when they hear
this is how
— 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.
You are a talented writer! I always love reading your blog. So intense, so touching. It always makes me ponder. Have fun in Paris next week! 🙂
Thank you so much! That’s very sweet of you, and I’m glad you enjoy reading it! I can’t wait for Paris. ❤
I am happy to know that you are channelizing your emotions in writing your thoughts down,in the form of a creative pursuit.For the time that I have known you via the blogs that I have read,you are a courageous person and I do not want you to ever to succumb to any of the pills or anything.Wishing you the very best of health now and forever.Wishing you all the very best for your newly found “beginning”. It feels wonderful and ecstatic on being on the brink of doing something newly found.You will do mighty great.Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us.
Oh goodness, that is so lovely. Thank you very much for your kind words. ❤
After reading about you and your uncle, it explains why your work was able to reach in, and just grab me by the guts. It was funny, too, but I felt the reason it was so universally relatable was because of how you told the story with raw, authentic emotion. Even though we may push experiences that caused those feelings way down in our depths, never to be seen again, we all have them, and your writing, the directing, and of course the acting all came together to bring those feelings to the surface and to remember there is passion, and how good it can be.
I’m so glad you got to see it Melissa! It was wonderful to meet you and I’m glad to hear that War Stories moved you. More incentive for me to keep working on it and make it even better! xx
What a wonderful gift you gave your Uncle, and what a sweet gift he bestowed upon you. I believe that our feelings are part of the prize package we receive when we get our bodies.
Relish Paris, as I know you will! C’est cie bonne, ma cher!
Well said, Pam, and thank you so much for your kind words.The fact that War Stories was able to spark a conversation with my uncle that I haven’t been able to have makes me think of the Picasso quote, “Art is not the truth. Art is the lie that makes us realize the truth.”
I fly to London tomorrow! I can’t wait. And then a few days later, the Eurostar to Paris. La vie est belle! ❤
Well done, Sarah
Thank you my sweet sister. xoxo
I think in one of my previous comments to you, I wrote about beginnings and endings… and suggested that you may be approaching a beginning. The time between what was and what will be is called the bardo. It seems you have spent the last three to four years in the bardo and it is no surprise that you may only now be at your new beginning. On the precipice of what will be. Your uncle, from the subconscious, subliminal, even subjective depth of his age, wisdom and experience seems to have called it right. You are ready to begin anew, and only now are you ready. That is the benefit and the beauty of the bardo. Most of us rush through that important interim time – a big mistake. You did not. You gave yourself time and grace and reflection… and now you are ready. Cheers and Voila!
I remember that, Melanie! You were the first person to enlighten me on the concept of the bardo. I need to read up on it more, to be honest. But yes, I definitely wasn’t ready before, even as uncomfortable as I’ve been residing in the limbo of the last few years. There’s something liberating about making a decision, and not looking back. You have to be ready, though. I think I am. Much love to you, my friend! P.S. – the friends you sent to see War Stories were so lovely! Thank you!
As much as we enjoy validation from close friends and colleagues, sometimes it’s still the approval from family members that mean the most. How nice that you got such feedback from your uncle. – Marty
It’s very true, Marty. Thank you, and thank you as always for reading this blog! ❤