Decisions.

You have a right to experiment with your life.

You will make mistakes.

And they are right too.

– Anaïs Nin

It’s a Wednesday afternoon in Burbank, California, and I’m lying flat on my back on a massage table. But I’m not getting a massage. Instead, I’m doing something I’ve never done before, a theme for me lately. I’m seeing an intuitive healer. I’m not sure what to expect, only that I’ve been feeling stuck and directionless, and that the healer – a woman named Alicia – was recommended by a close friend. And so, I go.

Alicia begins by using a pendulum device to scan my chakras. As she suspends it over my body, it spins clockwise, emitting a soft hum. When she gets to the area above my heart, the pendulum’s spin slows down. Above my head, it stops altogether, and then begins to spin backwards.

“You’re feeling indecisive,” she says.

“Yes,” I admit.

“Doubting yourself?”

“Yes.”

When I get up from the table and check my phone, I’m stunned to discover that nearly two hours have passed. Despite our pre-session consultation, during which Alicia advised me that I could feel any number of things during the healing (sadness, pain, anger – to name a few), I remained calm and relaxed throughout. As she placed her hands on my ankles, my shoulders, the crease in my elbow, the crown of my head – anywhere that needed healing – she asked me questions, described images she saw, and we talked. That was it. I didn’t cry, not once. When I left her house, I felt tired, but also, at peace.

A few days later, at a creative writing workshop with WriteGirl, a mentoring organization I volunteer for, I spent several hours working with two teenage girls whom I’d never met before. They were both beginning the college application process and were both feeling overwhelmed by it all. As we talked about schools, AP classes, personal essays and the pressure to choose a major, I heard myself giving them advice I wish I’d received when I was seventeen:

“If you choose a college and you don’t like it, you can always transfer.

If you pick a major that’s not right for you, you can always change it.

I know it feels like the decisions you make now will determine the rest of your life,

but I promise you, they won’t.

You can always change your mind. About everything.”

In my life, I’ve spent a whole lot of time talking about all the big things I’m going to do, and only a little bit of time doing them. The “talk” is safe, because a plan that hasn’t been put into action yet hasn’t had the chance to fail. The decision is a different thing altogether. The decision is scary. The decision means that you stop thinking, stop weighing your options. It means you go for it, and you don’t look back.

I talked about going to New York for a long time before I decided to do it. And now that I’ve decided, I feel a bit like a snowball rolling down a hill, rapidly gathering speed. I gave up my apartment and all my furniture. I’m paring down my belongings, getting rid of clothes and books and personal effects I used to cherish. I’m preparing to sell my car, and several pieces of my mother’s jewelry. And even though I don’t leave for three more weeks, this weekend I’m hosting a going away party at which I’ll see many of my L.A. friends for the last time. At least, for a while.

Thinking about those teenage girls, their futures uncertain, their whole lives stretched out before them like a promise, I found myself wondering: how many evolutions do we get in a life? And I think the answer is: as many as we chose. We can always change. We can always grow. But we must be willing to say no to the old way of doing things, and yes to the uncertain and the unknown. We must be willing to be vulnerable. To screw up. To learn. And to begin again.

Until next time, friends.

Independence Day.

“Nobody knows anything. We’ll take this leap, and we’ll see. We’ll jump, and we’ll see. That’s life.”

– Joe Versus the Volcano

On my last night on Cashio Street, after all the boxes had been packed, the remaining contents of my living room divided up into items to donate and items to keep, I sat perched on the ledge of my patio, just outside my front door, my back pressed up against the hard stucco wall, legs folded into my chest, staring out into the clear night sky.

The air was still warm, and a quarter moon hung just above my neighbor’s red-tiled roof. It was June 29th – five days before Independence Day – but the sound of fireworks had already begun to echo throughout the neighborhood. Boom! That one distant, then another, a few minutes later, closer this time. Excited voices, talking fast, carried throughout the night. The sounds of the impending holiday weekend. The sounds of summer.

I had more to do, but too exhausted to move from my spot on the ledge, I sat, drinking champagne from a pink ceramic coffee mug, taking it all in. I’d been back from New York for just over a week, and in that time my neighbors and I had hosted a yard sale, I’d held two casting sessions for my new play, and I’d gone through, packed up, thrown out, and donated most of the contents of the last eighteen years of my L.A. life.

It was the last part that had contributed the most to my fatigue. When I’d moved into this one bedroom bungalow on Cashio Street just over three years ago, I was in dire straits. The move had happened quickly, urgently, with little thought other than to go as fast as I could. I’d shoved papers and photos and notebooks into clear plastic bins and pushed them underneath my bed, out of sight, out of mind. I didn’t have the emotional fortitude to sort through mementos of the life I used to have, or the person I used to be.

A lot has changed in three years. Almost without noticing, I went from a person whose spine had been compressed by guilt, grief, shame, fear, anger and regret, to someone who had learned, little by little, to set down the weight of all the things she’d been carrying. I learned it through therapy, through writing, through the kindness and love of friends and family, through travel, through opening myself up to new experiences. But mostly, I learned it the only way a person can learn to heal: through the passage of time.

Leafing through my old notebooks, among all the bits of character dialogue, the story ideas, the pages of memoir, the musings for this blog, I found some quotes I’d copied down from the movie Joe Versus the Volcano. That quirky, offbeat romantic comedy has long been one of my favorites, but in recent years, the fable about a man who only learns to live when he thinks he’s going to die has taken on fresh significance. I wouldn’t dare be so dramatic as to claim that I’d been on the verge of death, but in recent months, I do feel as though something within me that I thought I’d lost has come back to life. It’s something resembling believing in hope again, something resembling a belief that for the first time in a very long time, good things are coming my way.

As I sat on the patio ledge on my last night on Cashio Street, looking down on the warm squares of red tile beneath my feet, looking out at the lone palm tree stretching up into the clear night sky, I knew that as sad as I was to leave this place, I was ready. And the reason I was ready was because the time I had spent there had given me everything I needed: time to grieve, to rebuild, to find the courage to become the person I had always wanted to be. And with the sound of fireworks echoing in the distance, I whispered just two words, a sort of prayer.

Thank you.

Until next time, friends.

White Butterflies.

And I want to keep us all alive

And I want to see you with my eyes

But I see you in the fireflies

And how extraordinary . . .

Is that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mom’s dead.”

And everything went black.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until next time, friends.

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Grateful.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until next time,

xx

Sarah

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Lucky.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until next time, friends.

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The Other Side.

“Have you ever had a reading before?”

“No.”

“Never before?”

“No.”

“That’s exciting.”

“Yeah.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until next time, friends.

Me and Mom

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

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

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

The beach.

If only you’d have known me before the accident/

For with that grand collision came a grave consequence/

Receptors overloaded, they burst and disconnect/

‘Til there was little feeling, please work with what is left.

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I’m running along Grapeview Loop Road in the sleepy Western Washington town of Allyn. It’s Friday afternoon and the rain that has been falling steadily all morning has let up, topaz blue skies peeking through the still stormy, not-quite-white cotton candy clouds. It’s what people in the Pacific Northwest call a “sun break,” and I’m taking full advantage of it. Rain is usually an unwelcome sight in this part of the world during the late summer months, but it’s desperately needed due to abnormally dry weather conditions and a series of terrible fires that are pummeling the Eastern side of the state. For me, the rain also offers a welcome respite from the 100-degree temperatures currently baking Southern California, where I live. As I imagine the wall of heat permeating my little stucco bungalow in West Los Angeles, I am grateful that I’m here and not there.

As I wave appreciatively at the motorists who drift toward the median, giving me the widest possible berth as I jog by on the shoulder, I savor the delicious irony of the Death Cab for Cutie song, The Ghosts of Beverly Drive, pulsating through my headphones. It’s a song about damaged and jaded people in Los Angeles, people with “no firsts anymore.”

I don’t know why, I don’t know why/

I return to the scenes of these crimes/

Where the hedgerows slowly wind/

Through the ghosts of Beverly Drive.

While I don’t consider myself to be damaged or jaded by Los Angeles, after sixteen years of living there, I understand where those lyrics come from. Over the last decade and a half, I’ve changed dramatically from the eighteen-year-old college student who first arrived there, bright-eyed and full of hope. It took me years to get to where I am now, living a life that actually fits me, rather than trying too hard to be someone I’m not in a desperate effort to impress other people or feel worthy of their attention.

And yet. Despite the fact that I have greater ownership over my life than I’ve ever had, L.A. still doesn’t feel like home. It never really has. Not in the way that this place does: the place where I’m currently jogging down the road.

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For just over a week, I’ve been staying in Allyn, in an area of the Pacific Northwest that my family simply calls, “the beach.” It’s a large parcel of waterfront land overlooking Case Inlet, a piece of property first purchased by my grandparents in 1959, when they were court reporters working in Seattle and looking for a place to build a summer home.

As a child, I remember the beach as nothing short of magical. It was far away from everything, tucked away at the edge of the world like some sort of family secret. I spent all of my summers there: foraging for driftwood to build great big bonfires, roasting s’mores under the starlight, digging for clams at low tide (still the best clams you’ve ever tasted), cruising around Case Inlet in my uncle’s boat, dogpaddling through the saltwater and dodging big scary jellyfish.

As I got older, the magic began to fade as reality set in. My first cousin, who was, for many years, the closest thing I had to a brother, turned to drugs and violence and severed all ties with our family. My once vital and full-of-life grandfather suffered a stroke, leaving him wheelchair-bound and depressed. My dad was diagnosed with stage-four pancreatic cancer, but my mother shocked everyone by dying first, just a few months before him. My maternal grandmother quickly followed suit, succumbing to Alzheimer’s disease that had gone undiagnosed for years.

It got to the point where I started to hate the beach, because every visit was a painful reminder that so many people I loved had been so abruptly ripped away. Memories of carefree childhood summers were replaced with harsh adult realities like probate court, property tax, and estate planning. The left turn off of Grapeview Loop Road and on to our property – with its still, serene view of Mt. Rainier rising above Case Inlet – no longer made my heart swell. It leveled me.

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It took some time, many return visits, and no small amount of healing to realize that in spite of all of the change and loss, the beach is deeply rooted in my DNA. Not long ago, among a box full of mementos, I found a letter that my grandfather wrote me upon my college graduation, just over a decade ago. I was about to embark on my new, exciting life as an adult in Los Angeles, and he sweetly implored me not to forget where I came from. He closed the letter with these words: The beach never changes, ‘tis only we who change.

He’s right. I have changed. We all have. But as life shapes and shifts around me, the beach remains a constant. During these last three years of navigating emotional chaos and loss and questioning my life choices, years where I’ve slept with one eye open due to nightmares and panic attacks and occasionally crippling anxiety, the beach is the only place where I’ve continued to feel sheltered and safe. It’s the only place where I’ve been able to submit to deep grief and let it wash over me, allowing the healing process to begin. It’s the only place where my equilibrium returns, and where I’ve often thought – sometimes in spite of all evidence to the contrary – that everything is going to be OK.

It’s ironic to think that it took my mother dying for me to understand why she loved this place so much. Why it was always, throughout her life, her True North. Why she insisted, as far back as I can remember, that her ashes be scattered here, so that she could forever be a part of the sea and the sky and the evergreen trees. The other day, as I swam in Case Inlet, feeling the tingle of saltwater in my mouth, with the air perfectly still and everything around me slowing down, I whispered aloud, almost as though it were a prayer: I get it, Mom. And I wonder if somehow she heard me. I wonder if somehow she knew.

The beach never changes, ‘tis only we who change.

Until next time, friends.

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Birthday Girl.

This week, I turned thirty-four.  THIRTY-FOUR.  Holy hell, I am older than I ever thought I’d be.

(To all of my readers out there who are a little – or a lot – older than thirty-four, please accept my apologies.  Life, it seems, is all about perspective.  Isn’t it?)

I’ve always been big on birthdays.  Always.  But this year, I approached it quietly.  Not avoiding or ignoring, but not fully embracing it, either.  Figuring that this year, it simply is what it is.

Though I’m not necessarily delighted to be another year older, I was not sad to say goodbye to thirty-three.  It was without a doubt, the hardest year of my life.  That may seem like an odd statement, considering that thirty-one and thirty-two were particularly brutal years, during which a lot of really bad, painful things happened.  Nobody I love died during my thirty-third year, but in a way, it was sort of like I did.  And (metaphorical) death while living can be just about the toughest thing one can experience.  Or at least, it was for me.

I started thirty-three pretending I was OK (I wasn’t).  I was desperate to feel better, and I convinced myself that I needed to shake up my life because I wasn’t really living.  I was right about the not living part, but I went about the shaking up my life part in the wrong way.  In truth, I got a little bit crazy.  Not only did my new ‘fierce urgency of now’ maxim not work out, but I learned a hard lesson: I couldn’t just fake it to make it, and the more I tried, the less it worked.  I had been sad for a long time, but I wasn’t grieving, just shoving my feelings under the rug and trying to act like some superhuman strong woman, which ultimately just made everything worse.

And so I stopped the quick fix, impulsive behavior, and I started making the changes that were harder, and that would take more time.  I moved to a new neighborhood away from almost everyone I knew.  I stopped doing things I ‘loved,’ things that I’d always done, because honestly, my heart wasn’t in them any more.  I tried on lots of new, different things, trying to figure out which ‘Sarah’ was a fit, and it turned out that none of them were.  When all else failed, I borrowed a friend’s beach house and spent one of the most beautiful weeks of the summer crying into the sand.  I spent a lot of time alone.  And I wrote.  A lot.

None of the realizations I came to during my thirty-third year – the year of dying while living – came easy or cheap.  I learned that I wasn’t so much grieving the loved ones that I’d lost as I was grieving the person that I now was, without them.  I learned that the path toward healing ultimately involved grieving myself, grieving the old me that I no longer was, and then learning how to lovingly let her go.  I learned that the biggest source of my suffering came from trying to hold on to what was no longer true, that the sooner I could release the image in my mind of how things were ‘supposed’ to be, and accept them for what they actually were, the better off I’d be.  And I learned that letting go is a real bitch.

So when thirty-four arrived this past Tuesday, it was fittingly, a different type of birthday.  No splashy party, no big fanfare, no weekend trip away.  I worked a twelve-hour day styling a photo shoot for the company I’ve worked at for the last ten years.  We ordered in lunch, and in the afternoon, my coworkers got me a cake, sang me Happy Birthday, and I made a wish (a good one) and blew out the candles.  That night, I went home, put on a dress and got in a cab to meet a handful of friends for a small, low-key dinner, ending the evening over cocktails and conversation with some really good people.  And when I finally collapsed into bed, nearly twenty hours after my day had begun, I felt something that, while definitely not the unbridled joy I’ve been chasing, was a little bit like contentment, and a lot like peace.

I’ve always liked the fact that my birthday falls in December, so close to the end of the year.  It’s sort of like my own personal new year is closely aligned with the calendar New Year, and it gives me an opportunity to look back and take stock as both myself and the planet turn another year older.  And while I still believe in making resolutions, I no longer boldly predict that ‘this is going to be my best year yet,’ because life, in all its unpredictability, has taught me differently.  But what I do know is this:  that the hard lessons I took the time to learn during thirty-three have prepared me to have a better thirty-four.  That, while I’m not yet on the other side of the grief or the healing, I’m a wiser, stronger, and (strangely), more hopeful person than I was a year ago.  That I can’t rush this process or fake it till I make it, and that where I’m at, today, tomorrow, next week, is just fine.  And while I’d never boldly predict that this New Year will be my ‘best year yet,’ I’m pretty certain I’m going to end thirty-four in a better place than where I began it.

So – Happy New Year.

Until next time, friends.

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