New.

It’s just before eight o’clock in the morning, Anchorage time, on the last day of 2016.  It’s dark as night as I write this; the sun won’t rise for at least another two hours.  Winter in Alaska means limited daylight – today, there are only about six hours between sunrise and sunset – and I can’t lie:  the darkness lends a certain heaviness to everything.  It’s strangely disorienting to spend so many waking hours in the black, and the temptation to huddle indoors where it’s light (and warm) is real.  But it’s also incredibly beautiful here.  Anchorage sits at the base of the Chugach Mountains, with their majestic, snowcapped peaks towering above the city.  This time of year, Christmas lights twinkle against freshly fallen snow, and even the frozen, somewhat ominous ice floes on Cook Inlet appear to sparkle as though they’re made of magic.

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I’m not sure what 2017 will bring – none of us can know what the future holds – but in as much as I can control my own destiny, I’ve been making plans for some big life changes in the year ahead.  And so, it felt sort of fitting to end 2016 in the place where I grew up.  I like to think of it as going back in order to go forward.

For a lot of people, 2016 was a difficult year.  It was for me, too.  But if I’m honest, despite its challenges, it was still one of the best I’ve had in a while.  It was the first year since 2011 that I can honestly say ended more hopeful than it began.  It was the first year since losing so many people that I love, that I felt something like true healing beginning to take hold.  And it was the first year since everything spun so violently out of control that I slipped back into the driver’s seat, grabbed the steering wheel, and started living my life on purpose, again.

2016 was not a perfect year.  But as I reflect upon what’s past and where I’d like to go next, I’m proud of myself for one big reason:  this past year, I did a hell of a lot of things that scared me.  I wrote a play that was personal and came from my heart and I put it out into the world.  I traveled alone to one of the largest cities on earth, an unfamiliar maze where I didn’t know my way around and didn’t speak the language.  I boarded a bus to Nevada with a whole bunch of people I didn’t know, to spend two days knocking on strangers’ doors, asking them to vote for a political candidate that I believed in.  And – perhaps the biggest thing – I spoke up for myself, more than once, and asked for what I wanted.

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As it turns out, there’s magic to be found when you push fear aside and take a leap.  My play received excellent reviews at the biggest theatre festival on the west coast of the United States.  I met one of my heroes (Don’t judge me.  Or do, I don’t care.), Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, on an airplane.  I visited a psychic medium and found – for the first time in four years – some peace around my mother’s death.  And through travel, new experiences and some truly lovely people who came into my life, I rediscovered a sense of joy and wonder that I feared I had lost forever.

So, as I think about what I want 2017 to look like, I have only one New Year’s resolution:  to say yes.  Say yes to everything I want to ask for, but I’m afraid to.  Say yes to every good thing that I’m not sure that I deserve.  Say yes to every challenge I’m not sure I’m ready for, every risk I’m not sure I’m brave enough for.  Just say yes, and trust that whatever comes next will work itself out.

Happy New Year, friends.

Until next time,

Sarah

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The Great Unknown.

A long December and there’s reason to believe/

Maybe this year will be better than the last/

I can’t remember the last thing that you said as you were leavin’/

Now the days go by so fast.

– Counting Crows

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I’m not very good at New Year’s resolutions. Oh sure, I make them. I make them every year, without fail. I’m just not very good at keeping them.

I approach every New Year with renewed enthusiasm, determined that this year will be the year that all of my dreams come true. But anyone who’s ever abandoned their resolve before the close of January will likely agree: it’s one thing to make grand promises in a happy, hopeful champagne haze as the clock strikes midnight, and quite another to do the hard work of goal setting, holding yourself accountable, and meeting the necessary self-imposed deadlines on the way to achieving personal growth.

But this January, I stand on the precipice of a very different year. It’s a year where change is inevitable. A year that has challenged me to live differently. A year that has proposed a dare.

Shortly after my grandfather died, I returned to Los Angeles to discover that the small company I’ve worked at for the last 11 years – essentially my entire adult life – had been sold. There was a new job waiting for me in another state. But not just any state:  it was the state where I was born, where members of my family lived, and where I’d been thinking about moving back to. Surely this was the universe giving me a sign, right?

Well, maybe not. The closer I looked at the job and the ways my life would change if I accepted it, the more the sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach grew. While a piece of my heart would always reside in the Pacific Northwest, it was actually all of the time I had recently spent there seeing my grandfather through hospice that opened my eyes to how much I still love my life in L.A. True, Los Angeles can be a harsh and difficult place to live, but it’s also a place of tremendous energy and excitement. It has been my home for fifteen years, and in that time I have built a solid community of amazing friends and gifted creative collaborators. I had been seriously considering leaving L.A., but after my grandfather died, I realized that I wasn’t ready to. There was still too much left undone – opportunities unexplored, projects unfinished – for me to walk away now. If I left before I felt ready, I knew I’d be filled with regret.

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Still, staying in L.A. meant no job, and stability had always been important to me. In contrast to my old position with the small company – where I’d sacrificed pay increases for the ability to work from home, maintain a flexible schedule, and have a tremendous amount of autonomy – this new company was much bigger, and much more corporate. It was a grown-up job. I’d be an integral part of their marketing team, with the ability to climb the corporate ladder and build an impressive resume. This job was a sure thing.

But once I got really quiet and listened to my inner voice, I realized that there is no such thing as a “sure” thing. Here’s what I believe instead: we trick ourselves into investing in “safe” choices and manufacturing the illusion of security to distract ourselves from the terrifying truth that everything goes away. Even us. Anyone who has ever received that phone call, or that diagnosis or that pink slip knows that the foundation upon which we build our lives is fragile, and it only takes a sudden, unexpected gust of wind to send everything tumbling down.

I never thought that, at thirty-five, both of my parents would be dead, and my grandparents, too. I never thought that I’d get married, and that it wouldn’t work out. I never thought that the company I had worked at since I was twenty-three would leave the state, taking my job with it.

But all of those things happened. I wasn’t ready for any of them, but they happened all the same.

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My father was a serious risk taker. I wish I was more like him. In truth, I’m kind of a chicken. Not Dad. He preferred to put it all out on the line and roll the dice. Sometimes, he lost, and he lost big. But he also won, and his winnings made him tremendously successful. It is because of that success and the money that resulted from it that I realized something else: I don’t have to settle for a life I don’t want to live.

A few days before Christmas, I turned down the “safe” job to stay in L.A. For the first time in my life, I’m going to see what it means to not work in service of someone else, but instead to invest in building my dreams and the higher vision of my life. It is a choice that terrifies me, but it is the only choice that I could make. Here’s something else that I believe: my fear is less about running out of the money my parents left me and more about the fact that taking accountability for my life means that there’s no one else to blame if it all goes wrong.

So here I go. This New Year, I am plunging into the great unknown. I am filled with gratitude for the gift my parents have given me, and filled with fear that I’ll screw it up. But my gratitude is bigger than the fear. So is my determination. And so is the quiet, unwavering voice inside of me telling me that this is the right thing to do.

It’s been a long December and there’s reason to believe/

Maybe this year will be better than the last/

I can’t remember all the times I tried to tell myself/

To hold on to these moments as they pass/

And it’s one more day up in the canyon/

And it’s one more night in Hollywood/

It’s been so long since I’ve seen the ocean . . . I guess I should.

Until next time, friends

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Things my mother never did, part two.

I dreamt about my mother last night.  It was the first time I’d dreamt about her in awhile, at least that I remember.  I used to dream of her often after she died.  They were horrible, wrenching dreams.  Dreams in which she cried out to me to help her, but in which, one way or another, I was never able to.  Inevitably, I woke from these dreams sweating, sobbing, sometimes crying out.  And like my mother, unable to be helped.

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Last night’s dream was different.  My mother and I were alone in a vacant old house.  She was as rail thin as I remember her the last time I saw her, six weeks before she died.  Her eyes had the same vacant, staring look, like black holes peering into the distance.  I pleaded with her to eat something, but she just shook her head no.  And then I noticed something strange:  my mother had in her possession a large black satchel full of food.  She had refused to eat anything, no matter how much I pleaded with her, yet she was hoarding food, stockpiling it.  To what end?

I woke to a still dark apartment in the early morning hours and I sat, frozen in my bed, utterly stunned by the sharp clarity with which I remembered every detail of my dream.  A phrase popped into my head:  “There was nothing you could do.”  And then another:  “It wasn’t your fault.”  Both phrases circled through my brain over and over until I became dizzy and I wept, hoping they were true.

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I don’t know why my mother appeared to my subconscious mind in such a strange fashion after so long of an absence.  It may have something to do with the fact that as I write this, I’m sitting in the international terminal at LAX, waiting to board a flight that will take me the furthest away from home I’ve been for the longest among of time I’ve been away since my mother died, the prospect of which has me both exhilarated and terrified.  Or it may have something to do with the fact that since WordPress republished my blog post Things My Mother Never Did two weeks ago, I’ve heard from hundreds of people all over the world in countless heartfelt messages.  Messages of encouragement, of heartbreak, of hope, of loss, of dysfunction and love, all revolving around the most fundamental, yet often, the most anguishing relationship out there:  that of parent and child.  And over and over again, throughout all of the messages and the reblogs, the overwhelming theme has been this:  “Thank you for writing this.  I thought I was the only one.”

How can it be that there are so many of us, yet we still feel so desperately alone?  Well, let me be the first to tell you, friends, you are not alone.  As scary as it is for me to tell my dark family secrets, I will continue to do so.  Because the only way out is through, and for me, through is a road paved with honesty.

My mother was the love of my life.  I’m still angry with her.  I’m still racked with guilt that I couldn’t save her.  And I’m not running from either one of these truths.  But, as I embark on this journey, the first big scary adventure of my new life – the life dedicated to all the Things My Mother Never Did – I hope that for all of you out there who have so lovingly and kindly reached out to me, I hope that I can offer you some inspiration about forging a path back to acceptance and love, a path forged straight through forgiveness.  A path in which you are the architect of your own life.

Thank you to everyone who wrote me.  You have no idea how grateful I am.

Here I go!

Until next time, friends.

x

Sarah

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Things my mother never did.

I think I know what’s wrong with me. No, that’s not true. I know I know what’s wrong with me. Or at least, I know one of the things that’s wrong with me. The Big Thing.

I have been putting off writing this, because the act of writing it, of putting it on paper, makes it a real thing. A real thing I can’t run away from, a real thing I’ve got to face. I’ve spent a lot of time over this last year 2014 alone; alone with myself and my thoughts, taking time and space – the likes of which I’d never allowed myself before – to process and to grieve a string of losses and difficult life events. And as 2014 drew to a close and I thought about the ways that I wanted 2015 to be different – and I want it to be different in just about every which way – I kept coming back to one thing: the truth must out.  We are only as sick as our secrets, and until I start telling the truth about the darkness – difficult as it may be – the darkness is going to continue to own me.

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So here goes. For as long as I can remember, I have been living with a tension between two powerful and conflicting emotions: anger and guilt. It wasn’t until the death of my mother two years ago and the subsequent unraveling of my nuclear family that I began to realize how profoundly this tension had been affecting me, how it had affected my entire life.

I am angry. I am angry with my mother. I have been angry with her for a very long time. You see, for most of my life, I was the parent, and she was the child. She was a fragile dove that needed to be protected, and she leaned on me to help her, to fix her, to save her. But I was never very good at it. I am angry with her because she knew that I was ill equipped to give her what she needed, but she insisted upon it anyway. I am angry with her because she set me up for failure.

And you would not believe the guilt that my anger produces, the way that it spins through my stomach like so much fire. The guilt is relentless. I am haunted because I think and feel such awful things about the person I loved more than anyone in this world. I am guilty for admitting these things, for saying them out loud. Guilty for being a horrible, selfish, ungrateful daughter. Guilty for not wanting to grow up to be like my mother, for – in point of fact – being terrified of growing up to be like her. And, most of all, guilty because I let her down when she needed me the most. Guilty because she died on my watch.

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Guilt and anger are a potent enough cocktail, but when you mix in grief and regret it’s enough to knock you sideways. And it, that, is what has been keeping me stuck. I never wanted to be like my mother when she was alive, but now that she’s gone, I can’t seem to stop embodying her worst traits. The chronic anxiety, the depression, the self-isolation, the use of alcohol as a coping mechanism, the stubborn refusal to ask for help. My 2014 was a dark year awash with all of these things, and all of them – I can only assume – have been some sort of twisted, semi-conscious attempt on my part to keep her alive.

Please don’t misunderstand me: my mother was wonderful. She was kind and sweet and loving and generous. She was a much better person than I am. But she was always so unhappy. She wanted more from her life than what she got. She gave up on her first dream of becoming a professional tennis player because her parents didn’t support it and she wasn’t strong enough to stand up to them. She was never very happy as the office manager of my father’s law practice, but she was good at it and it gave her the flexibility to raise a young child (me). But I grew up, and dad closed the law firm, and there were still so many things that she wanted to do. She wanted to go back to school and pursue a master’s degree in psychology, she wanted to refine her (already impressive) culinary skills with additional classes, she wanted to volunteer for political campaigns and charitable organizations, she wanted to travel the world. More than anything, I think my mom wanted to feel that she had value. That she could make a contribution that was important, a contribution that other people would notice and appreciate. But she was paralyzed to take that first step. There was always tomorrow, next week, next month, next year. And as the years went by, I watched her put together a life built on deferred dreams, a life where she preferred to look back on the past with fond nostalgia, and a resignation that her best years were already behind her.

But here’s the thing about dreams. They don’t die quietly. Hers certainly didn’t. They tortured her with visions of a life un-lived and she stuffed them down and pushed them aside and put everyone else’s needs before her own and she drank to dull the sharp edges of pain and longing.

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As she got sicker, the signs that had always been there – that I’d been too deep in denial to acknowledge because, in spite of the very personal resentments I’d harbored toward her, she was still my mother, and therefore, perfect – grew stark and outlined in thick edges. She had always lived with a bit of a disconnect between fantasy and reality (don’t we all?), but that disconnect turned borderline delusional. Her already small frame whittled away to nothing, her eyes turned hollow and vacant, she stopped making sense. I implored her to get help and her only response was to invent a therapist she was ‘seeing’ to get me off her back. (I know this because, well, Google. That, and she was a terrible liar.)

In the end, dying was the most purposeful thing that she’d done in years. She’d made up her mind that life wasn’t worth living anymore. She shunned all help. She shunned me. And she drank until she didn’t hurt anymore. She drank until she disappeared. And when she died, I started disappearing, too.

So here I am, two years after her death, still sitting at the cross streets of anger and guilt, streets intersected by avenues of grief and regret. It’s a four way stop full of monsters, and until now, my foot has been placed firmly on the brake pedal. And so, for this New Year 2015, I made a pact with myself. I’m going to start doing all of the things my mother never did. I’m going to do them actively, defiantly, and on purpose. Things like asking for help. Things like telling my truth, even if it’s uncomfortable or ‘inappropriate.’ Things like pushing myself out of my comfort zone and signing up for big, scary adventures. Things like not putting off my life. I’m going to take her mistakes and self-sabotage and heartache and unfulfilled dreams and use them as a road map to do the opposite, at Every. Single. Turn. And I’ve already started: I’m in the process of shopping for the most amazing therapist ever, I’m nearly two weeks into an thirty-day alcohol and sugar-free detox during which I’m digging in and focusing on my creative work, and soon, I’ll be leaving on a solo trip to Europe. And there are other things too. Things I’m not quite ready to talk about, but that are quietly, actively at work beneath the surface of my life.

Rejecting my mother’s life and her choices in such a cold and calculated fashion makes me feel like a malicious, rebellious child. And maybe that’s what I am. But at this point, after all of the darkness, after all of the self-sabotage and regret, making this choice sort of feels like life or death.  Along the way, I hope that I can finally learn to let go of the anger, and forgive her. I hope that I can finally learn to let go of the guilt, and forgive myself.

It’s worth a shot.

Until next time, friends.

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Resolutions.

As December winds down, it’s common for me to turn inward and grow reflective.  I’m an optimistic person by nature and as such, I often begin each New Year thinking this will be my year – you know, the one where all the really good stuff happens.  Unfortunately, over the last few years, life has gotten me down and life has beaten me up.  But I’m keeping my eyes fixed on the horizon, because the end of 2014 promises that there will yet again be a brand new calendar, and a journal full of blank pages with stories waiting to be written on them.  While there are many specific goals I’ve set for 2015 – too many, probably – here are my most important resolutions, pared down to their essence:

Write more stories.  Read more books.  Indulge my wandering spirit.  Practice gratitude.  Plan more coffee dates.  Put my phone away more often and listen.  Make art that I’m proud of.  Spend more time in museums and libraries.  See more live music and theatre.  Take long walks by the beach and gaze out at the ocean.  Regain a sense of wonder.  Laugh more.  Cry less.  Say yes and figure it out afterwards.  Cherish my friends and family.  Take better care of my body, and of my spirit.  Risk more.  Fear less.  Make peace with my past, even if it’s hard.  Especially if it’s hard.  Go somewhere I’ve never gone.  Do something – perhaps many things – I’ve never done.  Learn to play the ukulele – because I’ve decided that would be fun.  Breathe deeply.  Breathe a lot.  Forgive.

Here’s to 2015.  Here’s to embracing it in every way we can.

Until next time, friends.

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Transit.

Today marked my fourth time in an airport in eight days. That sounds like a lot, though one of those was an ill-fated trip to LAX resulting in my flight to New Orleans being cancelled because of an ice storm.

I’ve always loved spending time in airports.  They’re like portals to other worlds.  People coming and going.  Rushing through them to make a connection, stalled in them due to weather delays.  When I myself am not rushing to make a flight, I like to find a spot to sit and people watch, to daydream about complete strangers and make up stories about them.  There’s the distinguished, well-dressed man on a business trip, the college student headed off for adventures abroad, the lovers saying their last goodbyes.  Strangers I’ll never see again, save for a brief glance, a few pleasantries exchanged in an airport bar or a coffee shop, a laugh over something awkward in the security line.  And then gone forever.  Just a moment in time.

And then there’s me.  In the last 16 months I’ve logged more than my fair share of frequent flier miles.  Given my propensity to daydream whole lives about people I’ve never met, I’ve wondered if there’s someone out there who’s done the same thing about me.  The sad, pretty girl dressed in black, polite but not conversational, hiding out in a quiet corner of the bar nursing a glass of red wine.  The girl who looks like she’s trying not to cry.  You see, I’ve embarked on many sad voyages over the last year plus, and the artist in me hopes to God that something beautiful has come out of my grief.  That some daydreaming stranger – like this daydreaming stranger – saw me and wrote it down, in a poem, in a song, in a story.

I have been actively trying not to be sad.  Really, I have.  I just haven’t been able to help it.  The twisted irony is that someone who loves travel and airports as much as I do has had more opportunities to travel than ever before, but in a case of be careful what you wish for, these trips have often been necessitated by tragedy.  I’ve traveled to spend time with dying relatives.  I’ve bid farewell to both of my parents, and to my last remaining grandmother.  I’ve attended three memorials, and made many more trips to do impossibly hard jobs, to lend moral support to loved ones, and to in turn seek out my own support.

Most of these trips have been back to the Pacific Northwest:  my home, my heart, a region of the country that I love more than anywhere in the world.  But even happy trips – summer in Vancouver to celebrate my sweet Niece’s high school graduation, Christmas with my Aunt and Uncle and my beloved Grandfather in a small waterfront nook in Western Washington, have been tinged by heartache.  I do not want to be the sad girl who cries in airports, but more often than not, I have been.

Which brings me to today:  February 1, 2014.  I made a New Year’s resolution (really, more like a vow to myself) that I would travel to three places I’d never been, and an additional resolution that none of these trips would involve tears.  So far, so good.  An amazing trip to New Orleans – despite two cancelled flights due to insane weather – to celebrate my sister Marion’s birthday is already in the books.  And more fun ideas (like taking my first trip to Montreal to visit my niece, who’s in school there) are in the works.

I have no idea what lies ahead.  But I do know that in spite of my many sad voyages, the wanderlust in my heart has never died, and the desire to spend time daydreaming in airports  and making up stories about the travelers in those transitory portals hasn’t gone away.  I would like more stamps in my passport.  I would like more adventure in my life.  And I would like a hell of a lot less crying in airports.  That is, of course, unless they’re tears of joy.

Until next time, friends.

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