Forward.

On the January day when thousands of people marched in the streets of New York – the day when thousands of people marched in streets all over America – I awoke to find that a strange heaviness had settled over me. My muscles burned, sending small fires shooting throughout my body. My head throbbed. My stomach heaved. My breaths came shallow, and the world spun. “No,” I thought. “I never get sick.”

But apparently, I do, because for the next four days the only time I left my apartment was to drag myself to the corner drug store for cold medicine, returning from that short trip gasping for air, my clothes soaked to the skin. Back inside, I stayed bundled in blankets, pillows propped behind my aching back, a double-spaced printed draft of my play War Stories resting beside me.

Illness is never convenient, but the timing of this virus struck me as particularly cruel. I had booked a space to hold two play readings in February, the dates of which were rapidly approaching. What I thought would be minor script rewrites turned into something much larger once I sat down to edit, and instead, I had opened up a Pandora’s box of new character development that I couldn’t turn back from. A dear friend who had – angel that she is – offered to help me cast actors and find a director for the readings needed the new draft in order to get started, but I was nowhere near done with it.

For the next twenty-four hours, I couldn’t get out of bed. Every time I tried to write, fever or nausea would overtake me and I’d have to stop. But on the second day, I began to feel better. The fire subsided. The room stopped spinning. I picked up my script and began to leaf through it, forcing myself to form the fog in my brain into something resembling focus.

And then, something funny happened. As I stared at the printed pages, overwhelmed at the seemingly insurmountable task before me, exhaustion collided with frustration and I began to cry. I bawled for several minutes – big, crocodile tears – and I felt so utterly hopeless and so entirely sorry for myself that eventually, I started to get angry. And in that anger, I opened up my script and I began to write. Before I knew it, I had scribbled entire passages of new text into the margins of the double-spaced pages.

This went on for two days. Crying and writing. Writing and crying. I would work for as long as my body would allow it, and then, I would sleep. It was not what I would call pleasant. I had no idea if anything I wrote was any good, only that it felt as though some unseen hand had lifted me up and was propelling me forward, and I had no choice but to keep going.

I finished the new draft on a Wednesday, four days after I woke up with the flu. I’m still not sure how I did it. In retrospect, it feels like some sort of miracle. But perhaps it’s just a testament to my own stubbornness, or to the fact that my only option was to finish and so, somehow, I did.

Or it could be that I’m finally internalizing the best piece of advice I’ve received about how to survive in New York, given to me by my friend Katherine (an L.A. transplant herself): Keep moving. Even if you don’t feel like it. Even if you don’t think you can. Even if all you can do is crawl.

Keep moving.

Until next time, friends.

Instructions.

“Instructions for living a life.
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.”

― Mary Oliver

The sea was rough on the crossing to Bremerton. I sat in a booth near the window and watched as whitecaps broke across dark blue water. The ferry rocked and swayed but chugged resolutely onward, the Seattle skyline slowly disappearing behind us. Despite the chop, the day was glorious on all accounts, with nary a cloud in the clear blue December sky.

The next morning, the winter solstice, I dug myself out from underneath a pile of blankets and padded into the kitchen to make coffee. The view that greeted me from outside the wall of inlet-facing windows was pure white; the fog that blanketed the landscape so thick I couldn’t tell where the sky ended and the sea began. There was no snow on the ground, but the grass and evergreen trees had been dusted with a layer of frost, looking as though someone had painted them with a great big silvery brush. It was four days before Christmas, and I was home.

A couple of weeks earlier – more than two, but less than three – on the evening of my birthday, I sat in a friend’s kitchen in North London, drinking wine. My friend told me that she was worried that my writing was so sad, that she sometimes found it difficult to read my blog. This friend had known me a long time; we’d first met when I was a twenty-one-year-old college student on a semester abroad. How different my life looked then, when I attended class three days a week, lived in a beautiful flat in central London, and my biggest concern was which European country I’d travel to over the next four-day weekend.

I remember that girl well, how she sang through the streets of Berlin, and cheered a royal wedding in Amsterdam, and crashed a party at a film festival in the south of France. She’d been liberated from an unhappy adolescence by her acceptance into a prestigious university in Los Angeles, and once there, everything seemed possible. She threw herself into life with abandon, without fear of loss. And why not? Nothing bad had happened to her yet.

When I began this blog, I didn’t set out to write about sad things. I didn’t set out to do anything, really, other than try to survive an all-encompassing darkness that descended unexpectedly at the age of thirty-one. Writing helped. It helped make sense of tragedy. It helped connect me with other people and realize that I didn’t have to suffer alone. It helped me find a voice and a purpose.

I’m on the other side of that darkness now. I still write about sad things. But mostly, I try to write what’s true. And the truth is, my life looks very different than it did before the darkness visited me.

How I loved that twenty-one-year-old college student, off having the time of her life in London. Every time I return to that city – as I did just a few weeks ago – I’m reminded of her. I miss her enthusiasm and her innocence. I miss her, but I know she isn’t coming back. And I don’t want her to.

That girl never would have been brought to tears by the sight of baby Orca whales and their mother hunting for food off the shores of Case Inlet. She never would have been leveled by a tangerine sun setting over cobblestone streets in the Marais neighborhood of Paris, or seen the poetry in the changing autumn foliage in the Hudson River Valley. She would have tried to appreciate those things, but their beauty would have been lost on her.

I am not naïve anymore, not fearless. I know what it’s like to lose. I no longer throw myself into the world with abandon, but I do live in it. I take that fear, and that awareness of how fragile everything is, and I carry it with me out into the world. I see what’s beautiful, and what’s sad, and what’s true, and I write it all down.

And in doing this, little by little, I am re-making my life.

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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Zero.

Last Christmas, I thought that I had hit zero. A dark and depressing Christmas where – not knowing where else to turn – I said a desperate prayer to my mother while cradling a box of her ashes (an experience I documented in my blog post, Faith).

In truth, I hadn’t hit it yet. Actual ground zero was one week ago, last Monday morning, when I woke up with the heavy, oppressive realization that I had been lying to myself. That I could no longer live with one foot in my old life, one foot in my new one, trying to have it both ways. I couldn’t forge ahead into the future while still holding on to the security blanket of the past. I needed to finally give it up, all of it.

I miss my old life. I miss my old life, even though I know it’s not for me. I miss the rhythms and the routine. I miss the comfort in the familiar, even though the familiar was often discomfort itself. I miss always knowing what was coming next, even though what was coming next was often stressful, anxiety producing. And I miss the person that I used to live with, even though he made me crazy. Even though we fought. A lot. Even though I cried.

I walked away from my old life because I had to. Because in the midst of all the loss – my mom, my dad, my grandmother, my dear friend – I had also lost myself. I was drowning, and losing so many people that I loved in such tragic, jarring, devastating ways taught me that if I didn’t change, I was going to die too. In fact, I already was dying, but so slowly that I barely even noticed.

In walking away, I left my home, my marriage, my friends (some of whom, I would learn, were only ‘friends’), and a passion project that I am immensely proud of, an ongoing theater festival that I helped to create, that I worked tirelessly on, gave my whole heart to, and that involved collaboration with many people that I dearly love. Walking away from all of those things hurt like hell.

When I hit ground zero one week ago, I realized that in saying goodbye to so much that I anchored my identity to, I’m no longer sure who I am. I’m no longer sure who I am outside of a relationship that defined my twenties and that brought me both enduring joy and profound heartbreak. I’m no longer sure who I am outside of a company that I co-founded, a company that has been my creative home and my sanctuary from the soul-sucking world of Hollywood for the last five years. And I’m no longer sure who I am outside of my role as an exceptionally competent (what’s the point in false humility, it’s true) producer and caretaker-in-chief, the girl with the plan, the one who manages the to-do list, the problem solver, the go-to, the one with an answer for everything.

The girl in this new life no longer has a plan, save to keep going, to keep forging ahead, one foot in front of the other, into the great unknown. She’s a girl alone in a city where it’s easy to be lonely, a city where she’s not sure she belongs anymore. She’s an actress and a producer without a passion project, and a writer with so many projects that she doesn’t know where to focus, only that they’re all driving her crazy with their dizzying, disorienting, the truth is everywhere and it’s fucking painful, thoughts.

How did this girl, how did I, know that I had finally hit zero; that it hadn’t already happened yet? Because I couldn’t stop crying. Not for three whole days. Because anything – going for a run, ordering lunch, brushing my teeth – produced instantaneous, uncontrollable, sobbing. Because I couldn’t get off the floor, not for an entire afternoon. Because in the midst of all of this, I wrote myself a ‘get well soon’ greeting card, filled it with inspirational thoughts that I didn’t really believe, trudged over to the post office, and mailed it to myself. And when the mailman delivered it the next day, I didn’t feel better, as I hoped I would. I couldn’t even bring myself to open the damn thing, I just looked at it, bawling, feeling like an insane person, for fifteen minutes straight.

If this is what letting go feels like, then I fucking hate it. It’s the worst thing you can imagine. Throughout all the loss and the sickness and the death and the crises that I’d been managing over the last two years, I have never felt anything like this. And it’s probably because I’d never stopped, or settled down long enough to allow myself to feel it. I was producing a play when my mom had her nervous breakdown, another one after my dad’s death and during my grandmother’s. And then I went on to tackle producing an ambitious, thirty-minute film noir movie. Through it all, I worked, worked, worked, not because I was (at least, not consciously) trying to avoid feeling things, but because it’s how I deal. It’s what I know how to do. I’m the competent, problem-solving caretaker, remember? The one managing the to-do list.

I’m not a negative person. I’m not a defeatist. The rational part of me knows that the only way out is through, and that I have no choice but to wade through this until I get to the other side. But it sure doesn’t make it any easier. And when you’re desperate and searching, sometimes help can be found in the oddest places. Like Pinterest. While doing some work for my social media job, I happened upon a quote by the poet Mary Oliver. I had been introduced to Mary’s writing years ago, thought occasionally about her line ‘what are you going to do with your one wild and precious life?,’ but couldn’t call myself a follower by any stretch of the imagination. But when I came upon her poem The Journey, my heart nearly stopped. It is so beautifully written, so profound, that as a writer I’m incredibly jealous that I didn’t write it. And I’m also overwhelmingly grateful that she did, because it encapsulates everything I’m experiencing right now so perfectly. Here it is:

One day you finally knew

what you had to do, and began,


though the voices around you


kept shouting


their bad advice – – -


though the whole house 


began to tremble


and you felt the old tug


at your ankles.


‘Mend my life!’


each voice cried.


But you didn’t stop.

You knew what you had to do,


though the wind pried


with its stiff fingers


at the very foundations – – -


though their melancholy


was terrible. It was already late


enough, and a wild night,


and the road full of fallen


branches and stones.

But little by little,


as you left their voices behind,


the stars began to burn


through the sheets of clouds,


and there was a new voice,


which you slowly 


recognized as your own,


that kept you company


as you strode deeper and deeper


into the world,


determined to do


the only thing you could do – – – determined to save


the only life you could save.

I’m not going to lie: I wept for a long time after reading those words. I read them again and again. I’m still reading them. And here’s the thing: I know in my heart that when nothing is sure, everything is possible. I know that there are many doors open to me, and I just need to stop waffling, choose one and walk through it. After all, if I’m not sure who I am anymore, that means I can be anything, right? I could haunt sidewalk cafes in Paris, and finally write my memoir. I could steal away to a village by the sea and forge a simple life. I could pull a Cheryl Strayed and give away all of my personal belongings and go on a months-long, soul-searching, danger-filled adventure. I could become notorious, and invite other writers to write things about me.

The exhilarating and terrifying part of true reinvention is the prospect that someday – in the not too distant future – I may very well look into the mirror and barely recognize the person I’ve become. What if, in starting anew, I lose parts of myself that I really like, never to be found again? But I guess that’s where faith comes in. Faith in myself. Faith in my intuition, faith in my inner voice, a voice that I ignored for far too long while it was screaming at me and stomping its feet, a voice that had been trying to tell me something for a reason.

After crying for three days straight, after barely being able to get off the floor, I woke up last Thursday morning, suddenly, inexplicably, lighter. I felt like getting out of bed, and doing something productive with my day. And so I did. And it felt good. And since last Thursday, I’ve been feeling mostly OK. I think this pattern may continue for a while. Some days I’ll wake up, feeling fine, and some days, not so much. But the important thing is, I’ll wake up. And I’ll continue to go.

So this is it. This is true ground zero. This is where recovery – where reinvention – begins.

It sucks. I fucking hate it.

But it doesn’t appear that I have a choice in the matter. So – onward I go. Into the great unknown.

Until next time, friends.

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