Sometimes I wonder where it all started. It could have been in Ms. Mercer's fifth grade class, I guess, when I wrote my first story, a bound set of loose leaf pages grandly titled "The Boarding School Murders" and illustrated with a luridly dripping knife, no less. But then I think it must have been earlier than that, when my father taught me how to read on the nubby, cream-colored couch that sits in my living room now, when I learned to escape into the wintry wonderlands of Narnia or the the big woods of Wisconsin, pulled along into those stories by the little girls who bewitched generations of readers before me. Perhaps I was older still, sitting quietly in writing class in college, feeling the strange rush of adrenaline course through my veins when I started writing short stories and found I couldn't stop. Or maybe it was the blog, the daily, weekly discipline of showing up here and writing, opening my heart and finding an audience in a dozen, a hundred, a thousand computers and more, scattered throughout the world.
Other people knew it before I did, believed in me long before I would ever learn to. I'd resigned myself to being on the other side, didn't really think I'd ever make it happen. Was too scared, if I'm honest. Too anxious I'd fail.
Ten years ago this January, I moved to New York. I got myself a little desk outside a big publisher's office, where I answered his phone and took notes in meetings, went out to book parties with other assistants and reveled in bagfuls of free galleys. I walked over the Brooklyn Bridge at sunset, skin tingling, and felt smug pride when I learned to navigate the West Village without a map. Smiled when I started recognizing strangers on the street, when the dry cleaner remembered my name.
I didn't need much adjusting to New York; it felt almost instantaneous, my acclimation. I had my little room in a darling apartment on the Upper West Side, just across from Zabar's, just a few blocks from Central Park. My roommates and I memorized the lines in "French Kiss" and stayed out late; threw dinner parties with borrowed chairs and fought with our landlady about the heat. I taught them how to cook and they taught me that friends could become family. Turns out that with the right people, all it takes is a little time. That, and a little bit of magic, too.
I remember when I first fell in love with New York. I was eight, and my father and I were on a visit with my grandparents. There had been an opera at Lincoln Center and a ride in a yellow cab, lunch at an Italian restaurant with their old friends in Midtown and a walk up Fifth Avenue, the city pulsating, alive, around us. It didn't scare me, though; it was thrilling, and so I fell hard and fast. I bought a canvas "I Love New York" tote bag and came home bubbling, proclaiming it, knowing it in my bones. One day, I'm going to move to New York.
And so, 14 years later, I did.
On New Year's Eve last year, at 11:45 pm, I sat in the guest room of my aunt and uncle's apartment in Brussels, wrapped up in a blanket in front of the computer. My family and friends, all felled with the flu, had gone to bed early and I, the lone healthy person, was alone on New Year's Eve. Well, I thought. 2009 wasn't starting very well. It had been a tough fall and I knew the months ahead would be even tougher. I braced myself that night, gave myself a stern talking-to.
You will get through this. You simply must.
The thing is, I'm not very good at being stern. I'm too soft, I think, too quick to fold. Now, do you know what I wish I could do? I wish I could go back to that night, slip into that room with the girl sitting in that chair, and wrap her up in a big hug. Trust me, I'd say. Trust me. It won't always feel this way. And she'd know I was right.
The next few months, though, were just as hard as I knew they'd be. Harder, even. I thought they'd never end. I gritted my teeth and braced myself, but it didn't help. I balled my hands into fists and fought, but lost. I tried to be strong, but it felt like I'd failed.
And then. Oh then.
My girlfriends - my sisters - took me with them to Paris. Me with my heart frayed around the edges, so fragile I'd been teetering on the edge of tears every hour, every day. We flew to Paris, and I felt the magic the minute we stepped off the plane. You think I'm speaking in metaphors, maybe, am having just a bit of fun, perhaps. No. There was magic there and it was real. Between the lilacs on the RER and the insistent flap of pigeon wings, Paris shook me awake; gently at first and then harder, with urgency. Open your eyes, I heard. There's no time to waste anymore.
The answer is right in front of you.
Readers, how do I just get it out and tell you? How do I put it in words? I don't know how, am trying so desperately to get it right, to really nail this one, because this is important.
Something happened in Paris and the weeks thereafter. I don't know if that's where my childhood finally ended or if it was then that I started to realize who I really am and what I really want. Maybe they go hand-in-hand, maybe you can't have one without the other. Either way, something happened, something pushed me to snap out of it, to wake up and take my life into my hands before it was too late.
In those strange, clear days in late spring, I remember finally realizing with earth-shaking certainty this: You, and only you, determine your own fate. You only get one chance at this life. Do something with your life; open your heart to risk. At some point, enough is enough and you must take the biggest leap you can and live it.
So I did.
Last week, I gave notice at my job. This week, a dream came true. No. This week, my dream came true. The biggest dream of my life, I think, the thing I've been dancing around as long as I can remember, the thing I've always wanted, yet didn't ever believe I could actually do. After writing all summer, after finally getting down to business and trying, after doing what people have been urging me to do for years, I took my heart into my hand, handed a book proposal over to my agent, closed my eyes and leaped.
48 hours later, the editorial director at Viking Press bought my book.
But that wasn't the only leap, you see. Something else I learned this year is that only once or maybe twice in life, when you get the chance for change, real change, you've got to do a whole lot more than just one thing. You've got to look deep inside your own soul and follow where it wants to go. You've got to listen, really listen, in order to hear what the universe is trying to tell you. And move mountains, then, when you finally know what you want. So, my dears, my readers, my silent and not-so-silent supporters, here it is, at last.
I'm writing a book, yes. But that's not all. I'm leaving New York, too.
I'm moving back to Berlin and I'm writing a book, about Berlin, about my life, about cooking and home and family and love, about being divided and finding a way back to being whole again, about a city and its recipes, and a girl who's learning how to find her way.
And somehow, finally, I believe it, too: This is what I was meant to do.