The salt and the sea.

It was well after 11 p.m. when we made the left turn on to Grapeview Loop Road from Washington State’s Highway Three. The drive in had been quiet; the late hour meant that the rural highways we traveled were sparsely populated, and our rental car pressed quickly forward into the inky black night, following winding roads over waterways too dark to see.

“Wow,” came the response when we arrived at the beach. Even in darkness, my friends could tell that the place was special. I gave them a brief tour and then began to unpack, tired from the long day and hoping to head straight to bed. But as they climbed the spiral staircase to the loft and stood out on the upstairs balcony, transfixed by the smell of saltwater and the sound of the sea, I realized I had underestimated the ability this place still had to stagger first-time visitors.

It continued all weekend: my re-initiation to the beach. After spending so much of my life there, I had grown accustomed to the densely-forested walk along the loop road, the silver, flat-as-a-mirror inlet with its fluctuating tides, the fresh air, the ever-present Mt. Rainier, standing snowcapped over a great bank of evergreen trees. I had forgotten that not everyone spends their summers digging clams at low tide, or building bonfires on the beach, or watching playful seals hunt for food just outside of their front door. I suppose it isn’t normal to pick wild blackberries in the woods on the walk to Treasure Island, or to admire the sailboats docked in Fair Harbor Marina, while tracing a map of the inland waterways of Puget Sound.

The truth is, the beach still has the power to amaze me. Every summer, when I make the left turn from Grapeview Loop Road on to the property that my Grandfather bought in 1959, the sight of Case Inlet stretching out across the landscape still levels me. But along with that feeling of awe comes something else: grief. Every advancing summer takes me further away from the carefree days of childhood, serving as a reminder of how much has changed, how much has gone. Of all the places I’ve traveled, the beach is the place I love the most, but it is also a repository for some of my darkest and most painful memories. I wish it wasn’t so, but I can’t help it: every time I return there, so do the flood of images of happier times, and of loved ones lost.

We planned a Saturday morning boat ride, and though the day dawned cold and cloudy, we pressed forward anyway, undeterred. As we bundled up into flannels and fleeces, my friend Vim spotted an unusual sight from just outside the living room window: a dorsal fin. We gathered on the deck, the four of us passing around two sets of binoculars, and I saw something I had never witnessed in all my summers on Case Inlet: Orca whales. They were hundreds of miles from the ocean, swimming very close to shore, and seemingly in no hurry to reach their destination. As the trio – two babies and their mother – traveled slowly south, spouting water and occasionally breaking the surface, I felt a lump rise in my throat. This moment, amidst all that was familiar, was entirely new.

In the end, I couldn’t have imagined a better way to spend my last few days before moving to New York than by sharing the place I grew up with some of my closest friends. I have come to accept the fact that there will always be sad memories contained along the rocky shores of Case Inlet. I can no more extract them from that place than I can the salt from the sea. But there are happy memories, too. Plenty of them, and even more so after this past weekend. After our boat ride, a group of friends and family gathered for a potluck lunch at my Grandfather’s house, and I thought about how he would have loved to hear the sound of laughter reverberating off the deck and out into the late summer afternoon. I thought about how the sight of those Orca whales proved one thing: despite all that’s happened, I haven’t lost my capacity for wonder. I think I just needed to see this old place again, but this time, through new eyes.

Until next time, friends.

Los Angeles.

I’m so tired, but I can’t sleep

Standing on the edge of something much too deep

It’s funny how we feel so much but cannot say a word

We are screaming inside but can’t be heard

 And I will remember you

Will you remember me?

Don’t let your life pass you by

Weep not for the memories.

 

On an early morning in the summer of 1999, a yellow school bus pulled into the parking lot of Capital High School in Olympia, Washington. I sat near the back, resting my head against the seat, softly singing the lyrics to a bittersweet Sarah McLachlan song. My head was light – the result of a sleepless night spent in Seattle, celebrating the Class of ‘99 and our newly-earned diplomas – but my heart was heavy. Graduation meant that in less than two months, I’d be leaving home to attend college in Los Angeles, a city I’d visited only once and where I knew no one. The thought of chasing my Hollywood dreams thrilled me, but I was scared too, possessed of the vague but certain knowledge that soon, everything in my life was going to change.

I waited until it was safe. As soon as I was sure that the solar eclipse that had been making its way eastward across the United States had passed over Los Angeles, I got into my car. As I merged on to that familiar stretch of the 405 freeway, I thought about that eighteen-year-old girl, half a life away, who was only just beginning her story. How could she have known how it would all unfold?

My mother watched from the third-floor window of the Radisson Hotel as – sirens blaring, strobe lights pulsating – fire trucks charged down Figueroa Street. Turning to me, face drawn with concern, fear in her aquamarine eyes, she asked earnestly:

“Sar, are you sure you want to go to school here?”

I was sure. From the minute I set foot onto USC’s University Park Campus I knew that I belonged there. Its proximity to the infamous “South Central” neighborhood of Los Angeles, the seemingly never ending parade of emergency vehicles exiting the nearby fire station, the metal bars encasing every apartment and store window. . . none of those things deterred me. In fact, they only strengthened my resolve. A girl who split her childhood between Anchorage, Alaska and small towns in the Pacific Northwest should have been a fish out of water in such a gritty, urban place. But I wasn’t. I was home.

Nearly eighteen years later, that exact same feeling settled in my chest, but this time, in a different place. Walking along Sixth Avenue in New York’s West Village, my eyes found the Freedom Tower, a beacon of steel blue standing strong and stoic in the distance, and something that can best be described as hope swelled within me. Home, cried a familiar voice, sure and steady. I listened.

I checked in to the Surf and Sand Hotel just after two p.m., changed into a bikini, and headed straight for the beach. Later, sandy and sleepy, I sat beneath a large white umbrella, stared out at the Pacific, and wrote. After an early dinner of cheap tacos and expensive wine, I headed back to the beach and waded into the ocean just in time to watch a blazing sun sink below the horizon, spreading coral and tangerine across a tranquil sky. Once it was dark, I opened up two old notebooks that I’d brought along for the journey and re-read their contents. I barely recognized the person who had written them, and so, I carefully shredded their pages and deposited them into a hotel garbage can.

As I crawled beneath white sheets, a feeling of calm settled over me. What a difference from the last time I came here, I thought. It had been December of 2015, a few days after my thirty-fifth birthday, a few weeks after my grandfather died and I had returned to L.A. from a month-long stay in tiny Allyn, Washington to oversee his hospice care, only to find that the company I had worked at for eleven years had been sold, and I had a decision to make: relocate to Seattle and take a job with the new company, or stay in L.A. and face an uncertain future. I chose to stay in L.A. I chose to trust the steady, sure voice that told me I would be OK. I have never regretted that decision.

Eighteen years after moving to Los Angeles and making it my home, it is impossible to describe how it feels to leave it. When I arrived here in the late summer of 1999, I was a girl on the edge of becoming a woman. A girl who thought she knew so much, but who had no idea how innocent she truly was. I had never been in love. I had never traveled to the Eastern United States to sink my toes into an Atlantic beach, let alone crossed that vast ocean to visit (and live in) the continent on the other side. I didn’t know that terrorists could fly airplanes into tall buildings. I didn’t know what it would feel like to hold the hand of someone I loved as they died.

What would I tell that girl now, all these years later, as I prepare to once again begin my life anew? I would tell her a great many things, but mostly I would tell her that she is allowed to make her own choices. She is allowed to let two conflicting emotions reside in her body at the same time. She is allowed to love a place and leave it, and she is allowed to love people and leave them, too. She is allowed to be both brave and afraid, allowed to be both as fragile as a paper doll and the owner of the fiercest heart imaginable. She is allowed to write her own story, without knowing how it’s going to end.

When I moved to Los Angeles, I never could have imagined how much this city would change me, how much it would shape me, how much it would open up my life. Somewhere among the boulevards and the beaches, among the wannabes and the celebrities, I found myself. I made lifelong friends. And I grew up.

Moving here was the right thing. I knew it, and I did it. And now, eighteen years later – as hard as it may be – I also know that it is the right thing to leave.

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.

Le Marais.

The more you see the less you know
The less you find out as you go
I knew much more then t
han I do now

 Neon heart, day-glo eyes
The city lit by fireflies
They’re advertising in the skies
For people like us

 – “City of Blinding Lights” by the band, U2

Today is my last full day in Paris. As much-anticipated voyages tend to do, this trip has gone quickly. I’m writing this dispatch from the sweet little apartment I rented in Le Marais: a small but well-appointed flat tucked away in an historic old building on Rue des Tournelles. As I sit near the window of my third-floor walkup, occasionally glancing out at the romantic cobblestone courtyard, I realize that though I’m still here, I’m already leaving. I find myself struggling to remain present and enjoy this moment, even as my mind drifts back to London, where tomorrow, my train departing Gare du Nord will take me, and then further afield, where my plane departing Heathrow will carry me back across the Atlantic, back to Los Angeles, where life is waiting.

I didn’t do nearly as much writing as I had planned on this trip, but I did do a lot of thinking. Thinking and daydreaming and exploring and meandering. All the things you’re supposed to do in Paris. I drank double espressos and delicious Bordeaux and ate decadent deserts and filled my (wine-stained) journal with pages full of what is probably mostly nonsense but might also contain a few kernels of good ideas, like the beginnings of a new one-act play, the outline of an essay, and some sketches of new scenes for War Stories.

I spent an entire day at my beloved Musée d’Orsay, taking as much time as I wanted, and realizing in the process that though I’d always considered Van Gogh to be my favorite Impressionist – owing to his textured, swirling brushstrokes – this time it was Renoir who drew me in and held me. How had I never appreciated the dreaminess of his palette, especially the blues? I sank into royals, teals, aquamarines and sapphires like some sort of soothing bath, and the warmth and light he seemed to infuse into all his work made me feel settled and safe.

It turned out that the Marais neighborhood was the perfect place for me to land. Call it a lucky guess via Airbnb. Centrally located and a mere stone’s throw from the Bastille Métro station, it is easy to get everywhere from here. And yet it still feels like a local’s spot, crammed with charming cafes and boutiques, a place where I don’t feel like I’m on constant high alert for pickpockets the same way that I do in the more heavily trafficked tourist areas.

It is still early here, on this Thursday morning, so once I finish writing I plan to walk down to the Seine, cross its banks, and spend some time at a bookstore that charmed me the day after I arrived: Shakespeare and Company. I know: an English language bookstore in Paris. How gauche, right? But the truth is, its appeal is less about the fact that it carries books in my native tongue and more about the fact that it embraces a deep love of all things literary, feeling like some sort of quaint, rustic, cozy old library that I could spend hours browsing in. After all, I did come to Paris for inspiration. So, who am I to judge where that inspiration comes from?

I find myself leaving Paris just as I’m getting the hang of things here. Just as I’ve figured out the right touch on my apartment’s finicky Nespresso machine, or that the building’s stairwell has a timed light switch, so that I don’t have to climb the three flights back up to my flat in the dark. I’ve only just figured out which cafes I want to try and the fastest shortcut through the neighborhood to Place des Vosges and how to order my meals in (semi-confident) French.

And though there were many things about this much-anticipated return to Paris that I expected, there were some that I did not. Like the wonderful afternoon I spent with a new friend (introduced to me by London host), who gave me the loveliest historical tour of Le Marais. Or the buskers on my train to Tuileries who played the liveliest set of New Orleans style jazz. Or the fact that I – surprising myself – felt compelled to light a candle at the Église Saint Germain de Prés and thought about my mother and felt just a little bit better.

But even in Paris, there are reminders of what awaits me at home. While I’ve been away, I received the exciting news that a website averaging thirty million (!) unique visitors per month wants to republish one of my posts from this blog and share it with their readers. Of course – after asking them a few questions – I agreed. And I must admit, receiving that email was a good feeling; some much-needed encouragement that even in this transitory period of life, I’m on the right track.

One more day in Paris. And then – now that I’ve (finally) adjusted to the time difference – one more weekend in London that will be, blissfully, jetlag-free. And then it’s back to L.A. Back to sort out all of those pressing, challenging, exhilarating, life questions. Ready or not, here I come. That is – I mean – after just a few more days away. . .

Until next time, friends.

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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Imaginary Lives.

I’ve got a job for you.

I’m sorry?

I just heard you say that the company you work for was sold. I’m looking for people and I can’t hire ‘em fast enough. Starting pay is 90K a year.

Wow. What’s the job?

Easiest money you’ll ever make. Just sitting behind a desk.

Yeah, but doing what?

Setting appointments. Making calls. Basic admin stuff. You’d be working for me and my team.

And what do you do?

I sell machine parts. Essentially, I’m a mechanic.

Oh. I don’t think that’s the right fit for me. I’m a creative: a writer, a marketer, and a brand strategist. I’m really looking for a job in a creative field. But thank you anyway.

I don’t think you heard me. The starting pay is 90K a year.

It’s not about the money.

Bullshit. It’s always about the money.

Not for me. But thank you.

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I’m sitting in the lobby of my hotel in Kent, WA, sipping a glass of Cabernet. The awkward conversation (err, confrontation) that is currently unfolding is a perfect example of why I wanted to avoid this hotel-sponsored “Wine and Cheese” night. But after a long workday, the complimentary glass of red mere steps from my hotel room proves too difficult to resist. So here I am, trying to politely brush aside the attention of a strange man who’s sloshed on free booze and – worse – impervious to social cues.

The “conversation” quickly devolves, largely due to my refusal to acquiesce to his worldview that money makes the world go round. He takes personal affront to the fact that I have no interest in the job he’s trying to sell me, and within minutes, he has resorted to cursing and name-calling. Thankfully, it’s not long before he stomps out of the lobby in a huff, but not before delivering his final assessment: “If you’re just a snob that wants to write about eyeliner, there’s nothing I can do for you!” I laugh, in spite of myself. You’re right, dude. There’s nothing you can do for me.

My week in Kent has been a strange one. I’ve been working as an independent contractor, helping train employees of the medium-size company that bought the small Los Angeles-based accessories brand where I have worked for many years. Not only is the town of Kent itself odd – an industrial district populated by block after block of sprawling warehouses in the shadow of Seattle’s Sea-Tac airport – but the situation is odd, too. For a week, I’m immersed in a corporate culture completely alien to me – taking meetings, interfacing with all types of people and personalities (many of whom are suspicious of me and are not particularly friendly to the foreigner in their midst), and navigating office politics – all the while knowing that my immersion is temporary; that my normal life has simply been put on hold for a few days while I try on this very different life and see how it fits.

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During the week, I find myself daydreaming both about what my life would have been like had I accepted a job in Kent, and what my life will be like once this temporary independent contractor position is over. It brings to mind one of my favorite exercises from Julia Cameron’s seminal book on creativity, The Artist’s Way, called “Imaginary Lives.” Here’ s a synopsis of the exercise, excerpted from the book:

If you had five other lives to lead, what would you do in each of them? I would be a pilot, a cowhand, a physicist, a psychic, a monk . . . Whatever occurs to you, jot it down.

The point of these lives is to have fun in them – more fun than you might be having in this one. Look over your list and select one. Then do it this week. For instance, if you put down country singer, can you pick a guitar? If you dream of being a cowhand, what about some horseback riding?

The question I am asked over and over again when people find out that my job is ending is, “What are you going to do next?” And what they actually mean is this: “Have you found another job yet?” When I reply that I’m not actually looking for a job, that instead, I’ve decided to take some time off, they are baffled. They usually manage: “That’s great – good for you!” But their faces tell a different story: one of confusion, skepticism and – often – envy.

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Of course, “time off,” doesn’t mean lying on the couch binge-watching Netflix or spending every day at the beach. For me, it means taking all the time and energy and creativity that I have invested in working for someone else and instead, channeling that effort into exploring my passions and building a life that I had previously only dreamed of. It means investing more time in this blog and on my writing in general. It means producing a brand new play (that I’m still writing) this summer at Hollywood Fringe Festival. And it means allowing myself the time and space to breathe deeply, to reflect on the hard lessons of the last few years, and perhaps, to try on some of the imaginary lives on my list and see how they fit.

At the end of my week in Kent, I tagged on an extra day in Seattle with no agenda other than to relax and explore. I took a long walk through the city and ended up at the Space Needle, buying a ticket to a museum I’ve wanted to visit since it opened: Chihuly Garden and Glass. The museum and accompanying gardens are not very big, but I lingered there for hours, immersing myself in the color and detail of every piece. Later, while flipping through a catalogue in the museum’s café, I was struck by this quote from the artist:

I discovered my first collection of beach glass on the shores of Puget Sound when I was four or five years old.

I’ve never stopped collecting since.

As a Pacific Northwest kid, I’ve collected my fair share of colorful beach glass. But as I read that quote, I realized that over the course of my life, the things that I’ve been collecting more than anything else are stories. Stories both real and imagined, both my own and other people’s. And now, as I prepare to move forward on to this next, more exploratory phase of my life, stories are the things I’ll continue to collect. They’re what I’ll continue to figure out how to bring forth into the world. And they’re what will inform my next steps, including any of those so-called “imaginary” lives I might decide to try on.

Until next time, friends.

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The Year of the Monkey.

In truth, I don’t know all that much about Chinese astrology. As a child, I remember being fascinated by the red and gold Chinese restaurant placemats depicting the twelve zodiac animals and detailing the characteristics of each of them. Those placemats taught me that as a December 1980 baby, I am a Monkey: a sign known for its optimism, cleverness, sense of adventure, curiosity, and inclination toward mischief.

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On February 8, we began a new Lunar New Year: the Year of the Fire Monkey. According to the Chinese zodiac, it is not a good thing when you enter a year that corresponds to your sign. In fact, it is usually quite unlucky. This is an assertion that I have chosen to ignore. Given the way 2016 began, can you blame me?

A couple of weeks into the (Western) New Year, my car was vandalized, resulting in thousands of dollars worth of damage and leaving me feeling shaken and scared about the neighborhood I call home. My temporary job as an independent contractor – that began after the company I worked for was sold and moved to another state – was more stressful than I’d anticipated, leaving me tired and frustrated. Inspiration was difficult to come by, and my writing stalled. A persistent feeling of hopelessness started to creep in, threatening to derail my big plans for 2016.

Probably out of sheer stubbornness and my absolute need for things to be better this year than they’d previously been, I pushed forward. I kept writing, even though I didn’t feel like it. I reached out to a friend who’d produced my last play, asking her to come on board, even though I didn’t yet have a script. I renegotiated the terms of my independent contractor job, resulting in an arrangement more favorable to me. And I began the insurance claims process for the damage done to my vehicle.

Little by little, the clouds stared to lift. The original timetable of eight weeks to repair my car turned out to be mere days as the backordered part my mechanic needed became available much sooner than expected. Filing the insurance claim proved to be easier than I’d anticipated (dare I say, it was even pleasant), and within a couple of weeks I received a check covering all of the repair costs beyond my deductible. My friend and previous collaborator agreed to sign on to co-produce and direct my new play, giving my writing an increased sense of urgency and providing the motivation I needed to finish a first draft. And a fun-filled weekend celebrating a dear friend’s birthday in the San Francisco Bay Area lifted my spirits and temporarily curbed my growing wanderlust.

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By the time the Lunar New Year began, I was feeling like my old optimistic Monkey self again. A few days later, my aunt and uncle arrived in L.A. for a visit, booking a hotel on Ocean Avenue in Santa Monica overlooking the pier, Palisades Park, and the Pacific Ocean. Their visit coincided with a rare winter heat wave: clear blue skies free of the smog that so often blankets this city, temperatures in the 80s, the Pacific sparkling like so many sapphires. The three of us hadn’t been together since Grandpa’s death three months earlier, and after the intense, emotionally taxing period of hospice, reveling in the majestic, sun drenched California coastline felt like a miracle.

On President’s Day, armed with towels, a water canteen filled with fancy French champagne, and red Solo cups, the three of us marched north through Palisades Park, away from the throng of tourists. At Montana Ave., we descended steep wooden stairs, crossed the bridge over Pacific Coast Highway, and landed on Santa Monica Beach, sinking our toes into the warm sand. We waded in the ocean, the foamy waves lapping at our feet, and then settled into the sand. We filled our cups with fizzy liquid, raised them in a toast to Grandpa, and then turned our eyes toward the fiery orange sun slipping low on the horizon and fell silent.

I captioned a photo from that day, taken by my aunt of my uncle and I looking into the sunset, my hand resting upon his shoulder, with a quote from a letter that my grandfather wrote to me more than a decade ago: The beach never changes, ‘tis only we who change. Those words recalled a different time, and Grandpa was referring to a different beach, yet they still hold true.

I have changed. We all have. Given everything that has happened over these last three years, it would have been impossible not to. And while I have no idea what the future holds, little by little, I am learning to let go of my obsessive need to control it. Maybe this Monkey Year will be lucky. And maybe, as the Chinese zodiac asserts, it won’t be.  But two weeks in, I have decided that whatever happens, I will greet it with the same indefatigable spirit of my zodiac sign: with curiosity, with optimism, and with an unwavering sense of adventure.

Onward.

Until next time, friends.

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Idaho.

I have been putting off writing about Idaho. It’s a childhood memory that I have long suppressed and that only came racing back a few weeks ago, as I was innocently scribbling stream of consciousness notes into a journal about the backstory of one of the characters in the play I’m writing, and then boom, there it was: a moment in my life that I had completely forgotten about. This is a phenomenon that has been happening to me more and more as I continue to put pen to paper, this act of remembering.

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For a long time, I deluded myself into thinking that writing fiction was “safer” than writing memoir, because the story wasn’t mine and I had made up characters and imagined storylines to hide behind. Except that isn’t true. I’ve realized that though the circumstances may be fictional, it’s impossible for me to write anything that matters without putting myself into it. Especially not this current piece I’m battling with: a play that revolves around a tangled web of Los Angelenos trying and failing at love in all sorts of toxic and dysfunctional ways. There’s no way to hide when writing a piece like this, a piece that – fictional or not – puts the writer’s heart under a magnifying glass. Surprise, surprise: it turns out that writing about love is dangerous as hell.

As the author of this play, I am ultimately the architect of all of my characters’ bad choices. So naturally I have to ask myself why? Why would otherwise intelligent, sane people make such crazy, irrational decisions when it comes to love? And like so many other things in our lives, the answer to that question can be traced back to the formative years of childhood. Which brings me back to Idaho.

Both of my parents were alcoholics. My father was open – almost to the point of being proud – about his drinking, while my mother hid her addiction. When I was growing up, the period between the end of the workday and the start of dinnertime often dissolved into a nebulous, lingering happy hour. Sometimes it passed in a saccharine haze of laughter and love, and other times, it escalated into full on war between my parents. Looking back on it now with the wisdom that only hindsight can bring, I am certain that I grew into an adult who became far too tolerant of bad behavior because I was a child that recognized the soundtrack of screaming, yelling, hurling insults and slammed doors as a part of normal, everyday life.

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It was around the age of ten that my mother started talking to me about Idaho. We’d stay up late, long past my bedtime and after Dad was fast asleep, sitting in the darkened living room of our home in Anchorage and Mom, her eyes welling with tears, would make her sales pitch.

“Let’s pack everything and just go, Sar,” she’d urge. “I promise, you’ll love it there.” And then she’d fill my head with visions of crystal clear lakes tucked into the bases of purple mountains and fields of wildflowers in the summer and ski resorts in the winter and endless blue skies puffed up with clouds and starry, starry nights. Idaho became a place that both embodied hope and promised redemption, a beautiful dream made all the more beautiful because I believed, as she did, that my mother would finally be happy there.

We never made it to Idaho. My mother never worked up the courage to leave my father, and it wasn’t until many years later that I realized that she never really wanted to. Their relationship, toxic and infected by addiction as it was, endured because they loved each other desperately. My mother loved my father so much that when she found out he was dying, she drank herself into an early grave, preferring to leave the earth first rather than live without him on it.

I have penned rough drafts of nearly every section of my play, but the section about Idaho, where one of my central characters tells the story of a haunting childhood memory to a lover she barely knows – a lover she experiences far greater intimacy with than her partner of many years – remains unwritten. I know I need to write it, even if it never makes it into the final version of the script. And I also know that writing it will cost me something.

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I strive to be as honest as I can on this blog, and I think, for the most part, I am. But there are still topics I run from, still things that feel too exposed, too vulnerable to speak about.

This is a step in that direction, a step toward that more exposed, more vulnerable me. So thank you, Idaho. Thank you for reminding me of the dreams I’ve had that never came true, and the knowledge that it’s okay to grieve them. Thank you for encouraging me to be brave enough to go into the places that scare me, and to shake off the dark secrets that are weighing me down.

And thank you for giving me hope: the hope that the truth, if I really do tell it all, will be the thing that ultimately sets me free.

Until next time, friends.

P.S. – the stunning photos of Idaho pictured in this blog are from www.visitidaho.org

Doesn’t it look glorious? Someday I’ll go there. I promise.

 

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Limbo.

Grandpa sits in his usual spot in the living room, staring out the picture window at the placid, silvery surface of Case Inlet, framed by evergreens that have turned an early November shade of amber. His yellow-tinged eyes reflect the vacant gaze of someone who’s looking but not seeing. “What are you thinking about?” I ask, patting him on the shoulder. I expect his typical response: “Nothing.” Instead, he intones softly, “I’m thinking about how quickly the time has gone.”

I’ve been at the beach for fifteen days, though of course, that’s not the measure of time that Grandpa is referring to. This evening, barring a catastrophe, I will leave, and board a plane headed back to Los Angeles. It is staggering to me that my time here has passed so swiftly, and yet, has contained so much within its rapidly elapsing days. I feel as though I’ve been moving in slow motion for weeks, traveling from joy to despair to fear in the space of a single hour, sometimes in a single minute. There is always another hospice appointment, another phone call, another email, another problem, another difficult conversation. And in between it all, I’ve been working, straddling two worlds – here and there – with the aid of an unreliable Wi-Fi connection.

I’ve never been very good at living in the moment, but these last couple weeks, the moment is all I’ve had. It’s no wonder my sense of time is so screwy, with Grandpa’s feeling borrowed and mine suspended. What a strange sort of limbo it is to sit with someone you love as they face the end of their life. The question that looms before us is when? It is the question he asks of everyone: his caregivers, the hospice nurses, the chaplain, the social worker, and of course, his family. It is the question that no one has the answer to, least of all me.

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I am prepared for what’s coming in a way that I wasn’t able to be with either of my parents, and for that I am grateful. I am grateful for all of the time I’ve been able to spend with him. But after fifteen days, there is little for me to do but wait.

Twenty-four-hour care is in place; contingency plans have been made. And the look Grandpa now sees reflected back in my eyes is one of someone who’s watching his every move, searching his face for signs of what’s to come. I can’t do this any longer. I can no longer sit around this rain-soaked place – beautiful as it is – waiting for my 89-year-old Grandfather to die.

I feel selfish for craving a way out, for craving warmth and palm trees and cheap, delicious Mexican food, and a hike in the hills and the sight of the Pacific and a desperately needed session with my therapist, but I do. I crave all of these things. I even crave the to-do list that awaits me upon my return, because it represents routine, and the opportunity to pretend, for a little while, that everything is normal.

So back I will go, for now. My return to the beach is already booked, but every ticket is refundable, every plan changeable. This type of freedom, it turns out, is expensive. But it’s the price you pay when you’re in limbo. When you’re left with nothing to do but wait.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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