Six.

On a Sunday evening, three days before the six-month anniversary of my move to New York, I sat in the orchestra section of the Brooks Atkinson Theatre during a performance of the musical Waitress. I was both alone and surrounded by people. I’d wanted to see the show for some time, and as luck would have it, the ticket I’d booked was for the last performance of Sara Bareilles’ Broadway run.

Bareilles’ emotions were palpable as she sang the lead role of Jenna, and they continued to build as the character she gave voice to became progressively trapped in a life she saw no escape from. When she reached the searching ballad “She Used to Be Mine,” the lyrics pierced me, finding their way into an empty space inside my chest and lodging themselves there:

It’s not what I asked for
Sometimes life just slips in through a back door
And carves out a person
And makes you believe it’s all true . . .
And you’re not what I asked for
If I’m honest I know I would give it all back
For a chance to start over
And rewrite an ending or two
For the girl that I knew

 I wiped at my eyes furiously, glancing around to see if anyone noticed, and saw that the woman next to me was crying, too.

It’s hard to believe it’s been six months since I got on a plane with most of my belongings contained in three suitcases. Over these last six months, there have been days when time moved at a torturous pace, because of winter storms and the cabin fever resulting from being trapped indoors. But mostly, time has elapsed quickly, a reminder that no matter how you spend your days, the clock keeps ticking.

It wasn’t long after I arrived that I started thinking about leaving. I didn’t realize how much I’d miss the ease of California living. How much I craved sunshine, and the ocean, and fresh produce and the warmth of community. I didn’t appreciate what it meant to live in a place where people know you, where they know your work, where you’re handed opportunities without having to interview or audition or prove yourself. I miss that. I miss being known.

But there’s a reason I decided to go. Maybe it was simply so I could realize what I was giving up. But I don’t think so. I think it was about a search for something I hadn’t been able to find. Something I still haven’t found.

So often in New York, I feel green and inexperienced and not enough. I know this isn’t true. But these feelings are a consequence of starting over, particularly in a city as hard-driving and as competitive as this one. As a friend said recently, “New York calls you out.” And it has. It has called me out on all the ways I hide, all the ways I feel plagued by doubt, all the ways I sabotage myself. It has made these first six months uncomfortable. But it hasn’t necessarily made them bad.

One of the few books I took with me when I moved across the country was Cheryl Strayed’s small but mighty Brave Enough. There’s a quote in it I keep returning to:

The question isn’t whether you should stay or go.

The question is: How would your life be transformed if you chose to love this time with all your intelligence?

I’m pretty sure Strayed is referring to romantic love here, but I find the quote to have broader application. I read it as: Wherever you are, be all there. Commit. Live in the moment, and love it, with everything you have.

I haven’t done that here. In truth, I’ve spent much of the last five years being anything but present. Running. Jumping on planes. Passing time until the next time I could go away and get out of town. It was grief that made me do this. Grief that kept me swimming like a shark, afraid that if I stopped moving, I’d suffocate.

I can admit this now. I’m not sure why I couldn’t before. Maybe I just couldn’t see it. Maybe it’s New York that made me realize it. But here it is: ever since my mother’s death, and my father’s death, and the deaths of my grandparents, I’ve become progressively unmoored. I haven’t felt connected to a place. I haven’t felt connected to myself.

I’m so tired of running. The transition to life in New York has been hard on me. It has been harder than I ever thought possible. But I don’t want to leave. What’s exciting about this city is the sense of possibility that is everywhere here. For every opportunity that doesn’t pan out, there are so many more things to try. So many more roads to go down. So many more doors to knock on. So many more people to meet.

As I write this, it’s the first day of Spring. Tomorrow, there is yet another snow storm in the forecast. But even still, winter is waning. The days are growing longer. And there is so much that feels possible, waiting just around the corner.

Until next time, friends.

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.

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.

Morningside.

“We all get stuck in place on occasion. We all move backward sometimes. Every day we must make the decision to move in the direction of our intentions. Forward is the direction of real life.”

– Cheryl Strayed

I was sitting cross-legged on my bed, laptop on lap, surfing the internet for a new dresser when the call came through. The number was familiar, but not in a way that brought comfort. My body tensed. My breaths came shallow. I thought about answering the phone, then thought better of it. I didn’t want to be blindsided by bad news. Let them leave a message, I thought. At least then I’d have an idea of what I was in for.

The voicemail notification flashed across the screen, and I gingerly pressed play and held the phone up to my ear.

“Hi Sarah,” came a polite, though somewhat timid, voice on the other end.

“This is Katherine, from Joe’s office. We have some documents to send you, and I just wanted to confirm that we still have your correct address.”

Documents. That sounded innocuous enough, but as I’d just spent the better part of the summer sorting through five years’ worth of paperwork covering such weighty topics as death, divorce and identity theft, paring a painful paper trail down to its essentials and depositing the rest into a large plastic bin that I delivered to an industrial shredding facility in the shadow of Los Angeles International Airport, the last thing I wanted was to acquire more documents. I had begun a new life. And I intended to travel light.

I sighed, pressed “call back,” and was surprised to hear Joe’s voice – my parents’ lawyer – on the other end. I had assumed he had retired, due to advancing age and a recent bypass surgery. But there he was, answering the phone. His tone was kind, grandfatherly, almost.

“Well, Sarah, it looks like we’re finally ready to close your parents’ estate, and I have some final documents for you to sign. We’re going to send them to your sister Marion first, then to you, and then we should be good to go.”

Really? Five years of bank statements and legal documents and insurance forms? Five years of producing death certificates with as much normalcy as I produced my driver’s license? Five years of always another form to sign, always another stack of papers to file bearing the red “For your Information” stamp? Could it really be true that after five years, this phase of life that I’d become so accustomed to was finally drawing to a close?

“That’s great news, Joe. I’m glad you called because I actually just moved. Let me give you my new address.”

If Joe was surprised by my New York zip code, he didn’t let on. Maybe he thought people packed up and moved their lives across the country every day. Or maybe after five years, he was ready to be done with me, too. Either way, we said our goodbyes, and I collapsed back onto my bed, a wave of exhaustion washing over me. I had only been in New York for three days, but I knew that it was more than just the force of jet lag hitting me. It was something like releasing a breath that I had long been holding. Something like the realization that after all these years, I might finally be turning a page.

Five days later, on a still warm September afternoon – the second day of fall – I swept the floors, rearranged the furniture, stocked the fridge and assembled a spread of snacks and drinks on my kitchen table. As a handful of guests arrived and day faded into indigo night, lit by the New York skyline and the three strings of twinkle lights I’d hung from the eighth-floor balcony of my Morningside Heights apartment, I realized that I had barely thought about the fact that this day, September 23rd, marked the fifth anniversary of the death of my mother. I had remembered it, of course, but I had – for once – been too busy to dwell on it. And when I did think of it, I didn’t feel sad. Instead, I felt lucky. I felt lucky that I had a mother who always told me that I could do and be anything that I wanted. I felt lucky that because of that, I had been brave enough to take a leap, and had been rewarded with a new apartment in a new city, one that was beautiful, priced well under market value, and in a prime Manhattan neighborhood. I was lucky to be surrounded by interesting, kind, creative people, who, like me, also wanted to tell stories and make art. And I was lucky to realize that as painful as it had been, it was the jagged, twisted, perilous path that had brought me here, to a time and a place where I finally felt, for the first time in a long time, that I was where I was supposed to be.

Until next time, friends.

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