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.

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 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.

September.

The first sunrise of September was a subtle affair. While still lovely, with brushstrokes of tangerine and topaz painted across a watercolor sky, the dawn was decidedly gentler than the ferocious fuchsia that – just a few days prior – had set the heavens aflame with a vibrancy bordering on violence. Summer was not yet gone, and the rising mercury proved it, but the golden glow that backlit Mt. Rainier and spread its warmth across the sea was a harbinger of the rapidly approaching season. Soon, it would be fall.

Still wearing my pajamas, wrapped in my Grandmother’s timeworn yellow afghan, I watched the changing colors move across the sky until I decided it was time to stumble out onto the rocky beach and capture them. Once back inside, I brewed coffee – strong and dark – and sat down with my yellow legal pad to scribble out my morning routine: three longhand pages.

It was the sixth morning I’d awoken in the house on Case Inlet, and the third I’d risen before daybreak. I had arrived on a sweltering Saturday evening in late August: tired, sweaty, and carrying the heavy weight of a month full of farewells. I had spent the first few days moving slowly through the house that used to belong to my Grandparents, half-heartedly working on a seemingly insurmountable to-do list, and fighting the fatigue I felt settling into my bones.

But this morning was different, and I knew it. The last few days I had been too comfortable. Lazy, even. Now an urgency arose within me, one that I felt in my body as much as I saw reflected in the sky. It was time to shake off the doldrums, and get to work.

I started a load of laundry, then sat down at the dining room table by the window. Looking over my list, I decided to start with the most dreaded items first. Before I began, I penned myself a note of encouragement:

The space between here and the life you want is filled with all the things you’re putting off. . .  

In truth, there was no hurry to leave the beach. My deadlines were my own, entirely self-imposed. As a bridge between one big, chaotic city and another, as a place to rest, regroup, and plan a cross country move, there was no better location. And there was something reassuring about being here: a place so familiar, among people who shared my history.

No, the need to go was a purely psychological one. Because as soon as the calendar turned to September, a date that may as well have been circled in scarlet stared out at me from the page. September 23rd. It was on that day, five years ago, that I received the worst phone call of my life: my mother was dead. Now I was here – in her favorite place – looking out at the inlet where three summers earlier we had climbed into a little tin boat, went out to sea, and scattered her ashes. And as I sat by a picture window, watching the receding tide, I made a promise: I would not mark the anniversary of her death here. I would be in New York, having already begun my new life in a new city. I would honor my mother’s memory the best way I knew how: by not ending up like her. I would not defer my dreams to a tomorrow that would never come, would not spend my life wandering down a rabbit hole of regret.

After the emails had been sent and the phone calls had been placed, I waited for high tide, put on a swimsuit and walked down to the water’s edge. Case Inlet was colder than I remembered, but then again, it had been a year since I’d last dipped my toes in that saltwater. There was only one thing to do. I threw myself into the bay, absorbing the shock of bracing cold. But as I paddled through the water, my Grandmother’s faded orange swim fins emerging and submerging with each stroke, my body slowly began to adjust. And I was OK.

I would always be OK.

Until next time, friends.

Los Angeles.

I’m so tired, but I can’t sleep

Standing on the edge of something much too deep

It’s funny how we feel so much but cannot say a word

We are screaming inside but can’t be heard

 And I will remember you

Will you remember me?

Don’t let your life pass you by

Weep not for the memories.

 

On an early morning in the summer of 1999, a yellow school bus pulled into the parking lot of Capital High School in Olympia, Washington. I sat near the back, resting my head against the seat, softly singing the lyrics to a bittersweet Sarah McLachlan song. My head was light – the result of a sleepless night spent in Seattle, celebrating the Class of ‘99 and our newly-earned diplomas – but my heart was heavy. Graduation meant that in less than two months, I’d be leaving home to attend college in Los Angeles, a city I’d visited only once and where I knew no one. The thought of chasing my Hollywood dreams thrilled me, but I was scared too, possessed of the vague but certain knowledge that soon, everything in my life was going to change.

I waited until it was safe. As soon as I was sure that the solar eclipse that had been making its way eastward across the United States had passed over Los Angeles, I got into my car. As I merged on to that familiar stretch of the 405 freeway, I thought about that eighteen-year-old girl, half a life away, who was only just beginning her story. How could she have known how it would all unfold?

My mother watched from the third-floor window of the Radisson Hotel as – sirens blaring, strobe lights pulsating – fire trucks charged down Figueroa Street. Turning to me, face drawn with concern, fear in her aquamarine eyes, she asked earnestly:

“Sar, are you sure you want to go to school here?”

I was sure. From the minute I set foot onto USC’s University Park Campus I knew that I belonged there. Its proximity to the infamous “South Central” neighborhood of Los Angeles, the seemingly never ending parade of emergency vehicles exiting the nearby fire station, the metal bars encasing every apartment and store window. . . none of those things deterred me. In fact, they only strengthened my resolve. A girl who split her childhood between Anchorage, Alaska and small towns in the Pacific Northwest should have been a fish out of water in such a gritty, urban place. But I wasn’t. I was home.

Nearly eighteen years later, that exact same feeling settled in my chest, but this time, in a different place. Walking along Sixth Avenue in New York’s West Village, my eyes found the Freedom Tower, a beacon of steel blue standing strong and stoic in the distance, and something that can best be described as hope swelled within me. Home, cried a familiar voice, sure and steady. I listened.

I checked in to the Surf and Sand Hotel just after two p.m., changed into a bikini, and headed straight for the beach. Later, sandy and sleepy, I sat beneath a large white umbrella, stared out at the Pacific, and wrote. After an early dinner of cheap tacos and expensive wine, I headed back to the beach and waded into the ocean just in time to watch a blazing sun sink below the horizon, spreading coral and tangerine across a tranquil sky. Once it was dark, I opened up two old notebooks that I’d brought along for the journey and re-read their contents. I barely recognized the person who had written them, and so, I carefully shredded their pages and deposited them into a hotel garbage can.

As I crawled beneath white sheets, a feeling of calm settled over me. What a difference from the last time I came here, I thought. It had been December of 2015, a few days after my thirty-fifth birthday, a few weeks after my grandfather died and I had returned to L.A. from a month-long stay in tiny Allyn, Washington to oversee his hospice care, only to find that the company I had worked at for eleven years had been sold, and I had a decision to make: relocate to Seattle and take a job with the new company, or stay in L.A. and face an uncertain future. I chose to stay in L.A. I chose to trust the steady, sure voice that told me I would be OK. I have never regretted that decision.

Eighteen years after moving to Los Angeles and making it my home, it is impossible to describe how it feels to leave it. When I arrived here in the late summer of 1999, I was a girl on the edge of becoming a woman. A girl who thought she knew so much, but who had no idea how innocent she truly was. I had never been in love. I had never traveled to the Eastern United States to sink my toes into an Atlantic beach, let alone crossed that vast ocean to visit (and live in) the continent on the other side. I didn’t know that terrorists could fly airplanes into tall buildings. I didn’t know what it would feel like to hold the hand of someone I loved as they died.

What would I tell that girl now, all these years later, as I prepare to once again begin my life anew? I would tell her a great many things, but mostly I would tell her that she is allowed to make her own choices. She is allowed to let two conflicting emotions reside in her body at the same time. She is allowed to love a place and leave it, and she is allowed to love people and leave them, too. She is allowed to be both brave and afraid, allowed to be both as fragile as a paper doll and the owner of the fiercest heart imaginable. She is allowed to write her own story, without knowing how it’s going to end.

When I moved to Los Angeles, I never could have imagined how much this city would change me, how much it would shape me, how much it would open up my life. Somewhere among the boulevards and the beaches, among the wannabes and the celebrities, I found myself. I made lifelong friends. And I grew up.

Moving here was the right thing. I knew it, and I did it. And now, eighteen years later – as hard as it may be – I also know that it is the right thing to leave.

Until next time, friends.

Blog at WordPress.com.