June.

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

– Khalil Gibran

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until next time, friends.

Ocean Avenue.

The email finally came through on a Tuesday morning, six days after I started looking for it. I wasn’t sure why I continued to obsessively check my phone. I already knew what it was going to say.

Yet even though I had felt in my bones that I’d be getting a rejection letter, when that rejection finally came it still landed like a gut punch. It still felt like an indictment, still made me feel like a failure, still caused me to send text messages to friends asking, “What am I even doing here?”

Of course, I knew the answer. I knew it the week before, on Mother’s Day, when I sat at the bar of a breezy, open-air restaurant overlooking Santa Monica’s Ocean Avenue with two of my best girlfriends and cried into my craft cocktail. “I’ve tried everything I can think of,” I moaned. “But New York just doesn’t fit.”

But as much as I missed my friends, as much as – after nearly nine months away – L.A. still felt like home, I knew if I moved back now it would just mean that, once again, I was running. I hadn’t given New York enough time. I hadn’t given it the opportunity to change me in the ways I hoped it would.

I moved east with the goal of producing a play I wrote. I’d produced plenty of theatre in L.A., but I knew it would be harder in New York, and more expensive. I also knew I didn’t have the same network of people to call upon and ask for help. But still, I’d battle tested the script over the course of two L.A. productions and three New York readings, continuing to rewrite and refine and fix along the way. It was in great shape. I’d put together what I knew was an impressive submission package complete with glowing reviews from Hollywood. So, when I turned in my application for the New York Fringe Festival, I was sure I was going to get in.

But then something funny happened. A week after the application deadline, I stared a memoir class. I signed up for it partly to help me develop a regular writing practice and provide discipline in the form of homework and deadlines. But if I’m honest, the real reason I signed up was because I couldn’t get fiction writing – not playwriting, not anything – to hold my interest. And after a few weeks of class, a few weeks of writing exercises that pushed me to dig deep into stories from my life, memoir felt like the only thing I wanted to write. Even though it was painful. Even though it opened up a Pandora’s Box full of memories I preferred to forget. And somewhere in those first few weeks, I made the decision that it was finally time to write the book I’d been dancing around the edges of for years.

But secretly, I worried. If my play got into the fringe festival I’d have to shift gears and take on the tremendous task of producing a show. It was a prospect that thrilled me, but I also knew from experience how much work it would be. It meant the book would have to take a backseat. And because the money I’d been living on was starting to run low, it also meant that I would have to go back to work as soon as the festival was over.

I traveled back to L.A. with these conflicting feelings swirling inside of me. And as I sat down to dinner with my friend Jen on my first night in town and confided that I was afraid to step away from the fun and collaborative worlds of theatre and film to plunge into the lonely and painful process of writing a book, she just looked at me and said, matter-of-factly: “I think everything in your life for the last five years has been leading up to this moment. It’s time.”

She reiterated that sentiment two days later, on Mother’s Day, at the open-air restaurant on Ocean Avenue, saying that this thing –  the book I had been avoiding writing – was the thing keeping me stuck. It was the thing keeping me from moving on to the next phase of my life. And I cried, because I knew it was true.

It was nearly two years ago, in the summer of 2016, that I visited a psychic medium and asked for her help in communicating with my mother. I was terrified. I didn’t know what to expect. I only knew I had to do something, because her death had carved a hole in me and I had spent the last few years swallowed up by guilt and grief. The medium, a young woman named Fleur, was able to give me enough of the how-on-earth-does-she-know-that type of details about my mother’s life and death, that when she told me my Mom wanted me to forgive myself, and that she sent me white butterflies as a sign to let me know she was thinking about me, I chose to believe her.

The day before I left L.A., I rose early, leaving my friend Zoe’s apartment to walk to a corner café for coffee. As I strolled along sunny Washington Place, a white butterfly alighted on a nearby hedge. It skipped over blades of grass and skimmed the edges of flowers. It sailed away, then floated back. I watched it for a minute, then asked, “Mom?” like a crazy person, as though I expected the butterfly to respond. I was greeted only with silence. I took in the bright blue sky, the lavender jacarandas in full bloom, the towering palm trees overhead, and the dancing butterfly. “Mom,” I tried again, knowing it was hopeless but unable to stop myself. “I don’t know what to do. What should I do?” But the butterfly remained silent, continuing to drift on the breeze, until finally it glided gently away, into the beautiful Southern California morning, and was gone.

And it wasn’t the butterfly, and it wasn’t my mother, it was just me, just a shaky but sure voice inside that said, simply, “You know.” Which is why, a few days later, when I got the rejection letter, even though I didn’t think it was fair, even though I didn’t think I deserved it, I knew it was, somehow, right.

As I publish this post, it’s May twenty-fifth. It’s my mother’s birthday. She would have been sixty-six. Would have been because she died nearly six years ago, in a haze of vodka and pills. In a post I authored on this blog back in 2015, I wrote, “She drank until she disappeared. And when she died, I started disappearing, too.” It was true then, and it’s true now.

I am tired of disappearing. I’m tired of feeling stuck. And I’m tired of the ache inside me that only continues to grow. I don’t feel ready to dive into my mother’s story. I’m scared of what I’ll find when I turn the microscope on her life, and on my own. But I also think that we’re never really ready to do the things in life that call upon us to be braver than we believe. We just have to do them and see what happens.

So, I’m going to spend this summer in hotel lobbies, and cafes and libraries, writing everything I know is true about my mother, and my family, and me, until I have something that feels like a book. And hopefully by the time autumn rolls around, I’ll be ready to take another shot at starting my life over. Whatever that looks like. Whatever that means.

Happy Birthday, Mom.

Vertigo.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until next time, friends.

Snowfall.

The day after Easter, I awoke to fresh snow falling outside my window. It had been forecast, but I hadn’t believed it. “No way,” I told a friend that Sunday night, as we put on our coats and stepped outside. “It’s not cold enough.”

Yet, the next morning, there it was: a world of white. I tried to see the romance in it, but in truth, I was tired. Tired of gloomy skies and the dirty, day-old deposits of slush left behind on street corners. Tired of dodging melting ice falling off buildings and dripping down scaffolding. Tired of the weight of my snow boots.

I know I shouldn’t complain, because a few months from now, when stifling heat wraps itself around skyscrapers and the humidity is so oppressive I’ll be taking three showers a day just to feel clean, I’ll think back to these snowy spring days with a sense of fond nostalgia. But right now, I just want spring itself. I want tulips and daffodils and sunny afternoons in Central Park. I want to trade in my heavy winter coat for the denim jacket I found last October in a thrift store in Montreal (October! A lifetime ago!). I want to put on a dress – without the need for scratchy wool tights underneath – sit at a sidewalk café, sip a cappuccino, and scribble in my journal as the world rushes by. I want to retire the bulky cashmere wrap that’s been slung around my neck like a noose, and finally get to wear some of the light pastel silks from that little shop in Sorrento, the one where the proprietor showed me how to tie my scarf just like an Italian girl.

It sounds like what I’m really craving is a change of wardrobe. Or maybe it’s wanderlust. As I wax poetic about favorite clothing items I’ve procured on my travels, I’m hearing the words of Anaïs Nin: “I’m restless. Things are calling me away. My hair is being pulled by the stars again.”

All of that is true. The long winter, coupled with the fact that I haven’t left New York in three months (a long time, for me) has left me feeling stuck. Encumbered. Heavy. I’m ready to shed the layers I’ve been wearing to keep out the cold, but I’m equally ready for what spring represents: a fresh start. I’m ready to feel new again.

I’ve always considered April to be a hopeful month. It was last April – during a weeklong whirlwind visit – when I decided to move here. Back then, everything felt possible. But after a season plagued by loneliness and self-doubt, I find myself with more questions than answers.

But yesterday, I took a step toward – maybe – answering some of those questions. Yesterday, I started a ten-week memoir class at Gotham Writer’s Workshop. I told myself I came to New York to produce my play and work in theatre – which is still the plan – but in truth, I haven’t felt much like writing fiction these days. Instead, I’ve been feeling the weight of my past, and a pressing, urgent need to dissect it all.

I don’t know where this sudden need to make sense of my life is coming from. Friends have been telling me I should write a book for years, but I haven’t wanted to. I haven’t felt ready. But for the first time, I’m starting to feel not only like I can, but maybe I should.

I don’t know how this class is going to go. I only know that yesterday, as I sat around a table on the fourteenth floor of a building near Times Square, listening to other people’s stories and sharing some of my own, I felt something spark within me. It was like something that had long been dormant was coming back to life. And that feeling – no matter where it leads – is worth following.

It’s April in New York, and there’s still a chill in the air. But sooner or later, this seemingly interminable winter will finally – mercifully – come to an end.

Until next time, friends.

The salt and the sea.

It was well after 11 p.m. when we made the left turn on to Grapeview Loop Road from Washington State’s Highway Three. The drive in had been quiet; the late hour meant that the rural highways we traveled were sparsely populated, and our rental car pressed quickly forward into the inky black night, following winding roads over waterways too dark to see.

“Wow,” came the response when we arrived at the beach. Even in darkness, my friends could tell that the place was special. I gave them a brief tour and then began to unpack, tired from the long day and hoping to head straight to bed. But as they climbed the spiral staircase to the loft and stood out on the upstairs balcony, transfixed by the smell of saltwater and the sound of the sea, I realized I had underestimated the ability this place still had to stagger first-time visitors.

It continued all weekend: my re-initiation to the beach. After spending so much of my life there, I had grown accustomed to the densely-forested walk along the loop road, the silver, flat-as-a-mirror inlet with its fluctuating tides, the fresh air, the ever-present Mt. Rainier, standing snowcapped over a great bank of evergreen trees. I had forgotten that not everyone spends their summers digging clams at low tide, or building bonfires on the beach, or watching playful seals hunt for food just outside of their front door. I suppose it isn’t normal to pick wild blackberries in the woods on the walk to Treasure Island, or to admire the sailboats docked in Fair Harbor Marina, while tracing a map of the inland waterways of Puget Sound.

The truth is, the beach still has the power to amaze me. Every summer, when I make the left turn from Grapeview Loop Road on to the property that my Grandfather bought in 1959, the sight of Case Inlet stretching out across the landscape still levels me. But along with that feeling of awe comes something else: grief. Every advancing summer takes me further away from the carefree days of childhood, serving as a reminder of how much has changed, how much has gone. Of all the places I’ve traveled, the beach is the place I love the most, but it is also a repository for some of my darkest and most painful memories. I wish it wasn’t so, but I can’t help it: every time I return there, so do the flood of images of happier times, and of loved ones lost.

We planned a Saturday morning boat ride, and though the day dawned cold and cloudy, we pressed forward anyway, undeterred. As we bundled up into flannels and fleeces, my friend Vim spotted an unusual sight from just outside the living room window: a dorsal fin. We gathered on the deck, the four of us passing around two sets of binoculars, and I saw something I had never witnessed in all my summers on Case Inlet: Orca whales. They were hundreds of miles from the ocean, swimming very close to shore, and seemingly in no hurry to reach their destination. As the trio – two babies and their mother – traveled slowly south, spouting water and occasionally breaking the surface, I felt a lump rise in my throat. This moment, amidst all that was familiar, was entirely new.

In the end, I couldn’t have imagined a better way to spend my last few days before moving to New York than by sharing the place I grew up with some of my closest friends. I have come to accept the fact that there will always be sad memories contained along the rocky shores of Case Inlet. I can no more extract them from that place than I can the salt from the sea. But there are happy memories, too. Plenty of them, and even more so after this past weekend. After our boat ride, a group of friends and family gathered for a potluck lunch at my Grandfather’s house, and I thought about how he would have loved to hear the sound of laughter reverberating off the deck and out into the late summer afternoon. I thought about how the sight of those Orca whales proved one thing: despite all that’s happened, I haven’t lost my capacity for wonder. I think I just needed to see this old place again, but this time, through new eyes.

Until next time, friends.

Los Angeles.

I’m so tired, but I can’t sleep

Standing on the edge of something much too deep

It’s funny how we feel so much but cannot say a word

We are screaming inside but can’t be heard

 And I will remember you

Will you remember me?

Don’t let your life pass you by

Weep not for the memories.

 

On an early morning in the summer of 1999, a yellow school bus pulled into the parking lot of Capital High School in Olympia, Washington. I sat near the back, resting my head against the seat, softly singing the lyrics to a bittersweet Sarah McLachlan song. My head was light – the result of a sleepless night spent in Seattle, celebrating the Class of ‘99 and our newly-earned diplomas – but my heart was heavy. Graduation meant that in less than two months, I’d be leaving home to attend college in Los Angeles, a city I’d visited only once and where I knew no one. The thought of chasing my Hollywood dreams thrilled me, but I was scared too, possessed of the vague but certain knowledge that soon, everything in my life was going to change.

I waited until it was safe. As soon as I was sure that the solar eclipse that had been making its way eastward across the United States had passed over Los Angeles, I got into my car. As I merged on to that familiar stretch of the 405 freeway, I thought about that eighteen-year-old girl, half a life away, who was only just beginning her story. How could she have known how it would all unfold?

My mother watched from the third-floor window of the Radisson Hotel as – sirens blaring, strobe lights pulsating – fire trucks charged down Figueroa Street. Turning to me, face drawn with concern, fear in her aquamarine eyes, she asked earnestly:

“Sar, are you sure you want to go to school here?”

I was sure. From the minute I set foot onto USC’s University Park Campus I knew that I belonged there. Its proximity to the infamous “South Central” neighborhood of Los Angeles, the seemingly never ending parade of emergency vehicles exiting the nearby fire station, the metal bars encasing every apartment and store window. . . none of those things deterred me. In fact, they only strengthened my resolve. A girl who split her childhood between Anchorage, Alaska and small towns in the Pacific Northwest should have been a fish out of water in such a gritty, urban place. But I wasn’t. I was home.

Nearly eighteen years later, that exact same feeling settled in my chest, but this time, in a different place. Walking along Sixth Avenue in New York’s West Village, my eyes found the Freedom Tower, a beacon of steel blue standing strong and stoic in the distance, and something that can best be described as hope swelled within me. Home, cried a familiar voice, sure and steady. I listened.

I checked in to the Surf and Sand Hotel just after two p.m., changed into a bikini, and headed straight for the beach. Later, sandy and sleepy, I sat beneath a large white umbrella, stared out at the Pacific, and wrote. After an early dinner of cheap tacos and expensive wine, I headed back to the beach and waded into the ocean just in time to watch a blazing sun sink below the horizon, spreading coral and tangerine across a tranquil sky. Once it was dark, I opened up two old notebooks that I’d brought along for the journey and re-read their contents. I barely recognized the person who had written them, and so, I carefully shredded their pages and deposited them into a hotel garbage can.

As I crawled beneath white sheets, a feeling of calm settled over me. What a difference from the last time I came here, I thought. It had been December of 2015, a few days after my thirty-fifth birthday, a few weeks after my grandfather died and I had returned to L.A. from a month-long stay in tiny Allyn, Washington to oversee his hospice care, only to find that the company I had worked at for eleven years had been sold, and I had a decision to make: relocate to Seattle and take a job with the new company, or stay in L.A. and face an uncertain future. I chose to stay in L.A. I chose to trust the steady, sure voice that told me I would be OK. I have never regretted that decision.

Eighteen years after moving to Los Angeles and making it my home, it is impossible to describe how it feels to leave it. When I arrived here in the late summer of 1999, I was a girl on the edge of becoming a woman. A girl who thought she knew so much, but who had no idea how innocent she truly was. I had never been in love. I had never traveled to the Eastern United States to sink my toes into an Atlantic beach, let alone crossed that vast ocean to visit (and live in) the continent on the other side. I didn’t know that terrorists could fly airplanes into tall buildings. I didn’t know what it would feel like to hold the hand of someone I loved as they died.

What would I tell that girl now, all these years later, as I prepare to once again begin my life anew? I would tell her a great many things, but mostly I would tell her that she is allowed to make her own choices. She is allowed to let two conflicting emotions reside in her body at the same time. She is allowed to love a place and leave it, and she is allowed to love people and leave them, too. She is allowed to be both brave and afraid, allowed to be both as fragile as a paper doll and the owner of the fiercest heart imaginable. She is allowed to write her own story, without knowing how it’s going to end.

When I moved to Los Angeles, I never could have imagined how much this city would change me, how much it would shape me, how much it would open up my life. Somewhere among the boulevards and the beaches, among the wannabes and the celebrities, I found myself. I made lifelong friends. And I grew up.

Moving here was the right thing. I knew it, and I did it. And now, eighteen years later – as hard as it may be – I also know that it is the right thing to leave.

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

The beginning.

“some people,
when they hear
your story,
contract.
others,
upon hearing
your story,
expand.
and
this is how
you
know.”

— Nayyirah Waheed

There were a lot of friendly faces in the crowd that night. On audience left, a group of close college friends, some of whom had driven down from Northern California the night before to see the show. In another part of the theatre, buddies from the sports bar where we gather to watch our favorite football team. That Saturday evening, good friends – old and new – were in abundance.

But it was the couple sitting in the front row, audience right, that captured my attention. Two people, a man and a woman, him slumped low in his seat, his hand partially covering his face. And though I tried to focus, tried to stay present in the moment as my co-star and I began the play’s final, climactic scene, in an intimate, forty seat theatre like the Actor’s Workout Studio, it was impossible not to notice.

After the show, the couple – my aunt and uncle – found me, said some quick goodbyes, and scurried out the door. They were exhausted. Due to a powerful rain and wind storm that had blown through Southern California the day before, flooding roadways, downing trees, knocking out electricity and delaying or canceling flights into and out of Los Angeles, they had spent the entire previous day trying to get here from Seattle, finally arriving to their hotel at Universal Studios just before two a.m.

But it was more than that, and I knew it. As my uncle gave me a quick hug, his face was pained. “You’re right,” he said. “It was dark.”

My aunt – his wife – gave me a reassuring smile and squeezed his arm. “He’s having a rough time,” she told me.

We made plans to see each other the next day, and just like that, they were gone. And I went out to have drinks with my college friends, anxiety and guilt tugging at the corners of my mind.

My aunt and uncle’s trip to Los Angeles to see my play War Stories was the first time they’d seen anything I’d done on a stage, ever. In fact, I didn’t think they knew much at all about my creative life, or had read many of the things I’d written, including the – often intensely personal – essays I publish on this blog.

War Stories, while fictional, borrows heavily from my own experiences. And it’s the relationship between one of the main characters and her self-destructive, alcoholic mother, that is the most autobiographical part of the whole play.

My uncle is my mother’s brother, and her only sibling. Since my mother died four years ago, he and I have become closer, but there’s still so much about each other’s lives that we don’t know. While I’m a verbal, emotional, artist who is highly communicative about my feelings, my uncle is the opposite. More often than not, my attempts to discuss the “heavy” stuff with him are simply pushed aside. He’s not rude or dismissive about it, he’s simply not built that way. “I’m fine,” he always says.

People often say that they can’t believe I write about such personal things on this blog. The truth is, given my family history, shining a light on the darkness is less about bravery than it is about survival. Over the years, I’ve watched more than one loved one retreat into a bottle or escape into pills to numb out the painful things that they can’t or don’t know how to say. And I knew that if I didn’t find a healthier outlet for the emotions that threaten to overwhelm me, I’d end up following down that same path.

So, I talk about the painful things. I write about them. I allow myself to feel them coursing through my body. And yes, sometimes it is overwhelming to feel so much. But sharing those feelings? It helps. Because if I can find a way to articulate difficult emotions, to wrap words around them in a way that makes other people not only understand them, but feel something too, those emotions no longer own me. They no longer overwhelm me. And I know that I’m not alone.

But not everyone is like me. Not everyone is so comfortable talking about the dark places in their lives. And that Saturday night after I said goodbye to my aunt and uncle, and for the entire next day, I felt intensely guilty for not being more sensitive to that.

We met for an early dinner the next evening. And as I stood near the host station, waiting for my aunt and uncle to arrive, I felt nervous and sick, my stomach twisted in knots. But a moment later, they walked in, and my uncle pulled me into a hug. And I exhaled.

And over the next hour, something remarkable happened. My uncle, a man who I’ve always suspected feels much more than he’s able to say, wanted to talk.

“It was dark,” he said again, about the play. “And it hit close to home. But I know if you can make me feel that, you’re a talented writer. It was a really good play, Sarah.”

I was stunned. It was far from the reaction I had expected. Still, I felt the need to explain myself, to apologize. “I’ve just become so used to telling my sad stories to people who don’t really know me,” I said, “That sometimes I forget that those stories belong to other people, too.”

As we talked about what was next, for the play, for me, my uncle said something else that stuck with me. “I feel like you’re right at the beginning of something,” he said.

The beginning? Oy. At thirty-six, out of college for more than a dozen years and making art for nearly twenty, it was hard to accept that I could be at the beginning of anything. After all, shouldn’t I be further along by now?

But maybe he’s right. Maybe this is the beginning. Not the beginning, beginning, but the beginning of something new. The beginning of a new chapter, one with a more defined path. The beginning of finally knowing what it is I’m supposed to do, and of moving forward in the world with a new sense of self-assurance and a new authority about who I am.

And P.S. – remember that Paris trip I mentioned in my last post? Well, I’m going. In fact, I’ll be there next week, after spending a few days in London to visit friends. And who knows? Maybe my next post on Extra Dry Martini will be a dispatch from the City of Lights. . .

Until next time, friends.

Off the record.

Late in the evening on July 4th, I sat alone on an expansive wooden deck overlooking the water, a cinnamon-scented candle glowing beside me, breathing in the stars and gunpowder as fireworks exploded and unfurled their brilliant colors across the night sky.

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Our own little family celebration on the rocky shores of Case Inlet had just ended. My aunt and uncle had gone to bed; my cousins had gone home. It was a subdued holiday – nothing like the ruckus of previous years – but we built a bonfire on the beach and watched the colored lights boom and sparkle above the bay, and that was enough for me.

I have spent countless Fourth of July holidays on that beach and each one of them has been different. My grandfather – who bought the land all the way back in 1959 – had a saying that he wrote to me, years ago, in a letter, which I’ve cited on this blog more than once: “The beach never changes, ‘tis only we who change.”

He’s right, and he isn’t. The beach is very different than the magical place I remember from childhood; both the passage of time and the passing of loved ones have seen to that. But more than fifty years after my grandparents cemented this spot as a permanent part of our family’s legacy, placing a sign reading, Popelkas: Off the Record, at the entrance to the property – a nod to their careers as court reporters – its fundamentals remain the same: it’s still a small slice of heaven tucked away on one of Puget Sound’s inland waters, the saltwater bay framed by banks of evergreen trees, the stately Mount Rainier towering above, keeping watch over us all.

This Fourth of July placed me in uncharted territory. It was my first visit to the beach since Grandpa’s hospice last fall, my first time ever being there without him. My decision to go was last minute – ticket booked a few days before travel – and this visit would be in addition to another, longer trip I’d already planned just five weeks later, in August. But the last few months in Los Angeles had left me exhausted and in need of a spiritual reboot, and the beach had always had the power to ground me in a way that the gritty, noisy, crowded, city never could. And so I went.

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It was not a perfect trip, not by any means. Unexpected family drama bubbled to the surface, reopening wounds that I thought had closed. I spent much of the emotionally charged four-day visit feeling nostalgic for a past that no longer existed.

But I slept. And I wrote. And I wandered the beach, searching for seashells and agate stones. I ran three miles on the shoulder of the heavily forested Grapeview Loop Road, and was impressed – as I always am – by the friendliness of the locals. (One motorist even stopped, rolled down her window, and offered me a bottle of water. City girl that I am, I declined.) One morning, I arose early, drank coffee, and watched through my window as the sun stubbornly pushed through layers of clouds, slowly turning the morning from grey to blue as slivers of light danced across the sound, causing the water to glimmer and dance like liquid silver.

And gradually, I grew calmer and more centered and I felt my equilibrium returning. Because despite the way that life shakes and shifts around me, despite how greatly the beach’s present reality differs from my past memories of the place, there’s something that continues to hold true: my history is firmly anchored there. And whenever I return, when I remind myself of who I am and where I’ve come from, I know myself just a little bit better. And it’s in that space, no matter how confused or lost or frustrated I may have been, that I’m able to figure out what it is I want to do next.

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

Until next time, friends.

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The Year of the Monkey.

In truth, I don’t know all that much about Chinese astrology. As a child, I remember being fascinated by the red and gold Chinese restaurant placemats depicting the twelve zodiac animals and detailing the characteristics of each of them. Those placemats taught me that as a December 1980 baby, I am a Monkey: a sign known for its optimism, cleverness, sense of adventure, curiosity, and inclination toward mischief.

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On February 8, we began a new Lunar New Year: the Year of the Fire Monkey. According to the Chinese zodiac, it is not a good thing when you enter a year that corresponds to your sign. In fact, it is usually quite unlucky. This is an assertion that I have chosen to ignore. Given the way 2016 began, can you blame me?

A couple of weeks into the (Western) New Year, my car was vandalized, resulting in thousands of dollars worth of damage and leaving me feeling shaken and scared about the neighborhood I call home. My temporary job as an independent contractor – that began after the company I worked for was sold and moved to another state – was more stressful than I’d anticipated, leaving me tired and frustrated. Inspiration was difficult to come by, and my writing stalled. A persistent feeling of hopelessness started to creep in, threatening to derail my big plans for 2016.

Probably out of sheer stubbornness and my absolute need for things to be better this year than they’d previously been, I pushed forward. I kept writing, even though I didn’t feel like it. I reached out to a friend who’d produced my last play, asking her to come on board, even though I didn’t yet have a script. I renegotiated the terms of my independent contractor job, resulting in an arrangement more favorable to me. And I began the insurance claims process for the damage done to my vehicle.

Little by little, the clouds stared to lift. The original timetable of eight weeks to repair my car turned out to be mere days as the backordered part my mechanic needed became available much sooner than expected. Filing the insurance claim proved to be easier than I’d anticipated (dare I say, it was even pleasant), and within a couple of weeks I received a check covering all of the repair costs beyond my deductible. My friend and previous collaborator agreed to sign on to co-produce and direct my new play, giving my writing an increased sense of urgency and providing the motivation I needed to finish a first draft. And a fun-filled weekend celebrating a dear friend’s birthday in the San Francisco Bay Area lifted my spirits and temporarily curbed my growing wanderlust.

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By the time the Lunar New Year began, I was feeling like my old optimistic Monkey self again. A few days later, my aunt and uncle arrived in L.A. for a visit, booking a hotel on Ocean Avenue in Santa Monica overlooking the pier, Palisades Park, and the Pacific Ocean. Their visit coincided with a rare winter heat wave: clear blue skies free of the smog that so often blankets this city, temperatures in the 80s, the Pacific sparkling like so many sapphires. The three of us hadn’t been together since Grandpa’s death three months earlier, and after the intense, emotionally taxing period of hospice, reveling in the majestic, sun drenched California coastline felt like a miracle.

On President’s Day, armed with towels, a water canteen filled with fancy French champagne, and red Solo cups, the three of us marched north through Palisades Park, away from the throng of tourists. At Montana Ave., we descended steep wooden stairs, crossed the bridge over Pacific Coast Highway, and landed on Santa Monica Beach, sinking our toes into the warm sand. We waded in the ocean, the foamy waves lapping at our feet, and then settled into the sand. We filled our cups with fizzy liquid, raised them in a toast to Grandpa, and then turned our eyes toward the fiery orange sun slipping low on the horizon and fell silent.

I captioned a photo from that day, taken by my aunt of my uncle and I looking into the sunset, my hand resting upon his shoulder, with a quote from a letter that my grandfather wrote to me more than a decade ago: The beach never changes, ‘tis only we who change. Those words recalled a different time, and Grandpa was referring to a different beach, yet they still hold true.

I have changed. We all have. Given everything that has happened over these last three years, it would have been impossible not to. And while I have no idea what the future holds, little by little, I am learning to let go of my obsessive need to control it. Maybe this Monkey Year will be lucky. And maybe, as the Chinese zodiac asserts, it won’t be.  But two weeks in, I have decided that whatever happens, I will greet it with the same indefatigable spirit of my zodiac sign: with curiosity, with optimism, and with an unwavering sense of adventure.

Onward.

Until next time, friends.

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