Dear Mom.

If I had known the last time I saw you was going to be the last time, I would have done everything differently. I would have hugged you tighter, skinny as you were, afraid as I was that I might break you. I would have told you that I loved you. I think I might have said it – I can’t remember – but the odds are that I didn’t, because we didn’t exchange those words easily or often in our family. I would have looked at you more carefully, taking in every detail, the same way – I can see only now, with hindsight – that you looked at me. Because you knew what I didn’t, that this would be the last time.

Today, May 25th, is your birthday. You would have been sixty-five. Your birthday was always my favorite day, more so than my own, which may sound like a lie or revisionist history, but I promise that it isn’t. Is there anything better than carefully selecting a gift that you know its recipient will love, and seeing the delight in their eyes when they open it? That was you, Mom. You loved everything I gave you, and making you happy was so easy that it felt like my super power.

The last time I called you on your birthday was five years ago. That’s when I knew that something was wrong. In truth, I had known for a while. But that phone call was the first time I can ever remember that you weren’t happy to hear from me. Normally, when you’d answer the phone, warmth would flood your voice. “Oh, hi, Sar,” you’d say, almost as though the phone call was a pleasant surprise. Not this time. Instead, your tone was angry, combative. “Mom?” I barked, startled. “What’s wrong with you?”

There’s no need to re-live what happened next, that horrible spiral. I’ve never felt so helpless, never felt so worthless, as I did when I couldn’t reach you, couldn’t save you. And just like that, you were gone.

My whole life, losing you was always my worst fear. And then, my worst fear came true. I lost you in the most wrenching, painful way I could imagine. For a while, I lost myself, too. And in order to find myself again, I walked through hell. I learned some important lessons. Lessons I didn’t want to learn, but lessons that I needed to learn. I wish that heartache wasn’t such an effective teacher, but I don’t know how else I could have discovered the depths of my heart and its capacity for love without having it so badly broken, or how much I truly loved to laugh without shedding so many tears.

And here’s something ironic: when I found myself anew, I found you, too. It was a you that I could only fully understand after you’d gone. A you that you couldn’t show me while you were here. A you that had once been so full of life and love and joy and then something went horribly wrong and it never got right again. A you that urged me not to follow in your footsteps, not to make the same mistakes you’d made. And I listened, Mom. I paid attention. I changed my life. And all the while, I kept wondering:

Can you see me?

 Do you know?

 Are you proud?

And now, as I continue to move forward in this life, my greatest fear is that I’ll forget you. I worry that the passage of time will erode my memories, and I’ll forget your voice, or your face, or how important you are to me. But then, out of nowhere, I’ll hear your laugh coming out of my mouth, or I’ll see you in the sculpt of my cheekbone or the arch of my brow or the shape of my eye. And then I’ll realize that I can’t possibly forget, because you are part of me, just like I am part of you.

We are alike, Mom, but we are so different, too. I’m not sure how you’d feel about the life I’m living now. I’m certainly braver than I was, certainly taking bigger risks than I used to when you were alive. And the truth is, I feel scared and alone a lot of the time. I wish that wasn’t so. I wish that I could ask you what I should do, or where I should turn. But then I remind myself that I know what’s right, that I have everything I need, and that my fear of regretting the risks I don’t take is far greater than my fear of failure or of making a mistake.

You gave me that. Or rather, losing you did. Your death gave me a sense of urgency that I didn’t have before I lost you. It gave me a heightened awareness of the danger of deferring my dreams. And it taught me how fleeting happiness is, and that when I have a shot at it, I should grab on to it with both hands and hold on for dear life.

That is something I am sure of: no matter what you might think of the life I’m living now, you would want me to be happy. You would want that above all else. And that is something –  I promise you, Mom –  that I am working toward every single day.

Can you see me?

 Do you know?

 Are you proud?

Happy Birthday, Mom.

Love,

Sarah

Her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until next time, friends.

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.

The beach house.

It will be the past

and we’ll live there together.

Not as it was to live

but as it is remembered. 

It will be the past.

We’ll all go back together.

Everyone we ever loved,

and lost, and must remember.

It will be the past.

And it will last forever.

– Patrick Phillips

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I found the box in a small, seaside boutique in Laguna Beach, CA, a few days before Christmas.  It was compact, rectangular in shape, and carved out of curly maple.  On the lid, an inscription: “Our memories of the ocean will linger on long after our footprints in the sand are gone.”  Perfect, I thought, as the saleswoman carefully wrapped it in tissue and secured it into the cardboard gift box that I would place into my carry-on and take with me on my flight to Seattle.

Except that it wasn’t perfect, as I discovered upon my arrival at my grandparents’ beach house two days later.  It was too small.  We had kept more of her than I had remembered.  I wasn’t sure what to do, but I knew I had to do something.  The hideous black box was no longer an option.

The next day, feeling determined, I pawed through boxes labeled “Sarah” in what had once been my grandparents’ dog kennel and now served as a repository for all the items that remained from my parents’ Olympia house.  There must be something in here that will work, I thought.

And then, among the photo albums and mementos from my high school bedroom, I found it.  I paused for a minute, thinking, running my fingers along the ridges in the dark wood.  The words “A Scientific Cigar,” and “Aromatic – Mild – Satisfying” made me giggle.  No, I couldn’t possibly. . . Could I?

I opened the box to find a treasure trove of items contained inside.  A handwritten note my dad had written to my mom, years ago, penned in his messy scrawl.  A gold ID bracelet that had once fit my child wrist perfectly, now too small, my name engraved in cursive next to a tiny diamond star.  A trio of pink Elvis Presley postage stamps (Mom’s favorite singer).  A photograph of our beloved West Highland Terrier, Max.  And an amber colored agate stone found – by me – on the shores of Case Inlet.

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I carried the box into my grandparents’ bedroom and set it down on the nightstand.  I opened the hated black receptacle and removed the thick plastic bag, surveying its contents.  For a moment, it struck me how squeamish I’d once been about handling this bag, how afraid I’d been the first time I’d pried open the black box.  But now, I was almost businesslike in my approach.  Isn’t it bizarre how the passage of time can make even the strangest things seem normal?

Inside my suitcase, I retrieved a small lavender (her favorite color) pouch, emptied out its contents (my jewelry) and gently folded the thick plastic bag inside, zipping it closed.  Secured inside that soft purple bag, nestled among the items already living within the cigar box, all that remained of my mother – that we hadn’t already scattered into the sea – just fit.

Now, I can understand why a weathered old cigar box might seem like an odd place to store my mother’s ashes.  But believe me when I tell you:  it is not just any cigar box.  Clean and without any trace of cigar smell, it once belonged to my great uncle Vernon, who died when I was twelve.  He and my mother were very close, and for much of his life he served as a gentle buffer between her and her mother (his sister), a domineering and frequently emotionally abusive woman.  When Vernon died, the cigar box was one of a handful of things that my mother salvaged from his house in San Francisco, and she – perhaps inexplicably – gave it to me as a present.  Maybe because it felt like a relic from a bygone era and I’d always been drawn to all things vintage, I loved that box.  Over the years, I’d used it to store everything from trinkets to art supplies to photographs.  And now it would contain the last of my mother, along with a handful of cherished items that reminded me of her.  As I placed the box on a window ledge overlooking the sea, I smiled and thought, “Perfect.”

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The next morning, Christmas Day, dawned bright and beautiful.  I sat at the living room table, in the same spot where Grandpa used to park his wheelchair, spending hours watching the tides roll in and out, never tiring of the view.  As I drank coffee, marveling at how blue the sky was for December, how serene and still Case Inlet was, like some enormous silvery mirror reflecting the heavens back upon themselves, a large flock of Canada geese descended from the sky and gracefully alighted onto the surface of the water.  “Look Grandpa,” I found myself saying aloud, “Your favorite.”  And then I smiled again.

For now, my grandparents’ beach house sits empty.  But I know that someday, this house will once again bustle with activity.  There will be summer potlucks and clambakes and bonfires on the beach, just like there were in the old days.  People will gather for parties on the deck and they’ll swim in the sea and have sleepovers on the outdoor balcony, and laughter and love and life will once again pulsate through these walls.  It will look different than it once did, but it will be just as joyful.  Those of us that remain, and who remember, will make sure of that.

But sometimes, before you can move forward, you have to go back.  Not to dwell in the past, but simply to make peace with it.  To look every monster that has held you in its grip square in the face and say, “Enough.”

And that black plastic box?  That soulless, impenetrable, ugly receptacle with a faded sticker bearing my mother’s name slapped across the front?  I happily, and with great joy, threw it into the trash.  And I didn’t look back.  Not once.

Until next time, friends.

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La La Land.

“A bit of madness is key

To give us new colors to see

Who knows where it will lead us?

And that’s why they need us.

So bring on the rebels

The ripples from pebbles

The painters, and poets, and plays

Here’s to the fools who dream

Crazy as they may seem

Here’s to the hearts that break

Here’s to the mess we make.”

– La La Land

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Four years ago, on Thanksgiving morning, I pulled my car into the public parking lot at the base of Fryman Canyon’s trailhead, paid three dollars to park, and began my ascent up the mountain. The hike at Fryman begins as a steep climb, but after about a mile it levels off, with views of Sherman Oaks to the west. It was a bright, blue-skied morning, no longer hot but still temperate, the autumn winds having blown out much of the smog, offering up a clear view of the sprawling city below.

Both my limbs and my heart were heavy. It was my first Thanksgiving since my mother died, two months earlier. The following week, I would mark another birthday – thirty-two – and then shortly thereafter, I’d travel back to Olympia, Washington to see my father for the holidays, whose rapidly-advancing pancreatic and liver cancer meant that Christmas would surely be his last. And on the drive to Fryman, I had phoned my maternal grandmother, struck by the fact that our conversation had, for the first time in two months, seemed almost normal. Of course, I couldn’t have known that conversation would be the last lucid moment I’d share with her, her Alzheimer’s Disease descending like a fog only days later, never again to lift.

But on this bright November morning, staring down at the city I’d called home for the last thirteen years, I felt remarkably O.K. The troubles plaguing my worried mind were still there, of course, but they weren’t here, at least, not right now. Here, it was just me, and my city. Looking out across that sweeping metropolis, I couldn’t help but feel a familiar surge of pride that a girl from Alaska had made it all the way south, to this iconic place, to this land of movies and myth and magic, and had made it her own.

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Seventeen years in, even through the turbulence of these last few years, that feeling of pride has never gone away. At a recent screening of the new film La La Land, a friend remarked that he was happy to see a film about L.A. being made by filmmakers who actually love this city. I couldn’t agree more. Hating Los Angeles is a popular sport, and it’s easy to find fault with the traffic, the smog, the sprawl, the absence of seasons and the preoccupation with all things Hollywood, but I could also argue that any critique about L.A. can be flipped on its head, and used to make the case that it’s that very thing that gives this city its unique – and uniquely wonderful – personality. I suppose my relationship with Los Angeles is akin to an intimate love affair: I see all the bad stuff, all the flaws, and still, I want him anyway.

Considering my own origin story, I guess it’s not surprising that I ended up here. Growing up as an only child (my older half siblings were all nearly grown by the time I came along), with a career-obsessed father and a mother who battled depression, I spent much of the long, dark Alaska winters alone in my room, weaving stories out of my imagination. What a relief it was to finally land in theatre classes in L.A., finding a community of people who were just as odd and eccentric as I was, and who liked to play make believe just as much as I did.

I won’t pretend that my L.A. years have been easy. They haven’t been. I walked a long road and paid a lot of dues to get to a place that now feels only relatively comfortable. I’ve lived in cockroach-infested apartments, worked low-paying jobs that I hated, and had plenty of unfortunate encounters with some of the most awful people you could imagine. I’ve done bad plays in tiny theaters, signed contracts with unscrupulous agents, and suffered humiliation more times than I’d like to admit. More than once, I’ve watched a dream die and had to rebuild it anew, from nothing.

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But when times have been their toughest, that’s also when I’ve been at my best. Even when I’ve felt down, and hopeless, I’ve found a surprising ability to live off the collective energy of a place jam-packed with dreamers, hustlers, and doers, all fighting for their vision of how they want the world to be. The innovation and creativity that pulse through this city have, over and over again, given me the spark I needed to try again, one more time. And the urban sprawl? Simply an opportunity to reinvent myself, as each new neighborhood – Culver City, Miracle Mile, North Hollywood –  has offered new experiences, new friends, a new life.

For a long time, I was afraid to leave L.A. Afraid of what leaving would mean. That I was a quitter. That I wasn’t tough enough. That I didn’t have what it takes to make it here. But I no longer worry about that. It’s thanks to Los Angeles that my dreams have not only become bigger than I’ve ever dared, but that I actually have the moxie to make them come true. It’s thanks to L.A. that I can now justifiably use titles like “producer,” “creative director,” “playwright,” and “filmmaker” to describe myself. And as I write this blog, I’m sitting in a dressing room underneath a soundstage in Hollywood, waiting to step on to a set with actors that I grew up watching as a child. And that doesn’t seem out of the ordinary, doesn’t even excite me, really. It’s just a job. What does excite me is the fact that after I’m done on this soundstage, I’ll head to a small rehearsal studio in North Hollywood for a table read of a play that I wrote, and for the first time, I’ll hear the new draft out loud, read by a new cast of actors. Because the truth is, all of my time in Los Angeles –  all of the heartbreak and the hope –  has taught me who I am and who I want to be. And that person is someone who is no longer content to live inside someone else’s scenes, or play a part in someone else’s story. She wants to – and has already begun to – write her own.

Until next time, friends.

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Thirty-Six.

Every breaking wave on the shore/

Tells the next one there’ll be one more/

And every gambler knows that to lose/

Is what you’re really there for/

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Yesterday, I needed to see the ocean.

I was staring down the looming deadline to finish my script like the barrel of a gun, I had a to-do list a mile long, and the thought of sitting in Friday L.A. traffic on the way to and from the coast was more than enough to dissuade me from making the trip.

But I’ve also learned that when the voice inside me grows loud enough, it’s time to stop what I’m doing and listen.

Yesterday was my birthday. I turned thirty-six.

It wasn’t the splashy present I gave myself a year ago, when I splurged on an ocean front room for three nights at Laguna Beach’s luxurious Surf & Sand Resort. But that year, thirty-five, was different. I crawled to that birthday on my knees, having just returned to L.A. after spending several rain-soaked weeks in the tiny Washington town of Allyn, seeing my grandfather through hospice. I hadn’t even had the opportunity to process the enormity of his death when I learned that the company I’d worked at for eleven years (since the age of twenty-three) had been sold, and I now had a decision to make: should I pack up my life and move back to Seattle, taking the corporate job and the sure thing? Or should I stay in L.A., where everything stable in my life had crumbled, and face an uncertain future?

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Last December, I stared out at the Pacific Ocean and I knew:  my heart wanted to stay. I wasn’t finished in L.A., wasn’t finished doing all the things I said I would do here. And I worried that if I left, I might never come back.

So I chose the scary, uncertain path. And thus began my year of going off script.

It hasn’t been easy for me to spend an entire year of my life with no real structure or plan. See, I’m kind of meticulous when it comes to planning. I’m a list-maker. I’m Type A. At any given time, I’ve got at least two calendars going, and I’m constantly filling them with goals I want to meet, and things I want to do. You should see the “Notes” app in my iPhone. Yeesh.

But life has also taught me how meaningless plans are. That plans fail. That people die. That in an instant, everything can change. And that there’s no such thing as a “sure” thing.

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So, for the last three hundred and sixty-five (Sixty-six? Wasn’t this a Leap Year? I forget. February was so very long ago) days, I embarked on an interesting experiment. I stepped out on faith and found myself supported time and time again in ways that I didn’t expect. When I needed money, it came in. When I humbled myself enough to ask for help (another thing that’s hard for me), I received it. And when I needed a different way of looking at the world, new people came into my life who taught me things about myself that I didn’t even realize I needed to know.

I regret nothing about this past year. I’m glad that I took the leap. In fact, despite some dark spots, it was one of the best I’ve had in recent memory. I learned much about life and love and faith, and, most importantly, how vital it is to trust that quiet, persistent voice inside of me.

And it is because I have learned to trust that voice, that yesterday, as I stared out at the same ocean from a year ago, on a different piece of California coastline, I had to recognize what’s true:  I am no longer OK with going off script. I am a writer, and I need an outline. I need a rough draft, a canvas to work from, a piece of text that I can – and likely, will – ruthlessly edit. I need something more than just waiting for the universe to “show me the way.” It’s time to start making decisions, and taking the risk that those decisions will be wrong. It’s time to stop talking about all the things I’m going to do “someday” and start actually doing them.

It’s time. In fact, it’s beyond time. So here I go.

I’ll keep you posted.

Until next time, friends.

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November.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for listening.

Until next time, friends.

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White Butterflies.

And I want to keep us all alive

And I want to see you with my eyes

But I see you in the fireflies

And how extraordinary . . .

Is that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mom’s dead.”

And everything went black.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until next time, friends.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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