Seven years.

“Maybe it’s okay

if it takes time,

to be okay.

Maybe

healing is a road that is

lined with endless grace.”

– Morgan Harper Nichols

Dear Mom,

How do I begin? Usually, I’m the one other people come to when they need help figuring out what to say. But in trying to figure out what to say to you – my best friend, my first phone call, the person I miss most of all – I am utterly lost. My fingers are clumsy on my keyboard. A heavy brick sits squarely in the center of my chest.

But still, I will try. I will try because you deserve it. You deserve to know all of the things I have been thinking but haven’t been able to say.

Seven years. Seven years since I got the worst phone call of my life. Seven years since all the color bled from the world and the sky turned black and nothing would ever look the same again. Seven years since you left.

Seven is an impossible number. It is impossible for me to believe it has been seven years since I’ve seen your face, or hugged you in an airport, or heard the familiar, “Oh hi, Sar,” on the other end of the telephone.

But seven is an impossible number for another reason. It is impossible to believe how quickly the years have elapsed since you died. It seems so cruel that time has marched on, indifferent, and that I have lived and loved and struggled and succeeded and hoped and failed throughout most of my thirties without you. How unfair that the worst thing I could possibly imagine happened to me, and all I could do was survive it? How awful to learn that I not only could go on without you, but that I would go on. I would go on to become a better, braver, more compassionate person in your absence, and that better, braver, more compassionate person is someone you will never get to meet.

Damn it, it’s so unfair. And yet, it is. The unfairness of life is one of the most profound lessons I have learned from your death, Mom. As children, we are taught to believe that kindness will be rewarded and the good guys will win and that everything will work out in the end. And sometimes, those things do happen. But other times, they don’t. Other times, life shocks you with its randomness. Sometimes, terrible things happen that don’t make any sense and there’s nothing to do but accept them.

For a while, I was angry with you, Mom. I was angry with you for dying. I was angry with you for leaving me at the worst possible time. Dad was dying, and Grandma was losing her mind, and Grandpa was wheelchair-bound and depressed, and you just checked out. You left the building and left me to deal with the mess you left behind.

When you died, I was in the prime of my life. I was thirty-one, living a sun-soaked existence in Los Angeles, doing exactly as I pleased. Before you left, my biggest concerns centered around whether my agent liked my new headshots or how many auditions I was getting. And then suddenly, everything changed. Suddenly, there were a million hard decisions to make. There was probate court. There were health care directives and funerals to plan and boxes and boxes and boxes of belongings to sift through. There was a home to sell. My family home, or at least it used to be, before I watched you unravel within its walls. And then, there was Grandpa. Your sweet, heartbroken father, who could not reconcile the fact – no matter how many times I tried to explain it to him – that someone who was only sixty years old and in seemingly good health could suddenly just die.

It was relentlessly unfair, Mom. And I was not ready for any of it. In fact, for a while, I was convinced it would kill me. I was convinced that I would die. Yet, for whatever reason, I didn’t. Even though everything was horrible and gut-wrenching and wrong, I survived. And a funny thing happens when life deals you the worst cards you can imagine and you continue to breathe in and out. You learn something about yourself. The world is suddenly, irrevocably, different, and you are different in it. You can’t go back to the way you were, and you find you don’t want to.

I am going to say some things now that will probably sound awful, but I have to admit to them because they’re true. If both of my parents had to die, I’m glad you went first, Mom. Because my relationship with my father needed repairing and those last few months with him were a gift. I’m grateful for the dinners we had and the football games we watched and that there was nothing left unsaid between us. I’m grateful he got to plan his own funeral, and that I was able to carry his ashes down the aisle of the church, and sit in the front row with Deirdre and Dave and Matt and pretend to be the good Catholic girl he wanted me to be. If you hadn’t died, Mom, I wouldn’t have done any of that. I would have been too busy holding you up.

And even though I blamed her cruelty for causing you to turn to the bottle in the first place, I’m grateful for the daily phone calls with Grandma before Alzheimer’s erased her memory. I’m grateful for the realization that even though she was a terrible, abusive mother, she was still in pain over losing you. I’m grateful for the knowledge I learned earlier than most: that love is complicated and people are too, and most of us aren’t working with a full tool kit when it comes to matters of the heart.

I think you already know this, Mom, because I choose to believe that you see and know everything I do, but I will confess it to you anyway: I have lied about your death. I’m not sure how many times, but there is one time in particular that stands out. It was after we found out Grandpa was dying, and I was on a plane headed back to Seattle to be with him. The woman seated next to me was one of those busy body, Matriarch types, and before I knew it, I was telling her my entire life story. And when she asked me how you died, I lied and said “Cancer.”

It embarrasses me now that I did that, Mom. Why should I care what a complete stranger thinks? But at the time, I was trying to protect you. Or rather, I was trying to protect us both. I was afraid that if I told the truth, the busy body Matriarch seated next to me would think you were a terrible mother. Or I was a terrible daughter. Or there was something wrong with our family. Or – worst of all – you didn’t love me enough to stay alive.

I know that none of this is true, Mom. What is true is that for most of my life, you harbored a deep, dark sadness. A sadness I didn’t understand and didn’t know how to fix. And you drank to feel better, and the alcohol worked until it didn’t. Until it killed you. But I don’t think you wanted to die, Mom. I don’t think you wanted to leave us. As one of your friends once told me, “Your mother was so tired. She just wanted to sleep.”

Shortly after you died, the man I used to be married to told me he was jealous of our relationship. He said he was jealous of how close we were, because he didn’t have that with his own mother. His words caused me to fly into a blinding rage. I was so furious at the unfairness of losing you, so devastated by the gaping hole your absence had only recently carved into my life, that I simply couldn’t hear it. But looking back, I’m glad he said it, because he only illuminated what was true. In thirty-one years, I never doubted how much you loved me, Mom. Not once. You gave me everything you could, and I am the luckiest person on earth to be able to call you my mother. Nothing will ever change that. Not even death.

One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned in losing you, and in losing Dad, and Grandma and Grandpa, is that healing is a road that runs straight through forgiveness. In order to move on, you have to let go.

It has taken me seven years to be able to say this, but here it is: I forgive you, Mom. I forgive you for dying. I forgive you for leaving me at the worst possible time. I forgive you for needing to sleep.

And I forgive myself, too. I will have to say that again and again in order to believe it, so I guess I better start practicing now. I forgive myself. I forgive myself for not being able to save you. I forgive myself for every horrible, awful, selfish thing I did in the years since you died. I forgive myself for the mistakes I made, for the time and the money I wasted, and for all the ways I hurt myself. I forgive myself because I can see now that I was doing my best. I can see now that I was only trying to survive.

You stayed alive for me as long as you could, Mom. And now, it is my turn to stay alive for you. But I won’t just do that. I will do you one better. I will write the story of your life, and my life, and the story of all the ways in which our two lives are irrevocably intertwined. And as I do that, I will put this sad, seven-year season behind me and move forward into the future with a still-fragile yet hopeful heart. Because, do you want to hear something crazy? Even after everything that’s happened, I’m still an optimist. Even after all the evidence to the contrary, I still believe in happy endings. I still believe that people are good, and love is real, and we will be OK. And most of all, Mom, I believe that being your daughter is the greatest gift I could ever have asked for.

Thank you for being my mother.

I love you.

Sarah

Motherland.

“my mother

was my first country.

the first place I ever lived.”

– Nayyirah Waheed

I’ve been back in the Pacific Northwest for nearly three weeks. The weather has been glorious, reminding me of all the childhood summers I spent on this same beach in front of my grandparents’ house: digging for clams with my mother, collecting driftwood to build bonfires, combing the shores of Case Inlet for colorful sea glass we’d use for our art projects.

Most of the people I spent those childhood summers with are gone or come to this beach no longer. New neighbors and new, fancier homes have cropped up all along the inlet. And these days, sea glass is hard to come by.

But every now and then, you still find it. Like the evening a week ago, when I emerged from a saltwater swim and spotted a weathered, rectangular piece of transparent lavender peeking out from among the rocks. Its color reminded me of the four walls of my high school bedroom. A bedroom with no windows, where I affixed blue, glow-in-the-dark stars to the ceiling. A bedroom in a house that someone else calls home now.

Every month, the full moon bears a different name. In January, it’s called the Wolf Moon. In June, it’s Strawberry. And a handful of nights ago, as I sat under the August moon – Sturgeon, named for a fish – I turned that piece of sea glass over and over in my hand and did something I haven’t done for a while. I talked to my mother. I asked her for help.

There are some conversations too personal to share. In the nearly seven years since my mother died, my conversations with the inlet are like that. Because if my mother is anywhere, she’s there, in the water that raised her. The water she loved her whole life. The water where we scattered her ashes, sending her back to the place where she began.

So, last week, I sat on the deck of the beach house and rested my feet on its railing and asked the inlet some questions. I watched that big, bright, full Sturgeon moon cast a golden stream of light across the inky, mirror-like expanse of water and I confessed my secrets to the sea and the sky. And that night, I dreamt that I was swimming underwater, exhaling huge air bubbles into its depths. And when I broke the surface, I saw that the beach was covered with sea glass. Polished, weathered, sparkling glass, glinting in the moonlight. As far as the eye could see.

I’m going back to New York soon. I don’t know what I’m going to do, only that I’ll be there until December, and beyond that, the future is uncertain. But after three weeks on this beach, uncertainty doesn’t scare me as much as it used to. Because over the last three weeks, I was reminded that I can still sit under the night sky and confess my secrets to the inlet. That saltwater swims still have the power to heal me. And that rare and beautiful things can still be found among the rocks on this beach.

This is where my mother is, as much as she is anywhere. And because of that, no matter what else I do, I will always return here. Because of that, no matter where else I go, this is the place I will always call home.

Until next time, friends.

Recovery.

When the past has passed from you at last, let go. Then climb down and begin the rest of your life. With great joy.

– Elizabeth Gilbert

I could tell by the look on his face that I was going to be OK. An hour earlier – give or take, time was slippery – I awoke to a blur of fluorescent lights. “Don’t touch your face!” a nurse barked, as she wheeled me down the hallway of Mt. Sinai hospital. She parked my gurney in a curtained recovery area and looked at me. “How’s your pain?” she asked.

“Umm. . .”

“On a scale of one to ten.”

I tried to lift my head and a sharp, searing pain shot through my shoulder blades. Waves of hot, heavy cramps traveled across my abdomen. I slowly lowered my head back onto my pillow.

“Five?” I offered.

Tired, confused, and still feeling the effects of anesthesia, I struggled to put facts together. I remembered the long morning in the hospital, the paperwork, the blood draw, the pleasant, reassuring face of my doctor as she cheerfully told my boyfriend Jake, “We’ll take good care of her,” just before wheeling me off to surgery.

I remember thinking the operating room looked nothing like the ones depicted on TV. It was too crowded, too brightly lit. As I lay on the table, doctors buzzing around me, discussing their plans for me as though I weren’t there, panic rose within me. I can’t do this, I thought. The anesthesiologist leaned in close and adjusted something on my IV. “How do you feel?” he asked. “A little nervous,” I confessed, my voice small. “That’s perfectly normal,” he said, his tone as warm as the heated blanket my doctor had just placed on top of me. And then, I fell asleep.

“What time is it?” I asked Jake, when he appeared at my bedside.

“Five o’clock,” he said.

I had been in the hospital for eight hours. I was out of surgery. And I was awake and talking. It felt like a miracle. I could tell by Jake’s face that he thought so, too.

I barely slept that night. Even with the aid of Percocet, the pain was intense. The only thing that alleviated it was standing and walking, so, off and on throughout the early morning hours, I hobbled around my apartment, trying to disperse the Co2 gas that had been pumped into my body during the laparoscopic procedure. When I did sleep, I dreamt of my mother, my mind circling around something my uncle said when I told him about my upcoming surgery: “You are your mother’s daughter.”

Like me, my mother also had a large ovarian cyst that had to be surgically removed. When I was a child, her stories about the cyst haunted my imagination. Not just because it was big – the size of a grapefruit – but, because – creepily – it had hair and teeth. “It means I was supposed to be a twin,” my mom used to tell me. Whether or not that was actually true, I have no idea. But she said it, and I believed it.

After my cyst was diagnosed, I avoided the internet. I didn’t want to know anything about it, didn’t want to have an understanding of how large it was. It was enough that my doctor winced when reviewing my ultrasounds. “You’re really not in pain?” she asked.

The day after the surgery, with the mass safely out of my body, curiosity got the better of me. A quick google search led me to a chart comparing tumors to pieces of fruit. Ten centimeters was the equivalent of a grapefruit. My cyst, when they pulled it out of me, was fourteen.

How long had this thing been growing inside of me? It was impossible to know. I had been avoiding doctors for years, terrified of them after a string of deaths in my family. But suddenly, it all started to make sense: the frequent stomach cramps I’d chalked up to stress. The strange sensation of something tugging on my insides. I’d told the truth when I told my doctor that I wasn’t in pain. But for as long as I could remember, there had been something else. Something more elusive. A persistent feeling that something was wrong.

These last few years, I have worked hard to heal, to stay positive, to change my life. But no matter what I’ve done or how hard I’ve tried, something always, inevitably, pulled me low again. Over time, I’ve become used to my sadness. I’ve harbored a secret fear that I was permanently broken.

Until last week. Until the endometrioma – a benign mass filled with blood – was cut from my body. And then I began to wonder: what if this thing, this growth, was the physical manifestation of watching my mother slip into madness? What if it had stored up all the memories of my father’s physical decline, my grandmother’s Alzheimer’s Disease, the weeks I sat with my grandfather while he died? What if all the terrible things that happened over the last seven years needed somewhere to go, and this was where they went?

I don’t know if, in the words of Elizabeth Gilbert, the past has passed from me at last. Maybe it never will. And maybe that’s OK. But over the course of this last week – as my pain has subsided and my strength has returned – I have been awed by the power of my own body. I am embarrassed that I have neglected it, and grateful beyond measure to discover that it is healthier and more resilient than I could have imagined.

I still have some hurdles to clear. Some medical tests to pass. And some big decisions to make. But I feel like I’ve been given a second chance. I feel like I’ve turned a corner, one I’m only beginning to understand. And for the first time in a long time, I feel like everything is going to be all right.

Until next time, friends.

Westeros.

The day before the season seven finale of Game of Thrones, I left Los Angeles. All that remained of the eighteen years I’d spent there was contained in three suitcases, a duffle bag, and four cardboard boxes. The luggage was coming with me, on a one-way flight to Seattle; the boxes would be shipped to my new address in New York City, once I knew where that was.

Daenerys, Tyrion and the dragons (from IMDB.com)

I had no job and no place to live, a fact that should have concerned me more than it did. But as I bid farewell to my roommate Jen, bound for the vacant house in western Washington that once belonged to my grandfather – the house where I planned to “figure things out” – my priorities were elsewhere. “I can’t believe I’m not watching the finale with you!” I wailed. Jen and I were friends who, for years, had dissected every GOT plot point and character arc like it was our job. “What am I going to do?”

More than a year and a half later, I’m looking forward to the epic series’ final season with both eager anticipation and a palpable sense of loss. For eight years, Game of Thrones has been my companion throughout the most difficult experiences of my life. When it premiered in 2011, I’d never lost anyone close to me; before season three was over, my parents, my grandmother, my dog, and a close friend from college were all dead. As I grappled with disorienting grief, the brutal, you-win-or-you-die rules of the world GOT unfolded before me provided welcome catharsis. A show where the writers didn’t hesitate to kill off beloved characters was – oddly – comforting. No one was safe. Anyone could die. Just like in real life.

Watching Game of Thrones in L.A.

At my father’s funeral in the winter of 2013, I sat at a table with his younger brother, Jimmy. The last time we’d seen each other, I was four years old and the flower girl in my half-sister’s wedding. With no relationship as adults, we had little to talk about. Jimmy was also gravely ill, requiring an oxygen tank to help him breathe. But he’d been a professor of film at a university in Nevada, and somehow, Game of Thrones came up. Our stilted, awkward conversation quickly gave way to a spirited discussion about Jimmy’s favorite character, Daenerys Targaryen. Jimmy died a few months later, and, in the years that followed, whenever Daenerys conquered a city or triumphed over one of her enemies, I felt a nagging sadness that he didn’t live to see it. “Jimmy would have loved that,” was my common, wistful refrain.

There are no knights in my story, no dragons or sorcerers or white walkers. But so often over the last eight years, the struggles of GOT’s characters have felt like heightened, fantastical versions of my own. I have loved them, learned from them, cried and cheered for them. But nowhere in the Game of Thrones universe did the stories of two characters resonate more personally with me than those of Arya and Sansa Stark. While their brothers were off getting killed (and occasionally, coming back to life!) or turning into a three-eyed raven, those two sisters were learning to survive in a world that constantly underestimated them. My life circumstances were – obviously – far less dramatic, but like Arya and Sansa, I too knew what it was like to suddenly lose my parents, to have my family ripped apart, and to be thrust into a new reality where everything felt cold and cruel and unfair. Every time one of them was hurt, I was outraged. Every time one of them triumphed, I saw it as a personal victory. Which is why the season seven finale, when they worked together to finally bring justice to the man who had been the architect of so much of their family’s suffering, was so, damned, satisfying.

Arya Stark (from IMDB.com)

There are plenty of people who will say GOT is just a TV show, and plenty more who will brag about the fact that they’ve never watched an episode. But for me, it’s more than just a compelling drama. The community that formed around watching Game of Thrones made me feel less alone during the loneliest period of my life. As Vulture.com pointed out in a recent article, in the age of binge watching, GOT might be the last show we watch together, each episode an event that must be experienced in real-time, with all of its awe and horror unfolding before our eyes. Which is why, even now, with so many of my friends and loved ones three thousand miles away on the opposite coast, I’ll still feel like, tonight, when I tune in for the season premiere, I will be watching right alongside them.

The final episodes of Game of Thrones are done. All that’s left to do now is wait, and watch. I am equal parts excited to see how my favorite characters’ stories will end, and terrified to learn their fates. And while I know no one is safe in the land of Westeros (or in the lands beyond), I do have one final request. Hey David, D.B. and George R.R.? Please don’t kill Arya and Sansa. I have survived many things in my life, and I’m sure I can survive that, too. I’m just not sure I want to.

Until next time, friends.

Jon Snow and Sansa Stark reunite (from IMDB.com)

Autumn.

“It is the nature of grace to fill the places that have been empty.”

– Goethe

I knew summer was over before I dipped my toes in the saltwater. The normally cloudy Case Inlet was unusually clear, a sign of a fresh current of (cold) water coursing through the bay. Goosebumps formed on my arms. “Don’t chicken out,” I chided myself. “This is your last chance until next summer.”

The thought of all the people for whom “next summer” never came flashed through my mind, and with an urgency suddenly more powerful than my fear, I flung myself into the sea. The shock of icy water traveled quickly up my body and stabbed at my insides, but it didn’t matter, I was in. “Hi Mom,” I murmured, looking up at the familiar snow-capped peak of Mt. Rainier. “I miss you.”

Later, cover up and shorts layered over my swimsuit, I sat on the deck of my aunt and uncle’s house, stared out at the inlet, and thought about everything and nothing. It was my last day at the beach and my uncle had plenty of questions, most of them involving the future.

“How long are you planning to stay in New York?” he asked me over dinner that night. My reply was noncommittal, as I still had plenty of questions about the future myself. “As long as it makes sense,” I told him. “There are a lot of things I want to do there.”

It’s hard for me to believe it has already been a year since last September, when I left that same stretch of rocky beach in the Pacific Northwest to move east and reinvent my life. These last twelve months have passed quickly, even though at times – mostly during the cold, dark winter – they seemed to move at a torturous pace. When I made the initial decision to relocate, everything fell into place so quickly that I foolishly believed everything that followed would be easy, too.

I was wrong. I came to New York with a long list of things I wanted to do, see and be, and one year later, I feel as though I’ve accomplished very few of them. I applied for numerous fellowships, residencies and jobs, and have been rejected – so far – by all of them. I’ve hit roadblocks, struggled with seasonal depression, and felt like a failure more times than I care to admit. I’ve been sick, sad, and have experienced a resurgence of grief I thought I’d healed from. Countless times, I fought the urge to give up, give in, and go home.

But there’s a sticking point: I’m not sure where “home” is any more. The place I lived longer than anywhere – Los Angeles – is filled with people I love and years of life-altering experiences. I left because I was bored, creatively stagnant, and desperate for a change. That rocky Pacific Northwest beach? It will always be a safe harbor and an anchor, but it’s also a repository for more painful family memories than I can count. In other words: not the best place to begin the next chapter of my life.

And then there’s something else. Something bigger. Something I promised myself somewhere over the course of the last six rollercoaster years that began with my mother’s sudden death: I would no longer do the safe and easy thing. I would make choices based in hope rather than in fear. I wouldn’t go back and try to recreate the past, I would move forward and forge a present that was entirely new.

I’ve tried my best to do that. It’s no accident I left my family’s beach cabin and moved to New York one week before the fifth anniversary of my mother’s death. I didn’t want to spend that anniversary in the same place where my mom and uncle grew up, the same place where I’d spent every childhood summer, the same place where we boarded my grandfather’s tiny tin boat, went out to sea, and scattered my mother’s ashes. I didn’t want to mark the passage of another year feeling like a prisoner to the past. I wanted to spend it starting over – whatever that looked like – on the opposite coast.

A few weeks ago, in early September, I spent the day with one of my mother’s closest friends. As we caught up over lunch, we talked about my mom, our memories, and what had happened in the year since I’d moved. The conversation turned to the memoir I’m working on. “Is it about your Mom?” she asked. I nodded. The next part was – and is – hard for me to admit. “It’s about what you do when the person you love the most is the same person you’re terrified of becoming.”

To my surprise, she didn’t seem horrified. She seemed to understand.

I’ve been in New York for a year. It still feels less like home than it does some exotic, foreign land I’m learning to navigate. But you know what? I like it. I like the fact that it’s full of strivers who get knocked down and continue to get up again. I like the fact that I’ve been challenged here in ways I never was in L.A., and that my failures have forced me to think outside of the box, get creative, and try things I otherwise wouldn’t. I like the fact that it’s a tough town, but one where it still feels like possibility waits on every street corner.

There’s no way to know where I’ll be this time next year. Any attempt to lasso the future is a pointless exercise. For now, it’s enough to be here, living moment to moment, doing all I can for as long as I can, making choices based in hope rather than in fear.

Until next time, friends.

Ocean Avenue.

The email finally came through on a Tuesday morning, six days after I started looking for it. I wasn’t sure why I continued to obsessively check my phone. I already knew what it was going to say.

Yet even though I had felt in my bones that I’d be getting a rejection letter, when that rejection finally came it still landed like a gut punch. It still felt like an indictment, still made me feel like a failure, still caused me to send text messages to friends asking, “What am I even doing here?”

Of course, I knew the answer. I knew it the week before, on Mother’s Day, when I sat at the bar of a breezy, open-air restaurant overlooking Santa Monica’s Ocean Avenue with two of my best girlfriends and cried into my craft cocktail. “I’ve tried everything I can think of,” I moaned. “But New York just doesn’t fit.”

But as much as I missed my friends, as much as – after nearly nine months away – L.A. still felt like home, I knew if I moved back now it would just mean that, once again, I was running. I hadn’t given New York enough time. I hadn’t given it the opportunity to change me in the ways I hoped it would.

I moved east with the goal of producing a play I wrote. I’d produced plenty of theatre in L.A., but I knew it would be harder in New York, and more expensive. I also knew I didn’t have the same network of people to call upon and ask for help. But still, I’d battle tested the script over the course of two L.A. productions and three New York readings, continuing to rewrite and refine and fix along the way. It was in great shape. I’d put together what I knew was an impressive submission package complete with glowing reviews from Hollywood. So, when I turned in my application for the New York Fringe Festival, I was sure I was going to get in.

But then something funny happened. A week after the application deadline, I stared a memoir class. I signed up for it partly to help me develop a regular writing practice and provide discipline in the form of homework and deadlines. But if I’m honest, the real reason I signed up was because I couldn’t get fiction writing – not playwriting, not anything – to hold my interest. And after a few weeks of class, a few weeks of writing exercises that pushed me to dig deep into stories from my life, memoir felt like the only thing I wanted to write. Even though it was painful. Even though it opened up a Pandora’s Box full of memories I preferred to forget. And somewhere in those first few weeks, I made the decision that it was finally time to write the book I’d been dancing around the edges of for years.

But secretly, I worried. If my play got into the fringe festival I’d have to shift gears and take on the tremendous task of producing a show. It was a prospect that thrilled me, but I also knew from experience how much work it would be. It meant the book would have to take a backseat. And because the money I’d been living on was starting to run low, it also meant that I would have to go back to work as soon as the festival was over.

I traveled back to L.A. with these conflicting feelings swirling inside of me. And as I sat down to dinner with my friend Jen on my first night in town and confided that I was afraid to step away from the fun and collaborative worlds of theatre and film to plunge into the lonely and painful process of writing a book, she just looked at me and said, matter-of-factly: “I think everything in your life for the last five years has been leading up to this moment. It’s time.”

She reiterated that sentiment two days later, on Mother’s Day, at the open-air restaurant on Ocean Avenue, saying that this thing –  the book I had been avoiding writing – was the thing keeping me stuck. It was the thing keeping me from moving on to the next phase of my life. And I cried, because I knew it was true.

It was nearly two years ago, in the summer of 2016, that I visited a psychic medium and asked for her help in communicating with my mother. I was terrified. I didn’t know what to expect. I only knew I had to do something, because her death had carved a hole in me and I had spent the last few years swallowed up by guilt and grief. The medium, a young woman named Fleur, was able to give me enough of the how-on-earth-does-she-know-that type of details about my mother’s life and death, that when she told me my Mom wanted me to forgive myself, and that she sent me white butterflies as a sign to let me know she was thinking about me, I chose to believe her.

The day before I left L.A., I rose early, leaving my friend Zoe’s apartment to walk to a corner café for coffee. As I strolled along sunny Washington Place, a white butterfly alighted on a nearby hedge. It skipped over blades of grass and skimmed the edges of flowers. It sailed away, then floated back. I watched it for a minute, then asked, “Mom?” like a crazy person, as though I expected the butterfly to respond. I was greeted only with silence. I took in the bright blue sky, the lavender jacarandas in full bloom, the towering palm trees overhead, and the dancing butterfly. “Mom,” I tried again, knowing it was hopeless but unable to stop myself. “I don’t know what to do. What should I do?” But the butterfly remained silent, continuing to drift on the breeze, until finally it glided gently away, into the beautiful Southern California morning, and was gone.

And it wasn’t the butterfly, and it wasn’t my mother, it was just me, just a shaky but sure voice inside that said, simply, “You know.” Which is why, a few days later, when I got the rejection letter, even though I didn’t think it was fair, even though I didn’t think I deserved it, I knew it was, somehow, right.

As I publish this post, it’s May twenty-fifth. It’s my mother’s birthday. She would have been sixty-six. Would have been because she died nearly six years ago, in a haze of vodka and pills. In a post I authored on this blog back in 2015, I wrote, “She drank until she disappeared. And when she died, I started disappearing, too.” It was true then, and it’s true now.

I am tired of disappearing. I’m tired of feeling stuck. And I’m tired of the ache inside me that only continues to grow. I don’t feel ready to dive into my mother’s story. I’m scared of what I’ll find when I turn the microscope on her life, and on my own. But I also think that we’re never really ready to do the things in life that call upon us to be braver than we believe. We just have to do them and see what happens.

So, I’m going to spend this summer in hotel lobbies, and cafes and libraries, writing everything I know is true about my mother, and my family, and me, until I have something that feels like a book. And hopefully by the time autumn rolls around, I’ll be ready to take another shot at starting my life over. Whatever that looks like. Whatever that means.

Happy Birthday, Mom.

Spring.

The last day of April was my first time in the booth. “The Booth” is what my memoir class calls it when it’s your turn to have pages workshopped. You go around the room and one at a time, each one of your classmates gives you feedback on your writing. You’re not allowed to say anything, not allowed to explain or defend your work. You just listen, as though you’re in a soundproof booth. The instructor goes last.

For my first booth, I had written just six pages, the tiniest slice of my life detailing two incidents: one, my father’s near drowning when I was a child, and two, a flight from Los Angeles to Seattle where a stranger asked me some very pointed and very none-of-your-business type questions about my family in general and my mother’s death in particular and I lied, blatantly, to her face.

That experience on the plane was not the first time I’ve told a lie. In fact, I’ve told many, many lies over the last several years. The biggest and most frequent lie I’ve told is that I’m OK. I’ve told it to strangers to make them comfortable. I’ve told it to friends and family to keep them from worrying about me. And I’ve told it to myself because I wanted to believe it. Because I’m so, so tired of not being OK.

As we wrapped up the booth session, my instructor closed her comments by saying, “I just want to tell you how sorry I am. To absorb so much loss at such a young age is painful, and wrong, and I wish it wasn’t so.” And because I wasn’t allowed to say anything, this time I didn’t lie and tell her I was OK. I just listened, and took it in. And then I got on the subway and went home, crawled into bed, and slept until dinner.

It’s not easy to admit that I’m a liar, not easy to admit that the way I want to see myself is different than the way I am. I don’t want to complain, and I don’t want to be sad. I want to be a survivor, rather than a victim.

And in truth, I am a survivor. I have survived a great many things. I have survived my mother looking at me with vacant eyes and telling me she wanted to die. I have survived the knowledge that I was unable to keep her from dying. I have survived the months of constant fear over what would happen to my terminally ill father, living alone in a house he refused to leave. I have survived the guilt over the relief I felt when he died, because it meant I would no longer have to worry about him.

And speaking of guilt, I have survived the wrenching guilt over the fact that I left the person I promised to love forever, because I cared less about his pain than I did about being free. I have survived the guilt that I didn’t grieve for my grandmother as she succumbed to advanced Alzheimer’s disease, because I blamed her years of cruelty and emotional abuse for breaking down my mother’s fragile psyche and leading her to turn to alcohol in the first place.

I have survived the death of the sweetest man I’ve ever known, my Grandpa Gerry, survived the hospice nurses telling me he could bleed out in front of me, or that there might not be enough morphine to keep him from pain. I have survived dark nights of the soul, survived not being able to get up off my apartment floor for days at a time, survived my own broken heart.

But what does all this survival mean? There’s nothing particularly noble or admirable about it. It simply means I stayed alive, because as terrible as staying alive was, it was better than the alternative.

My, “I’m gonna sell all my stuff, move to New York and start over,” move was an act of rebellion against all these years of surviving. I wanted to do more than just survive. I wanted to thrive. I wanted to change my life. No matter how many people told me how hard New York was going to be, I didn’t care. After all I’ve been through, I told myself, this will be easy.

It wasn’t. For the first time I realized the comfort in living in a place where people know you, where they share your history. No one knows me here. And in a city of so many people, so many of whom are suffering, my problems seem small and insignificant. I seem small and insignificant.

The truth is, I’m ashamed of myself. I’ve been given the gift of survival, and what have I done with it? I’ve squandered opportunities and time. I’ve spent money I’ve inherited from my parents foolishly, hoping that “treating myself,” would make me feel better. I’ve been spoiled and selfish, spent far too much time feeling sorry for myself. I’ve been called brave and I haven’t deserved it.

Last Sunday, I woke to the most glorious day. It was cloudy, but not rainy, with a gentle breeze and the slightest chill in the air. I sat in the arm chair of my living room, windows open, curtains parted. And for the first time, I noticed that the formerly barren trees climbing upwards toward my eighth-floor balcony were suddenly full of lush green leaves, and birds were singing. “This is spring,” I told myself. “This is perfect. Hold on to this.”

And in that moment, I made a decision. I will no longer apologize for the fact that I am not OK. I will no longer apologize for the fact that I don’t fit into normal life, or that my journey doesn’t look like everyone else’s. I will accept myself as I am: searching, messy, not as together as I’d like to be, but moving forward anyway. I will try harder to open my palms in gratitude for all I’ve been given. And I will keep writing my story, flawed and sharp-edged as it is, always with an eye toward a quote my teacher ended our last memoir class with, from Abigail Thomas:

“Be honest, dig deep, or don’t bother.”

Until next time, friends.

Six.

On a Sunday evening, three days before the six-month anniversary of my move to New York, I sat in the orchestra section of the Brooks Atkinson Theatre during a performance of the musical Waitress. I was both alone and surrounded by people. I’d wanted to see the show for some time, and as luck would have it, the ticket I’d booked was for the last performance of Sara Bareilles’ Broadway run.

Bareilles’ emotions were palpable as she sang the lead role of Jenna, and they continued to build as the character she gave voice to became progressively trapped in a life she saw no escape from. When she reached the searching ballad “She Used to Be Mine,” the lyrics pierced me, finding their way into an empty space inside my chest and lodging themselves there:

It’s not what I asked for
Sometimes life just slips in through a back door
And carves out a person
And makes you believe it’s all true . . .
And you’re not what I asked for
If I’m honest I know I would give it all back
For a chance to start over
And rewrite an ending or two
For the girl that I knew

 I wiped at my eyes furiously, glancing around to see if anyone noticed, and saw that the woman next to me was crying, too.

It’s hard to believe it’s been six months since I got on a plane with most of my belongings contained in three suitcases. Over these last six months, there have been days when time moved at a torturous pace, because of winter storms and the cabin fever resulting from being trapped indoors. But mostly, time has elapsed quickly, a reminder that no matter how you spend your days, the clock keeps ticking.

It wasn’t long after I arrived that I started thinking about leaving. I didn’t realize how much I’d miss the ease of California living. How much I craved sunshine, and the ocean, and fresh produce and the warmth of community. I didn’t appreciate what it meant to live in a place where people know you, where they know your work, where you’re handed opportunities without having to interview or audition or prove yourself. I miss that. I miss being known.

But there’s a reason I decided to go. Maybe it was simply so I could realize what I was giving up. But I don’t think so. I think it was about a search for something I hadn’t been able to find. Something I still haven’t found.

So often in New York, I feel green and inexperienced and not enough. I know this isn’t true. But these feelings are a consequence of starting over, particularly in a city as hard-driving and as competitive as this one. As a friend said recently, “New York calls you out.” And it has. It has called me out on all the ways I hide, all the ways I feel plagued by doubt, all the ways I sabotage myself. It has made these first six months uncomfortable. But it hasn’t necessarily made them bad.

One of the few books I took with me when I moved across the country was Cheryl Strayed’s small but mighty Brave Enough. There’s a quote in it I keep returning to:

The question isn’t whether you should stay or go.

The question is: How would your life be transformed if you chose to love this time with all your intelligence?

I’m pretty sure Strayed is referring to romantic love here, but I find the quote to have broader application. I read it as: Wherever you are, be all there. Commit. Live in the moment, and love it, with everything you have.

I haven’t done that here. In truth, I’ve spent much of the last five years being anything but present. Running. Jumping on planes. Passing time until the next time I could go away and get out of town. It was grief that made me do this. Grief that kept me swimming like a shark, afraid that if I stopped moving, I’d suffocate.

I can admit this now. I’m not sure why I couldn’t before. Maybe I just couldn’t see it. Maybe it’s New York that made me realize it. But here it is: ever since my mother’s death, and my father’s death, and the deaths of my grandparents, I’ve become progressively unmoored. I haven’t felt connected to a place. I haven’t felt connected to myself.

I’m so tired of running. The transition to life in New York has been hard on me. It has been harder than I ever thought possible. But I don’t want to leave. What’s exciting about this city is the sense of possibility that is everywhere here. For every opportunity that doesn’t pan out, there are so many more things to try. So many more roads to go down. So many more doors to knock on. So many more people to meet.

As I write this, it’s the first day of Spring. Tomorrow, there is yet another snow storm in the forecast. But even still, winter is waning. The days are growing longer. And there is so much that feels possible, waiting just around the corner.

Until next time, friends.

Montauk.

The sea wants to kiss the golden shore//
The sunlight warms your skin
//
All the beauty that’s been lost before
//
Wants to find us again.*

I woke before my alarm, song lyrics in my head. I heated up a mug of hot water, squeezed a slice of lemon into it, and put my headphones in. From the weathered armchair in the corner of my living room, I watched the sun rise over New York. I watched the clouds turn pink, their color deepening before dispersing, bathing the buildings in gentle light before bidding them goodbye. I watched from my eighth-floor window as a crammed subway train made its way downtown, filled with people going to jobs I didn’t have, leading lives I didn’t live. I watched the day begin, and then, I wrote.

I’m not sure when the shift began. I think it was twelve days earlier, on the way to Montauk, when from outside the window of my eastbound train, from over a bank of snow, I first glimpsed the Atlantic Ocean. And later, on a Long Island beach, when I climbed over more snow to get to sand and stood, watching the waves crash, watching the water recede and return, breathing in cold salt air, that for the first time in a long time, I felt like myself again. There was no grand epiphany, just a quiet voice whispering, “Remember?” And I did. And then I went back inside, to work.

I came to New York to write. And though I’ve been writing every day, I haven’t enjoyed it. The process has been torturous, and slow, and has often felt – to me – without purpose. But as a friend of mine once said, “Sometimes we make the story so big, we can’t tell it.”

When I tell you that writing saved my life, I’m not exaggerating. A few years ago, when I was in the worst part of my depression, when the world felt like it was collapsing around me, writing was the only thing that gave me any relief. I’ve always harbored a secret worry (not so secret any more, I guess) that I feel more than most people. That I feel more than what is normal. So, when real tragedy struck, the emotions were so big they threatened to drown me. That was when I first started experiencing panic attacks. When I couldn’t swallow food without feeling like I was choking. When I struggled to get out of bed.

I should have asked for help. But I didn’t. I wrote. And as I wrote, I learned something. I learned that if I could find a way to articulate my emotions so that other people could feel them too, if I could turn them into real, tangible things in the form of essays or blog posts, if I could get them out of my body and into the world, then they wouldn’t swallow me. Call it sharing my pain in order to survive. I don’t know if it worked, but it sure felt like it did. And it made me feel a hell of a lot less alone.

I don’t write to survive any more, but sometimes I forget that. Sometimes, I’ll be working on an essay or a section of dialogue or a scene in a play, and something will come out that’s intense or unexpected and knock me sideways and I’ll have to stop for a while. And I’m reminded that the thing that brings me the greatest joy can still, occasionally, be dangerous.

When I went out to Montauk, the weather had already begun to turn. By the time I got back to the city, the snow had melted, the streets had cleared, and it was – dare I say – pleasant. I took the subway downtown to look at a theater space, and using Google maps as my navigator, I experienced a feeling that can only be described as relief. There was no headache, no bitter cold. Being outside, walking around, was fun. Were people on the streets actually smiling? In New York?

I guess that’s the thing about winter. The storms can be brutal. But on the other side of them? Beauty. And every so often: moments of pure, unfiltered joy.

Until next time, friends.

*Lyrics from the song “Ordinary Love,” by U2

Veterans Day.

“I know why we try to keep the dead alive: we try to keep them alive in order to keep them with us. I also know that if we are to live ourselves there comes a point at which we must relinquish the dead, let them go, keep them dead.”

– Joan Didion

One year ago, on Veterans Day, I sat on a bench in Tompkins Square Park, watching amber leaves follow their gentle spiral toward earth. I’d spent the morning in a nearby East Village coffee shop, pretending to write but instead just eavesdropping, allowing the hushed voices of the people nearby to run through my body, causing my mind to wander to places both foreign and familiar.

I was not what you’d call “happy.” It was three days after a bitterly contested U.S. presidential election, and my candidate – a candidate I campaigned hard for – had lost. I was in the grips of severe writer’s block, well past a self-imposed deadline to submit rewrites of my play to its director. We’d posted casting notices and were preparing to audition actors upon my return to L.A., but I still hadn’t completed the script, a fact that filled me with anxiety and made me feel like a failure.

Veterans Day also marked the one-year anniversary of the death of one of my favorite people: my grandpa Gerry. With so much around me feeling dark and heavy, the absence of the light and joy and laughter he had always brought to my life was like an open wound.

Yet as I sat on that park bench watching the leaves fall, something funny happened. I felt. . . hope. I don’t know where it came from – there was certainly no reason for it – all I know is that in the midst of sorrow, there was a sense of peace, and somehow, I knew that everything would be all right.

There are many reasons why I decided to move to New York, but if I can pinpoint the moment when “maybe” shifted to “yes,” it was there, on that day, on that park bench. It was that quiet, confident voice that said simply, “You’re OK here.” And I listened.

One year later, I am OK here. The cross-country move didn’t shield me from sorrow or from the anniversaries of loved ones lost. But one year later, on Veterans Day, as I walked south along the edge of Morningside Park, watching the late afternoon sun set over Harlem, I didn’t feel sad as I thought about my grandfather. I felt grateful. Grateful for the tremendous gifts he and the rest of my family gave me, not the least of which is my awareness of the ephemeral nature of life. Because of them, I made promises to myself about the things I wouldn’t wait to do. Because of them, I am getting better at keeping them.

As I’m writing this, it’s November 14th, the two-month anniversary of my move to New York. Truth be told, I thought I would have accomplished more in these first two months. I thought I would have had a reading of my play by now, and would be preparing for its production. I thought I would have seen more people, would have done more things, would have checked more items off my to-do list.

But I have found that everything is taking longer than I expected, because just being in this city is exhausting. It’s exhausting, and it’s exhilarating, too: all the people, all the stories, all the humanity and heartbreak and hope all around. It makes me want to write all the time. It makes me feel things I’ve never felt before. And it wears me out.

In many ways, I’m still the girl in that East Village coffee shop from a year ago, eavesdropping, allowing the stories of other people to run through me. I am learning to relinquish my need to constantly produce work, and instead to surrender to this moment, finding faith that the words I need to write will find their form in their own time.

Because this moment is not really about work: it’s about finding my footing in a new place. It’s about letting go of old wounds and bidding a gentle farewell to a past that used to own me. It’s about understanding that the greatest act of rebellion – the greatest act of liberation – can be as simple as sitting on a park bench and believing in the quiet, confident voice that says, “You’re OK here.”

I am OK here.

Until next time, friends.

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