April.

On the first day of April, I woke early, well before the sun came up, well before my alarm. There was something about this new month – the first full month of spring – that had me on edge. But not in a bad way. More in the way that it’s hard to sleep before a long voyage. Or a big job interview. Or the opening night of your play. The anticipation is palpable. The anticipation is the thing.

I traveled back to Los Angeles from London on the first day of spring. It was the longest spring day I can remember. Nineteen hours of travel all together, beginning by navigating morning rush hour traffic to Heathrow, then stuck at the airport with a delayed flight, then eleven hours on a plane, then arriving at LAX just in time for Los Angeles’s evening rush hour, then finally, blissfully, home. And as the sun sank behind the lone palm tree that towers over my little stucco bungalow, I thought about the fact that I’d spent nineteen hours chasing that very sun, pushing ever westward. And now that the sun had finally gone to bed, so too, would I.

I feel the shift to this new season in the core of my body, coming as sweet relief after winter months I carried around with me like a weight. People say that we don’t have seasons in Los Angeles, but January and February were unusually stormy and cold, pummeling the Southland with the most rain I’ve seen in my eighteen years here. But it wasn’t just the unusual weather patterns that had me feeling melancholy. It was a sadness I’ve been carrying within me for months, a sadness that’s rooted in fear and uncertainty over my future, and worries over whether I’m on the right path.

But as March wound down and the days grew longer and warmer, a newfound optimism grew within me too. Suddenly, I feel determined, rather than defeated. It’s a change that – frankly – has come as a surprise, given how quickly and abruptly it occurred.

To tell you the truth, I feel like I’ve been living (and writing about) a life in transition for practically forever. And I have been. But I think that part of the reason I still feel stuck is because many of the changes I’ve made over the last few years were changes that were forced upon me, rather than ones that I actively chose. Life got crazy – and crazy difficult – and I adapted, in order to survive.

It is quite a different thing to feel like I’m in the driver’s seat of my own life again. To be honest, it’s scary. For all my awareness about the ephemeral nature of life, I still find myself in a sort of holding pattern, paralyzed over making the big decisions I know I need to make in order to truly change. I can’t tell you how many times over the last year I’ve asked myself, “Isn’t there someone else who can do this?” But there isn’t. There’s only me.

A friend recently told me she has adopted the motto of beginning each day by tackling the most unpleasant task on her to-do list first. I like that. No time to work yourself into a frenzy worrying about it. Just do it, and be done.

So, I’ve decided that’s what April is going to be, for me. Walking right into all the things I’m worried about, as fast as I can, before I have too much time to think. Just do it, and be done. And I’m sure that’s why, as this new month dawned, I couldn’t sleep. But if I’m honest, I know this decision is the only way forward. I know I have to clear away the bad, the scary, and the difficult in order to make way for the good. I know that the only way for me to cross the bridge between where I am and where I want to be is by walking directly through all the fears and doubts that stand in my way.

So, ready or not, April, here I come. I have a feeling you’re going to be a big month.

Until next time, friends.

The beginning.

“some people,
when they hear
your story,
contract.
others,
upon hearing
your story,
expand.
and
this is how
you
know.”

— Nayyirah Waheed

There were a lot of friendly faces in the crowd that night. On audience left, a group of close college friends, some of whom had driven down from Northern California the night before to see the show. In another part of the theatre, buddies from the sports bar where we gather to watch our favorite football team. That Saturday evening, good friends – old and new – were in abundance.

But it was the couple sitting in the front row, audience right, that captured my attention. Two people, a man and a woman, him slumped low in his seat, his hand partially covering his face. And though I tried to focus, tried to stay present in the moment as my co-star and I began the play’s final, climactic scene, in an intimate, forty seat theatre like the Actor’s Workout Studio, it was impossible not to notice.

After the show, the couple – my aunt and uncle – found me, said some quick goodbyes, and scurried out the door. They were exhausted. Due to a powerful rain and wind storm that had blown through Southern California the day before, flooding roadways, downing trees, knocking out electricity and delaying or canceling flights into and out of Los Angeles, they had spent the entire previous day trying to get here from Seattle, finally arriving to their hotel at Universal Studios just before two a.m.

But it was more than that, and I knew it. As my uncle gave me a quick hug, his face was pained. “You’re right,” he said. “It was dark.”

My aunt – his wife – gave me a reassuring smile and squeezed his arm. “He’s having a rough time,” she told me.

We made plans to see each other the next day, and just like that, they were gone. And I went out to have drinks with my college friends, anxiety and guilt tugging at the corners of my mind.

My aunt and uncle’s trip to Los Angeles to see my play War Stories was the first time they’d seen anything I’d done on a stage, ever. In fact, I didn’t think they knew much at all about my creative life, or had read many of the things I’d written, including the – often intensely personal – essays I publish on this blog.

War Stories, while fictional, borrows heavily from my own experiences. And it’s the relationship between one of the main characters and her self-destructive, alcoholic mother, that is the most autobiographical part of the whole play.

My uncle is my mother’s brother, and her only sibling. Since my mother died four years ago, he and I have become closer, but there’s still so much about each other’s lives that we don’t know. While I’m a verbal, emotional, artist who is highly communicative about my feelings, my uncle is the opposite. More often than not, my attempts to discuss the “heavy” stuff with him are simply pushed aside. He’s not rude or dismissive about it, he’s simply not built that way. “I’m fine,” he always says.

People often say that they can’t believe I write about such personal things on this blog. The truth is, given my family history, shining a light on the darkness is less about bravery than it is about survival. Over the years, I’ve watched more than one loved one retreat into a bottle or escape into pills to numb out the painful things that they can’t or don’t know how to say. And I knew that if I didn’t find a healthier outlet for the emotions that threaten to overwhelm me, I’d end up following down that same path.

So, I talk about the painful things. I write about them. I allow myself to feel them coursing through my body. And yes, sometimes it is overwhelming to feel so much. But sharing those feelings? It helps. Because if I can find a way to articulate difficult emotions, to wrap words around them in a way that makes other people not only understand them, but feel something too, those emotions no longer own me. They no longer overwhelm me. And I know that I’m not alone.

But not everyone is like me. Not everyone is so comfortable talking about the dark places in their lives. And that Saturday night after I said goodbye to my aunt and uncle, and for the entire next day, I felt intensely guilty for not being more sensitive to that.

We met for an early dinner the next evening. And as I stood near the host station, waiting for my aunt and uncle to arrive, I felt nervous and sick, my stomach twisted in knots. But a moment later, they walked in, and my uncle pulled me into a hug. And I exhaled.

And over the next hour, something remarkable happened. My uncle, a man who I’ve always suspected feels much more than he’s able to say, wanted to talk.

“It was dark,” he said again, about the play. “And it hit close to home. But I know if you can make me feel that, you’re a talented writer. It was a really good play, Sarah.”

I was stunned. It was far from the reaction I had expected. Still, I felt the need to explain myself, to apologize. “I’ve just become so used to telling my sad stories to people who don’t really know me,” I said, “That sometimes I forget that those stories belong to other people, too.”

As we talked about what was next, for the play, for me, my uncle said something else that stuck with me. “I feel like you’re right at the beginning of something,” he said.

The beginning? Oy. At thirty-six, out of college for more than a dozen years and making art for nearly twenty, it was hard to accept that I could be at the beginning of anything. After all, shouldn’t I be further along by now?

But maybe he’s right. Maybe this is the beginning. Not the beginning, beginning, but the beginning of something new. The beginning of a new chapter, one with a more defined path. The beginning of finally knowing what it is I’m supposed to do, and of moving forward in the world with a new sense of self-assurance and a new authority about who I am.

And P.S. – remember that Paris trip I mentioned in my last post? Well, I’m going. In fact, I’ll be there next week, after spending a few days in London to visit friends. And who knows? Maybe my next post on Extra Dry Martini will be a dispatch from the City of Lights. . .

Until next time, friends.

New.

It’s just before eight o’clock in the morning, Anchorage time, on the last day of 2016.  It’s dark as night as I write this; the sun won’t rise for at least another two hours.  Winter in Alaska means limited daylight – today, there are only about six hours between sunrise and sunset – and I can’t lie:  the darkness lends a certain heaviness to everything.  It’s strangely disorienting to spend so many waking hours in the black, and the temptation to huddle indoors where it’s light (and warm) is real.  But it’s also incredibly beautiful here.  Anchorage sits at the base of the Chugach Mountains, with their majestic, snowcapped peaks towering above the city.  This time of year, Christmas lights twinkle against freshly fallen snow, and even the frozen, somewhat ominous ice floes on Cook Inlet appear to sparkle as though they’re made of magic.

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I’m not sure what 2017 will bring – none of us can know what the future holds – but in as much as I can control my own destiny, I’ve been making plans for some big life changes in the year ahead.  And so, it felt sort of fitting to end 2016 in the place where I grew up.  I like to think of it as going back in order to go forward.

For a lot of people, 2016 was a difficult year.  It was for me, too.  But if I’m honest, despite its challenges, it was still one of the best I’ve had in a while.  It was the first year since 2011 that I can honestly say ended more hopeful than it began.  It was the first year since losing so many people that I love, that I felt something like true healing beginning to take hold.  And it was the first year since everything spun so violently out of control that I slipped back into the driver’s seat, grabbed the steering wheel, and started living my life on purpose, again.

2016 was not a perfect year.  But as I reflect upon what’s past and where I’d like to go next, I’m proud of myself for one big reason:  this past year, I did a hell of a lot of things that scared me.  I wrote a play that was personal and came from my heart and I put it out into the world.  I traveled alone to one of the largest cities on earth, an unfamiliar maze where I didn’t know my way around and didn’t speak the language.  I boarded a bus to Nevada with a whole bunch of people I didn’t know, to spend two days knocking on strangers’ doors, asking them to vote for a political candidate that I believed in.  And – perhaps the biggest thing – I spoke up for myself, more than once, and asked for what I wanted.

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As it turns out, there’s magic to be found when you push fear aside and take a leap.  My play received excellent reviews at the biggest theatre festival on the west coast of the United States.  I met one of my heroes (Don’t judge me.  Or do, I don’t care.), Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, on an airplane.  I visited a psychic medium and found – for the first time in four years – some peace around my mother’s death.  And through travel, new experiences and some truly lovely people who came into my life, I rediscovered a sense of joy and wonder that I feared I had lost forever.

So, as I think about what I want 2017 to look like, I have only one New Year’s resolution:  to say yes.  Say yes to everything I want to ask for, but I’m afraid to.  Say yes to every good thing that I’m not sure that I deserve.  Say yes to every challenge I’m not sure I’m ready for, every risk I’m not sure I’m brave enough for.  Just say yes, and trust that whatever comes next will work itself out.

Happy New Year, friends.

Until next time,

Sarah

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Falling or Flying.

There was nothing particularly special about that Wednesday, other than the fact that it was the day that I would drive my Grandfather’s old powder blue Honda CR-V along curving country highways, eventually leading to a bridge, and that I’d drive over that bridge, and I’d cross that body of water, and then, once on the other side, I’d go to a business meeting, followed by a much-anticipated dinner with a dear friend. There was nothing particularly special about the minute or so that I’d spend up high, suspended over water, moving fast. After all, I’d done it dozens and dozens of times before. There was nothing special about it at all, except for the fact that it terrified me, and the night before I was due to make that drive, I couldn’t sleep, and I rose early, well before the sun came up.

Rowboat Sunset

In retrospect, the details of how I crossed that bridge don’t seem all that important. What is important is that I had to do it, and so, I did. I did it even though my palms sweat and my heart raced and my legs were wobbly and strangely on fire. I turned up the song on the radio, and I focused on the exhale and the inhale of my breath, and I thought about how Mount Rainier – standing strong and snowcapped and stunning just out my driver’s side window – felt like an old friend. And before I knew it, I was over that bridge, and I had steered Grandpa’s car from the highway on to the crush of Interstate-5, and I was relieved.

The next day, on the way to meet some friends for lunch, I followed different winding country highways to Olympia, the town where I went to high school, the town where I’d learned to drive, the town where I’d first dreamed my biggest dreams and made the plans that sent me to Los Angeles to pursue them. And this time, I felt better, almost normal, in fact, because the sun was shining and the water was sparkling and I felt happy. And I barely thought about that other time, that December, driving those exact same roads, hurtling through the darkness, Dad next to me, drifting in and out of consciousness, the wind pummeling my mother’s SUV and the rain spitting buckets, so much rain that the windshield wipers couldn’t keep up, and I gripped the steering wheel with everything I had just to keep us on the road, all the while stealing glances at my father, wondering if he was sleeping or dying, saying a silent prayer with every mile marker we passed, because every mile brought us closer to home, even though it wasn’t home any more, not since Mom died, not since Dad got sick.

I came of age driving Washington State’s rural highways, snaking over waterways and crossing bridges and winding through forests, so how could it be that the thing that raised me had now become the thing that frightened me? I suppose that’s the power of post traumatic stress, the way that it can shake you and alter your consciousness, making you feel like a stranger in your own body, making you doubt everything you thought you knew. I’m not a solider. I’ve never served in the military. But I’ve been to war. And I won; or at least I think that I have. But on some days, and in some ways, those battles still rage on.

Puget Sound

I recently told a friend that I didn’t think I’d ever feel safe again. The remark was off the cuff and meant to be a sort of joke, but in truth, I meant it. My whole life, I’ve struggled with anxiety, but I didn’t know how to name it, or how to talk about it. Instead, I tried to control it, to deny it, to tamp it down. And for a while, I was convinced that I had beaten my fears into submission. But then along came a tornado of tragedy, a violent storm of death and loss that quickly and swiftly eviscerated my carefully constructed façade that I was brave and strong and that I had it all together.

The storm taught me that nothing in life is certain, a scary prospect for a control freak like myself. But it also taught me that the only way out is through, and that if I don’t want my fears to control me, I have to surrender to them, to walk into them, and to thank them for being here, for reminding me of what’s important.

I had been staying at the beach for almost a week when something rather strange happened. I was paddling around Case Inlet, soothed by saltwater, utterly tranquil, when not far away, a curious seal popped his head above the water. He stared at me and I stared back at him, and before logic or reason could intervene, I began to swim towards him. Sensing a threat, he dove beneath the surface of the water. But I kept on swimming, and as I did, I made my voice a song and cast it out across the sea. “Hello, Mr. Seal,” I said. “Don’t worry, I won’t hurt you.” And he seemed to understand, because he popped his head above the surface again, and froze there for a minute, just looking at me.

Side View of the Cabin

This went on for several minutes, our water dance, the diving and re-emerging, both of us circling each other, watching, considering, keeping a safe distance but drawing ever closer. I wondered what he made of me, this strange fish in black and white bikini bottoms and ruby red rash guard and faded orange swim fins. And when we were quite close to each other, he dove under again, and as I treaded water, looking for him, I suddenly realized something: I was a long way from shore, and I was alone, and in the murky saltwater, clouded up as it was by sand and seaweed, I wouldn’t be able to see the seal coming, wouldn’t know where he’d emerge next, and if he decided to attack me, or bite me, or pull me under the water, I wouldn’t be able to escape.

And there it was, that fear again, pulsing through my veins like a jolt of ice water. I turned toward the shore and I swam as fast as I could, legs pumping, swim fins slicing though the bay. And several moments later I turned back and I saw my seal again, further away now, but still watching me. He cast one last curious glance my way – a sort of sad farewell – and then turned to swim off in the opposite direction. And in that moment, I knew that he had never meant to hurt me, just like I had never meant to hurt him.

I’m a realist. I know that I’ll never fully be free from the fears that plague my worried mind. On some days, I feel pretty good, like I could do just about anything. And on other days, like the Wednesday when I drove over that bridge, it was all I could do just to get through it. I used to think that soldiering on and suffering in silence was brave. It’s not. It only makes the fear worse. What is brave is being vulnerable enough to talk about the places that scare me, and to run the risk that by telling you that sometimes, when I’m driving my car on the freeway, I feel like I’m moving so fast I won’t be able to stop and I’ll fly through the windshield and hurtle into space, that you’ll think I’m crazy and irrational. And maybe you will. But then again, maybe you won’t. Maybe you’ll read this and think, “Oh my God, I thought I was the only one,” and you’ll realize – as I’m realizing – that none of us are truly ever alone in this strange and beautiful experiment we call life.

Can we ever really know if we’re falling or flying? I’m not sure. But maybe the answer to that question is simple. Maybe it’s the ones who decide to fly – in spite of their fears – that are the ones who do.

Until next time, friends.

Sarah Black and White

Grateful.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until next time,

xx

Sarah

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Lucky.

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

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

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

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

Birds Eye View Prague

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

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

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

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

Until next time, friends.

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The Other Side.

“Have you ever had a reading before?”

“No.”

“Never before?”

“No.”

“That’s exciting.”

“Yeah.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mom and Grandpa

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

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

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

Until next time, friends.

Me and Mom

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

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

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

Strong in our broken places.

“Sometimes the people around you won’t understand your journey. They don’t need to. It’s not for them.”

-Unknown

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I spent Mother’s Day on a boat. The morning dawned with overcast skies and I was afraid that the marine layer would wrap itself around the coastline and not let go. To my surprise, the sun broke free from the fog’s grasp and by late morning, it was casting gentle rays of light out across the water, creating a perfect spring Southern California Sunday.

We never left the harbor. The boat was borrowed and expensive: a sleek, beautiful vessel complete with two bedrooms, a bathroom and a spacious deck. Far too valuable for any of us to pilot, even if we did know how, which of course, we didn’t. Besides, there was good food to eat and tequila to drink and – most importantly – girl talk to be had underneath that shaded canopy on the sea.

How do you celebrate a holiday when the person that holiday is built around celebrating is no longer with you? How do you continue to embrace gratitude for all that you’ve been given on an occasion that can’t help but remind you of all that you’ve lost? How do you keep moving forward, heart open, even on days when moving forward feels impossible?

I don’t know what works for other people, but here is what has been working for me, as a strategy for dealing with the difficult days: 1.) Surround yourself with your tribe. 2.) Do what feels good. 3.) Don’t apologize.

So this past Mother’s Day, that is exactly what I did. The three friends I shared that boat with are all brilliant, creative, generous, tough as nails, women. They also – like me – carry the scars of having lived on this planet long enough to have had their hearts broken. All of us have been humbled by the difficult days. And yet, it is in those difficult days that we have found our strength, our grace, and our empathy. We are, in the words of Ernest Hemingway, “Strong in our broken places.” These friends – and others like them – are my tribe. And these days, they’re the only people I feel like spending time with.

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One member of that tribe is my friend Sam. Sam is someone that I’m not sure that the old Sarah – the Sarah from before all the bad stuff happened – would have been friends with. Sam is a fiercely talented actress, and she moves through the world with an authority about who she is that the old me would have found intimidating. In truth, I still occasionally do find her intimidating, but mostly, I recognize her as a kindred spirit, someone that, through her own example, has given me permission to be the bolder, braver person that I know I am, deep down inside.

Not long after I met Sam – before we’d become the friends we are now – she invited me to a screening of a short film she co-produced and starred in, called Life Grows On*. It’s a twelve minute movie that follows the cycle of one woman’s life, illustrating how she responds to her own difficult days (and her joyful ones, too) in a way most women can relate to: by changing her hair. It’s a beautiful film, and I cried when I watched it. And I also knew that I wanted to be friends with the person who made it.

For me, these last few years have been a journey toward self-acceptance, of learning to give myself permission to be who I am. I’m not there yet, but I’m a lot further down that road than I used to be. And that is thanks in large part to friends like Sam:  friends who are teaching me that it is in our broken places where often, we are the strongest.

Surround yourself with your tribe. Do what feels good. Don’t apologize.

Until next time, friends.

*P.S. – You can watch Sam’s film Life Grows On by clicking here. I think you’ll be glad you did.

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Where I live.

January has not started out as I’d hoped. I began 2016 filled with enthusiasm for the year ahead and the changes that it promised, but that enthusiasm was quickly replaced with the less-than-bright-and-shiny realities of the day to day.

Immediately after the glow of the holidays wore off, I found myself surprisingly unmotivated: sluggish, fatigued, even a bit depressed. In December, life was moving fast and I struggled to keep up, but the manic energy that it brought also seemed to serve as a sort of inspiration. Words and ideas flowed out of me. I had so much to say, and writing felt easy.

Not so, lately. Every day, I sit down to work on a new piece: a stage play I’m planning to produce in early summer. And every day I find myself frustrated, tugging at a narrative that hasn’t quite shown me how it is meant to unfold. Little by little, I’m getting there, but the progress has been a maddeningly slow one of scribbling words into my notebook and scratching them out, throwing out more than I’m keeping, writing and re-writing.

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And then there was yesterday. Running out for groceries, I shifted my car into reverse, and heard something that sounded like a motorcycle revving its engine. Is that me? I thought. I turned off the engine and the sound stopped. Turned it on and there it was again. What in the hell? I had never in my life heard a sound like that come out of my almost stealthy quiet Prius. Exiting the car, I smelled gasoline in the air.

Calls to Toyota and Triple A revealed what had happened: someone had stolen my catalytic converter. Prior to yesterday, I’d never even heard of a catalytic converter, but it is amazing how quickly Google and a couple of mechanics with I’m so sorry faces can turn you into an expert.

According to Auto.com, “the job of the catalytic converter is to convert harmful pollutants into less harmful emissions before they leave the car’s exhaust system.” Without it, not only does your car become a major polluter, it makes a roaring sound akin to having a pack of Hell’s Angels riding shotgun. Not pleasant. As the apologetic mechanic at my local Toyota informed me, there has been a rash of catalytic converter thefts all over L.A., due to the fact that it contains valuable metals that are then melted down and sold. And as an external part, they’re relatively easy for an experienced thief to remove (by sawing them off!) within minutes. Now the kicker: because of the recent epidemic of these thefts, catalytic converters are on a national backorder and mine could take up to eight weeks (and cost thousands of dollars) to replace. Eight weeks? Without my car? In L.A.?

I suppose you could say that this was the punch in the gut that turned a disappointing January into an abysmal one.

Later, as I’m on hold with my insurance company, trying to figure out if any of this is covered, it hits me that it’s not just the money, or the hassle, or the fact that I feel stranded without a car that has left me so shaken. It’s the fact that for the first time in the nearly two years since I moved to this (mostly) quiet residential neighborhood, I feel unsafe. Yes, I live in a big, dangerous city, and yes my neighborhood is tucked away right off a busy intersection, but the street where I live is populated with nice people: young working professionals and families with kids and dogs. I know – and like – my neighbors. I walk everywhere, striking up conversations with friends and strangers alike. I don’t feel scared walking home at night. And yet, someone still came along and did this: hacked up a piece of my car in plain sight. It’s the car that has faithfully and reliably carried me around this city for eight years. The car that my mother gave me. I feel sick.

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Through my living room blinds, I see the late afternoon sunset beginning to streak the sky pink. I get off the phone, take a deep breath, pour a glass of wine and go outside to my patio. I’m lucky, I tell myself, as I breathe in the sunset and try to calm down. This sucks, but it will be OK. Maybe I’m not supposed to drive for a while. Maybe I’m supposed to slow down and simplify and focus on my writing. Maybe I’m supposed to move – the thought creeps in without my consent.

No, I think, as the rosy glow of the waning sun fills in the blue sky behind the majestic, lone palm tree that towers stoically above my roof. I don’t want to move. I don’t want to run away, just because things are difficult. I’m reminded of a saying from Lao Tzu that I posted on the Facebook page for my blog only yesterday morning, before I knew about any of this stuff with the car:

Stop leaving and you will arrive.

Stop searching and you will see.

Stop running away and you will be found.

I was attracted to the quote because it reminded me of my writing, and my tendency to abandon long form projects whenever I get stuck or when inspiration runs out. But maybe there’s a bigger life lesson there. One about endlessly searching for something to make me whole again, and always coming up short.

This is not the start to the New Year that I wanted, not at all. But maybe, buried underneath everything that’s icky and uncomfortable, maybe there’s something in it that I needed. Maybe instead of running away in search of something better, this is where I will be tested, and where I decide to stand and fight.  And maybe, in that fight, I will learn something about myself that I needed to know.

Maybe.  Or maybe it’s just a really crappy January.

Until next time, friends.

Thirty-five.

On December 2nd, I marked a milestone birthday: thirty-five. Perhaps it’s fitting then, that this entry also signifies another milestone: my 100th post on Extra Dry Martini.

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Normally, I love birthdays (both my own and other people’s), but this one felt less celebratory and more like staring down the barrel of a gun. Thirty-five? Shouldn’t I have it all figured out by now? Shouldn’t I own a home, have a family, be navigating the ladder of success on my way toward building a lucrative career? Numbers don’t lie, and based on my age, there’s no denying that I am officially a grown up. So why aren’t I acting like one?

Though these (judgmental) thoughts danced across my brain, the truth is, when the day arrived, I was too exhausted to be as hard on myself as my inner critic demanded. I was fresh off the recent experience of seeing my beloved grandfather through hospice (which I documented here, here and here), and after spending the better part of a month camped out in a small town in rainy Washington state, I returned to Los Angeles only to be confronted with another piece of life-shaking news. While I’m not ready to share this latest development publicly (I will, probably in my next post), suffice it to say I find myself at a significant crossroads, with two very different paths to choose from. Whichever decision I make means big change, and the only way for me to know which road to follow is to look within my own heart and ask myself what I want.

Hotel Palms

The Friday after my birthday, I did what I often do when I’m feeling lost: I went to the ocean. I packed a journal, my birthday cards, a tattered copy of Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s A Gift from the Sea, and drove south. Needing to decompress from an intensely emotional couple of months, I decided to spoil myself and reserved an oceanfront hotel room at the stunning Surf & Sand Resort in Laguna Beach, CA.

I expected the resort to be luxurious, but the property exceeded my every expectation. Upon checking in, I was greeted by an expansive guest room appointed in crisp whites and soft sandy neutrals, a bottle of sparkling water chilling on ice, an artfully arranged fruit and cheese platter, and a handwritten note of welcome from the hotel staff. I opened the white shutter balcony doors to a breath-halting view of the sunset over the Pacific. I cracked open a bottle of birthday wine, collapsed onto the enormous King Size bed, and fell asleep to the sound of waves crashing outside.

It took a full twenty-four hours for my tired brain to stop racing, and to allow my internal rhythms to slow down and mimic the pace of the ocean. I went for long walks along Pacific Coast Highway, enjoyed delicious meals, and savored the sight of the sun slipping below the horizon, streaking the topaz sky with tangerine fire.

Waves

On my last day in Laguna, I lounged in the afternoon sun and swam lazy laps in the warm saltwater pool. An hour before sunset, I made my way down to the beach. Running in and out of the surf, I laughed as the tide quickly receded then rushed back, swallowing my bare feet with a force as the not-quite-cold foamy white waves tickled my toes.

My whole life, the ocean has always held a certain mysterious allure. In the presence of its seemingly infinite expanse I am small, but not in a way that renders me insignificant. Instead, my tiny-ness thrills me, reminding me that my problems are a mere droplet compared to such a mighty sea. As the roar of the surf matches the drumbeat of my own heart, I know that I am part of the earth – all of it – and my connectedness to such great beauty makes me feel both awestruck and safe.

The first four years of my thirtieth decade brought challenges I never thought I’d face. Not this young, not this soon. These years have brought death and unimaginable heartbreak and a loneliness I feared I’d never find the bottom of. But they also brought strength, and resilience, and gratitude, and a deeper knowledge of love than I’ve ever known. I am often sad and fragile, but I am also wise, and tenacious, and alive.

Palms and Sea

A few days after my thirty-fifth birthday, I stared out at the Pacific, wondering how I could go on, now that the four people who had most shaped my life were no longer here. As I thought about them, images of other people appeared in my mind – both family and friends – who had stepped in to fill the void in the absence of those four. A cherished bunch who had laughed and cried with me, who had embraced me with kindness, who had counseled me through hardship, who had held me up when I feared I would collapse. And in that moment of quiet reflection, I knew unquestionably not only that I could go on, but that I would.

When I left Laguna, a piece of my heart stayed behind. I vowed to return after questions had been answered, decisions had been made, and challenges were met, head on. As Anne Morrow Lindbergh wrote in that well-worn book I carried along with me on my journey: “Patience – Faith – Openness, is what the sea has to teach. Simplicity – Solitude – Intermittency . . . But there are other beaches to explore. There are more shells to find. This is only the beginning.”

Until next time, friends.

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