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.

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.

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.

Hallelujah.

I did my best, it wasn’t much
I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch
I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you
And even though
It all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah

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It was raining when I left New York, and the lyrics to that song were running through my head on an endless loop. They announced Leonard Cohen’s death the day I arrived in the city, two days after the results of a bitterly contested presidential election ripped the country apart at the seams (or rather, exposed the chasm that already existed), and one day before the anniversary of my grandfather’s death, Veteran’s Day, which also happened to be the one-year anniversary of the day I finally turned a corner on crippling grief, and decided to fight for my life.

I have been living with unanswered questions for a while now, and there hardly seemed a better place to escape from them than in gritty, relentless New York. Here, I could move faster than my racing brain, wind through subway tunnels and unfamiliar streets, dissolve into throngs of people in cafes and in crowds. I could lose myself in order to find myself. But a few days later, in the back of a JFK-bound taxicab, I knew that what I’d really found was a truth I could no longer run from: the journey I began a year ago, when my grandfather’s hospice ended and “Sarah 2.0” began, is not over.

I’ve made a good start. I’ve taken risks, both personally and professionally. I’ve traveled. I’ve volunteered. I’ve said no to things that weren’t right for me, and yes to things that were, and in doing so, I learned plenty about myself that I needed to know.

But I haven’t kept all of my promises. Not to myself, and not to those people for whom all I have left is a memory. I have been lazy. I have been afraid. I have wasted too much time on too many things that don’t matter.

One of the biggest, scariest things I did in the past year was to go see a psychic Medium and ask for her help in healing from the death of my mother. Whether you believe in Mediums or not, it was quite a thing for me – someone who never, ever, asks for help – to admit that this loss had carved such a hole in me that I couldn’t move forward with my life without a helping hand to guide me through it. And whether you believe that I communicated with my mother or not, what I do know is that whatever happened in that living room, on that sunny afternoon last July, helped me.

One of the things that came up during my session with Medium Fleur had nothing to do with spirits, or the afterlife. It had to do with me. Fleur told me that I’m meant to be a writer, and that I should be writing more. “You’re very talented,” she said, “but you’re lacking in self-confidence. It has to do with believing that you deserve it. Once you believe that you deserve it, everything is going to open up for you.”

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OK. This is the part where I get really honest, and really vulnerable. I have never, ever, believed that I deserve it. Not really. I am driven, and ambitious, and I have always, always, worked hard, but deep down, I don’t think I’ve ever truly believed that I deserve to be happy, or successful, or to get all of the things that I want.

Last summer, when my one-act play War Stories opened to rave reviews at Hollywood Fringe Festival, I not only worried that something bad would happen, I expected it. I mean it. The reviews were so good that I was sure that, to even the karmic scale, I was going to get into a horrific car accident, or choke on a chicken bone, or that a drone was going to descend out of the sky, and take me out.

And now that the first version of that play was well-received, that feeling is even worse. Because now there are people looking forward to the next incarnation, people who are coming from out of town to see it, people who are expecting it to be good. So of course, even though the show opens in two and a half months, I haven’t finished writing it yet.

Sometimes I wonder if choosing to be a writer, and choosing to write this play in particular, makes me a masochist. I’m serious. It is scary as hell to sit down with yourself, alone, and try to figure out how to say things that are true, things that matter, things that make people feel something. And to write a play about love? The most personal, vulnerable, universal emotion of all? It’s no wonder I’m procrastinating.

But. I am only two weeks out from my next birthday, and only six weeks out from the end of 2016. And I’ll tell you something else that’s true:  I am tired of not keeping my promises. I am tired of running. And I am more than a little tired of feeling like I don’t deserve it.

And so. I’m going all in. Because I have to. Because the only remedy is to do the work. Because the only thing that soothes the ache within me is to channel it into something creative, and to make that creation as compelling and as evocative and as heartfelt as I can.

I might fail. I might fall flat on my face. But there’s no more running from this. Because the only way out is on the jagged, treacherous path that runs directly through.

And who knows? Maybe somewhere along that path, I might even discover that I do deserve it, after all.

Until next time, friends.

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