I’m very lucky. One of my closest girlfriends rents a beautiful home in South Laguna Beach, California. It’s on a hill overlooking Pacific Coast Highway, a long, bright, airy space with large windows dressed in soft, billowy curtains overlooking the sea, and a white wooden chair with a colorfully-embroidered cushion on which to sit and watch the sun setting over the ocean.
I’ve been feeling lost, adrift, bogged down under the weight of emotions I can no longer shake off or brush aside, at a crossroads and feeling overwhelmed by the nagging question, ‘what now?’ The world no longer feels safe or predictable; what was once familiar has turned foreign. And my little bungalow in Los Angeles – while charming – has hardly been a refuge. My girlfriend with the beautiful home by the sea has been working in New York, her home sitting vacant, and when she offered to let me stay there, I gratefully accepted.
It’s not easy to leave life in L.A. for more than a few days – too many commitments – but I cleared six days from the calendar, packed up my car and hit the 405 freeway heading south, past two airports, into Laguna Canyon, and out the other side, arriving at the ocean.
My trip didn’t exactly begin as planned. I arrived in Laguna, opened up my laptop, and connected to WiFi to learn the sad news that Robin Williams had committed suicide. I was heartbroken. Heartbroken, and at the same time, grateful. Grateful that in all the dark places I’d been over the past couple of years, I’d never been there: the darkest of the dark.
Moved by his passing, my scene partner from acting class texted me to ask if we could change the scene we were working on to something from the movie What Dreams May Come. I said sure. It had been years since I’d seen the movie and this time, I watched it with different eyes. Eyes that had known the type of grief and sorrow portrayed in the film. As I watched it, I wept. Wept at the beauty of it, the beauty of a love so powerful that it could transcend death, transcend hell, transcend the darkest, most twisted places imaginable. And I wept at the irony of it too, given that this beautiful, gifted man had, in the end, succumbed to the darkness. I wept for a man who made so many people happy while carrying such desperate pain.
The next day, returning from the beach, I turned on my phone to find more sad news waiting: Lauren Bacall had died. And I felt gut-kicked. Because I admired her tremendously, held her up as a film noir icon, a legend, a true dame. And it felt like some bygone Hollywood era that had already ended was now finally, officially, over. And I sat in the open-air trolley car on the way home, the wind kissing my cheeks, and I cried.
So the first two days I spent by the sea were sad. At first, I fought it. But then, gradually, I gave in. I worked a little, and slept a lot. I rose early and sat by the window and watched the marine layer break apart over the ocean. I walked down the long wooden staircase to Table Rock Beach and I lay out on the hot sand and tried to read important things. I made a playlist of happy, poppy, empowering music and I ran up and down steep hills, pushing myself to the top of one hill, past a street called summit, up to mar vista – sea view – telling myself not to give up, that I’d remember this moment, that it was symbolic (stupid writers, looking for symbolism in everything), that even though my lungs burned and my legs were heavy as lead, even though it hurt, that I could push past the pain, that I could still do it. And I did, arriving at the top, gasping for breath.
And little by little, I got lighter. I felt like having more fun. I wandered through lush gardens and took pictures. I browsed art galleries and daydreamed over watercolor paintings. I got dressed up and took myself out to dinner. I indulged in sunset cocktails on a terrace at the luxurious Montage resort, becoming the vicarious guest of an extravagant, breathtaking Indian wedding – in which the bride and groom arrived on bejeweled horses – unfolding on the grounds below.
I spent five days never needing to drive, traveling on foot and hopping on and off the free open-air trolley cars running up and down PCH. I’d stick my head out the window, like a dog sniffing the wind, watching the sun sparkling on the sea, my arms tingling with goose bumps as the ocean breeze whipped through my hair.
On my last day there, in an effort to pamper myself, I visited a CVS drugstore and loaded up on beauty products that I didn’t really need – salt scrubs and mud masks and lip gloss and nail polish. Standing in line, I grew impatient as the store’s only sales clerk spent an inordinately long time chatting with the elderly lady in front of me. They talked and talked, even though she’d completed her transaction, even though the line was steadily growing behind them. I sighed, checked my phone, rolled my eyes.
When it was finally my turn, the clerk gave me an apologetic smile. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘She just lost her husband. They were married for a lot of years.’
‘Oh no,’ I said. ‘Yes, very sad. Very sad,’ he replied. ‘But when God decides to take you, there’s nothing you can do.’ I nodded, said nothing. Knowing all too well.
Outside in the parking lot, feeling guilty and ashamed at my impatience – after all, where in the hell did I have to be anyway, I was on vacation – I approached the elderly woman as she was loading her car and asked if she needed help. Too late, as she placed a twelve pack of Dr. Pepper – the last of her purchases – in the backseat. ‘I forgot this was heavy,’ she said, indicating the soda. I smiled at her, knowing exactly what she meant, knowing how the fog of grief makes you forget, makes the ordinary seem strange. ‘I hope you have a good day,’ I said. ‘I’m trying,’ she replied. ‘That’s all we can do,’ I called after her, as she got into her car.
So I went back to the beautiful house by the sea, and I lit the healing candle I’d purchased at the new age store downtown on my first day there. The candle that I’d been lighting every night. And I thought about that woman, and I thought about the fact that even a place that was this beautiful couldn’t keep out suffering, that things are so rarely how they appear on the surface, that we all have something – all of us – that we’re carrying around with us. Something that we’re trying to make peace with. Something that we’re trying to let go.
And I burned that candle down and I said a silent prayer that I’d be on the other side of my something soon, and that a new something – something beautiful and unexpected and exactly what I needed – was on its way. That if I just kept going, kept pushing myself up the hill, kept moving through life with an open heart, that I’d find it. That it would arrive. ‘I’ll just keep trying,’ I told myself. ‘That’s all I can do.’ After all, that’s all we – all any of us – can do.
Until next time, friends.