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 other 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.

These past four years, I have journeyed through each of the stages of grief, and have become well acquainted with all of them. It took me a while to get to anger, but finally, I arrived there too. In January of 2015, almost possessed by that anger, I wrote a blog post called Things my mother never did. Nearly two years later, it remains the most liked and shared piece of writing I have ever published, which tells me two things: One, there is something in the raw, desperate place I was in when I wrote it that people connect to, and Two, I’m not the only one out there who has “Mom” issues.

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 these last four years, it’s this: you cannot possibly begin to heal without releasing the first one 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 just 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 (an experience I documented here, here, and here).

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 of 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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Where I Write: The Getty Center.

At 12:27 p.m. on Friday, September 9th, I find a parking spot on the third level of the subterranean garage and open my car door to be greeted by an oppressive wall of heat, the humidity wrapping itself around me as I quickly head for the exit, for higher ground, for cooler air. I take the elevator three flights up, disembark, and approach the bag check line. I open the canvas tote that’s slung over my shoulder, allowing a man in a polo shirt to briefly scan its contents, and then join a small – blissfully so, now that it’s after Labor Day – group of people waiting on the open air platform. The tram arrives and I claim a spot in the back, trying to settle into a comfortable position against the seat’s hard plastic. My limbs are sore from yesterday’s punishing kickboxing class, and my brain whirs from a sleepless night and an early wake up call to complete a project deadline. In truth, there’s so much work waiting for me at home – half-finished projects, a never-ending to-do list, my own personal writing deadlines – that I feel a bit like a delinquent child playing hooky from school, both giddy and guilty about this afternoon escape. But as the train climbs the hill, making its slow ascent toward the summit, a palpable sense of relief rushes through me. No matter how busy I am, I know that I need this.

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Last month, in August, I hit my seventeenth anniversary of living in Los Angeles. Seventeen years. That’s essentially half my life, and longer than I’ve lived anywhere. I suppose there’s no denying it: for better or for worse, I am an Angeleno. And today, needing a brief respite from the hectic pace of this city and the life I live within it, I’ve come here, to my favorite sanctuary high up on a hill: the Getty Center.

If you’re a regular reader of Extra Dry Martini, you’ve probably noticed that mentions of the Getty – with its stunning grounds and gardens and sweeping views of Los Angeles – show up fairly often in my blog posts. I’ve been visiting the museum ever since I moved to L.A. all the way back in 1999, when I was a baby-faced college freshman, newly arrived from a small town in Washington State. And though things have changed dramatically for me over these last seventeen years, the Getty is one part of my L.A. life that has remained a constant.

I’ve come here on New Year’s Day, watching the first sunset of the year set the sky on fire. I’ve come here during the high heat of summer, seeking shade underneath flowering trees in the Japanese garden. I’ve come here when I’ve felt happy, come here when I’ve felt sad, come here when I’ve had something to celebrate, and come here when I’ve been at my lowest, needing to have my sense of possibility restored.

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I often come to the Getty when I want to feel close to my mother – including one trip two years ago on the anniversary of her death that I documented on this blog – because she loved the place every bit as much as I do. She loved the lush, tranquil gardens, the natural light and open spaces that float between the solid and sure travertine stone columns, the small but expertly-curated collection of Impressionist paintings, including its crown jewel: Van Gogh’s Irises, with such vibrantly textured lavender petals and emerald green leaves that I never grow tired of gazing at it.

When it comes to writing, I believe that reflection is just as important as action, and that in order to keep creativity flowing, we must take time to consume words and images other than our own. It’s a concept that Julia Cameron, author of the book The Artist’s Way, calls “filling the well.”

Fortunately, the Getty provides ample space for both, so before I settle in to put pen to paper, I take some time to wander the museum’s galleries and grounds. I get lost in an evocative collection of paintings on loan from the Tate – appropriately titled London Calling – and then am transported to 19th Century France via a black and white photography exhibit called Real/Ideal.

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Exiting the West Pavilion, I pause for a moment at one of the Getty’s many vantage points overlooking the city. As I stare down at this vast, sprawling metropolis, at the traffic inching along the 405 freeway, I can’t help feeling a surge of pride that a small town girl from the Pacific Northwest could come here, to Los Angeles, to the place of movies and dreams, and make it her own. And though L.A. can be brutal (and has at times, been brutal to me), I can’t help but love it, perhaps because of its brutality, perhaps in the same way that a gladiator, bloody and bruised though he may be, loves the arena.

Even when crowded, you can almost always find a quiet space at the Getty in which to write, whether it’s a shaded table tucked away in a corner of the outdoor plaza or a bench in an overlooked section of one of the art galleries. But my favorite place to write is always the breezy open-air terrace, perched above the garden and adjacent to the café. So when I’m finally ready to put pen to paper, that is where I go, choosing the most private table that I can find.

I have several writing projects in the works, but this afternoon isn’t about projects or deadlines. It’s more internal, more introspective. I pull out a brightly colored hard cover notebook recently gifted to me by a friend, called the “Letting Go Journal,” (something I’m actively trying to do these days), the pages of which are peppered with inspirational quotes on that very topic. I flip to the first page and the saying from Andy Warhol printed there makes me chuckle. Yeah, I think. So what? And as the soft September breeze meanders across the terrace, its cooler winds an early indicator that summer is pressing onward toward fall, I begin to write. That afternoon, I will fill the pages of my journal with things that I won’t tell you, with things that I won’t tell anyone, because – for a few hours at least – on this perfect late summer day, this time is just for me.

Until next time, friends.

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Falling or Flying.

There was nothing particularly special about that Wednesday, other than the fact that it was the day that I would drive my Grandfather’s old powder blue Honda CR-V along curving country highways, eventually leading to a bridge, and that I’d drive over that bridge, and I’d cross that body of water, and then, once on the other side, I’d go to a business meeting, followed by a much-anticipated dinner with a dear friend. There was nothing particularly special about the minute or so that I’d spend up high, suspended over water, moving fast. After all, I’d done it dozens and dozens of times before. There was nothing special about it at all, except for the fact that it terrified me, and the night before I was due to make that drive, I couldn’t sleep, and I rose early, well before the sun came up.

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In retrospect, the details of how I crossed that bridge don’t seem all that important. What is important is that I had to do it, and so, I did. I did it even though my palms sweat and my heart raced and my legs were wobbly and strangely on fire. I turned up the song on the radio, and I focused on the exhale and the inhale of my breath, and I thought about how Mount Rainier – standing strong and snowcapped and stunning just out my driver’s side window – felt like an old friend. And before I knew it, I was over that bridge, and I had steered Grandpa’s car from the highway on to the crush of Interstate-5, and I was relieved.

The next day, on the way to meet some friends for lunch, I followed different winding country highways to Olympia, the town where I went to high school, the town where I’d learned to drive, the town where I’d first dreamed my biggest dreams and made the plans that sent me to Los Angeles to pursue them. And this time, I felt better, almost normal, in fact, because the sun was shining and the water was sparkling and I felt happy. And I barely thought about that other time, that December, driving those exact same roads, hurtling through the darkness, Dad next to me, drifting in and out of consciousness, the wind pummeling my mother’s SUV and the rain spitting buckets, so much rain that the windshield wipers couldn’t keep up, and I gripped the steering wheel with everything I had just to keep us on the road, all the while stealing glances at my father, wondering if he was sleeping or dying, saying a silent prayer with every mile marker we passed, because every mile brought us closer to home, even though it wasn’t home any more, not since Mom died, not since Dad got sick.

I came of age driving Washington State’s rural highways, snaking over waterways and crossing bridges and winding through forests, so how could it be that the thing that raised me had now become the thing that frightened me? I suppose that’s the power of post traumatic stress, the way that it can shake you and alter your consciousness, making you feel like a stranger in your own body, making you doubt everything you thought you knew. I’m not a solider. I’ve never served in the military. But I’ve been to war. And I won; or at least I think that I have. But on some days, and in some ways, those battles still rage on.

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I recently told a friend that I didn’t think I’d ever feel safe again. The remark was off the cuff and meant to be a sort of joke, but in truth, I meant it. My whole life, I’ve struggled with anxiety, but I didn’t know how to name it, or how to talk about it. Instead, I tried to control it, to deny it, to tamp it down. And for a while, I was convinced that I had beaten my fears into submission. But then along came a tornado of tragedy, a violent storm of death and loss that quickly and swiftly eviscerated my carefully constructed façade that I was brave and strong and that I had it all together.

The storm taught me that nothing in life is certain, a scary prospect for a control freak like myself. But it also taught me that the only way out is through, and that if I don’t want my fears to control me, I have to surrender to them, to walk into them, and to thank them for being here, for reminding me of what’s important.

I had been staying at the beach for almost a week when something rather strange happened. I was paddling around Case Inlet, soothed by saltwater, utterly tranquil, when not far away, a curious seal popped his head above the water. He stared at me and I stared back at him, and before logic or reason could intervene, I began to swim towards him. Sensing a threat, he dove beneath the surface of the water. But I kept on swimming, and as I did, I made my voice a song and cast it out across the sea. “Hello, Mr. Seal,” I said. “Don’t worry, I won’t hurt you.” And he seemed to understand, because he popped his head above the surface again, and froze there for a minute, just looking at me.

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This went on for several minutes, our water dance, the diving and re-emerging, both of us circling each other, watching, considering, keeping a safe distance but drawing ever closer. I wondered what he made of me, this strange fish in black and white bikini bottoms and ruby red rash guard and faded orange swim fins. And when we were quite close to each other, he dove under again, and as I treaded water, looking for him, I suddenly realized something: I was a long way from shore, and I was alone, and in the murky saltwater, clouded up as it was by sand and seaweed, I wouldn’t be able to see the seal coming, wouldn’t know where he’d emerge next, and if he decided to attack me, or bite me, or pull me under the water, I wouldn’t be able to escape.

And there it was, that fear again, pulsing through my veins like a jolt of ice water. I turned toward the shore and I swam as fast as I could, legs pumping, swim fins slicing though the bay. And several moments later I turned back and I saw my seal again, further away now, but still watching me. He cast one last curious glance my way – a sort of sad farewell – and then turned to swim off in the opposite direction. And in that moment, I knew that he had never meant to hurt me, just like I had never meant to hurt him.

I’m a realist. I know that I’ll never fully be free from the fears that plague my worried mind. On some days, I feel pretty good, like I could do just about anything. And on other days, like the Wednesday when I drove over that bridge, it was all I could do just to get through it. I used to think that soldiering on and suffering in silence was brave. It’s not. It only makes the fear worse. What is brave is being vulnerable enough to talk about the places that scare me, and to run the risk that by telling you that sometimes, when I’m driving my car on the freeway, I feel like I’m moving so fast I won’t be able to stop and I’ll fly through the windshield and hurtle into space, that you’ll think I’m crazy and irrational. And maybe you will. But then again, maybe you won’t. Maybe you’ll read this and think, “Oh my God, I thought I was the only one,” and you’ll realize – as I’m realizing – that none of us are truly ever alone in this strange and beautiful experiment we call life.

Can we ever really know if we’re falling or flying? I’m not sure. But maybe the answer to that question is simple. Maybe it’s the ones who decide to fly – in spite of their fears – that are the ones who do.

Until next time, friends.

Sarah Black and White

Grateful.

Friends, I’d like you to meet Rick Lewis and his wife, Karrin.

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Rick dated my Mom in high school and on July 20, 1969, they watched Neil Armstrong become the first man to walk on the moon, through a black and white satellite feed broadcast from space, on a tiny TV set at my Grandparents’ beach cabin in Allyn, WA; the same waterfront paradise where I’ve been staying for the past week.

After my mother died, Rick found me (ahem, Facebook stalked me) and became my pen pal, but we only met in person for the first time yesterday. He hadn’t been out to the beach since that moon landing, nearly fifty years ago. But yesterday afternoon, on a perfect August day, he and his wife came by and piloted their boat toward shore and I jumped in, and we spent the afternoon telling stories and laughing and drinking wine and eating tapas and cruising around Case Inlet, the same body of water that my mother loved her whole life, the same body of water where two summers ago, my Aunt and Uncle and I climbed into a little tin boat and went out to sea to scatter her ashes.

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These last few weeks have been a wildly euphoric magic carpet ride, capped by such an incredibly special week at the beach with my family. I almost can’t believe how wonderful it all has been, so much so that I haven’t even really been able to sleep, probably because part of me is afraid this is all some sort of crazy dream.

As I write this, I’m crying, because being this happy has made me realize that I think I’d given up on the idea that I ever would be again. I thought the old Sarah, the sunshine-eyed girl that my Dad used to teasingly call Polyanna, was gone forever. Not because I’m a negative person – quite the opposite – but because for so long everything good seemed to be followed up by something horrifying and tragic and I had spent years crushed underneath the weight of so much sorrow and grief and pain that I simply couldn’t see my way out of it.

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I don’t know if it’s God or angels or magic or karma or what, but whatever force is at work in me now, I am just so grateful, grateful, grateful. I didn’t know my heart had the capacity to hold so much joy, but at 35 years old, it feels like I’m finally waking up to the beauty of what it means to be alive.

If you’re going through something, please hold on. Do it for me. Just over a year ago, I was crying so much I developed a paranoid fear of dying from dehydration (doesn’t that sound stupid and hilarious now?), and I was so achingly sad that out of desperation, I started writing myself “Get Well Soon” cards, putting them in the mail, and sending them to myself. I have been to the brink, and I have known real darkness, and somehow, some way, I came out the other side. And life is better and more beautiful than anything I could have ever dreamed. If I can get here from there, then trust me, so can you. Nothing is permanent in this life, my friends, not even our troubles. Believe that. I am living proof.

Until next time,

xx

Sarah

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Lucky.

“Letting there be room for not knowing is the most important thing of all. When there’s a big disappointment, we don’t know if that’s the end of the story. It may just be the beginning of a great adventure. Life is like that. We don’t know anything. We call something bad; we call it good. But really we just don’t know.”

― Pema Chödrön

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The other day, I realized I was happy. When the feeling visited me, I wasn’t doing anything particularly remarkable. I was sitting on my patio, reading a novel, drinking tea, the summer sun sinking low on the horizon, and I looked up and saw a monarch butterfly alight on the hedge near my outstretched foot. And as I watched her pause there, briefly, I realized something that was remarkable:  in that moment, I didn’t want to be anywhere else. And I thought to myself:  I am lucky.

I have spent years chasing that elusive thing that people call “happiness.” Running off to Europe or running into therapy. Retreating to island hideaways in the South Pacific or in the Pacific Northwest. Trying every diet, every exercise regimen, every “feel good” prescription from self-help books to spiritual counseling to many, many failed attempts at mindfulness and meditation.

At times, I found that thing that I was seeking. I found it in the breach of a Humpback whale in the sapphire waters off Maui; or at the top of Malá Strana, gazing down with wonder on the red tiled rooftops of Prague; or in the cards of an eighty-six-year-old Tarot reader named Miss Irene in the back of a Voodoo shop in New Orleans.

But whenever those moments came, I always had the sense that – beautiful as they were – they weren’t meant to last. I had worked so hard to chase them down that it was almost as though I brought them into existence by the sheer force of my own will. And then, as quickly as they arrived, they were gone. Inevitably, the old familiar ache and its accompanying emptiness returned, followed by the persistent question, “Why, after all this time, don’t I feel any better?”

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I suppose that when I finally stopped running, I did so simply out of sheer exhaustion. I was tired of working so hard for so long with so little to show for it. And I was tired of trying to fake it to make it. As my therapist at the time told me, “Sarah, sometimes, there are situations in life that can’t be fixed or made better. Sometimes there’s just nothing you can do.”

Shortly thereafter – after said beloved therapist took a new job and relocated to Oregon (sob) – life handed me just that:  the opportunity to do nothing. To take a break, to slow down, and to take some real time off. And I took it. And it is in this pause that I found something I wasn’t able to find in all of the running and searching and seeking:  I found comfortable footing upon the ground of uncertainty. I found that sometimes, it’s O.K. to be lost.

As I finish this blog post, I’m sitting on the patio of my one-bedroom bungalow on Cashio Street, the sunset casting its tangerine glow on the terra cotta tiles beneath my bare feet. I love this little cottage, love the way it fell into my lap when I needed it the most, love the way its four walls have sheltered me and kept me safe, allowing me to rebuild after everything around me had been smashed and shattered. But I also know – as I have always known – that this isn’t a forever place. It’s merely a rest stop – albeit a delightful one – on the way to something better.

But for now, for this moment, everything is perfect. Everything is exactly what I need. And the knowledge that I can be so at peace with not knowing what’s coming next, that I don’t need to know, is the biggest indicator of all that something powerful within me has begun to shift. And I wonder if maybe the thing that I was searching for so intently wasn’t happiness, after all. Maybe the thing that I was searching for was faith.  Not faith in the traditional, religious sense, but instead, faith in myself. Faith that no matter the challenge or change, I’ll be able to meet it head on. Faith that, after having been through the storm, and after having come out the other side, I’m stronger than I was before. Faith that no matter what happens, I’ll be O.K.

Until next time, friends.

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