Clerkenwell.

“This is one moment, /

But know that another/

Shall pierce you with a sudden painful joy.”

– T.S. Eliot

I’m not sure why I took the long way down to Farringdon Road, rather than the shortcut off of Clerkenwell and over Herbal Hill – a narrow street barely bigger than an alley – to get to my old flat on Crawford Passage. I told myself it was because I wanted to see everything, see the whole of the neighborhood, see how much it had changed in the fifteen years since I’d lived there. But really, I have no idea why I did it, other than the mere fact that I felt like it. It was just one of a million tiny little decisions, the kind we make all day long.

I had already been walking for quite a while. I’d turned around an embarrassing number of times trying to find my way to the British Museum from the Holborn tube station. I’d even gone the wrong way down Great Russell Street – a street I used to know so well – before finally finding that familiar buttercream façade, with its elegantly ornamented sign displaying the number 99. All the late nights I’d spent there, in that study center where I took my classes, holed up in the basement computer lab checking emails (before the invention of the iPhone), writing papers, and booking tickets for my next weekend getaway. Because back then, as a twenty-one-year old college student living in London, there always seemed to be – every weekend – somewhere to go.

But by the time I found my way to Theobald’s Road and walked down it until it became Clerkenwell – the same walk I used to take, years ago, at least four times per week – I had recovered my bearings. There was new construction along the route, and many of the shops and businesses had changed, but it was still the same road, still familiar, still felt like home.

And suddenly there it was: the old shortcut over Herbal Hill down to my flat at Crawford House. But this time, I didn’t want to take it. I wanted to keep walking.

I came to the intersection of Clerkenwell Road and Farringdon, and turned left to round the corner. And that’s when I saw them. Bouquets of flowers – faded roses and Stargazer lilies – duct taped to a light post. As I drew closer, I saw that there were also cards; handwritten notes filled with words of love and loss and grief, all made out to one person: “Claire.” A memorial.

Held in place by my own morbid curiosity, I read what was written there. Words that you’d expect, about a loved one who would always be missed and who was gone too soon. But then, taped to a bouquet of wilted pink tulips, there it was. A carefully written note, that, as I read, I am quite certain, I forgot to breathe:

To family and friends,

Take comfort that she did not suffer in pain. Nothing will make this accident less senseless, but I want you to know that she did not die alone or abandoned. Many people did everything they could to save her. It was tragic and happened so quickly but she was surrounded by people who tried and who stayed.

From,

One of those people.

As I continued my walk down Farringdon Road, past St. Paul’s Cathedral, down toward the Thames, the same path I used to take when I went for my morning runs along the river, I couldn’t stop the tears from falling. But I wasn’t crying for Claire. I didn’t even know her, didn’t know what had happened to her. I was crying because life can seem so senseless. Because it can shift so suddenly. Because in an instant, everything can change.

I often think of the months that I spent in London as some of the happiest of my life. I was young and carefree. I could do and be anything that I wanted. Life was exhilarating then, full of hope and possibility. I had never known real tragedy, never known real fear.

So maybe that’s why, last week, I decided to take the long way down Farringdon Road. Maybe there is no such thing as chance, no tiny decisions we make that mean nothing. Because afraid as I am of all the things I can’t yet know, it was the tragic death of a stranger, and the strangers who didn’t know her but who cared for her all the same, that reminded me that life’s uncertainty is not a thing to be feared. That it is the knowledge of how fleeting and fragile life is, that is what makes it so beautiful.

If you live long enough, life will break your heart. Mine has been broken again and again since those carefree days in London. I am no longer the girl who lived there, in fact, I barely even recognize her. But even if I could, I wouldn’t go back and rewrite my history. I wouldn’t change what’s past. I wouldn’t remove any of the scars. Because the scars are what make me. And as it turns out, I like who I’ve become. Broken heart and all.

As I carried on, over Blackfriars Bridge, over the Thames, I thought about how lucky I am. I thought about what a thing it is, just to be alive. And I thought about the fact that for as long as I could keep going – through all the fear and uncertainty – there was only one direction left to travel.

Onward.

Until next time, friends.

Le Marais.

The more you see the less you know
The less you find out as you go
I knew much more then t
han I do now

 Neon heart, day-glo eyes
The city lit by fireflies
They’re advertising in the skies
For people like us

 – “City of Blinding Lights” by the band, U2

Today is my last full day in Paris. As much-anticipated voyages tend to do, this trip has gone quickly. I’m writing this dispatch from the sweet little apartment I rented in Le Marais: a small but well-appointed flat tucked away in an historic old building on Rue des Tournelles. As I sit near the window of my third-floor walkup, occasionally glancing out at the romantic cobblestone courtyard, I realize that though I’m still here, I’m already leaving. I find myself struggling to remain present and enjoy this moment, even as my mind drifts back to London, where tomorrow, my train departing Gare du Nord will take me, and then further afield, where my plane departing Heathrow will carry me back across the Atlantic, back to Los Angeles, where life is waiting.

I didn’t do nearly as much writing as I had planned on this trip, but I did do a lot of thinking. Thinking and daydreaming and exploring and meandering. All the things you’re supposed to do in Paris. I drank double espressos and delicious Bordeaux and ate decadent deserts and filled my (wine-stained) journal with pages full of what is probably mostly nonsense but might also contain a few kernels of good ideas, like the beginnings of a new one-act play, the outline of an essay, and some sketches of new scenes for War Stories.

I spent an entire day at my beloved Musée d’Orsay, taking as much time as I wanted, and realizing in the process that though I’d always considered Van Gogh to be my favorite Impressionist – owing to his textured, swirling brushstrokes – this time it was Renoir who drew me in and held me. How had I never appreciated the dreaminess of his palette, especially the blues? I sank into royals, teals, aquamarines and sapphires like some sort of soothing bath, and the warmth and light he seemed to infuse into all his work made me feel settled and safe.

It turned out that the Marais neighborhood was the perfect place for me to land. Call it a lucky guess via Airbnb. Centrally located and a mere stone’s throw from the Bastille Métro station, it is easy to get everywhere from here. And yet it still feels like a local’s spot, crammed with charming cafes and boutiques, a place where I don’t feel like I’m on constant high alert for pickpockets the same way that I do in the more heavily trafficked tourist areas.

It is still early here, on this Thursday morning, so once I finish writing I plan to walk down to the Seine, cross its banks, and spend some time at a bookstore that charmed me the day after I arrived: Shakespeare and Company. I know: an English language bookstore in Paris. How gauche, right? But the truth is, its appeal is less about the fact that it carries books in my native tongue and more about the fact that it embraces a deep love of all things literary, feeling like some sort of quaint, rustic, cozy old library that I could spend hours browsing in. After all, I did come to Paris for inspiration. So, who am I to judge where that inspiration comes from?

I find myself leaving Paris just as I’m getting the hang of things here. Just as I’ve figured out the right touch on my apartment’s finicky Nespresso machine, or that the building’s stairwell has a timed light switch, so that I don’t have to climb the three flights back up to my flat in the dark. I’ve only just figured out which cafes I want to try and the fastest shortcut through the neighborhood to Place des Vosges and how to order my meals in (semi-confident) French.

And though there were many things about this much-anticipated return to Paris that I expected, there were some that I did not. Like the wonderful afternoon I spent with a new friend (introduced to me by London host), who gave me the loveliest historical tour of Le Marais. Or the buskers on my train to Tuileries who played the liveliest set of New Orleans style jazz. Or the fact that I – surprising myself – felt compelled to light a candle at the Église Saint Germain de Prés and thought about my mother and felt just a little bit better.

But even in Paris, there are reminders of what awaits me at home. While I’ve been away, I received the exciting news that a website averaging thirty million (!) unique visitors per month wants to republish one of my posts from this blog and share it with their readers. Of course – after asking them a few questions – I agreed. And I must admit, receiving that email was a good feeling; some much-needed encouragement that even in this transitory period of life, I’m on the right track.

One more day in Paris. And then – now that I’ve (finally) adjusted to the time difference – one more weekend in London that will be, blissfully, jetlag-free. And then it’s back to L.A. Back to sort out all of those pressing, challenging, exhilarating, life questions. Ready or not, here I come. That is – I mean – after just a few more days away. . .

Until next time, friends.

The beginning.

“some people,
when they hear
your story,
contract.
others,
upon hearing
your story,
expand.
and
this is how
you
know.”

— Nayyirah Waheed

There were a lot of friendly faces in the crowd that night. On audience left, a group of close college friends, some of whom had driven down from Northern California the night before to see the show. In another part of the theatre, buddies from the sports bar where we gather to watch our favorite football team. That Saturday evening, good friends – old and new – were in abundance.

But it was the couple sitting in the front row, audience right, that captured my attention. Two people, a man and a woman, him slumped low in his seat, his hand partially covering his face. And though I tried to focus, tried to stay present in the moment as my co-star and I began the play’s final, climactic scene, in an intimate, forty seat theatre like the Actor’s Workout Studio, it was impossible not to notice.

After the show, the couple – my aunt and uncle – found me, said some quick goodbyes, and scurried out the door. They were exhausted. Due to a powerful rain and wind storm that had blown through Southern California the day before, flooding roadways, downing trees, knocking out electricity and delaying or canceling flights into and out of Los Angeles, they had spent the entire previous day trying to get here from Seattle, finally arriving to their hotel at Universal Studios just before two a.m.

But it was more than that, and I knew it. As my uncle gave me a quick hug, his face was pained. “You’re right,” he said. “It was dark.”

My aunt – his wife – gave me a reassuring smile and squeezed his arm. “He’s having a rough time,” she told me.

We made plans to see each other the next day, and just like that, they were gone. And I went out to have drinks with my college friends, anxiety and guilt tugging at the corners of my mind.

My aunt and uncle’s trip to Los Angeles to see my play War Stories was the first time they’d seen anything I’d done on a stage, ever. In fact, I didn’t think they knew much at all about my creative life, or had read many of the things I’d written, including the – often intensely personal – essays I publish on this blog.

War Stories, while fictional, borrows heavily from my own experiences. And it’s the relationship between one of the main characters and her self-destructive, alcoholic mother, that is the most autobiographical part of the whole play.

My uncle is my mother’s brother, and her only sibling. Since my mother died four years ago, he and I have become closer, but there’s still so much about each other’s lives that we don’t know. While I’m a verbal, emotional, artist who is highly communicative about my feelings, my uncle is the opposite. More often than not, my attempts to discuss the “heavy” stuff with him are simply pushed aside. He’s not rude or dismissive about it, he’s simply not built that way. “I’m fine,” he always says.

People often say that they can’t believe I write about such personal things on this blog. The truth is, given my family history, shining a light on the darkness is less about bravery than it is about survival. Over the years, I’ve watched more than one loved one retreat into a bottle or escape into pills to numb out the painful things that they can’t or don’t know how to say. And I knew that if I didn’t find a healthier outlet for the emotions that threaten to overwhelm me, I’d end up following down that same path.

So, I talk about the painful things. I write about them. I allow myself to feel them coursing through my body. And yes, sometimes it is overwhelming to feel so much. But sharing those feelings? It helps. Because if I can find a way to articulate difficult emotions, to wrap words around them in a way that makes other people not only understand them, but feel something too, those emotions no longer own me. They no longer overwhelm me. And I know that I’m not alone.

But not everyone is like me. Not everyone is so comfortable talking about the dark places in their lives. And that Saturday night after I said goodbye to my aunt and uncle, and for the entire next day, I felt intensely guilty for not being more sensitive to that.

We met for an early dinner the next evening. And as I stood near the host station, waiting for my aunt and uncle to arrive, I felt nervous and sick, my stomach twisted in knots. But a moment later, they walked in, and my uncle pulled me into a hug. And I exhaled.

And over the next hour, something remarkable happened. My uncle, a man who I’ve always suspected feels much more than he’s able to say, wanted to talk.

“It was dark,” he said again, about the play. “And it hit close to home. But I know if you can make me feel that, you’re a talented writer. It was a really good play, Sarah.”

I was stunned. It was far from the reaction I had expected. Still, I felt the need to explain myself, to apologize. “I’ve just become so used to telling my sad stories to people who don’t really know me,” I said, “That sometimes I forget that those stories belong to other people, too.”

As we talked about what was next, for the play, for me, my uncle said something else that stuck with me. “I feel like you’re right at the beginning of something,” he said.

The beginning? Oy. At thirty-six, out of college for more than a dozen years and making art for nearly twenty, it was hard to accept that I could be at the beginning of anything. After all, shouldn’t I be further along by now?

But maybe he’s right. Maybe this is the beginning. Not the beginning, beginning, but the beginning of something new. The beginning of a new chapter, one with a more defined path. The beginning of finally knowing what it is I’m supposed to do, and of moving forward in the world with a new sense of self-assurance and a new authority about who I am.

And P.S. – remember that Paris trip I mentioned in my last post? Well, I’m going. In fact, I’ll be there next week, after spending a few days in London to visit friends. And who knows? Maybe my next post on Extra Dry Martini will be a dispatch from the City of Lights. . .

Until next time, friends.

Almost.

“I’m here to make a donation.”

I had been feeling confident on the way over. Good, even. I’d secured rock star parking (with money still on the meter!) a block away on Las Palmas. Walking to the museum, I practically glided down Hollywood Boulevard, effortlessly dodging gawking tourists, street performers and hustlers shoving leaflets in my face. No, I don’t want a map to the stars’ homes, thank you very much. I live here.

But as I approached the front desk, approached the woman with curly hair framing an inquisitive face, my heart rate sped up. I swallowed hard. There was something unnerving in those gentle, wide set blue eyes looking back at me. It was recognition. Right away, I knew: she’d seen this story countless times before.

“Sure,” she answered, smoothly. “Did you complete the form on our website?”

“Yes.”

“And you signed it?”

“Yes. It’s right here.”

I handed her a white envelope, which she opened, scanned the contents, and then carefully replaced. “Great,” she said, satisfied that everything was in order. “And you have the object?”

“Yes.” I handed her a paper bag, watching, waiting expectantly, as she peered inside.

dad-hawaii-plane

The first time I’d visited the Museum of Broken Relationships, the monument to love and loss located on Los Angeles’ famed Hollywood Boulevard, I did so out of curiosity. I was doing research for a new draft of my play War Stories, about the intersecting love lives of four dreamers in Los Angeles, and writing an article about the museum for my friend Tammin’s blog, Bottle + Heels. On that visit, in the waning days of summer, life and love were full of promise, and I was – dare I say it –  happy. As I wandered the open, light-filled gallery, taking in the sad tales of woe, I felt invincible. “No way,” I thought, reading each story, shaking my head. “This is not how my story is going to end.”

Of course, I should have known better. I should have paid attention to the creeping doubt that was already snaking its way through the corners of my mind. And now here I was, months later, doing something I never thought I’d do: contributing my own sad story to the archives.

“Can I ask you,” I inquired, leaning in confidentially, lowering my voice, “Will the museum notify me when my object goes on display?”

The woman shook her head. “No. For the purpose of anonymity, we can’t do that.” “But,” she added, leaning toward me as though we were sharing a secret, “Any time you want to come here, you can just go to the front desk, describe the object, and someone will be able to tell you yes, or no.”

Business done, I wandered the gallery, aimlessly, absorbing the stories contained within. And as they often do in February, as I approach the anniversary of his death, my thoughts drifted toward my father. “Pollyanna,” he used to say, the nickname referring to the naïve optimism he teased me relentlessly for as a child, “The world is a cruel place, darling. The world will break your heart.”

Back then, I’d laughed it off. “Oh, Dad,” I’d say, rolling my eyes, chalking it up to my Irish father’s penchant for melodrama (to this day, I remain convinced that the Irish invented heartbreak). Little did I know how right he’d turn out to be. The world is a cruel place, and I have found it to be exceedingly cruel these last few years, rife with death and disappointment.

broken-ships-filtered

But the thing my father didn’t say, the thing he didn’t warn me about, was that for us Pollyannas of the world, there’s a certain type of heartbreak that hurts more than all the others. It’s the kind where you almost have something, and then you watch it slip away, crumbling to dust in your hands. As an unflagging optimist, hope is the drug that I live on. And when things fall apart, hope is the drug that, time and time again, threatens to kill me.

It was time to go. But on my way toward the exit, I paused in front of a floor length antique mirror, taking a photo of my reflection in the glass. And as I did so, I felt curious eyes upon me, watching me. I looked up to see two women, one of them behind a camera. I had noticed them earlier, moving through the museum, photographing its objects. I smiled, returned to what I was doing, thinking little of it. Because in Los Angeles, everywhere you go, someone is always filming something.

But one of the women approached me. “Excuse me,” she said, with a thick French accent.  “You speak Anglais? Ou Français?”

“Anglais,” I replied, feeling immediately apologetic. “Sorry, it’s been a long time since I’ve taken a French class.”

She smiled. “Ça va.” “We are making a documentary for French television, and I was wondering if I could film you?”

“Really?” I stammered.

“Yes.”

“What do you want me to do?”

“Just what you were doing, photographing yourself in the mirror. It was beautiful. You noticed us watching you, yes?”

“Yes,” I admitted, feeling the color rising in my face.

“So, it’s OK?” If we film you?”

Oh, what in the hell, I thought.

“Sure,” I replied.

theater-seats

Later, still not ready to go home, I ducked into the Pig ‘N Whistle – a historic old Hollywood bar next to the Egyptian Theatre – found a darkened corner booth, and ordered a martini. Scrolling through the photos on my phone, another memory came flooding back. It was last summer, during that same happier time, when I’d visited the psychic medium Fleur in an attempt to communicate with the spirts of my dead parents. Fleur and I spent most of our session focused on my mother, but toward the end, my father showed up, cheerful, singing his favorite Irish songs.

“You went to Europe, after your father died?” Fleur asked me, her closed eyes fluttering.

“Yes,” I replied. “But not right after. Two years after, on the second anniversary of his death, on Valentine’s Day. I went to Prague.”

“Yes.” She smiled. “He went with you. You felt him there, didn’t you?”

“I did.” It was true, my father had been everywhere on that trip.

“He wants me to tell you, next time, he wants you to go to Paris.”

Paris. Those French filmmakers in the museum, days before Valentine’s Day, days before marking another anniversary of my father’s death. And me: uncertain and adrift, wondering where to turn, what to do next.

Could it be a sign? Do I even believe in signs? In truth, now is the worst possible time for me to go running off to Europe. I’m running low on money. I need to go back to work. And I need to make some big decisions about my life. Grown up decisions, which, at thirty-six, it’s high time I started making.

And yet. In addition to the story that I left behind at the museum, there’s another “almost” failure that’s been haunting me of late. It’s about a review I received for my play War Stories, and its current Los Angeles production. The reviewer, while largely complimentary, said something about the play that stung me: “I hope this is not a final version,” he wrote, referring to the fact that the script, while good, still needs some reworking. And the reason his critique stung me so much is because I agree with it. As proud as I am of the play, I know that it can be better. I know it’s not finished. I’m just not sure how to fix it.

And so, with that in mind, I made a decision. I decided that I would take one last trip. I would go to Paris, after all, as soon as I could, as soon as this production of War Stories has closed. And on the banks of the Seine, in the hallways of Musée D’Orsay, at a table in a café in St. Germain, I will work on my script. I will figure out the parts that aren’t working, and I will fix them.

Because this is one “almost” that doesn’t have to be a failure. Unlike the story I left behind at the museum, this story is something I get to change. In this story – my story – I’m the one who decides how it ends.

Until next time, friends.

paris

Love and War.

“You take your life in your own hands and what happens? A terrible thing, no one to blame.”

– Erica Jong

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I can’t remember exactly when I began to silence my phone. I only know that there was a period of time during the not so distant past when every time it rang or chimed or buzzed, the news was bad. And even though switching my phone to mute didn’t solve the problem, the magical thinking I adopted during those dark days meant that if I didn’t receive the message, then the bad thing didn’t happen. The crisis had been averted. For one more day, I was OK.

And so, barring rare exceptions, I’ve kept my phone on silent. But these days, the mute button is no longer about protecting myself from bad news. These days, it’s the only thing shielding me from the unbearable silence of the calls that aren’t coming.

Tomorrow, February 3rd, is the opening night of my play, War Stories. Another opening, another show. But this one is different. Not only because of the length of time I’ve been working on it, or because of how uniquely personal the subject matter is, but because its opening marks the end of something; it means I’m standing on the edge of something.

War Stories originated as a one-act that I wrote for last summer’s Hollywood Fringe Festival, and this new iteration is a longer, two-act piece, centering around the same four characters, a band of thirty-something Angelenos with time running out on their dreams, who are looking for love in all the wrong places.

Writing this play – particularly this latest, longer draft – was utter hell. I don’t think I’ve ever struggled so much or felt so inadequate as a writer as I did during the process of reworking this script. And if I didn’t have so many other people counting on me, people who I like and with whom I’ve been talking about this new production for months, I’m quite certain that somewhere along the line, I would have given up.

fullsizerender

In truth, I’ve been wearing a heaviness in my heart since last September, and this script demands a level of emotional honesty that I wasn’t sure that I was up for. All through the fall, I carried the story within me, writing bits and pieces of it in my head when I couldn’t bear to face the page. The stories of Chelsea, Sam, Jake and Jen and their messy, intersecting love lives followed me into the jostle of crowded streets in Mexico City, and onto a sweaty campaign bus pushing through the Nevada desert, and high into the Santa Monica mountains, as I gazed down on the sweep of Los Angeles below. Everywhere I went, these characters and their broken hearts followed, demanding that I give them voice.

And the power of a deadline is something to behold, because as difficult as it was, finish the script I did. And we cast some incredible actors who breathed life into the characters in ways that I couldn’t have imagined and gave meaning to words I wrote that I didn’t know existed. And now, here we are: a day before opening and we are ready. We have a show.

A few days ago, I found a rare blank spot on my calendar; the only day in the entire month of January with nothing written on it. And so, in that last gasp of stillness before the play begins, I returned to the place I always go when I need to think, that stunning art museum perched high on a hill above Los Angeles called the Getty Center.

I wandered through the Getty’s now barren winter garden, drank espresso while taking in the city below, and stayed until the sunset spread its tangerine warmth across the Pacific Ocean. And as I did, I asked myself who I want to be. Not who I think I should be, or who other people want me to be, but who I actually am and who I, perhaps, have not been giving myself permission to become.

For months, this production of War Stories has been my excuse to put off making decisions about my future. “I can’t do anything until after the show,” I’ve said, time and time again. And it has been true, at least, mostly. But come March, my calendar is wide open and I can do anything I want, a prospect that is both exhilarating and terrifying.

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Which leads me back to the calls that aren’t coming, and the need to continue to keep my phone on silent to avoid thinking about them. In the summer months, everything seemed to flow. Work was coming in, money was good, and life was sweet.

But as the calendar switched to fall, things got harder. I started hitting walls. Work slowed down. People started disappointing me, stopped showing up. Promises were broken. And the future that I thought would unfold on its own simply hasn’t.

And now it is February. Money is running low and the hour is running late. And I’m no closer to receiving any sort of sign of what to do next, or which way to turn. Which means that I’ll have to trust myself, and that trust, due to some unfortunate events, has recently been shaken.

Last week, staring down on the city that I love, I felt less invincible than I usually do from that favorite perch high above L.A. I felt uncertain, a little afraid, even. I know that it’s time to take a leap. I know that it’s time to begin the next chapter of my life. I just thought I’d know what that was by now. I thought that by now, the answers to those questions would be obvious.

But maybe it’s OK that I’m so uncertain. Maybe it’s OK that there’s no crystal ball, no prophetic vision, no knight in shining armor swooping in to save the day. Maybe it’s a good thing to stand on the edge and ask myself to be braver than I feel, to take a chance, to be the hero of my own goddamned life.

Maybe I’ll learn something from this, something that I needed to know.

Maybe.

But right now, I’ve got a show to open.

Until next time, friends.

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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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