The email finally came through on a Tuesday morning, six days after I started looking for it. I wasn’t sure why I continued to obsessively check my phone. I already knew what it was going to say.
Yet even though I had felt in my bones that I’d be getting a rejection letter, when that rejection finally came it still landed like a gut punch. It still felt like an indictment, still made me feel like a failure, still caused me to send text messages to friends asking, “What am I even doing here?”
Of course, I knew the answer. I knew it the week before, on Mother’s Day, when I sat at the bar of a breezy, open-air restaurant overlooking Santa Monica’s Ocean Avenue with two of my best girlfriends and cried into my craft cocktail. “I’ve tried everything I can think of,” I moaned. “But New York just doesn’t fit.”
But as much as I missed my friends, as much as – after nearly nine months away – L.A. still felt like home, I knew if I moved back now it would just mean that, once again, I was running. I hadn’t given New York enough time. I hadn’t given it the opportunity to change me in the ways I hoped it would.
I moved east with the goal of producing a play I wrote. I’d produced plenty of theatre in L.A., but I knew it would be harder in New York, and more expensive. I also knew I didn’t have the same network of people to call upon and ask for help. But still, I’d battle tested the script over the course of two L.A. productions and three New York readings, continuing to rewrite and refine and fix along the way. It was in great shape. I’d put together what I knew was an impressive submission package complete with glowing reviews from Hollywood. So, when I turned in my application for the New York Fringe Festival, I was sure I was going to get in.
But then something funny happened. A week after the application deadline, I stared a memoir class. I signed up for it partly to help me develop a regular writing practice and provide discipline in the form of homework and deadlines. But if I’m honest, the real reason I signed up was because I couldn’t get fiction writing – not playwriting, not anything – to hold my interest. And after a few weeks of class, a few weeks of writing exercises that pushed me to dig deep into stories from my life, memoir felt like the only thing I wanted to write. Even though it was painful. Even though it opened up a Pandora’s Box full of memories I preferred to forget. And somewhere in those first few weeks, I made the decision that it was finally time to write the book I’d been dancing around the edges of for years.
But secretly, I worried. If my play got into the fringe festival I’d have to shift gears and take on the tremendous task of producing a show. It was a prospect that thrilled me, but I also knew from experience how much work it would be. It meant the book would have to take a backseat. And because the money I’d been living on was starting to run low, it also meant that I would have to go back to work as soon as the festival was over.
I traveled back to L.A. with these conflicting feelings swirling inside of me. And as I sat down to dinner with my friend Jen on my first night in town and confided that I was afraid to step away from the fun and collaborative worlds of theatre and film to plunge into the lonely and painful process of writing a book, she just looked at me and said, matter-of-factly: “I think everything in your life for the last five years has been leading up to this moment. It’s time.”
She reiterated that sentiment two days later, on Mother’s Day, at the open-air restaurant on Ocean Avenue, saying that this thing – the book I had been avoiding writing – was the thing keeping me stuck. It was the thing keeping me from moving on to the next phase of my life. And I cried, because I knew it was true.
It was nearly two years ago, in the summer of 2016, that I visited a psychic medium and asked for her help in communicating with my mother. I was terrified. I didn’t know what to expect. I only knew I had to do something, because her death had carved a hole in me and I had spent the last few years swallowed up by guilt and grief. The medium, a young woman named Fleur, was able to give me enough of the how-on-earth-does-she-know-that type of details about my mother’s life and death, that when she told me my Mom wanted me to forgive myself, and that she sent me white butterflies as a sign to let me know she was thinking about me, I chose to believe her.
The day before I left L.A., I rose early, leaving my friend Zoe’s apartment to walk to a corner café for coffee. As I strolled along sunny Washington Place, a white butterfly alighted on a nearby hedge. It skipped over blades of grass and skimmed the edges of flowers. It sailed away, then floated back. I watched it for a minute, then asked, “Mom?” like a crazy person, as though I expected the butterfly to respond. I was greeted only with silence. I took in the bright blue sky, the lavender jacarandas in full bloom, the towering palm trees overhead, and the dancing butterfly. “Mom,” I tried again, knowing it was hopeless but unable to stop myself. “I don’t know what to do. What should I do?” But the butterfly remained silent, continuing to drift on the breeze, until finally it glided gently away, into the beautiful Southern California morning, and was gone.
And it wasn’t the butterfly, and it wasn’t my mother, it was just me, just a shaky but sure voice inside that said, simply, “You know.” Which is why, a few days later, when I got the rejection letter, even though I didn’t think it was fair, even though I didn’t think I deserved it, I knew it was, somehow, right.
As I publish this post, it’s May twenty-fifth. It’s my mother’s birthday. She would have been sixty-six. Would have been because she died nearly six years ago, in a haze of vodka and pills. In a post I authored on this blog back in 2015, I wrote, “She drank until she disappeared. And when she died, I started disappearing, too.” It was true then, and it’s true now.
I am tired of disappearing. I’m tired of feeling stuck. And I’m tired of the ache inside me that only continues to grow. I don’t feel ready to dive into my mother’s story. I’m scared of what I’ll find when I turn the microscope on her life, and on my own. But I also think that we’re never really ready to do the things in life that call upon us to be braver than we believe. We just have to do them and see what happens.
So, I’m going to spend this summer in hotel lobbies, and cafes and libraries, writing everything I know is true about my mother, and my family, and me, until I have something that feels like a book. And hopefully by the time autumn rolls around, I’ll be ready to take another shot at starting my life over. Whatever that looks like. Whatever that means.
Happy Birthday, Mom.