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.

Dear Mom.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can you see me?

 Do you know?

 Are you proud?

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

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

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

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

Can you see me?

 Do you know?

 Are you proud?

Happy Birthday, Mom.

Love,

Sarah

Her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until next time, friends.

Clerkenwell.

“This is one moment, /

But know that another/

Shall pierce you with a sudden painful joy.”

– T.S. Eliot

I’m not sure why I took the long way down to Farringdon Road, rather than the shortcut off of Clerkenwell and over Herbal Hill – a narrow street barely bigger than an alley – to get to my old flat on Crawford Passage. I told myself it was because I wanted to see everything, see the whole of the neighborhood, see how much it had changed in the fifteen years since I’d lived there. But really, I have no idea why I did it, other than the mere fact that I felt like it. It was just one of a million tiny little decisions, the kind we make all day long.

I had already been walking for quite a while. I’d turned around an embarrassing number of times trying to find my way to the British Museum from the Holborn tube station. I’d even gone the wrong way down Great Russell Street – a street I used to know so well – before finally finding that familiar buttercream façade, with its elegantly ornamented sign displaying the number 99. All the late nights I’d spent there, in that study center where I took my classes, holed up in the basement computer lab checking emails (before the invention of the iPhone), writing papers, and booking tickets for my next weekend getaway. Because back then, as a twenty-one-year old college student living in London, there always seemed to be – every weekend – somewhere to go.

But by the time I found my way to Theobald’s Road and walked down it until it became Clerkenwell – the same walk I used to take, years ago, at least four times per week – I had recovered my bearings. There was new construction along the route, and many of the shops and businesses had changed, but it was still the same road, still familiar, still felt like home.

And suddenly there it was: the old shortcut over Herbal Hill down to my flat at Crawford House. But this time, I didn’t want to take it. I wanted to keep walking.

I came to the intersection of Clerkenwell Road and Farringdon, and turned left to round the corner. And that’s when I saw them. Bouquets of flowers – faded roses and Stargazer lilies – duct taped to a light post. As I drew closer, I saw that there were also cards; handwritten notes filled with words of love and loss and grief, all made out to one person: “Claire.” A memorial.

Held in place by my own morbid curiosity, I read what was written there. Words that you’d expect, about a loved one who would always be missed and who was gone too soon. But then, taped to a bouquet of wilted pink tulips, there it was. A carefully written note, that, as I read, I am quite certain, I forgot to breathe:

To family and friends,

Take comfort that she did not suffer in pain. Nothing will make this accident less senseless, but I want you to know that she did not die alone or abandoned. Many people did everything they could to save her. It was tragic and happened so quickly but she was surrounded by people who tried and who stayed.

From,

One of those people.

As I continued my walk down Farringdon Road, past St. Paul’s Cathedral, down toward the Thames, the same path I used to take when I went for my morning runs along the river, I couldn’t stop the tears from falling. But I wasn’t crying for Claire. I didn’t even know her, didn’t know what had happened to her. I was crying because life can seem so senseless. Because it can shift so suddenly. Because in an instant, everything can change.

I often think of the months that I spent in London as some of the happiest of my life. I was young and carefree. I could do and be anything that I wanted. Life was exhilarating then, full of hope and possibility. I had never known real tragedy, never known real fear.

So maybe that’s why, last week, I decided to take the long way down Farringdon Road. Maybe there is no such thing as chance, no tiny decisions we make that mean nothing. Because afraid as I am of all the things I can’t yet know, it was the tragic death of a stranger, and the strangers who didn’t know her but who cared for her all the same, that reminded me that life’s uncertainty is not a thing to be feared. That it is the knowledge of how fleeting and fragile life is, that is what makes it so beautiful.

If you live long enough, life will break your heart. Mine has been broken again and again since those carefree days in London. I am no longer the girl who lived there, in fact, I barely even recognize her. But even if I could, I wouldn’t go back and rewrite my history. I wouldn’t change what’s past. I wouldn’t remove any of the scars. Because the scars are what make me. And as it turns out, I like who I’ve become. Broken heart and all.

As I carried on, over Blackfriars Bridge, over the Thames, I thought about how lucky I am. I thought about what a thing it is, just to be alive. And I thought about the fact that for as long as I could keep going – through all the fear and uncertainty – there was only one direction left to travel.

Onward.

Until next time, friends.

Almost.

“I’m here to make a donation.”

I had been feeling confident on the way over. Good, even. I’d secured rock star parking (with money still on the meter!) a block away on Las Palmas. Walking to the museum, I practically glided down Hollywood Boulevard, effortlessly dodging gawking tourists, street performers and hustlers shoving leaflets in my face. No, I don’t want a map to the stars’ homes, thank you very much. I live here.

But as I approached the front desk, approached the woman with curly hair framing an inquisitive face, my heart rate sped up. I swallowed hard. There was something unnerving in those gentle, wide set blue eyes looking back at me. It was recognition. Right away, I knew: she’d seen this story countless times before.

“Sure,” she answered, smoothly. “Did you complete the form on our website?”

“Yes.”

“And you signed it?”

“Yes. It’s right here.”

I handed her a white envelope, which she opened, scanned the contents, and then carefully replaced. “Great,” she said, satisfied that everything was in order. “And you have the object?”

“Yes.” I handed her a paper bag, watching, waiting expectantly, as she peered inside.

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The first time I’d visited the Museum of Broken Relationships, the monument to love and loss located on Los Angeles’ famed Hollywood Boulevard, I did so out of curiosity. I was doing research for a new draft of my play War Stories, about the intersecting love lives of four dreamers in Los Angeles, and writing an article about the museum for my friend Tammin’s blog, Bottle + Heels. On that visit, in the waning days of summer, life and love were full of promise, and I was – dare I say it –  happy. As I wandered the open, light-filled gallery, taking in the sad tales of woe, I felt invincible. “No way,” I thought, reading each story, shaking my head. “This is not how my story is going to end.”

Of course, I should have known better. I should have paid attention to the creeping doubt that was already snaking its way through the corners of my mind. And now here I was, months later, doing something I never thought I’d do: contributing my own sad story to the archives.

“Can I ask you,” I inquired, leaning in confidentially, lowering my voice, “Will the museum notify me when my object goes on display?”

The woman shook her head. “No. For the purpose of anonymity, we can’t do that.” “But,” she added, leaning toward me as though we were sharing a secret, “Any time you want to come here, you can just go to the front desk, describe the object, and someone will be able to tell you yes, or no.”

Business done, I wandered the gallery, aimlessly, absorbing the stories contained within. And as they often do in February, as I approach the anniversary of his death, my thoughts drifted toward my father. “Pollyanna,” he used to say, the nickname referring to the naïve optimism he teased me relentlessly for as a child, “The world is a cruel place, darling. The world will break your heart.”

Back then, I’d laughed it off. “Oh, Dad,” I’d say, rolling my eyes, chalking it up to my Irish father’s penchant for melodrama (to this day, I remain convinced that the Irish invented heartbreak). Little did I know how right he’d turn out to be. The world is a cruel place, and I have found it to be exceedingly cruel these last few years, rife with death and disappointment.

broken-ships-filtered

But the thing my father didn’t say, the thing he didn’t warn me about, was that for us Pollyannas of the world, there’s a certain type of heartbreak that hurts more than all the others. It’s the kind where you almost have something, and then you watch it slip away, crumbling to dust in your hands. As an unflagging optimist, hope is the drug that I live on. And when things fall apart, hope is the drug that, time and time again, threatens to kill me.

It was time to go. But on my way toward the exit, I paused in front of a floor length antique mirror, taking a photo of my reflection in the glass. And as I did so, I felt curious eyes upon me, watching me. I looked up to see two women, one of them behind a camera. I had noticed them earlier, moving through the museum, photographing its objects. I smiled, returned to what I was doing, thinking little of it. Because in Los Angeles, everywhere you go, someone is always filming something.

But one of the women approached me. “Excuse me,” she said, with a thick French accent.  “You speak Anglais? Ou Français?”

“Anglais,” I replied, feeling immediately apologetic. “Sorry, it’s been a long time since I’ve taken a French class.”

She smiled. “Ça va.” “We are making a documentary for French television, and I was wondering if I could film you?”

“Really?” I stammered.

“Yes.”

“What do you want me to do?”

“Just what you were doing, photographing yourself in the mirror. It was beautiful. You noticed us watching you, yes?”

“Yes,” I admitted, feeling the color rising in my face.

“So, it’s OK?” If we film you?”

Oh, what in the hell, I thought.

“Sure,” I replied.

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Later, still not ready to go home, I ducked into the Pig ‘N Whistle – a historic old Hollywood bar next to the Egyptian Theatre – found a darkened corner booth, and ordered a martini. Scrolling through the photos on my phone, another memory came flooding back. It was last summer, during that same happier time, when I’d visited the psychic medium Fleur in an attempt to communicate with the spirts of my dead parents. Fleur and I spent most of our session focused on my mother, but toward the end, my father showed up, cheerful, singing his favorite Irish songs.

“You went to Europe, after your father died?” Fleur asked me, her closed eyes fluttering.

“Yes,” I replied. “But not right after. Two years after, on the second anniversary of his death, on Valentine’s Day. I went to Prague.”

“Yes.” She smiled. “He went with you. You felt him there, didn’t you?”

“I did.” It was true, my father had been everywhere on that trip.

“He wants me to tell you, next time, he wants you to go to Paris.”

Paris. Those French filmmakers in the museum, days before Valentine’s Day, days before marking another anniversary of my father’s death. And me: uncertain and adrift, wondering where to turn, what to do next.

Could it be a sign? Do I even believe in signs? In truth, now is the worst possible time for me to go running off to Europe. I’m running low on money. I need to go back to work. And I need to make some big decisions about my life. Grown up decisions, which, at thirty-six, it’s high time I started making.

And yet. In addition to the story that I left behind at the museum, there’s another “almost” failure that’s been haunting me of late. It’s about a review I received for my play War Stories, and its current Los Angeles production. The reviewer, while largely complimentary, said something about the play that stung me: “I hope this is not a final version,” he wrote, referring to the fact that the script, while good, still needs some reworking. And the reason his critique stung me so much is because I agree with it. As proud as I am of the play, I know that it can be better. I know it’s not finished. I’m just not sure how to fix it.

And so, with that in mind, I made a decision. I decided that I would take one last trip. I would go to Paris, after all, as soon as I could, as soon as this production of War Stories has closed. And on the banks of the Seine, in the hallways of Musée D’Orsay, at a table in a café in St. Germain, I will work on my script. I will figure out the parts that aren’t working, and I will fix them.

Because this is one “almost” that doesn’t have to be a failure. Unlike the story I left behind at the museum, this story is something I get to change. In this story – my story – I’m the one who decides how it ends.

Until next time, friends.

paris

Love and War.

“You take your life in your own hands and what happens? A terrible thing, no one to blame.”

– Erica Jong

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I can’t remember exactly when I began to silence my phone. I only know that there was a period of time during the not so distant past when every time it rang or chimed or buzzed, the news was bad. And even though switching my phone to mute didn’t solve the problem, the magical thinking I adopted during those dark days meant that if I didn’t receive the message, then the bad thing didn’t happen. The crisis had been averted. For one more day, I was OK.

And so, barring rare exceptions, I’ve kept my phone on silent. But these days, the mute button is no longer about protecting myself from bad news. These days, it’s the only thing shielding me from the unbearable silence of the calls that aren’t coming.

Tomorrow, February 3rd, is the opening night of my play, War Stories. Another opening, another show. But this one is different. Not only because of the length of time I’ve been working on it, or because of how uniquely personal the subject matter is, but because its opening marks the end of something; it means I’m standing on the edge of something.

War Stories originated as a one-act that I wrote for last summer’s Hollywood Fringe Festival, and this new iteration is a longer, two-act piece, centering around the same four characters, a band of thirty-something Angelenos with time running out on their dreams, who are looking for love in all the wrong places.

Writing this play – particularly this latest, longer draft – was utter hell. I don’t think I’ve ever struggled so much or felt so inadequate as a writer as I did during the process of reworking this script. And if I didn’t have so many other people counting on me, people who I like and with whom I’ve been talking about this new production for months, I’m quite certain that somewhere along the line, I would have given up.

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In truth, I’ve been wearing a heaviness in my heart since last September, and this script demands a level of emotional honesty that I wasn’t sure that I was up for. All through the fall, I carried the story within me, writing bits and pieces of it in my head when I couldn’t bear to face the page. The stories of Chelsea, Sam, Jake and Jen and their messy, intersecting love lives followed me into the jostle of crowded streets in Mexico City, and onto a sweaty campaign bus pushing through the Nevada desert, and high into the Santa Monica mountains, as I gazed down on the sweep of Los Angeles below. Everywhere I went, these characters and their broken hearts followed, demanding that I give them voice.

And the power of a deadline is something to behold, because as difficult as it was, finish the script I did. And we cast some incredible actors who breathed life into the characters in ways that I couldn’t have imagined and gave meaning to words I wrote that I didn’t know existed. And now, here we are: a day before opening and we are ready. We have a show.

A few days ago, I found a rare blank spot on my calendar; the only day in the entire month of January with nothing written on it. And so, in that last gasp of stillness before the play begins, I returned to the place I always go when I need to think, that stunning art museum perched high on a hill above Los Angeles called the Getty Center.

I wandered through the Getty’s now barren winter garden, drank espresso while taking in the city below, and stayed until the sunset spread its tangerine warmth across the Pacific Ocean. And as I did, I asked myself who I want to be. Not who I think I should be, or who other people want me to be, but who I actually am and who I, perhaps, have not been giving myself permission to become.

For months, this production of War Stories has been my excuse to put off making decisions about my future. “I can’t do anything until after the show,” I’ve said, time and time again. And it has been true, at least, mostly. But come March, my calendar is wide open and I can do anything I want, a prospect that is both exhilarating and terrifying.

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Which leads me back to the calls that aren’t coming, and the need to continue to keep my phone on silent to avoid thinking about them. In the summer months, everything seemed to flow. Work was coming in, money was good, and life was sweet.

But as the calendar switched to fall, things got harder. I started hitting walls. Work slowed down. People started disappointing me, stopped showing up. Promises were broken. And the future that I thought would unfold on its own simply hasn’t.

And now it is February. Money is running low and the hour is running late. And I’m no closer to receiving any sort of sign of what to do next, or which way to turn. Which means that I’ll have to trust myself, and that trust, due to some unfortunate events, has recently been shaken.

Last week, staring down on the city that I love, I felt less invincible than I usually do from that favorite perch high above L.A. I felt uncertain, a little afraid, even. I know that it’s time to take a leap. I know that it’s time to begin the next chapter of my life. I just thought I’d know what that was by now. I thought that by now, the answers to those questions would be obvious.

But maybe it’s OK that I’m so uncertain. Maybe it’s OK that there’s no crystal ball, no prophetic vision, no knight in shining armor swooping in to save the day. Maybe it’s a good thing to stand on the edge and ask myself to be braver than I feel, to take a chance, to be the hero of my own goddamned life.

Maybe I’ll learn something from this, something that I needed to know.

Maybe.

But right now, I’ve got a show to open.

Until next time, friends.

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The beach house.

It will be the past

and we’ll live there together.

Not as it was to live

but as it is remembered. 

It will be the past.

We’ll all go back together.

Everyone we ever loved,

and lost, and must remember.

It will be the past.

And it will last forever.

– Patrick Phillips

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until next time, friends.

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La La Land.

“A bit of madness is key

To give us new colors to see

Who knows where it will lead us?

And that’s why they need us.

So bring on the rebels

The ripples from pebbles

The painters, and poets, and plays

Here’s to the fools who dream

Crazy as they may seem

Here’s to the hearts that break

Here’s to the mess we make.”

– La La Land

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until next time, friends.

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Thirty-Six.

Every breaking wave on the shore/

Tells the next one there’ll be one more/

And every gambler knows that to lose/

Is what you’re really there for/

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Yesterday, I needed to see the ocean.

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

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

Yesterday was my birthday. I turned thirty-six.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ll keep you posted.

Until next time, friends.

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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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