Osteria Da Fortunata.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until next time, friends.

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.

Side View of the Cabin

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

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