Where I Write: Cafe Surfas.

Are you lonesome tonight?

Do you miss me tonight?

Are you sorry we drifted apart?

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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.

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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.

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New.

It’s just before eight o’clock in the morning, Anchorage time, on the last day of 2016.  It’s dark as night as I write this; the sun won’t rise for at least another two hours.  Winter in Alaska means limited daylight – today, there are only about six hours between sunrise and sunset – and I can’t lie:  the darkness lends a certain heaviness to everything.  It’s strangely disorienting to spend so many waking hours in the black, and the temptation to huddle indoors where it’s light (and warm) is real.  But it’s also incredibly beautiful here.  Anchorage sits at the base of the Chugach Mountains, with their majestic, snowcapped peaks towering above the city.  This time of year, Christmas lights twinkle against freshly fallen snow, and even the frozen, somewhat ominous ice floes on Cook Inlet appear to sparkle as though they’re made of magic.

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I’m not sure what 2017 will bring – none of us can know what the future holds – but in as much as I can control my own destiny, I’ve been making plans for some big life changes in the year ahead.  And so, it felt sort of fitting to end 2016 in the place where I grew up.  I like to think of it as going back in order to go forward.

For a lot of people, 2016 was a difficult year.  It was for me, too.  But if I’m honest, despite its challenges, it was still one of the best I’ve had in a while.  It was the first year since 2011 that I can honestly say ended more hopeful than it began.  It was the first year since losing so many people that I love, that I felt something like true healing beginning to take hold.  And it was the first year since everything spun so violently out of control that I slipped back into the driver’s seat, grabbed the steering wheel, and started living my life on purpose, again.

2016 was not a perfect year.  But as I reflect upon what’s past and where I’d like to go next, I’m proud of myself for one big reason:  this past year, I did a hell of a lot of things that scared me.  I wrote a play that was personal and came from my heart and I put it out into the world.  I traveled alone to one of the largest cities on earth, an unfamiliar maze where I didn’t know my way around and didn’t speak the language.  I boarded a bus to Nevada with a whole bunch of people I didn’t know, to spend two days knocking on strangers’ doors, asking them to vote for a political candidate that I believed in.  And – perhaps the biggest thing – I spoke up for myself, more than once, and asked for what I wanted.

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As it turns out, there’s magic to be found when you push fear aside and take a leap.  My play received excellent reviews at the biggest theatre festival on the west coast of the United States.  I met one of my heroes (Don’t judge me.  Or do, I don’t care.), Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, on an airplane.  I visited a psychic medium and found – for the first time in four years – some peace around my mother’s death.  And through travel, new experiences and some truly lovely people who came into my life, I rediscovered a sense of joy and wonder that I feared I had lost forever.

So, as I think about what I want 2017 to look like, I have only one New Year’s resolution:  to say yes.  Say yes to everything I want to ask for, but I’m afraid to.  Say yes to every good thing that I’m not sure that I deserve.  Say yes to every challenge I’m not sure I’m ready for, every risk I’m not sure I’m brave enough for.  Just say yes, and trust that whatever comes next will work itself out.

Happy New Year, friends.

Until next time,

Sarah

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The beach house.

It will be the past

and we’ll live there together.

Not as it was to live

but as it is remembered. 

It will be the past.

We’ll all go back together.

Everyone we ever loved,

and lost, and must remember.

It will be the past.

And it will last forever.

– Patrick Phillips

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I found the box in a small, seaside boutique in Laguna Beach, CA, a few days before Christmas.  It was compact, rectangular in shape, and carved out of curly maple.  On the lid, an inscription: “Our memories of the ocean will linger on long after our footprints in the sand are gone.”  Perfect, I thought, as the saleswoman carefully wrapped it in tissue and secured it into the cardboard gift box that I would place into my carry-on and take with me on my flight to Seattle.

Except that it wasn’t perfect, as I discovered upon my arrival at my grandparents’ beach house two days later.  It was too small.  We had kept more of her than I had remembered.  I wasn’t sure what to do, but I knew I had to do something.  The hideous black box was no longer an option.

The next day, feeling determined, I pawed through boxes labeled “Sarah” in what had once been my grandparents’ dog kennel and now served as a repository for all the items that remained from my parents’ Olympia house.  There must be something in here that will work, I thought.

And then, among the photo albums and mementos from my high school bedroom, I found it.  I paused for a minute, thinking, running my fingers along the ridges in the dark wood.  The words “A Scientific Cigar,” and “Aromatic – Mild – Satisfying” made me giggle.  No, I couldn’t possibly. . . Could I?

I opened the box to find a treasure trove of items contained inside.  A handwritten note my dad had written to my mom, years ago, penned in his messy scrawl.  A gold ID bracelet that had once fit my child wrist perfectly, now too small, my name engraved in cursive next to a tiny diamond star.  A trio of pink Elvis Presley postage stamps (Mom’s favorite singer).  A photograph of our beloved West Highland Terrier, Max.  And an amber colored agate stone found – by me – on the shores of Case Inlet.

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I carried the box into my grandparents’ bedroom and set it down on the nightstand.  I opened the hated black receptacle and removed the thick plastic bag, surveying its contents.  For a moment, it struck me how squeamish I’d once been about handling this bag, how afraid I’d been the first time I’d pried open the black box.  But now, I was almost businesslike in my approach.  Isn’t it bizarre how the passage of time can make even the strangest things seem normal?

Inside my suitcase, I retrieved a small lavender (her favorite color) pouch, emptied out its contents (my jewelry) and gently folded the thick plastic bag inside, zipping it closed.  Secured inside that soft purple bag, nestled among the items already living within the cigar box, all that remained of my mother – that we hadn’t already scattered into the sea – just fit.

Now, I can understand why a weathered old cigar box might seem like an odd place to store my mother’s ashes.  But believe me when I tell you:  it is not just any cigar box.  Clean and without any trace of cigar smell, it once belonged to my great uncle Vernon, who died when I was twelve.  He and my mother were very close, and for much of his life he served as a gentle buffer between her and her mother (his sister), a domineering and frequently emotionally abusive woman.  When Vernon died, the cigar box was one of a handful of things that my mother salvaged from his house in San Francisco, and she – perhaps inexplicably – gave it to me as a present.  Maybe because it felt like a relic from a bygone era and I’d always been drawn to all things vintage, I loved that box.  Over the years, I’d used it to store everything from trinkets to art supplies to photographs.  And now it would contain the last of my mother, along with a handful of cherished items that reminded me of her.  As I placed the box on a window ledge overlooking the sea, I smiled and thought, “Perfect.”

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The next morning, Christmas Day, dawned bright and beautiful.  I sat at the living room table, in the same spot where Grandpa used to park his wheelchair, spending hours watching the tides roll in and out, never tiring of the view.  As I drank coffee, marveling at how blue the sky was for December, how serene and still Case Inlet was, like some enormous silvery mirror reflecting the heavens back upon themselves, a large flock of Canada geese descended from the sky and gracefully alighted onto the surface of the water.  “Look Grandpa,” I found myself saying aloud, “Your favorite.”  And then I smiled again.

For now, my grandparents’ beach house sits empty.  But I know that someday, this house will once again bustle with activity.  There will be summer potlucks and clambakes and bonfires on the beach, just like there were in the old days.  People will gather for parties on the deck and they’ll swim in the sea and have sleepovers on the outdoor balcony, and laughter and love and life will once again pulsate through these walls.  It will look different than it once did, but it will be just as joyful.  Those of us that remain, and who remember, will make sure of that.

But sometimes, before you can move forward, you have to go back.  Not to dwell in the past, but simply to make peace with it.  To look every monster that has held you in its grip square in the face and say, “Enough.”

And that black plastic box?  That soulless, impenetrable, ugly receptacle with a faded sticker bearing my mother’s name slapped across the front?  I happily, and with great joy, threw it into the trash.  And I didn’t look back.  Not once.

Until next time, friends.

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La La Land.

“A bit of madness is key

To give us new colors to see

Who knows where it will lead us?

And that’s why they need us.

So bring on the rebels

The ripples from pebbles

The painters, and poets, and plays

Here’s to the fools who dream

Crazy as they may seem

Here’s to the hearts that break

Here’s to the mess we make.”

– La La Land

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Four years ago, on Thanksgiving morning, I pulled my car into the public parking lot at the base of Fryman Canyon’s trailhead, paid three dollars to park, and began my ascent up the mountain. The hike at Fryman begins as a steep climb, but after about a mile it levels off, with views of Sherman Oaks to the west. It was a bright, blue-skied morning, no longer hot but still temperate, the autumn winds having blown out much of the smog, offering up a clear view of the sprawling city below.

Both my limbs and my heart were heavy. It was my first Thanksgiving since my mother died, two months earlier. The following week, I would mark another birthday – thirty-two – and then shortly thereafter, I’d travel back to Olympia, Washington to see my father for the holidays, whose rapidly-advancing pancreatic and liver cancer meant that Christmas would surely be his last. And on the drive to Fryman, I had phoned my maternal grandmother, struck by the fact that our conversation had, for the first time in two months, seemed almost normal. Of course, I couldn’t have known that conversation would be the last lucid moment I’d share with her, her Alzheimer’s Disease descending like a fog only days later, never again to lift.

But on this bright November morning, staring down at the city I’d called home for the last thirteen years, I felt remarkably O.K. The troubles plaguing my worried mind were still there, of course, but they weren’t here, at least, not right now. Here, it was just me, and my city. Looking out across that sweeping metropolis, I couldn’t help but feel a familiar surge of pride that a girl from Alaska had made it all the way south, to this iconic place, to this land of movies and myth and magic, and had made it her own.

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Seventeen years in, even through the turbulence of these last few years, that feeling of pride has never gone away. At a recent screening of the new film La La Land, a friend remarked that he was happy to see a film about L.A. being made by filmmakers who actually love this city. I couldn’t agree more. Hating Los Angeles is a popular sport, and it’s easy to find fault with the traffic, the smog, the sprawl, the absence of seasons and the preoccupation with all things Hollywood, but I could also argue that any critique about L.A. can be flipped on its head, and used to make the case that it’s that very thing that gives this city its unique – and uniquely wonderful – personality. I suppose my relationship with Los Angeles is akin to an intimate love affair: I see all the bad stuff, all the flaws, and still, I want him anyway.

Considering my own origin story, I guess it’s not surprising that I ended up here. Growing up as an only child (my older half siblings were all nearly grown by the time I came along), with a career-obsessed father and a mother who battled depression, I spent much of the long, dark Alaska winters alone in my room, weaving stories out of my imagination. What a relief it was to finally land in theatre classes in L.A., finding a community of people who were just as odd and eccentric as I was, and who liked to play make believe just as much as I did.

I won’t pretend that my L.A. years have been easy. They haven’t been. I walked a long road and paid a lot of dues to get to a place that now feels only relatively comfortable. I’ve lived in cockroach-infested apartments, worked low-paying jobs that I hated, and had plenty of unfortunate encounters with some of the most awful people you could imagine. I’ve done bad plays in tiny theaters, signed contracts with unscrupulous agents, and suffered humiliation more times than I’d like to admit. More than once, I’ve watched a dream die and had to rebuild it anew, from nothing.

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But when times have been their toughest, that’s also when I’ve been at my best. Even when I’ve felt down, and hopeless, I’ve found a surprising ability to live off the collective energy of a place jam-packed with dreamers, hustlers, and doers, all fighting for their vision of how they want the world to be. The innovation and creativity that pulse through this city have, over and over again, given me the spark I needed to try again, one more time. And the urban sprawl? Simply an opportunity to reinvent myself, as each new neighborhood – Culver City, Miracle Mile, North Hollywood –  has offered new experiences, new friends, a new life.

For a long time, I was afraid to leave L.A. Afraid of what leaving would mean. That I was a quitter. That I wasn’t tough enough. That I didn’t have what it takes to make it here. But I no longer worry about that. It’s thanks to Los Angeles that my dreams have not only become bigger than I’ve ever dared, but that I actually have the moxie to make them come true. It’s thanks to L.A. that I can now justifiably use titles like “producer,” “creative director,” “playwright,” and “filmmaker” to describe myself. And as I write this blog, I’m sitting in a dressing room underneath a soundstage in Hollywood, waiting to step on to a set with actors that I grew up watching as a child. And that doesn’t seem out of the ordinary, doesn’t even excite me, really. It’s just a job. What does excite me is the fact that after I’m done on this soundstage, I’ll head to a small rehearsal studio in North Hollywood for a table read of a play that I wrote, and for the first time, I’ll hear the new draft out loud, read by a new cast of actors. Because the truth is, all of my time in Los Angeles –  all of the heartbreak and the hope –  has taught me who I am and who I want to be. And that person is someone who is no longer content to live inside someone else’s scenes, or play a part in someone else’s story. She wants to – and has already begun to – write her own.

Until next time, friends.

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Thirty-Six.

Every breaking wave on the shore/

Tells the next one there’ll be one more/

And every gambler knows that to lose/

Is what you’re really there for/

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Yesterday, I needed to see the ocean.

I was staring down the looming deadline to finish my script like the barrel of a gun, I had a to-do list a mile long, and the thought of sitting in Friday L.A. traffic on the way to and from the coast was more than enough to dissuade me from making the trip.

But I’ve also learned that when the voice inside me grows loud enough, it’s time to stop what I’m doing and listen.

Yesterday was my birthday. I turned thirty-six.

It wasn’t the splashy present I gave myself a year ago, when I splurged on an ocean front room for three nights at Laguna Beach’s luxurious Surf & Sand Resort. But that year, thirty-five, was different. I crawled to that birthday on my knees, having just returned to L.A. after spending several rain-soaked weeks in the tiny Washington town of Allyn, seeing my grandfather through hospice. I hadn’t even had the opportunity to process the enormity of his death when I learned that the company I’d worked at for eleven years (since the age of twenty-three) had been sold, and I now had a decision to make: should I pack up my life and move back to Seattle, taking the corporate job and the sure thing? Or should I stay in L.A., where everything stable in my life had crumbled, and face an uncertain future?

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Last December, I stared out at the Pacific Ocean and I knew:  my heart wanted to stay. I wasn’t finished in L.A., wasn’t finished doing all the things I said I would do here. And I worried that if I left, I might never come back.

So I chose the scary, uncertain path. And thus began my year of going off script.

It hasn’t been easy for me to spend an entire year of my life with no real structure or plan. See, I’m kind of meticulous when it comes to planning. I’m a list-maker. I’m Type A. At any given time, I’ve got at least two calendars going, and I’m constantly filling them with goals I want to meet, and things I want to do. You should see the “Notes” app in my iPhone. Yeesh.

But life has also taught me how meaningless plans are. That plans fail. That people die. That in an instant, everything can change. And that there’s no such thing as a “sure” thing.

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So, for the last three hundred and sixty-five (Sixty-six? Wasn’t this a Leap Year? I forget. February was so very long ago) days, I embarked on an interesting experiment. I stepped out on faith and found myself supported time and time again in ways that I didn’t expect. When I needed money, it came in. When I humbled myself enough to ask for help (another thing that’s hard for me), I received it. And when I needed a different way of looking at the world, new people came into my life who taught me things about myself that I didn’t even realize I needed to know.

I regret nothing about this past year. I’m glad that I took the leap. In fact, despite some dark spots, it was one of the best I’ve had in recent memory. I learned much about life and love and faith, and, most importantly, how vital it is to trust that quiet, persistent voice inside of me.

And it is because I have learned to trust that voice, that yesterday, as I stared out at the same ocean from a year ago, on a different piece of California coastline, I had to recognize what’s true:  I am no longer OK with going off script. I am a writer, and I need an outline. I need a rough draft, a canvas to work from, a piece of text that I can – and likely, will – ruthlessly edit. I need something more than just waiting for the universe to “show me the way.” It’s time to start making decisions, and taking the risk that those decisions will be wrong. It’s time to stop talking about all the things I’m going to do “someday” and start actually doing them.

It’s time. In fact, it’s beyond time. So here I go.

I’ll keep you posted.

Until next time, friends.

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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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November.

In the four years that I have been writing Extra Dry Martini (really, three years, with any regularity), I have never once posted about politics. I try to keep my subject matter non-partisan, because it’s important to me that this blog remains a safe and welcoming space for everyone who reads it. At times, keeping my impassioned opinions out of my writing has proven difficult, mostly because I am a politically minded person who comes from a politically minded family. My father, who, for better or for worse, taught me how to fight for what I believe in, was a ferociously liberal Irish Catholic Democrat who advocated for social justice, thought the Kennedys were Gods, and never (if I’m being totally honest), met a Republican that he liked very much (or at all).

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I had planned to write another blog post. A post that would commemorate this Friday’s one year anniversary of my beloved Grandfather’s passing with a joyful retrospective about embracing life, about celebrating all of the parts of him that live within me, and about looking toward a still uncertain future with optimism. But I can’t write that blog post. Not today. Because today, one day after a U.S. Presidential election that shocked the world, my heart has been cracked open and I simply can’t pretend to be anything other than consumed by an all-encompassing grief. And so, I am turning to the one thing – the only thing – that has seen me through in times of heartbreak: writing.

I don’t have the energy (or frankly, the desire) to engage in a political debate. The election is over. And though I did everything I could (OK, not everything, but a LOT) to help defeat the man who will become America’s next President, I sincerely hope that he succeeds. Because I want America to succeed. Because I love my country. And because I love my friends and my family and I want all of us – even those who disagree with me (sorry, Dad) – to be OK.

Although I have been politically minded my whole life (I vote in every election, no matter how small, or how local, and I am a serious geek when it comes to studying up on the issues), I never got involved in a political campaign in a meaningful way until this one. Partially because this has been my year of “if not now, when,” but primarily because I truly admire, respect and love my party’s nominee.

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For most of her political career (other than her tenure as Secretary of State), it has not been popular or cool to say that you admire, respect and love Hillary Clinton. And I think that might be the main reason why I admire, respect and love her so much. Because she is a woman who has succeeded in a man’s world. Because she is tough as nails and makes no apologies for her toughness. Because even as she has been consistently, relentlessly criticized by haters for things that have nothing to do with her experience or intellect – her lack of “likability,” her “shrill” voice, her pantsuits – she has spent her life trying to make the lives of those less fortunate than her better. And I admire, respect and love her because for all of those reasons (and for many others), my mother admired, respected and loved her, too.

So today, I am grieving. And I am missing my mother something fierce. But I am not a defeatist. While I am admittedly deeply concerned about the future of my country, I still hold on to hope. I hold on to the amazing human beings – volunteers, voters, and field organizers – that I met while knocking on doors to get out the vote in the battleground state of Nevada. I hold on to the fact that now that I have experienced what it’s like to be meaningfully involved in a political campaign, there’s no going back; I will continue to engage in public service for the rest of my life. And I hold on to the fact that – like my father – the fight within me is fierce, and I will keep that fight going for as long as I can, in all the ways that I can.

Don’t worry: Extra Dry Martini is not going to turn into a partisan blog. I am sure that, in the busy weeks and months that lie ahead, I will find plenty of other things to write about. But today, like so many of my fellow Americans, I am grieving. And if I have learned anything about grief it is this: you don’t heal from it by ignoring it. Sometimes, going all the way in is the only way to go.

Thanks for listening.

Until next time, friends.

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A thousand steps.

Raise my hands/

Paint my spirit gold/

And bow my head/

Keep my heart slow

– Mumford & Sons

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Thousand Steps was not as warm as we had hoped. After descending the many flights of steep stairs from Pacific Coast Highway all the way down to the beach, we found a spot near the shore and spread our towels out on the sand. But after just a few minutes, an enormous white cloud drifted overhead, blocking out the sun. As a cool breeze began to rise off the ocean, we could no longer deny it: it wasn’t exactly beach weather on this mid October day in South Laguna.

Rachel suggested moving to the north end of the beach and settling at the base of a bluff, in hopes that it would block out the wind. We did, and to my surprise, it worked. Stretching out across my striped beach towel, I suddenly felt warm again. And before long, the clouds parted and the sun’s rays fell across my face and sleep began to overtake me. I turned on my side to look at Rachel and laughed because she was already out, her chest rising and falling in peaceful rhythm.

I thought about my phone – all the way back at Rachel’s apartment where I had left it, because this was just supposed to be a quick “beach break” – and I felt my anxiety rise thinking about the texts and calls and emails I could be missing. There was a lot going on back in L.A., and even though I’d come here on a working vacation, I felt slightly guilty for making my escape in the midst of such a chaotic week. But my phone was too far away to retrieve: up that steep, steep flight of stairs (certainly nowhere near a thousand steps, but still enough that when you were climbing them, the name felt warranted), and then another few blocks away, and then up another hill. And besides, I was so tired. What the hell, I thought. I’ll just close my eyes for a minute. And so I did.

I’d been in Laguna Beach for two days, seeking respite from the constant construction noise rattling the foundation of my tiny one bedroom bungalow. The quiet and the ocean view certainly helped my productivity, as did the company; I couldn’t imagine a better work buddy than my college friend Rachel, a talented, hard-working creative director who’d spent years hustling in Nashville and New York. And while it felt good to be productive (two days in, I’d already completed a handful of freelance projects, returned a ton of pesky emails, and spent several hours diving into the next draft of my play War Stories), I knew that what was really important was all the stuff in between the work. After all, years from now, would I really remember the items I’d checked off my to do list, the projects I’d completed, the business I’d handled? I doubt it. What I would remember were the ways Rachel and I procrastinated doing that work, like the impromptu fashion show where she tried on her most impractical dresses, or the careful attention we paid to re-arranging her tea drawer, or the spectacular tangerine sunset we watched slipping below the Pacific, while we talked about our big life questions, the kind of questions that come with the territory when you’ve bid farewell to your old life but aren’t yet sure where your new one is taking you.

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Waking up from my nap, I rolled over and glanced at my friend. Still asleep. She needs it, I thought. I got up, stripped down to my swimsuit, and walked toward the ocean. The waves were cold and the surf was big, so at first I just tiptoed along the shoreline. But gradually I waded in deeper, up to my waist, and the waves rushed in faster and with a force, until one of them knocked me down. I got up, laughing, because I knew that somehow, I needed that, that wakeup call, that reminder not to take everything so seriously.

It has been six months since I left a full time job to strike out on my own. Six months, and I’m still no closer to having a plan, or any sort of long-term strategy. Instead, I’ve just been moving from moment to moment, experience to experience, freelance job to freelance job, with as much travel as I can manage in between. In the absence of a traditional job, people usually assume that I must have tons of free time on my hands, but in fact, the opposite is true: I am busier than I’ve ever been. Maybe it’s due to the fact that I’ve been filling my time with activities that I actually enjoy. Or maybe it’s because I’m moving more slowly these days, finally allowing myself to acknowledge the impact that the intense emotional trauma of the last few years has had on my body. Or maybe it’s just that – with an altered consciousness – I am feeling my life differently, aware of how rich and meaningful it is, and there simply never seems to be enough time to do all the things I want to do.

These past six months, I have often wondered how it’s possible to feel so light and so heavy, all at the same time. But as I wade through the waves, the powerful surf crashing around me, I know the answer: its just life. Tomorrow, I’ll head back to Los Angeles, and in the space of twenty-four hours, I’ll attend a remembrance for a friend who died suddenly and unexpectedly, work a volunteer event geared toward empowering teen girls, and celebrate the marriage of a dear friend. Light and heavy, all at the same time.

I don’t know this as I stand waist deep in the Pacific, staring out at the horizon, but tomorrow, as we gather in a small theater in Sherman Oaks to pay tribute to the friend gone far too soon, I’ll stand on the stage and speak words that will surprise me to hear myself say out loud, words about how this man inspired me and how I want to live my life differently because of him. And as I say them, I’ll know that they’re true. And later, another friend who I haven’t seen in awhile will tell me: “You’re a different person than you used to be, and that’s a good thing.” And I’ll realize that maybe it’s not so terrible to have these unanswered questions, and to live them, and to let life unfold as it will. Maybe I shouldn’t worry so much about where I’m going, or about what it all means. And maybe by simply taking those one thousand steps, one at a time, the future will take care of itself.

Until next time, friends.

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Valle de Bravo.

My driver, Jose Luis, laid on his horn, adding another angry beep to the chorus of honking as his black SUV inched along the gridlocked street toward the bus station. Finally, throwing up his hands in exasperation, he turned to me. “La estación de autobuses está aquí,” he said. I looked out the window in the direction he was pointing and saw a narrow gap between two chain link fences, and in the distance beyond it, a row of buses. Even though my knowledge of Spanish was virtually non-existent, I understood what he meant: in this traffic, this was as close as we were going to get.

“Get out here?” I asked. “La estación está aquí,” he repeated, looking at me like the dumb American I felt like. I didn’t need him to tell me again. I grabbed my bag and jumped out of the car, just before the vehicles that had been at a standstill in front of us began to move. “Hasta luego,” he called, delighted – I was sure – to be rid of me.

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A half an hour later, after having hungrily scarfed down two chicken tacos my twenty-one-year-old niece, Nora, ordered for me from a street vendor, I settled into my seat in the back of a commuter bus and proceeded to recount the story of that morning’s harrowing Uber ride. Jose Luis, obviously confused as to why a Gringa like me would want to leave her fancy hotel in Polanco for the crowded Metro Observatorio bus station, called a friend for help. “English,” he insisted, thrusting the phone into my hand. But “Becky,” the woman on the other line, was not only unhelpful, she asked me such strangely personal questions that I began to wonder if this whole thing was a shakedown. And as the SUV pushed further into the sprawling, unfamiliar city, I alternated between frantically texting Nora and wondering if I should bail out of the car.

Nora, on the other hand, seemed completely unfazed by the series of events I described. “If you were looking for a relaxing vacation,” she quipped, in between making me a cheat sheet of common words and phrases she titled ‘Spanish for Dummies,’ “You came to the wrong place.”

No kidding, I thought. I had been in the Ciudad de Mexico for less than twenty-four hours and already I had wondered numerous times what I had gotten myself into. I wondered it after awkwardly stumbling through immigration and receiving a stern scolding from the customs agent for filling out my paperwork incorrectly. I wondered it after fending off a strange man at the airport who offered to “help” me with my luggage. I wondered it after I realized that my naïve (and lazy) assumption that traveling to a global, world city meant that everyone would speak English was acutely incorrect. And I wondered it the night before, when Nora casually informed me over dinner that a student from her university had just been kidnapped, shortly before my arrival.

And now here I was, wondering it again, as the city faded from view and our bus plunged deeper and deeper into the Mexican countryside. As the scenery grew more remote, my iPhone reported back that there was “No Service,” and I switched it into airplane mode to preserve the battery, silently cursing myself for leaving the charger behind at my hotel.

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About two hours after departing the Metro Observatorio, we descended into the pueblo of Valle de Bravo, a picturesque town on the shore of Lake Avándaro. As the bus navigated through curving cobblestone streets, there was no denying the charm and beauty of the remote village. And as we pulled into the tiny depot and climbed out of the bus, there was also no denying that myself, Nora, and Nora’s two college friends – Americans and Canadians, all – were definitely, obviously, not from here.

There is a story I like to tell myself. The story is that I’m brave and fearless and a real badass. But that story is, sadly, untrue. What is actually true is that I’m afraid of everything, all of the time. More often than not, when I do something that other people consider to be brave, it’s only because I jump into it quickly, without thinking about the consequences, before my rational brain has a chance to talk me out of it.

Mexico City was like that. If I had taken the time to do my research, or had considered the size and scope of the city, with its population of twenty-two million (!!!) people, or had heeded the concerns voiced by friends and family about reports of foreigners being kidnapped, and drug trafficking, and police corruption, I probably never would have gone there. But all I really thought about was that my beloved niece was studying there on exchange from her university in Montreal, and visiting her sounded like a fun thing to do.

And now that I was in Mexico, I was along for the ride, and my travel companions to Valle de Bravo – as it turned out – were much braver than I was. Which I suppose is how I found myself, in spite of my tremendous fear of heights, saying yes when asked if I wanted to see “the best view in town.” An hour into a hike that was supposed to take “twenty minutes,” our foursome arrived at a small house at the base of a mountain, and was greeted by a man charging five pesos to climb to the summit of La Peña. So we paid him, and continued to climb stone steps along a densely forested pathway, ascending further and further, my body covered in sweat from the humidity and the exertion, my legs shaking with every view of Lake Avándaro, each one higher than the last.

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I stopped just below the summit, knowing my limits, knowing that the open-air plateau high above the sea would trigger in me a near paralysis-inducing vertigo. So I hung back and sheltered in a cave just below the top, while the other girls clambered over boulders to reach La Peña’s highest point. And while I waited, keeping a careful eye on a giant spider spinning a web nearby, minutes feeling like hours, I suddenly heard a loud “Boom!” and looked up nervously toward the increasingly darkening sky. “Boom!” There it was again. There was no doubt about it: that was thunder, which meant that lightning couldn’t be far behind.

“Guys?” I called. I checked my phone: 6:00 PM. The last bus back to Mexico City left in one hour, but at this point, we had more important things to worry about. “Guys,” I called again, unsure if they could even hear me. “We really need to go.”

And go we did, a few minutes later, trudging down the hill as fast as our legs could carry us. And soon the lighting flashed and the rain came down in sheets, soaking us to the skin. We found shelter at a fruit stand at the base of the mountain, huddling beneath an umbrella while we waited for a taxi. And though taxis were strictly off limits for us foreign girls in Mexico City – because of, you know, kidnapping – we decided it would be OK here because we were in Valle de Bravo and there were four of us, and besides, we didn’t have a choice in the matter anyway, not if we wanted to make it back to the station in time to catch the last bus back to the city.

Seventy two hours after that rain storm in Valle de Bravo, feeling – there’s no other word for it – elated to be back in Los Angeles, I wheeled my suitcase up to a customs agent at LAX’s Tom Bradley International terminal and handed him my passport.

“And where are you coming from?” he asked.

“Mexico City,” I replied, surprising myself at the pride I heard coming through my voice.

“Vacation?”

“Yeah.”

“Welcome home,” he said, smiling, handing me back my passport. And I returned his smile with a genuine smile of my own. Because I was happy. Happy to be home, of course, but also happy that I taken the trip in the first place.

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The scary moments during my trip to Mexico didn’t end after that day in Valle de Bravo. In fact, I could write an entire blog post about the madness of the metro: the crush of people and the constant pushing and shoving, the women-only subway cars (implemented for safety), the machine gun-toting police officers, the Saturday afternoon encounter with a man who was high as a kite, lurching and leering, the young Mexican girl – who couldn’t have been older than twelve – who warned Nora and I to “Be careful,” because the subway stop we were heading to was “Very dangerous.”

So yes, there were scary moments. But there were also great ones. And if I hadn’t gone to Mexico City, I never would have experienced them. I never would have marveled at the stunning turquoise waters of Lake Avándaro from high above Valle de Bravo. I never would have absorbed the art and culture and history of a nearly three-hour mural tour through the city center led by Nora’s employer, Street Art Chilango. I never would have met David, the charming artisan at Coyoacán market who sold me a beautiful leather journal made by his own hands, and who, when Nora told him that I was a writer, insisted that I write something for him (and I did!).

And most importantly, if I hadn’t gone to Mexico City, I never would have spent four amazing days with my niece. I never would have witnessed, first hand, the way that she’s thriving, both in her life and in her art, and the incredible woman she is becoming as she is immersing herself in a language and a culture that are both entirely new.

The story that I like to tell myself is that I’m a badass. The truth is, I’m not. I’m afraid of almost everything, almost all of the time. And there were many moments during my visit to Mexico City where I had a reason to be afraid. But I also had a reason to go there. Because life is worth experiencing. And adventures are worth having. And without a little fear, can we ever, truly, have either one?

Until next time, friends.

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White Butterflies.

And I want to keep us all alive

And I want to see you with my eyes

But I see you in the fireflies

And how extraordinary . . .

Is that?

– From the song, “Light Me Up” by Ingrid Michaelson

I was sleeping when the call came. Not quite sleeping, but not yet awake either. Drifting in and out of dreams, dreaming of things far off and beautiful, dreaming of a life different than my own.

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I heard the phone ringing in my dream too, then realized, as one does when a pleasant reverie is interrupted by the nagging insistence of the real world, that this was not actually a dream, but my cell phone, cutting through the sleepy Sunday morning with its persistent staccato. “What in the hell?” I muttered, annoyed at being pulled away from the comfort of my bed and the hazy, lovely world I inhabited there. I stumbled into the next room and found my phone where I’d left it the night before, on top of a chest of drawers.

I listened, confused, to the voicemail from my Aunt Sandy. Why was she calling me? Why was she crying? “Call me back,” she urged, her voice breaking, “Or call your father. It’s an emergency.”

I chose to dial home. It’s a decision I would later live to regret. I heard a click on the other end of the line, the receiver being lifted, strange voices echoing through my parents’ house, someone handing the telephone to my father, who was frail, hard of hearing, ill with cancer. Finally, his low, gravelly voice: “Sar?”

“Dad?” I asked, panic rising in my throat and threatening to choke out the words. “What’s going on?”

“Mom’s dead.”

And everything went black.

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I will probably always mark September 23rd as a sad anniversary. From that dark day in 2012 onward, it will forever be known to me as the day I learned that my mother, Anne Popelka Kelly – my best friend, my first phone call, my most important person – was gone. Her passing was my first real experience with death, and, though there have been many others since, hers remains – for me – the most significant.

There are few things I haven’t tried, in the four years since her death, to assuage a tremendous ocean of grief. I have consulted astrologers and tarot readers. I have purchased – and barely opened – an embarrassing number of self-help books. I have seen therapists. I have tried (and abandoned) nearly every feel-good remedy, every exercise regimen, every diet. I have consumed a revolting amount of whiskey and wine and cigarettes. I have run countless miles in bad shoes on blistered feet.

I don’t think there’s any feeling heavier than guilt, any destination harder to reach than forgiveness. But if I’ve learned anything about grief in these last four years, it’s this: you cannot possibly begin to heal without releasing the first and embracing the second. I was closer to my mother than anyone else in this world, but for the past four years, I have carried a crippling amount of guilt and shame over the fact that I saw her spiraling into a black pit of despair and addiction, and stood by, watching it happen. I knew I was losing her months before she was actually lost, but not knowing what to do, I did nothing.

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It may seem counterintuitive, but it was actually another experience with death that allowed me to turn the corner on my grief. Last October, I learned that my mother’s father, my sweet Grandpa Gerry, was abruptly, terminally, ill, his doctor giving him a timeline of a mere thirty days left to live. Without thinking, I put everything else on hold and traveled back to Washington State to help with his hospice care.

For the first time in my thirty-five years, I sat with someone as they faced the end of their life, and I felt the power of a love so enormous that all my fears about what would happen to me became secondary to my desire to provide my grandfather with the care and comfort that he needed. If there is such a thing as a “good” death, he had it, and his peaceful passing filled me not only with profound gratitude, but also with an unexpected surge of hope that the world could still be a good and decent place, as well as a fierce determination to not waste any more time punishing myself for a past that had already been written.

By the time I got to that July afternoon, two months ago, sitting across from the psychic medium Fleur in her sun-filled Los Angeles living room, I knew that the weight I had saddled myself with was simply too heavy to carry anymore. And so, when Fleur told me that my mother wanted me to forgive myself, that I couldn’t have altered or changed her death in any way, I chose to believe her. And when she told me that my mother was proud of me, that she was always with me, and that she sent me white butterflies as a sign to let me know that she was thinking of me, I chose to believe that, too. And I’ll tell you something: before that day, I can’t ever remember seeing a white butterfly. But now, I see them all the time. Almost every day.

I’m still sad that I couldn’t save my mother. I probably always will be. But maybe we can’t save anyone. Maybe we can only love them. And forgive them. And forgive ourselves. And maybe, by doing that, we can – to paraphrase the words of my favorite poet, Mary Oliver – save the only life we ever really can: our own.

Until next time, friends.

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