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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The memory of a place.

We received a brief respite from the heat this week in Los Angeles – even a desperately needed bit of rain – before the mercury began to spike again, signaling the arrival of another sweltering September weekend. In all the years I’ve lived here, I always remember September being hot, but never quite as insufferable as the recent Sunday evening when I returned to L.A. after a two-week absence. Upon crossing the threshold of the little stucco box that is my one-bedroom apartment, I was greeted by a wall of heat so humid, so stale, and so oppressive, that it nearly immobilized me. As I began to unpack, giant beads of sweat dripping down my nose, I imagined I was back in my seat on the Amtrak Cascades, gazing dreamily out the rain-kissed window at Puget Sound, the train pressing steadily onward toward British Columbia.

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Is it possible to feel homesick for a place that was never really home? While it’s true that sandwiched between my youth in Anchorage, Alaska and my adult life in Los Angeles, I did spend four years of high school in the Pacific Northwest town of Olympia, Washington, that was merely a blip, and the late 90’s were so long ago. Over the course of my life, I’ve been less of a resident of the Pacific Northwest, and more of a frequent visitor.

Still. Nearly all of my family – at least the family members that I know – live somewhere between Anchorage and Medford, Oregon, with most of them tracing their roots to Washington State and Oregon. And while Mom and I joined Dad in Alaska shortly after my birth at Seattle’s Swedish Hospital, Mom never fully settled into life in Anchorage. The Pacific Northwest was in her blood, and we returned there often. Many of my childhood memories are hazy mental photographs of my grandparents’ home on Beach Drive in West Seattle: playing catch in the long driveway, Grandpa’s rose garden, the living room with its seascapes and sea gull décor, the blond shag carpeting and terrier (Benji) to match.

And then of course there’s the Beach – the property on Case Inlet in Southwest Washington that I wrote about at length in my last post. That place is not only where several of my close family members reside, it is forever entrenched in my history.

As beautiful as the Pacific Northwest is, it has been difficult for me not to feel a bit haunted whenever I return there. Amid the inlets and elbows of Puget Sound, the tall evergreen trees, the gorgeous views of Mount Rainier, are memories of people that are no longer living, and a life that’s no longer mine.

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But this time – and I’m not quite sure why – the ghosts of the past seemed to peacefully coexist with the experiences of the present. The familiar was no longer haunting; it was a source of comfort. The Pacific Northwest was markedly different, yet ever the same.

The tree-lined drive along Highway 3 into Shelton – where I took my driver’s test –this time made in Grandpa’s ice blue Honda CR-V with the handicapped sticker hanging from the mirror. The same, yet different.

Olympia. The loop around Capitol Lake – where I would walk so many times, rain or shine – and the Capitol Building, with its dome that I used to photograph for the school paper. This time, a walk downtown for lunch with one new friend, then coffee with another on the Capitol campus, where she works. The same, yet different.

Seattle. Echoes of my mother’s laughter all around Westlake Center. The flagship Nordstrom where we’d spend an afternoon lunching and shopping for shoes. The Paramount Theatre, the site of one of my first concerts – Garbage – now hosting the band Hall and Oates. The waterfront – and the arcade where we spent our high school grad night – now mired in new construction. This time, I stop to ask a handsome police officer if he can point the way to Ivar’s restaurant. He laughs and directs us through scaffolding and over a rickety wooden walkway. Ivar’s – the place I’d feed seagulls and watch departing ferryboats as a child– now a spot to enjoy a leisurely lunch with my sister Marion, sipping wine and planning our trip to Bainbridge Island. The same, yet different.

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The border crossing into Vancouver. That same Amtrak train – number 510 – departing daily from King Street Station, with its iconic clock tower and cavernous marble lobby. This time, sitting on a wooden bench, ticket in hand, waiting to board and remembering the summer I drove across the border by myself, just seventeen, in my maroon Toyota Rav-4, receiving endless harassment from the border agents. The same, yet different.

Vancouver’s West End. The condo on Nelson Street where my sister and brother-in-law lived when my niece Nora was just a toddler, before my nephew Quinn was born. Now, Quinn is in high school, and Nora is away at University in Montreal.

It’s all the same, but it’s all so different. Yet for the first time that I can remember, the differences don’t seem to bother me. They don’t feel tinged with sadness like they usually do.

Perhaps it’s me that’s different, and not these places. Perhaps the change is simply the result of the passage of time and the slow healing that comes along with it. Or perhaps love of place has finally been able to transcend the pain of all that’s missing.

But whatever the reason, this time, the ghosts stayed at bay. And I was able to make new memories. Good ones. Memories that I will hold on to, dreaming of the gentle breeze off Puget Sound, until I’m able to return again.

Until next time, friends.

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Owning it.

“You own everything that happened to you.  Tell your stories.  If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”

– Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird:  Some Instructions on Writing and Life

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Four months ago, I started work on a new play that is unlike anything I’ve ever done before. It’s a solo performance workshop called Bare Naked Angels, conceived and directed by my friend Stacy Ann Raposa. The workshop is kept to a small group: our cast, which started as eight people and became seven, is on the larger side.

In the beginning, using readings and exercises from Julia Cameron’s “The Artist’s Way” to guide us, we each brought in weekly writing assignments to read in front of the group. As the weeks went on, the seemingly pointless ramblings about our day-to-day experiences or random childhood memories evolved into discussions about our hopes and dreams, the events that shaped our lives, and the nature of our identities. As we settled on the stories we wanted to tell on stage in front of an audience, we each emerged with a strong point of view about how we see the world.

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I began this process with a clear idea of the story I wanted to tell. These last few years, my life has contained an inordinate amount of darkness. I didn’t want to dwell on that. I wanted to tell a story that was uplifting, that was about survival, about hope triumphing over despair. I wanted to tell a story that was more beautiful than what I’d been living. A story that I would want to read, that I would want to hear.

Like many things in life, the place I ended up arriving at was far different than the one I had envisioned when I began this journey. It turned out that I wasn’t so much writing the story as the story was writing me. And gradually, I learned to submit to that process, to let my words come out the way they wanted to, the way they needed to. Without judging them, without censoring myself, without worrying what other people would think. To just let it be what it was: the truth.

When the writing was done, Stacy (our director), took the seven intimate, honest, and (dare I say) incredibly brave stories written by our cast, chopped them up, and wove them together to create something beautiful: an achingly true script that is essentially a solo performance/ensemble piece hybrid. With only three days left until the show’s opening night, I’m equal parts exhilarated and exhausted.

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To be honest, I have no idea how audiences are going to receive this show. I hope they love it as much as I do, but there’s really no way to tell with something like this. There is certainly nothing “escapist” about Bare Naked Angels. It puts real life in your face and dares you not to look away. Yet it’s also full of so many sweet, profound, heartbreakingly human moments. Ultimately, like the story I wanted to tell – and which, in large part, I think I did – I believe that this show will leave audiences feeling hopeful and with a greater connection to their own lives.

So here we go. It’s time to jump into the deep end of the pool and hope I can swim. Wish me luck.

P.S. – If you’re in the Los Angeles area and you want to come see this thing go down, I would love to have you. The flyer is below, and everything else you need to know can be found at www.fringetheatreco.com

Thanks for reading, friends.  I promise to let you know how it goes.

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Rory.

Today would have been your thirty-third birthday.

My favorite memory of celebrating your birthday has to be your twenty-first– when Vim drove our small group to Las Vegas on a Tuesday night. Kate (my roommate) thought we were crazy for making the trip. We had no hotel, no plan, other than to arrive at midnight, to celebrate as long as we could stay up, and then drive back to L.A. in the morning. “You’re going to die,” Kate warned. But we didn’t die. We drove into Vegas just before 12 a.m., the sight of neon casino lights beckoning, causing us to chant, “Vegas. Vegas. Vegas!”

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I don’t remember which casino we hit first, but I do remember the bartender. She checked your ID, looked at her watch and chuckled. You were just twenty-one. Shots for everyone. What a great night (morning). One of those crazy adventures that you never forget.

I’ve wanted to write something about you for some time now, to dedicate something on this blog that was just for you, something more than just a brief mention, a blip on the radar screen during a bad couple of years. I’ve struggled to find the words. Not because I didn’t know what to say. I’ve no doubt I could fill up many pages with stories – stories of the USC days, of that infamous apartment, the Inglewood Palace, of everything that came after.

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There are two reasons it took me so long to write about you. The first is anger. I’m angry that you’re gone because it seems so damned unfair, because you were so young, so full of promise, such a gift to this world. The second reason is guilt. I feel guilty because – sandwiched as it was in between losing my mom and dad – your loss was sort of lost to me, just one more impossible thing in a series of impossible things that I didn’t know how to deal with. I don’t think I ever fully processed or absorbed your death, almost – in a way – pretending like it didn’t happen. And you deserved better than that.

Rory, as long as I knew you, you carried a certain darkness with you. The funniest and most charming people often do. But the thing that I’m not sure you’re aware of is how happy you made people. How much fun you were. How many lives you made better by being a part of them. Some of the best memories of my twenties have you in them. Like the time you helped me move out of my apartment driving a rented U-Haul with a cracked roof through the streets of L.A. Or attending one of your band with the ever-changing name’s many shows, Natalie and I playing groupie. Or the time I hosted an Easter egg hunt for grown-ups and you competed fiercely for (and won) the ridiculous prize: a purple fuzzy stuffed bunny purse (sent to me in an Easter-themed care package from my mother) that you named Vim.

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But out of all the good memories I have of you, it’s one of the more recent ones that stands out. It was at my rehearsal dinner and you, ever the good sport, interpreted the Halloween costume dress-up theme in your own special way, and showed up as an Irish St. Pauli Girl, complete with short skirt, stockings and padded boobs. Though you didn’t know many of the guests, your outfit broke the ice and you charmed everyone with your humor and wit. Especially my mom. After she went to bed, you told me how much my mother reminded you of your own, how both of our moms were so proud of us, how they “loved the hell out of us.” I never could have known what a generous gift you gave me with those words, how often I’d return to them and hold on to them like a life raft just a short time later, after she died.

The funny thing about death is that it teaches you how you want to live. So, here are some specific ways I want to live, as inspired by you: I want to live without fear of being ridiculous, to embrace my wacky side and have fun, to hell with what other people think. I want to thumb my nose at the “rules,” when the rules are dumb or silly or a waste of time (a story you told about scheduling fake meetings with a friend so that you could reserve time away from the monotony of your corporate job comes to mind.) And I want to live without being ashamed of my (sometimes) crappy taste in music, because every time I blast some terrible pop song on the radio and sing at the top of my lungs, I imagine you, my heavy metal-loving friend, rolling your eyes in mock disgust, because you can’t believe I actually like that song. This, coming from the guy who once (secretly, sssh!) recorded a rap song called ‘Ginga Ninja.’

Oh Rory. You were such a bright light. You were so damned funny. You were the smartest guy in the room. And you were a really, really good friend.

Happy Birthday, buddy. I miss you.

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Identity theft.

“Hopefully, this will be the last time I ever talk to you,” he said.  “Because that will mean that you’re not the victim of a crime again.  Good luck, and have a great life, Sarah.”

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Have a great life.  The finality of those words sure stick, don’t they?

For the last couple of days, I’d been playing phone tag with a prosecutor in the San Diego District Attorney’s office.  Nearly two years after she’d stolen my identity, made a fake I.D. with my name, address and date of birth on it, and impersonated me all over San Diego County, the woman who’d opened up a slew of fraudulent credit cards in my name had been caught and was going to jail.  Justice was being done. I couldn’t believe it.

However, when it came time to make the final call to the Assistant D.A. to confirm the information that he needed – that I had successfully disputed all the fraudulent charges and that the banks, not me, had absorbed the financial burden of this woman’s theft – I was strangely reticent.  I wasn’t sure why I was dragging my feet, why I was delaying calling him back.  I was busy (of course, I’m always busy), but it was more than that.  There was something about closing this chapter in my life that I didn’t feel quite ready for.

I first learned that my identity was hijacked on February 4, 2013, when I received a call from a fraud investigator at Neiman Marcus.  A woman had visited their San Diego location to fill out an application for a store credit card, and Neiman’s flagged her right away as suspicious.  She was nervous, and appeared to be taking instructions from a man (surveillance cameras picked him up in another area of the store) via cell phone.  Neiman’s did a quick Google search to try to locate the real me (good luck  – there are about a million Sarah Kellys in this world), but were unable to find definitive evidence in a short span of time that this woman was an impostor.  Unable to act without proof, they accepted her application, flagged it as potential fraud, and sent her on her way.

Almost immediately after my conversation with Neiman Marcus’s fraud department, they started arriving:  the avalanche of both credit cards and rejection letters.  I would spend countless hours over the coming days, weeks and months undoing the damage that had been wrought in the space of one weekend-long credit card application joyride in San Diego.  Time spent canceling cards, filing fraud alerts, getting documents notarized, faxing, sorting, calling – sometimes pleading – with the powers that be that it was me, that I was who I said I was.  Nobody has time for this garbage.  It is a full time job to reclaim your identity when it has been taken away from you.  And in my case, the timing could not have been worse.

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When I received the call from Neiman Marcus, my father was in the hospital, gravely ill with stage four pancreatic and liver cancer, and awaiting a transfer – arranged by my half-sister Deirdre – to at-home hospice care.  Ten days later, on Valentine’s Day, dad passed away, quietly, at home.  His death was a mere four and a half months after the sudden death of my mother, a death which sent shockwaves through my life that I still haven’t recovered from.  I can see now, with perspective, that I didn’t even begin to process my mom’s death until well after my dad died.  He was too sick, there was too much to worry about, too many fires to put out.  Not the least of which was my maternal grandmother’s rapid decline into advanced Alzheimer’s disease.  One day she knew who I was, the next day, I became a person of no consequence.

My identity theft was a relentless pain in the ass that I didn’t need, that I didn’t have time for and that I certainly didn’t have the emotional wherewithal to deal with.  When it happened, I couldn’t believe it.  I made jokes about it, laughed at the unfairness of it all.  But really, it felt like a sucker punch, like the universe kicking me in the gut when I was already about as low as I could go.

But here’s the awkward truth; a truth that I’m literally coming to terms with in this moment as I write this blog.  It’s a truth that reveals my hesitancy to wrap up that unfortunate chapter once and for all.  In the midst of the biggest crisis of my life, there was something incredibly powerful about having to fight for who I was.  What I lamented as some sort of karmic curse was actually, in all likelihood, a gift.  Not only did it offer a distraction from all the impossible, emotionally loaded jobs that had to be done in the wake of my father’s death, but at a time when I felt like I was drowning, when I felt like I was disappearing into nothingness, my identity theft fight required me to state clearly, emphatically, over and over again:  I am who I say I am.  I am Sarah. I am still here. I exist, dammit.

So when it came time to call the Assistant D.A., I procrastinated.  I put it off.  And at first, it didn’t make sense to me.  After all, I’m happy to have this case resolved.  I’m happy the person who stole something so precious from me is being punished.  It’s a win, but strangely, it also feels like a loss.  Because though I won this battle, the war rages on.  Twenty-one months later, I’m still fighting to find my way back to me.  A wild, fearless, big-dreaming me from my youth that I lost long ago, or a me that I always wanted to be but that I never quite became.  I don’t really know.  What I do know is that in the case of my identity theft, there was a path to follow.  A long, arduous, tedious, frustrating paper trail of a path, but a path nonetheless.  But with everything else, there is no path.  Just an ongoing struggle to heal, to rediscover, to fall in love with life again, and to try to figure out who I’m supposed to be.

And so, with one chapter now closed, the fight goes on.

Until next time, friends.

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The things my mother gave me.

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Today makes two years. It was two years ago today, on September 23rd, that I received the worst phone call of my life. It was Sunday morning and I was still in bed, my phone in the other room. I heard it ringing, distant, the musical jingle breaking through the quiet September morning. I rolled over slowly, a sense of unease already stirring in the pit of my stomach. It was too early; who could be calling? Not that early, true, but early for a Sunday. The first football game hadn’t started yet. On Fox, Terry, Howie, Jimmy and the gang were still making their predictions about which teams would win, still letting fantasy owners know which probable and questionable players were active.

I lifted myself up out of bed, crossed the room, and picked up my phone. I retrieved the voicemail, a tearful message from my Aunt Sandy, my Mom’s brother’s wife, telling me it was an emergency, telling me to call her, or my Dad, at home. I called Dad. I should have called her.

I think about that moment – that decision about who to call – often. I wish I could go back and redo it. My Aunt would have been gentler, would have been kinder when delivering the news. But it was my Dad that I wanted to talk to. My Dad, hard of hearing, elderly, gravely ill with stage four pancreatic and liver cancer. My Dad, who was incapable of softening the blow. ‘Mom’s dead,’ he said, across the line, distant, emotionless. The bottom fell out.

And so they began. Two years that would shake and stretch and shape me. Two years that would threaten to shatter me. Two years during which – at times – I struggled and fought and kicked and screamed and rebelled against circumstance, insisting upon being OK by the sheer force of my will. And two years during which – at other times – I gave in. Two years during which I almost gave up. Two years that carved a hole in my family, that carved a whole in my sense of who I thought I was.

Today, as I stand on the other side of those twenty-four months, scanning the distance between then and now, thinking about what and who I’ve lost, and what – ironically – I’ve also gained, there’s one image that’s burned in my mind.

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The image I can’t escape is of the last time I saw my mother. She is standing in the driveway of my parents’ house in Olympia. Rail thin, slightly disheveled, though she had pulled it together quite significantly from her collapse of a few days prior. Pulled it together for me, I suppose. We’ve just hugged goodbye, and after providing her with a list of caretaker referrals to help with Dad, after securing a promise from her that she’ll find a counselor, that she’ll talk to someone, I board the airport shuttle. As I turn to wave goodbye one last time, there’s a look on her face that I don’t think I’ve ever seen: it’s soft, yet sorrowful, with an intensity that’s completely unfamiliar, an intensity that’s very unlike my one-hundred-miles-from-intense mother.

I’ve thought about that moment many times over the last two years. I’ve wondered if she knew then that she was dying. I’ve wondered if she knew that this would be the last time she’d see me, her only child. I’ve wondered if the reason the look was so unfamiliar, if the reason she held me in her gaze so intently, was because she knew this was it, and she was trying to memorize my face. I’ve wondered if, in that moment, she was trying to memorize my face for all eternity.

There are so many gifts that my mother gave me; she was generous to a fault. There were cherished treasures that she bestowed upon me while she was still alive, and equally valuable gifts that I could never have anticipated receiving after she was gone. In addition to the ruby and emerald rings, the gold pieces from her jewelry box, the vintage wardrobe gems like two pairs of knee high Finnish leather boots, a Chloe scarf, a pink hand-beaded Leslie Fay cocktail dress, there are other, less tangible, things I take with me. Lessons about the person I want to be, based on who she was, and who she wasn’t. There are qualities I strive to emulate – her kindness, her compassion, her generosity, her sweetness. There are things I’ll never achieve. I’ll never be as good of a chef as she was, never master her green thumb in the garden. And I’m definitely not as nice as my mother was, not as giving, not as yielding. I’m more stubborn, more argumentative, more selfish.

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But many of the qualities that I admired about my mother also let her down. I can see now that she never took time for herself, never set boundaries, couldn’t say no to the demands of others, even when they were outrageous. I can see how people took advantage of her, and how she let them. I can see how she absorbed every harsh word, internalized every worry, how insecure and how fragile she was. I can see how she burned out, how she couldn’t ask for help, even when she desperately needed it.

People who knew us both tell me that we’re alike, my mother and I. We have the same smile, the same laugh, the same mischievous sense of humor. We look alike and we even sort of talk alike. I’m grateful for all of it. But (I’m sorry, Mom), I’m also grateful for the ways that we’re not alike. I’m grateful that I’m able to set boundaries in order to protect myself, in ways that you couldn’t. I’m grateful that I’m strong enough to say no when something isn’t right for me. And I grateful that, though, like you, I’m strangely resistant to asking for help when I need it, I’m beginning to overcome that. I’m starting to ask. And I’m learning that when I ask, help tends to arrive, and it really does, well, help.

So on days like today – which are often – when I’m missing my Mom so badly that it threatens to overwhelm me, I try to hold on to what I know is true: my mother loved me, she wanted my happiness above all else, and she wouldn’t want me to use something like her not being here as an excuse to give up. She would want me to keep going. She would want me to be strong in ways that she couldn’t. She would want me to embrace my life.

Today marks two years since I lost the most important person in my life. Before I know it, it may be ten, twenty. But what time, what death, what grief can never wipe away are all the beautiful, generous gifts that my mother gave me. And on this day, two years hence, I pledge this gift to you, Mom: I promise to never stop pushing. I promise to take nothing for granted. I promise to be happy in every way that I can. And I promise to do all of these things, even when it’s hard. Even on days like today. Especially on days like today.

Thank you, Mom. I love you. I’m so grateful for everything you gave me.

Until next time, friends.

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