Her.

It was a Facebook “memory” that alerted me to the fact that I’d missed my grandmother’s death anniversary. I’d missed it by an entire week. I stared at my iPhone screen for a solid minute, wondering why a post from four years ago, in which I thanked friends for attending the opening weekend of a play festival that I co-produced, would trigger such heaviness in me. And then, suddenly, I knew. It was because I had written that post just one week after my grandmother died. The anniversary of her death had come and gone, and I had completely forgotten about it.

When the call came on that Saturday morning, April 13th, I didn’t answer it. There was only one reason that my eighty-six-year-old grandfather would be calling me. Ever since I had visited Grandma in the home for Alzheimer’s patients two months earlier, I had known that her end was near. Her decline was steep and rapid. She had gone from placing daily, mostly-lucid phone calls to me, to being wheelchair bound, her white blond hair tangled and swept off her face with plastic little girl barrettes, her pale blue eyes reflecting no recognition of me, all in the space of a few weeks.

I got into my car and replayed my grandfather’s message. “We’ve lost another one, Sar,” he said, his voice tired, resigned. I called him back, listened as he told me that he’d arrived at her nursing home too late to say goodbye. “I’m sorry,” I said. I told him I loved him, hung up the phone, and went to rehearsal. And I told no one – not one single, solitary person – what had happened. Not for weeks.

Looking back, I suppose the fact that I kept my grandmother’s death a secret from everyone who knew me was not particularly healthy. But at the time, my decision – at least to me – made perfect sense. I was one week out from opening a series of one-act plays, two of which I was acting in, another of which I was directing. I had a full-time job, one that I had only recently returned to after taking a leave when my father died. And it had only been seven months since the death of my mother, who had crawled inside of a vodka bottle (or more accurately, a liquor store’s worth of vodka bottles) on the heels of my father’s terminal cancer diagnosis. The space between the deaths of both of my parents had been less than five months, and I was tired. I had taken enough “bereavement” time. I wanted to get back to my life. I wanted to get back to work. And I had a show to open.

But four years later, I can finally admit that there’s another, darker reason why I never allowed myself to grieve my grandmother’s passing; why I don’t mourn her loss the way I’ve mourned the losses of my parents. My grandmother was not a nice person.

That’s what I’ll tell you when I’m feeling kind. What I’ll tell you when I’m feeling brutally honest is that my grandmother was an emotional terrorist. She was a serial abuser, one who reserved her worst brutality for those she claimed to love the most. I can’t count the number of times that, as a little girl, she brought me to tears by telling me something hateful about my parents. And she took immense pleasure in depositing my favorite stuffed animal, a ratty and well-loved St. Bernard I never slept without, into the trash. Her only “apology,” was to tell me I was better off without him, because he was “full of disease.”

As I got older, I got tougher. My grandmother lost the ability to make me cry. I fought back. I called her out. And the bullying stopped. But my mother? She wasn’t so lucky.

I’m glad that I’ll never know the full extent of the hell that my grandmother rained down on my sweet, emotionally sensitive mother. I know enough to know that she destroyed whatever fragile self-confidence she might have had. Even as a little girl, I remember the temper tantrums and smashed dishes, the screaming and shrieking, my grandmother accusing my Mom again and again of being a “horrible mother.” I remember the multiple “interventions,” with Mom and Grandpa raiding Grandma’s stockpile of prescription drugs and flushing them down the toilet, telling her, “Enough.”

And I know that my grandmother, who valued money and prestige above all else, forbade my Mom from pursuing the only thing she ever really dreamed of: becoming a professional tennis player. Mom – ever the dutiful daughter – obeyed, but deferring her dream was an event that changed the trajectory of her life. Even after she married my father and moved to Alaska, finally out from under her mother’s thumb, she never seemed to recover the gumption to go after her heart’s desire again.

As twisted and grotesque as it may sound, in some ways I feel “lucky” to have been born the daughter of a woman raised by an emotional abuser. My mother, never allowed to follow her own dreams, fiercely supported me in the pursuit of mine. Starved for affection by a woman who didn’t have a maternal bone in her body, my Mom showered me with love, making sure I always knew that I was the center of her universe. And spending years watching the person who I loved the most never believe that she was good enough had a profound effect on me, making me determined to live my life in all the ways that she couldn’t.

Part of me will always blame my grandmother for my mother’s death. I have no doubt that her relentless abuse is the reason my Mom sought solace in the bottle in the first place. But I also know that blaming her is too easy, that life – and human beings – are more complicated than that. My grandmother was sick for a long time, longer than any of us ever knew. And my mother had her own mental health issues, which she numbed with alcohol and refused to seek professional help for. Mental illness and addiction run rampant in my family, carrying with them a legacy of dysfunction, a legacy that I am determined not to repeat. Which is why, even though I know that this essay would have horrified my mother, I also knew that I had to write it.

Family is complicated. So is love. And I believe that people are capable of harboring two competing emotions within their bodies at the same time. For example, I can tell you that I loved my grandmother deeply, and yet most of the tears I’ve shed over her death were for myself, because I wished that she were different. I can tell you that as much as I admired my mother, I am terrified of ending up like her. And I can tell you that though I feel guilty about forgetting the anniversary of my grandmother’s death, I also wish that I didn’t have to remember it. I wish that April 13th was just another day on the calendar.

Until next time, friends.

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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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

Hallelujah.

I did my best, it wasn’t much
I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch
I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you
And even though
It all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah

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It was raining when I left New York, and the lyrics to that song were running through my head on an endless loop. They announced Leonard Cohen’s death the day I arrived in the city, two days after the results of a bitterly contested presidential election ripped the country apart at the seams (or rather, exposed the chasm that already existed), and one day before the anniversary of my grandfather’s death, Veteran’s Day, which also happened to be the one-year anniversary of the day I finally turned a corner on crippling grief, and decided to fight for my life.

I have been living with unanswered questions for a while now, and there hardly seemed a better place to escape from them than in gritty, relentless New York. Here, I could move faster than my racing brain, wind through subway tunnels and unfamiliar streets, dissolve into throngs of people in cafes and in crowds. I could lose myself in order to find myself. But a few days later, in the back of a JFK-bound taxicab, I knew that what I’d really found was a truth I could no longer run from: the journey I began a year ago, when my grandfather’s hospice ended and “Sarah 2.0” began, is not over.

I’ve made a good start. I’ve taken risks, both personally and professionally. I’ve traveled. I’ve volunteered. I’ve said no to things that weren’t right for me, and yes to things that were, and in doing so, I learned plenty about myself that I needed to know.

But I haven’t kept all of my promises. Not to myself, and not to those people for whom all I have left is a memory. I have been lazy. I have been afraid. I have wasted too much time on too many things that don’t matter.

One of the biggest, scariest things I did in the past year was to go see a psychic Medium and ask for her help in healing from the death of my mother. Whether you believe in Mediums or not, it was quite a thing for me – someone who never, ever, asks for help – to admit that this loss had carved such a hole in me that I couldn’t move forward with my life without a helping hand to guide me through it. And whether you believe that I communicated with my mother or not, what I do know is that whatever happened in that living room, on that sunny afternoon last July, helped me.

One of the things that came up during my session with Medium Fleur had nothing to do with spirits, or the afterlife. It had to do with me. Fleur told me that I’m meant to be a writer, and that I should be writing more. “You’re very talented,” she said, “but you’re lacking in self-confidence. It has to do with believing that you deserve it. Once you believe that you deserve it, everything is going to open up for you.”

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OK. This is the part where I get really honest, and really vulnerable. I have never, ever, believed that I deserve it. Not really. I am driven, and ambitious, and I have always, always, worked hard, but deep down, I don’t think I’ve ever truly believed that I deserve to be happy, or successful, or to get all of the things that I want.

Last summer, when my one-act play War Stories opened to rave reviews at Hollywood Fringe Festival, I not only worried that something bad would happen, I expected it. I mean it. The reviews were so good that I was sure that, to even the karmic scale, I was going to get into a horrific car accident, or choke on a chicken bone, or that a drone was going to descend out of the sky, and take me out.

And now that the first version of that play was well-received, that feeling is even worse. Because now there are people looking forward to the next incarnation, people who are coming from out of town to see it, people who are expecting it to be good. So of course, even though the show opens in two and a half months, I haven’t finished writing it yet.

Sometimes I wonder if choosing to be a writer, and choosing to write this play in particular, makes me a masochist. I’m serious. It is scary as hell to sit down with yourself, alone, and try to figure out how to say things that are true, things that matter, things that make people feel something. And to write a play about love? The most personal, vulnerable, universal emotion of all? It’s no wonder I’m procrastinating.

But. I am only two weeks out from my next birthday, and only six weeks out from the end of 2016. And I’ll tell you something else that’s true:  I am tired of not keeping my promises. I am tired of running. And I am more than a little tired of feeling like I don’t deserve it.

And so. I’m going all in. Because I have to. Because the only remedy is to do the work. Because the only thing that soothes the ache within me is to channel it into something creative, and to make that creation as compelling and as evocative and as heartfelt as I can.

I might fail. I might fall flat on my face. But there’s no more running from this. Because the only way out is on the jagged, treacherous path that runs directly through.

And who knows? Maybe somewhere along that path, I might even discover that I do deserve it, after all.

Until next time, friends.

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November.

In the four years that I have been writing Extra Dry Martini (really, three years, with any regularity), I have never once posted about politics. I try to keep my subject matter non-partisan, because it’s important to me that this blog remains a safe and welcoming space for everyone who reads it. At times, keeping my impassioned opinions out of my writing has proven difficult, mostly because I am a politically minded person who comes from a politically minded family. My father, who, for better or for worse, taught me how to fight for what I believe in, was a ferociously liberal Irish Catholic Democrat who advocated for social justice, thought the Kennedys were Gods, and never (if I’m being totally honest), met a Republican that he liked very much (or at all).

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I had planned to write another blog post. A post that would commemorate this Friday’s one year anniversary of my beloved Grandfather’s passing with a joyful retrospective about embracing life, about celebrating all of the parts of him that live within me, and about looking toward a still uncertain future with optimism. But I can’t write that blog post. Not today. Because today, one day after a U.S. Presidential election that shocked the world, my heart has been cracked open and I simply can’t pretend to be anything other than consumed by an all-encompassing grief. And so, I am turning to the one thing – the only thing – that has seen me through in times of heartbreak: writing.

I don’t have the energy (or frankly, the desire) to engage in a political debate. The election is over. And though I did everything I could (OK, not everything, but a LOT) to help defeat the man who will become America’s next President, I sincerely hope that he succeeds. Because I want America to succeed. Because I love my country. And because I love my friends and my family and I want all of us – even those who disagree with me (sorry, Dad) – to be OK.

Although I have been politically minded my whole life (I vote in every election, no matter how small, or how local, and I am a serious geek when it comes to studying up on the issues), I never got involved in a political campaign in a meaningful way until this one. Partially because this has been my year of “if not now, when,” but primarily because I truly admire, respect and love my party’s nominee.

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For most of her political career (other than her tenure as Secretary of State), it has not been popular or cool to say that you admire, respect and love Hillary Clinton. And I think that might be the main reason why I admire, respect and love her so much. Because she is a woman who has succeeded in a man’s world. Because she is tough as nails and makes no apologies for her toughness. Because even as she has been consistently, relentlessly criticized by haters for things that have nothing to do with her experience or intellect – her lack of “likability,” her “shrill” voice, her pantsuits – she has spent her life trying to make the lives of those less fortunate than her better. And I admire, respect and love her because for all of those reasons (and for many others), my mother admired, respected and loved her, too.

So today, I am grieving. And I am missing my mother something fierce. But I am not a defeatist. While I am admittedly deeply concerned about the future of my country, I still hold on to hope. I hold on to the amazing human beings – volunteers, voters, and field organizers – that I met while knocking on doors to get out the vote in the battleground state of Nevada. I hold on to the fact that now that I have experienced what it’s like to be meaningfully involved in a political campaign, there’s no going back; I will continue to engage in public service for the rest of my life. And I hold on to the fact that – like my father – the fight within me is fierce, and I will keep that fight going for as long as I can, in all the ways that I can.

Don’t worry: Extra Dry Martini is not going to turn into a partisan blog. I am sure that, in the busy weeks and months that lie ahead, I will find plenty of other things to write about. But today, like so many of my fellow Americans, I am grieving. And if I have learned anything about grief it is this: you don’t heal from it by ignoring it. Sometimes, going all the way in is the only way to go.

Thanks for listening.

Until next time, friends.

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White Butterflies.

And I want to keep us all alive

And I want to see you with my eyes

But I see you in the fireflies

And how extraordinary . . .

Is that?

– From the song, “Light Me Up” by Ingrid Michaelson

I was sleeping when the call came. Not quite sleeping, but not yet awake either. Drifting in and out of dreams, dreaming of things far off and beautiful, dreaming of a life different than my own.

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I heard the phone ringing in my dream too, then realized, as one does when a pleasant reverie is interrupted by the nagging insistence of the real world, that this was not actually a dream, but my cell phone, cutting through the sleepy Sunday morning with its persistent staccato. “What in the hell?” I muttered, annoyed at being pulled away from the comfort of my bed and the hazy, lovely world I inhabited there. I stumbled into the next room and found my phone where I’d left it the night before, on top of a chest of drawers.

I listened, confused, to the voicemail from my Aunt Sandy. Why was she calling me? Why was she crying? “Call me back,” she urged, her voice breaking, “Or call your father. It’s an emergency.”

I chose to dial home. It’s a decision I would later live to regret. I heard a click on the other end of the line, the receiver being lifted, strange voices echoing through my parents’ house, someone handing the telephone to my father, who was frail, hard of hearing, ill with cancer. Finally, his low, gravelly voice: “Sar?”

“Dad?” I asked, panic rising in my throat and threatening to choke out the words. “What’s going on?”

“Mom’s dead.”

And everything went black.

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I will probably always mark September 23rd as a sad anniversary. From that dark day in 2012 onward, it will forever be known to me as the day I learned that my mother, Anne Popelka Kelly – my best friend, my first phone call, my most important person – was gone. Her passing was my first real experience with death, and, though there have been many others since, hers remains – for me – the most significant.

There are few things I haven’t tried, in the four years since her death, to assuage a tremendous ocean of grief. I have consulted astrologers and tarot readers. I have purchased – and barely opened – an embarrassing number of self-help books. I have seen therapists. I have tried (and abandoned) nearly every feel-good remedy, every exercise regimen, every diet. I have consumed a revolting amount of whiskey and wine and cigarettes. I have run countless miles in bad shoes on blistered feet.

I don’t think there’s any feeling heavier than guilt, any destination harder to reach than forgiveness. But if I’ve learned anything about grief in these last four years, it’s this: you cannot possibly begin to heal without releasing the first and embracing the second. I was closer to my mother than anyone else in this world, but for the past four years, I have carried a crippling amount of guilt and shame over the fact that I saw her spiraling into a black pit of despair and addiction, and stood by, watching it happen. I knew I was losing her months before she was actually lost, but not knowing what to do, I did nothing.

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It may seem counterintuitive, but it was actually another experience with death that allowed me to turn the corner on my grief. Last October, I learned that my mother’s father, my sweet Grandpa Gerry, was abruptly, terminally, ill, his doctor giving him a timeline of a mere thirty days left to live. Without thinking, I put everything else on hold and traveled back to Washington State to help with his hospice care.

For the first time in my thirty-five years, I sat with someone as they faced the end of their life, and I felt the power of a love so enormous that all my fears about what would happen to me became secondary to my desire to provide my grandfather with the care and comfort that he needed. If there is such a thing as a “good” death, he had it, and his peaceful passing filled me not only with profound gratitude, but also with an unexpected surge of hope that the world could still be a good and decent place, as well as a fierce determination to not waste any more time punishing myself for a past that had already been written.

By the time I got to that July afternoon, two months ago, sitting across from the psychic medium Fleur in her sun-filled Los Angeles living room, I knew that the weight I had saddled myself with was simply too heavy to carry anymore. And so, when Fleur told me that my mother wanted me to forgive myself, that I couldn’t have altered or changed her death in any way, I chose to believe her. And when she told me that my mother was proud of me, that she was always with me, and that she sent me white butterflies as a sign to let me know that she was thinking of me, I chose to believe that, too. And I’ll tell you something: before that day, I can’t ever remember seeing a white butterfly. But now, I see them all the time. Almost every day.

I’m still sad that I couldn’t save my mother. I probably always will be. But maybe we can’t save anyone. Maybe we can only love them. And forgive them. And forgive ourselves. And maybe, by doing that, we can – to paraphrase the words of my favorite poet, Mary Oliver – save the only life we ever really can: our own.

Until next time, friends.

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Grateful.

Friends, I’d like you to meet Rick Lewis and his wife, Karrin.

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Rick dated my Mom in high school and on July 20, 1969, they watched Neil Armstrong become the first man to walk on the moon, through a black and white satellite feed broadcast from space, on a tiny TV set at my Grandparents’ beach cabin in Allyn, WA; the same waterfront paradise where I’ve been staying for the past week.

After my mother died, Rick found me (ahem, Facebook stalked me) and became my pen pal, but we only met in person for the first time yesterday. He hadn’t been out to the beach since that moon landing, nearly fifty years ago. But yesterday afternoon, on a perfect August day, he and his wife came by and piloted their boat toward shore and I jumped in, and we spent the afternoon telling stories and laughing and drinking wine and eating tapas and cruising around Case Inlet, the same body of water that my mother loved her whole life, the same body of water where two summers ago, my Aunt and Uncle and I climbed into a little tin boat and went out to sea to scatter her ashes.

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These last few weeks have been a wildly euphoric magic carpet ride, capped by such an incredibly special week at the beach with my family. I almost can’t believe how wonderful it all has been, so much so that I haven’t even really been able to sleep, probably because part of me is afraid this is all some sort of crazy dream.

As I write this, I’m crying, because being this happy has made me realize that I think I’d given up on the idea that I ever would be again. I thought the old Sarah, the sunshine-eyed girl that my Dad used to teasingly call Polyanna, was gone forever. Not because I’m a negative person – quite the opposite – but because for so long everything good seemed to be followed up by something horrifying and tragic and I had spent years crushed underneath the weight of so much sorrow and grief and pain that I simply couldn’t see my way out of it.

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I don’t know if it’s God or angels or magic or karma or what, but whatever force is at work in me now, I am just so grateful, grateful, grateful. I didn’t know my heart had the capacity to hold so much joy, but at 35 years old, it feels like I’m finally waking up to the beauty of what it means to be alive.

If you’re going through something, please hold on. Do it for me. Just over a year ago, I was crying so much I developed a paranoid fear of dying from dehydration (doesn’t that sound stupid and hilarious now?), and I was so achingly sad that out of desperation, I started writing myself “Get Well Soon” cards, putting them in the mail, and sending them to myself. I have been to the brink, and I have known real darkness, and somehow, some way, I came out the other side. And life is better and more beautiful than anything I could have ever dreamed. If I can get here from there, then trust me, so can you. Nothing is permanent in this life, my friends, not even our troubles. Believe that. I am living proof.

Until next time,

xx

Sarah

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Lucky.

The other day, I realized I was happy. When the feeling visited me, I wasn’t doing anything particularly remarkable. I was sitting on my patio, reading a novel, drinking tea, the summer sun sinking low on the horizon, and I looked up and saw a monarch butterfly alight on the hedge near my outstretched foot. And as I watched her pause there, briefly, I realized something that was remarkable:  in that moment, I didn’t want to be anywhere else. And I thought to myself:  I am lucky.

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I have spent years chasing that elusive thing that people call “happiness.” Running off to Europe or running into therapy. Retreating to island hideaways in the South Pacific or in the Pacific Northwest. Trying every diet, every exercise regimen, every “feel good” prescription from self-help books to spiritual counseling to many, many failed attempts at mindfulness and meditation.

At times, I found that thing that I was seeking. I found it in the breach of a Humpback whale in the sapphire waters off Maui; or at the top of Malá Strana, gazing down with wonder on the red tiled rooftops of Prague; or in the cards of an eighty-six-year-old Tarot reader named Miss Irene in the back of a Voodoo shop in New Orleans.

But whenever those moments came, I always had the sense that – beautiful as they were – they weren’t meant to last. I had worked so hard to chase them down that it was almost as though I brought them into existence by the sheer force of my own will. And then, as quickly as they arrived, they were gone. Inevitably, the old familiar ache and its accompanying emptiness returned, followed by the persistent question, “Why don’t I feel any better?”

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I suppose that when I finally stopped running, I did so out of sheer exhaustion. I was tired of working so hard with so little to show for it. And I was tired of trying to fake it to make it. As my therapist told me, “Sarah, sometimes, there are situations in life that can’t be fixed. Sometimes there’s just nothing you can do.”

Shortly thereafter – after said beloved therapist took a new job and relocated to Oregon (sob) – life handed me just that:  the opportunity to do nothing. To take a break, to slow down, and to take some real time off. And I took it. And it is in this pause that I found something I wasn’t able to find in all of the running and searching and seeking:  I found comfortable footing upon the ground of uncertainty. I found that sometimes, it’s O.K. to be lost.

As I finish this blog post, I’m sitting on the patio of my one-bedroom bungalow on Cashio Street, the sunset casting its tangerine glow on the terra cotta tiles beneath my bare feet. I love this little cottage, love the way it fell into my lap when I needed it the most, love the way its four walls have sheltered me and kept me safe, allowing me to rebuild after everything around me had been smashed and shattered. But I also know – as I have always known – that this isn’t a forever place. It’s merely a rest stop on the way to something better.

But for now, for this moment, everything is perfect. Everything is exactly what I need. And the knowledge that I can be so at peace with not knowing what’s coming next, that I don’t need to know, is the biggest indicator of all that something powerful within me has begun to shift. And I wonder if maybe the thing that I was searching for so intently wasn’t happiness, after all. Maybe the thing that I was searching for was faith.  Not faith in the traditional, religious sense, but instead, faith in myself. Faith that no matter the challenge or change, I’ll be able to meet it head on. Faith that, after having been through the storm, and after having come out the other side, I’m stronger than I was before. Faith that no matter what happens, I’ll be O.K.

Until next time, friends.

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The Other Side.

“Have you ever had a reading before?”

“No.”

“Never before?”

“No.”

“That’s exciting.”

“Yeah.”

I try to keep my tone upbeat, but I can hear the nervous tension in my voice as I say those words out loud. Fleur must hear it too, because she offers me a warm, reassuring smile.

“It’s not scary,” she promises. “Let me tell you a little bit about how it works.”

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It’s Monday afternoon, and I’m seated across from her in a large, sun-filled living room. Even though the armchair she has offered me is plush and comfortable, I’m perched on its edge, the uncertainty about what’s to come rendering me unable to sit back or relax. Fleur is young (if I had to guess, I’d place her in her late twenties), and very pretty, with wide blue eyes and a delicate floral sundress to match. Her long twist of wavy golden brown hair is swept off her face and into a side ponytail. Her home is comfortable and decorated in minimalist California chic: no crystal ball, beaded curtains, or creepy talismans in sight. In other words, Fleur – and her home – are about as far away from the Hollywood stereotype of a psychic medium as you can get.

Yes, on the outside, everything looks pretty normal on this quiet Monday afternoon. What’s not normal is the reason I’ve come here: to make contact with the spirits of my dead relatives.

The day before my reading, butterflies swirling in my stomach, I texted a friend who’d seen Fleur a few months earlier. “Any advice?” I asked. What she proposed was simple, yet helpful: record the audio of the session on my iPhone so that I could refer to it later, come up with a list of questions that I wanted to ask, and – for me – the part that proved to be the most difficult: invite the people I wanted to see to show up.

It has been nearly four years since my mother’s death. My dad followed a few months after her, then my grandmother, and then, last fall, my grandfather. And in all that time – with rare, desperate exceptions – I have almost never tried to “talk” to them. I’m not entirely sure why, but I suppose it’s because doing so always made me feel awkward and silly. I never knew where to start, or what to say. But in truth, I think I have been holding back out of fear that it won’t work, that they’re not really out there, and that I’m just some foolish girl, sitting alone in a room, talking to myself.

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But the evening before my meeting with Fleur, I decided to try. I waited until it was very late at night, and then, extinguishing all the lights in my apartment, I switched on an ornate Indian lantern in the shape of a star, filling the space with a soft, turquoise glow. Using a wand of Nag Champa incense (my mom’s favorite), I lit a small, scented pillar candle, and, my eyes fixed on its persistent flame, I began to speak. At first, the words came slowly, haltingly. But as I sat in the kitchen, bathed in the lantern’s blue light, I suddenly remembered my parents’ house in Olympia at Christmastime, sitting in front of the tree with my mom, drinking wine in the dark and marveling at how twinkling lights and tinsel could make an ordinary evergreen seem like something made of magic. That feeling of calm and safety, of not needing to be anywhere else but right there, with her, was such a happy memory that I wondered how on earth I could have forgotten it. Tears formed in my eyes, emotion rose in my chest, and the words I hadn’t known how to say came tumbling out.

I don’t know where I stand on the idea of an “afterlife.” I don’t know what happens to people when they die. Fleur believes, as she told me before we began our reading, that the soul doesn’t depart when the physical body does, and that her job as a medium is to simply allow the spirits of those who have “crossed over” to “step forward and make a connection.”

Did that happen during our reading? I can’t say with absolute certainty. The skeptic in me will tell you that there’s plenty of personal information about me and my family readily available on the internet thanks to this blog, and that much of what Fleur conveyed to me during my time with her was rooted in common sense, the type of things that anyone who was grieving would want to hear. But the part of me that’s open to possibility and feels humbled by the mystery of all that we can’t explain can admit to you that there were details that came up during our session that arrested me. Private, painful details about my childhood and the months leading up to my mother’s death that I’ve never written down and that very few people – if any – know about. And I can also tell you that there were many, many moments during our fifty minute session that I sat watching Fleur, her closed eyelids fluttering as she described what she was feeling and seeing, that felt incredibly real to me. Moments like when she described my grandfather and the infectious sense of delight he brought to the world, causing us both to laugh out loud. “He’s really funny!” she beamed. “He is,” I agreed.

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In the end, the thing that I had most been seeking from the session – a sense of peace and healing around my mother’s passing – was exactly what I received. As I sat in Fleur’s living room, she described a “feedback loop” of guilt and shame that I’d been stuck in, blaming myself for her death and reliving the events leading up to it over and over again in my mind, wondering what I could have done differently. “Your Mom wants you to stop doing that,” Fleur told me. “It is very important to her that you know that you could not have altered or changed what happened in any way. It was the path that she chose, and it’s not on you. You were the light of her life.”

When the session was over, not ready to go home and yet not ready to talk to anyone either, I drove to one of my favorite neighborhoods in L.A., Larchmont Village, and wandered the boulevard, losing myself among the hum of humanity in its sidewalk cafes and storefronts. Had my mother really communicated with Fleur, urging me to let my pain and regret go? And in the end, did it really matter? Whether Fleur could really speak with the dead or whether she was simply a kind, highly intuitive person who knew the words I most needed to hear, my heart told me what was true. In spite of her flaws and failings, my mother loved me more than anything and I know she wouldn’t want me to blame myself for her death. She’d want me to remember the parts of her that were about love, and let the rest go. She’d want me to allow myself to move on, and be happy.

It all sounds so simple as I type those words on the page: forgive myself and move on. I know the reality is much more difficult, much more complicated, just like my relationship with my mother was, just like love itself is. And yet – after Monday – I felt lighter somehow. The mere possibility that I might be able to let go of the weight I’ve been carrying these last few years filled me with a kind of hope I haven’t felt in a very long time. It’s the kind of hope that Dorothy must have felt when Glinda informed her, “You’ve always had the power my dear: you just had to learn it for yourself.” And armed with that hard-won knowledge, Dorothy bid farewell to the dear friends who had helped her on her dark and treacherous journey to the Emerald City, she tapped her ruby slippers together three times, and she went home.

Until next time, friends.

Me and Mom

P.S. * – If you’d like more information about Fleur, or are interested in booking a reading with her, visit: www.mediumfleur.com

I also recommend picking up Claire Bidwell Smith’s beautiful book After This, which contains a chapter about Fleur and is the reason that I discovered her.

*Please note: I received no monetary compensation for this post or for the information contained herein. I simply wanted to share my experience in case, like me, you are seeking peace and healing around the death of a loved one, and are open to exploring the mysteries of all the things we cannot know.

War Stories.

“It’s not love that’s complicated, it’s us. People.”

-War Stories

I’m going to let you in on a little secret.

I have been trying to understand myself better through writing. I have been trying to understand the world better through writing. I think I have been doing this for quite some time without fully realizing that I have been doing it.

There are so many complex emotions that have been swirling through me these last few years. A jumble of feelings about love and loss, joy and fear, hope and regret. At times I have felt numb and detached, at other times so alive and present that everything around me seemed to buzz.

All the while, I have been chasing meaning with my pen. I suppose I figured that if I could somehow disentangle my thoughts and shape them into words, if I could articulate them in such a way that made sense not only to me but also to other people, that maybe then I’d be able to answer that big, nagging question: What now?

Writing is a lonely business. I don’t know any way around that. The only way to do it is to sit in a chair, in front of a computer (or with a notebook and pen), alone, and do the work. I hate that part of it – the lonely part – even as I crave the solitude that’s required to tame my racing thoughts into written form.

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In an effort to quell the loneliness, I took a break from writing non-fiction essays and returned to my roots: theatre. I wrote a play. I created characters to keep me company and guess what? I fell in love with all of them. And then I went out to try to find them in the real world. What an adventure that turned out to be.

In just a few days the play that I wrote, War Stories, will no longer be something that exists only in my imagination or inside of a rehearsal studio. It will be a real, tangible thing, on a stage, with actors (including me) breathing life into the story in front of an audience. My friends will come see it, and so will reviewers. It’s one of roughly 300 shows at Hollywood Fringe Festival, the largest theatre festival on the west coast of the United States. Talk about turning the lonely writer thing on its head. Talk about getting vulnerable. Because you see, while this play is a work of fiction, it’s a work of fiction I never could have created without looking inward and asking myself what I thought about one incredibly personal topic: love.

I wrote a letter to the play’s audience that will be published in the program, and I’ve shared it with you below. If you happen to be in Los Angeles during the month of June, I’ve also included a link at the bottom of this post with info about where you can see it and how to get tickets. And now, about War Stories:

There is no script about love that hasn’t already been written. No wisdom about the inner workings of our hearts that hasn’t already been put into a song, or a poem or the brushstrokes of a painting. For as long as humans have been telling stories, they have been telling stories about love. And for that same amount of time, they have been asking themselves one question: Why? Why do we love who we love?

War Stories was my attempt to answer that question. To be honest, I’m still writing my way toward the answer (a not so subtle plug to like the show on Facebook so that I can update you on the next, two-act iteration of this piece). They say that all art is autobiography, and though this play is a work of fiction, it would be impossible not to put something of myself into a topic so vulnerable, so personal. In some ways, all of these characters are me.

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I set this story in Los Angeles because it’s the city where I live and it’s the city that I know, but aside from some inside baseball jokes about dating actors, it really could take place anywhere and be written in any language. Our search for love and the crazy things we do in pursuit of it are universal.

But there is something about this city that makes it fertile ground for this type of story. There’s something so optimistic about a place jammed full of creative people, living one break away from making their dreams come true. The sense of possibility is real and it’s intoxicating. Yet it can also be an incredibly lonely place. Countless hours of one’s life lost stuck in traffic jams, or working dead end jobs to pay the bills. How many people spend years existing on hope alone, always one step away from getting that thing that they think will make them happy?

To paraphrase a line from George Orwell’s famous essay Shooting an Elephant, if you wear a mask for too long, it becomes your face. This play is a cautionary tale about just that: the perils of pretending. All of these characters do it, and all realize at some point that they no longer can, especially when it comes to matters of the heart. In the end, they’re all looking for someone who, as Chelsea says, will “See them, really see them, and not run.”

But then again, aren’t we all?

Until next time, friends.

P.S. – For War Stories tickets & info, visit: hff16.org/3476

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