liquid silver.

And gradually, I grew calmer and more centered and I felt my equilibrium returning. Because despite the way that life shakes and shifts around me, despite how greatly the beach’s present reality differs from my past memories of the place, there’s something that continues to hold true: my history is firmly anchored there. And whenever I return, when I remind myself of who I am and where I’ve come from, I know myself just a little bit better. And it’s in that space, no matter how confused or lost or frustrated I may have been, that I’m able to figure out what it is I want to do next.

“The beach never changes, ‘tis only we who change.”

Until next time, friends.

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