Montauk.

The sea wants to kiss the golden shore//
The sunlight warms your skin
//
All the beauty that’s been lost before
//
Wants to find us again.*

I woke before my alarm, song lyrics in my head. I heated up a mug of hot water, squeezed a slice of lemon into it, and put my headphones in. From the weathered armchair in the corner of my living room, I watched the sun rise over New York. I watched the clouds turn pink, their color deepening before dispersing, bathing the buildings in gentle light before bidding them goodbye. I watched from my eighth-floor window as a crammed subway train made its way downtown, filled with people going to jobs I didn’t have, leading lives I didn’t live. I watched the day begin, and then, I wrote.

I’m not sure when the shift began. I think it was twelve days earlier, on the way to Montauk, when from outside the window of my eastbound train, from over a bank of snow, I first glimpsed the Atlantic Ocean. And later, on a Long Island beach, when I climbed over more snow to get to sand and stood, watching the waves crash, watching the water recede and return, breathing in cold salt air, that for the first time in a long time, I felt like myself again. There was no grand epiphany, just a quiet voice whispering, “Remember?” And I did. And then I went back inside, to work.

I came to New York to write. And though I’ve been writing every day, I haven’t enjoyed it. The process has been torturous, and slow, and has often felt – to me – without purpose. But as a friend of mine once said, “Sometimes we make the story so big, we can’t tell it.”

When I tell you that writing saved my life, I’m not exaggerating. A few years ago, when I was in the worst part of my depression, when the world felt like it was collapsing around me, writing was the only thing that gave me any relief. I’ve always harbored a secret worry (not so secret any more, I guess) that I feel more than most people. That I feel more than what is normal. So, when real tragedy struck, the emotions were so big they threatened to drown me. That was when I first started experiencing panic attacks. When I couldn’t swallow food without feeling like I was choking. When I struggled to get out of bed.

I should have asked for help. But I didn’t. I wrote. And as I wrote, I learned something. I learned that if I could find a way to articulate my emotions so that other people could feel them too, if I could turn them into real, tangible things in the form of essays or blog posts, if I could get them out of my body and into the world, then they wouldn’t swallow me. Call it sharing my pain in order to survive. I don’t know if it worked, but it sure felt like it did. And it made me feel a hell of a lot less alone.

I don’t write to survive any more, but sometimes I forget that. Sometimes, I’ll be working on an essay or a section of dialogue or a scene in a play, and something will come out that’s intense or unexpected and knock me sideways and I’ll have to stop for a while. And I’m reminded that the thing that brings me the greatest joy can still, occasionally, be dangerous.

When I went out to Montauk, the weather had already begun to turn. By the time I got back to the city, the snow had melted, the streets had cleared, and it was – dare I say – pleasant. I took the subway downtown to look at a theater space, and using Google maps as my navigator, I experienced a feeling that can only be described as relief. There was no headache, no bitter cold. Being outside, walking around, was fun. Were people on the streets actually smiling? In New York?

I guess that’s the thing about winter. The storms can be brutal. But on the other side of them? Beauty. And every so often: moments of pure, unfiltered joy.

Until next time, friends.

*Lyrics from the song “Ordinary Love,” by U2

Winter.

It was well after midnight when the taxi left Newark Airport and sped along I-95 toward Manhattan. As we approached the city, an enormous half-moon hung in the sky, and the Empire State Building – lit up like a Christmas tree in red and green – sparkled in the distance. My eyes, tired yet watchful, remained ever forward.

After I had unpacked my suitcase, sorted through a stack of mail, and inventoried the contents of the kitchen, I crawled wearily into bed. My body was exhausted, but to my dismay my wired brain simply wouldn’t shut down. It wasn’t until the sun threatened to rise that I finally fell asleep.

A day and a half later, I boarded a subway train bound for downtown. I didn’t want to go. The fog of jet lag was still thick, the temperature had dropped into the teens, and snow was in the forecast. But, at the urging of a friend, I’d signed up for an intuitive reading at a placed called The Alchemist’s Kitchen in the East Village, and it was too late to get my money back. Besides, I needed an excuse to leave my apartment. So, I went.

Once there, I took my seat across from a woman named Victoria. She jotted down my name on a piece of white, unlined paper, then proceeded to look at me in that unnerving way “spiritual” people sometimes do when they’re trying to read your mind. Or maybe it was just unnerving to me, concerned as I was about what someone might find in those dark recesses.

“I keep hearing the word move,” she said. “What does that mean to you?”

“Uh, I just moved here. About three months ago.”

“That’s great. Welcome.”

“Thanks.”

“Is there something you want me to ask your spirit guides?”

“Well. . . I’m not really happy here. I think maybe. . . I made a mistake.”

She looked at me and smiled.

“I felt that way, too, when I first came here from Ohio. But three months is nothing. You’re still in the adjustment period. Wait until spring before you decide anything.”

Wait until spring. If there’s one theme that’s been running through my life lately, it’s that: Wait until spring.

It was last spring when I decided to move to New York. I’d rented a tiny apartment on the seventh floor of an old building in Greenwich Village, and spent my days covering miles of Manhattan on foot. I toured theaters and talked art and literature with friends and strangers. I held meetings over delicious meals and cocktails and coffee. All the while, the weather ran hot, then cold. One day, it rained. Another day, a lightning storm. But even the unpleasantries were somehow beautiful, perhaps because they were short-lived. Tulips bloomed on street corners, and friends gathered to share news on park benches, and everything felt hopeful and full of possibility.

I moved to New York because I wanted to change my life. Because as much as I love Los Angeles, I was too comfortable there. I was coasting through my days with no clear sense of direction, no real feeling of purpose, no evidence of personal growth. And I was terrified that I’d wake up one day and find that I’d spent a decade that way, without having challenged myself, or accomplished anything I was proud of.

So now I’m here. The trees are barren. The snow is falling. The wind chill is well below freezing. And there’s no relief in sight. And in the heart of winter, I’m finally realizing a truth that should have been obvious all along: you don’t change your life by changing your address. You change it by looking within, by asking yourself difficult questions, and by finding the courage to answer them. For me, most of those questions revolve around what I’ve been holding on to that I need to let go of. My guilt for all the ways I’ve failed, both myself and others. My attachment to a past that’s not coming back. And the story I’ve been telling myself that there are things for other people that aren’t for me; that “almost” is good enough.

As I write this, I’m sitting in my living room, looking out over the Morningside Heights neighborhood of Manhattan. It’s January fourth. The sky is white, the snow relentless. But every few minutes, a subway train rattles past my eighth-floor window, some brave soul in a puffy neon jacket clears the sidewalk with a snow plow, and life goes on.

And on the eighth floor of an old brick building on La Salle Street, wrapped in a blanket, note pad and pen in hand, lucky enough to have nowhere to go and nothing to do except watch the snowfall and write, I made myself a promise: I won’t move again until I’ve answered the difficult questions. No matter how hard it gets, no matter how uncomfortable it is.

And if, in the process of answering those questions, life leads me elsewhere, that’s fine. But for now, it has led me here. To New York, in the winter, a place where – despite the cold and discomfort – countless doors have been opened for me, if only I can be humble enough to recognize them, and brave enough to walk through them.

Eventually, winter will end. Spring will come again. And I’ll be here, waiting.

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.

The Ruthless Month.

“Run the old stuff down, run it out, toss the weight of trash in your heart into the fire. December is the ruthless month. Pick up all your heartbreak and fling it out the window. Call everybody. Make peace and move on. Let those who wish to linger, let them linger and grieve. They will run and catch up to you if you move on. You are the leader when it comes to joy. Move forward towards joy.”

– John Patrick Shanley

Exactly one week before my thirty-seventh birthday, I sat on a white stone bench on a terrace overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. I was alone. It was late November, two days after Thanksgiving, and off-season on Italy’s Amalfi Coast. I had found the spot earlier in the day when I’d been searching in vain for an open restaurant. I’d followed a sign advertising a (closed) café down a steep set of stairs, and discovered a garden terrace, flanked on all sides by deserted villas. It seemed too good to be true: such a beautiful place left unused, and still undiscovered by the gaggle of day-tripping tourists who had descended upon Positano that afternoon by bus.

But a few hours later, looking for a secluded spot to watch the sunset, I returned and found the terrace still vacant, save for one nosy tabby cat, who eyed me suspiciously before moving on. I settled in, opened the half bottle of Chianti I’d purchased at the Enoteca near the town square, and stared out across the water. I watched the descending sun bleed orange before it slipped behind a storm cloud (rain was forecast later that evening), and fixed my eyes on the island of Capri.

One week, I thought. One week I’d been in Italy, and one week ‘til I’d turn thirty-seven in London, before I headed back to see what life looked like in New York.

I’ve always treated birthdays like my own personal New Year, reflecting on where I’ve been and where I want to go, and this one was no different. Thirty-seven. I breathed in the sunset and the waves gently rippling on the surface of sapphire and jade green water, and thought about everything and nothing, all at the same time.

One week later, I rose early, drank a tall glass of water and a single shot of strong espresso, and boarded the Tube bound for Picadilly Circus. The plan was to begin my birthday by accompanying my friend Elena to her Saturday morning yoga class. I hadn’t taken a proper yoga class in years and found the prospect intimidating, but somewhere between the white-knuckle bus ride through the steep, winding highways of the Amalfi Coast and the Tube from Heathrow Airport, I promised myself that thirty-seven would be the year I did all the things that scared me. So, I paid my money, unrolled a yoga mat, and took a spot in the front row of class.

The instructor, a soft-spoken Polish man whose name “Rad,” was clearly short for something more difficult to pronounce, began class by asking us how our week had been.  As one woman released an audible sigh, Rad said, “Just observe your feelings and try not to judge them. Remember that the stories you tell yourself are just that: stories.”

Rad had just returned from a trip to Los Angeles. After class, I told him I lived there for many years, and had only recently decided to move to New York. Rad was an actor, and thought he might want to live in L.A., but after three years of traveling back and forth, he gave up his apartment in West Hollywood and returned to London. “Sometimes you have to go away to appreciate what you have,” he said.

I’ve gone away several times since I moved to New York. First to Montreal, then to a film festival in Miami, and now this latest trip, the longest one by far: eighteen days. If I’m feeling self-critical, I’ll tell you that my traveling is just a form of running away, refusing to settle in a new city where life is difficult. But if I’m feeling more compassionate, I’ll admit I’ve been navigating something profound, something I don’t yet fully understand. The best way I can describe it is that it feels like a revolution in my heart. It feels like finding forgiveness – mostly for myself – and letting go of old wounds. As Rad said that day in yoga class, the stories we tell ourselves are just that: stories. And I’m learning to transcend my old story and write a different one, one in which I’m strong enough to stand in my own skin, without apologies or regret.

Things happen in their own time. There’s a time to take bold and decisive action, and a time to be quiet and listen. And that’s largely what traveling has been about for me: listening. Observing my life from a distance, and gaining the perspective that only comes from meeting new people and discovering new places. From shaking up the every day.

I’m glad to be back in New York. I’m glad to be in the middle of the ruthless month. The trees have shed their leaves, the air is cold, and the days are short. But on the other side of all that’s dark is the promise of something new. A revolution. A rebirth. And a move towards joy.

Until next time, friends.

 

Osteria Da Fortunata.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until next time, friends.

Veterans Day.

“I know why we try to keep the dead alive: we try to keep them alive in order to keep them with us. I also know that if we are to live ourselves there comes a point at which we must relinquish the dead, let them go, keep them dead.”

– Joan Didion

One year ago, on Veterans Day, I sat on a bench in Tompkins Square Park, watching amber leaves follow their gentle spiral toward earth. I’d spent the morning in a nearby East Village coffee shop, pretending to write but instead just eavesdropping, allowing the hushed voices of the people nearby to run through my body, causing my mind to wander to places both foreign and familiar.

I was not what you’d call “happy.” It was three days after a bitterly contested U.S. presidential election, and my candidate – a candidate I campaigned hard for – had lost. I was in the grips of severe writer’s block, well past a self-imposed deadline to submit rewrites of my play to its director. We’d posted casting notices and were preparing to audition actors upon my return to L.A., but I still hadn’t completed the script, a fact that filled me with anxiety and made me feel like a failure.

Veterans Day also marked the one-year anniversary of the death of one of my favorite people: my grandpa Gerry. With so much around me feeling dark and heavy, the absence of the light and joy and laughter he had always brought to my life was like an open wound.

Yet as I sat on that park bench watching the leaves fall, something funny happened. I felt. . . hope. I don’t know where it came from – there was certainly no reason for it – all I know is that in the midst of sorrow, there was a sense of peace, and somehow, I knew that everything would be all right.

There are many reasons why I decided to move to New York, but if I can pinpoint the moment when “maybe” shifted to “yes,” it was there, on that day, on that park bench. It was that quiet, confident voice that said simply, “You’re OK here.” And I listened.

One year later, I am OK here. The cross-country move didn’t shield me from sorrow or from the anniversaries of loved ones lost. But one year later, on Veterans Day, as I walked south along the edge of Morningside Park, watching the late afternoon sun set over Harlem, I didn’t feel sad as I thought about my grandfather. I felt grateful. Grateful for the tremendous gifts he and the rest of my family gave me, not the least of which is my awareness of the ephemeral nature of life. Because of them, I made promises to myself about the things I wouldn’t wait to do. Because of them, I am getting better at keeping them.

As I’m writing this, it’s November 14th, the two-month anniversary of my move to New York. Truth be told, I thought I would have accomplished more in these first two months. I thought I would have had a reading of my play by now, and would be preparing for its production. I thought I would have seen more people, would have done more things, would have checked more items off my to-do list.

But I have found that everything is taking longer than I expected, because just being in this city is exhausting. It’s exhausting, and it’s exhilarating, too: all the people, all the stories, all the humanity and heartbreak and hope all around. It makes me want to write all the time. It makes me feel things I’ve never felt before. And it wears me out.

In many ways, I’m still the girl in that East Village coffee shop from a year ago, eavesdropping, allowing the stories of other people to run through me. I am learning to relinquish my need to constantly produce work, and instead to surrender to this moment, finding faith that the words I need to write will find their form in their own time.

Because this moment is not really about work: it’s about finding my footing in a new place. It’s about letting go of old wounds and bidding a gentle farewell to a past that used to own me. It’s about understanding that the greatest act of rebellion – the greatest act of liberation – can be as simple as sitting on a park bench and believing in the quiet, confident voice that says, “You’re OK here.”

I am OK here.

Until next time, friends.

The loneliest place.

“When you recognize that you will thrive not in spite of your losses and sorrows but because of them,

that you would not have chosen the things that happened in your life, but you are grateful for them,

that you will hold the empty bowls eternally in your hands but that you also have the capacity to fill them?

The word for that is healing.”

– Cheryl Strayed

I didn’t cry on the way to the airport. Julio, my Lyft driver, wouldn’t allow it. His questions began the moment he loaded my suitcase into the trunk of his Kia Optima.

“Sarah, why you leaving? You no like Miami?”

I explained to him that I did like Miami, but I had come there for a film festival and now that it was over, it was time to return to New York.

The questions continued. Did I like Reggaeton music? Did I have a boyfriend? Did I know how to dance? “Next time you come to Miami,” he said, “I will teach you how to dance Reggaeton.”

I laughed, but wondered if I should be worried. Who was this guy? What did he want from me? But a few minutes later, we were at the airport, and as Julio bid me a cheerful farewell, I realized it had all just been playful banter. And I felt grateful, because I had been too busy deflecting his questions to cry.

It wasn’t until much later, after the flight to LaGuardia, after the cab ride to Morningside Heights, after picking up the mail, unpacking my suitcase, and grabbing dinner at my favorite speakeasy on Broadway, that – safely inside my eighth-floor apartment, the door bolted behind me – the tears I had been holding began to fall.

I had been holding them since the night before, since the Casablanca-themed awards ceremony for the Bogart Film Noir Shorts Competition, where we had accepted an award for our film Speak No Evil and my soon to be ex-husband dedicated that award to my dead parents. Emotions rising, he choked on the words, and I pressed my lips together and looked away. I’m one of the most sensitive people you will ever meet, but sometimes, I avert my eyes. I have to.

He was right. We never would have been there, at that film festival in Coral Gables, if my parents hadn’t died. More accurately, we never would have been there if I hadn’t used money I inherited from them to help finance our film. So, when he spoke this truth – more elegantly than I just did – I averted my eyes. I had to.

I’ve played the “If my parents hadn’t died” game many times over the last few years. It’s a self-destructive game, but one that I’m quite good at. If my parents hadn’t died, I never would have produced that film. If my parents hadn’t died, I never would have written that play. If my parents hadn’t died and we hadn’t sold their house in Olympia, I never would have gone on that exhaustive search looking for a place called home, the one that led me to wander cobblestone streets in Prague at winter, and hike a sweltering trail through a Mexican jungle, and take a ferry boat to a remote island in the Pacific Northwest to sit in a circle with strangers and share intimate stories from my life. And if my parents hadn’t died, I most certainly never would have trashed most of my belongings, sold my car, packed up what remained of my life, and moved to New York.

A couple of weeks ago, I sat on a patio near Lincoln Center with a friend from L.A. and tried to analyze why New York – a city of eight million people – felt so lonely. “It’s the loneliest place on earth,” she declared. I had only been in town for a few weeks and yet, I couldn’t disagree with her. “I guess there are so many people here it just desensitizes you,” I offered. And then I repeated something that I’d heard someone say: “Apparently, you can cry in public and no one will look twice at you.”

My friend paused, taking me in. “Wait,” she said, “You haven’t cried in public yet?”

I hadn’t. Just like my return trip from Miami, I had been holding in the tears. But sure enough, shortly after she said it, it happened. It was late at night, and I was headed home on the subway after a long day. A busker boarded the train. “Ugh,” I thought. Another stranger asking for money, another reason to avert my eyes. But to my surprise, he lifted a violin to his chin and began to play one of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard. It was a sweet, plaintive melody that sliced right through me; the type of music that reminds you you’re alive. When he finished, I handed him a dollar, and he looked at me with such sincerity and said, “God bless you my dear,” that my eyes immediately filled up and spilled over. I got off the train, tears running down my face, too tired to wipe them away, and I walked home. And as I passed two police officers who barely acknowledged me, I realized what I’d heard was true: you can cry in public here, and no one will look twice at you.

I’m glad I came to New York. As homesick as I am for people I love and places I miss, it feels right to be here. Even the fact that it’s lonely feels – somehow – right. Maybe, paradoxically, the “loneliest place on earth,” is exactly where I need to be to feel less alone. Because in a city of eight million people, my worries and problems and fears seem less significant. In New York, I can be as odd and as quirky and as real as I want and all it means is that someone may pause for a minute, shake their head at me, and then go on about their day.

If my parents hadn’t died, I wouldn’t be here. And here is a place where I’m learning that maybe, I don’t have to avert my eyes. Here is a place where everything feels acceptable, which also makes anything seem possible. Here is a place where my writing is growing riskier and more honest and more dangerous, and I like that. Here is a place where I’m finally giving myself permission to be who I am and say what I feel.

Here may be the loneliest place on earth. But here – at least, for now – might be the only place for me to be.

Until next time, friends.

Mile End.

The train was late leaving Montreal’s Gare Centrale. I stood near the front of the line, talking to a middle aged couple from Boulder, Colorado, as we watched our departure time tick later and later on the neon screen above our heads. They were taking the train to Schenectady, renting a car, and driving to meet their daughter in New Haven. She used to live in New York, they told me, but the stress of the city became too much and began to affect her health. As soon as she arrived in Connecticut, she felt better. “New York is a wonderful town,” said the man, whose name was Pete. “But it can be a lot.” “I’m still new there,” I told him. “I guess time will tell.”

It was Canadian Thanksgiving – “Action de Grâces’’ in Montreal – and after four days away, I was eager to begin the eleven-hour journey back to Penn Station. The trip had gone too quickly, as trips tend to do, but my “Things to do in New York” list was long, and I was ready to get started on it.

I had been in New York just three weeks when I boarded the Montreal-bound Amtrak train, and it still didn’t feel like I lived there yet. The three weeks had gone quickly, consumed with the business of settling in: buying household items and assembling furniture, shopping trips to Bed, Bath and Beyond and Fairway Market, sending “I’m here,” emails to friends and acquaintances, unpacking boxes shipped from L.A., navigating my new neighborhood.

The urge to get away swelled within me from the moment I’d arrived in the city, a common occurrence when the here and now threatens to overwhelm me. I had wanted to visit Montreal for years, ever since my niece Nora began studying art at its Concordia University, and the $150 round trip train ticket with its scenic route through the Hudson River Valley and the Adirondacks was too good to pass up. Plus, Nora’s punk band “Dish Pit” had a show that weekend, at a joint called Bar Le Ritz. How could I miss that?

I booked an Airbnb in Little Italy, on the border of the Montreal neighborhood Nora told me was her favorite: Mile End. I could immediately see why. Vibrant street art, hip cafes and bars, trendy boutiques and vintage shops. It was an artists’ haven, full of color and life and youthful enthusiasm.

I explored much of the city on foot, canvas bag containing a notebook, umbrella and ear buds slung over my shoulder. I walked from Petite Italie through Mile End, into Plateau and then downtown. I sampled bagels at the famous St.-Viateur bagel shop, tried on delicate lace dresses at a boutique on Boulevard Saint-Laurent, ordered meals in broken French, and bought a faux fur trimmed denim jacket at the hipster hotspot Annex Vintage. I caught up with Nora over dinner, met her school friends – and was wowed by her guitar-playing skills – at Bar Le Ritz, and traded stories about love and life as we wandered around Chinatown searching for a rare and expensive monkey oolong tea.

As much as I love to travel, my favorite thing about going away is how different home looks when seen from the perspective of another place. And New York had not been home for very long. In fact, it was the first time I answered the question “Where are you from?” with “New York,” an answer that still felt strange and foreign rolling off the tongue. And it was the first time, when asked by a customs agent what I did for a living, I said, “I’m a writer,” which didn’t feel strange at all. It also wasn’t technically true. Technically, I was unemployed, and was living off my savings, money I’d inherited from my parents and my grandfather’s life insurance policy. But that was far too complicated (and potentially problematic) to explain to border patrol. And besides, I had begun to learn the lesson that if I said a thing enough times, I would start to believe it, and then I would find a way to make it true. After all, that was how I ended up in New York in the first place. I simply told enough people I was moving there, until eventually, I had no choice but to go.

It had only been four days since I’d made the trip north to Montreal, but in those four days the fall colors had already intensified. Alongside golden amber leaves were branches dressed in accents of ruby red and flaming orange. I paused from scribbling in my journal to intermittently rest my head against the window of the southbound train and watch with tired eyes as October rain fell across the changing landscape. I pulled out my pocket planner, filled with its inspirational quotes, crossed out and rewritten plans, and counted the days: thirty-eight. There were exactly thirty-eight days until my flight to Heathrow, where I’d meet one of my dearest friends and we’d continue our journey on to Venice, Florence, Rome, Positano and Sorrento to celebrate her birthday. Thirty-eight days. Just over five weeks. Five weeks, during which I would write and work and enjoy the fall in New York City. Five weeks, and then I’d be off on another adventure.

But for now, I was ready to go back to New York.

I was ready to go home.

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.

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