The Lost Year.

It has been a year since I wrote and published my last blog.  A whole year.  Even as I write that, I find it impossible to believe.  Where has the time gone?

This is what it always comes down to – the reason I don’t write.  Or, the reason I do write, get frustrated, and give up:  the ‘where has the time gone?’ question.  Not that it’s hard to be honest about it, but more that it’s hard to be accurate about it; it’s hard to explain things in words because words don’t suffice.

There is so much of this last year that I only vaguely remember – it’s all shadowy and dark and covered in fog.  The year passed in a blur of very sad things.  Devastating phone conversations, funerals, insomnia, nightmares, more funerals, difficult decisions, sifting through personal belongings, trying to make the best of things, trying to figure out the right thing to do, trying to be strong for other people, trying to find the silver lining, trying to learn the hard lessons, trying to get through the holidays, the birthdays, and working, working, working.

After a string of very sad things, it has been five months since the last very sad thing, and I’m starting to believe that maybe I’m done for a while.  Maybe the universe has finally decided to give me a break, so I can stop holding my breath and start to heal, instead of just getting good at going through the motions, at faking it till I make it.

The first very sad thing was the biggest.  If sad things were measured on richter scales, this would have been the 9.0, the earthquake that triggered the aftershocks, the tsunami, the nuclear disaster.  The first very sad thing was the death of my mother, which happened 11 months, three weeks, and six days ago.  Life was far from perfect before the ‘big one’, but it was that particular very sad thing that catapulted me into uncharted territory, and set off the chain of months that I’m calling ‘The Lost Year.’

Amidst the shadows and fog, here’s what I remember from this last, lost year.  I remember an enormous full moon – astrologers called it a monster moon– lighting up the whole sky the night of my mom’s memorial.  I remember how broken my dad looked that day, and how frail he was.  My hair was darker than the last time he saw me, and he was confused and barely recognized me.   I remember visits to Olympia where it never stopped raining, and how bad my parents’ house smelled – like old people and cancer.  I remember alternately worrying about dad, and wanting to strangle him, because he made life so hard.  I remember feeling guilty for wanting to strangle him.  I remember thinking in spite of the terminal cancer diagnosis he was going to live forever, just to torture his children and see how much devotion he could squeeze out of us.  I remember my heart skipping a beat every time the phone rang and ‘Dad’ came up on the caller i.d.  And if it was a 206 or a 360 area code (both Washington) that I didn’t recognize:  immediate panic.  I remember the 11:30 p.m. call from Capital Medical Center – a nurse on the other end – fearing the worst.  ‘Your father’s o.k., Ms. Kelly, but he’s very worried about who’s taking care of his cat.’

I remember other calls too, with my grandmother, my mom’s mom.  How confused she sounded, how sad.  I remember talking to her frequently during my commutes between North Hollywood and Venice.  I remember that she was obsessed with a sewing machine that my mom had borrowed and she wanted it back.  I didn’t know where it was, knew I would probably never find it, and knew it wouldn’t really matter.  I remember the last phone call I had with her, on Thanksgiving Day.  I was in my car, heading out to hike Fryman Canyon.  She asked what I was doing for dinner.  ‘Going to a friend’s place,’ I said.  She thought that sounded nice.  She complained about the rain, and that dinner would be late because my aunt and uncle were preparing it, and they were always, notoriously, late.

Less than three months later, back in Olympia helping my sister go through my parents’ house and handle details surrounding our dad’s funeral, I went to see my grandmother in a nursing home, a place specifically designed to care for Alzheimer’s patients.  I remember thinking how all of the residents looked like children, how my grandmother looked like a child, with barrettes in her hair and painted fingernails.  How she knew me, but not really.  How she asked where I lived and when I replied, ‘Los Angeles,’ she paused, looked me square in the eye, and said, ‘Well, no one will look down on you for that.’  I remember the call I received from my 87-year-old grandfather, on a Saturday in April, when she died.  I was in tech rehearsal for a play and didn’t answer.  His voicemail said simply, ‘Another one’s left us, Sar.’  When I called him back, he said they’d plan a low-key memorial at my grandparents’ beach home on Puget Sound – the same place where my mom’s memorial had been held –  on her birthday in late July.  Said grandpa, ‘it’s too damn cold to do anything now.’

I could keep going.  I could tell you about the worst birthday party I ever had – that I stubbornly insisted upon having – even though two of my best friends were across the country at another close friend’s funeral, a funeral that I felt guilty for not attending, but couldn’t because it was too expensive to get there, and I had a work obligation that I couldn’t get out of, and it was my birthday for godssake and really, really I just couldn’t take one more very sad thing.

I could tell you that smack dab in the middle of The Lost Year, in between all the death and the sadness, that my identity was stolen and I spent four months fighting faulty credit card charges, filing police reports, getting documents notarized, and spending hours on the phone, and that I was almost glad for the distraction because while horribly inconvenient and time-consuming, at least it wasn’t another very sad thing.

But it’s all just too much, isn’t it?  This is why I’ve kept my head down and worked hard and blocked out entire sections of time for the last 360ish days.  Because it’s too much.  I’ve learned to lie because I’ve learned to hate the look in someone’s eye when I actually do decide to tell the truth about the events of the last year.  It’s a look of pity and helplessness, but mostly, a look that says there’s something wrong with me and they’re afraid they’re going to catch it.

I’m not an idiot.  I know what’s gone is gone, and nothing can change that.  I know that like it or not, I’m different.  Too many things have happened to shape me, and change me.  But I do want to feel like I’m in charge of my own life again, that I’m not just a person that bad things happen to.  I want to be happy again, in spite of all the very sad things.  And more than anything, I want to be able to express myself, and to be able to write from my heart, again.

So here it is, after one very long year.  Thanks for reading.

Until next time, friends.

Seven years.

“Maybe it’s okay

if it takes time,

to be okay.

Maybe

healing is a road that is

lined with endless grace.”

– Morgan Harper Nichols

Dear Mom,

How do I begin? Usually, I’m the one other people come to when they need help figuring out what to say. But in trying to figure out what to say to you – my best friend, my first phone call, the person I miss most of all – I am utterly lost. My fingers are clumsy on my keyboard. A heavy brick sits squarely in the center of my chest.

But still, I will try. I will try because you deserve it. You deserve to know all of the things I have been thinking but haven’t been able to say.

Seven years. Seven years since I got the worst phone call of my life. Seven years since all the color bled from the world and the sky turned black and nothing would ever look the same again. Seven years since you left.

Seven is an impossible number. It is impossible for me to believe it has been seven years since I’ve seen your face, or hugged you in an airport, or heard the familiar, “Oh hi, Sar,” on the other end of the telephone.

But seven is an impossible number for another reason. It is impossible to believe how quickly the years have elapsed since you died. It seems so cruel that time has marched on, indifferent, and that I have lived and loved and struggled and succeeded and hoped and failed throughout most of my thirties without you. How unfair that the worst thing I could possibly imagine happened to me, and all I could do was survive it? How awful to learn that I not only could go on without you, but that I would go on. I would go on to become a better, braver, more compassionate person in your absence, and that better, braver, more compassionate person is someone you will never get to meet.

Damn it, it’s so unfair. And yet, it is. The unfairness of life is one of the most profound lessons I have learned from your death, Mom. As children, we are taught to believe that kindness will be rewarded and the good guys will win and that everything will work out in the end. And sometimes, those things do happen. But other times, they don’t. Other times, life shocks you with its randomness. Sometimes, terrible things happen that don’t make any sense and there’s nothing to do but accept them.

For a while, I was angry with you, Mom. I was angry with you for dying. I was angry with you for leaving me at the worst possible time. Dad was dying, and Grandma was losing her mind, and Grandpa was wheelchair-bound and depressed, and you just checked out. You left the building and left me to deal with the mess you left behind.

When you died, I was in the prime of my life. I was thirty-one, living a sun-soaked existence in Los Angeles, doing exactly as I pleased. Before you left, my biggest concerns centered around whether my agent liked my new headshots or how many auditions I was getting. And then suddenly, everything changed. Suddenly, there were a million hard decisions to make. There was probate court. There were health care directives and funerals to plan and boxes and boxes and boxes of belongings to sift through. There was a home to sell. My family home, or at least it used to be, before I watched you unravel within its walls. And then, there was Grandpa. Your sweet, heartbroken father, who could not reconcile the fact – no matter how many times I tried to explain it to him – that someone who was only sixty years old and in seemingly good health could suddenly just die.

It was relentlessly unfair, Mom. And I was not ready for any of it. In fact, for a while, I was convinced it would kill me. I was convinced that I would die. Yet, for whatever reason, I didn’t. Even though everything was horrible and gut-wrenching and wrong, I survived. And a funny thing happens when life deals you the worst cards you can imagine and you continue to breathe in and out. You learn something about yourself. The world is suddenly, irrevocably, different, and you are different in it. You can’t go back to the way you were, and you find you don’t want to.

I am going to say some things now that will probably sound awful, but I have to admit to them because they’re true. If both of my parents had to die, I’m glad you went first, Mom. Because my relationship with my father needed repairing and those last few months with him were a gift. I’m grateful for the dinners we had and the football games we watched and that there was nothing left unsaid between us. I’m grateful he got to plan his own funeral, and that I was able to carry his ashes down the aisle of the church, and sit in the front row with Deirdre and Dave and Matt and pretend to be the good Catholic girl he wanted me to be. If you hadn’t died, Mom, I wouldn’t have done any of that. I would have been too busy holding you up.

And even though I blamed her cruelty for causing you to turn to the bottle in the first place, I’m grateful for the daily phone calls with Grandma before Alzheimer’s erased her memory. I’m grateful for the realization that even though she was a terrible, abusive mother, she was still in pain over losing you. I’m grateful for the knowledge I learned earlier than most: that love is complicated and people are too, and most of us aren’t working with a full tool kit when it comes to matters of the heart.

I think you already know this, Mom, because I choose to believe that you see and know everything I do, but I will confess it to you anyway: I have lied about your death. I’m not sure how many times, but there is one time in particular that stands out. It was after we found out Grandpa was dying, and I was on a plane headed back to Seattle to be with him. The woman seated next to me was one of those busy body, Matriarch types, and before I knew it, I was telling her my entire life story. And when she asked me how you died, I lied and said “Cancer.”

It embarrasses me now that I did that, Mom. Why should I care what a complete stranger thinks? But at the time, I was trying to protect you. Or rather, I was trying to protect us both. I was afraid that if I told the truth, the busy body Matriarch seated next to me would think you were a terrible mother. Or I was a terrible daughter. Or there was something wrong with our family. Or – worst of all – you didn’t love me enough to stay alive.

I know that none of this is true, Mom. What is true is that for most of my life, you harbored a deep, dark sadness. A sadness I didn’t understand and didn’t know how to fix. And you drank to feel better, and the alcohol worked until it didn’t. Until it killed you. But I don’t think you wanted to die, Mom. I don’t think you wanted to leave us. As one of your friends once told me, “Your mother was so tired. She just wanted to sleep.”

Shortly after you died, the man I used to be married to told me he was jealous of our relationship. He said he was jealous of how close we were, because he didn’t have that with his own mother. His words caused me to fly into a blinding rage. I was so furious at the unfairness of losing you, so devastated by the gaping hole your absence had only recently carved into my life, that I simply couldn’t hear it. But looking back, I’m glad he said it, because he only illuminated what was true. In thirty-one years, I never doubted how much you loved me, Mom. Not once. You gave me everything you could, and I am the luckiest person on earth to be able to call you my mother. Nothing will ever change that. Not even death.

One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned in losing you, and in losing Dad, and Grandma and Grandpa, is that healing is a road that runs straight through forgiveness. In order to move on, you have to let go.

It has taken me seven years to be able to say this, but here it is: I forgive you, Mom. I forgive you for dying. I forgive you for leaving me at the worst possible time. I forgive you for needing to sleep.

And I forgive myself, too. I will have to say that again and again in order to believe it, so I guess I better start practicing now. I forgive myself. I forgive myself for not being able to save you. I forgive myself for every horrible, awful, selfish thing I did in the years since you died. I forgive myself for the mistakes I made, for the time and the money I wasted, and for all the ways I hurt myself. I forgive myself because I can see now that I was doing my best. I can see now that I was only trying to survive.

You stayed alive for me as long as you could, Mom. And now, it is my turn to stay alive for you. But I won’t just do that. I will do you one better. I will write the story of your life, and my life, and the story of all the ways in which our two lives are irrevocably intertwined. And as I do that, I will put this sad, seven-year season behind me and move forward into the future with a still-fragile yet hopeful heart. Because, do you want to hear something crazy? Even after everything that’s happened, I’m still an optimist. Even after all the evidence to the contrary, I still believe in happy endings. I still believe that people are good, and love is real, and we will be OK. And most of all, Mom, I believe that being your daughter is the greatest gift I could ever have asked for.

Thank you for being my mother.

I love you.

Sarah

Three years.

I’m perched on a paint-splattered stool, located downstage right, in a darkened forty-seat theatre. We’re well into the second act of Barenaked Angels, a show that’s a sort of hybrid between solo performance and an ensemble piece (I wrote about it here). My fellow cast mate Phil is standing on the opposite side of the stage, recounting a story about his niece Sam, a young girl who died after a battle with Mitochondrial disease. Sam had an affinity for butterflies and ladybugs, and in this particular story, Phil tells the audience that on the day of his first big acting job, a ladybug appeared next to him on set during the filming of his scene. The ladybug remained in the same spot for several takes, and Phil was convinced that the ladybug was in fact Sam, turning up in the form of the creature she loved, to let him know that she was all right.

DSCF5397-small copy

This is not the first time I’ve heard the story of the ladybug, but during this particular performance, something is different. As I sit on my stool, listening, I’m transported back to an evening in late September: the night that followed the long day during which we eulogized my mother. After most of the guests had gone home, I sat on the deck of my grandparents’ beach cabin, staring out at the sea. The sunset was slowly shifting into twilight, and a huge full moon hung high in the pink and purple-streaked sky, casting a rosy glow over Case Inlet, which was so flat that it seemed a great mirror, reflecting the heavens back onto themselves. As I sat there, the silence so loud it was nearly reverberating, warmth filled my core and spread outward, tickling the tiny hairs on my arms. Stillness enveloped me like a blanket and the moon and the sea and sky seemed to be speaking directly to me, whispering words of calm and comfort, telling me that my mother was at peace, and that everything would be OK.

Almost immediately after that night, the world as I knew it came tumbling down. Illness. More death. Identity theft. A move. A break up. The pace of life was frenetic as I moved from crisis to crisis. The magic of that September evening and its tranquil, perfect moment all but vanished from my memory.

That is, until this night – nearly three years later – as I sit on stage listening to the story of the ladybug. A warm vibration floods my center, goose bumps rise on my legs and arms. The quiet audience, intently listening, the hum of the stage lights – everything feels more somehow. And suddenly, I’m right back there, possessed of the same calm, all-knowing that visited me on that September night.

As quickly as the moment arrives, it is gone. Phil finishes his story and I snap back to reality, knowing it’s my turn to speak. I choke back the lump in my throat and rise from my stool, crossing downstage center to find my light.

Scan 1

Today, September 23rd, marks three years. Three years since I received the worst news of my life: my mother – my best friend – was dead.

If there is an emotion that a person can feel, over these last three years, I have felt it. Crushing sorrow. Denial to the point of delusion. Blinding rage. Crippling guilt. Red-faced shame. Paralysis-inducing fear.

I have spent much of the last three years trying to feel “better.” It is only recently that I have learned – with the help of counseling, writing, and the passage of time – that I am not meant to feel better. I don’t even know what better means. Life has changed, and I am changed in it. And in this new reality – a reality where certainty is no longer certain – I am awake and alive to every moment, knowing the weight and import of each one.

A few weeks ago, I found myself sorting through some boxes from my parents’ old house that had been in storage for the last two plus years; boxes that I had only recently been able to bring myself to open. Among the assorted mementos, I found some treasured photographs – taken before everything went digital – that I had feared were forever lost.

The photos were from a trip my Mom took to visit me in England, after I finished a college semester studying abroad. We spent a few days in London, and then traveled to Wales. Craving luxury, I booked us into a fancy hotel in Cardiff. But Mom wanted something a little more rugged. She wanted to see the natural beauty of the countryside.

Scan 2

After asking around, we took a train to Swansea and then boarded a small bus bound for the Gower Peninsula. When we arrived, we stood on jagged cliffs, looking out in wonder at the vast sea before us, feeling as though we had come to the edge of the world. Among the handful of photographs we took that day, my favorite is of my Mom, pretending to drive a golf ball (she was an avid golfer) over a cliff, a huge grin spread across her face.

I had forgotten how full of life my mother had been on that trip, how adventurous she was. That memory is such a departure from the mother I became used to in the years leading up to her death: someone who mostly stayed at home and avoided crowds, contenting herself with simple pleasures like gardening and cooking. Someone who gradually became more and more anti-social as she clung to memories of the past, slowly disappearing before my eyes.

It is so easy for the worries and the fears and the anxieties to grab hold of you and to keep you from moving forward, as they did my mother. It is much harder to know how much life can hurt you, and to throw your arms around it anyway, embracing it with all you have.

Three years is an awfully long time. It’s an awfully long time to miss someone, and it’s an awfully long time to feel stuck and lost and searching in their absence. But it’s a short time too. Elapsed so quickly, in the blink of an eye.

I have felt it all these last three years. Every dark, impossible, hopeless thing. But today, as I think of my mother, I think of the woman who insisted we travel by train and bus to the edge of the world so that we could gaze out at the sea, sensing all the possibility that spread out before us. And I think of that serene September evening after we said goodbye, when I knew in the core of my being that she was all right.

She is all right. And I am all right too.

Until next time, friends.

Scan 5

 

Words: a Love Story.

I’ve been writing my whole life, but until recently I never really considered myself a writer. Not like that. Writing was just something that I did. Whether they were high school essays, papers for a college journalism class, or the plays and short films I wrote when I first started acting, writing was always just something that came naturally and was fun to do, but nothing I ever took too seriously.

That all started to shift about three years ago. I’d been writing Extra Dry Martini for just a couple of months – something I started doing for fun – when my entire life fell apart. I’ve written in great detail about loss on this blog and I don’t feel the need to rehash it, but suffice it to say that the spring of 2012 through the spring of 2013 was a very difficult year for me. A very difficult year, the ramifications of which are still reverberating throughout my now very different life. When I finally came up for air and felt brave enough to write about it, I published a piece on this blog about my experiences entitled The Lost Year. And from there on out, my writing was different.

So it was that writing became less of a hobby and more of a lifeline. In the last year and a half, writing has been not only my most reliable creative outlet, but it has been my therapy. I would no sooner give it up than I would give up breathing, and in fact, I’ve often wondered if I were to give it up, if I would still be able to go on breathing.

When I feel lost or adrift, getting all those thoughts and feelings down on the page is sometimes the only thing that brings any relief. And while I don’t really believe that you can “get it all out,” there is something liberating about being able to wrap my mind around a moment, around pain or sorrow, around joy, around love, and to articulate it in such a way that it’s no longer a swirl of chaos in my brain, but something more ordered and easier to understand. Once on the page, with the words and thoughts at a slightly safer distance, I can read them with a measure of objectivity and think, maybe this thing has a little less power to hurt me than it used to.

I write out of a burning desire to transform the sad, empty spaces within me into art and in doing so, transcend the parts of me that still feel broken. And while I cherish the time I’ve spent absorbed in thought putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, I sometimes wonder if all the hours I’ve invested in crafting pretty sentences have left me less able than before to say the things that need to be said when it comes to face to face interaction with real, live people.

At this moment, I find myself juggling two projects that will soon bridge that gap: a gap between the solitude I’ve been spending in my own little creative laboratory and the big, bad outside world. The first project is a play. In July, I’m going to stand on a stage and talk about some of the very personal, very vulnerable things I’ve been writing about on this blog as part of a solo performance workshop called (appropriately) Barenaked Angels. For the first time, I’m going to say some of the things I’ve been writing down out loud, in front of an audience. Yikes.

The second project is my screenplay, a project and process I’ve detailed in earlier posts like Putting off tomorrow and Little steps. Big steps. First steps. As I continue to work through the second draft and push toward a looming deadline to hand over scripts to actors for the first table read, I am discovering more and more that the parts of the story that aren’t yet working are the parts where I haven’t delved deeply enough into the main character’s hopes, dreams, and flaws. In other words, it’s an autobiographical story without quite enough autobiography in it.

Words are seductive. There is something exquisitely satisfying about capturing a moment on paper and thinking, yes, that’s exactly what happened, how I felt about it, and why it mattered. Words have an incredible capacity to illuminate a life. But in the end, words are not life, and one cannot live by words alone. I’m so grateful for what writing has given me – for the way it has sheltered me through pain and has allowed me to connect with the hearts and minds of other writers through this blog. I will always, always be writing. But the writer’s life is also about finding balance. A writer needs to experience the world in order to write about it, and I haven’t been doing nearly enough of that lately. So now it’s time for me to take the next step: to take the lessons I’ve learned and not just write better, but live better too.

Until next time, friends.

Sad things.

photo 3

I write about sad things.  But I am not a sad person.  A lot of sad things have happened to me in a short span of my life, and for a long while – a twelve month or so period that I’ve labeled The Lost Year – I couldn’t write at all.  I tried and failed many, many times, but I couldn’t crystalize my emotions into sentences that made any sense, or had any meaning.

When I emerged from the darkest of the dark, there was no denying that I was a different person.  At once stronger, and yet more fragile.  I didn’t want anything that happened to me.  I didn’t want to lose three of the most important people in my life, nor did I want to be forced to confront painful truths about my family – and ultimately, myself – through their loss.  I would give anything for things to be the way they were, to live in blissful ignorance once again.  But life doesn’t work that way.

So here I am.  And somewhere in the eye of the storm, in the midst of the vortex, I found my voice again.  And I started to write.  Grateful to be able to once again put my thoughts into words, to be able to finally express myself, I have been writing a lot.  And I’ve been writing a lot of sad things.  But I write about sad things not because I’m a depressive, but because I’m an optimist.  Because through it all, I’m still hopeful.  I still believe that people are essentially good.  I still believe in love.  Even though I’ve been gut-kicked by life, even though my edges are sharper, I’m not bitter or cynical or jaded.  I write painful truths about my family not because I’m angry with them, but because you’re only as sick as your secrets and we kept far too many of them and I don’t want to be complicit in the secret-keeping any more.

So I’m going to continue to write sad things, because I want to get better.  I’m going to continue to explore the dark because it’s the only way to reclaim the light.  I’m going to continue to be honest because I’ve seen too much and lived through too much to be anything else.  And I’m going to continue to tell my story, even though I know it will be painful, even though I know it will cost me something, because there is someone out there who wishes they could do the same and can’t.  And if there’s even a chance that in my quest to heal my heart, in my journey to become a whole person again, that I can help someone else do the same, then it’s all worth it.

Stay tuned.

Until next time, friends.

Savannah.

I didn’t stay long on Tybee Island. It was hot and humid, and I was alone, and I didn’t want to risk leaving my belongings unattended on the beach while I went for a swim. But I had taken the half hour Lyft ride from downtown Savannah for the sole purpose of putting my feet into the Atlantic, and I wasn’t going to leave until I did it. So, I found a bench at the edge of the beach, took off my shoes and socks, placed them into my canvas tote bag, and walked down toward the water. My toes sunk into wet sand and warm ocean waves washed over my feet as I stared out at the sea. The Atlantic wasn’t my ocean, and yet, as I gazed across its vast expanse, I felt the same thing I always did when in the presence of its west coast cousin: peace.

Tybee Island

I had only been to Savannah once before, in my early twenties, when I took a road trip there from Nashville with my college roommate Rachel. We spent two days wandering through old town squares, drinking mint juleps from plastic to-go cups, and joining the crush of revelers on River Street. Savannah was hot and dreamy and intoxicating, a place unlike any I’d ever been, and it left its mark on me. I vowed to come back, and soon.

But life got in the way, and somehow fourteen years went by. It wasn’t until I started writing a new play that Savannah returned to the forefront of my consciousness. After the play’s two characters meet and quickly fall in love, Savannah is the place their reckless romance draws them to. It’s a place that looms large in my female heroine’s imagination, a place haunted by ghosts both real and imagined, a place, where, as she describes it, “time doesn’t exist.” Over the course of the story, Savannah is the place both of these characters long for, but one they ultimately never return to.

A month before my second trip to Savannah, I sat in an exam room near Columbus Circle and reviewed the results of two ultrasounds with my doctor. The bad news was I would have to have surgery. But the good news was much better. My cyst was benign. After weeks of fearing the worst, my doctor sat across from me and offered a reassuring smile. “Take a deep breath,” she said. “You’re going to be fine.”

Forsyth Park

So, I scheduled my surgery, and immediately thereafter, I booked a trip to Savannah. For the last several months, I had been anxious and unhappy. Wanting to change my life but paralyzed to take the first step. And then: a health scare. And suddenly nothing else mattered until I heard those five words: “You’re going to be fine.”

I arrived in Savannah last Tuesday evening, by way of a fifteen-hour train ride from Penn Station. It might seem crazy to opt for such a long journey when I could have flown there in a few hours, but the truth was, I’d always had a thing for trains. Something about siting near the window, watching the landscapes whizz by with a journal in my hand and thoughts swirling through my brain had always seemed inherently romantic to me. And as the southbound Palmetto Line pressed on through New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina, I alternated been sleep and waking dreams. It was perfect.

I spent my first full day in Savannah wandering cobblestone streets and re-orienting myself to the city. I got lost but cared little, because there was nowhere I had to be and nothing I had to do. I covered nearly ten miles on foot, my skin glistening from the warm, humid air, my limbs feeling surprisingly light from the effort. By the time I sat down to dinner and watched the sunset settle over the Savannah River, I knew I’d made the right decision.

Bridge over the Savannah River

Savannah continued to cast its spell all during the course of my stay. I walked along the river and ate lemon custard ice cream. I browsed trendy boutiques on Broughton Street while jazz music wafted in from outdoors. I went to Bonaventure Cemetery and gaped at the gothic gravesites draped in Spanish moss. And on my second to last night there, as I joined a group of tourists on a ghost tour through the heart of Savannah, a sort of fantasy began unspooling in my head. Could I live here? Compared to New York City, the cost of living was surprisingly affordable. I was enthralled by the architecture, the wide boulevards shaded by live oak trees, the town’s quirky, offbeat charm and the slower, southern pace of life. For years, I’d been flirting with the idea of getting an MFA, and one of the most famous art schools in the country was right there, in Savannah. Without even really thinking about it, I pulled up the website for the College of Art and Design, looked up graduate degree programs, and sent in a request for information. What’s the harm in applying? I thought. If I get in, I can always decide not to go.

I went to Tybee Island on my last day there. Once my feet were in the water, it was difficult to tear myself away. I stood in the ocean for several minutes, enjoying the sensation of waves pooling around my ankles. But the hot southern sun was also beating down on my skin – pale skin that had seen little sun during the long New York winter – and I wanted to get off the island before that evening’s parade snarled the traffic. And then there was the matter of the next morning’s early train to New York. I reluctantly called a Lyft.

Architecture in the historic district

“Where are you from?” my driver asked, as I settled in for the ride back to town. I hesitated. Where was I from, anyway? These days, I wasn’t so sure. “Right now, I live in New York,” I told him. “In Harlem.”

“Ah,” he said, his already pleasant demeanor turning even more amiable. “My wife and I moved here from New York two years ago. We lived there for many years.”

“What brought you to Savannah?” I asked. His eyes met mine in the rearview mirror and he smiled, then stretched out his arm and pointed toward the window. “This,” he said, indicating clear, sunny, blue skies, and miles of lush vegetation stretching along the highway as far as the eye could see. “Can you blame me?”

Mercer House

“No,” I admitted. “To tell you the truth, I’ve sort of been thinking the same thing myself these last few days.”

By the time he dropped me off at my Airbnb, the Notes app on my phone was full of recommendations for my return visit, and my head was full of information about Savannah’s low cost of living, booming economy, and the community of former New Yorkers who’d relocated there. “Are you sure you don’t work for the Chamber of Commerce?” I joked. “I’m sure,” he laughed. “But if you’re serious about moving here, my wife is a real estate agent. You can friend her on Facebook.”

I have no idea if my infatuation with Savannah is just a passing flirtation, or if the seeds planted during my few days there will grow into something more serious. What I do know is that life is far too short to continue living the way I have been: held in the grips of fear and self-doubt. I don’t know if that means changing my location, but a change of some sort is definitely in order. And last week, on my trip to Savannah, I took what felt like an important first step in that direction.

Until next time, friends.

River Street

Westeros.

The day before the season seven finale of Game of Thrones, I left Los Angeles. All that remained of the eighteen years I’d spent there was contained in three suitcases, a duffle bag, and four cardboard boxes. The luggage was coming with me, on a one-way flight to Seattle; the boxes would be shipped to my new address in New York City, once I knew where that was.

Daenerys, Tyrion and the dragons (from IMDB.com)

I had no job and no place to live, a fact that should have concerned me more than it did. But as I bid farewell to my roommate Jen, bound for the vacant house in western Washington that once belonged to my grandfather – the house where I planned to “figure things out” – my priorities were elsewhere. “I can’t believe I’m not watching the finale with you!” I wailed. Jen and I were friends who, for years, had dissected every GOT plot point and character arc like it was our job. “What am I going to do?”

More than a year and a half later, I’m looking forward to the epic series’ final season with both eager anticipation and a palpable sense of loss. For eight years, Game of Thrones has been my companion throughout the most difficult experiences of my life. When it premiered in 2011, I’d never lost anyone close to me; before season three was over, my parents, my grandmother, my dog, and a close friend from college were all dead. As I grappled with disorienting grief, the brutal, you-win-or-you-die rules of the world GOT unfolded before me provided welcome catharsis. A show where the writers didn’t hesitate to kill off beloved characters was – oddly – comforting. No one was safe. Anyone could die. Just like in real life.

Watching Game of Thrones in L.A.

At my father’s funeral in the winter of 2013, I sat at a table with his younger brother, Jimmy. The last time we’d seen each other, I was four years old and the flower girl in my half-sister’s wedding. With no relationship as adults, we had little to talk about. Jimmy was also gravely ill, requiring an oxygen tank to help him breathe. But he’d been a professor of film at a university in Nevada, and somehow, Game of Thrones came up. Our stilted, awkward conversation quickly gave way to a spirited discussion about Jimmy’s favorite character, Daenerys Targaryen. Jimmy died a few months later, and, in the years that followed, whenever Daenerys conquered a city or triumphed over one of her enemies, I felt a nagging sadness that he didn’t live to see it. “Jimmy would have loved that,” was my common, wistful refrain.

There are no knights in my story, no dragons or sorcerers or white walkers. But so often over the last eight years, the struggles of GOT’s characters have felt like heightened, fantastical versions of my own. I have loved them, learned from them, cried and cheered for them. But nowhere in the Game of Thrones universe did the stories of two characters resonate more personally with me than those of Arya and Sansa Stark. While their brothers were off getting killed (and occasionally, coming back to life!) or turning into a three-eyed raven, those two sisters were learning to survive in a world that constantly underestimated them. My life circumstances were – obviously – far less dramatic, but like Arya and Sansa, I too knew what it was like to suddenly lose my parents, to have my family ripped apart, and to be thrust into a new reality where everything felt cold and cruel and unfair. Every time one of them was hurt, I was outraged. Every time one of them triumphed, I saw it as a personal victory. Which is why the season seven finale, when they worked together to finally bring justice to the man who had been the architect of so much of their family’s suffering, was so, damned, satisfying.

Arya Stark (from IMDB.com)

There are plenty of people who will say GOT is just a TV show, and plenty more who will brag about the fact that they’ve never watched an episode. But for me, it’s more than just a compelling drama. The community that formed around watching Game of Thrones made me feel less alone during the loneliest period of my life. As Vulture.com pointed out in a recent article, in the age of binge watching, GOT might be the last show we watch together, each episode an event that must be experienced in real-time, with all of its awe and horror unfolding before our eyes. Which is why, even now, with so many of my friends and loved ones three thousand miles away on the opposite coast, I’ll still feel like, tonight, when I tune in for the season premiere, I will be watching right alongside them.

The final episodes of Game of Thrones are done. All that’s left to do now is wait, and watch. I am equal parts excited to see how my favorite characters’ stories will end, and terrified to learn their fates. And while I know no one is safe in the land of Westeros (or in the lands beyond), I do have one final request. Hey David, D.B. and George R.R.? Please don’t kill Arya and Sansa. I have survived many things in my life, and I’m sure I can survive that, too. I’m just not sure I want to.

Until next time, friends.

Jon Snow and Sansa Stark reunite (from IMDB.com)

June.

“Many of us spend our whole lives running from feeling with the mistaken belief that you cannot bear the pain. But you have already borne the pain. What you have not done is feel all you are beyond that pain.”

– Khalil Gibran

I started writing the end of my story first. I began with the day I hugged Jen in the driveway of her apartment building after she’d helped me put three heavy suitcases in the back of my car, and then drove my silver Toyota Prius up an eerily deserted 405 freeway to the top of the Sepulveda Pass for the last time. I wrote about the Lyft ride to the airport, where I told the driver I was moving to New York and how strange those words sounded coming out of my mouth, and the celebratory glass(es) of prosecco I drank at the Wolfgang Puck restaurant in Terminal 6, where I thought about my mother the whole time, because it was almost eighteen years to the day that I’d taken the reverse flight, from Seattle to L.A., as a kid going off to college, and how scared I’d been, and how she’d held my hand and told me that everything was going to be all right. And now, here I was again, eighteen years later, no longer a kid, but feeling just as exhilarated and terrified by the change I was about to make, and this time without my mother to tell me everything would be all right. So I took a deep breath, got on the plane, and told myself.

It felt easier to start at the end than the beginning, not just because the ending was fresh in my mind. Because the ending was so full of hope. As I scrolled through old Instagrams and blog posts from last summer, that was the thing I was struck by again and again: hope. The fact that I didn’t know how this grand adventure was going to turn out, but I was barreling forward anyway, with a sense of faith and confidence that surprised even me. Because I wanted something different than what I’d already had, and that meant doing something different than what I’d already done. Because when nothing is certain anything is possible, and I believed most of all the words of a friend who told me that anything is possible in New York.

So I made the decision to go, and once I’d made that decision, all the other decisions sprang from it, gathering momentum, like a giant snowball rolling down a hill. And I didn’t stop to think that anything could go wrong, didn’t consider any outcome other than a good one, didn’t even really listen to friends who cautioned that change is difficult, and I might have a hard time transitioning to life on the east coast.

Of course, hard turned out to be an understatement. And as winter descended like a fog, and none of my plans worked out and the grief I thought I’d healed from came roaring back, I lost sight of the hope I’d had in those early days. I stopped believing in myself. I stopped believing that good things were possible.

But if there’s one thing I’ve learned during these last few difficult years, it’s that sometimes our darkest moments can be our greatest teachers. And during the winter that never seemed to end, I came to a realization: maybe the fact that nothing was working out was exactly what I needed. Maybe my move to New York wasn’t meant to be about what I would accomplish. Maybe it was meant to be about what I would learn.

It’s officially summer in the city. My first. It’s already uncomfortably humid for a girl used to the desert climate of Southern California, and it’s nowhere near as hot and a sticky as it’s going to get. I’m trying not to think about it. I’m trying to take each day as it comes, enjoying the fact that I can still sit in my living room with all the windows open and feel the faint breeze rustling through the trees and listen to the rattle of the 1 train as it shoots out of the tunnel at 125th and Broadway.

The beginning of summer means my memoir class is coming to an end. And while I’ve made a commitment to spend these next hot, humid months writing my book, I’ve also just begun another class: an intensive playwriting workshop geared toward finishing the first draft of my next script. I’m a bit worried I’ve taken on too much, that one big project might derail the other. But as I’ve started diving into this new play, a bittersweet love story about two people whose destinies are intertwined and yet, who ultimately can’t be together, I’ve realized that whether it’s fiction or non, there’s one theme that keeps running through all of my work, a theme that goes something like this: You can’t save people, you can only love them.

I can’t say how long I’ll stay in New York. I can only say that after nine months and three seasons, I’m finally starting to appreciate this city for what it is: an open door I needed to walk through to change my life. I’m grateful for every road block, every challenge, every time I looked in the mirror and asked myself, “What in the hell am I doing?” This experience has made me stronger, less afraid, and more willing to fail. And while I’ve never been a person who’s been comfortable living in uncertainty, I can recognize that uncertainty is exactly what I needed to make me realize I still have the power to shape my own narrative. I don’t know how this story is going to end, only that I’m writing it moment to moment, in a place where, once again, anything feels possible.

Until next time, friends.

Montauk.

The sea wants to kiss the golden shore//
The sunlight warms your skin
//
All the beauty that’s been lost before
//
Wants to find us again.*

I woke before my alarm, song lyrics in my head. I heated up a mug of hot water, squeezed a slice of lemon into it, and put my headphones in. From the weathered armchair in the corner of my living room, I watched the sun rise over New York. I watched the clouds turn pink, their color deepening before dispersing, bathing the buildings in gentle light before bidding them goodbye. I watched from my eighth-floor window as a crammed subway train made its way downtown, filled with people going to jobs I didn’t have, leading lives I didn’t live. I watched the day begin, and then, I wrote.

I’m not sure when the shift began. I think it was twelve days earlier, on the way to Montauk, when from outside the window of my eastbound train, from over a bank of snow, I first glimpsed the Atlantic Ocean. And later, on a Long Island beach, when I climbed over more snow to get to sand and stood, watching the waves crash, watching the water recede and return, breathing in cold salt air, that for the first time in a long time, I felt like myself again. There was no grand epiphany, just a quiet voice whispering, “Remember?” And I did. And then I went back inside, to work.

I came to New York to write. And though I’ve been writing every day, I haven’t enjoyed it. The process has been torturous, and slow, and has often felt – to me – without purpose. But as a friend of mine once said, “Sometimes we make the story so big, we can’t tell it.”

When I tell you that writing saved my life, I’m not exaggerating. A few years ago, when I was in the worst part of my depression, when the world felt like it was collapsing around me, writing was the only thing that gave me any relief. I’ve always harbored a secret worry (not so secret any more, I guess) that I feel more than most people. That I feel more than what is normal. So, when real tragedy struck, the emotions were so big they threatened to drown me. That was when I first started experiencing panic attacks. When I couldn’t swallow food without feeling like I was choking. When I struggled to get out of bed.

I should have asked for help. But I didn’t. I wrote. And as I wrote, I learned something. I learned that if I could find a way to articulate my emotions so that other people could feel them too, if I could turn them into real, tangible things in the form of essays or blog posts, if I could get them out of my body and into the world, then they wouldn’t swallow me. Call it sharing my pain in order to survive. I don’t know if it worked, but it sure felt like it did. And it made me feel a hell of a lot less alone.

I don’t write to survive any more, but sometimes I forget that. Sometimes, I’ll be working on an essay or a section of dialogue or a scene in a play, and something will come out that’s intense or unexpected and knock me sideways and I’ll have to stop for a while. And I’m reminded that the thing that brings me the greatest joy can still, occasionally, be dangerous.

When I went out to Montauk, the weather had already begun to turn. By the time I got back to the city, the snow had melted, the streets had cleared, and it was – dare I say – pleasant. I took the subway downtown to look at a theater space, and using Google maps as my navigator, I experienced a feeling that can only be described as relief. There was no headache, no bitter cold. Being outside, walking around, was fun. Were people on the streets actually smiling? In New York?

I guess that’s the thing about winter. The storms can be brutal. But on the other side of them? Beauty. And every so often: moments of pure, unfiltered joy.

Until next time, friends.

*Lyrics from the song “Ordinary Love,” by U2

Instructions.

“Instructions for living a life.
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.”

― Mary Oliver

The sea was rough on the crossing to Bremerton. I sat in a booth near the window and watched as whitecaps broke across dark blue water. The ferry rocked and swayed but chugged resolutely onward, the Seattle skyline slowly disappearing behind us. Despite the chop, the day was glorious on all accounts, with nary a cloud in the clear blue December sky.

The next morning, the winter solstice, I dug myself out from underneath a pile of blankets and padded into the kitchen to make coffee. The view that greeted me from outside the wall of inlet-facing windows was pure white; the fog that blanketed the landscape so thick I couldn’t tell where the sky ended and the sea began. There was no snow on the ground, but the grass and evergreen trees had been dusted with a layer of frost, looking as though someone had painted them with a great big silvery brush. It was four days before Christmas, and I was home.

A couple of weeks earlier – more than two, but less than three – on the evening of my birthday, I sat in a friend’s kitchen in North London, drinking wine. My friend told me that she was worried that my writing was so sad, that she sometimes found it difficult to read my blog. This friend had known me a long time; we’d first met when I was a twenty-one-year-old college student on a semester abroad. How different my life looked then, when I attended class three days a week, lived in a beautiful flat in central London, and my biggest concern was which European country I’d travel to over the next four-day weekend.

I remember that girl well, how she sang through the streets of Berlin, and cheered a royal wedding in Amsterdam, and crashed a party at a film festival in the south of France. She’d been liberated from an unhappy adolescence by her acceptance into a prestigious university in Los Angeles, and once there, everything seemed possible. She threw herself into life with abandon, without fear of loss. And why not? Nothing bad had happened to her yet.

When I began this blog, I didn’t set out to write about sad things. I didn’t set out to do anything, really, other than try to survive an all-encompassing darkness that descended unexpectedly at the age of thirty-one. Writing helped. It helped make sense of tragedy. It helped connect me with other people and realize that I didn’t have to suffer alone. It helped me find a voice and a purpose.

I’m on the other side of that darkness now. I still write about sad things. But mostly, I try to write what’s true. And the truth is, my life looks very different than it did before the darkness visited me.

How I loved that twenty-one-year-old college student, off having the time of her life in London. Every time I return to that city – as I did just a few weeks ago – I’m reminded of her. I miss her enthusiasm and her innocence. I miss her, but I know she isn’t coming back. And I don’t want her to.

That girl never would have been brought to tears by the sight of baby Orca whales and their mother hunting for food off the shores of Case Inlet. She never would have been leveled by a tangerine sun setting over cobblestone streets in the Marais neighborhood of Paris, or seen the poetry in the changing autumn foliage in the Hudson River Valley. She would have tried to appreciate those things, but their beauty would have been lost on her.

I am not naïve anymore, not fearless. I know what it’s like to lose. I no longer throw myself into the world with abandon, but I do live in it. I take that fear, and that awareness of how fragile everything is, and I carry it with me out into the world. I see what’s beautiful, and what’s sad, and what’s true, and I write it all down.

And in doing this, little by little, I am re-making my life.

Until next time, friends.

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