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.

Decisions.

You have a right to experiment with your life.

You will make mistakes.

And they are right too.

– Anaïs Nin

It’s a Wednesday afternoon in Burbank, California, and I’m lying flat on my back on a massage table. But I’m not getting a massage. Instead, I’m doing something I’ve never done before, a theme for me lately. I’m seeing an intuitive healer. I’m not sure what to expect, only that I’ve been feeling stuck and directionless, and that the healer – a woman named Alicia – was recommended by a close friend. And so, I go.

Alicia begins by using a pendulum device to scan my chakras. As she suspends it over my body, it spins clockwise, emitting a soft hum. When she gets to the area above my heart, the pendulum’s spin slows down. Above my head, it stops altogether, and then begins to spin backwards.

“You’re feeling indecisive,” she says.

“Yes,” I admit.

“Doubting yourself?”

“Yes.”

When I get up from the table and check my phone, I’m stunned to discover that nearly two hours have passed. Despite our pre-session consultation, during which Alicia advised me that I could feel any number of things during the healing (sadness, pain, anger – to name a few), I remained calm and relaxed throughout. As she placed her hands on my ankles, my shoulders, the crease in my elbow, the crown of my head – anywhere that needed healing – she asked me questions, described images she saw, and we talked. That was it. I didn’t cry, not once. When I left her house, I felt tired, but also, at peace.

A few days later, at a creative writing workshop with WriteGirl, a mentoring organization I volunteer for, I spent several hours working with two teenage girls whom I’d never met before. They were both beginning the college application process and were both feeling overwhelmed by it all. As we talked about schools, AP classes, personal essays and the pressure to choose a major, I heard myself giving them advice I wish I’d received when I was seventeen:

“If you choose a college and you don’t like it, you can always transfer.

If you pick a major that’s not right for you, you can always change it.

I know it feels like the decisions you make now will determine the rest of your life,

but I promise you, they won’t.

You can always change your mind. About everything.”

In my life, I’ve spent a whole lot of time talking about all the big things I’m going to do, and only a little bit of time doing them. The “talk” is safe, because a plan that hasn’t been put into action yet hasn’t had the chance to fail. The decision is a different thing altogether. The decision is scary. The decision means that you stop thinking, stop weighing your options. It means you go for it, and you don’t look back.

I talked about going to New York for a long time before I decided to do it. And now that I’ve decided, I feel a bit like a snowball rolling down a hill, rapidly gathering speed. I gave up my apartment and all my furniture. I’m paring down my belongings, getting rid of clothes and books and personal effects I used to cherish. I’m preparing to sell my car, and several pieces of my mother’s jewelry. And even though I don’t leave for three more weeks, this weekend I’m hosting a going away party at which I’ll see many of my L.A. friends for the last time. At least, for a while.

Thinking about those teenage girls, their futures uncertain, their whole lives stretched out before them like a promise, I found myself wondering: how many evolutions do we get in a life? And I think the answer is: as many as we chose. We can always change. We can always grow. But we must be willing to say no to the old way of doing things, and yes to the uncertain and the unknown. We must be willing to be vulnerable. To screw up. To learn. And to begin again.

Until next time, friends.

The distance of the leap.

“I’m not the sort of person who leaps.” That line of dialogue from a new play I’m working on, from a speech in which the female character explains how extreme life circumstances led her to take risks she normally wouldn’t, has been running through my mind lately, on a loop. “I’m not the sort of person who leaps.”

I’m not, either. These last few years, as I’ve written about my struggles with grief after the death of my family, as I’ve publicly navigated life and career and relationship changes, as I’ve tried to find solid footing on ground that is ever shifting, a lot of people have called me “brave.” I may be a lot of things, but “brave,” is not one of them. The way I look at it, life gave me two choices: play the hand I was dealt, or quit the game. And quitting was never an option, at least not for me.

Just over a week ago, with a carefully worded letter addressed to my landlord neatly folded inside a stamped envelope, I walked three blocks to my local post office. As I approached the building, walking up Alfred Street into the South Carthay neighborhood that I love, a neighborhood populated with statuesque palms and historic Spanish style houses, a neighborhood I jog through at least once a week, my hands started to sweat. Am I crazy? I thought. Am I really going to give up my apartment? My beautiful little sun-filled bungalow with its laundry room and expansive patio overlooking a perfectly landscaped garden? A place with unparalleled charm, at a price that’s unheard of in L.A.’s skyrocketing rental market? And with awesome, incredible neighbors to boot? I can’t believe I’m doing this, I told myself.

But the truth is, it was time. It was beyond time. As much as I love my apartment, I never expected to stay there for three years. It was always meant to be a stop gap, a place to gather and rebuild and then move on. I will always be grateful for the way that charming little cottage fell into my lap when I needed it the most, for the way that it sheltered me and kept me safe throughout the most difficult phase of my life. But the healing that I needed to do there is done, and now, it’s time to go.

A few days after I mailed the letter to my landlord, I broke the news to some friends at a Sunday afternoon barbecue: I was giving up my apartment at the end of June, moving in with a friend for the summer, and leaving L.A. at the end of August. I would go back to the Pacific Northwest to spend time with family, and from there, I’d head for New York.

“Do you have a place to live out there?”

“No. Not yet.”

“Do you have a job?”

“No. Not yet.”

I would be lying if I didn’t admit that I feel a little bit terrified at the prospect of making this change, especially with so much that’s still uncertain. I’m not the sort of person who leaps, remember? But I’m also not the sort of person who buries her head in the sand and ignores what’s obvious, either. The truth is, these last couple years I’ve felt stagnant, both creatively, in terms of the work I want to produce, and personally, in terms of big picture life stuff. I feel the sands shifting through the hourglass at an alarmingly accelerating rate, and I know that unless I change, nothing in my life will change. And I’m not talking about the sort of change that was forced upon me by circumstance these last years – the change that caused people to call me “brave” – but instead, proactive, taking the steering wheel of my own life and pressing my foot to the gas pedal, change.

Sorting through items in my apartment, deciding what to keep, toss, and give away in preparation for a move, I flipped open a favorite book of quotes, Cheryl Strayed’s Brave Enough, and found this:

“We are all at risk of something. Of ending up exactly where we began, of failing to imagine and find and know and actualize who we could be. We all need to jump from here to there. The only difference among us is the distance of the leap.”

We all need to jump from here to there. Even those of us who aren’t accustomed to leaping.

Until next time, friends.

April.

On the first day of April, I woke early, well before the sun came up, well before my alarm. There was something about this new month – the first full month of spring – that had me on edge. But not in a bad way. More in the way that it’s hard to sleep before a long voyage. Or a big job interview. Or the opening night of your play. The anticipation is palpable. The anticipation is the thing.

I traveled back to Los Angeles from London on the first day of spring. It was the longest spring day I can remember. Nineteen hours of travel all together, beginning by navigating morning rush hour traffic to Heathrow, then stuck at the airport with a delayed flight, then eleven hours on a plane, then arriving at LAX just in time for Los Angeles’s evening rush hour, then finally, blissfully, home. And as the sun sank behind the lone palm tree that towers over my little stucco bungalow, I thought about the fact that I’d spent nineteen hours chasing that very sun, pushing ever westward. And now that the sun had finally gone to bed, so too, would I.

I feel the shift to this new season in the core of my body, coming as sweet relief after winter months I carried around with me like a weight. People say that we don’t have seasons in Los Angeles, but January and February were unusually stormy and cold, pummeling the Southland with the most rain I’ve seen in my eighteen years here. But it wasn’t just the unusual weather patterns that had me feeling melancholy. It was a sadness I’ve been carrying within me for months, a sadness that’s rooted in fear and uncertainty over my future, and worries over whether I’m on the right path.

But as March wound down and the days grew longer and warmer, a newfound optimism grew within me too. Suddenly, I feel determined, rather than defeated. It’s a change that – frankly – has come as a surprise, given how quickly and abruptly it occurred.

To tell you the truth, I feel like I’ve been living (and writing about) a life in transition for practically forever. And I have been. But I think that part of the reason I still feel stuck is because many of the changes I’ve made over the last few years were changes that were forced upon me, rather than ones that I actively chose. Life got crazy – and crazy difficult – and I adapted, in order to survive.

It is quite a different thing to feel like I’m in the driver’s seat of my own life again. To be honest, it’s scary. For all my awareness about the ephemeral nature of life, I still find myself in a sort of holding pattern, paralyzed over making the big decisions I know I need to make in order to truly change. I can’t tell you how many times over the last year I’ve asked myself, “Isn’t there someone else who can do this?” But there isn’t. There’s only me.

A friend recently told me she has adopted the motto of beginning each day by tackling the most unpleasant task on her to-do list first. I like that. No time to work yourself into a frenzy worrying about it. Just do it, and be done.

So, I’ve decided that’s what April is going to be, for me. Walking right into all the things I’m worried about, as fast as I can, before I have too much time to think. Just do it, and be done. And I’m sure that’s why, as this new month dawned, I couldn’t sleep. But if I’m honest, I know this decision is the only way forward. I know I have to clear away the bad, the scary, and the difficult in order to make way for the good. I know that the only way for me to cross the bridge between where I am and where I want to be is by walking directly through all the fears and doubts that stand in my way.

So, ready or not, April, here I come. I have a feeling you’re going to be a big month.

Until next time, friends.

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