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There must have been a particular moment when I knew I needed to change my life, but I don't know when it was. The desire for change is like a grain of sand in a shoe, imperceptible at first but grinding away until it becomes the only thing you notice.

It was not that my existence was miserable; as I entered what I assumed would be the middle years of my life, I had meaningful work and a good man who embellished my existence with such late-20th-century emblems of arrival as the loft in Chelsea, the orchestra seats, the signed Miró painting, the vacations on the isles of Nevis and Antigua.

It was a more than reasonable life, it was an enviable one. Yet I was distanced from it. It was his life; it never seemed like mine, a sense that gave rise to a pervasive disappointment I could not shake, though I tried. "What do I want?" I kept asking myself. I could not say for sure. I knew only that I sorely needed something I did not have.

My instinct was to dismiss the feeling. Like many women, I found it easy to recognize the needs and emotions of others and nearly impossible to recognize my own, even those that involved basics such as appetite. I was nearly 40 years old before I could say with certainty that I was hungry, and now, confronted with hunger in another, more amorphous form, I told myself that I was simply spoiled, chronically incapable of sustaining any sort of alliance. Still I became engulfed in that sorrowing feeling the Portuguese call saudades, which is nostalgia for something that never was.

Then work brought me to Los Angeles, where persimmons grow on thick, leafy trees, where streets are coated in pale blue blooms fallen from the jacaranda trees, where light is softer and brighter than light anywhere else.

I was there to report a piece on the Whitewater figure Susan McDougal, who was doing hard time in a Los Angeles jail where I visited her each afternoon. When it came time to leave, it pained me that I was free to go and she wasn't. At the same time, as I drove back to my hotel, heading west on the Santa Monica freeway, the sheer speed, boundless sky, and setting sun reflecting on puffs of pink and golden clouds filled me with appreciation for being free and overwhelmed me with gratitude and wonder.

What would I be like on my own? Would I be reading a book, cat in my lap, sipping tea? Or would that genteel scenario give way to staring into a 5x magnifying mirror, bemoaning the fine lines and wrinkles that were ostensible deal breakers in locating a new life, a new man. But then, I wasn't hungering for a man. I was hungering for communion with myself.

Yet I despised the idea of running away. How could I leave a man who had only been good to me? If I could have convinced myself I had to leave, I could have been exempt from responsibility. But saying I wanted to leave was another matter, a conscious, willful choice to place my own well-being and needs over those of someone else, an act brimming with the enlightened self-assertion praised in men and scorned in women.

Of all the qualities I admire, none matters more to me than courage, and I kept telling myself that I needed the courage to remake my life, whether or not I wanted to. Then one morning, the paper that came with my room-service breakfast offered a saving thought: Courage is the power to let go of the familiar. Buttressed with that redefinition, I began to change my life.

I started picturing a white room, a room that contained no history, a room devoid of posters from places I would just have soon not have visited, no paintings etched on glass that I should not have bought—a place where the past could be sloughed off.

We get what we need, and soon that white room materialized. It was on the beach, where I could gaze out my window and see before me only sand and sea and sky, where I could nourish a small garden of Mexican bush sage and Iceberg roses, and where the sunset turned the benign blue sky to ferocious golds and purples.

"No one turns their life upside down to look at a sunset," the man I'd lived with said to me. But what I had done was not frivolous. This nearness to the natural world was an antidote to my abiding disappointment. Day by day, it soothed me, it strengthened me, until it had redeemed my spirit, my sense of hope. It has been three years now since I came here, long enough to know that I did what I needed to do—that in this, our only life, our primary obligation is to respond to those needs that are as basic as oxygen, as fundamental as air.

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