The Ruthless Month.

“Run the old stuff down, run it out, toss the weight of trash in your heart into the fire. December is the ruthless month. Pick up all your heartbreak and fling it out the window. Call everybody. Make peace and move on. Let those who wish to linger, let them linger and grieve. They will run and catch up to you if you move on. You are the leader when it comes to joy. Move forward towards joy.”

– John Patrick Shanley

Exactly one week before my thirty-seventh birthday, I sat on a white stone bench on a terrace overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. I was alone. It was late November, two days after Thanksgiving, and off-season on Italy’s Amalfi Coast. I had found the spot earlier in the day when I’d been searching in vain for an open restaurant. I’d followed a sign advertising a (closed) café down a steep set of stairs, and discovered a garden terrace, flanked on all sides by deserted villas. It seemed too good to be true: such a beautiful place left unused, and still undiscovered by the gaggle of day-tripping tourists who had descended upon Positano that afternoon by bus.

But a few hours later, looking for a secluded spot to watch the sunset, I returned and found the terrace still vacant, save for one nosy tabby cat, who eyed me suspiciously before moving on. I settled in, opened the half bottle of Chianti I’d purchased at the Enoteca near the town square, and stared out across the water. I watched the descending sun bleed orange before it slipped behind a storm cloud (rain was forecast later that evening), and fixed my eyes on the island of Capri.

One week, I thought. One week I’d been in Italy, and one week ‘til I’d turn thirty-seven in London, before I headed back to see what life looked like in New York.

I’ve always treated birthdays like my own personal New Year, reflecting on where I’ve been and where I want to go, and this one was no different. Thirty-seven. I breathed in the sunset and the waves gently rippling on the surface of sapphire and jade green water, and thought about everything and nothing, all at the same time.

One week later, I rose early, drank a tall glass of water and a single shot of strong espresso, and boarded the Tube bound for Picadilly Circus. The plan was to begin my birthday by accompanying my friend Elena to her Saturday morning yoga class. I hadn’t taken a proper yoga class in years and found the prospect intimidating, but somewhere between the white-knuckle bus ride through the steep, winding highways of the Amalfi Coast and the Tube from Heathrow Airport, I promised myself that thirty-seven would be the year I did all the things that scared me. So, I paid my money, unrolled a yoga mat, and took a spot in the front row of class.

The instructor, a soft-spoken Polish man whose name “Rad,” was clearly short for something more difficult to pronounce, began class by asking us how our week had been.  As one woman released an audible sigh, Rad said, “Just observe your feelings and try not to judge them. Remember that the stories you tell yourself are just that: stories.”

Rad had just returned from a trip to Los Angeles. After class, I told him I lived there for many years, and had only recently decided to move to New York. Rad was an actor, and thought he might want to live in L.A., but after three years of traveling back and forth, he gave up his apartment in West Hollywood and returned to London. “Sometimes you have to go away to appreciate what you have,” he said.

I’ve gone away several times since I moved to New York. First to Montreal, then to a film festival in Miami, and now this latest trip, the longest one by far: eighteen days. If I’m feeling self-critical, I’ll tell you that my traveling is just a form of running away, refusing to settle in a new city where life is difficult. But if I’m feeling more compassionate, I’ll admit I’ve been navigating something profound, something I don’t yet fully understand. The best way I can describe it is that it feels like a revolution in my heart. It feels like finding forgiveness – mostly for myself – and letting go of old wounds. As Rad said that day in yoga class, the stories we tell ourselves are just that: stories. And I’m learning to transcend my old story and write a different one, one in which I’m strong enough to stand in my own skin, without apologies or regret.

Things happen in their own time. There’s a time to take bold and decisive action, and a time to be quiet and listen. And that’s largely what traveling has been about for me: listening. Observing my life from a distance, and gaining the perspective that only comes from meeting new people and discovering new places. From shaking up the every day.

I’m glad to be back in New York. I’m glad to be in the middle of the ruthless month. The trees have shed their leaves, the air is cold, and the days are short. But on the other side of all that’s dark is the promise of something new. A revolution. A rebirth. And a move towards joy.

Until next time, friends.

 

The loneliest place.

“When you recognize that you will thrive not in spite of your losses and sorrows but because of them,

that you would not have chosen the things that happened in your life, but you are grateful for them,

that you will hold the empty bowls eternally in your hands but that you also have the capacity to fill them?

The word for that is healing.”

– Cheryl Strayed

I didn’t cry on the way to the airport. Julio, my Lyft driver, wouldn’t allow it. His questions began the moment he loaded my suitcase into the trunk of his Kia Optima.

“Sarah, why you leaving? You no like Miami?”

I explained to him that I did like Miami, but I had come there for a film festival and now that it was over, it was time to return to New York.

The questions continued. Did I like Reggaeton music? Did I have a boyfriend? Did I know how to dance? “Next time you come to Miami,” he said, “I will teach you how to dance Reggaeton.”

I laughed, but wondered if I should be worried. Who was this guy? What did he want from me? But a few minutes later, we were at the airport, and as Julio bid me a cheerful farewell, I realized it had all just been playful banter. And I felt grateful, because I had been too busy deflecting his questions to cry.

It wasn’t until much later, after the flight to LaGuardia, after the cab ride to Morningside Heights, after picking up the mail, unpacking my suitcase, and grabbing dinner at my favorite speakeasy on Broadway, that – safely inside my eighth-floor apartment, the door bolted behind me – the tears I had been holding began to fall.

I had been holding them since the night before, since the Casablanca-themed awards ceremony for the Bogart Film Noir Shorts Competition, where we had accepted an award for our film Speak No Evil and my soon to be ex-husband dedicated that award to my dead parents. Emotions rising, he choked on the words, and I pressed my lips together and looked away. I’m one of the most sensitive people you will ever meet, but sometimes, I avert my eyes. I have to.

He was right. We never would have been there, at that film festival in Coral Gables, if my parents hadn’t died. More accurately, we never would have been there if I hadn’t used money I inherited from them to help finance our film. So, when he spoke this truth – more elegantly than I just did – I averted my eyes. I had to.

I’ve played the “If my parents hadn’t died” game many times over the last few years. It’s a self-destructive game, but one that I’m quite good at. If my parents hadn’t died, I never would have produced that film. If my parents hadn’t died, I never would have written that play. If my parents hadn’t died and we hadn’t sold their house in Olympia, I never would have gone on that exhaustive search looking for a place called home, the one that led me to wander cobblestone streets in Prague at winter, and hike a sweltering trail through a Mexican jungle, and take a ferry boat to a remote island in the Pacific Northwest to sit in a circle with strangers and share intimate stories from my life. And if my parents hadn’t died, I most certainly never would have trashed most of my belongings, sold my car, packed up what remained of my life, and moved to New York.

A couple of weeks ago, I sat on a patio near Lincoln Center with a friend from L.A. and tried to analyze why New York – a city of eight million people – felt so lonely. “It’s the loneliest place on earth,” she declared. I had only been in town for a few weeks and yet, I couldn’t disagree with her. “I guess there are so many people here it just desensitizes you,” I offered. And then I repeated something that I’d heard someone say: “Apparently, you can cry in public and no one will look twice at you.”

My friend paused, taking me in. “Wait,” she said, “You haven’t cried in public yet?”

I hadn’t. Just like my return trip from Miami, I had been holding in the tears. But sure enough, shortly after she said it, it happened. It was late at night, and I was headed home on the subway after a long day. A busker boarded the train. “Ugh,” I thought. Another stranger asking for money, another reason to avert my eyes. But to my surprise, he lifted a violin to his chin and began to play one of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard. It was a sweet, plaintive melody that sliced right through me; the type of music that reminds you you’re alive. When he finished, I handed him a dollar, and he looked at me with such sincerity and said, “God bless you my dear,” that my eyes immediately filled up and spilled over. I got off the train, tears running down my face, too tired to wipe them away, and I walked home. And as I passed two police officers who barely acknowledged me, I realized what I’d heard was true: you can cry in public here, and no one will look twice at you.

I’m glad I came to New York. As homesick as I am for people I love and places I miss, it feels right to be here. Even the fact that it’s lonely feels – somehow – right. Maybe, paradoxically, the “loneliest place on earth,” is exactly where I need to be to feel less alone. Because in a city of eight million people, my worries and problems and fears seem less significant. In New York, I can be as odd and as quirky and as real as I want and all it means is that someone may pause for a minute, shake their head at me, and then go on about their day.

If my parents hadn’t died, I wouldn’t be here. And here is a place where I’m learning that maybe, I don’t have to avert my eyes. Here is a place where everything feels acceptable, which also makes anything seem possible. Here is a place where my writing is growing riskier and more honest and more dangerous, and I like that. Here is a place where I’m finally giving myself permission to be who I am and say what I feel.

Here may be the loneliest place on earth. But here – at least, for now – might be the only place for me to be.

Until next time, friends.

Morningside.

“We all get stuck in place on occasion. We all move backward sometimes. Every day we must make the decision to move in the direction of our intentions. Forward is the direction of real life.”

– Cheryl Strayed

I was sitting cross-legged on my bed, laptop on lap, surfing the internet for a new dresser when the call came through. The number was familiar, but not in a way that brought comfort. My body tensed. My breaths came shallow. I thought about answering the phone, then thought better of it. I didn’t want to be blindsided by bad news. Let them leave a message, I thought. At least then I’d have an idea of what I was in for.

The voicemail notification flashed across the screen, and I gingerly pressed play and held the phone up to my ear.

“Hi Sarah,” came a polite, though somewhat timid, voice on the other end.

“This is Katherine, from Joe’s office. We have some documents to send you, and I just wanted to confirm that we still have your correct address.”

Documents. That sounded innocuous enough, but as I’d just spent the better part of the summer sorting through five years’ worth of paperwork covering such weighty topics as death, divorce and identity theft, paring a painful paper trail down to its essentials and depositing the rest into a large plastic bin that I delivered to an industrial shredding facility in the shadow of Los Angeles International Airport, the last thing I wanted was to acquire more documents. I had begun a new life. And I intended to travel light.

I sighed, pressed “call back,” and was surprised to hear Joe’s voice – my parents’ lawyer – on the other end. I had assumed he had retired, due to advancing age and a recent bypass surgery. But there he was, answering the phone. His tone was kind, grandfatherly, almost.

“Well, Sarah, it looks like we’re finally ready to close your parents’ estate, and I have some final documents for you to sign. We’re going to send them to your sister Marion first, then to you, and then we should be good to go.”

Really? Five years of bank statements and legal documents and insurance forms? Five years of producing death certificates with as much normalcy as I produced my driver’s license? Five years of always another form to sign, always another stack of papers to file bearing the red “For your Information” stamp? Could it really be true that after five years, this phase of life that I’d become so accustomed to was finally drawing to a close?

“That’s great news, Joe. I’m glad you called because I actually just moved. Let me give you my new address.”

If Joe was surprised by my New York zip code, he didn’t let on. Maybe he thought people packed up and moved their lives across the country every day. Or maybe after five years, he was ready to be done with me, too. Either way, we said our goodbyes, and I collapsed back onto my bed, a wave of exhaustion washing over me. I had only been in New York for three days, but I knew that it was more than just the force of jet lag hitting me. It was something like releasing a breath that I had long been holding. Something like the realization that after all these years, I might finally be turning a page.

Five days later, on a still warm September afternoon – the second day of fall – I swept the floors, rearranged the furniture, stocked the fridge and assembled a spread of snacks and drinks on my kitchen table. As a handful of guests arrived and day faded into indigo night, lit by the New York skyline and the three strings of twinkle lights I’d hung from the eighth-floor balcony of my Morningside Heights apartment, I realized that I had barely thought about the fact that this day, September 23rd, marked the fifth anniversary of the death of my mother. I had remembered it, of course, but I had – for once – been too busy to dwell on it. And when I did think of it, I didn’t feel sad. Instead, I felt lucky. I felt lucky that I had a mother who always told me that I could do and be anything that I wanted. I felt lucky that because of that, I had been brave enough to take a leap, and had been rewarded with a new apartment in a new city, one that was beautiful, priced well under market value, and in a prime Manhattan neighborhood. I was lucky to be surrounded by interesting, kind, creative people, who, like me, also wanted to tell stories and make art. And I was lucky to realize that as painful as it had been, it was the jagged, twisted, perilous path that had brought me here, to a time and a place where I finally felt, for the first time in a long time, that I was where I was supposed to be.

Until next time, friends.

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?”

Birds Eye View Prague

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

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

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

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

Until next time, friends.

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The Other Side.

“Have you ever had a reading before?”

“No.”

“Never before?”

“No.”

“That’s exciting.”

“Yeah.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mom and Grandpa

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

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

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

Until next time, friends.

Me and Mom

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

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

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

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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