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.

The soft season.

the hard season

will

split you through. . . /

but do not worry. . . /

keep speaking the years from their hiding places.

keep coughing up smoke from all the deaths you

have died.

keep the rage tender.

because the soft season will come.

it will come. . . /

up all night.

up all of the nights.

to drink all damage into love.

– From “therapy” by Nayyirah Waheed

It was the kind of perfect August day I’d spent the last two summers hoping for. For the last two summers, there had been fires. Terrible fires, fires that rained ash and turned the sun an angry red and smelled of acrid smoke that stained the usually pristine Pacific Northwest sky. Fires that were alarmingly evocative of the fire seasons I’d grown used to during my years in California, when flames jumped freeways and burned the hills above L.A.

But there were no fires on the day we took the boat out. Just a layer of morning fog that burned off surprisingly quickly, causing me to strip off my jacket and settle into my seat, enjoying the sea spray and the sun on my face as we zipped along the inland waterways of Puget Sound toward Boston Harbor.

When I booked my flight to Seattle, the length of my stay – three weeks – felt like an eternity. But as Rick, Karrin and I ate lunch on a covered dock, overlooking boats bobbing on sunlit, sapphire blue water, it suddenly seemed like scarcely enough. “I can’t believe I’ve been here a week already,” I lamented. “It’s going so fast.”

Rick laughed. “Of course it’s going fast. Time only goes slowly when you’re doing something you don’t want to do.”

That’s so true, I thought. Over the last week, I have felt a persistent urge to slow down and hold time in my hands, savoring the fading moments of summer before they become memories.

My big plan was to come here and make a plan. I would update my portfolio and my resume and apply for jobs and write essays. I would use this serene, tranquil environment to put my nose to the grindstone and work, so that by the time I went back to Manhattan I would be clear headed enough to answer some of the big life questions I’d been putting off.

But instead of finding focus, I’ve felt my edges blur. I’ve felt my insides softening, and nostalgia for years past welling up inside of me. I’ve taken long walks in the woods and picked wildflowers and spent hours upon hours sitting on the deck of the house that belonged to my grandfather, watching the birds and seals and occasional boats travel along Case Inlet.

And I’ve been swimming. It always takes a small act of courage for me to take that first plunge into the water, but once I’m past the initial shock of cold, I know the result is worth it. I’m not sure what it is about saltwater, but it fixes everything. It feels like hope.

On the day of the boat ride, I almost chickened out. The daylight was rapidly fading and a not-so-gentle breeze picked up over the inlet. I stood there, ankle deep in the water, wearing my grandfather’s faded, half-disintegrated orange swim fins, and tried to talk myself into it. You know what? I thought, shivering. It’s too cold. I should just wrap myself up in my oversized towel and watch the sunset from the safety of the deck of the beach house.

But as I stood there, half in, half out, watching the waning sun spread its rosy glow over steel blue water, something bigger than my fear took over. I thought about how much my grandfather had loved to swim in that bay, and how heartbroken he’d been when he no longer could. I thought about how, even on days much colder than this, my mother never hesitated to jump into the water with delight. And I thought about the morning two months earlier, long after both of them were gone, when I sat with my boyfriend in Central Park and cried, because I had just seen my doctor and signed a whole host of pre-surgery consent forms and was afraid I might die.

Do it, Sar, I thought. Do it for all the people who no longer can. And do it for yourself, because you still can.

And so, I jumped in. I hit the water hard and screamed as the bracing cold hit me back. I took a few deep breaths, inhaling and exhaling saltwater, trying to slow the hammering in my chest. For several moments, I just floated, staring up at the enormous pink sky. And then, I felt it: relief. I was all alone with the inlet and the sky and the world got quiet, and I got quiet too. And I thought, maybe I shouldn’t be so hard on myself for wanting to slow everything down. Maybe slowing down was exactly what I needed right now.

“It takes as long as it takes,” I heard myself say aloud, to no one in particular.

It takes as long as it takes.

Healing.

Forgiveness.

Finding your way in the great big world.

It takes as long as it takes.

And then I thought:

Relax, kid.

You’ve got plenty of time.

Savannah.

I didn’t stay long on Tybee Island. It was hot and humid, and I was alone, and I didn’t want to risk leaving my belongings unattended on the beach while I went for a swim. But I had taken the half hour Lyft ride from downtown Savannah for the sole purpose of putting my feet into the Atlantic, and I wasn’t going to leave until I did it. So, I found a bench at the edge of the beach, took off my shoes and socks, placed them into my canvas tote bag, and walked down toward the water. My toes sunk into wet sand and warm ocean waves washed over my feet as I stared out at the sea. The Atlantic wasn’t my ocean, and yet, as I gazed across its vast expanse, I felt the same thing I always did when in the presence of its west coast cousin: peace.

Tybee Island

I had only been to Savannah once before, in my early twenties, when I took a road trip there from Nashville with my college roommate Rachel. We spent two days wandering through old town squares, drinking mint juleps from plastic to-go cups, and joining the crush of revelers on River Street. Savannah was hot and dreamy and intoxicating, a place unlike any I’d ever been, and it left its mark on me. I vowed to come back, and soon.

But life got in the way, and somehow fourteen years went by. It wasn’t until I started writing a new play that Savannah returned to the forefront of my consciousness. After the play’s two characters meet and quickly fall in love, Savannah is the place their reckless romance draws them to. It’s a place that looms large in my female heroine’s imagination, a place haunted by ghosts both real and imagined, a place, where, as she describes it, “time doesn’t exist.” Over the course of the story, Savannah is the place both of these characters long for, but one they ultimately never return to.

A month before my second trip to Savannah, I sat in an exam room near Columbus Circle and reviewed the results of two ultrasounds with my doctor. The bad news was I would have to have surgery. But the good news was much better. My cyst was benign. After weeks of fearing the worst, my doctor sat across from me and offered a reassuring smile. “Take a deep breath,” she said. “You’re going to be fine.”

Forsyth Park

So, I scheduled my surgery, and immediately thereafter, I booked a trip to Savannah. For the last several months, I had been anxious and unhappy. Wanting to change my life but paralyzed to take the first step. And then: a health scare. And suddenly nothing else mattered until I heard those five words: “You’re going to be fine.”

I arrived in Savannah last Tuesday evening, by way of a fifteen-hour train ride from Penn Station. It might seem crazy to opt for such a long journey when I could have flown there in a few hours, but the truth was, I’d always had a thing for trains. Something about siting near the window, watching the landscapes whizz by with a journal in my hand and thoughts swirling through my brain had always seemed inherently romantic to me. And as the southbound Palmetto Line pressed on through New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina, I alternated been sleep and waking dreams. It was perfect.

I spent my first full day in Savannah wandering cobblestone streets and re-orienting myself to the city. I got lost but cared little, because there was nowhere I had to be and nothing I had to do. I covered nearly ten miles on foot, my skin glistening from the warm, humid air, my limbs feeling surprisingly light from the effort. By the time I sat down to dinner and watched the sunset settle over the Savannah River, I knew I’d made the right decision.

Bridge over the Savannah River

Savannah continued to cast its spell all during the course of my stay. I walked along the river and ate lemon custard ice cream. I browsed trendy boutiques on Broughton Street while jazz music wafted in from outdoors. I went to Bonaventure Cemetery and gaped at the gothic gravesites draped in Spanish moss. And on my second to last night there, as I joined a group of tourists on a ghost tour through the heart of Savannah, a sort of fantasy began unspooling in my head. Could I live here? Compared to New York City, the cost of living was surprisingly affordable. I was enthralled by the architecture, the wide boulevards shaded by live oak trees, the town’s quirky, offbeat charm and the slower, southern pace of life. For years, I’d been flirting with the idea of getting an MFA, and one of the most famous art schools in the country was right there, in Savannah. Without even really thinking about it, I pulled up the website for the College of Art and Design, looked up graduate degree programs, and sent in a request for information. What’s the harm in applying? I thought. If I get in, I can always decide not to go.

I went to Tybee Island on my last day there. Once my feet were in the water, it was difficult to tear myself away. I stood in the ocean for several minutes, enjoying the sensation of waves pooling around my ankles. But the hot southern sun was also beating down on my skin – pale skin that had seen little sun during the long New York winter – and I wanted to get off the island before that evening’s parade snarled the traffic. And then there was the matter of the next morning’s early train to New York. I reluctantly called a Lyft.

Architecture in the historic district

“Where are you from?” my driver asked, as I settled in for the ride back to town. I hesitated. Where was I from, anyway? These days, I wasn’t so sure. “Right now, I live in New York,” I told him. “In Harlem.”

“Ah,” he said, his already pleasant demeanor turning even more amiable. “My wife and I moved here from New York two years ago. We lived there for many years.”

“What brought you to Savannah?” I asked. His eyes met mine in the rearview mirror and he smiled, then stretched out his arm and pointed toward the window. “This,” he said, indicating clear, sunny, blue skies, and miles of lush vegetation stretching along the highway as far as the eye could see. “Can you blame me?”

Mercer House

“No,” I admitted. “To tell you the truth, I’ve sort of been thinking the same thing myself these last few days.”

By the time he dropped me off at my Airbnb, the Notes app on my phone was full of recommendations for my return visit, and my head was full of information about Savannah’s low cost of living, booming economy, and the community of former New Yorkers who’d relocated there. “Are you sure you don’t work for the Chamber of Commerce?” I joked. “I’m sure,” he laughed. “But if you’re serious about moving here, my wife is a real estate agent. You can friend her on Facebook.”

I have no idea if my infatuation with Savannah is just a passing flirtation, or if the seeds planted during my few days there will grow into something more serious. What I do know is that life is far too short to continue living the way I have been: held in the grips of fear and self-doubt. I don’t know if that means changing my location, but a change of some sort is definitely in order. And last week, on my trip to Savannah, I took what felt like an important first step in that direction.

Until next time, friends.

River Street

Magic.

Listen to the Mustn’ts, child.

Listen to the Don’ts.

Listen to the Shouldn’ts, the Impossibles, the Won’ts.

Listen to the Never Haves, then listen close to me.

Anything can happen, child.

Anything can be.

– Shel Silverstein

On the eighteenth day of December, I took a walk along Riverside Drive in Manhattan. The air was crisp, the trees barren, the late afternoon sun slipping low on the horizon, spreading its golden glow across the Hudson River and backlighting the New Jersey skyline. In just over twelve hours, I’d be getting in a cab bound for Newark Airport, then boarding a cross country flight back to the Pacific Northwest. I didn’t have time for a walk. I had dinner plans. I hadn’t finished packing. My alarm was set for 3:30 the following morning.

I didn’t have time for a walk, but I needed it. Walking was always when I did my best thinking, and my thoughts were, at that moment, a tangled jumble. I tossed my laundry into a dryer in the basement of my apartment building and set the timer on my phone. I had an hour. Out into the cold December day I went.

From Riverside, I took a left on 116th street and crossed Broadway, onto the campus of Columbia University. It was twilight now, and I entered a tree-lined promenade, aglow in the sparkle of white Christmas lights. The quad was largely quiet, evidence of the impending holiday. Despite my haste, I felt a measure of calm settle over me. I loved school. I had always loved school. Lately, I’d been entertaining the idea of going back for a master’s degree, but I wasn’t sure if that was something I really wanted or just a stalling technique, a costly way of putting off the inevitable reality of making big life decisions.

I had much to do, but I was in no hurry to return to my apartment. Two days earlier, the daughter of the woman I’d been subletting from had filled the living room with boxes and bags of what can best be described as “stuff.” She’d had a crisis in her living situation in Brooklyn and had to move out suddenly, and the result was now sitting in my once clean and orderly living room. My landlord apologized profusely for the disruption and promised she would deal with the mess while I was away over Christmas, but I couldn’t help feeling unsettled by the chaos. It was also a reminder of a truth that was becoming more and more apparent: my landlord’s daughter wanted to return to her old apartment. Soon, I would have to move.

I’d had a good run in New York, and I knew it. For what I’d been paying in rent, I should have been living in a shoebox in the Bronx with at least one roommate. Instead, I had a seven hundred fifty square foot, eighth-floor apartment with a balcony perched over Broadway all to myself. The space was beautiful and tranquil and safe. My cheap rent had enabled me to take writing classes and write a new play and work on my memoir without the urgency of having to look for a real job. The co-op even had a theater company in the basement of my building, a theater company that would be producing a reading of my new play in January. I’d arrived in New York with no plan, and somehow, landed exactly where I needed to be.

But now what? The question nagged at me as I trudged north along Amsterdam Avenue. I had some ideas about temporary living situations but anything even semi-permanent would require paying real rent and a renewed urgency to find a real job. Did I want to look for work in New York and try to root myself there? Or did I want to call time on the Big Apple experiment and return to the west coast? I didn’t know. I missed California and my friends something fierce, but after fifteen months in Manhattan, I wasn’t sure I belonged in L.A. any more.

I have a bad habit of assuming the worst-case scenario. When something good happens, I can’t enjoy it, because I’m already preparing myself for when it goes away. The concept of “living in the moment” is something I struggle mightily with.

I wasn’t always like this. At least, I don’t think I was. I’ve been so altered by the events of the last six years, I don’t remember the person I was before all the bad stuff happened. I don’t remember who I was before my mom’s alcoholism, my dad’s cancer, my grandmother’s dementia, my grandfather’s hospice, my divorce, and all the deaths and devastation that ensued. I know I used to feel young and carefree and that the world was open and full of possibility, but that all seems vague and ephemeral now, like a dream I woke up from after sleeping too long.

Worst-Case Scenario Sarah is not only annoying, she has profoundly affected my ability to enjoy New York. She has left me fists clenched, steeling myself through winter, sweating through summer, unable to allow myself to indulge in the most basic, touristy activities like walking the Brooklyn Bridge or taking in the city from atop the Empire State Building or marveling at the Manhattan skyline from the deck of a ferry boat.

This is a revelation about myself I’ve only come to recently. It began a few months ago, when I first learned my landlord’s daughter was applying for jobs in New York. Bemoaning my fate over whiskey on a patio in Williamsburg, my friend Kirsten waxed poetic about the New York apartment shuffle and proposed a question I couldn’t wrap my head around: “OK, so you have to move. But how do you know you won’t find something even better?”

I didn’t say it out loud, but my brain immediately spat out the following: Impossible! How could it possibly get better than what I have now? I knew this good thing would go away. It was only a matter of time.

The day after my walk, I arrived in Seattle, and some dear friends picked me up at the airport and took me out to lunch. As we caught up over Pacific Northwest seafood and pints of dark beer, I told them about the latest: I had a play reading in January, I’d signed up for a new memoir class, and soon I’d have to move and didn’t know where to go or what to do.

I may be Worst-Case Scenario Sarah, but fortunately I have the good sense to surround myself with Glass is Half Full People. As I explained my situation and my uncertainty about the future, my friend Karrin offered: “It sounds like you’re letting your creative work dictate your decisions. And that’s pretty cool.”

The next morning, writing morning pages by the fire in Grandpa’s beach house, I found myself scribbling that phrase over and over again. Let your creative work dictate your decisions. And I decided something: even if I had to move before my memoir class was over at the end of March, I would find a way to stay in New York, and finish it. I loved that class, loved the people in it, loved the instructor, and I knew it was helping me do the hard work of writing my book.

My last assignment during the last session of Memoir II was to write the reflective ending of my book. It was incredibly difficult because it meant I had to force myself to answer some big questions. What is the point of my story? How do I want the reader to feel? And what have I learned over the course of this very personal journey?

I wrote about the week before I moved to New York, when I gathered at the beach with some of my closest friends. One day, while we were getting ready for a boat ride, my friend Vim spotted a sight that is quite uncommon in the protected cove of Case Inlet: three Orca whales – two calves and their mother – swimming close to shore. Everything about the future was uncertain, but in that moment, experiencing the magic of seeing an old place through the new eyes of my visiting friends, I suddenly believed it would all be OK.

This is the last paragraph of what I wrote:

I don’t know what my life will look like in New York. I don’t know what I’ll do, or who I’ll meet, or how things will change. I just know I’m no longer afraid to face an uncertain future. Grief taught me that life unfolds as it will, whether we like it or not. And it also taught me that if one day can change your life for the worse, then it certainly can for the better. And I’m ready for that. I’m ready to embrace whatever lies ahead. Because the mystery of all the things we can’t know is what makes life exciting. It’s what makes me glad I’m alive.

I so badly want to own this. I want to abandon Worst-Case Scenario Sarah in favor of someone who not only believes good things will happen, she expects them. That’s why I wrote that passage. Call it an attempt at manifestation, call it faking it ‘til I make it, it’s my sincere hope that by the time I finish my book, I will have arrived at that last paragraph.

On my second day at the beach – December 20th – I sat in the living room, bundled up in blankets, waiting out a storm. When suddenly, I saw something that made me rush outside. It was a vibrant, unbroken rainbow, forming a perfect half circle from one end of the bay to the other. And for some reason, I thought about the poem by Shel Silverstein I began this blog post with.

Anything can happen, child. Anything can be.

I may not totally believe that yet. But man, am I working on it.

Until next time, friends.

 

Onward.

“Do you faint?”

It was not a question I was expecting. But then, the size of the needle the doctor was wielding was not something I was expecting, either. She was going to put that thing in my eye. OK, my eyelid. But still.

“Umm, I don’t think so? I mean, I never have. But I’ve also never done this before.”

“OK. I’m going to recline you, just in case.”

I’d been at the ophthalmologist’s office for forty-five minutes. My pupils were fully dilated, the room was a too-bright blur. And after two weeks of antibiotics, the cyst on my eyelid was not getting any better.

“Well,” the doctor said, leaning back in her chair, “I could inject you with a steroid, which may bring down the swelling. But since you’ve already been on steroid eye drops for two weeks, I’m not sure if that will do any good. And if I do the excision, I’m going to give you the steroid anyway. So, I really think the excision is your best bet. But it’s up to you. Do you want to do it?”

It’s up to me? I thought. Why? She’s the doctor; shouldn’t she just tell me to do it, rather than giving me an out? I mean, obviously, if given the choice, I’d rather she didn’t cut into my eyelid, but I’ve had this infection for over a month. I can’t wear contact lenses or makeup, and I’m putting burning, stinging eye drops in my eyes every four hours. And nothing is helping. If I want to get rid of the infection, what choice do I have?

“Well,” I said slowly, palms sweating, secretly hoping there was another way. “I think I should do the excision, but I’m a little scared. Can you talk me through it?”

“Sure!” she said, pulling up a chair next to me with such enthusiasm she may as well have been detailing the itinerary of a girls’ weekend in Vegas. “First, I’ll inject you with lidocaine, so you won’t feel anything. Then, I’ll take your eyelid and flip it, and excise the growth from inside the lid. Then I’ll patch you up, to stop the bleeding. We don’t want you walking around, scaring children.”

I tried to laugh, but it came out like strangled air. I was, at the moment, a tough crowd.

“Uh, OK. How long will it take?”

“Shouldn’t be more than five minutes.” She leaned in, confidentially. “I don’t know what is going on, but you’re my fourth one of these today.”

Don’t be a baby, Sar, I told myself. It’s going to be just fine. “OK,” I said, before I could chicken out. “Let’s do it.”

I didn’t faint. I did emit a sort of low squeal as the needle pierced my eyelid, filling it with fluid. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” the doctor said, as she rubbed her gloved hand over my eye to distribute the steroid. I felt a tremendous pressure, almost as though my eye would burst, then a burning sensation, and then, I was numb.

It has been a month since the excision. It wasn’t fun, and the healing process took longer than I’d hoped, but I’m doing much better now. And in the end, the procedure was far less traumatic than the worst-case scenario version of events I cooked up in my overactive brain.

And while I’ve been healing, life has continued on, as it tends to do. The weather has turned cold in New York; the first snowfall has come and gone. And in a few days, I’ll mark another birthday.

I always get introspective around my birthday. It has a lot to do with where it falls on the calendar: on the heels of Thanksgiving and close to the end of the year. I think about what I’m grateful for, and what I’d like to see or do in the year ahead.

The future is as uncertain as ever. It’s possible I’ll have to move in the coming months, and that this time next year I’ll call a different city home. But I’m trying not to worry about that now. This time last year, I never imagined I’d have eye surgery, or that I’d travel to Washington D.C. to see a friend perform at the Kennedy Center, or that I’d produce the first reading of a new play in the wine cellar of an Italian restaurant in Harlem. Yet in the last several weeks, all of those things have happened. The mystery of the unknown is what keeps life exciting.

A couple of weeks ago, a friend sent me an email to wish me well on the eve of my play reading. This person is a new friend, someone I’ve shared intimate details of my life with in a writing class but who I’m only just beginning to know.

She wrote:

My wish for you – onward. So much to give and a thirsty public with so much need. Please take the experiences of your young life with an uneven balance of sadness and move forward. In the tiny space of each of our lives we can do so much. 

That’s the word I’m holding on to as I approach my next birthday: onward. Reminding myself to stay open, and grateful, and hopeful. Rejecting my worries and worst-case scenarios. And remembering that life is not a thing to be controlled, but rather a great, continuous unfolding, meant to be walked through one foot in front of the other, one step at a time.

Until next time, friends.

June.

“Many of us spend our whole lives running from feeling with the mistaken belief that you cannot bear the pain. But you have already borne the pain. What you have not done is feel all you are beyond that pain.”

– Khalil Gibran

I started writing the end of my story first. I began with the day I hugged Jen in the driveway of her apartment building after she’d helped me put three heavy suitcases in the back of my car, and then drove my silver Toyota Prius up an eerily deserted 405 freeway to the top of the Sepulveda Pass for the last time. I wrote about the Lyft ride to the airport, where I told the driver I was moving to New York and how strange those words sounded coming out of my mouth, and the celebratory glass(es) of prosecco I drank at the Wolfgang Puck restaurant in Terminal 6, where I thought about my mother the whole time, because it was almost eighteen years to the day that I’d taken the reverse flight, from Seattle to L.A., as a kid going off to college, and how scared I’d been, and how she’d held my hand and told me that everything was going to be all right. And now, here I was again, eighteen years later, no longer a kid, but feeling just as exhilarated and terrified by the change I was about to make, and this time without my mother to tell me everything would be all right. So I took a deep breath, got on the plane, and told myself.

It felt easier to start at the end than the beginning, not just because the ending was fresh in my mind. Because the ending was so full of hope. As I scrolled through old Instagrams and blog posts from last summer, that was the thing I was struck by again and again: hope. The fact that I didn’t know how this grand adventure was going to turn out, but I was barreling forward anyway, with a sense of faith and confidence that surprised even me. Because I wanted something different than what I’d already had, and that meant doing something different than what I’d already done. Because when nothing is certain anything is possible, and I believed most of all the words of a friend who told me that anything is possible in New York.

So I made the decision to go, and once I’d made that decision, all the other decisions sprang from it, gathering momentum, like a giant snowball rolling down a hill. And I didn’t stop to think that anything could go wrong, didn’t consider any outcome other than a good one, didn’t even really listen to friends who cautioned that change is difficult, and I might have a hard time transitioning to life on the east coast.

Of course, hard turned out to be an understatement. And as winter descended like a fog, and none of my plans worked out and the grief I thought I’d healed from came roaring back, I lost sight of the hope I’d had in those early days. I stopped believing in myself. I stopped believing that good things were possible.

But if there’s one thing I’ve learned during these last few difficult years, it’s that sometimes our darkest moments can be our greatest teachers. And during the winter that never seemed to end, I came to a realization: maybe the fact that nothing was working out was exactly what I needed. Maybe my move to New York wasn’t meant to be about what I would accomplish. Maybe it was meant to be about what I would learn.

It’s officially summer in the city. My first. It’s already uncomfortably humid for a girl used to the desert climate of Southern California, and it’s nowhere near as hot and a sticky as it’s going to get. I’m trying not to think about it. I’m trying to take each day as it comes, enjoying the fact that I can still sit in my living room with all the windows open and feel the faint breeze rustling through the trees and listen to the rattle of the 1 train as it shoots out of the tunnel at 125th and Broadway.

The beginning of summer means my memoir class is coming to an end. And while I’ve made a commitment to spend these next hot, humid months writing my book, I’ve also just begun another class: an intensive playwriting workshop geared toward finishing the first draft of my next script. I’m a bit worried I’ve taken on too much, that one big project might derail the other. But as I’ve started diving into this new play, a bittersweet love story about two people whose destinies are intertwined and yet, who ultimately can’t be together, I’ve realized that whether it’s fiction or non, there’s one theme that keeps running through all of my work, a theme that goes something like this: You can’t save people, you can only love them.

I can’t say how long I’ll stay in New York. I can only say that after nine months and three seasons, I’m finally starting to appreciate this city for what it is: an open door I needed to walk through to change my life. I’m grateful for every road block, every challenge, every time I looked in the mirror and asked myself, “What in the hell am I doing?” This experience has made me stronger, less afraid, and more willing to fail. And while I’ve never been a person who’s been comfortable living in uncertainty, I can recognize that uncertainty is exactly what I needed to make me realize I still have the power to shape my own narrative. I don’t know how this story is going to end, only that I’m writing it moment to moment, in a place where, once again, anything feels possible.

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.

Vertigo.

I pressed my back against the chair, feeling the thin tissue paper covering crinkle as I shifted my weight. A wave of nausea washed over me. I quickly leaned forward. Nope, too far. The room spun. I carefully, slowly reclined, trying to find what felt like center. I was perched on the edge of my seat when the doctor came in. He had kind eyes, a nice smile. “We’re going to take your vitals again,” he said. “Your heart rate was too high.”

“I’m just nervous,” I told him. “I don’t really like doctors. No offense.”

I found a spot on the floor to focus on and concentrated on my breathing. Inhale, exhale. Inhale, exhale. He told me to relax my arm as he prepared to take my blood pressure. I did as I was told. I felt the band tightening, felt my heart throbbing in my bicep. Inhale, exhale.

“Well, that’s much better.” He seemed pleased. “You were right; must have just been nerves.” That’s funny, I thought. I don’t feel more relaxed.

We did a neurological test. Normal. He looked inside my ears. Normal. There was nothing out of the ordinary, no obvious cause of dizziness. “Vertigo usually goes away on its own,” he said. “But if you’re not better in a week, you may need to see a specialist.”

He gave me some exercises to help restore my equilibrium. “At first, they might make you even more dizzy,” he admitted. “But they really do seem to help.” I signed a release form, paid my hundred and twenty-five dollars and just like that, I was on my way home.

The dizziness began the week before, after what I had hoped was the last New York snow storm of early spring. At first, I ignored it, partly because – for the first time in many years – I was without health insurance. I tried to hold on to my California plan, figuring I’d move back there eventually (one of many examples of how I’d kept one foot out the door since my arrival in New York), but I could no longer prove residency and my coverage was canceled. That left the New York insurance market, a confusing maze of companies I didn’t know and policies I didn’t understand. I had begun the application process but hit a wall when it came to choosing a plan.

The day before my trip to urgent care, I spent the afternoon in rehearsal for an evening of original monologues at the historic Cherry Lane Theatre in Greenwich Village. I’d written one of the monologues and was directing seven others, which meant a long day of working with actors in the fifteenth-floor conference room of a building in midtown Manhattan. The rehearsals were a welcome distraction, but more than once I’d felt the room spin and wondered if I was going to faint. By the end of the day, health insurance or no, I knew I had to see a doctor.

And he was right. Ultimately the vertigo did get better on its own. I still get a little dizzy now and then, but the difference is striking. I’m no longer afraid I’ll fall in the shower, or have to grip the edge of the sink to remain upright when I’m washing dishes, or feel the room spin when I’m lying down.

I don’t think I was ever in actual medical jeopardy, but my recovery does feel as though I’ve been given a second chance. The truth is, I feel as though I’ve been given many second chances, and too many times, I’ve taken those chances for granted. I want to believe I’m brave and adventurous, that I’ve learned my lesson about how short and precious life is, but I still make far too many choices out of fear.

This is week four of my ten-week memoir class. When I started it, I was full of resistance. I didn’t feel ready to write a book. I still don’t feel ready. But in just a few short weeks, I’ve awoken memories that won’t go back to where they came from. And the more I write, the more I remember. At this point, it feels too late to do anything but keep going.

I’m scared, just like I was at that doctor’s visit. My memories are painful and not easy to relive. The recurring dreams about my mother are not easy, either. But as fearful as I am about diving further into the past, I’m even more fearful of running out of time. That’s the gift my vertigo gave me: a reminder the future isn’t guaranteed.

After last week’s class – a class where I talked through the subject matter of my yet-to-be-written book and landed on a theme – a fellow student pulled me aside. A lovely woman, a mother and a grandmother, somewhere between two and three decades older than me, she smiled and said, “You know something? You’re lucky. Most people don’t arrive at that level of self-awareness until they’re much older. To have such insight about your life when you still have so much of it left to live, that’s a real gift.”

She’s right. It is a gift. One I’m grateful for. One I have to remind myself every day not to take for granted.

Until next time, friends.

Blog at WordPress.com.