Motherland.

“my mother

was my first country.

the first place I ever lived.”

– Nayyirah Waheed

I’ve been back in the Pacific Northwest for nearly three weeks. The weather has been glorious, reminding me of all the childhood summers I spent on this same beach in front of my grandparents’ house: digging for clams with my mother, collecting driftwood to build bonfires, combing the shores of Case Inlet for colorful sea glass we’d use for our art projects.

Most of the people I spent those childhood summers with are gone or come to this beach no longer. New neighbors and new, fancier homes have cropped up all along the inlet. And these days, sea glass is hard to come by.

But every now and then, you still find it. Like the evening a week ago, when I emerged from a saltwater swim and spotted a weathered, rectangular piece of transparent lavender peeking out from among the rocks. Its color reminded me of the four walls of my high school bedroom. A bedroom with no windows, where I affixed blue, glow-in-the-dark stars to the ceiling. A bedroom in a house that someone else calls home now.

Every month, the full moon bears a different name. In January, it’s called the Wolf Moon. In June, it’s Strawberry. And a handful of nights ago, as I sat under the August moon – Sturgeon, named for a fish – I turned that piece of sea glass over and over in my hand and did something I haven’t done for a while. I talked to my mother. I asked her for help.

There are some conversations too personal to share. In the nearly seven years since my mother died, my conversations with the inlet are like that. Because if my mother is anywhere, she’s there, in the water that raised her. The water she loved her whole life. The water where we scattered her ashes, sending her back to the place where she began.

So, last week, I sat on the deck of the beach house and rested my feet on its railing and asked the inlet some questions. I watched that big, bright, full Sturgeon moon cast a golden stream of light across the inky, mirror-like expanse of water and I confessed my secrets to the sea and the sky. And that night, I dreamt that I was swimming underwater, exhaling huge air bubbles into its depths. And when I broke the surface, I saw that the beach was covered with sea glass. Polished, weathered, sparkling glass, glinting in the moonlight. As far as the eye could see.

I’m going back to New York soon. I don’t know what I’m going to do, only that I’ll be there until December, and beyond that, the future is uncertain. But after three weeks on this beach, uncertainty doesn’t scare me as much as it used to. Because over the last three weeks, I was reminded that I can still sit under the night sky and confess my secrets to the inlet. That saltwater swims still have the power to heal me. And that rare and beautiful things can still be found among the rocks on this beach.

This is where my mother is, as much as she is anywhere. And because of that, no matter what else I do, I will always return here. Because of that, no matter where else I go, this is the place I will always call home.

Until next time, friends.

The soft season.

the hard season

will

split you through. . . /

but do not worry. . . /

keep speaking the years from their hiding places.

keep coughing up smoke from all the deaths you

have died.

keep the rage tender.

because the soft season will come.

it will come. . . /

up all night.

up all of the nights.

to drink all damage into love.

– From “therapy” by Nayyirah Waheed

It was the kind of perfect August day I’d spent the last two summers hoping for. For the last two summers, there had been fires. Terrible fires, fires that rained ash and turned the sun an angry red and smelled of acrid smoke that stained the usually pristine Pacific Northwest sky. Fires that were alarmingly evocative of the fire seasons I’d grown used to during my years in California, when flames jumped freeways and burned the hills above L.A.

But there were no fires on the day we took the boat out. Just a layer of morning fog that burned off surprisingly quickly, causing me to strip off my jacket and settle into my seat, enjoying the sea spray and the sun on my face as we zipped along the inland waterways of Puget Sound toward Boston Harbor.

When I booked my flight to Seattle, the length of my stay – three weeks – felt like an eternity. But as Rick, Karrin and I ate lunch on a covered dock, overlooking boats bobbing on sunlit, sapphire blue water, it suddenly seemed like scarcely enough. “I can’t believe I’ve been here a week already,” I lamented. “It’s going so fast.”

Rick laughed. “Of course it’s going fast. Time only goes slowly when you’re doing something you don’t want to do.”

That’s so true, I thought. Over the last week, I have felt a persistent urge to slow down and hold time in my hands, savoring the fading moments of summer before they become memories.

My big plan was to come here and make a plan. I would update my portfolio and my resume and apply for jobs and write essays. I would use this serene, tranquil environment to put my nose to the grindstone and work, so that by the time I went back to Manhattan I would be clear headed enough to answer some of the big life questions I’d been putting off.

But instead of finding focus, I’ve felt my edges blur. I’ve felt my insides softening, and nostalgia for years past welling up inside of me. I’ve taken long walks in the woods and picked wildflowers and spent hours upon hours sitting on the deck of the house that belonged to my grandfather, watching the birds and seals and occasional boats travel along Case Inlet.

And I’ve been swimming. It always takes a small act of courage for me to take that first plunge into the water, but once I’m past the initial shock of cold, I know the result is worth it. I’m not sure what it is about saltwater, but it fixes everything. It feels like hope.

On the day of the boat ride, I almost chickened out. The daylight was rapidly fading and a not-so-gentle breeze picked up over the inlet. I stood there, ankle deep in the water, wearing my grandfather’s faded, half-disintegrated orange swim fins, and tried to talk myself into it. You know what? I thought, shivering. It’s too cold. I should just wrap myself up in my oversized towel and watch the sunset from the safety of the deck of the beach house.

But as I stood there, half in, half out, watching the waning sun spread its rosy glow over steel blue water, something bigger than my fear took over. I thought about how much my grandfather had loved to swim in that bay, and how heartbroken he’d been when he no longer could. I thought about how, even on days much colder than this, my mother never hesitated to jump into the water with delight. And I thought about the morning two months earlier, long after both of them were gone, when I sat with my boyfriend in Central Park and cried, because I had just seen my doctor and signed a whole host of pre-surgery consent forms and was afraid I might die.

Do it, Sar, I thought. Do it for all the people who no longer can. And do it for yourself, because you still can.

And so, I jumped in. I hit the water hard and screamed as the bracing cold hit me back. I took a few deep breaths, inhaling and exhaling saltwater, trying to slow the hammering in my chest. For several moments, I just floated, staring up at the enormous pink sky. And then, I felt it: relief. I was all alone with the inlet and the sky and the world got quiet, and I got quiet too. And I thought, maybe I shouldn’t be so hard on myself for wanting to slow everything down. Maybe slowing down was exactly what I needed right now.

“It takes as long as it takes,” I heard myself say aloud, to no one in particular.

It takes as long as it takes.

Healing.

Forgiveness.

Finding your way in the great big world.

It takes as long as it takes.

And then I thought:

Relax, kid.

You’ve got plenty of time.

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.

 

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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