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.

 

Where I Write: Cafe Surfas.

Are you lonesome tonight?

Do you miss me tonight?

Are you sorry we drifted apart?

img_0511

I’m sitting at a wooden table near the edge of the expansive outdoor patio at Café Surfas, sipping a soy latte underneath the warm, amber glow of string lights, the late afternoon sun slipping low on the horizon, when suddenly an Elvis Presley ballad crackles across the overhead speakers, cutting through the damp January day. It stops me, as certain Elvis songs often do, because they remind me of my mother. She loved Elvis, and loved his sad songs most of all, something I realized only after she died. For a moment, I cease writing, thinking, remembering. And then I pick up my pen and begin again.

I haven’t been here in a while, even though it’s one of my favorite places to write in L.A. The café is part of the restaurant supply store Surfas, a go-to institution for chefs and L.A. foodies located in the heart of the Culver City Arts District. I like it for reasons both practical and personal. The parking is free (and abundant, a rarity in Angel City) and so is the Wi-Fi, and the spacious patio is rarely crowded. In fact, this afternoon, it’s just me and one of the regulars: a middle-aged, flannel shirt-wearing man with a serious demeanor and a giant black dog in tow. Every time I come here, without fail, he is also here, typing away on his laptop. In a world where so much is uncertain, I find the consistency comforting.

But the real reason I like Café Surfas is that – like so many of my favorite places in Los Angeles – I don’t feel at all like I’m in Los Angeles when I’m here. The interior of the café – with its black and white hexagonal tile floors, tall bistro tables, cheery yellow walls, vintage food posters and sweet, delectable treats – feels more like a cross between a hip New York City bakery and a provincial French bistro. Then add in the 1950s standards piped over the sound system and a wide-ranging menu of delicious, gourmet food, and writing here feels a bit like writing in the best, homiest kitchen ever.

fullsizerender

And about the writing. At the moment, I’m in a bit of limbo. In December, I finished the most recent draft of my play, War Stories, and I’m currently pouring all my creative energy into getting ready for its February production. With opening night less than three weeks away, there is – as I’m sure you can imagine – a lot to do.

But still. I can’t not write. It may sound overly dramatic to say this, but these last few years, writing has been like oxygen for me. It has become the way that I think, the way that I work through my problems, the way that I articulate my feelings. And with so much going on, my busy brain spinning in a million different directions, I feel now more than ever the need to carve out time alone, just me and my journal.

So, during today’s writing session, I’m introspective. I resist the urge to spend my time making yet another to-do list and instead, I let my mind wander. I brainstorm ideas for essays I’d like to write, and places I’d like to publish them. I meditate on what’s next for Extra Dry Martini and the type of content I’d like to post here in the year ahead. I daydream a wish list for 2017, the year still young, the changes and challenges it will bring still unknown.

For an hour, I remain in this self-cocoon, head down, heart focused, shutting out all distractions. It feels like a luxury and a necessity, all at the same time. I stop at 5 o’clock, only because the café is closing and its employees are bustling around, getting ready to go home.

And it’s time for me to go home, too. As I drive east on Venice Boulevard, back toward my little bungalow on Cashio Street, I can’t help noticing that my busy brain isn’t quite as busy as it was an hour ago. Even with the espresso coursing through my veins, I feel calmer than I have in a while. And I vow to return, soon, and spend another hour with just me and my journal, an hour where the outside world is not allowed to intervene.

Until next time, friends.

img_0555

 

The Year of the Monkey.

In truth, I don’t know all that much about Chinese astrology. As a child, I remember being fascinated by the red and gold Chinese restaurant placemats depicting the twelve zodiac animals and detailing the characteristics of each of them. Those placemats taught me that as a December 1980 baby, I am a Monkey: a sign known for its optimism, cleverness, sense of adventure, curiosity, and inclination toward mischief.

IMG_6723

On February 8, we began a new Lunar New Year: the Year of the Fire Monkey. According to the Chinese zodiac, it is not a good thing when you enter a year that corresponds to your sign. In fact, it is usually quite unlucky. This is an assertion that I have chosen to ignore. Given the way 2016 began, can you blame me?

A couple of weeks into the (Western) New Year, my car was vandalized, resulting in thousands of dollars worth of damage and leaving me feeling shaken and scared about the neighborhood I call home. My temporary job as an independent contractor – that began after the company I worked for was sold and moved to another state – was more stressful than I’d anticipated, leaving me tired and frustrated. Inspiration was difficult to come by, and my writing stalled. A persistent feeling of hopelessness started to creep in, threatening to derail my big plans for 2016.

Probably out of sheer stubbornness and my absolute need for things to be better this year than they’d previously been, I pushed forward. I kept writing, even though I didn’t feel like it. I reached out to a friend who’d produced my last play, asking her to come on board, even though I didn’t yet have a script. I renegotiated the terms of my independent contractor job, resulting in an arrangement more favorable to me. And I began the insurance claims process for the damage done to my vehicle.

Little by little, the clouds stared to lift. The original timetable of eight weeks to repair my car turned out to be mere days as the backordered part my mechanic needed became available much sooner than expected. Filing the insurance claim proved to be easier than I’d anticipated (dare I say, it was even pleasant), and within a couple of weeks I received a check covering all of the repair costs beyond my deductible. My friend and previous collaborator agreed to sign on to co-produce and direct my new play, giving my writing an increased sense of urgency and providing the motivation I needed to finish a first draft. And a fun-filled weekend celebrating a dear friend’s birthday in the San Francisco Bay Area lifted my spirits and temporarily curbed my growing wanderlust.

IMG_6697

By the time the Lunar New Year began, I was feeling like my old optimistic Monkey self again. A few days later, my aunt and uncle arrived in L.A. for a visit, booking a hotel on Ocean Avenue in Santa Monica overlooking the pier, Palisades Park, and the Pacific Ocean. Their visit coincided with a rare winter heat wave: clear blue skies free of the smog that so often blankets this city, temperatures in the 80s, the Pacific sparkling like so many sapphires. The three of us hadn’t been together since Grandpa’s death three months earlier, and after the intense, emotionally taxing period of hospice, reveling in the majestic, sun drenched California coastline felt like a miracle.

On President’s Day, armed with towels, a water canteen filled with fancy French champagne, and red Solo cups, the three of us marched north through Palisades Park, away from the throng of tourists. At Montana Ave., we descended steep wooden stairs, crossed the bridge over Pacific Coast Highway, and landed on Santa Monica Beach, sinking our toes into the warm sand. We waded in the ocean, the foamy waves lapping at our feet, and then settled into the sand. We filled our cups with fizzy liquid, raised them in a toast to Grandpa, and then turned our eyes toward the fiery orange sun slipping low on the horizon and fell silent.

I captioned a photo from that day, taken by my aunt of my uncle and I looking into the sunset, my hand resting upon his shoulder, with a quote from a letter that my grandfather wrote to me more than a decade ago: The beach never changes, ‘tis only we who change. Those words recalled a different time, and Grandpa was referring to a different beach, yet they still hold true.

I have changed. We all have. Given everything that has happened over these last three years, it would have been impossible not to. And while I have no idea what the future holds, little by little, I am learning to let go of my obsessive need to control it. Maybe this Monkey Year will be lucky. And maybe, as the Chinese zodiac asserts, it won’t be.  But two weeks in, I have decided that whatever happens, I will greet it with the same indefatigable spirit of my zodiac sign: with curiosity, with optimism, and with an unwavering sense of adventure.

Onward.

Until next time, friends.

IMG_6737

Where I live.

January has not started out as I’d hoped. I began 2016 filled with enthusiasm for the year ahead and the changes that it promised, but that enthusiasm was quickly replaced with the less-than-bright-and-shiny realities of the day to day.

Immediately after the glow of the holidays wore off, I found myself surprisingly unmotivated: sluggish, fatigued, even a bit depressed. In December, life was moving fast and I struggled to keep up, but the manic energy that it brought also seemed to serve as a sort of inspiration. Words and ideas flowed out of me. I had so much to say, and writing felt easy.

Not so, lately. Every day, I sit down to work on a new piece: a stage play I’m planning to produce in early summer. And every day I find myself frustrated, tugging at a narrative that hasn’t quite shown me how it is meant to unfold. Little by little, I’m getting there, but the progress has been a maddeningly slow one of scribbling words into my notebook and scratching them out, throwing out more than I’m keeping, writing and re-writing.

IMG_6567

And then there was yesterday. Running out for groceries, I shifted my car into reverse, and heard something that sounded like a motorcycle revving its engine. Is that me? I thought. I turned off the engine and the sound stopped. Turned it on and there it was again. What in the hell? I had never in my life heard a sound like that come out of my almost stealthy quiet Prius. Exiting the car, I smelled gasoline in the air.

Calls to Toyota and Triple A revealed what had happened: someone had stolen my catalytic converter. Prior to yesterday, I’d never even heard of a catalytic converter, but it is amazing how quickly Google and a couple of mechanics with I’m so sorry faces can turn you into an expert.

According to Auto.com, “the job of the catalytic converter is to convert harmful pollutants into less harmful emissions before they leave the car’s exhaust system.” Without it, not only does your car become a major polluter, it makes a roaring sound akin to having a pack of Hell’s Angels riding shotgun. Not pleasant. As the apologetic mechanic at my local Toyota informed me, there has been a rash of catalytic converter thefts all over L.A., due to the fact that it contains valuable metals that are then melted down and sold. And as an external part, they’re relatively easy for an experienced thief to remove (by sawing them off!) within minutes. Now the kicker: because of the recent epidemic of these thefts, catalytic converters are on a national backorder and mine could take up to eight weeks (and cost thousands of dollars) to replace. Eight weeks? Without my car? In L.A.?

I suppose you could say that this was the punch in the gut that turned a disappointing January into an abysmal one.

Later, as I’m on hold with my insurance company, trying to figure out if any of this is covered, it hits me that it’s not just the money, or the hassle, or the fact that I feel stranded without a car that has left me so shaken. It’s the fact that for the first time in the nearly two years since I moved to this (mostly) quiet residential neighborhood, I feel unsafe. Yes, I live in a big, dangerous city, and yes my neighborhood is tucked away right off a busy intersection, but the street where I live is populated with nice people: young working professionals and families with kids and dogs. I know – and like – my neighbors. I walk everywhere, striking up conversations with friends and strangers alike. I don’t feel scared walking home at night. And yet, someone still came along and did this: hacked up a piece of my car in plain sight. It’s the car that has faithfully and reliably carried me around this city for eight years. The car that my mother gave me. I feel sick.

IMG_6568

Through my living room blinds, I see the late afternoon sunset beginning to streak the sky pink. I get off the phone, take a deep breath, pour a glass of wine and go outside to my patio. I’m lucky, I tell myself, as I breathe in the sunset and try to calm down. This sucks, but it will be OK. Maybe I’m not supposed to drive for a while. Maybe I’m supposed to slow down and simplify and focus on my writing. Maybe I’m supposed to move – the thought creeps in without my consent.

No, I think, as the rosy glow of the waning sun fills in the blue sky behind the majestic, lone palm tree that towers stoically above my roof. I don’t want to move. I don’t want to run away, just because things are difficult. I’m reminded of a saying from Lao Tzu that I posted on the Facebook page for my blog only yesterday morning, before I knew about any of this stuff with the car:

Stop leaving and you will arrive.

Stop searching and you will see.

Stop running away and you will be found.

I was attracted to the quote because it reminded me of my writing, and my tendency to abandon long form projects whenever I get stuck or when inspiration runs out. But maybe there’s a bigger life lesson there. One about endlessly searching for something to make me whole again, and always coming up short.

This is not the start to the New Year that I wanted, not at all. But maybe, buried underneath everything that’s icky and uncomfortable, maybe there’s something in it that I needed. Maybe instead of running away in search of something better, this is where I will be tested, and where I decide to stand and fight.  And maybe, in that fight, I will learn something about myself that I needed to know.

Maybe.  Or maybe it’s just a really crappy January.

Until next time, friends.

Birthday Girl.

This week, I turned thirty-four.  THIRTY-FOUR.  Holy hell, I am older than I ever thought I’d be.

(To all of my readers out there who are a little – or a lot – older than thirty-four, please accept my apologies.  Life, it seems, is all about perspective.  Isn’t it?)

I’ve always been big on birthdays.  Always.  But this year, I approached it quietly.  Not avoiding or ignoring, but not fully embracing it, either.  Figuring that this year, it simply is what it is.

Though I’m not necessarily delighted to be another year older, I was not sad to say goodbye to thirty-three.  It was without a doubt, the hardest year of my life.  That may seem like an odd statement, considering that thirty-one and thirty-two were particularly brutal years, during which a lot of really bad, painful things happened.  Nobody I love died during my thirty-third year, but in a way, it was sort of like I did.  And (metaphorical) death while living can be just about the toughest thing one can experience.  Or at least, it was for me.

I started thirty-three pretending I was OK (I wasn’t).  I was desperate to feel better, and I convinced myself that I needed to shake up my life because I wasn’t really living.  I was right about the not living part, but I went about the shaking up my life part in the wrong way.  In truth, I got a little bit crazy.  Not only did my new ‘fierce urgency of now’ maxim not work out, but I learned a hard lesson: I couldn’t just fake it to make it, and the more I tried, the less it worked.  I had been sad for a long time, but I wasn’t grieving, just shoving my feelings under the rug and trying to act like some superhuman strong woman, which ultimately just made everything worse.

And so I stopped the quick fix, impulsive behavior, and I started making the changes that were harder, and that would take more time.  I moved to a new neighborhood away from almost everyone I knew.  I stopped doing things I ‘loved,’ things that I’d always done, because honestly, my heart wasn’t in them any more.  I tried on lots of new, different things, trying to figure out which ‘Sarah’ was a fit, and it turned out that none of them were.  When all else failed, I borrowed a friend’s beach house and spent one of the most beautiful weeks of the summer crying into the sand.  I spent a lot of time alone.  And I wrote.  A lot.

None of the realizations I came to during my thirty-third year – the year of dying while living – came easy or cheap.  I learned that I wasn’t so much grieving the loved ones that I’d lost as I was grieving the person that I now was, without them.  I learned that the path toward healing ultimately involved grieving myself, grieving the old me that I no longer was, and then learning how to lovingly let her go.  I learned that the biggest source of my suffering came from trying to hold on to what was no longer true, that the sooner I could release the image in my mind of how things were ‘supposed’ to be, and accept them for what they actually were, the better off I’d be.  And I learned that letting go is a real bitch.

So when thirty-four arrived this past Tuesday, it was fittingly, a different type of birthday.  No splashy party, no big fanfare, no weekend trip away.  I worked a twelve-hour day styling a photo shoot for the company I’ve worked at for the last ten years.  We ordered in lunch, and in the afternoon, my coworkers got me a cake, sang me Happy Birthday, and I made a wish (a good one) and blew out the candles.  That night, I went home, put on a dress and got in a cab to meet a handful of friends for a small, low-key dinner, ending the evening over cocktails and conversation with some really good people.  And when I finally collapsed into bed, nearly twenty hours after my day had begun, I felt something that, while definitely not the unbridled joy I’ve been chasing, was a little bit like contentment, and a lot like peace.

I’ve always liked the fact that my birthday falls in December, so close to the end of the year.  It’s sort of like my own personal new year is closely aligned with the calendar New Year, and it gives me an opportunity to look back and take stock as both myself and the planet turn another year older.  And while I still believe in making resolutions, I no longer boldly predict that ‘this is going to be my best year yet,’ because life, in all its unpredictability, has taught me differently.  But what I do know is this:  that the hard lessons I took the time to learn during thirty-three have prepared me to have a better thirty-four.  That, while I’m not yet on the other side of the grief or the healing, I’m a wiser, stronger, and (strangely), more hopeful person than I was a year ago.  That I can’t rush this process or fake it till I make it, and that where I’m at, today, tomorrow, next week, is just fine.  And while I’d never boldly predict that this New Year will be my ‘best year yet,’ I’m pretty certain I’m going to end thirty-four in a better place than where I began it.

So – Happy New Year.

Until next time, friends.

Blog at WordPress.com.